“Red rover, red rover, we want Randy to come over!!”
Thinking about God’s breakthrough love brought to mind an image of a game we used to play when I was a child. As most of you likely know, “Red Rover” involves two teams of children divided and lined up opposite from one another. The two teams take turns yelling out the name of one of the opposing team members to run across the divide and try to break through the team’s chain formed by the linking of their hands.
Today’s world reminds me of that game – people lined up on opposite sides, linked hand in hand with those who share their side, daring those on the opposite team to cross the divide and try and break through their human chain. The problem is we are not playing games but creating a world where both children and adults feel increasingly unsafe and insecure.
Like our modern 21st century world, we discover in the Bible many of the same fears and insecurities shared by families in the ancient world of the first century. There were three significant factors which shaped their fears. First, there was growing economic insecurity. The vast majority of families found themselves victims of the great divide between those who held wealth and status and the rest of the population. Most families had little or nothing left over after providing for their own basic needs and paying the required taxes. These burdensome taxes funded the luxurious lifestyles and building projects of their Roman rulers.
This oppression led to the second factor which created fear: growing political division and political violence. Individual or “lone-wolf” assassins along with groups of violent rebels created a heightened and chronic sense of alarm and anxiety for families who simply wanted to make the best possible life for their children.
The third factor shaping fear was the opposing feelings people had about the growing religious and racial diversity. As noted in our Bible readings, the Roman Empire held together a vast and diverse collection of cultures, religions and races all competing to win over peoples’ minds and allegiances. Like in the game of Red Rover, neighbors and family members often ended up lining up on opposite sides, standing tightly in line with those who were on their side, daring those who opposed them to try and break apart what held their side together.
The challenges brought on by this divided and fearful world must have been particularly stressful for young Timothy and his parents. In some ways Timothy’s family represented the divisions and fears that were current in their world. Timothy’s father was a Greek. For centuries in the Mediterranean world, the language and philosophy of government, commerce, and culture had been Greek and would remain Greek throughout the period of the Roman Empire.
Being Greek meant that Timothy’s father was connected to this long and powerful line of Greek influence and domination. That Timothy’s father was a Greek was well-known even to people in other cities to which Timothy traveled with the missionary Paul. Having a Greek father marked Timothy in a way that set him on one side of the cultural, religious and racial divides of his day. In fact, there was a saying usually attributed to either the Greek philosopher Socrates or Thales which declared: “I thank the Fates every day that I was born a Greek, not a barbarian, free, not a slave, and a man, not a woman.”
In contrast to Timothy’s Greek father, we learn that Timothy’s mother was of a Jewish background. Rather than generations of powerful Greek ancestors, Timothy’s mother was connected to a long line of people who in recent centuries had experienced the trauma of being subjected to conquest, exile, and on-going discrimination and oppression. The majority of Jewish families lived in small rural villages where they survived by subsistence farming and by sharing life in tightknit communities of conservative values and limited expectations. Their hope was in the future: a Messianic age would be ushered in and they would be set free from the grip of economic and political oppression.
Being given birth by a Jewish mother meant that Timothy was a Jew. Having a Greek father and a Jewish mother put Timothy at odds with both sides of the cultural, class and religious divides of his time. Having parents with such opposite identities must have been uniquely stressful for Timothy particularly as a child and young adult trying to figure out his own personal identity. Perhaps this explains why Timothy later became known as the patron saint of stomach and intestinal disorders! And, if Timothy suffered ill health, it may also explain why his mentor, the Apostle Paul, wrote Timothy a letter encouraging him “to use a little wine for his stomach’s sake.”
How Timothy’s Greek father and Jewish mother got together we do not know. We do know of one other family member though who had great influence on the direction of Timothy’s life. If we turned to the Second Letter of Paul written to Timothy as recorded in the Bible, we would read these words: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”
The faith which Paul refers to as the faith of Timothy, his mother and grandmother was not the religion or philosophy of his father’s Greek culture nor the religion of his Jewish mother’s culture. Rather it was the Christian faith first adopted by Timothy’s Jewish grandmother, Lois. At some point, God’s love had broken into Lois’ life and set her free to step into and be openly welcomed by the new, growing Christian community in the city of Lystra where she and her family lived.
So what does all of this have to do with our lives and with our church in the world of the 21st century?
Today and next Sunday we are completing a sermon series on the four current goals of our church with the fourth goal being “Supporting Stressed Out Parents and Their Kids.” We also as a church have been learning about ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and how they impact children and their development into adulthood.
Two factors that help children gain resiliency to overcome adversity and that support stressed out parents are building one-on-one relationships with other caring adults and belonging to a caring community where people of all ages feel safe to share their stories, including their hopes and their fears.
This is what young Timothy, his mother and grandmother found when they became baptized members of a loving Christian faith community. In fact, at their baptism early Christian believers would usually hear the creed recited which we read earlier today: “You are all children of God; there is no Jew or Greek; there is no slave or free; there is no male or female; for you are all one in Christ.”
Imagine how welcoming these words must have felt for young Timothy! These words, welcoming Timothy into the church, declared that God’s love broke through all the lines of culture, race and religion which Timothy faced each day not only out in the world but within his own home. Receiving these words of welcome resolved his personal identity crisis and calmed his personal fears as Timothy became connected to a God of inclusive love and a member of a community of faith where all people belong as God’s children.
God’s breakthrough love creating this kind of welcoming, inclusive faith community is key to the story of the movement of the emerging church which we have been following through the book of Acts. Our goal as a church is to be that same kind of welcoming community that puts God’s inclusive love first. Rather than lining up like a game of Red Rover into teams on opposite sides, we seek to create caring relationships within an ever-widening circle of love where all people can feel safe and feel that they belong. Our goal is not to compete, but to share God’s love which breaks through our fears, heals our divisions and brings the promise of hope and peace.
The church offering a welcoming community and supportive, safe place of hope was illustrated by the unusual way one woman found her way back into church after an absence of many years. Author Elaine Pagels writes of this experience of hers in her book entitled Beyond Belief. As she describes it, “On a bright Sunday morning in February, shivering in a T-shirt and running shorts, I stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up. Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress - the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: here is a family that knows how to face death. That morning I had gone for an early morning run while my husband and two-and-a-half-year-old son were still sleeping. The previous night I had been sleepless with fear and worry. Two days before, a team of doctors at Babies Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, had performed a routine checkup on our son, Mark, a year and six months after his successful open-heart surgery. The physicians were shocked to find evidence of a rare lung disease…Standing at the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt the day before. I returned often to that church, not looking for faith but because, in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there- and in a smaller group that met on weekdays in the church basement for mutual support and encouragement - my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible for Mark, and for the rest of us.”
As with the early church, practicing welcome is a gift we offer all people without judgment and without assumptions about who they are or what their story is about. Individuals and families today, just like Timothy and his family centuries ago, experience tremendous stress and need a safe place where they are simply accepted and supported, where they can face their fears and find hope for a better tomorrow.
May we together offer that kind of community here for each person who enters our church doors and may God’s love breakthrough in powerful ways beyond our imagination! Amen.