Tending the Soil

Homily for Sunday, September 29, 2019
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Timothy 6:6-19

“But as for you, man of God, shun all this.” – 1 Tim 6:11

12th-century_painters_-_epistles_of_st_paul_with_gloss_-_wga15727We don’t know who exactly wrote Paul’s First Letter to Timothy—the letter is “pseudepigraphal”; that is, falsely ascribed—but whoever wrote it had a good bead on Paul’s style.  For example, as did Paul, the author makes ample use of the first person singular: “I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia…” (1:3).  The author captures Paul’s knack for “woe is me” melodrama: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1:15).  Not unlike Paul the author exhibits a swaggering (and sometimes insufferable) confidence: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service” (1:12).  And as with Paul, with this author there are no half-measures: “But as for you, man of God, shun all this… I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:11-14).

Not only does the author have a good bead on Paul’s style, the author even—in a way I don’t know why but I find endearing—exaggerates Paul’s worst aspects.  For example, if you thought Paul gave a lot of commands (and he did), 1 Timothy is drenched in the imperative: “Do not speak harshly to an older man” (5:1); “Now a bishop must be above reproach” (3:2); “Deacons likewise must be serious” (3:8);  “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old” (5:9).  If you thought Paul held some questionable attitudes about women (and he did), 1 Timothy is downright cringe-worthy—go, check it out.  If Paul made bold, sweeping statements (and he did), 1 Timothy is given to even “global” statements: “I urge that…prayers… be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions…  This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved…” (2:1-14).  And if you thought the stakes were high with Paul (and they were), in 1 Timothy they are even higher: “Certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1:19-20).  (What are we supposed to do with that?)

If Paul was dramatic (and he was) the author of 1 Timothy is “operatic”: 1 Timothy is all about big moments, big gestures and big consequences.

In spite of the author’s swagger and seeming confidence, the word that for me sums up The First Letter to Timothy is the word “brittle.”  Let me explain…


In his book, Underland, Robert MacFarlane writes of the Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard’s study of the logged and then replanted forests of British Columbia.  In her study Simard noticed that when native birch saplings were “weeded” out from the timber-industry’s clear-cut and the area then re-planted with stands of Douglas firs, the human-planted firs tended to die.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that weeding out the saplings would leave more nutrients in the soil for the firs, and that the firs would then thrive.  But when the wild birch saplings were weeded out, the firs died.  Simard set out to discover why.  MacFarlane writes:

Using microscopic and genetic tools, [Simard] and her colleagues peeled back the forest floor and peered below the understory, into the “black box” of the soil…  What they saw… were the pale, super-fine threads known as “hyphae” that fungi send out through the soil.  These hyphae interconnected to create a network of astonishing complexity and extent.  Every cubic meter of forest soil that Simard examined held dozens of miles of hyphae…

Beneath her forest floor [existed] what she called an “underground social network,” a “bustling community of mycorrhizal fungal species” that linked sapling to sapling… In a research plot thirty meters square, every single tree was connected to the fungal system, and some trees—the oldest—were connected to as many as forty seven others…

Simard discovered that…

Trees [moved nutrients] around between one another using the mycorrhizal network… The Douglas firs were receiving… photosynthetic carbon from [the] birches… [so] when the birches were weeded out… the firs weakened and died.

In a… summary of her findings… Simard wrote [that]… The fungi and the trees had “forged their duality into a oneness, thereby making a forest.”  She proposed the forest as a “co-operative system” in which trees “talk” to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence she described as “forest wisdom…” [and in which] soil fungi [are] a key indicator of future forest resilience.


Newton Cemetery 1Peeling back the “soil” of 1 Timothy, perhaps what is most striking is not what we find—the imperatives, the “global’ statements, the “opera”—but what we don’t find.  1 Timothy, for example, barely mentions the Paschal Mystery, Jesus’ Passion, death and resurrection.  1 Timothy makes no references to Eucharist or to Baptism.  Liturgy and worship—what the Church does every Sunday—are almost entirely absent.  The letter contains no passages suggesting conflict over deeply-held convictions or a community wrestling with theological complexities.  1 Timothy makes only fleeting reference to the Hebrew scriptures.  And there is nothing to suggest that either the letter’s sender or its recipient(s) had any connection to—or any knowledge whatsoever of—the Hebrew tradition out of which Christianity grew.  Without these hyphae of Scripture and Sacrament, of worship, Tradition and community—all that undergirds the authentic Pauline letters—the “soil” underneath 1 Timothy is industrialized, as it were; it is nutrient poor.  Absent this rich understory, the author must rely not on connections but on commands, not on the riches of a vibrant community life, but on making sure that everyone knew their place (especially women); he relied not on his own voice, but instead posed as Paul.  The author writes as though under siege; he seems to regard the Church not as a place of forgiveness and renewal but as a bulwark; he seems to see Jesus not as a source of grace but as a sustainer of human and, dare I say, typically “masculine” effort.  (“But as for you, man of God, shun all this.”)

Lacking the hyphae that undergird a healthy forest and connect the trees one to another, the First Letter to Timothy is brittle.


Having said all this, we might be wondering, as did Luther about The Letter of James, if 1 Timothy is an “epistle of straw” and what, if anything, it offers.  Though 1 Timothy lacks the “hyphae” and resilience of a healthy mycorrhizal network, the letter absolutely does offer us something; because like all scripture, 1 Timothy tells us about ourselves.

saprophytic-hyphae-under-oak1 Timothy reminds us that there is a part of us that is brittle. The letter reminds us that there is a part of us that deep-down lacks connection.  1 Timothy reminds us how easy it could be for us to seek comfort in commands and certainty in “global” statements.  It reminds us how easy it could be for us to forget the Paschal Mystery, to forget the riches of the Hebrew Scriptures and the graces available to us in the Sacraments, and how easy it would be for us to overlook the possibility that is always in Jesus of forgiveness and renewal.  Though in many ways unappealing, 1 Timothy tells us about ourselves.

As we would with all parts of ourselves, and as the Church Fathers and canon of Scripture did, we would do well to own 1 Timothy.  We would do well to own 1 Timothy so that it and all that is brittle within can be plugged in, hooked up, and connected to Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection.  For as we connect to these hyphae of the Paschal Mystery—hyphae found in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments, in worship, Tradition and the gathered community—we come alive.  Connected by this rich understory, we become like a forest—a Church with healthy, complex and resilient soil.  A forest, a Church, capable of sustaining life.  A forest, a Church, connected to the world around.  A forest, a Church, that gives off oxygen so that all might through Him, through us, breathe and experience the life abundant found only in Jesus.

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