Powerful Gifts

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for World Communion Sunday.

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,

To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I am grateful to God–whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did–when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.

Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

I have a friend who has a side hustle teaching piano. 

Most of her students are young, maybe seven or eight. She regularly shares the cute things they say, and she’s clearly delighted by them. 

But she’s told me more than once that her favorite, her favorite student of all, is Miss Jane. 

Miss Jane has not and will not divulge her age, but my friend guesses that she’s well into her seventies. She played piano for a few years as a child, but dropped it when her family moved. She didn’t play again for more than half a century. 

But a few years ago, Miss Jane marched into my friend’s studio and signed up for lessons. Once they got to know each other, my friend asked her why.

“Because I spent too long doing what I had to do to survive. Raise kids, pay bills, keep the wheels turning.” she replied. “And now it’s my turn to do what makes me feel alive. Music did that when I was a kid, and it turns out it still does.”

When Miss Jane plays at the Christmas concert, there’s always a standing ovation. 

Today we are eavesdropping on a letter from one seasoned pastor, weary and imprisoned, to another, young pastor, nervous and unsure. The older pastor clearly knows the younger one, Timothy, well, both in his gifts and his faults; is some kind of mentor to him. The older pastor knows that Timothy has a sincere faith in the Lord, a faith that was taught to him by his mother and grandmother, gifted to him like a precious heirloom. But the older pastor also knows the fears and distractions that can pull even those with real faith away from proclaiming the good news. He seems to be worried that Timothy is retreating. That his faith, his passion, his hope and joy are dying out. 

“I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” Timothy’s mentor writes. It’s even more beautiful in the Greek, a sort of sing-songy sentence: ana-mimnēskō se ana-zōpyrein. Again, again, re-member to re-kindle God’s gifts that are already inside you. 

The mentor goes on to specify just what those gifts are: a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. This is what Timothy has already been given. Powerful gifts to sustain and shape him, whatever comes. 

I think most of us can relate to Timothy, in his fears and worries. We certainly want to be people of sincere faith; we want to be bold, to have a faith that makes a difference. But when it comes down to it, we also don’t want to stick out, or make anyone uncomfortable, or put our own way of living in jeopardy.  That spirit of cowardice—of fear—it can get a stranglehold on us, throttling our faith, our generosity, and our joy. 

Karl Jacobson, a Lutheran pastor in Minneapolis, tells a story from his time as an exchange student living in Shanghai. His fellow foreign students were divided into two groups; those from the west were there to learn Chinese language, literature and history, while the African and Arab students were there to learn science and math in courses taught in English. They knew no Chinese, which left them isolated among their fellow students. 

Karl lived in Japan in the days running up to the first Gulf War, Desert Storm. There was a great deal of tension among the students, especially between those who were American and those who were Muslim. Suspicion ran high on both sides, about what the other was thinking, wanting, cheering for. 

Karl writes: 

“Shortly after New Year’s my Canadian roommate was on a trip to Beijing, and I was up late, studying for an exam. There was a knock on my door, and when I opened it, was met by one of the Muslim students from Yemen. He stood in the door in formal attire, with his jambiya at his hip. The jambiya is a ceremonial (but very functional) dagger, with a broad, curved blade of about six inches, and is worn by all Yemenis men of age. So, there he stood, knife and all.

Well, I did exactly what you would have done in that situation, at that tense time … I invited him in. […] I didn’t know what to expect in that moment. And I didn’t really know what to do. So, I asked him how I could help him.

He began by telling me about his family, his wife and four sons who were back in Yemen. He told me that he had been separated from them for more than three years as he pursued his degree in mathematics, and that he missed them. He had been trying, for the better part of two years, to get the university to allow them to come and live with him, with no success. He had come to me, hoping that I would write a letter to the president of Huadong Shifan Daxui, East China Normal University, in Chinese—because a letter in Chinese would be, he said, more respectful, and more likely to succeed.

So, I did. We spent the next couple of hours working over a letter in Chinese, asking that his family be allowed to come and join him. He gave me his words, and I did my best to put them into Chinese.

When we had finished, I gave him the letter and asked him another question, “Why did you come to me? There are others here whose Chinese is much better, who have been here longer and who would do a better job. Why me?”

And he said, “I come to you because I know that you are a Christian. And I knew a Christian would help me.”

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be that kind of Christian, the kind that creates expectations.

Now, to be clear, I share this not because I’m the hero of the story. I’m not. The point is that the testimony of Jesus, embodied (however feebly) in us, is filled with potential; the potential, to be sure of un-safety and suffering, but also the potential for faith and love to break forth from us.”[1]

Rev. Jacobson did have a powerful gift—not just his knowledge of the Chinese language, but his ability to move past his initial spirit of fear, and to tap into the powerful gifts that God had stored in him, just waiting to be used. 

First, a spirit of power: the ability to make a real difference in the real world; second, a spirit of love: the desire to make a real difference to real people; and third, a spirit of self-discipline: the ability to get past his own fears and hang-ups, and choose the loving course of action.

Each of us have been given the same powerful gifts. God has drenched us with the capacity to love, to think and act wisely, to make a real difference in the world. The only question is: will we use these gifts, or let them sit idle?

What using God’s powerful gifts looks like, in real practical ways, is different for all of us. I certainly can’t imagine myself writing a letter in Chinese. But I do write these sermons, to try to tell you all that you are loved, and called to love. Merilyn makes hospice pillows for families who have lost loved ones. Shannon keeps our WifFi alive. Marlene sends cards for every special occasion. ____ is teaching Bible stories to our kids as we speak. Erron and Tim have plans to fix the manse toilets after church. 

And at the end of the month, many of us will make our pledges to the church, promising to pool our money together so that this church can continue to be a place where God’s powerful gifts are shared and celebrated. Those dollars that you give are crucial, because they translate into light and heat and music and bulletins and preaching and spaghetti dinners. And when you give, you are shaking off the spirit of cowardice, a spirit who whispers to us that we have to keep looking out for number one. When you give—give your money, give your time, give your energy to this church—you are saying that you trust God’s powerful gifts to see you through, to see us through—with the help of the holy spirit living in us. 

My friend the piano teacher said she had a hard time at first convincing Miss Jane to play in the piano recital. “Nobody wants to see an old lady make a fool of herself,” she said. 

But my friend nudged, and eventually Miss Jane budged. 

Now my friend has two more adult students who have taken up piano, just because they saw Miss Jane do it, and figured maybe it wasn’t too late to do something they loved. A third is in voice lessons, learning to sing base now that his tenor voice has failed him. 

Beyond her own studio, parents and grandparents of her young students have told her that they’ve taken up painting, baking, Spanish, whittling, hiking, poetry—all because they saw Jane unashamedly following what brings her joy. “It’s like they all needed permission,” my friend says, “to go play again with the gifts they had as kids. I don’t think we give adults enough permission to be passionate without being perfect or productive.”

Once she told me, voice lowered, that Jane really isn’t that great at piano. But that’s not what matters. She has rekindled the gift that is within her, and encouraged so many others to do the same. Her piano skills are mediocre. But her joy? Her joy is changing the world. 

There are gifts inside of you. Powerful, powerful gifts. How will you share them?


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-3/commentary-on-2-timothy-11-14-4

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