In North America, the railroad gauge – the distance between rails – is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. A strange number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s how railroads were built in England, and English expatriates designed the American railroads.
But why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and they were using the tools and jigs that had been used to build carts and covered wagons.
OK. Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, that was the space between the ruts in the English roads, ingrained through centuries of use.
And the ruts in the roads? Roman chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match to avoid destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for imperial Rome, their wheel spacing was standardized.
So, the standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an imperial Roman war chariot, and they were made just wide enough to accommodate the backsides of two war horses.
At one level, this story is laughable – so much for civilization’s supposed advances and innovation. But what if we looked at the story in a different way? What if we saw it as wonderful?
In a way, it’s good that the only progress we make is through building on the accomplishments and insights of others. To be sure, when NASA wheels its latest rocket boosters onto the launch pad rails, they’re the width of a horse’s backside. But what does that matter? Surely the point is that we cannot do anything without reference to what has gone before. We take the old knowledge and apply it to the new context. As Sir Isaac Newton, father of modern physics, once said, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Oddly enough, it is this same sentiment that Paul seems to be reminding Timothy of in our New Testament reading today.
Paul says, “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.”
Tradition is much more meaningful if we know its provenance.
You know what they say about Episcopalians? Do something once, and they hate it. Do it twice, and they don’t mind it. Do it three times, and it’s a cherished tradition.
Our rituals in church might seem arcane until we bother to take the time to trace their ancestry; then they can come alive in new and exciting ways. Unfortunately, tradition seems more often to be regarded in a negative light. For example, the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way” conjures up images of people who blindly and unthinkingly do the same things over and over and over again.
We are living in the midst of turbulent times in the church. The world is changing at a faster pace than any other time in human history, and we often struggle to make sense of it. We know that the Episcopal Church has to adapt to survive. We often hear suggestions that the church needs something radical to shake it up, such as radical new liturgies or some radical new thinking. We hear it in church, and we hear it in the world of business – phrases such as “radical departure.”
But what does “radical” really mean? We can easily forget that it means “getting back to our roots.” So a radical departure, in a sense, becomes a paradox. If it is to be “radical,” it’s anything but a departure from; in fact, it’s a return to.
What is it that Paul, if he were writing to us, instead of Timothy, might be saying that we need to return to?
Well, to start off, he’d probably be posting a message on our Facebook walls. Old knowledge, new context.
First, he would surely reiterate what he said to Timothy, that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” And then he would add, “but notice that I said ‘inspired by God’ and not ‘the literal word of God,’ so don’t forget to make use of the intelligence and powers of reason that God gave you to apply the essence of the gospel to today’s situation.”
Second, he would reinforce what he said to Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” And then he would add: “And just look at the church now. People going to church expecting to be entertained and wanting the preacher to make them feel good about themselves, as if church was just a spa for the soul.”
Faced with manifold challenges, it is tempting for us in the church to market our services and programs as if they were consumer products or self-help accessories to complement our busy lifestyle choices. It is tempting for us not to demand too much of people, tempting for us to make church as convenient as possible, tempting for us to simply collude with a culture that flits like a butterfly from one shiny thing to another, and tempting for us to pander to the myth of instant gratification.
Today’s gospel reading, the story of the persistent widow and the pestered judge, is, at first sight, confusing. It seems as if Jesus is saying that the unjust judge is like God.
He isn’t, of course; in fact, Jesus is saying the opposite.
The widow goes to the unjust judge time and time again and only gets anywhere because the judge wants to be rid of her. With God, the widow can go time and time again and will get God’s full attention every time. Jesus isn’t saying that the widow won’t visit any the less if it’s God. He’s saying that, unlike the unjust judge, God isn’t interested only in his own comfort and getting the pestering widow out of his hair. When we go to God in prayer, no matter how persistent we are, God will always be there to listen and to give counsel. In fact, God is so unlike the unjust judge that he wants us to go back time after time to appeal to him for help. A deep and meaningful relationship with God is built over a lifetime of such meetings with Him, not just a quick fix for instant gratification.
These meetings with God augment each previous one, building up, over a lifetime, a cumulative richness in our souls that bespeaks something of God. Like a piece of treasured antique furniture that has been handed down through the generations, it will have its share of knocks and dents, but will also a have a precious, unique patina patiently gained through years of everyday, prayerful life.