Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 23, 2022
1 Timothy 4:1-6, 9-10 “What Ails Us?”
A couple of weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an editorial entitled “America Is Falling Apart at the Seams”. In it, Brooks highlights a lot of troubling societal trends – trends we likely have all been noticing. Here are a few: in 2020, people drove about 13% less than previous years, but traffic deaths rose 7%. And in the first half of 2021, traffic deaths rose 18.4% over the already high rates of 2020. So, people were driving less, but driving more recklessly. We have all heard stories of violent altercations on airplanes, which are up so much that when I flew a few weeks ago the flight attendants safety announcement included a plea for good behavior. Overdose deaths have been on an increase for the last 20 years but spiked in 2020 and 2021. Hate crimes are at a 12 year high, and gun sales in 2021 showed an 80% spike year over year. And we all know worship attendance has been steadying declining across all faiths.
Brooks’ article painted a bleak picture of the United States. He ended his column this way, “[T]here must…be some spiritual or moral problem at the core of this. Over the past several years, and over a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways. But why? As a columnist, I’m supposed to have some answers. But I just don’t right now. I just know the situation is dire.”
Columnists, pundits, politicians, social workers, clergy, teachers…we are all seeking answers to what ails us. We are trying to narrow down to the one thing, the one problem from which all other problems stem. If we can figure that out, we tell ourselves, then we can fix everything else. This desire to “fix” is of course not new. I would imagine that from the moment humans became self-aware, we have been noticing our own poor behaviors and trying to solve them. Or, we have been noticing other people’s poor behaviors and trying to solve those. Either way, the questions raised by all the observers of humanity in today’s world are nothing new. In fact, as I studied the scriptures offered this week in our Womanist Lectionary cycle, the epistle text, the first letter to Timothy, struck me as an effort to identify what ails us and offer solutions.
The epistles, or the letters that are canonized in the New Testament as scripture, are almost exclusively written to a community or a person experiencing a problem. The letters highlight the problem and offer suggestions based on the Gospel lessons. Some are written to communities – Romans or Corinthians – and others are written to leaders of communities. The first letter to Timothy is one of the pastoral letters, a letter written to a leader of a faith community. Biblical scholars almost universally agree that this letter was not written by Paul, even though it is written in his name. It was likely written by a follower of Paul, sometime in the second century. Timothy was a leader of an early Christian faith community, perhaps in Ephesus or Crete, though it is unclear. What is clear, though, is while this was a very early Christian community, it already had some formal structure and defined roles for people in leadership. And, it was a community in conflict. There were opposing viewpoints, different ideas about Christ, and desires for more expansive leadership opportunities. In essence it was a community in conflict, fighting within itself about who was right and who was wrong. Perhaps David Brooks would describe it as “Falling Apart at the Seams.” The letter to its leader Timothy was an effort to provide guidance, point out the problem, and offer solutions.
I should be clear, 1 Timothy is not a letter I would normally preach on. This letter includes two verses that have been quoted time and time again by those who believe women should not be permitted to preach, or even speak. Those two verses are often used as weapons, and have been quoted to me in an effort to hurt me. So, I tend to avoid 1Timothy. But the Womanist Lectionary directed me to it this week, and as I read it, I began to see in it reminders of not what ails us as people, but what can comfort us.
Broadly speaking, the issue being addressed in this letter is this: Does faith in God require personal, communal, and spiritual austerity? In other words, must we limit ourselves in order to show devotion to God? The section I read earlier specifically answers the question about avoiding certain foods – the community led by Timothy was experiencing conflict about whether or not some foods were spiritually unclean and therefore to be avoided as to not anger God. And the letter is quite clear – everything is a gift from God, and when eaten with thanksgiving to God, can never be considered unclean. God is a God of abundance, and by limiting ourselves from enjoying that abundance, we are limiting ourselves in experiencing God. Anyone who tells you otherwise, according to the letter, is a false prophet. Perhaps that is what ails you, the author of the letter seems to suggest – you are so concerned about what you should not be doing that you have forgotten to enjoy your life, no matter how simple it may be.
