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About revmwlowry

Pastor of East Congregational United Church of Christ, Concord, NH I'm a husband, father, son, uncle, friend and pastor, having served churches in Maine, Ohio and most recently, New Hampshire; I'm also a true New Englander and "native Mainuh" who speaks Down East as a second language!

The Way… of Authentic Leadership

(a sermon for October 13, 2019, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on Isaiah 6:1-8 and Mark 10:35-45)

(a podcast version of this message can be found here)

One thing is for certain regarding our text for this morning: it’s that in approaching Jesus the way that they did James and John, those wily Zebedee brothers, simply didn’t get it.

I mean, basically what they were attempting there was an astonishingly bolder version of the maneuver I suspect most of us learned as kids on the playground: the act of “calling it.”  You remember what I’m talking about here: you wanted to make sure you got your turn on the swings before everyone else, so just as soon as you were out the door for recess you shouted, “I call first on the swings!” Or, if there was going to be a kickball game happening you’d say, “I call being captain” or “I call first ups,” and theoretically, at least, that was enough to seal the deal for you!  I must confess that I was never particularly good at the art of “calling it,” but as I recall those kids who were pretty much ruled the Opal Myrick School playground!  There were great benefits, you see, for being skilled in this particular maneuver!

Of course, there are other names for this:  calling “dibs,” for instance; or, in the case of claiming the front seat on a car ride, it’s “calling shotgun.”  But whatever it’s called, it all comes down to the same thing: it’s about being first, and best, and in prime position; really, it’s all about power.  And when James and John walk up to Jesus and first say to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” it’s pretty much to establish that whatever else Jesus might have to say about those who would be granted the right to sit at his right hand and at his left in glory, as far as James and John were concerned the whole issue was pretty much settled because they had already called it!

Now, understanding that I’m simplifying this just a tad, it’s nonetheless true that for these two disciples this was no casual request; for what they were asking of Jesus – what they were claiming – were in fact the highest places of honor in his glory, the power seats of his coming Kingdom.  It’s interesting to note, by the way, that in Matthew’s version of this particular story, it’s James’ and John’s mother who makes this request of Jesus, which gives this request a softer edge; you know, this is just a concerned parent looking out for her children (“They’re good boys, Jesus, they deserve it!” ).  But Mark’s gospel cuts to the heart of the matter, which is that it’s James and John seeking out the honor for themselves.  And the language used actually bears this out: the original Greek of this passage suggests that more than asking, more than even wanting, the Zebedee boys were literally craving that place of power; and even the rest of the disciples could see that this was nothing more than a brazen self-seeking attempt to claim leadership at a moment when very soon the whole world would be taking notice (because remember, in just a few days Jesus would be making his “triumphal” Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem).

Clearly, as I said before, James and John just didn’t get it.  And, in the words of Mark Vitalis Hoffman of United Lutheran Seminary, this is why Jesus answered this request, “doubtless with considerable exasperation,” by suggesting that “they don’t have a clue what they are asking for.” James and John couldn’t possibly conceive of drinking the same “cup” of suffering and death that Jesus would soon have to drink; these two eager disciples had no understanding of what it would mean to be baptized with the same baptism that Jesus was to endure.  All they could see was the glory of it; all they could envision was that they would be firmly enthroned with Jesus in his glory as the authentic leader in God’s kingdom.

And to all this, Jesus simply responds – and not for the first time, it should be noted – you want to be first in line? Really? You’re ready to be the leader?  You’re craving greatness?  Maybe, he says, you’ve forgotten how “godless rulers throw their weight around,” and how “when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads,” [The Message] or how so easily these so-called great leaders become tyrants over the people.  Well, know this: this is not how leadership goes with you:  “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  For “that is what the Son of Man has done: he came to serve, not to be served – and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage [The Message, again].” If you’re going to be my disciples; if you’re going to lead in my name and do so authentically… this is “the Way.”

