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Psalm 17:6-9, 13, 15 – New Revised Standard Version
6 I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.7 Wondrously show your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand. 8 Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings, 9 from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me.
13 Rise up, O Lord, confront them, overthrow them! By your sword deliver my life from the wicked…
15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.
1 Timothy 4:1-6, 9-10 – New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
4 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. 3 They forbid marriage and abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
6 If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed.
9 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and suffer reproach, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letter #1, excerpt
My Dear Wormwood,
I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naif? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.
Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape
We had a multitude of readings this morning. What do they all have in common? Not surprisingly, love – and faith. God’s wondrous love for us. Our faith, or lack of faith in all that is seen and unseen. These two concepts are extremely complex. We heard them from different individuals, from different perspectives in our four readings.
Our Psalm and our Gospel practice spoke most clearly to love. The 1 Timothy scripture and the Screwtape Letter invited doubt, and faith.
Psalm 17, attributed to David.
The psalmist declares that God’s love is manifest in Israel, in all people, especially in believers, but not only in those who believe. How do I relate to our psalmist? I too wish to experience God’s “wondrous faithful love.” This scripture fills me with hope. God loves me, and you, and everyone, whether we believe or not, whether we believe it or not. We do not have to believe that we are worthy. We do not have to believe that there is a God. Psalm 17 provides assurance and comfort and protection for everyone. God is God and our unbelief or doubt cannot affect the presence of God. Bidden or not bidden; God is present.
The psalmist wants to be protected as the apple of God’s eye. “The phrase comes from a Hebrew expression that literally means ‘little man of the eye.’ It refers to the tiny reflection of yourself that you can see in other people’s pupils. To be the apple of someone’s eye clearly means that you are being focused on and watched closely by that person. Your very image is central in the eyes of that person!” (nosweatshakespeare.com)
Drinking my morning tea I sometimes see my face, my eye, reflected back to me in the bottom of my mug. We want to be the apple of God’s eye. And I am here to tell you that we are all, in all times and in all places, the apple of God’s eye.
Two verses from the Gospel of Mark
Why these few lines this morning about Jesus healing a woman of no great importance or stature? Someone seemingly so insignificant that we aren’t even told her name?
She is unnamed in our scripture not because Jesus did not know her name or care about her deeply, but because those that recounted the stories did not value her enough to learn her name and include it in their narratives and then in their written preservation of the teachings.
Jesus saw her, touched her, healed her. Without a doubt Jesus loved her for who she was. Jesus came as God incarnate, showing love and respect for all people. God came as one subservient to human power structures to show that we misunderstand, and misuse, power.
The first letter to Timothy, written in the tradition of Paul
What do we know about Timothy? These letters to Timothy, which I listened to on my drive from Lincolnville to Hancock on Wednesday morning, offer advice to Pastors in the care and oversight of congregations. Paul warns Timothy against false teachers. Paul tells him to be prepared to suffer for what is right and good, to remain faithful in the face of evil conduct and false teachers.
Our scriptures sometimes serve as warnings to us. Those that have walked the way ahead of us wish to pave our way, create a smooth road for us where they trod a rough path. The trouble is, we each need to learn for ourselves. We need to have our own experiences. Our most meaningful lessons are typically the ones that cost us something… blood, sweat, or tears… often all three.
Many scholars do not believe that these letters were written by Paul. It was common practice to write in someone else’s name to gain credibility, and to offer honor and respect for their teacher. The goal of the letters is to encourage the faithful to live in the spirit that Paul taught even and especially in the face of changing times, including Paul’s absence after he was martyred.
This section of scripture is titled “False Asceticism” which is, of course, “severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.” The letter writer warns that the deceitful spirits will try to pull us away from God by creating false hurdles… if one doesn’t refrain from “x,” (no coffee, no alcohol, no dancing, no sex, no marriage, etc.) then one does not have an adequate relationship with God. To me, this seems ridiculous.
Limits placed on humans in the name of religion are not of God’s doing. That is part of what “Paul” is arguing in this letter.
There is no ONE path to God. There could be as many paths as we have people. God is in and around us. In and around each of you. Your experiences are different than mine, and different than the person sitting next to you in these pews or in your favorite restaurant. Religion does not have the right to tell you how to experience God or if your experiences are valid. What I hear in this letter to Timothy is to trust oneself. You are born of God. God is in you. Do not be swayed by those claiming to know God, or speak for God. Who do we listen to? Who do we believe?
God help me, that none of us confuse my words for God… I speak only of my understanding of God.
I wish for us all to explore our doubts. I wish for us all to remain seekers, not sure of who or what God is, save for the assurance that God IS, that God exists, as surely as you and I exist.
The first paragraphs of C.S. Lewis’ book, “The Screwtape Letters.”
I thought I would offer a taste of our Lenten study book because it dovetailed so nicely with our 1 Timothy scripture.
According to C.S. Lewis’ Senior Devil, Screwtape, writing to his nephew and Junior Devil, Wormwood, their mission is to keep people away from the Church, away from God. The relevant question for us is what is keeping us from the church, or more importantly, what is keeping us from God?
Screwtape speaks of the temptations of materialism. Sometimes we see the truth much clearer when it is couched in satire. This book, written over 80 years ago is as relevant today as it was then, maybe more so.
What do we care about? Do we have “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.” How would we be judged by our actions, by our accumulations?
I read “The Screwtape Letters” a couple of months ago. I don’t remember where I found the book, but I think it was at our Church Fair. Reading Screwtape’s arguments against God, Christianity, the church served to strengthen my faith. The satire C.S. Lewis employed in his writing helped me to see myself more honestly.
I vacillate between faith and doubt regularly. I do not think of it as contradiction, or a failure.
I’ve said it before and will continue to say it… there is room for doubt in this church.
Doubt is not an absence of faith. Wrestling with doubt propels us deeper into understanding.
We are seekers… We want to see God, to experience God. To know that we are the apple of God’s eye.
I sometimes wrongly expect that my job is to make sense of our scriptures… my job is not to make sense of scripture but to put scripture into perspective. My job is to encourage each of you to think about scripture, to think about the world around us, and to help you see how and where they overlap, which is to say, everywhere.
And to remind you that God’s love is real, and present every moment. Seen or unseen. Even and especially in our darkest hours. (Inflate balloon – Children’s Message reference)
Rev. TJ Mack – January 21, 2024