RSS

Tag Archives: Pastoral Epistles

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

 
Leave a comment

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

 

Tags: , ,

“But When You’ve Done the Wrong Thing…”

(a sermon for September 15, 2019 , the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Hosea 4:1-3, 5:15-6:6 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17)

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

In biblical parlance, they are often referred to as “trustworthy sayings,” and there are at least five of them scattered throughout the so-called “pastoral epistles;” that is, 1 and 2 Timothy and the Letter to Titus.  Simply explained, these are major points that Paul wanted to make sure his readers perfectly understood before proceeding.  And the thing about these sayings is that you always know they’re coming; because, first off, Paul tells you so (in the NRSV, for instance, Paul announces, “The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance…”), and secondly, what follows is usually something that while absolutely essential for understanding our Christian faith what Paul is about to say might nonetheless be a little bit hard to hear and difficult to swallow!

And so it is with the “trustworthy saying” at the center of our text for this morning, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” of which, Paul hastens to add, “I am the foremost.”

Now, in at least in one sense, for Paul to proclaim that Jesus came into the world to save sinners does not seem like all that much of a radical statement or something hard to hear.  I mean, after all, that Christ died for our sins on the cross is central to just about everything we know to be true about our Christian faith; certainly not anything that Paul would need to first qualify before writing to these early Christians!  And yet, it does sort of hit us in an uncomfortable kind of way, does it not?  Because if Christ Jesus did, in fact, come into the world to save sinners it would follow that there were (and are!) sinners to save; and if the Apostle Paul, of all people, would refer to himself as “the foremost” of sinners (or as it’s translated elsewhere, “the chief” (KJV) or “the worst” (NIV) or even “Public Sinner Number One,” as it is rendered in The Message), then what does that make you or me?

I remember back in seminary how those of us who were serving as student pastors would often return to school on Monday morning ready to commiserate on the experience of preaching to these little congregations who were at once incredibly supportive and encouraging of our efforts in the pulpit but also a bit, shall we say, skeptical, which was more than a little unnerving to us!  I remember one of my classmates lamenting that he’d had an extremely difficult, to the point of nearly impossible time that week looking into the eyes of those sweet people sitting in the pews in front of him and saying that they were all, in fact, sinners in dire need of salvation!  I remember this because for my part, I’d preached on pretty much the same text that Sunday; and after worship one of the sweetest of the sweet elderly ladies of that church came up to me – I’ll never forget her: her name was Alberta Burrill and I used to call her “Sunshine” because she always sat in the back of the church listening to the sermon with her eyes closed and this wonderful, peaceful smile on her face – and she took my hand in hers that morning and said, “That was very nice, deah… but you don’t want to do that very often because people wouldn’t like it.”

See what I mean about some of these “trustworthy sayings” being hard to hear?

The fact of that matter is that none of us want to think of ourselves that way, do we?  Last week, as you’ll recall, we spoke here about the need, our call in Christ Jesus, to always be seeking to do the right thing in faith.  I’ll be honest; as I often do after the preaching is done, I found myself sort of self-analyzing the sermon that day, and I found myself wondering if perhaps it had come off as a bit… obvious!  I mean, who doesn’t think we ought to be doing the right thing, in faith or otherwise?   Maybe the real question, I started thinking, is what happens when we’ve done the wrong thing?  What about when our intentions are good, when we really do want to do what’s right in a given situation, but for whatever reason we just keep doing exactly the opposite?  Or even worse, when it’s become so easy, so convenient, so normal, or so, well, enjoyable that the right thing to do kind of gets lost in the process?  What then?

In other words, what happens when it’s begun to feel to us that if Paul is the chief and foremost of sinners then we might well be working our way up to second in command?

The Old Testament, of course, doesn’t hedge on such matters.  In our other text for this morning, from the prophet Hosea, we hear an indictment of the inability of God’s people to accept any real guilt for its sin:  “Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed,” (all clearly, by the way, wrong things to do!) to the point where there has been a judgment upon the land in the form of ecological disaster.  “Therefore the land mourns,” says the prophet, “and all who live in it languish.”  But perhaps most damning of all is the lament that despite the horrible result of such sin, Israel doesn’t seem to care:  “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?  What shall I do with you, O Judah?  Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early,” that which seems promising at first but ultimately and swiftly dries up in the light and heat of another day.

