3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
A handful of us have been working with a formerly homeless woman and her son, part of a program called Circles of Support through Genesis Home, a shelter for families that we support. While there have been moments of success, most of the year has been really difficult, even for those of us who have been around folks in poverty a lot. She has moved from place to place, dragging her son around, been powerless to control her hours at work and, even as we TRY to help, sometimes she makes decisions that are infuriatingly short-sighted. We are a team that is deeply committed to issues of poverty, to the church being a place that invests in serious ways, building relationships, addressing the underlying structures that lead to such disparity in our communities. But then, every once in a while, I feel my ears begin to itch, and I hear the voices that say, "you can’t help. She got herself into this mess, and you can’t be responsible for everyone. Step back, the voices say. Let her go." I am not proud of this part of myself, but my ears itch, and I lean in and listen….
Regardless of the deal in congress to extend the debt limit and move towards some kind of budget, our government continues to be a mess. Our so-called leaders engage smugly, pandering toward their base, talking more to the cameras than their constituents or their colleagues. All day Monday the fact that congressional leaders HAD A MEETING SCHEDULED with each other was news. They stand there with a straight face and say things that seem blatantly untrue – everyone is guilty of this – and I wonder: Are they content to lie to everyone, or are they in so deep that they really believe the manure they are spreading? And you get so frustrated, I feel my ears itch, and I hear the voices that say one of two things…either "if only we get mobilized and get our people, ones with principle, elected, we can fix this mess," OR "ignore these people entirely. Our democracy is a train wreck; let’s forget the whole thing." We all know democracy is a messy process, but my ears itch, and I lean in and listen….
3For the time is coming, Paul writes, when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
I and II Timothy and Titus are known as the Pastoral Epistles, written as advice from a veteran, Paul, we’ll call him, to junior colleagues in ministry. They give directions on how to deal with false teachings, what characteristics leadership should possess, how to organize early congregations.1 Here in II Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to remain strong. Folks have been wavering, and he is thankful for the friends that remain. But it was this phrase, ‘but having itching ears’ that stuck with me these last few weeks. Our best guess is that the "itching ears" image was a common idiom of the time, referring to a curiosity among humans to seek out "interesting and spicy bits of information."2 The author further claims that, in the absence of things that are true, people will go out and find the teachers that will satisfy this itch.3 People will listen to anyone with a microphone nearby.
Our ears itch all the time, it seems, the world tempting us to do the easy thing, keep to our own interests. I wonder which voices tempt you? Is it the voices that overwhelm us with cynicism and frustration, saying things can’t work, they won’t work, life can’t get better? Maybe it’s the voices that whisper in our ear, giving us images of who we should be, of the place our kids must go to school to be successful, about the ways we gather and draw things to ourselves. Especially in anxious times, filled with political and economic insecurity, it is easy to be scared. To listen to the voices that say, you can’t help those people. Don’t worry about them, take care of your own. We shake our head over others’ problems, but hold tightly to our time, our energy, our money – especially our money. Hold it close, the voices say. Hold it close.
That is part of the reason that stewardship season, the time when folks customarily roll their eyes as they fill out their pledge cards, is such a crucial one in the life any church. Even though we talk about it other times of the year, too, and Jesus talks about this stuff A LOT, it doesn’t seem like we live as if we truly believe all the things that we have come as gifts from God. It’s hard. Even when we work hard to pare down expenses and set good priorities, costs emerge out of nowhere, even if you are making a salary that ought to make generosity easier. Our needs tend to expand to what we have, beyond it sometimes, when we buy a house we aren’t sure we can afford, get a nicer car than we need. Issues of stewardship are deeply tied to issues of identity. Who are we? Who claims us? To whom do we belong?
And so we do the same old things, year after year. Paul encourages Timothy to stick to the basics! Continue in what you have learned, he writes, remembering from whom you learned it. Paul points to scripture – he would mean the Hebrew Scriptures – back to the gift that is God’s story with humanity. Teach it, he says, as we do in Sunday School and worship, with Luke on Monday mornings, or with Acts on Tuesday nights, as we do in groups on Monday night or Thursday morning, on Wednesdays with our children and with adults during Advent and Lent. And be persistent with it all, Paul says. Proclaim. Encourage. Be patient – this is one of the hardest ones – be patient with one another. Not everyone is where you are on all things. And then he comes back to our phrase, itching ears. The time will be coming, he says – and it’s as true now as it was then – when people will look to have their own narratives reinforced. They will look to preachers to tell them God wants them to be rich, instead of giving it away for the poorest in our communities. They will look to cable news and talk radio to reinforce whatever they already think about politics. They will look to friends, clustering in enclaves of like-looking and like-minded, to avoid the complications of people different from them. Things will get hard, and their ears will itch, and they will turn away from the hard things, leaning into whoever sounds the most appealing, that won’t say anything hard to us at all…
But that’s not the message of the gospel, and it’s not the history of this place. From the seed that was planted more than 50 years ago, to the old Hope Valley School, to the 2 decisions made at the first session meeting – that we would tithe everything to the community (a practice we continue and, at present, more than double) and that, in 1963, we said that ALL were welcome to worship here. And while you all continue to do much innovative ministry, in terms of programming and mission, community service done and organizations initiated, partnerships built and classes offered, we have also done it by doing our best to keep the main thing the main thing. That the heart of it happens in worship, with soaring music and thoughtful liturgy, grounded in where the Word meets the world. That we keep baptismal promises in Sunday School and in youth group, welcoming all – we have plenty of folks who aren’t members who come to these programs here because they know we are doing something vital, filled with faith. As shelter meals get served, as we build our partnership with Hope Valley Elementary, as we continue conversations about violence in our communities next week. I was at a meeting downtown about homelessness stuff this week, and a guy I have gotten to know came up and told me his wife worked at Hope Valley Elementary. As you may remember, your deacons voted, as the school year began, to give a $25 giftcard for supplies to every teacher in the school, to help with the things they need, but even more as a way to let them know we are grateful for the work they do. He walked up and grabbed me by the shoulders: "My wife wanted me to thank you in person for that gift. It meant so much. That, and you guys are doing some tutoring, too? You guys are doing amazing things."
Today we begin relay stewardship. Like last year everyone in the church is part of a path. You’ll get an email or a phone call from your path leader, and it is our job to get this packet, person to person, through our path. PLEASE don’t just drop a packet off at someone’s house. Meet them where they work, shake the hands of their kids in the driveway. Because it is all about this old and rather antiquated idea of community, that who we are together matters. In a world in which so much happens so quickly, if we can’t spend a few minutes with each other we’re stuck. The God who came to earth as Jesus the Christ, who walked dusty roads with other people, calls us to invest in each other. That’s what stewardship is, ultimately. That’s what I want you to think about when you fill out that pledge card, too, as you consider the biblical model of a tithe, and you press forward to be as generous as I KNOW you can be.
In a time filled with competing voices, Paul calls Timothy calls us back to center. Quit listening to those itching ears. Ignore the voices. Listen to these words, listen to the WORD, keep focused on the call to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. That is who we have been all these years. That is who we will continue to be. All of us. Together. For the world.
All praise be to God, who calls us into remarkable communities, to serve. Amen.
1. Charles Cousar, The Letters of Paul, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p 175.
2. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 855
3. This insight comes from the Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin’s paper on this text at the 2013 meeting of The Well, Baltimore.