Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
Click here for directions
|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Come Before Winter
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:2 Timothy 4:6-22
When someone joins a new church, it takes a while to learn who is who, to know not just everyone’s names, but how they are related to each other. One church I served had two sets of adult twins from the same family. The identical twins were Ron and Don. Their fraternal siblings were named Virginia and Virgil. One time I got a phone call at 4:00 in the morning from Don’s wife, telling me that Virginia had had a stroke. I had only been there about a month and had not yet worked out all the relationships and in the wee hours I could not figure out why it was Don’s wife who was calling me.
Then in addition to the living members of the church, there are the departed saints who get mentioned at regular and irregular times. It is good for a pastor to learn those names too. It has happened at more than one Emmanuel meeting that we have suspended the business at hand to help someone remember not the departed saint, but the name of the departed saint’s sister and that sister’s friend who used to help out at some annual event. This can be a test of patience for those who are new to the system and just want to get on with the agenda.
We are all outsiders to the network in which Paul operated. So perhaps, as Becca read, all those names just slid right past us. Let’s take a minute to focus on them. There’s Demas who has abandoned him and Alexander the coppersmith who harmed him. Crescens, Carpus, Erastus, Eubula, Prudens, Linus and Claudia are each only mentioned here in the entire New Testament, so we know nothing about them. Paul says to bring Mark because he is useful. In an earlier time, Paul and Barnabas had parted ways because Barnabas wanted to include Mark, but Paul had not. If this is that same Mark, then it appears some reconciliation has occurred. This is also the same Mark who, according to tradition, wrote the gospel that bears his name. Paul mentions Trophimus who was a Greek. Trophimus’s presence in the Temple in Jerusalem with Paul stirred up a riot there and led to Paul’s arrest. Prisca and Aquila were Jewish Christians who had fled from Rome because of Emperor Claudias’s persecution. They seemed to be successful owners of a business that had branches in several cities. They had hosted Paul, perhaps in more than one place, on his missionary journeys. And there was also Tychicus, who was probably the most prominent of Paul’s associates after Timothy and Titus. Titus is another one of Paul’s young protégés, now in Dalmatia. Paul also sends greetings to Onesiphorus whom he had described earlier because Onesiphorus was not ashamed that he was in prison.
Buried in the middle of all those names is this line “Only Luke is with me.” Luke, the author of the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, has been a close companion for years and he alone is with him now, as the end approaches. What I notice is that Paul names a lot of people. We may have heard of some of them. Some of them are unknown. Some are mentioned with praise, some with sadness and/or anger. Two of them we believe were gospel writers. Paul is embedded in the center of a far-flung community with all the complications associated with those kinds of relationships.
Paul is in a Roman prison. He is awaiting the second phase of his trial, which he must suspect is going to end in his death, because he says “I am being poured out like a libation” which is a sacrifice. He tells Timothy, “Do your best to come to me soon. Bring my cloak and the books and the parchments.” He is cold and lonely. Prison is monotonous. It will take Timothy some weeks or months to do what Paul asks and Paul desperately hopes to see him one last time. All sea travel ceased between November and March, so Paul says “Come before winter.” Come while you still can. Come now or never.
Can you hear the anguish? This is Paul, one of the great movers and shakers of the world. He has brought the gospel to Europe, planted churches which will carry it forward, influenced unknown numbers of people directly and indirectly through his letters, and now he faces the end of his life, mostly alone, in a dismal prison. He is reflecting on his legacy, what he has contributed and the ministry that he hopes Timothy will continue. We can read the names of those people and places as a kind of short-hand summary of his legacy – the high and low points, his friends and his adversaries, the people who stuck with him or deserted him or let him down and the ones he let down, the ones with whom he has reconciled and others for whom the opportunity for reconciliation has passed.