For me the most perplexing thing about this story is that even though we know how mistaken James and John were in making that request of Jesus, we do understand where it comes from.  I mean, let’s be honest; by and large in this culture when we think of leadership we think of accomplishment, self-determination, power, influence, autonomy… and volume!  In fact, this week I heard a news commentator express the opinion that one of the big problems in politics today is that no matter how honest or earnest or wise someone happens to be, in these days it’s virtually impossible for anyone who’s quiet and unassuming or, God forbid, self-sacrificing to ever be elected to public office!  Never mind politics, that’s simply human nature!  What’s that ancient expression, “Fortune favors the bold?”  Well, all too often it’s precisely an aura of self-centered boldness that ends up passing for authority and leadership in these times; and as history has revealed again and again, that’s usually not for the better.  And trust me here, lest we think this wholly a secular issue, the church is not immune.  Writes Leonard Vander Zee, “From medieval Popes who vied with kings over territorial control to pastors who accumulated so much power that they became corrupted by it, the church has repeated this mistake over and over.”

In the end, you see, what we have in this world and even, at times, amongst the faithful is a failure to understand authentic  leadership, which as Jesus defines it will always be marked by self-giving service; in knowing and living unto the truth that the greatest of all will be the servant of all.  And this is not a novel concept: Jesus is proclaiming this truth all through the gospels; that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first;”(Matthew 19:30) that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it;” (7:14) and how he said, “Let the little children come to me… for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (19:14) What it all comes down to is where the Kingdom of God is concerned, this Way on which Jesus even now is calling us to walk – and on which we are called to lead others – turns out to be the complete inverse of the world’s concept of power and success and glory.  As disciples of Jesus, you see, the way of truly authentic leadership happens not in being served but in serving others in Jesus’ name.

And what does all this mean for us, friends?  I dare say that none of us here – or at least I hope none of us here – are seriously vying for position regarding that seat at the right hand of Jesus; I do think we understand, as Jesus himself said, that that place “is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  Better for you and me, I think, to be about the work of the kingdom right here in our own little part of the world.

But I do think there’s a lesson here for you and I here on Mountain Road:  that even for those of us who simply try to live out our faith in normal, everyday kind of ways, there is a real temptation to settle into a “receive” mode in which all of life is about our own personal fulfillment:  our goals, our ambitions, our dreams for our future.  And when that happens; as life becomes more and more self-centered, we become less centered on God’s purposes for our lives.  As Rick Warren has written in The Purpose Driven Life, while many believe that we’re supposed to get the most out of life, “that’s not the reason God made you.  You were created to add to life on earth, not just take from it.  God wants you to give something back… you were created to serve God!”  And this applies no matter what you do in your life: whether you work as a pastor, or whether you teach, or drive a truck, or pick up garbage or do brain surgery for a living… to quote Warren again, “Regardless of your job or career, you are called to full-time Christian service.  A ‘non-serving Christian’ is a contradiction of terms… if you aren’t serving, you’re just existing… [and that’s tragic] because life is meant for ministry.  God wants you to learn to love and serve others unselfishly.”

At the center of the spiritual life and our Christian faith is the Way on which Jesus calls each one of us here to walk and to live; it is the way of service, it is the way of self-giving and true sacrifice, and not only it is an example of true authority and authentic leadership in the church, it is also the way that our greatest leaders – even a few sitting in our own pews – are known.

Back in seminary, we “wanna-be” pastors were taught all about the different kinds of power structures that exist within your average congregation… and let me just say that 35 years later, it’s still a nice bit of information to have!  There’s elected power, of course; you know, the church officers, the deacons and trustees, and committee leaders, the lay-people chosen to act for the congregation and who, depending on how a church operates and how it relates to one another as a congregation, can yield a fair amount of power and influence.  But then there’s also those with reputational power; and these are the people in the congregation who maybe don’t hold an office at all, but likely have been a part of the church for a long time and are people everybody loves and respects.  These are the ones, if there’s a difficult and uncertain vote to be taken in a church meeting, that everyone will look to just to see how they voted before deciding themselves (trust me, folks, it happens!).

