Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
In and Out of Season
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
The time is coming when people will have itchy ears, Paul says. What a curious image. People with itchy ears go looking for people who will tell them just what they want to hear. Today we sometimes call it an echo chamber. It’s when we surround ourselves with people and selected media that also share our ideas and beliefs so much that we come to think that there are no other options.
Try to talk to someone who is voting for the opposition for President. And by the opposition, I mean the person you are not voting for. Try talking to someone voting for the opposition. At this point in the game, you will likely not get far. They will not be interested in your facts or your counter-arguments, as well reasoned as they might be. Their minds are made up. Am I right? Have you been brave enough to try? Perhaps you have tried or perhaps you have watched someone else try. The results were likely the same. People voting for the opposition may be in their own echo chamber; it may feel as if they have sought out and listened to the voices that only said what they wanted to hear.
Yes, and that is probably what those voting for the opposition say about us. Our minds are made up and we only hear what we want to hear. Because this is a human tendency, regardless of whether we are talking about politics or something else. Paul was talking in terms of doctrine. He said that people will turn away from difficult or inconvenient truths and will seek out preachers who only preach what they want to hear.
But Timothy is to continue to proclaim the gospel, whether in season or out of season, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. I can’t help but think of the politician who recently said that he wants to see Judeo-Christian values and morality brought back into public life, but that it needs to happen at a time other than a political campaign. That is just one of many statements or actions that suggest the gospel is not always in season. But Paul says, preach it anyway, be persistent, with the utmost patience.
To do this, Paul points Timothy back to scripture. Perhaps the best-known verses in this book is 3:16 “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,”
The Bible is a complicated collection of writings from different people in different places in vastly different times in history. It is not easy to understand. But that is exactly why it is worth doing.
Accountants read spreadsheets. Storm trackers read Doppler radar. Lawyers and judges read legal proceedings and briefs. Coaches read the body language of the opposing team. Disciples of Jesus read the Bible. It’s what we do. It is one of our best defenses against itchy ears.
Some of us are blessed to have learned the Bible in childhood, like Timothy. Someone shared it with us before we knew enough to think it was too hard for us. We learned a little bit and then a little bit more. And certain stories or beautiful verses worked their way into our being and we know them by heart. The danger for us is in thinking that we know what it all means. The danger for us is an over-familiarity which may possibly become its own echo-chamber.
But not all of us read the Bible as young people. I have heard from many folks who feel that it is too late for them to start now, as if the Bible is some kind of foreign language and their brains have lost the capability of learning it.
Of course, what would be ideal is if those of us who have read the Bible forever could read it in the company of those who are new to it. Because we would learn so much from each other.
Let me also offer a few other ideas. If you are daunted by the idea of reading the Bible as a beginner, get a modern translation, like one of the Bibles on the chairs here in the sanctuary. Start with one of the gospels. Mark is the shortest. Luke has the best of Jesus’ stories (in my opinion). Or read Genesis to be reminded that there is not much new under the sun, including dysfunctional families and relationship drama. If you are a more seasoned Bible reader, try reading it with a child or a teenager. Have the child read to you. Listen to what the child notices about it. Find someone from another culture and invite them to tell you a Bible story. Appreciate the details that are important to them. Or you might try the discipline of reading 5 Psalms per day. There are 150 Psalms. At 5 psalms per day, you will read the entire psalter in a month.
Do you know the story of the fat king who was killed by a left-handed sword bearer? The king was so fat that the sword went all the way in and was covered up to its hilt. It’s a Bible story in Judges 3. I mention it because I had never heard or read this story until someone told it at a conference a year ago. If a Baptist pastor can still be learning new Bible stories, then anyone can.
We read the Bible because we want it to shape what we think and how we live. We find truth in Scripture and against that truth, we examine our own beliefs and actions.
Paul says that Scripture is useful for correction and training in right-living. Many of you know the name Clarence Jordan. Clarence is well known for his Cotton Patch translation of the Bible and for being one of the founders of an inter-racial Christian community in rural Georgia in the 1940’s. We remember him as one of those radical Baptist saints. But before he was a radical, he was a pretty ordinary Baptist boy growing up in Georgia. He went to college and, as a matter of course, enrolled in ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps). Military training became a routine part of his college experience. Until one day, he came to a crisis of conscience during a training event. With pistol and saber in hand, he charged on horseback through the Georgia forest, hacking and shooting at training dummies. As he rode, Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, began to sound in his mind, “But I say to you, love your enemies . . .” Clarence concluded that he could not simultaneously obey Jesus’ command to love and military orders to kill. So he dismounted, approached the officer in charge, and resigned his commission.
Two weeks ago, we watched together a short video about a church in Memphis that welcomed a Muslim center into the neighborhood. You might remember the church member named Mark who said that he was thinking about leaving his church. He went to the pastor with his distress and said, “What are we doing?” His pastor said, “Read the gospels.” Mark said “I read through the gospels and I figured out I was the problem.” In the video, he teared up when he said that. You could tell that he was sincere and heart-broken about it.
Scripture is like that. It is living and active and powerful. It can make us call into question attitudes and actions that we thought were normal. It can change the course of our lives. It can enable repentance and help us see where we are the problem.
We read the Bible to allow its truth to shape our lives and permeate our being. To be claimed by that truth, we must return again and again to the story of God interacting with God’s people. For too many people, the Bible is something to be feared, because they don’t understand it or because it has been used to clobber them. But for others, it is a well of wisdom, a source of deep strength.
When he was still a student, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church where his father was the pastor. His sermon was entitled “How the Christian overcomes evil.” In it, he told a story from Greek mythology. The sirens sang seductive songs that lured sailors into shipwreck. There were two heroes who managed to navigate those treacherous waters successfully. Ulysses stuffed wax into the ears of his sailors and strapped himself to the mast of the ship and by force of will, they managed to steer through clearly. But Orpheus had another strategy. When his ship drew near, he simply pulled out his lyre and played a song more beautiful than that of the sirens, so his sailors listened to him instead of to them. I wonder if we can imagine the Bible as that most beautiful song which can help steer us through, if we can discipline ourselves to hear it and learn it.
Last week I said that the letters to Timothy are the first in a long line of Christian prison literature. Other Christians have written encouragement and inspiration from prison. If you haven’t read Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail in a while, you might want to. Let me share just a couple of paragraphs from near the end of it. He writes:
There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. 
Perhaps Dr. King would resonate with Paul’s words to Timothy and to us, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; in season or out of season.” May we allow the truth of God-breathed scripture to permeate our lives, so that as God’s people we will be equipped for every good work. Amen.
 As told by the Rev. Dr. James Howell in his sermon Is the Bible Inspired?