"Holding onto what cannot be grasped"

Message preached September 30, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Order of Worship

As I was glued to the television on the morning of September 11th, I felt very powerless. Before my eyes those skyscrapers came tumbling down, and with them the world as I had known it. What happened that day was a "wake up" call. The "buzzer," the "ring" of it continues on. There is no "sleep" button, though we wish there were. Are we going to pay attention to it and rise from our slumber?

Now, Iím not really referring to what has been the biggest item of discussion since that day. "Security" has taken on new prominence in our society. Our eyes were certainly opened to all the possible ways that terrorists can wreck havoc. We are much more vulnerable than we thought. Itís a frightening world out there, when you really think about it. Many of us have been living in an illusion that such terror could only happen somewhere else.

However, I donít really want to talk - just now - about "security," at least not the kind of security that has been uppermost in our national discussion of late, as important as it may be. Instead, ponder with me the day-dream from which we are awakening. As I said, we have been living in an illusion that bad things only happen somewhere else. Let me add this - it was a telling comment on our society that the most common reaction to what people saw on September 11th was that "it looked like a movie."

It "looked like a movie." That says much more about us than we realize. Itís not just that weíve seen the city of New York torn apart in several recent films, with the latest of special effects (which, I must add, came nowhere near the reality of the live footage a good many of us saw on every network that day). No, Iím referring to where our imagination is (or at least was) centered. We experience reality, you see, through the fantasy world of Hollywood. This is what is real to us.

Of course, some real shifting took place in the days after the attack. The stars we lifted up then were not the ones on the screen or the stage. Oh, they showed up to help raise money in a telethon, but they werenít really the stars (as much as they may have "humbly" tried to be). The real stars were those men and women who simply gave themselves to others. Everyday, ordinary people just doing what needed to be done - not because they were being paid the big bucks, but because it was their mission.

We have been living in an illusion, which tends to disconnect us from what is really real. That day-dream, however, is not just about "Hollywood" - though the media tend to reinforce the illusion. Please hear me well, for what I am about to say is not necessarily about morality, though it has ethical ramifications. Iím talking "spiritually." In our society, we have been walking through life as if what we possess is what is most real. We are by far the richest nation on this planet, in the history of humankind. More than the oceans which surround this continent, it is our wealth that we thought protected us from evil.

It is no mistake that those terrorists targeted the World Trade Center in the middle of the capital of commerce of our country. Now, I in no way wish to excuse or even (God forbid) endorse the mission of these radicals who distort their own holy book, but they believe that we are the "Great Satan" because we in the West have (according to them) sold our soul and live by the illusion of our riches, a daydream which we export around the world. Those suicide (no, make that "homicide") bombers believed that in giving their lives to this mission, they would enter paradise. That is what was really real to them.

If we are to counter this, we need to wake up spiritually. No earthly weapon can fight this kind of battle. No material fence can protect us. Not even the best physical "offense," be it diplomatic, military, or covert action, will be able to root out this "problem." Not fully.

In the Sunday School class I attended last week, Jeff Wolf kept us pacifists on task asking - continually - what we think our political leaders should do in response to this act of terror. To be honest, I donít really have a clue. I wouldnít want our Presidentís job right now for all the money in the world. So many different voices clamoring to be heard, so many difficult decisions to be made. He asked for, and we need to offer up prayer for him, no matter what.

But isnít that just the point. What we need is not something material. Rather, it is spiritual. In response to the horrifying mission of those terrorists, we need to lift up a better one. We need a mission that is grounded, not in some illusion that our riches are what protect us, what give us hope, but rather we need one grounded in what is really real...

Now, in the days following the attack I heard John Lennonís song, "Imagine," sung too many times. I liked the Beatles, donít get me wrong, and I like some of what this particular song states. With it, the late Lennon sought to offer up a vision of a world where people would live together in harmony. I think, in response to September 11th, many people were horrified by these men who believed they would get to heaven through mass murder. "Imagine thereís no heaven," this song states, "itís easy if you try." Especially that kind of heaven.