I’ve also discovered, though, that there’s also a servant power that exists in the church; in fact, I’ve seen it at work in every congregation I’ve served as pastor, including this one.  And the thing is, it’s a very quiet and utterly assuming power, and it doesn’t necessarily belong to those who are the movers and shakers of the church; truth be told, sometimes you might not even know who they are, or at least not until their work has touched you in some way for the better, and even then maybe not. But believe me when I tell you that it’s powerful stuff.  These are the people who send the anonymous notes of encouragement; who somehow just seem to know when a plate of brownies or a dinner casserole is just the thing to ease a troubled heart and empty belly after a hard day; who go out of their way to offer a friend or neighbor a ride to church or to the Saturday night bean supper (hint, hint!), who come to your pastor with some kind of gift – of money or of resources or something else – and somehow manage to get me involved in a covert operation in bringing this gift to a perfect stranger, all with the explicit instructions to never – never (!) – reveal the donor; these are the people who pray persistently, who care constantly, who serve without question and who love without limit… all because that’s the way that Jesus has called them to live, and to lead. And they’re not people who believe themselves to be privileged or entitled, or even powerful in any way… in fact, in my experience quite often these folks are more like Isaiah in our Old Testament reading today, feeling as though they’re somehow unworthy of and ill equipped for the task of doing God’s work, and yet when the Lord asks, they’re the very first ones to say “Here am I; send me!”

And I’ll tell you something else… these are the people – the ones with servant power – who keep the church, this church, alive and moving and growing.

And just think of what could happen by God’s grace and leading if we all utilized a bit of that power in our work together…

I pray that as we seek to walk the way of true discipleship, this will be the power that propels us forward.

And may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on October 13, 2019 in Discipleship, Faith, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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The Way… of True Worship

(a sermon for October 6, 2019, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday; first in a series, based on 1 Chronicles 16:23-31 and James 5:13-20)

(a podcast version of this message can be found here)

So the question is… why are you even here today?

Seriously… what motivated you to get up out of bed and come to worship on such a beautiful autumn morning as this?  Don’t get me wrong; speaking both pastorally and personally I’m very glad (and grateful!) that you’re here, but I’ll confess this is something I always kind of wonder about!  Have you come here, for instance, out of a sense of gratitude for the ways God has been acting in your life?  Does this place and our time together in worship serve as an oasis, if you will, amidst life’s many difficulties, not to mention respite from a world that that more and more seems to be spinning out of control? Or is it more of a matter of routine for you, something you do simply because it’s Sunday morning?  I don’t know, perhaps you’re here this morning out of some sense of obligation or even guilt; hey, it happens!

Now, I’d like to think that maybe you’ve come here today because in some way or another you’ve found some measure of comfort, inspiration and joy in what happens in our time of worship, and you’ve come seeking more of that:  that you’re needing to hear and to sing music that speaks to the heart and lifts the spirit; hoping perhaps to recognize yourself in scripture or song or prayer; wondering if today the preacher just might say something applicable to your own life (and I’ll be honest, I’m always hoping that’ll happen)!  Or it could be that you’re hoping that being here will help you grow in faith and, to quote the Rev. Christopher Winkler, a Methodist pastor and preacher from Illinois, to live your life a little “more faithfully tomorrow than you did yesterday;” and perhaps by being part of this sacred community of the church you’ll find the kind of fellowship, support and teaching that will help you do that.

Actually, I suspect that truth be told, the reasons that led you to worship here this morning likely encompassed all or parts of this, and so much more besides!  And I hope it goes without saying that it’s all valid; I mean, this all speaks directly to our personality as a congregation and about the vitality of our life together, right?  It’s all about who we are and what we do in the context of Christian worship.  And worship matters; in fact, I think it’s safe to say that our gathering together for worship is the central activity of our life together as the church; some might even argue that it’s our primary reason for being.  But all of this said, friends, I would like suggest to you this morning that the real purpose for our gathering together on this or any Sunday morning, “the Way” of true worship ultimately has little or nothing to do with any of these reasons we’ve been listing off here.  If we are sincerely engaged, as we so often say, in worshiping the Lord “in Spirit and in Truth,” then it’s not  primarily going to be about the style of worship, or the preaching, or the music, or the way we “do” communion, or how we pray, or how long the service lasts, or how great the refreshments are going to be after the service, but simply and wholly in “ascrib[ing] to the LORD the glory due his name… worship[ing] the LORD in holy splendor,” glorifying and praising God for his steadfast love that endures forever.

