(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