2 Timothy 2: 1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. 3 Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. 5 Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. 6 The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. 7 Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.
There’s a cluster of islands in Lake Superior called Isle Royal National Park. The big island is Isle Royal, but around it are smaller islands like Amygdala Island and Menagerie Island. Being that its in Lake Superior, the water is so crystal clear that between the islands you can see the rocks and the occasional sunken boat and old snagged fishing equipment quite far down into the water. And that gives you a glimpse into the fact that, though these appear to be separate islands, they are actually connected points above water of the one same big mountain rising underneath the waters of Lake Superior, to make what we call “islands.” Or a chain of islands.
To some degree, the same can be said about people; billions of unique individual persons walk the planet today, not a one entirely like anyone else who now lives, has lived or will live. And yet, underneath the visible and physical distinctions among us, there are connections and commonalities that tie us together, often in ways we don’t realize or understand, at least not consciously. An English poet from the 16th Century, John Donne, captured this sense of deep relation and inter-connection between us in his famous poem, “No Man Is An Island.” He wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a part of the continent, a piece of the main…”
But this being life, and not Lake Superior, the connections and commonalities between us are not always as easy to see as those between the islands of Isle Royal National Park. In much of our relationships and interactions, the old saying holds true, that we are “fishing in muddy waters.” You never know for sure what’s all down there, nor what might just come to surface some times. Learning to read what’s below the moving, conflicted surface of things is just as important in human relationships, as it is in fly fishing. Seeing through the motion and murkiness of life to the depths is a big part of growing up.
In some cultures and countries, people seem to be more aware of these deep connections between people, and to think first, and most often, about themselves and each other in terms of the commitments and the connections between us. In advance of my upcoming time in Burkina Faso, I’ve been reviewing my old Jula language resources, and have been struck by how the Jula language reflects this very mindset, how it tends to describe and to define things by their relationships to other things. For example, the Jula word for “bees” literally translates as “children of the honey,” in English. That name tells you: 1) how they relate—as siblings born of their mother, the queen bee; and 2) why they relate: to make honey for each other to eat. Jula proverbs also express this. One says, “Every guinea hen sees the back of another guinea hen’s head.” Another one says, “Other people’s hands carried us into this life, and other people’s hands will carry us out.” A phrase completely lacking in Jula is “a self-made man.”
In other cultures and countries, people tend to think first about individuals and their differences, before they stretch themselves to consider their common interests and qualities. I think that today’s American culture is more like that. As a case in point, consider how the public media responses to the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona last monnth have been dominated by calls for each of us to carry our own handguns. So, even public safety and law enforcement are becoming personal responsibilities and private affairs.
We do the same thing with the spiritual life. We have turned spirituality into a private consumer commodity, in which different spiritual schools and practices compete, like packaged products in a grocery store, each clamoring for us to try out and consume for our private satisfaction and personal improvement. If that were the case with Jesus and his good news of God’s kingdom, we would have called his disciples “The Twelve Clients,” or “The Twelve Customers.” Yet, Jesus came just as much to redeem and recreate a people—the church– as he did to redeem and recreate persons. He is passionately interested in a relationship with each of us; he just as passionately wants a relationship with all our relationships. Because we come in clusters and relationships, like the islands in Lake Superior, like the guinea hens in the proverb.
In today’s passage, Paul lasers in on this theme of our deep, underlying connections and commonalities. He is basically saying to Timothy: “Be aware of your connections and communion with others, take responsibility for them, even do something positive, proactive and purposeful about them.” So he says to Timothy, “…the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” And so the title of this message: Passing the Peace. Because keeping the peace of Christ to ourselves alone is finally no peace at all. The peace of Christ just wants to break through the distances and boundaries between people and to connect them in God’s peace. We are to pass this peace, in all its facets, along to others, who will in turn pass them along to others, so that every guinea hen sees the back of another guinea hen’s head. The peace of God is a personal thing, but it cannot be a private thing.
For we are not what the marketers call “end consumers” of the Jesus personal spirituality product. The Christian spiritual life is something like the Isle Royal chain of islands, only now a chain of people and relationships, each one located in a chain of nurture and of education, and a chain of accountability and encouragement. We are links in a chain of saving relationships; those relationships are the very stuff and substance of salvation.