Without that being first and foremost in our hearts, then all the rest of it?  It’s all very well and good, to be sure, but in the words of a worship consultant by the name of Ken Lamb, it all ends up as “all the wrong reasons for all the right things.”

The great 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard used to use the theater as a metaphor for describing how most of us will misunderstand the role and purpose of worship. Kierkegaard would complain that all too often we imagine that the minister is the star actor or actress in a play, with the choir, the musicians and the rest of the worship leaders in supporting roles, and the congregation as the audience of theatergoers. In other words, worship itself becomes too much like a performance, in which those of us “up here” are engaged in offering up something of value to you “down there.”  And, trust me here, that’s not how it should be at all!  In fact, just the opposite; Kierkegaard says that in a proper “act and attitude of worship,” the worship leaders are in fact prompters helping to lead the congregation in offering up their best “performance” of worship and praise unto the God who is, “in the most earnest sense,” Kierkegaard writes, “the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to.”

The way of true worship, you see, is not so much about what we’re getting out of the experience but rather about what we are putting into it!  I’m reminded here of a great story told by Craig Barnes of Princeton Seminary in which he recalled his years of being a church pastor, and how following a service of worship one day a member of the congregation met him at the door to berate him for the his choice of hymns for that day.  “Those songs you picked out were horrible,” she said.  “Not a single one of them were the least bit familiar, the words are all changed and they weren’t even singable… I hated every one of them.”  And to this, Barnes calmly replied, “Well, that’s okay… we weren’t singing them to you.” (I wish I’d thought of that!)  Ultimately, you see, our worship is not for us; our singing isn’t for our benefit nor our entertainment; our prayers of praise and thanksgiving and intercession is never meant to be an act of self-aggrandizement.

It’s about God.  Every part of our worship is to be directed toward and for the praise and glory of God.  I’m here as a prompter, so to speak, as are Kat and Susan and our choir; we are here to prompt your worship of God.  And in that regard as worshippers we’re all the performers, and the Lord God is the audience.  But it’s in that all those gifts grace and healing and forgiveness and wonder come to pass.

Our Old Testament text for this morning from the 1st Book of Chronicles has to do with David’s reclamation of the Ark of the Covenant, which was the container that ancient Israel had created to house the fragments of the stone tablets on which were written the ten commandments (and yes, in case you were wondering, that’s the same Ark of the Covenant that Indiana Jones went searching for in “Raiders of the Lost Ark…” but I digress!).  Biblically and historically speaking, the backstory here is that King David had done just about everything possible to return the Ark to Jerusalem and now it was finally happening; and with much music and shouting and food, not to mention David himself “leaping and dancing,” (15:29), there is this incredible celebration that now, at long last, the Ark – this symbol of who God was to them and everything God had done – the Ark  has been returned and now there would be this place of worship where the presence of God lived amongst his people.  There’s great rejoicing, and it all culminates with David calling the people to thanks and praise for all of God’s wonderful acts, “his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.  For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised.”  You see what’s happening here?  It’s what one commentator I read this week refers to as “theology set to music;” a song that declares how wonderful God is, sung before the very presence of God!

A celebration of the presence of God amongst us; a joyous affirmation of the movement of God in and through our lives; a much-needed reminder of the reality of God’s unending hope and to give thanks and praise for his power amidst the living of these days:  that is what worship is supposed to be all about.  It’s what informs every part of this time we spend together every Sunday; it’s what my preaching, no matter the text or subject matter, has to be about; it’s why we sing and play the songs we do as a choir and congregation; and it’s what leads us in everything else we seek to be as the church of Jesus Christ, God’s Son and our only Savior.  It’s what makes us who we are as a church and the “Way” that we walk… it is first to ascribe to God the glory due his holy name.

