Jeremiah 29 and 2Timothy 2
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
October 10, 2004
The greatness of George Washington was often seen in what he didn’t do, than in what he did. As the Republic was emerging after the Revolutionary War, Washington could have easily seized power and provided handsomely for his family and friends; instead he resigned his commission and sought no reward. In the same fashion at the end of each term as president he tried to retire. At the close of his second term he was successful. That he laid aside the office and the power and potential, that he divested himself of all that was at his disposable led King George III to call him, "the greatest man in the world."
He was not a consummate orator or great writer; if the truth be told he was not a great general in terms of battles won or enemies conquered. He did though live life impervious to the fears that so often dog the rest of us. There are many credible accounts of him standing in the midst of gun and cannon fire, as if he knew he would not be hurt. Some might suggest this is as a sense of destiny or purpose, others might be unkind and deem it arrogance or egotism. Neither one really comes close though to the humility of Washington. I have come to believe his courage was fueled by a sense of awe in the grand purposes all about and how small they made him feel.
A powerful example of Washington’s humility is his "Farewell Address" printed in 1796; it was an open letter to the nation explaining his retirement. (Each year a Senator is selected to read this prophetic confessional on the floor of congress.) The Address is a profound glimpse inside the then emerging republic as well as an uncanny appraisal of our current union. Themes such as the evils of partisan politics, the need to avoid foreign entanglements, and the call for every citizen to see beyond their own needs and believe in a common good deserve to be read annually. Interwoven in the address though are self-deprecating remarks where Washington confesses his "many errors."
It would be easy to dismiss such humility as political rhetoric or feigned meekness. It would be easy were we not in possession of Washington’s original draft of the address. Washington drafted his farewell in 1792, hoping to serve only one term. After his second term he revised the text and sent the unpublished draft to Alexander Hamilton who reworked, edited, and smoothed the address, crafting the elegant document that is known to history.
In some regards it is good that Hamilton cleaned up the Farewell Address. Washington’s draft was too self-deprecating. From his pen he described himself using words like "cowardice" and "criminal", "wound" and "weak". He portrayed himself as having "gray hairs" and how his works and life would soon be consigned to the tomb of oblivion as well as the mansions of retirement, by which he meant heaven and death. Hamilton softened these. He let the first draft be a kind of private, cathartic moment before the public one. He also put a positive face and more gallant posture to the slings and arrows that had hurt Washington so badly.
It is said by one of his historians, that what the enemy, the British, failed to do with sword and hardship, former friends were able to accomplish with words and gossip, slings and arrows. They wounded him. This is what he wrote in the original draft. "As this address, fellow citizens, will be the last I shall ever make to you, and as some of the Gazettes of the United States have teemed with all the invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent, to misrepresent my politics and affections- to wound my reputation and feelings, if not entirely to destroy the confidence you had been pleased to repose in me; it might be expected at the parting scene of my public life that I should take some notice of such virulent abuse. But, as heretofore, I shall pass them over in silence."
Now, from Hamilton’s pen, this painful cry became a reference to a "spirit of criticism" that was outweighed by "the constancy of your support [which] was the essential prop of the efforts and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected." In a certain sense Hamilton has written out Washington’s pain, his hurt feeling, and left only the support and guarantee of those loyal to the retiring president. Some might suggest that the original draft is not the stuff of national politics, but private reflections. There is some truth to this. I don’t believe the first draft would have been read on the floor of the Senate each year, but consigned to the storehouse of arcane historical documents.
Slings and arrows did what bullets and cannon fire could not. It’s strange to think of Washington this way. History often portrays him on his white horse with leopard skin beneath his saddle. We don’t think of him being wounded by Jefferson, or vulnerable to rumor. I can’t help but imagine this must have driven him a bit nutty. To think that he could live such an invincible life where things were really life and death, only to be such an easy target in times of peace- and a victorious peace at that- this must have caused much grief.
Slings and arrows is the unwritten, unspoken motivator of our passage today. Paul is writing to Timothy to give him advice. In our reading his advice is "remind them not to wrangle over words." He says, "present yourself as a worker who need not be ashamed." Paul speaks of endurance, rejection, suffering, and being faithful to the end. Now if Paul were writing to Timothy and giving this advice before a missionary journey, or to a fellow prisoner, this may have been one thing. But Paul is to a pastor of a church. He is not writing about the world, or foreign gods and nations: he is writing about the church. He is warning Timothy to beware of slings and arrows in the church.