So the first thing this passage implies for us is that We Consider and Marvel at the great chain of love & nurture that has made it possible for us to know any kind of love, blessing and value in our lives, That we embrace our place in this great chain of nurture that is God’s kingdom, as those who have been created, blessed and sustained by it, and as those who will bless and sustain others. Just as there really are are no self-made people in society, education or the economy, all the more true is it that there are no self-made people in the Kingdom of God. I stand here in this pulpit very much conscious of the fact that other people have carried me here, by their encouragement and their corrections, by their support and by their challenges, including yourselves. And I stand here very much conscious of the fact that I am under vows to everyone who supports me and releases me for my upcoming sabbatical: the mission board, the churches of Burkina Faso, my family, and you. My words of praise and thanksgiving to God this morning are those of the old hymn:
“Now thank we all our God, with hands and hearts and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices,
Who from our mother’s arms has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”
So let’s embrace our place in the great chain of love and divine peace that is God’s kingdom. That leads naturally to the next thing: Secondly, that we become wise to connections and commonalities among us, to the ways we connect and influence each other, even beneath the surface appearance of things, the life that we share in more ways than we always know. That is one thing my training last year in trauma and in conflict transformation has pushed ahead for me: learning to look beneath the surface and to think in terms of relationships, not just persons. One thing they also taught me is that I have a lot more to learn. The stakes are high: unless we want to shipwreck our faith, or that of others, and end up like some of those sunken boats around Isle Royal, growth in wisdom means that we keep wising up to all that connects us to each other.
The third logical thing is to take responsibility for our connections and do positive and proactive things about them, and thereby keep growing up. Like what Paul called Timothy to do, when he said, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” We do much of this already through Christian Education. We do it already through our various means of mutual aid and sharing. We do it through our small groups and mentoring.
And now its time to push that forward and become all the more purposeful and intentional about being Paul to Timothy, and being Timothy to other emerging, aspiring servant leaders around us, and thus keep Passing the Peace. We’ve had a wonderful experience of this already, as Michael Jinteh has been our first ministry intern. I’ve heard a number of people share about how powerful his message was last week, and how much he has grown as a preacher in this pulpit.
But if I understand Paul and his advice to Timothy correctly, he is not recommending leadership development as an occasional adventure, not just as a nice thing to do once in a while. He is recommending it as a congregation’s culture, as a pastoral way of life, as part and parcel of being the people of God.
And so our own congregational local mission growth plan commits us right off the bat to our own personal spiritual growth. And the first subpoint of that goal of spiritual growth is leadership development. Have I told you how important that is?
Growing leaders—indeed, growing the ministry gifts of all of us, myself included–is so important that it is the focus of my sabbatical this year. And so again the title and theme of the sabbatical: “Passing the Peace.” Sound familiar?
Now that Emmanuel Mennonite Church is fifteen years old, now that I’m into the fourteenth year of ministry here, and now that I’m into the middle fifties of my own life span, a natural question for the church and me both is not, What can we get out of life? but What can we give? What are we sharing and passing along to others, especially the next generation? We’re long past the point of wondering whether or not we’ll survive as a congregation. So the next logical question is: What will survive us? What of all that we have been given and entrusted will the next generation of disciples find helpful and fruitful, that they might carry forward and share with others? After all, we’re here today by the grace of God through parents and teachers and preachers and others who saw things in us that we never dared to see in ourselves, and who shared of their time and troubles to challenge and encourage us. Should Jesus tarry, God forbid that over our tombstones anyone should write the words, “Here Lies An End Consumer.”
Its fitting that the first part of this sabbatical, “Passing the Peace,” should be in Burkina Faso. While Becky and I were there twenty-five years ago, leadership development was my focus, through Bible teaching. Ironically, that was before I had much personal leadership experience myself. The theme and title of the leadership Bible study program was this very verse, II Timothy 2: 2 (hear them again, for the first time, please): “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Students in that program even got a decal with those words in Jula that they could stick onto their Bible covers or their mopeds. I didn’t make that program up, by the way. We borrowed and adapted it from our friends and partners in the Christian Missionary Alliance.
On Wednesday I return to Burkina Faso, on that church’s long-standing invitation, for three and a half weeks to contribute something to the same leadership development program that I started. Though I’m teaching, visiting and encouraging others, I still think of it as an internship for myself, a chance to ponder and practice what it takes to support and nurture leaders, current and future, not in a seminary, not in a far-away Bible school, but on familiar territory, in their own culture, even their own homes, communities, congregations and sanctuaries.
The second part of my sabbatical will be from May through July, during which time I’ll visit some young adult leadership development communities, here and elsewhere in the country, and do some personal, guided study and consultations. When I come back, I hope to have a philosophy and a practice in mind to move our own culture of ministry and leadership development forward. I’ll be part of that chain of nurture, as I hope to also identify and draw upon people and resources who can continue to nurture and coach me. Because the only person at the beginning and the end of this chain of Holy Spirit nurture is Jesus.
In between the ends of this chain are we. So again I urge us to hear Paul’s call to: 1) marvel at and give thanks for the great chain of nurture, love and care that makes it possible for us to even be here; 2) to embrace our place in that chain and become wise in the ways of our connections and relationships; and 3) take responsibility for our place in this chain of love, care and nurture, and pass along the peace that God is giving us. Because no one “is an island, entire of itself; every [one] is a part of the continent, a piece of the main…”