What rubs me the wrong way about this song, however, is itís altogether too easy to live in an illusion, a daydream. You donít even have to try. Itís all around you. The answer to a mission where the reward of heaven is gained through murder is not to wipe out the concept of heaven. The answer is to provide a better vision of whatís really real, and a better mission. John Lennonís vision was too small. Indeed, the vision of this present generation is too small...

In his words of encouragement to Timothy, a young man stepping out as a leader in the early church a couple thousand years ago, the apostle Paul had some things to say about the effect of our possessions upon how we live in this world. Now, I donít know all the details of the context in which Timothy worked. I have a feeling there were folks with whom he ministered who were quite comfortable, if you know what I mean. When youíve got money, you can come to believe that what you possess is what will get you by. And, sometimes, your money comes to determine your theology, what you believe about God. Itís only natural to desire a comfortable God, who will protect you and what youíve got.

Unfortunately, thatís a pipe dream, folks. It was then. Itís true still. Paul said so pretty bluntly. "We brought nothing into the world," he wrote Timothy, "we can take nothing out of it" (6:7). "Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains" (6:9-10).

Mind you, I am not quoting Paul here to say that we are responsible for what those terrorists did, that those who were killed deserved their fate. Heaven forbid! Iím just pointing out the illusion, folks. This is a spiritual matter. Itís about whatís really real. Itís about what we hold onto in a world that has a habit of shifting beneath our feet. Listen to what Paul also said:

"As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life" (6:17-19).

"Take hold of the life that really is life." Hold on to what cannot be grasped! "Eternal life" is not just something that awaits us at the end of our days, the hope of heaven. It is that, donít get me wrong. But it is also a vision out of which we live now. It is not an illusion. It is very, very real - more real than any so-called "reality" program on television.

click to go to bigger pictureWhen Barbara Poole shared the imaginative drawing (to the right) of that eight-year-old boy with me last Sunday, it took my breath away. That one so young would be able to see the bigger picture and put it down on paper is amazing. Then, again, spiritual maturity is not defined by age. There is so much that we just plain donít see with these eyes. God is on the move, make no mistake about that. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, as the book of Hebrews says (12:1-2). Heaven is touching earth, as the last book of the Bible reveals. No amount of money will help us to see this, though. If anything, our materialism easily fogs over our vision.

I believe that some good can come out of all this mess. What happened on September 11th can be a "wake up" call, opening our eyes to what is really real. Life is precious. Every moment, every relationship. Things seen, as well as things not seen. Heaven, eternity touches every moment, every place, every person. God is on the move around the world. The wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing all around this globe. Christ has died, and now is risen, even amid the ashes where once stood two mighty towers or a five-sided fortress, even (dare I say so?) amid the rubble of Afghanistan. Our mission, as believers, is to live as if that is true.

In this morningís scripture, the apostle Paul commissions Timothy to such a life. The words harken back to Timothyís own baptism, when this young man made his initial confession of faith. Itís appropriate to hear them the Sunday before two young women will stand among us and make their confession, and be baptized themselves. Letís let Paul have the final word. Listen.

"As for you, man/woman of God, run for your life from this slavery to the things you possess. Instead pursue a righteous life - a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal life, the life to which you were called, the life you so fervently embraced in the presence of so many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who took his stand before Pontius Pilate and didnít give an inch, I charge you to keep the faith which you have received.*  Donít slack off, making this faith less than what it really is. Our master, Jesus Christ, is on his way. Our God, who is the only true Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will act when the time is right. Our God lives forever! Human eyes cannot perceive such light, but still it shines. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen" (6:11-16, my own paraphrase, borrowing freely).

*Cyril of Jerusalem, when quoting this verse, substituted "the faith delivered to you," for "the commandment." (Catechetical Lecture #5, item #13, quoted in JND Kelly, p. 144)

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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