Starting School In Two Places
II Timothy 3:14-17
Blessing of the Backpacks Sunday
August 19, 2018

One of my dearest friends entered uncharted territory this week. He and his wife, dropped their daughter off for college for the first time. He and I go way back, we went to Samford and to Duke together.

While we were at Duke, he became a huge Duke fan as it relates to their sports teams. I say that to get to this, the challenge of this week for him was not only dropping his daughter off at college, but, equally challenging was that he as a Duke fan and Alum was dropping off his daughter at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I know some of you have been there and are there right now. You raised your little darling to love the Tigers and they betrayed the family name by going to school at Carolina. Or, you brought your boy home from the hospital in a Gamecock outfit and now he has a diploma from Clemson on his wall of all things. Indeed, some of you have walked through the valley of the shadow…!?!!

Nonetheless, I want you to know that I am proud of my good friend. He too is a pastor and I read his reflections to his congregation this week on his experience. He was impressed by how UNC has prepared them for this moment. He feels good that his daughter has been taken care of and that she and they are as ready as they can be for what is ahead. He may have refused to sing the UNC Alma Mater when given the chance with the other parents, but, at least he stood up out of respect for the good work done to help them as parents and her as a student to understand how to maximize the days ahead.

Today, I think is in some ways like an orientation and a new start for all of us. We too need to know how to maximize the days that are ahead for school is beginning for all of us in two places. And, I do mean two places.

First, and most obviously, all of the public and private county schools in our community are restarting tomorrow. Truth be told, this affects all of us – we have children, grandchildren, great-grand children or nieces and nephews who are all going back to school. Further, the return of school affects the rhythm of life in any community so again it touches all of us.

Likewise, those of us with college students are also in the process of getting our students situated and ready for the first day too whether the first day has already come or not. These are important days for we need to be advocates for learning, education and the formation of our young people into good, informed and knowledgeable citizens of our community and world. We also need to pray for our teachers, administrators and be supporters of those in education in any way that we can. After all, teachers do challenging and many times thankless work. As I said recently, a lot of us think we know how one aught to go about being a teacher but few of us are lining up to take their places. They deserve our support and we as a church, with so many teachers active and retired, should always see this work of encouragement and support as a significant focus of our congregation and its ministry.

At the same time, school is going back into session in our church too. For so many congregations like ours, promotion Sunday is the day that signals the transition from summer activities to the restart of a full slate and fall programming. It is the time when we encourage and challenge one another to recommit to the life of our church and to invest ourselves again in its programs, its formational opportunities and our life together. So, truth be told, we have our feet in two different “schools” today – our educational system and the family of God with both returning to their normal slates after the needed time of rest that summer affords.

As we restart, Paul’s words to Timothy are excellent for us to hear. In truth, Paul here is orienting Timothy for what is ahead too. Timothy is embarking on a new adventure as the pastor of the church in Ephesus. And, Paul, in many ways is Timothy’s mentor in the faith. They already have a long relationship as Timothy has been a part of Paul’s work for some time. Six of Paul’s letters mention Timothy by name which gives a strong indication of how critical he had been to the great Apostle’s work. Likewise, Paul is at the end of his career, chained in a Roman prison aware that the end is sooner rather than later. Timothy is still at the start – the new pastor of the church in Ephesus, probably around thirty years of age or so and with a big task in front of him. As Paul gives him advice in this new endeavor, it is good advice for us to hear too in this time of new beginnings.

First, Paul challenges Timothy to enter into this new day by standing firm in what he believes while continuing to learn new things. This passage can be tricky as Paul clearly says in verse 14 that Timothy needs to remain rooted and to hold firm to what he already knows. In other words, Paul wants Timothy to resist the temptation to allow the Ephesians to change his core beliefs. At the same time, Paul offers these very words in the context of providing advice to Timothy as a young man with the clear underlying point that Timothy doesn’t know everything.