It would seem as though as much as Israel wished for prosperity and plenty to return they were half-hearted at best about repentance and their faithfulness to God.  And the truth is, we get that, don’t we?  For as much as we desire and know to do that which is right and good and in keeping with God’s precepts of love and faithfulness, all too often all those challenges and temptations we face in the heat of the day pull us away from that which logically, lovingly and spiritually seemed so very… obvious to us.  It all comes back to a break in that sacred relationship we have with God; that innate human tendency to live independently, autonomously, of God… which, by the way, is the very definition of sin.  But even as the cycle of doing the wrong thing again and again continues, here’s the prophet calling for God’s people to return to the Lord, “for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up.  After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”

…which brings us back to Paul’s letter to Timothy and his “trustworthy saying” that “Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”

Once again what we have here in these “pastoral epistles” is a very personal appeal on the part of Paul to some “faithful co-workers,” namely Timothy and Titus, dealing with some real-life challenges to the integrity and purity of the Gospel message.  Simply put, these letters deal with a few of the “messier” aspects of trying to live in true faith.  I love what Thomas Long writes about this:  he says that most of the time we would rather read accounts of the church cruising down the highway of faith… in the Pastoral Epistles, though, we see the church on the mechanic’s lift, in the garage, and we are given guidance for performing an ecclesial engine overhaul… [which may] in fact, make them urgently important” for us today.

So, yes… Christ came into the world to save sinners, and like it or not, as hard as it may be to confess, we’re the sinners Christ came to save!  But as you consider this, Paul says, remember something:  that “even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” (NIV)  Or, as The Message puts it, “The only credentials I brought to [this ministry] were invective and witch hunts and arrogance.”  But, with a heart full of thanksgiving, Paul says, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me.”

Think of this for a moment, friends.  GRACE… a gift freely given of love and forgiveness and new life.  GRACE… extended to the same one who, quoting Rick Power, who “stood as an approving witness to the stoning of Stephen, [who] dragged believers out of their homes to face imprisonment, [who] made it his sole purpose in life to crush this new movement of Christ-followers, and [who], perhaps worst of all, mistakenly thought he was serving God at the time!”  And yet, Paul writes to Timothy, “for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul, you see, had begun as the lowest of the low – where the wrong thing was the starting place – but the point is that his story ends in the glory of Christ.  This was the assurance “sure and worthy of acceptance” that Paul wished to convey to Timothy; and for those of us seeking to do the right thing even when so often we’ve ended up doing the opposite, it’s a crucial word as well… and a reminder of true GRACE.

Perhaps it was precisely in those moments when we messed up and failed to “do the right thing” in faith and love:  maybe an ill-spoken word or some regrettable action done without thinking; or else when we made a choice not to stand up or stand with someone who’d been knocked down or rejected or subjected to some manner of hatred that’s become all too common in this present age, even as we knew better.  Could be an instance of discovering to your great despair that the ethical or moral standards of your life have… slipped.  Or it could be, I’m just saying here, an overwhelming shock and revulsion at the depths of selfishness and the realization that your life might well have fallen far as you think possible from the life filled with God’s love and purpose.  Understand, friends, it is not my desire nor am I seeking to send you forth from this place this morning stinging from words of judgment and rebuke… but I would say to each one of us here that as we are stand naked before God there is always going to be… sin.  We have done the wrong thing… in the words of the old confessional, “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

But the good news, you see, is that this isn’t the end of the story!  The good news is that through mercy, in great patience and in the light of God’s limitless and overwhelming grace bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus, we are forgiven, and redeemed and saved.  In the words of the anthem we heard earlier in the service, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”  Amazing grace that opens up a new future for each one of us as a redeemed child of God; amazing grace that opens before us brand new opportunities for finding the right thing to do in a world sorely in need of simple human kindness and true compassion, peace and justice rooted in Christian love rather than political divisiveness, and a moral and ethical center that begins from the heart.  Because beloved, Christ Jesus came to save sinners – and yes, that means you and me – but Christ Jesus also came to send us forth as his disciples in the redeeming work of his Kingdom.

So let us go forth in that sacred calling, beloved; and “to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen…”

And AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on September 15, 2019 in Church, Epistles, Ministry, Paul, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

Tags: , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: