I hate having to introduce myself. I begin to be queasy when a group leader says something like, “Tell us your name and one ‘fun fact’ about you.” And my mind starts this internal musing. What is that ‘fun fact’ supposed to look like? Is it supposed to be funny? Or impressive? Or daring?
This reading from 1 Timothy made we wonder what Paul would choose as his ‘fun fact’? In Philippians (3:5-6) he tells us what he used to say: “[I was] circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul could boast with the best of them.
But that isn’t what Paul chooses to say. That isn’t what he speaks of to Timothy. No, it isn’t his greatness Paul recounts, but how far from God’s true way of love he had found himself. “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence…The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Most of us probably wouldn’t choose as our ‘fun fact’ our most egregious error in life. But the Apostle Paul made it part of his “stump speech.”
Paul doesn’t try to revel in his awfulness, he doesn’t try to win the Guinness World Record of being the worst person ever. He confesses who he was, a pretty horrible person, to point to the healing power of mercy, of grace, “of faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
I couldn’t help but be amused by the confluence of reading the first two of the “lost and found” parables in Luke as the gospel reading for this morning. I can imagine Paul thinking of himself as one of the lost lambs. Straying away from the herd. Getting turned around in dangerous territory. Not even knowing that he was in trouble. Until he was found. Until the bright light exploded into his consciousness on the road to Damascus. Until God’s mercy and God’s grace touched him, changed him, made him new.
That beautiful picture of a little lamb in Jesus’ arms that we all associate with the parable of the Lost Sheep is comforting. It assures us that when we stray (even if we are unaware of it) God is our shepherd and God will come find us and bring us home. Paul’s own story is a demonstration of that. There is nothing we can do that will take us out of God’s sphere. And God goes looking for those who are lost. God wants us in the flock.
And that is a good message. That is something we have to hold onto, when the skies of our life are cloudy or the night of our soul seems way too long. That is something we can feel secure in, no matter what we have done or left undone. That is the glory of the love of God. That is grace. But it doesn’t stop there.
Because we aren’t really sheep. We are metaphorical sheep in God’s pasture. But we aren’t sheep, we are people. And as people, we are called to grow in God’s love. Paul’s story doesn’t stop on that road to Damascus. It doesn’t stop in his thirst for knowledge of Christ from Ananias and the followers of the way in that town. It doesn’t stop in his prolific journeys around the Mideast spreading the story of Jesus and his love. It doesn’t stop in his fight with the Jerusalem Church about the inclusion of Gentiles as well as Jews in the body of Christ. It doesn’t stop in his making such a ruckus that the Roman authorities arrested him, jailed him, and eventually executed him. It doesn’t stop even in his death, because his letters reach us through the ages. In other words, being found was only one part of his life and ministry.
The other part, the part that we see tangentially in our text, is the living out of grace—the growing into being a person that shows, and speaks, and embodies, the love of God. Now we may not have as spectacular a “being found” story as Paul. Maybe we have grown up in the faith. Maybe we have always been looking in from the sidelines. Maybe we still don’t believe that God would want us. What I hear Paul saying is: God finding you is just step One. Growing into who God wants you to be, that is all the steps afterwards.
It seems reasonable that we wouldn’t know what happened to the lost sheep or the lost coin of our gospel lesson. They are a sheep and a coin for goodness sake! But even in the “Prodigal Son” parable we don’t have the “what happened after 15 years” part of the story. And maybe this is deliberate since parables invite us to become a participant. And our story isn’t over yet.
So how do we grow in grace? How do we grow in love? How do we “give back” after receiving so much from God? I think we can only take a lesson from how we grow as people. We have to nourish our bodies with good food, and good air, and good water, and a good dose of love. We have to challenge our minds to learn to know a from b, to learn the difference between cat and hat and all that, to continue to exercise our body and brain, our muscles and neurons. We have to be patient because growth doesn’t happen overnight. And we have to be vigilant to watch for that special ingredient, grace, when it appears.
Paul uses his own storyline as proof of amazing grace—and it is certainly that. But growing in God’s love requires us to be grace detectives, to watch for the God winks in our lives and in our world. I’ll lift up my recent favorite example—you may have already heard the story, but it bears repeating.
A 4th grader in Florida wanted to participate in his school’s “fan” day. Although he didn’t own a University of Tennessee shirt, he did have an orange shirt and decided to wear that (after talking with his teacher about his desired participation). And then he did one better, he drew his own logo and pinned it to his chest. And he proudly wore it to school and into the lunch room.
And, of course, there were some mean girls who made fun of him. As his teacher shared on Facebook, he was DEVASTATED. And then, I believe, there was an explosion of grace. Because the post went viral and found its way to University of Tennessee who immediately sent a box of UT swag to the boy (and his classmates). But it didn’t stop there.
Then God winked and the University of Tennessee store decided to make an actual shirt with this child’s logo on it—and it has, to date, pre-sold 11,000 of those shirts. But the final gift was yet to come. Late this week, the University of Tennessee offered our young man an honorary admission to the class of 2032, and a full scholarship should he wish to attend UT.
Now we could be cynical and say that this has been super publicity for the University of Tennessee. We could be cynical and say that this was really a result of people having a way of getting back at all those people in their own lives who belittle us and squash our joy. And I’m sure that there was a little of both. But, beyond that, I see people acting in God’s grace and love.
It takes courage to stand up for the least of these in our society, whether they be in a food line, or asking for the chance at a better life, or being bullied in a school cafeteria. And although Jesus’ name was not mentioned anywhere, that doesn’t mean we can’t take heart from this story, and pledge to continue to grow into people who embody the love and justice, the faith and mercy of our God.
We don’t do it for our own fame and glory. We don’t do it to have a ‘fun fact’ about our lives. We do it because we were once lost and now are found. We do it because God has called us to service in Christ’s name. We do it because that is the way we can pay it forward.
We do it, as Paul says, for the honor and glory of the
“King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, … forever and ever. Amen.”
May it be so.