Dr. Steve Lindsley
(1 Timothy 1:12-17)
Last week, Rebecca launched us into our end-of-summer sermon series titled, “RE:Boot.” With summer vacations winding down and school just around the corner, we’re preparing to welcome back again the familiar routines of fall. So it makes sense that we take time to “reboot” our faith as well. In her sermon last Sunday, Rebecca implored us to “RE:conclie Relationships” as we considered the story of Philemon, Paul, and Onesimus.
Today we “RE:imagine Trust;” and our passage focuses on another semi-obscure letter in the New Testament, 1 Timothy. Fun fact: while the gospels are named after the person who presumably wrote them – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – the letters of Paul are named after the person they’re written to, whether that’s a church community (Galatia, Ephesus, Corinth) or an individual, such as Timothy. Timothy was a young apostle whom Paul had taken under his wing, showing him the ropes, serving as his mentor. Think Qui-Gon to Obi-Wan, Batman to Robin, Mr. Miyagi to Daniel LaRusso. You get the idea.
So let’s see what words of wisdom Paul has for young Timothy – and for us – in our passage today, page 208 in your pew bibles. My friends, listen to this:
Back in the day, English theologian and eventual father of Methodism John Wesley had a question that all of his small group ministries began their time with each time they met. The question was: how is it with your soul? It’s a little deeper than the typical “How are you doing,” isn’t it? You can kind of dodge that one with an elusive “fine.” But “How is it with your soul” – it’s hard to sidestep that one. You have to lean into it, trust yourself and trust those who are asking it of you.
Now there is, of course, a hymn of almost the same name that we’ve probably sung a time or two. “It Is Well With My Soul” is not only the title but also the repeated refrain; this truth sung over and over again. The story behind the hymn brings special meaning to that truth. The hymn’s author, Horatio Spafford, was a Presbyterian layman from Chicago whose personal fortune and vast property holdings were all but destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871. Soon after that, his son tragically died. Seeking some rest and rejuvenation for his weary, grief-stricken family, Spafford made arrangements for an European trip for himself, his wife and their four daughters. The women took an early ship across the Atlantic while Spafford remained behind to tend to some quick business matters before joining them. But that reunion would never happen, as the ship carrying his wife and daughters suffered a horrible accident at sea and sank. His wife was the only surviving family member.
At one point on his journey across the ocean to reunite with his wife, the captain of the ship informed Spafford that they were now passing over the spot where the ship had sunk. And it was there where he penned these words:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll—
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul
Kind of something, isn’t it, that after enduring everything he endured, unimaginable Job-like tragedy, that he could still write a song like that. To dare to say over and over again, “it is well with my soul” when there was every reason for it not to be. Sometimes that’s all we can do in those moments of utter despair when we long for some hope to cling on to – say it, speak it into being, will it into existence. Words have a way of doing that if we trust them enough.
In our scripture today we find the apostle Paul writing words to his young protege Timothy. Now I’ll be honest with you: on one level this letter carries all the excitement and intrigue of a hot-off-the-presses Presbyterian Book of Order. The sharing of procedures and protocols. The dispensing of advice and wisdom. The dissemination of random details with a little theology sprinkled in for good measure. Beloved, this is shop talk for church geeks.
But on another level, this letter speaks to something much deeper than what we find on its surface. The church at the time was growing, expanding, reaching new horizons; and the work involved was becoming too much for Paul to manage on his own. On top of that, Paul seemed to be spending more time in prison than out of it; the fallout of following Jesus often at odds with the empire of the day and Paul paying the price for that. Paul had always been in the habit of mentoring a number of young apostles to help the expanding church, and none of them did he trust more than Timothy. That trust is evident throughout this letter. Beneath all the “church talk” we find an aging apostle who knows his time is reaching an end and who wants to make sure that Timothy is prepared to carry the torch.
And the way Paul does this, the way he expresses his trust in young Timothy, is by referencing his own story, his own past – the past of one who used to persecute the very church he now serves, the story of one who would appear to be the last person God would ever trust the future of the church to but did anyway.
