Remembering Lives Well Wasted

2 Timothy 4:1-8

1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing.

 

Today is Mennonite Heritage Sunday. This is perhaps a strange day to observe in a congregation where so many did not grow up in a Mennonite family. Sure, some here can probably trace their Mennonite ancestry all the way back to the Radical Reformation and the first converts who submitted themselves to adult baptism and perhaps paid the ultimate price for doing so. Others may be saying, I am the first person in my family to set foot in a church of any kind, let alone a Mennonite church.

            Regardless of which scenario applies to you, or if you are somewhere in between, today we want to take time to remember. We remember because Mennonite Heritage is not just about tracing your family line back to 16th century Switzerland. It is about being grafted into something bigger. We are grafted into something bigger than ourselves as individuals, something bigger than this congregation, even bigger than Mennonite Church, USA. When we made the decision to be a part of this congregation, we became a part of a 500 year-old tradition which seeks to keep the ministry of a 1st century peasant Jew alive.

            So today we look at lives that were wasted by many people’s standards. Wasted, that is, for God’s kingdom. Lives of people we all have heard of, and lives of the saints who remain unknown by most of us. For it is because of their lives and witness that we come together today.

            Our text for this morning is clearly not only the conclusion of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, but also the conclusion of Paul’s earthly ministry. The few verses that follow our passage read like Paul is signing off. He gives some final instructions as well as some traditional greetings. Tell Bob I said hello and give my love to Jane. Ricky says hi and so does Jeff.

            But the clearest sign that Paul believes his end is near can be found in verses 6-7, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

            Verse seven is very familiar to us. Paul uses these metaphors of competition to illustrate the life of faith: I have fought the good fight and finished race. There is no doubt that Paul believes living a life of faith is a challenge. But verse six is a bit unusual to my 21st century ears.

            Paul notes that he is already being poured out like a drink offering, or as other versions might say, a libation. This is not a practice that I am overly familiar with so I am going to assume that it is somewhat new to you as well.

            In Genesis 35 we find the story of Jacob returning to Bethel, the place where he had his vision of the ladder. He had set up an altar there to make offerings to God. And in verse 14 we find that one of the things that Jacob offered on that altar was a drink offering. He likely poured out some wine before igniting the offering.

            This became a routine practice when Moses received the Law from God. In Exodus 29 we find the ritual for the purification of the priests that were to serve in the tent of meeting, God’s mobile temple. In verses 38-41 we find this:

“This is what you are to offer on the altar regularly each day: two lambs a year old. Offer one in the morning and the other at twilight. With the first lamb offer a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil from pressed olives, and a quarter of a hin of wine as a drink offering. Sacrifice the other lamb at twilight with the same grain offering and its drink offering as in the morning—a pleasing aroma, a food offering presented to the Lord.

            The reason for making offerings is likely symbolic in the Jewish tradition. In their pre-critical mindset they would have thought of God as up above, watching over them. So to provide food and drink to God to show their appreciation, they would turn the food and drink into smoke, which would rise to God. Don’t worry, the alcohol would burn off the wine in the cooking process.

            So the practice was to bring a quarter of a hin of fine wine to the altar and burn it as a part of the offering to God. A hin is close to a gallon, so a quarter of a hin would be approximately one quart or liter.

            I do not think that the Israelites actually believed that they were feeding God by making their offerings. They believed that their God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. God doesn’t need you to provide food and drink for him to survive. This was purely a symbolic act of worship, an act of sacrifice. Because when you pour out a quarter hin of wine on the ground, nobody gets to drink it but the worms.

            Now some people may get caught up in the wine issue, so feel free to imagine your favorite drink. A liter of Mountain Dew or any other soda costs about $1.50. A 16 ounce cup of coffee, which is about a half of a liter, would set you back about $2.25 at a coffee shop. If you upgrade to a Pumpkin Spice Latté, you’re looking at over $4.00 for about 1/8th of a hin.

            Regardless of what your drink of choice might be, if someone took an entire liter of that tasty liquid and poured it on the ground or on an altar and lit it on fire, what would be your response?

            What a waste.

            I refuse to throw out that last slug of coffee, even when I know it is filled with coffee grounds. I’ll finish that bottle of soda, even when I know it has gone flat. Pouring out a drink offering, even if it was only good old H2O, seems like a waste to me and I would assume to most of the world.

Paul compares his life to that of a drink offering and I wonder how many people who knew Paul back in the old days, back before he converted to Christianity, thought Paul had wasted his life. Back in his younger days he showed so much promise. Paul was a Benjamite, like his namesake, King Saul. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee of the highest rank. Paul was filled with zeal and passion for persecuting those darn followers of Jesus. And Paul threw it away to become an itinerant preacher, a letter writer, and person who made his living as a part-time tent maker. I can hear Paul’s mother saying, “What did I do wrong? I raised him right and just wish he would settle down with a nice Jewish woman.”

            Here is the point: A life lived as a follower of Jesus can look to many people to be a waste. You sacrifice time, you sacrifice money, you sacrifice opportunities, and you sacrifice energy. It is only when you are a part of the group, a fellow follower of Jesus, that such a life poured out for Jesus makes sense. For it is in the community of believers that we see this life of faith not as a waste, but as a sacrifice to the living God. Like the pouring out of a quarter hin of fine wine upon the ground, it is a gift to the almighty maker of heaven and maker of earth. And that is a beautiful and powerful thing.

            So today on Mennonite Heritage Sunday we remember those who have gone before us, living lives that many would see as wasted, poured out like a drink offering. We remember those that have done it well, and those that have left room for improvement. We must remember the lives of others to continue the legacy of those who have finished the race well.

