A man with a terrible stuttering problem applied for a job selling bibles door-to-door. The boss was not sure the candidate would be at all successful, but decided to give him chance so he sent off the stuttering man with a case of bibles. A few hours later, the salesman returned and asked for a second case. Two hours after that he was back for a third. By the end of the day he has set a company record for most bibles sold in a single day. “How did you do it,” the boss asked? “Weeellll,” said the stuttering salesman, “IIIII assskkked iffff theyyyy wanttttted toooo buuuuyyy aaaa bibbbbleee orrrr havvveee mmmeee rrrread itttt toooo themmmmm.”
The church where I grew up gave a bible to each youngster in the third grade. I still have mine. It is the Revised Standard Version. On the cover is printed “Holy Bible” and my name is engraved in the lower right hand corner. The second page is a fancy looking certificate on which is printed:
The Holy Bible
Someone took the time to fill in a dedication. It reads,
by Westminster Presbyterian Church
II Timothy 2:15
May 25, 1969
II Timothy 2:15 reads, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.” I suppose whoever filled in the page on my personalized bible could have cited any other number of verses, but because he or she chose this one it has always been one of my favorite in scripture. Ever since third grade, it has served as my personal mission statement. I have spent a lifetime trying to figure out what it means to present myself to God. Here are a few things I have learned over the years.
Early on I figured out that it is important to present yourself to God by going to church. That seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it! I was fortunate as a young person and as a college student in that I enjoyed Sunday worship. Ever since graduation I have worked in a church in some capacity, so I have had a little more incentive to show up than most people. But even when I am on vacation I try to find a church to attend. Since being given that bible I have not gone more than three weeks in a row without going to church.
As a boy I remember absolutely hating two things about Sunday mornings: having my father put a tie on me and then brushing back my hair. He was a little rough doing both, probably because he enjoyed it even less than I did. I am not sure when “dressing up” for church began to wane as a practice, but certainly it has. The old standard was that you presented yourself to God by putting on your “Sunday best.” By the time I joined the Episcopal Church I realized some other standard was in play. It was easy to spot the folks who only attended at Christmas and Easter because the women wore mink coats. Church, I learned, was not a place to show off.
Today I say that if you want to present yourself to God, the best way to do it – at least in terms of what you wear – is to dress neatly and modestly. Several years ago I was a chaplain for a senior high youth conference. One chaplain’s session we got into a very interesting discussion about clothes as it relates to living out the faith. A very attractive young woman wearing a very tight fitting spaghetti-strap t-shirt announced that she was proud of her body and wanted to show it off through what she wore. I pointed out that tight-fitting and revealing clothes had a certain affect on the opposite sex. “Well, boys just need to get their minds out of the gutter,” she said. “Young woman,” I replied, “that is not how the male brain works.” If you want to present yourself to God, the best way to dress is neatly and modestly.
So, one thing I did from an early age to present myself to God was to go to church. Another thing I did was to read the bible. Our church’s youth minister offered a weekly bible study, which I attended faithfully. In addition, I read the bible on my own every day, and I mean every day! I think I went something like 12 years without missing a single day. Don’t get me wrong, there were times that I just went through the motions, but at least I had a consistent discipline. It is a discipline I maintain even to this day, although there is usually a day or two each week that my schedule overtakes the time I try to set aside.
Very few things nurture the Christian faith and life like reading the bible on your own and in a group setting. I am particularly pleased that so many of you attend the monthly women’s study group, the weekly Wednesday bible study, or have expressed an interest in the upcoming Alpha course. I am excited to hear stories about how our children are taking to the weekly bible stories they are learning in the Godly Play class. Scripture and prayer are like oxygen for of a healthy, vital, dynamic faith community. Without them as a consistent and substantive part of our common life, we are just running on fumes.
Today’s Gospel reading highlights another important aspect of presenting yourself to God – gratitude. Are you thankful for what you have? Are you even aware of the many blessings in your life? No poetry today, but I continue to enjoy reading Mary Oliver’s poems. She has an amazing ability to notice everything that is going on around her and to take it into her soul: poems about turtles and moths and oak trees and a cup of tea. Nothing is too small or innocuous to escape her notice and all of it elicits in her a sense of gratitude.
Perhaps her witness was with me on Thursday. It was my 54th birthday and I spent the entire day at an exhausting meeting in Williamsburg. I lost count of the people who wished me a happy birthday and then asked what I was going to do to celebrate. “Well,” I said, “I am going to go home and collapse.” And that is what I did. To be honest, there was a part of me that was very sad I was not going to do something special, and as a result I was nursing a good case of the blues. Well, when I got home I found waiting for me multiple birthday cards handmade by the children in our Sunday School class. One had handprints and names of all the children and it now graces my refrigerator. Holly pulled this off and told me how excited the kids were to make cards when they found out it was my birthday. I have to tell you I felt like the luckiest person on the planet! What a blessing it is to have children in our parish who want to do something special for me. So today – like every day – I bring to God my gratitude for life’s many blessings.
As I have grown in the Episcopal tradition I have come to appreciate how the Baptismal Covenant articulates what it means to present yourself to God as a worker who has no need to be ashamed. Through the covenant we turn away from Satan, the evils of this world, and our own sinful desires and pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ as our Savior, our Lord, and our Guide. We commit ourselves to a Christian community – its worship, prayer, and study, to being an ambassador of the faith wherever we are, and to serving the needs of others. If we live into this covenant than we will have no need to be ashamed when we present ourselves to God.
The problem is we often miss the mark. The Greek word for sin comes from a term used to describe an archer shooting an arrow. Sin has to do with missing the target. Sometimes we simply aim at something other than the bull’s-eye, other times we miss what we aim at; our actions, while well-intentioned, have unintended consequences. But there is another way to miss the mark. You can draw back the bowstring part way, but not enough to get the arrow all the way there. You aimed at the target, but you really didn’t try all that hard to hit it. You did it half-hearted. You just went through the motions. Your effort was not your best, not even close.
Do you remember how II Timothy 2:15 begins? “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved.” We in the Christian tradition hold that we are saved by grace apart from works. It is comforting to know that, rather than standing or falling on our own merits, we rest in God’s love and mercy. Doing your best is not about earning a heavenly reward, but rather a reflection of what you want to offer to God in response to who God is and what God has done for you. When Paul tells Timothy to do his best he is saying don’t let the arrow fall short of the mark. Miss high, miss wide, but don’t miss because you really didn’t try.
What are some things you think are important in presenting yourself to God and are you doing your best to do them?