A sermon preached on October 7th, 2007 based upon 2 Timothy 1:1 – 7 and Luke 17:5 – 6, entitled, “In Times of Discouragement.”
A colleague of mine, a Methodist pastor, who I admire, told a story from her life this past week in a sermon she gave at a clergy gathering. She described having gone through a time of great discouragement in the past year, a time of apparent loss of faith, brought on by the general stress and fatigue of life and ministry as well as by the specific trigger of the sudden death of her beloved sister.
In some desperation, she took a day off from her busy schedule in order to travel two hours by car to visit a spiritual guide she had seen from time to time. She wasn’t sure what exactly she had been looking for in talking with this woman, but as she left her company, she had the distinct feeling that she hadn’t received it. Her parting words of advice had struck her as particularly banal and trite: “Pay attention to the signs of God’s presence in your life.”
Nonetheless, driving home, she found herself trapped on a highway incline between two tractor trailers, and there, directly in front of her, written in huge letters on the back of the truck were these words: “Are you hurting? God cares.”
The message made her laugh and to cry, having received the two by four to the head she had needed regarding a sign of God’s presence.
In our two short scripture readings, we are given two different metaphors to describe faith in a time of discouragement.
The disciples, feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the life they are being called to by Jesus cry out, “Increase our faith!” as though they are convinced they are without the faith necessary to do what Jesus is calling them to do.
He speaks of faith the size of a mustard seed — so small it is practically invisible — and the extraordinary things such faith are capable of bringing about in this world. In those days mustard seeds were the smallest of known seeds. They could lie dormant in dry soil for years and years, doing nothing, waiting for the right moment of torrential rain to crack open and sprout.
It is as if Jesus were saying, you already have the faith you need; trust it.
And in Paul’s letter to his friend Timothy, who has been his partner for years in ministry. If we read between the words, it is clear that Timothy is struggling as well. Paul speaks of the “faith that he is sure lives within him”, which would go without saying unless there has been some question in Timothy’s mind whether that faith is there.
And so Paul challenges Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” reminding him that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
Jesus used the metaphor of a seed; here Paul uses the metaphor of fire. From Timothy’s perspective, perhaps it seemed as though the fire has gone out, because the roaring flames he once knew in his life aren’t there any more.
But if the embers are still there, the fire remains, and all it needs is to rekindling. Anybody who has tried to start a fire in the woods without a match knows there is a big difference between having embers and no fire at all.
Our world seems designed to lead us into times of such discouragement. Stress does that. And although we have more materially than people could have imagined in generations past, in certain ways we have even more stress, contending daily with a far more complex world with its multiple threats of chaos and meaninglessness.
A newly published journal of the late, great Mother Teresa reveals that even she struggled with times of doubt and discouragement, and that is strangely comforting. It is the nature of being a human being to go through times of when God seems absent.
It is important in such times to keep in mind the subtle but significant distinction between faith that has simply gone underground for a time, and faith that has disappeared altogether.
I want to say a few words this morning by way of advice regarding things to consider when we find ourselves in these inevitable times of discouragement. How do we go about encouraging the seed to sprout, and rekindling the embers of the fire?
I don’t think there is a “one size fits” all prescription for what to do win our times of discouragement. The things I’m about to suggest may or may not speak to you. I offer them in the chance they might strike a chord with you.
Generally speaking, there is the need to simply recognize that we have entered into a more difficult time of struggle, and to name it as such. If we don’t face up to the situation, in all likelihood the embers will simply burn down further, and the difficulty of rekindling the fire will grow larger.
There is a need to step back — to stop, for a moment at least, all our activity, and to reflect and pray, to ask, what has lead me into this time of discouragement? As in the case of my colleague, generally speaking there will be multiple causes: the effect of chronic stress, losses that need to be mourned, some nagging fear or resentment.
Sometimes there is a need to be alone for a time. At others, there is a need for the company of others. Discernment is necessary regarding whose company would be helpful at such a time. There are some people in your life whose company will simply add to the sense of discouragement.
But some people resonate with a faith that you can absorb. Paul refers to the fact that the faith that lives in Timothy was passed on to him through the company of first his grandmother Lois, and then his mother Eunice. So ask yourself, whose company could feed my soul at this particular time of need?
In some instances, there will be need for an extended time of rest and retreat — a time to remove oneself from toll taken by the ongoing stresses of this world so that you can begin the process of rejuvenation. Some will find getting outside in the sunlight and fresh air for walk does wonders.
Sometimes it isn’t so much inactivity that is needed, as choices regarding the right kind of activity. In my life, it often can feel like there is this ongoing struggle with the forces of chaos, expressed in the very first verses of the Bible, where the dark, deep waters of the primordial chaos are pushed back by the creative word of God that brings light into darkness and order into confusion.
Sometimes when the problems of life both big and small seem unmanageable, and the sense of chaos overwhelms, it is helpful to identify a small piece of the clutter on which to focus where there is potential for immediate results in regard to bringing order.
Last week I found some help in a time of discouragement turning my attention to the chaos of my garage. I didn’t have it within me to fix the whole world or even write a sermon for that matter, but I did have it within me to clean the garage, and with two hours of effort the order I had brought to my garage was gratifying. It gave me a feeling of having traction under my feet; that having made a dent in the disorder I was ready to take on something else.
There is the old story of the man walking along the ocean during a time of discouragement. He notices another man coming towards him who, every fifteen seconds or so, is stooping down to pick up an object, and then tossing it into the ocean. As it draws near to the man, he realizes the objects the man has been picking up are starfish. “What are you doing?” he asks the man.
“It’s high tide, and these star fish that have been left on the beach by the waves will die if they don’t make it back to the ocean.”
The man in his darkness replies cynically, “Don’t you know how useless that is? There must be millions of starfish that will die today. You can’t do anything about that. What difference does it make?”
With that, the man stooped once more to pick up another star fish, pausing to say, “It makes a difference to this one,” tossing the starfish into the ocean.
The problems that plague the earth can seem pretty overwhelming. It is important to avoid the temptation to give up; to find that creative act that makes a difference, no matter how small the scale.
Heifer Project International has that quality. I cannot personally end world hunger, but it is within my power to provide assistance to one family, and that a real difference is made. (We are in the process of collecting $500 through the offering of our dollars during worship that will purchase a cow to send to a poor family. The children named the cow Bessie. Bessie will make a real difference. In two weeks we’ve collected $78.)
With a little traction we come to realize that we really can make a difference in this world, that with God, mountains can be moved. Surprising possibilities for doing good are present that I could not see in my time of discouragement.
We are about to share in holy communion, this ritual that links Christians all over the world. The metaphor here, the eating of a bit of bread and the drinking of a bit on wine, reminds us of the simple truth that we are frail beings who need sustenance, both for body and soul.
Be gentle with yourselves. Know that the faith you need is there within your soul, even when it seems altogether absent. In the company of your fellow pilgrims, aat a little break, drink a little wine, and together we will witness the dawning of the light; the coming of the kingdom.