But, of course, that not where it ends.

Our other text for this morning, from the New Testament Letter of James, is another of the so-called “pastoral epistles” that seek to encourage us in the ways that we seek to live as disciples of Christ within (and beyond) the life of the church.  Specifically, it’s about dealing with those are sick or suffering or lost or enmeshed in sin (“Are any among you suffering?  They should pray.”), or even cheerful (!), in which case, a song of praise is in order!  The message here is that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” and that’s important to remember; but it seems to me that the larger point is that our prayer and praising, while of first importance and absolutely essential for us as God’s people, is never meant to happen in a vacuum.  We are called to bring true worship unto God and God alone, that is true; but by our worship, we are also meant to be transformed, day by day, more and more into the people God created us to be.  In other words, we should never leave here on a Sunday morning the same way we came in.  In some small, even perhaps at times in a seemingly imperceptible yet nonetheless palpable way, we ought to leave our time of worship feeling different… changed, somehow… challenged in our thinking and living… relieved, maybe, or strengthened, or filled up with something akin to true joy and real love.  Scripture is filled with stories of men and women and entire nations coming into the presence of God and being changed – body and soul and heart and strength – forever; and so it ought to be, each in our own way, with you and me.  What’s the saying about faith being a journey and not a destination?  Well, beloved, it’s God’s presence and power experienced in true worship that sets us forth on that journey.

In just a moment we’ll be answering this divine invitation that’s been given us, joining with countless other kindred hearts on this World Communion Sunday in feasting at the Lord ’s Table, sharing in this wondrous experience of knowing his presence in a simple meal of bread and wine. Now I know that in many ways, our sharing communion today is no different than it is on every other first Sunday of the month when we have communion, and that we have our “way” of having communion that’s wrapped up in tradition and liturgy and “the way we’ve always done it.”  And the truth is, at times I worry that this truly blessed meal becomes for us routine.  I hope and pray that this won’t be the case for any of us today, but that perhaps as we pass the bread from one to another and drink from the cup of blessing we’ll see it as an opportunity to fix our full attention on God; to truly give God our whole thanks and praise for the life abundant and eternal that’s been given us in Christ Jesus; and by our prayers, both spoken and silent, ascribe to God the glory due him.  But then, having been refreshed at this sacred table of joy and life, let us be moved to go… go and become the people that God has always intended for us to be.

This, beloved, will be the way of true worship, and I have no doubt that each one of us, and our world, will be the better for it.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Rekindling the Flame

(a sermon for September 29, 2019, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, based on  2 Timothy 1:1-14 and Matthew 13:31–32)

(the podcast version of this message can be found here)

It doesn’t seem to matter where I am or what I’ve been doing; every year just about this time when the leaves start to turn and there’s some cool crisp autumn weather it all comes flooding back to me, the memories of a little “hunting camp” way out in back of the woods of Aroostook County, Maine… and more specifically, of all the times I spent there with my father.

Now understand that this was a different place than the lake camp I speak of so often; this was just a simple little cabin that my Dad and a couple of his friends built as a place for hunting in the fall and snowmobiling in the winter, sometimes just as a place to go on a Friday evening to make a pot of oyster stew on the woodstove (which, back in the day, was the Lowry family meal!) and bunk in for the night.  This was my Dad’s place of retreat and relaxation, and over the many days and nights we spent there together it became mine, too.  There are actually a hundred stories I could tell about that little hunting camp, but I have to say that one of the things I remember most fondly is just how quickly and incredibly cold it used to get in that camp on those autumn and winter nights in Maine!

Now, mind you, it wasn’t so much the cold itself that I remember – although I did learn the value of “long johns” and wool socks early on in my life (!) – but rather the way that my father would handle the cold.  What I remember as a kid was waking up in the wee hours of the morning and looking down from my bunk to see my father quietly stoking the fire in the old Clarion wood cookstove we had there.  All these years later I can still see him there: lifting the iron covers off the top of the stove, poking around the ashes, stirring up the coals to see if there was any life left to them. Almost always there’d be a few embers, so he’d throw some cedar kindling in the stove, maybe a piece of hardwood or two, and then he’d put the cover back on, opening up the draft just a bit to get the fire roaring.