            I often find if fun to return to the stories of the early Anabaptists, the forebearers of the Mennonite church. I like to share a story which I still find to be one of the most challenging and affirming of the stories of all of Anabaptism, that is the story of Dirk Willems. Dirk Willems was arrested in the Netherlands on the charges of being an Anabaptist. He was placed in prison in a tower of a castle with a moat or perhaps a nearby river. The story tells us that Dirk was able to fashion a rope out of rags that he found in his room and let himself down to the ground out the window.

            Dirk was evidently a person with a light build – perhaps he had not been eating very well while he was held captive. Either way, he was not a heavy man. So in his escape Dirk was able to run across the frozen water of the river or moat to his freedom. However, Dirk’s escape was noticed and the prison guards began to chase him and the guards were not as light as Dirk. One of his pursuers fell through the ice and into the frigid water below and immediately began to call for help.

            The other guards are depicted in the famous etching of this story as standing on the side of the river with their hands in the air, not knowing what to do. They couldn’t go out on the river and risk falling in as well. Thankfully, the guards were not the only ones to hear the cry for help. Dirk Willems turned around, went back out onto the ice, which was now even less safe, and pulled the guard to safety.

            Dirk was not shown compassion in spite of his act of valor. He was secured in a stronger cell and locked in the stocks until he was led out and executed.

            What a waste of an opportunity for freedom! The guy was safe. Those guards were not about to chase after him across the river and risk their own lives. But Dirk poured out his life for another.

            We can talk all day long about loving our enemies like Jesus taught us to do. That is a good thing. But how much more powerful is the story of someone who actually lived out this calling?

            I tell the story of Dirk Willems today knowing very well that I have told it many times before. But that is the point of Mennonite Heritage Sunday. We tell the stories, our stories, over and over. We must not, we cannot forget.

            Unfortunately, our history is filled with heroes and some who are less-than heroic. Sometimes these qualities are embodied by the same individuals. For instance, one of the greatest Mennonite theologians of all time would have to be John Howard Yoder. Yoder taught theological ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Notre Dame. He is perhaps best known for his book The Politics of Jesus, which was released in 1972. Yoder died in 1997.

            Yoder has received a significant amount of attention from academics over the last decade or so as more and more people are turning to his work to understand how the church is to survive in a post-christian world. And let’s be honest: Mennonites have loved the attention. Oh yeah, we were Yodarian before it was cool to be Yodarian.

            However, we have also been reminded in the last few months of Yoder’s shortcomings. While he was brilliant with his work on articulating a nonviolent Christian ethic, Yoder was also sexually deviant. He is said to have made unwanted emotional, spiritual, verbal, and at times physical advances on women, particularly his students.

            We often want to remember the good about Yoder and push the bad aside. But a part of our Mennonite heritage must include remembering our shortcomings.

            This makes me think of King David in the Old Testament. It would seem to me that Jewish people have always thought very highly of David, and rightly so. He was a powerful leader and a man after God’s own heart. But every Bible that I have ever read also includes the story of David and Bathsheba, where David commits adultery and tries to cover it up by having Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle.

            The Jewish people know something that we Mennonites need to keep in mind. It is great to have people to learn from and seek to be like. But even our greatest heroes are fallen human beings. As we remember those who have gone before us on this Mennonite Heritage Sunday, we must not only remember the good things, but the bad things as well. For those who fail to learn from the past are bound to repeat it.

            Here is my challenge for us all on this Mennonite Heritage Sunday: Let us learn and let us teach.

            My son, like so most children, enjoys toys. Lately, however, he has been entertaining himself with things that really aren’t toys. He enjoys playing with those ready-to-use dental floss thingies. He loves pencils and erasers. But most of all, he has been entertaining himself lately with “clips.” Clips are things that you might use to close the potato chip bag between snacks or to hang pictures or papers on the refrigerator. He enjoys clipping them to his clothing and to his fingers, shaking them around.

            Last week I caught him clipping the clips to his lips and making duck sounds. It was brilliant – brilliant for a three year old, that is. Then I heard him cry out in a muffled sound. I could not clearly understand what he was trying to communicate. It turns out that he had placed one of his clips on his tongue and he was yelling, “Aaww! Eat huwts, doddy!”

            His muffled call for help made me think of the stories that I have heard about some of those who have fought the good fight and finished the race, pouring their lives out for Christ.

            Even before Anabaptism began, Anabaptism was illegal. So the moment that those first individuals submitted to adult baptism they became criminals. No less illegal was the act of teaching and preaching Anabaptism. Of course the penalty was death. People were burned at the stake, drown in the river, or put to death in some other way because they were promoting what those in positions of power considered heresy. I am amazed by the acts of torture committed in attempt to make Anabaptists repent and change their position and their teachings.

            However, what I find even more amazing is that so many Anabaptists spent their final minutes of life, while being burned at the stake, singing praises to God and preaching forgiveness. So what did the executioners do? They used tongue screws to render these soon-to-be martyrs speechless out of fear that they may offer forgiveness to their persecutors or preach while in stocks and chains.

            So I looked at my son, with a chip clip on his tongue, and I thought to myself, “I should really help him.” After taking the clip off for him I wondered: Am I too busy trying to make something with my life by the world’s standards that I forget to live a life wasted, poured out for Jesus? And do I keep my tongue firmly screwed in place to the point that I fail to share with my family the stories of those who have brought us to this point?

            One does not have to be a Dirk Willems or a martyred Anabaptist to have an impact on God’s kingdom. You just need to be willing to pour out your life for Jesus. I remember my paternal grandfather giving us M&M’s when we sat beside him in church. I remember my parents sitting together at my baptism. I remember my great grandmother’s prayer for her family at Thanksgiving, a prayer that lived on for years after her death on video when we would gather.

            Let us not forget where we came from; let us not forget the lives poured out.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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