Marc and I don’t watch a lot of TV, but we do have a few shows we like. We’ve noticed lately that all the TV ads seem to be from pharmaceutical companies peddling their latest miracle drugs. I don’t remember there being so many drug commercials on TV in the past. Maybe it’s just that advertisers figure, if you’re watching shows on TV rather than live-streaming them on your smart phone or I-pad, you’re probably in the right age group for their products. But it turns out, advertising spending in general has been on the rise, and the pharmaceutical companies have been a big part of that. In the first nine months of 2018, drug companies spent $2.8 billion to air their commercials almost half a million times, so it’s no wonder that Marc and I—and probably you—are seeing a lot of them.
I’m now familiar with medications for a whole bunch of strange and unpleasant conditions that affect the human body. Cancer’s a big one of course–both the disease itself and the side effects from the treatments. Then there’s diabetes, and psoriasis, and arthritis, and depression, and lots of diseases I never even knew existed.
But there is one ailment I’ve never seen in these ads. It’s the problem of itching ears. Of course, you can have physically itchy ears. They can be caused by dry skin in the ear canal, allergies, ear wax, infections, sticking things in your ears that you shouldn’t. But the itchy ears that Paul warns Timothy about don’t have a physical cause, and they can’t be cured by a miracle drug. But there is help for itchy-ear sufferers. We can find a possible cause and the cure in the letter to Timothy.
We’re not really sure if Paul himself wrote the first and second letters to Timothy. For a long time, it was accepted that he did, but in the last couple hundred years, scholars began to question that. There are differences in the vocabulary and literary style between these letters and the ones we know for sure that Paul wrote. They describe a church structure that is much more formal than in those other letters. And, they pay a lot more attention to what seems to be an established doctrine of the faith.
It may be that one of Paul’s followers wrote these letters in Paul’s name after Paul died in Rome, writing what he thought Paul would have said to Timothy had he survived. Now, we might feel some outrage if someone tried to do that in our day and age, but it was an accepted practice back then. The author wasn’t trying to fool anyone; the recipients would have known that Paul was dead. And, if the contents hadn’t been consistent with Paul’s teachings, the letters would have been rejected. That said, they do bear Paul’s name, and the Church accepted them as Paul’s for a long time. I lean towards the view that they were written by someone else, but I also stick with the tradition of referring to the writer as Paul.
Today is a good day to be reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy. This is Laity Sunday—a day when the United Methodist Church intentionally affirms the role that you–the laity—play in the Church. As our Book of Discipline says, we believe that “Christian ministry is the expression of the mind and ministry of Christ,” and that all Christians are called to this ministry. Even though the letter to Timothy seems focused on pastoral ministry, the end of the letter is addressed to a group. The writer expected that his letter would be read in worship, so it applies more broadly than to just one person, or even just to pastors, just as the ministry of the church today is not just the ministry of the clergy but the ministry of all Christians.
Part of the letter is very personal. Paul remembers Timothy’s faith journey. He reflects on the trials and tribulations of his own ministry and encourages Timothy in his. But he also gives more general instructions on things like how to choose the church’s lay leadership and teachers, what kind of behaviors are appropriate (both for Timothy and his parishioners), how home life and church life should be ordered so that no shame will be brought on the church. Paul quotes a number of creeds that sum up the doctrine of the church, and he warns against those who would teach anything else.
Several times, Paul warns Timothy about those who would try to lead believers astray and keep others away from the gospel. But, the problem is bigger than the people who are out there promoting a message that’s different from the gospel. Paul fears that the people themselves—both those who had heard the gospel and those who had yet to hear it—are susceptible to itching ears.
Paul’s Greek word for itching ears suggests that people would soon be wanting to have their ears “tickled.” He expects that the “sound teaching” they had been hearing wouldn’t satisfy them and they would be searching for something more pleasant and intriguing. The doctrine that Paul encouraged Timothy to hold fast to and preach wasn’t going to hold their attention much longer.
This raises some questions for me. Why was it that people might be beginning to have itching ears? Why wasn’t the message of the Church satisfying them?
As I read back through the letters to Timothy, I got an idea why, and this is one reason I lean towards someone other than Paul as the writer. Paul’s other letters are full of a passionate love for Jesus and gratitude for the gift of grace God showers on us. Paul speaks of a relationship with Jesus, and the eternal life with God made possible through Jesus. Yes, there are instructions. Yes, there are tirades against misbehaving church members and troublesome outsiders. But the themes of grace and joy and wonder at the new creation Jesus made possible runs through every page.
The letter to Timothy includes some nods to God’s love poured out in Jesus. But they’re more often expressed as “wise sayings” or quotations of creedal formulas that had been developing in the church. There’s more of an emphasis on “sound teaching” and proper doctrine, more of an emphasis on the right way to do things. More about believing “that” rather than believing “in.” More of a focus on the “what” rather than the “who.” A head faith rather than a heart faith.
It’s not so surprising, then, that people wouldn’t be terribly enthusiastic about doctrine that told them about what to believe rather about the one in whom to believe. It’s not surprising that their ears wouldn’t be tickled by messages about how they should live their lives without hearing about the one who offers true life. It’s not surprising that they wouldn’t have expected a church that looked pretty much like society around them would have much to say about being made new. Maybe the Church itself was, at least in part, the reason that itchy-ear syndrome was beginning to spread.
