6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
16 At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
It’s one of those days when the lectionary asks us to read someone else’s mail. In this case, we are reading a letter most scholars agree was written in the name and spirit of the Apostle Paul (probably not written by Paul himself) to Timothy, Paul’s younger companion, the next generation of leaders in the church. For some reason, church communities kept circulating this letter. And it is written in the context of the end of Paul’s life, as he sits in a prison cell waiting for his execution for resisting the forces of the Roman empire, deserted by some people he had been depending on during his literal time of trial, reflecting on what words of wisdom he had to give to those continuing the work after him.
I wonder if you can relate to the feeling of reflecting on your life and work and wondering what it all amounts to. Or the feeling of looking ahead into what feels like a fog of hopelessness, longing for someone to speak a word of wisdom or encouragement so you’ll know how to take another step. Maybe that’s why letters like this one stayed in circulation, because there’s never going to be a time when the church isn’t having that conversation. Maybe there’s some goodness in this letter for us too.
First, this letter reminds us that God’s measurements for a faithful life are nothing like the world’s measurements for success. In our profit-obessed society, success means winning the competition, maximizing the money made, being on top. But I love Minister Candace Simpson’s comments on the way this letter challenges the world’s measuring sticks: “The writer of this text is clever…” she writes, “They say they have fought the ‘good fight,’ but they do not say if it was well fought. They say they have ‘finished the race,’ but they did not say that they won. They have ‘kept the faith,’ but no one mentioned that one night they cursed at the ceiling for the deep heartbreak and agony. All they say is ‘I have fought the good fight,’ ‘I have finished the race, ‘I have kept the faith.’” (Minister Candance Simpson, Liturgy that Matters: October 23rd, 2022 – 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, “enfleshed: spiritual nourishment for collective liberation.”) Our competition-saturated society tells you that you are only worth as much as you win. But what if you heard the countercultural words of this letter as God’s own voice speaking to you today? What if God looked directly at you and said, “YOU. ARE. ENOUGH.” This is why we practice baptism. Because we need to remember as often as we drink or see or bathe in water that we are beloved simply because we are God’s children, not because of our ability to win. Release the tension in your jaw. Let your tense shoulders relax. You are not called to win. You are called to offer what you have for the fight, for the race, and for the keeping of the faith. And in God’s hands, that offering is always enough.
Repeat after me, church: Who I am is more than enough.
Second, this letter invites us, in times of stress, not to shrink our dreams for this world, but to give our dreams space to expand wider than we ever thought possible. In verse 8, the writer says “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” This crown language harkens to the winner of an athletic competition in ancient times. We’ve already heard the twist that faithfulness is all about finishing and never about winning. But did you notice – even a race winner in this passage does not hold the prize alone! The crown isn’t just for them – it is for “all who have longed for [God’s] appearing”! And is there anyone in this whole wide world who has not longed for the appearing of Love in our midst? Paul’s community, in this letter, is remembering him as the apostle who, even while locked away inside a cage, was dreaming about the world he was being executed for helping God create – a world where love and belonging and resources were not just for a select few, but were for every last one of us. Paul, envisioned by the letter’s author at the end of his life, is the embodiment of what the prophet Joel foretold – what we heard Ron read this morning – that when God poured out Her Spirit upon all flesh, old men like Paul would dream dreams.
What happens to our dreams when we find ourselves mired in despair as we look forward into the future? I know that, for me, my visions of what is possible seem to shrink down every time I hear people angrily rail at our city council meetings against those without homes, or when I hear stories of a teenager who can’t get life-saving medication because doctors fear they will be prosecuted for abortion care, or when I have to close all my windows in 80 degree weather because I don’t want the wildfire smoke to get inside. But if Paul can dream of a world where everyone belongs – can dream from inside a cage – maybe I too can let my dreams for the world be as big as my God.
Repeat after me, church: Even in despair, I’ll keep dreaming with God.
Finally, this letter highlights a metaphor that is to be our guide for how to steward what remains of our lives on this earth: a cup poured all the way out. The writer imagines Paul saying, from inside his cage, “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come…” Pouring out does NOT mean giving of yourself with no boundaries. It DOES mean bringing your whole, messy, complicated, beautiful self to your community as your offering. As theologian Sarah Birmingham Drummond puts it, “Paul is departing this life, preparing to die, and yet the term he chooses for his poured-out self is one of renewal and refreshment. To drink something in is more intimate and personal than simply to conceptualize or understand it. To offer oneself as a drink for a thirsty people is quite different from fading away.” (Sarah Birmingham Drummond, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 4 – Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ),” pg. 210.)
Beloved, which parts of yourself do you check at the door of this sanctuary, worried that they will not be received, welcomed, or affirmed? Which part of your story is messy enough to convince you that if anyone found out, you would not be truly embraced? All I can say is find your safe people, some of whom I hope are in this very space, and pour it all out. Every last drop. Because you know what? We are all thirsty for honesty and authenticity in relationships, aren’t we? There’s no intimacy without that. We are not here to hide parts of ourselves away where they can never be seen or held by safe people. We are cups poured out to quench our thirst and the thirst of those around us.
Repeat after me, church: My offering is my whole, messy self.
We are not the first ones to find ourselves bedraggled with despair and exhaustion as we look ahead. We are not the first ones to wrestle with how to make sense of the meaning of our lives in times of apocalypse or to try to find ways to speak to each other across generations about how to be faithful to our common calling. Thank God we can read this ancient mail together, shared between communities as they struggled along, just like us.
So, repeat again after me, church:
Who I am is more than enough.
Even in despair, I’ll keep dreaming with God.
My offering is my whole, messy self.
2 thoughts on “Enough, Still Dreaming, and Poured Out”
Holy moly! It will take me a few re-reads of this beautiful but simple scripture to feel I understand more fully it’s true meaning for me. At times it is the simplest things that are hardest to accept!