A sermon by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.
2 Timothy 1:1-14; Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; Luke 17:5-10
October 6, 2013
As a teenage boy Elie Wiesel was one of the few survivors of the Holocaust. At the age of 15, he was taken from his home in a tiny village in Transylvania and was taken first to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald. For over a decade he vowed to write nothing of his experiences until finally he penned the book we know simply as, Night. After his long silence, this book was Wiesel’s vivid description of that frightening time when madness consumed Europe.
Wiesel believes his life after the war was saved by his teachers. In both the richness and the sorrow of his life, it was his teachers who saw him through. He says of them, “I do not hesitate to say it: All my teachers were good ones; all of them influenced me. Everything I know today or at least everything I think I know, I owe to them.”
But it was one particular teacher, Rabbi Saul Lieberman, who had a lasting influence on Wiesel’s life. Rabbi Lieberman was the most widely recognized Jewish Talmudic scholar in America and had a special relationship with Elie Wiesel: part Teacher-Student, part Father-Son. Twice a week, Wiesel would take the train from New Haven to New York City to study Torah with the esteemed rabbi. It was Lieberman who encouraged Wiesel to study the ancient texts of the Torah as a way of escape from the frightful suffering that nearly shattered his belief in God.
Even their last afternoon together was one of longing and affection and dedication to the law of God. It was a Tuesday and the old rabbi was preparing to leave that evening for a trip to Israel. Wiesel likewise had a class to teach at Yale and so he too was aware their moments of study together were limited. Their session was scheduled to begin at 8 in the morning and conclude at 11. Both had appointments to keep. As the appointed time to end arrived, they stood up and warmly embraced one another. Wiesel wished his teacher a good journey and a happy Passover. Both understood their lessons together would resume when both were back in the city in a few short weeks. Lieberman walked him to the door, opened it but then immediately closed it again before Wiesel could step through it, “Come back,” he said, “we still have a little time.”
They both returned to the study and went on reading from the Torah until noon at which Wiesel stood once again and gathered his things to leave. They walked to the elevator and Wiesel was already in the elevator ready to descend when Lieberman drew him close and whispered, “Come, we still have a little time.”
Once more, they opened the thick books of the Talmud and dove into its dazzling world. At one o’clock, they reluctantly broke off. Now it was really getting late for both of them. Lieberman had his plane to catch and Wiesel had a train to catch back to New Haven. They embraced for the third time and Wiesel reluctantly left. Rabbi Lieberman died less than twelve hours later, in his sleep on his flight to Jerusalem.
A friend broke the news to Wiesel but his teacher’s death did not surprise him. He half expected as much. During their reading on that last day together, he had noticed that his favored teacher’s worktable, usually littered with papers, journals, and books in hopeless disorder had been thoroughly tidied and was almost bare. And a Talmudic saying came to mind: “The righteous are warned of their imminent departure, so they may prepare themselves for it.”
I thought of their relationship this week as I read this second letter from Paul to his favorite son in the faith, Timothy. Paul and Timothy had a relationship that was twenty years deep. It was meaningful to both because of the experiences they shared together serving God and traveling all over the Roman Empire. They shared the journey of faith together and one cannot help growing tender toward one another.
More than likely, Paul was being held captive in a Roman prison when this letter was penned. As you might expect, there was a longing Paul felt as he thought back over all the years and all the experiences of his missionary journeys. But now there were no more journeys to take and Paul sensed what Rabbi Lieberman sensed, that the only journey left to take was the final journey of death.
“Come before winter …” (II Timothy 4:21) Paul tenderly asked of Timothy. Only Luke was with him now and he needed the companionship of his most trusted friend and disciple, Timothy. And so he thought of a reason to ask Timothy to leave his church in Ephesus and to make the long journey to be at his side. He said to him: “When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments”(II Timothy 4:13).
“Come before winter …,” he said intriguingly near the end of this letter. Perhaps Paul sensed winter was more than the coming of the bone-chilling winter wind. Perhaps he was thinking, “Come before the winter of my life settles in and I cannot awaken from my winter slumber.” Paul sensed the winter metaphor standing at his doorstep. The dungeon was cold and lonely and so he urged Timothy to come before winter and to bring with him the coat that he had left in Troas as a comfort against the chill. Timothy must have been distressed when he read Paul’s admission of the imminence of his death when he wrote, “I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:6-7).
One could wonder when this letter arrived whether he still alive or had he already died? They say life looks different when one stands facing his own death. But this letter has a marked tone of comfort to it. There’s clarity and serenity, perhaps even a sense of finality. Paul understood his life was on the brink of coming to its final end and the only fire still burning for him was the warmth of their close relationship.
On this day called World Communion Sunday, we recognize that we live our faith in a mystery large and wondrous and that the faith is a handed-down faith from one person to another across the ages and across cultures and languages uniting us as the people of God in closeness and faith. Let me illustrate it with this true story …
A Scottish pastor served as an infantryman in the British army in WWII. He was captured in battle and held at a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland where the conditions were dreadful. There was no heat and the prisoners were given a single bowl of watery soup and a small crust of bread. Most of the men were starving, sick, filthy, and desperate. For some, thoughts of suicide obsessed their thinking. It was easy, they reasoned, because all one had to do was to run for the fence and the guards would shoot them.
In the middle of the night, this young Scot was seriously thinking he might do just that when daylight came. So in the dark of night, he snuck out of his barrack and sat down cross-legged on the ground to contemplate this way of escape. Just then as he settled down, he heard a rustling sound on the other side of the fence. It was a Polish farmer who carefully crawled forward. The man thrust his hand through the fence and handed the young man half a potato and in heavily accented English, he said, “The Body of Christ.” And just as carefully he withdrew back into the shrubbery just outside the fence.
This morning we call ourselves to celebrate the communion with the saints of the faith, those present and those absent. We gather around this table knowing the story has been kept alive from one saint to another all these years until this very moment. The story is now being told today among the disciples of Jesus from every tribe and every language.
Imagine that! Believers all over the world are gathered together today in quietness around the bread and cup remembering the calm before the storm and the sweet memory of their time around the table before his betrayal and the night of suffering. Let us prepare our hearts to gather around the table.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).