His summary statement is “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” I say some variation of those words in almost every funeral. Funerals are also the time when we most naturally think of someone’s legacy and perhaps of our own. What did this person mean to us? Were they known for their sense of humor or their compassion or for certain skills? What is the incident that most people remember about them? Is it something they would want to be remembered for or something they wish would have been forgotten?
Some of us are reading Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy. Bryan works with people convicted of crimes. Some of them are guilty of those crimes, some are innocent; but Bryan’s philosophy is that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. We don’t know what Alexander the coppersmith did, but regretfully, his only mention in all of Scripture is Paul’s warning Timothy against him.
There was an odd Baptist (which seems to be most of the Baptists I know) named Elias Keach. He was a PK, a Preacher’s Kid – his father was a well-known Baptist preacher in London. Elias left home and moved to Philadelphia around 1686. To gain respectability, he dressed in black with a collar like a minister and passed himself off as one. When people learned who his father was, the invitations to preach poured in and large numbers came to hear him. They did not know that he was not actually a minister. Elias had sat through enough of his father’s preaching to know how to do it. But halfway through one sermon, he stopped, looked astonished and couldn’t continue. The listeners thought he was ill, maybe having a seizure. What had happened was that the words of faith and scripture coming out of his own mouth had converted him. When the deacons asked what was wrong, he burst into tears, confessed that he was an imposter and begged for their forgiveness. Later, he was ordained by the same people who extended that forgiveness. He planted the second Baptist church in Pennsylvania which went on to plant other churches and eventually founded the Philadelphia Baptist Association, the very first Baptist association in America. 
When I think about Elias Keach, the first thing I remember is that he was a con-man, a preacher who was convicted by his own preaching. And then I remind myself, that he also planted a church which planted other churches and set in motion the beginnings of Baptists as a denomination in this country. But each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. His legacy is way more complicated than I give him credit for. And so was Paul’s. So is yours and mine.
Maybe you saw a political ad with Ruline Steininger this week. Ruline is 103 years old. She was born 7 years before women could vote and she has lived long enough to see a woman running for president. She said, “In my first century of life, I have seen many incredible things.” The way she phrases that, it sounds like she expects to live for at least another century. When asked her age, she said, “I am 103, 3 months and 3 days. I count them all.” I love her spirit.
We each have one life to live. At some points along the way, we take stock. Perhaps it happens in the autumn of the year or the autumn of our days or at the funeral of a friend or when we read these words of Paul and consider his own self-evaluation. We each have one life, one God-given life with our own gifts and talents, our unique failings and foibles, and hopefully, with enough love and grace to see us through. The question for each of us is what to do with this life, how to respond faithfully to the call of God on our resources, our money, our energies and passion, how to invest and use whatever time we have on this earth.
Some of you have been investing yourself faithfully over a long haul. I would not, in any way, seek to diminish the gifts of self you have offered. But some of us may need to hear a new challenge, to consider whether God might be saying in modern language “Go big or go home.”
George Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright from the last century. One of his best-known plays was Man and Superman, in which one character says, “This is the true joy of life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
A similar idea from a more explicitly theological perspective comes from Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall who wrote, “Jesus saves. He saves us for life, for giving ourselves over to its joys and sorrows, to predictable and unpredictable occurrences, its routines and surprises. He saves us from the awful habit we have of saving ourselves, of sparing our energies, of protecting our minds and souls and bodies from the life struggle. He saves us for the [wastefulness] of love.”
This is the crux of the matter – how am I spending myself in the wastefulness of love? The question we are asking ourselves in this season is not what we are protecting or conserving or keeping safe, but what of our resources and time and love is God calling us to spend, to pour out, to give away freely, to risk, for the kingdom? The specific question before us this very week is “how much of my income is God calling me to give?” Because Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.” And I think that where your heart is, there will be your legacy be.
Sisters and brothers, my prayer for each of us is that we will respond to the call of God on our lives, so that one day we may say with Paul “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you. Amen.
 Douglas John Hall, Professing the Faith: Theology in a North American Context, (Minneapolis, Augsburg/Fortress: 1993)