This is a serious consideration for us today. I have access to a demographic data base that says that in 2017, here in Whitehouse, more than 26% of people within a mile of this church called themselves spiritual but not religious, or had no religious preference at all. People who are in that spiritual place are likely to have itching ears—ears that want to hear something that is meaningful to them and their lives, but they haven’t heard it from the Church.
This was a problem in John Wesley’s time, too. Religion had become a lifeless, paint-by-numbers thing, partly due to religious wars that had made people suspicious of any enthusiasm about faith. In fact, saying that someone was “enthusiastic” about religion was an insult. The result was a religion that had become simply a rote following-of-rules. It wasn’t reaching into the hearts of people, even people who called themselves Christians. And, it wasn’t reaching out into a society where the poor were sick and starving, and the wealthy lived their lives according to social rules that were straight-jackets on their souls.
After Wesley’s own heart-warming experience of being assured that Jesus loved and died for him, he realized that he had to let others know what they were missing. He never set out to begin a new church. He never intended to ordain new priests. Instead he recruited lay people to share what they had experienced. Lay people led small groups of their friends and neighbors as they explored what it meant to live in relationship with Christ. They had experienced Christ’s out-reaching love and committed themselves to sharing it with others.
Today, so many people have itching ears and are looking for relief. Many of them have never had an opportunity to learn about the healing power of a life lived in Christ. But even those of us who do love Jesus can contract itching ears. There can be times in our lives when we’re not hearing often or plainly enough of God’s grace-filled love for us. Our spiritual immune system begins to weaken, and our ears begin to itch.
Paul makes it sound like those with itchy ears are just looking for something to entertain them or feed their own selfish desires. But, I think itching ears are a symptom of disease—disease of the heart, hearts with a deep spiritual need. The owners of itching ears are longing to know that they are loved. They’re starving for an assurance that they’re not alone. They thirst to be part of something bigger than what the world offers them—to know that they have a unique place in the universe which can be occupied by no one else but them, and that their lives have meaning.
Itching ears make us miserable, and we’ll look all over the place for relief. Unfortunately, there are many places that itchy-ear sufferers can turn to—places where they can accumulate teachers for themselves. They can turn to the many voices on social media. They can turn to the preachers of the so-called “prosperity gospel” who tell them God wants them to be rich and good-looking. They can turn to New Age ideas of a generic power floating around in the universe that doesn’t take much a personal interest in them but doesn’t make any demands, either.
But there is only one real, lasting cure for itching ears, and that cure is not a cut-and-dried list of do’s and don’ts or creeds that can be rattled off unthinkingly like a magic spell. Itching ears can only be cured by daily and generous doses of the good news of Jesus Christ—the news that God has forgiven each of us for our sins; the news that God’s forgiveness was made known in the death of Jesus on the cross; the news that we can be different—that we are part of a new creation, and that by the power of the Holy Spirit we can be made new every day of our lives until we are made perfect in love.
This cure is most effective when it’s offered from the heart of someone who has already felt its healing power. The treatment will begin its work as soon as it’s administered, but it may take time—a long time—until it moves from the ear to the head to the heart. This is why we must all heed Paul’s instructions to Timothy—to share the good news with patience and persistence.
There was a story in the news recently about two people who poured the healing balm of the gospel into the itching ears of Amber Guyger. Guyger is the Dallas police officer who shot and killed an innocent man in his own apartment. After the sentencing hearing, her victim’s younger brother stood up and directly addressed her. Brandt Jean said, “I hope you go to God with all of it, all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in your past. Each and every one of us may have done something that we’re not supposed to do. If you are truly are sorry, I forgive you. I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I love you just like anyone else…I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what [my brother] Botham would want for you. And the best thing would be: give your life to Christ. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”
That healing balm began its work in Guyger. Judge Judy Kemp spoke with her later and told Guyger, “Mr. Jean has forgiven you. Please forgive yourself so that you can live a purposeful life.” The convicted criminal asked Kemp, “Do you think my life can still have a purpose?” Kemp replied, “I know it can.” Guyger said, “I don’t even have a Bible. I don’t know where to begin.” Judge Kemp retrieved her own Bible and handed it to Guyger, sharing with her John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Now, you may or may not agree with the verdict. You may think the sentence should have been longer or shorter. You may question the ethics and constitutionality of Judge Kemp’s actions. But one thing is sure, my friends. God’s grace filled that courtroom. Through the ministry of those two laypeople, the healing balm of the Gospel poured into the itching ears of someone who so needed to hear it.
Our primary ministry—both as laity and clergy—is to be a witness to Christ, through our own Christ-like examples of everyday living and sharing our own faith experiences of the gospel with others. This is the most effective means by which all people will come to know Christ. It’s an awesome responsibility with eternal consequences. As the Discipline says, “The people of God, who are the Church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced.”
On this Laity Sunday, I want to say that I am so grateful to serve alongside each of you. I’ve heard you speak of your relationship with Jesus and your trust in God. I’ve watched you serve in Jesus’ name. I know something of the stories of hardship in your lives, which could have given you chronically itching ears. You are a church that takes seriously its mission to convince the world of the reality of the Gospel, through your words and your deeds. You are a people whom “God has saved and called with a holy calling according to his own purpose and grace, given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
You are a blessing to me, to the Church Universal, and to a world that is suffering from an epidemic of itching ears. Together, may we carry out our ministry fully and, through our patient and persistent sharing of the Gospel, offer others the relief they’re searching for. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young