So, in essence what we have hear is a beautiful holistic set of letters about balance. We always live between holding firm to what we believe while at the same time always recognizing that we have more yet to learn. That is always our challenge. Church, school and any place where our ideas are formed is always about striking a balance between reaffirming our beliefs and recommitting ourselves to bedrock ideas with always recognizing that there are new things to learn, and new perspectives to explore. It is both/and not either/or. Unfortunately, we usually live in an extreme. We either go into our environments to simply defend what we already know and unwilling to learn anything new. Or we go into them while quickly throwing away everything we have always held dear while learning a completely new way. Neither of these are good approaches. Instead in Paul, we have a trusted friend telling Timothy to hold firm to the truths of scripture while challenging him to recognize he is a young man in a new role with much still to learn.

Second, Paul challenges Timothy that learning together is essential to living well alone. This whole moment where Paul challenges Timothy to hold true to what he has learned through the scripture hinges on two truths. First, Paul is clear throughout I & II Timothy that young Timothy has been trained well – his mother and his grandmother, Lois and Eunice have brought him up right and Paul himself has poured his knowledge into Timothy and thus they have prepared him for this moment. All of these people in his life have surrounded him to be able to live and thrive when the time came for him to be alone. Second, now, Timothy was to do the same. He was to pass on the truths of God breathed Holy Scripture to his new church in Ephesus in their life in community so that when they were alone they would know exactly what to do and how to live when life left them inevitably by themselves. It is our time together that is essential if we are going to live well alone.

This is true as it relates to both of these schools that we are a part of and the new year ahead. Students, you need to soak up everything you can from your teachers, your fellow students, your coaches and your professors. They are around you right now. You have the gift of community. But, one day, they will be gone and you will be alone. Your ability to do well alone depends on your taking advantage of this time with others.

Likewise, I cannot over emphasize the importance here as it relates to the church. Our ability to live life well and our children’s ability to live life well Monday through Saturday is directly connected to what we do with our Sundays, our Wednesday nights and the other opportunities we have to be together. I believe that the reason we have a sabbath once every seven days is not only because our bodies wear out and need rest but also because six days is about all we can handle alone before we need to be back together to be reminded of how we should live before God and before one another. I am saying that for me just as I am saying it for you. I will also say this. We are living in a day where what it means for the average believer to attend church regularly is changing. Today, many congregations see believers who attend one to two times a month as being regular yet that means we are absent 50 to 75% of the time. We are believers, we love the Lord, but life is getting in our way of being at church and having our children here.

So, here is my suggestion. Sit down with your family and set some goals. Likewise, be honest about what your attendance pattern has been recently then talk about how often you feel you need to be at church and what you will need to do to achieve that goal. And, if you want my advice, shoot for at least 75% of the time. Yep, that’s three out of four Sundays. But, think about it this way. If you hit that percentage, it still means you missed a full quarter of the year which is to say that we missed the whole fall, spring or summer. If we make it a priority, it will be a priority. But, if we don’t, it will not be. It is as simple as that.

Ben Kingsley is one of my favorite actors. He has been around a long time. In fact, maybe his most famous role was that of Ghandi in the early 1980s for which he won the academy award for Best Actor. These days, Kingsley is still at it and he has a new film coming out soon about the World War II Nazi figure Adolph Eichmann called Operation Finale. When interviewed recently about the film, Kingsley told a beautiful story about his relationship with Elie Wiesel the famous author and survivor of Nazi Concentration Camps. Wiesel had lived the story as a prisoner that Kingsley was now bringing to the screen by playing Eichmann who was the architect of the Holocaust. Kingsley said that his good friend Elie, who is now dead, became his guide and inspiration for the film. Every day, he would take Elie’s picture out of his pocket, see his friend’s face, hear his voice and find what he needed for that day’s filming. It is what got him through.

This is what community does for us. Through the relationships and bonds we form, when we find ourselves alone, we can take the beloved pictures of the important people in our lives out of our pockets too. We can hear their voice and find inspiration in remembering their lessons. Even when they are not there with us, they can continue to guide our way as the people in our lives through whom God has and yet continues to speak…Amen.