Rev. Ron Patterson
October 23, 2022
2 Timothy 4:6-8
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Did you ever attend the reading of a will? Except for a few times on PBS mainly on the Mystery series, or in the pages of a book, I never did, did you?
Well, this morning, we attended the reading of a will or a memoir or a sort of life summary compiled by the apostle Paul, a short time, some say, before the Romans killed him. Paul was facing a death sentence, he was probably in jail and like a lot of people who know that their time is short, he turns around and takes a look at where he has been and then announces exactly where he believes he is headed.
And he makes a little statement that I pray to God every single person on this life journey will be able to make at some point on their pilgrimage. He says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Now, I can’t imagine anything better or anything sweeter or anything more powerful than being able to come to the end of the line with a life affirmation like that one. That’s coming to the end of life on a high note. That’s truly claiming the crown of victory. And the question is how do you or I get there—how do we lay the foundation to build that sort of life? How do we live so that when we come to the end or to that point which our faith says is the real beginning, we can honestly say that we have fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith?
And since I want to be able to look back over my life and figure that it amounted to something, I really want to know how to do that and I hope you do too, so let me make three suggestions for us to consider and let me put these suggestions in the form of questions that together we can chew over with one another.
First, what fight are we in? If you want to be able to say that you have fought the good fight, take a long hard look at what you are fighting for and what you invest your energy and your passion and your time in supporting. This is a Consecration Sunday question, it seems to me, so let’s ask it as individuals and as a congregation. What fight are we in?
There’s lots of things people seem willing to fight for. So called second amendment rights make some people crazy violent. Ideas about freedom based on fear make people willing to mob others. Lies seem to transition into accepted truth in the hands of clever politicians empowered by bad religion and dirty dollars. Am I the only one surprised almost daily at the creative depth of nasty negativity?
A wise friend suggested to me once that it is always important to choose your battles, and while I have opinions on almost everything — opinions that would probably alienate more people that I could convince, let me suggest that fighting the good fight is not about fighting, but about figuring out which of those daily struggles are good and loving and compassionate and those actions and attitudes which reflect the way of Jesus.
If you just want to fight, get mad. Put a nasty profane flag on your truck and drive up and down on College Avenue. If you want to fight, smear those who disagree with you. If you want to fight, raise up the rabble and make a fuss to defend your turf. If you want to battle, organize the most selfish interests or the lowest common denominator of a bunch of fear filled people and you will surely make lots of headlines — it happens every day. If “not in my back yard” is the only fight I’m willing to fight then by the light of God’s love, I am truly in a sad spiritual state.
On the other hand, if you or I want to fight the good fight, apply the Gospel. Include self-sacrifice and some patience and some moral struggle. If you want to fight the good fight, tuck the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal child into your memory bank and take on the issues that come your way with a mixture of remembering that God loves you no matter what and because of that we had better fight hard to love others with the same intensity — no matter what color or nationality or political party they happen to represent. It’s not easy, but if you want to be able to say you have fought the good fight, make sure you are in a good fight and not just a fight.
Second, what race are we running? Another great question for Consecration Sunday. There are a lot of races out there. I know quite a few of you have starred in some important races. New discoveries, new technologies, an expansion of scientific knowledge, new ways of understanding the human condition. This congregation is full of academics and other star performers in all sorts of races. Repeatedly, I have been amazed and filled with joy as I catch glimpses of the life story of so many of you.
But since life is a journey and not a destination, I think the challenge of every single day, no matter where we are on that journey is to determine which race we are running and to decide if that race is worth winning.
I don’t need to convince any of you, I think, that a great deal of life is about busyness. All of us have things we need to do. All of us need to make a living and take care of our responsibilities — that’s just a fact, but when those needs take over our lives and cause us to loose sight of why we are doing those things we can suddenly find ourselves running not in the human race, but in the rat race.
Let me share a story. There was a man in the community in Florida where we lived who had a successful career. Every year, he would buy thousands of new shoes for children and if you ask him why he did it, he would tell you that when he was a little boy, his mom and dad couldn’t afford shoes and he was ashamed to go to school. And then he would get big smile on his face and say: “All God’s children need shoes.” Now that’s a simple race, but that is a race that by the grace of God he ran and that was a race worth winning. What race are you running?
And let me make it clear. This is not a competitive race. It is not about wealth or spectacular results. It is about putting yourself out there somewhere to do something that leaves some corner of this good earth however small a bit better for your having passed that way.
A couple of weeks ago, I showed up one morning at the church building and discovered two members of this congregation painting the curb stones at the entrances with red paint, to remind people that those entrances need to be kept clear for emergency vehicles. They were doing something they could because it needed doing. They are not professional painters, no one hired them to do it, they did it because it needed doing. Is there some race you need to run? Are there things you need to do, sometimes simple, maybe easy, but that need doing and that might set a pattern of behavior that could lead you toward the sort of miracle making that makes this race of life worth running?
Third, and final question on this Consecration Sunday: what faith are we keeping? And here I suppose that someone who doesn’t know me very well would expect me to lay out a list of the things you or I need to believe to be keepers of the faith. Well, the longer I live the shorter that list becomes. Keeping the faith is not about doctrine or a list of rules. It is not about how much I know about the Bible or how carefully I follow the tradition into which I was born.
When I meet Jesus, I do not expect to be quizzed over how well I understood the Nicene Creed or how perfectly I taught the tenets of Reformed Protestant Christianity. Several years ago at Charnley’s brother’s wedding, the priest, who was a person of gentle faith, invited all of the members of the bridal party — whether they were Catholic or Protestant — to share in Communion as a beautiful affirmation of faith, for a family which included Roman Catholics and Protestants.
That was the plan as he explained it to the bridal party, but on the day of the wedding as he went to serve my Protestant Sister-in-law, one of the members of his congregation came to his side and in a clear stage whisper said: “Father, she’s not of the faith” — to prevent her priest from making a terrible mistake and serving communion to a Protestant.
That priest knew that faith is not a holy relic of the past. Faith is not a shrine to what some other generation of people believed sacred. Faith has nothing to do with labels. Faith is loving as Jesus loved. Faith is caring as Jesus cared. Faith is giving to a hungry person the bread they need to live. Keeping the faith is living the faith in any way we can.
So then, let’s take a look. Let’s take a look at our lives. Let’s turn around and take a long look. Are we fighting the right fight? Are we running the best race? Are we keeping a faith that makes a difference? May the light of God’s love in Jesus find a home and a heart in this congregation and our loving. Amen.