And so Paul says:
I’m so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work of ministry. He went out on a limb in trusting me. The only credentials I brought were violence and arrogance. But I was treated mercifully even though I didn’t know what I was doing. Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus. I’m sharing this with you, Timothy, so that you might fight the good fight, keeping a firm grip on your faith and on yourself.
To share your story – even the messy parts of it; to talk passionately about how Jesus changed your life as you’re preparing to pass the torch onto who it is that will come after you – all of that takes some level of trust, don’t you think?
Stating the obvious here, but trust lies at the very foundation of human relationships. That is, in order for us to function properly as a civilization, we have to have some element of trust in one another. That trust expands beyond people to the structures and institutions we create – and they, too, depend heavily on the level of trust we place in them. Which makes things problematic when that trust is not there.
It would not be going too much out on a limb, would it, to surmise that we are not very trusting people these days. We are less inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt. We more readily assume the worst in others than the best. We are quick to judge someone by the company they keep, the link they post on social media, the zip code they live in, the school they attend.
And in large part this is a problem of our own making with hyper-partisanship fueled by angry rhetoric, the pursuit of power, and 24-hour cable news networks looking to fill their time. But it’s also just part of how we are wired as human beings. Scientists have for years conducted studies on what is called implicit or unconscious bias – how people act on the basis of prejudice and stereotypes without intending to do so. The subtleties of implicit bias are often sneaky enough to slip under the radar of even the most self-aware.
Take hypothetical Frank, for example. Frank explicitly believes that both women and men are equally suited for the professional world. Even so, it’s highly possible that Frank might behave in any number of biased ways, from distrusting feedback from female co-workers to hiring equally qualified men over women, because of implicit bias.
A real-life example made the news back in 2018 when two African-American men walked into a Philadelphia Starbucks to attend a business meeting and were subsequently asked by the manager to leave, presumably because he didn’t believe them and most assuredly because he didn’t trust them. When they refused to leave, the manager called the police, who came and arrested the two men. Now there was, of course, no reason for the manager to call the police; there was no reason for the police to arrest anyone. More importantly, there was no reason for the manager not to trust the two men in the first place. And while Starbucks did respond by holding companywide training to address implicit bias and prevent discrimination, and that’s all well and good, this sort of thing happens all the time whether we hear about it on the news or not.
And this bias – this lack of trust – affects more than just our interpersonal relationships. It includes the very institutions and structures that guide how we live our lives. I think about our democracy, for instance – we all are these days – and one of the things I’ve recently come to have a greater appreciation for that I didn’t always have is the fact that democracy is more or less an opt-in endeavor – have you ever thought about that? It is solely dependent on everyone agreeing to – and trusting in – a core set of guidelines and guardrails and an underlying belief that while we will undoubtedly disagree on things, in the end we assume the best in each other and the structure of the system we’re part of together. What happens when that trust starts to erode?
So how is it with our soul?
I have to think this question weighed heavily on Paul’s mind. Writing Timothy about their relationship, about the church, about Jesus and the experience he once had with him, an experience that fundamentally changed his life because someone chose to put in him a level of trust he couldn’t have possibly imagined.
How is it with your soul, Timothy? I feel Paul is more or less asking this in his letter, beneath all the church geek shop talk. As you prepare to take even greater leadership in church, Timothy, with all of the ups and downs, all the knowns and unknowns, how is it with your soul?
How is it with our soul, Trinity? As we baptize babies, as we commission young adult volunteers, as we celebrate a beloved music director on his last Sunday with us, how is it with our soul? As we lean into this liminal season that all churches find themselves in, as we ponder what our community needs from us, as we pray for a new vision for a new Trinity, how is it with our soul? No one would fault us if we said that we’re not really sure, or that our soul is a little weary; because these are strange times we’re living in, times when so much is up in the air, times when we often feel like we’re hanging on with the tips of our fingernails.
Which is why Paul would invite us, as he did Timothy, to reimagine trust. To not just show up for church but to be church to the world, growing together and welcoming all. To never cease trusting one another, leaning on each other, being vulnerable with each other. To trust in Jesus to sustain us for the winding journey.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Adapted from The Message version of the passage.