Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sermon for St Luke's Day (observed)

St Luke's, Springfield--II Timothy 4:5-13

Have you ever heard it said about someone that they “love humanity but can’t stand people?” That’s kind of a problem, because we have people all around us, and we interact with them every day. Our lives are filled by daily contact with others. There are exceptions, of course. From time to time we might hear about a genuine recluse—who is usually rich, because it takes money to be reclusive! And we usually label such people as at least “eccentric” if not full-on “crazy.” Even those who live alone have relationships. They may be casual relationships, but even if they’re casual, most everyone has several such casual relationships. Social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and all the others that are out there—social media have only amplified and magnified our connectedness with other people. You don’t even need to leave the house to have a stupid heated argument with a stranger!

In the midst of all this social interaction, though, it is still possible to feel lonely. A great many people will tell you, if they’re honest, that they feel alone—seriously, depressingly, alone—even those who come across to the world as outgoing and friendly. I’m not a psychologist, so I won’t speculate as to why this is. I just know it to be true.

And many of those who feel alone experience their aloneness in a particularly dark tone. They feel themselves to have been abandoned by one or more people whom they had counted on to “be there” for them—a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend, a colleague. This is an especially cruel and crushing experience of loneliness.

St Paul himself—the great evangelist, pastor, teacher, leader, and theologian—St Paul himself bears witness to this very experience as he writes to his protégé, Timothy. Paul is a prisoner in Rome, where he would eventually be put to death during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero. After some words of encouragement and motivation for Timothy (“always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry”)—after these words of encouragement, Paul looks inward in a kind of hopeful way:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
And then, after being encouraging to Timothy and reflective about his own situation--then Paul indulges in what might be described as a bit of a pity party:
Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me.
Luke alone is with me. And this, of course, is why we have this reading appointed for today—the mention of Luke. Other than Paul’s personal references in his epistles, it is from Luke’s writings, in the last two-thirds or so of the Acts of the Apostles, that we know what we know about Paul’s conversion, about his missionary efforts, and about his eventual arrest, trial, and imprisonment.

There is undoubtedly an untold—and untold because it’s unknown—story about precisely why Paul felt he was deserted while he was imprisoned in Rome. We would like to think that he was welcomed warmly by the local Christian community when he arrived in the city as a “minimum security” prisoner, but this letter to Timothy is a sign that it may not have been the case. Could it be that the Christians in Rome had not appreciated Paul’s earlier long letter to them? Remember, Paul wrote what we now call the Epistle to the Romans—you know, one of the most important books in the Bible—before he had met any of its recipients personally. (Now, can you imagine not appreciating the epistle to the Romans? It is central to the way we think and speak about the gospel. But you never know.) Or could it be that the Roman Christians lacked the courage to face Nero’s anger, which could flare up violently at any time, so they left Paul alone for fear of provoking Nero? We’ll never really know, but, in any case, Paul felt alone. He felt abandoned. “Luke alone is with me.”

“Luke alone is with me.” One of the themes that Paul keeps coming back to over and over again in his writings is the utter faithfulness, the complete dependability, of God. As he wrote to the Romans themselves, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” In his moment of abandonment as a prisoner in Rome, whether this was in jail or under house arrest, Luke was the medium of God’s faithfulness to Paul. Luke was the sign to Paul that God is faithful even when others around him were not. God is faithful to us, even when those around us are not.

“Luke alone is with me.” My pastoral challenge to you, as a eucharistic community under the patronage of St Luke, is to wrestle with this question: To whom can you be what Luke was to Paul, the one who was “there for him” in his time of aloneness and abandonment? Who needs you to “be Luke” for them, to be the sign of God’s caring presence, to be the reminder that God is faithful, even when those around them are not? Who might be in a position to say, “St Luke’s alone is with me?”

And if you are feeling especially alone and abandoned today, be on the lookout for your “Luke,” because God is indeed faithful even when those around us are not. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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