Timothy’s community was in conflict because they were not sure what the right thing to do was. It was leading people to lash out and threatened to tear the community apart. The problems no doubt felt huge and hard to manage, much like the problems are society is experiencing today. And the similarities continue: then, as today, much of the conflict is created by fear – fear for our health, safety, and ability to control our lives. And today it feels like in the midst of all this fear, everyone is on their worst behavior. Emotional outbursts, often times over seemingly small things, self-destructive behavior, and attempts to gain control in a world that feels out of control by defying rules put in place to protect public health.
In the last two years so much has been taken away – what we thought normal no longer is. It is hard to focus on anything other than what we have lost and continue to lack. We are a society are in the midst of trauma and grief – and all of those bad statistics highlighted by columnists are symptoms of just that. But I have also begun to wonder if it is not just the loss of what was once considered normal that society is grieving. I wonder if we are also beginning to realize that those things that we once thought were evidence of an abundant life actually were just fleeting, didn’t fulfill any real need, but rather occupied us in a way that distracted us from what we actually need – a grounding in something to hold on to, something so abundant that not only is there enough to go around but it only grows as we share it.
The gifts of God’s abundance are not consumer convenience, ease of travel, or the ‘freedom’ to walk around a store without a mask. God’s abundance does not simply exist in such liminal things. God’s abundance comes from the center of our creation – our creation to be in true relationship with one another, sustained by an earth stewarded with the understanding of our vital connection to it, and an understanding that there is a love that is so much greater than we can ever understand. When we focus on that abundance, we begin to realize that there is so much more in this world that is given to us than can ever be taken away.
The author of the first letter to Timothy suggests that trying to limit what God provides, limits God. In our world today, so many people are focused on what has changed or been taken away, they are grieving in self and community-destructive ways. A hole has been exposed that once had a liminal patch on it, and society doesn’t like the way that feels.
I don’t have the solution to what fix what ails us anymore than a New York Times columnist does. I am grieving the loss of what I thought was normal too. I am angrier today than I was two years ago and I don’t like that. But, as I wrote in my journal in May of 2020, “my belief in God is stronger now than it has ever been, because God is the one thing in my life that can never be taken away.” It is true that my faith, like the faith of most I know, ebbs and flows in the currents of life. But God is a God of abundance, and on the days I remember that, my grief feels less acute. On the days I remember that, my neighbor is a reflection of God’s face, and I rejoice. On the days I remember that, what ails me is not nearly as strong as the balm for my soul God provides. So, I don’t offer you advice or guidance today. I don’t want to tell you what to do, how to change, or what you need to make your life feel more abundant. That wisdom already exists – it exists in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, it exists in the lived examples of our ancestors in the faith, it exists in the lived examples of people of other faiths, and it exists within our very fabric of this community. So, instead of giving advice to fix what ails us, I want to instead simply offer you a prayer:
God of abundance, in you exists so much more than we can possibly imagine. Within your creation, you have provided enough sustenance for all of us if we choose to share it freely. Within your Spirit you have provided us with enough grace to hold us no matter how far we may stray from your dream for us. And within the community of humanity you give, you have provided us with more than enough love to strengthen us for whatever may come.
God, we know you are a God of abundance, but we confess that far too often focus on what is scarce in the world around us, and not on you. When we do this, when we see nothing but what has been taken away, the way our lives feel more difficult, and when we choose to focus on fear and hate – help us to remember that you will never turn away and are always reaching out to welcome all of the lost home, and that you do this over and over again, always.
While we pray for ourselves and seek our own comfort, we also pray for all those who are lost, afraid, and struggling with inconsolable anger. We pray that they may find comfort in your presence, and we pray that we will continue to see them as perfect reflections of you and reach out to share your abundant love with them.
Good and great God, you can never be taken away from us and we can never be taken away from you. For this we are grateful. And it is with that gratitude that we offer this prayer, all of the prayers within our spirits, and those prayers which are just too deep for words. And we pray in the name of the one who, in a world divided and fearful, pointed only to you, Jesus Christ. May we ever seek to follow his example. And we begin by praying in the way he taught us by saying…Our Father…