But the best part was that then, instead of going right back to bed, Dad would almost always just sit for awhile in the dim light of the kerosene lanterns – he might put a kettle on for a cup of coffee and he’d probably smoke his pipe, but mostly he’d just sit – and I’d see him there pondering life and enjoying the quiet rumble, snaps and cracks of the woodstove coming to life.  It was just a small thing, I know; but I’ve got to tell you that as I would lie up in the top bunk and drift back to sleep I always took incredible comfort in it.  It was like everything was alright in the world and I could go to sleep and not worry about a thing.

Of course, I’ve come to realize over the years that what my father was doing was that which his father had taught him, what he’d learned in the days on the farm two generations ago when my grandparents readied their children for a new day.  Understand, in those days, tending fires was no small skill: there’s a story in our family about how one of Dad’s sisters was born on the farm during the middle of the winter; and it was so cold that day that they had to wrap the newborn baby up in blankets, put the baby in a box, and set the box next the woodstove to keep this infant warm.  So it was vitally important, you see, to keep that fire burning steady and strong throughout the cold night!

That was something my father learned, and in ways both subtle and direct, my father was teaching me.  Ultimately, you see, this business of getting a fire going in the middle of the night is more than a skill, more than the preservation of heritage or the keeping of a tradition; in the end, it’s actually kind of a caretaking.  It’s guarding something that while sometimes a bit intangible, is also very valuable; something quite precious for the next generation to receive as their own.  It’s loving someone in such a way that they, too, will learn to love and to care.  I can’t fully explain it to you; all I know is that even now, that’s the kind of husband and father I want to be. It’s the kind of pastor and Christian man I aspire to be in my daily life; and to tell you the truth, it’s always kind of been the way I have perceived God to be!   I want to be someone who tends the fire on cold autumn nights, because in just about every way you can name, that’s what’s been done for me.

Remember, Paul said to Timothy, the gift of God that is within you, “a faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you.”  Remember, he said, to keep rekindling that gift of faith inside of you, “fanning [it] into flame,” as the NIV translation puts it, so that it will keep burning warm and bright.  Remember to speak it, act it and live it so that your faith might be seen by all those around you, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

One of the things we talk so much about in the church is this notion of “a life in Christ.”   But what does that really mean?  Certainly, there are many aspects to a person’s life lived in Christ Jesus, the tenets, if you will, of the Christian experience: things like compassion and forgiveness, spirituality and prayerfulness; the fruit of the Spirit, which “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness” (Galatians 5:22); and, as Paul admonishes Timothy in our text for this morning, it’s “holding to the standard of sound teaching.”  All this considered, however, I would suggest to you this morning that in the end a “life in Christ” actually comes down to something very basic about a person’s life.  Eric Frost says it very well; a life in Christ, he says, “is the Christian’s awareness of the grace of God at work in his or her life.”  In other words, as life unfolds in its wondrous and mysterious way, what’s at the forefront of one’s heart and mind is not our own luck or sense of accomplishment, but rather an awareness “of God’s own purpose and grace,” proof that God regularly enters our lives with all the resources of his love and his power.

And the thing is, for most of us that awareness of God’s own purpose and grace is something that was taught, shown, nurtured and continually reinforced for us by others who lived that “life in Christ:” family members and friends, Sunday School teachers and church pastors, not to mention countless other people whose faith intersected with their commitment to the community;  people like coaches and scout leaders and volunteers of all shapes and sizes.  The very fact that we’re even here today in worship or that we’re involved in the life of the church; all of this says a great deal about the heritage we received from those who came before.  Friends, we are “legacies” in the truest sense of the word, and this is something that as Paul says, we should constantly remember with true thankfulness.  But even more than this – and this is a key point – it’s also something that should remind us of the legacies we want to leave for those who will come after!