I believe that what hurt Washington so much in the political hurly burly of his presidency was that he thought the war was over. He really didn’t conceive that the war for Independence would simply free up the patriots to tear each other apart. I think that caught him by surprise and was something for which he never recovered. Something inside of him thought the peace time would be peaceful. In the same way, I am persuaded that Paul didn’t anticipate the wrangling over words, the fights, the politics, and the shame he would find in the church. On some level I believe the challenge caught both of them off guard.
On some level, it should be easy; it should be so simple: we are Christians who are gathered to celebrate the victory of Christ over death and sin- we are more than conquerors- gathering together to sing and to pray, to fellowship and grow in our faith, it should be effortless. Our time together should be joy not toil; we should speak of unfettered charity, not as Paul speaks: endure, don’t be ashamed, risk the truth. It should be easy, and there can be moments of sheer grace, but alas slings and arrows are easily found.
When I was a new pastor, still finding my way to my office let alone doing what was needed to be done with skill and artfulness, I was ready to endure. I really wasn’t Timothy. Timothy seems to be someone who needed to be given a pep talk about slings and arrows. Not me, I was ready to fight the fight, to speak the truth with all compassion and conviction- even love if necessary. I was not ashamed of the gospel.
In my first few months of ministry I received a letter of a kind, more of a lesson, or a direction. It wasn’t written on paper, it was written on my heart. Ten years ago a high school girl, Abbey Worrel, who was a member of the church and her friend Jamie were murdered by classmates. The crime was terrible and the little town was deeply wounded by the violence- everyone was. I was with Abbey’s mom, Karen, when the sheriff found the bodies. Karen crawled under a table after being told. I didn’t know what to do so I climbed under the table and held her as she wept. That was one of the longest nights of my life.
The week that followed was filled with grief and shock and anguish. For me though it was filled with a different challenge. It wasn’t being a new pastor. Moments of this size are like a current; you don’t shape them, they shape you. My challenge wasn’t knowing what to do with the moments of ministry, but what to do with my own jadedness. We had lived in the city, watched the news out of Manhattan and Philadelphia; I’ve been held up at gun point, watched the misery of drugs and prostitution and AIDs. Violent things were just life. Here I was, though, standing before people who believe that life is not violent. When confronted with terrible things, these were people who were not prone to say, well, that’s life. But I was. It was a transforming moment when I came to see that bad things can happen in life, but they are not life. Life is the gift of God to be lived in joy and faithfulness.
While most of us would feel for Washington and his hurt feelings, most of us would also be quick to see him as politically naïve. Politics is about slings and arrows. In the same way Paul’s advice to Timothy to be on guard, to endure is well spoken. The church should be an easy place, yet it can be the most challenging. When I help seminarians prepare for the ministry, I too have a slings and arrows speech- because it is a part of ministry. We must never forget that the life of Jesus doesn’t end with a condo on the Sea of Galilee supported by a hefty pension and a good equity portfolio. It ends on a cross.
I knew this as I looked out at the town come to mourn. I knew politics were rough and tumble; I knew being a pastor wouldn’t be just coffee and donuts. Yet, what I didn’t know, what I didn’t understand was the way joy transcends, lifts us above the brokenness. The look on the faces of those who came to Abbey’s funeral wasn’t anger or simple sadness; it was a shock that this could happen in life. And this look was on the faces of all. There I had to repent of my jadedness, my practical acceptance of what is less than good.
We have this incredible gift, you and I. We have been brought together in this time, in this place. This church can be and do so many wonderful things. We can proclaim a gospel of Jesus Christ that sets people free, we can bring hope to those who live in poverty and despair, we can empower young people to see how amazing is the life they have been given, we can explore our faith so that we live by it. We can taste and see the grace of mercy of Jesus Christ. To do this we will have to endure bumps in the road, slings and arrows; we will have to speak the truth and not be ashamed of the gospel. If it is good it will never be easy, but the greatest things in life never are.
Bad things can happen in life, but life is not bad things. Slings and arrows can fly in a church, but the church is not such. We are the people called by God unto a new life, where we save ourselves by giving our life away. Such is the gift we have been given; such is the gift we have to give. Amen.