This is a truth that’s at the heart of Paul’s second “pastoral epistle” to Timothy.  Not only do we learn that Timothy’s faith was the result of a legacy passed on from generation to generation, grandmother to mother to son, we also hear Paul’s admonition that Timothy keep at that work, “this faith and love rooted in Christ… guard[ing] this precious thing placed in your custody by the Holy Spirit who works in us.” [The Message]   In other words, this legacy is never to remain solely with us, but is something meant to be passed on to the “next generations” of our children and grandchildren; shared with neighbors and friends who are struggling to live lives of integrity and purpose; and as a way of nurturing seekers and new believers who are filled up with this incredible and mysterious feeling of God’s presence in and through their lives and who simply want and need to understand what it all means!  So often there’s an ember of hope and faith that’s just beginning to spark and catch fire within an open heart; and it is up to you and me to “fan into flame the gift of God” that is in each one of us, not reluctantly or fearfully, but in a way that is “bold and loving and sensible.” [The Message, again]

It’s all too easy, you see, to allow the flames of faith die out to merely an ember simply out of neglect; that’s not only true for our own faith, beloved, but also as regards the faith we’re called to encourage in others.  And it’s easy to understand why.  After all, we live in a world and culture that actively seeks to pull us away from our faith; we are so distracted, so busy, so desensitized by all the other things of life and living that we risk forgetting that which matters the most!  But anybody who burns wood for heat in their homes will be very quick to tell you that while it’s is a wonderful energy alternative (in fact, I’m sure they’ll tell you that wood heat actually warms you twice:  first when you cut and stack it, and then when you actually burn it!), the truth is that it only keeps your house warm when you remember to stoke the fire!  Because when the fire goes out, it gets cold very fast!

What Paul is saying is that this flame of faith is truly precious, and can be all too easily snuffed out.  It has to be guarded; we must always be attentive to it, taking the time, making the time to constantly be stirring up the coals and the ashes within our hearts.  It is only when we are “rekindling the flames” of our faith that we can begin to fan the flames for others, only in our faithfulness that we can create the legacy of a life in Christ to those around us and to those who will follow.  It is only when we fully embrace everything that God has placed within us, living without “be[ing] shy with [God’s] gifts, but [being] bold and loving and sensible” about them, that we’ll be actually living out of a full awareness of God’s presence and in “the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus,”  so that our children and our children’s children will be inspired to seek “a [truly] rich and honest faith” for themselves as they live and grow.  (Something, I might add here, that given all the tragic and violent news of this past week emanating from our own community, is more important than ever.)

But you see, none of this happens unless we’re careful with our this flame of faith is burning within us!  You and I, as parents and grandparents and teachers and coaches and friends, first and foremost need to be about the business of tending the fires of our own faith.  We are to be constantly seeking to rekindle this flame by means of prayer, and worship, and time regularly spent in meditation and spiritual renewal (in that regard, let us never forget that prayer and devotion are the cedar sticks of faith; if you want to get a fire going, mistah man, there’s just no substitute!).  And we’re to be ever and always fanning that flame sharing what we know to be true in faith, but moreover to live in such a way that says we mean it.

Now I know there are times for most of us when it seems as though there are barely enough burning embers to even spark a flame, much less start a fire!  But as Jesus said in his parable, a mustard seed doesn’t appear to amount to much either; but then you plant those seeds, in time it becomes “the greatest of shrubs, and becomes a tree.” So it is for you and me: we’ve got the coals that are burning within our hearts, and we’ve plenty of kindling that’s been provided through the help and guidance of the Lord.  Eventually, given the fuel that we (and God) bring to it, a roaring fire is going to start.

Inside every one of us in this very room, beloved, there’s a flame burning: a sincere and vital faith given to us by God and which has been nurtured by a whole communion of saints in the past and continuing today.   It’s right there before us, the embers glowing… so the question is, what are we going to do with it?  How shall we make a fire with just a spark?  And how will be share it with those around us and with those who follow us?

I pray that each of us will be rekindling that flame, so as the song goes, soon all those around will  be warmed up in its glowing, now and in the years to come.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2019 in Epistles, Faith, Family Stories, Maine, Paul, Sermon

 

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