Bruce Springsteen as storyteller #TheologyOfBruce

photo asbury park     These are my notes from a March 8, 2014 workshop at the “UnQuiet Day” on “Bruce Springsteen: Prophet of Hope” with Bishop Douglas Fisher, Episcopal Diocese of Western MA, and Canon Rich Simpson. More information about the UnQuiet Day is here: http://www.diocesewma.org/unquietday/ Rich’s excellent sermon is here:  http://rmsimpson.blogspot.com/2014/03/meet-me-out-in-street-bruce-springsteen.html You can see some of the tweets from the day by looking at #TheologyofBruce
     I’m going to invite us to dance, because you’re killing me to play Bruce loud and not dance. Now, the invitation is to try to be embodied. If this terrifies you beyond death, go pretend to get a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom. But I want to offer you this, Episcopalians you are the ones who taught me to use my body in worship, to cross myself, to bow, to kneel. You are the ones who help me bring my whole body to worship. I think you can do this. You’re not Baptists. Dancing won’t lead to something else, I promise.
      Remember as Bruce says ‘It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”
Kill the lights, cue “Dancing in the Dark.”
     Remember the trick to dancing is to move as if you are not anxious about how you look. You look better dancing if you’re not paying attention to how you’re dancing. and if you Close your eyes and no one can see you. Thank you. you are very brave.
     I come to you about Bruce, authentic Jersey Girl.  I can beat any of you at Skeeball if you want to play for money.
     After my senior prom, I borrowed my Mom’s burgundy Chevy minivan and headed down the Jersey Shore. I wore a brown dress to prom because I was deep and brooding. And it was the mid-1990s. If I could have found a plaid flannel dress I would have. We stayed up all night, had breakfast at 2am at a 24 hour diner, either the Rockaway Diner or Paul’s Diner, all gleaming silver. A place where you could get a plate full of disco fries, french fries covered in cheese and gravy for 3 dollars- it could fuel hours of conversation.
     After the prom,  we drove from The Skylands to Seaside Heights. You may know Seaside Heights from the MTV show Jersey Shore. It’s just as trashy now as it was then. We called it  Sleezside. It was an entire town, a stocked pond of teenagers full of hormones and Yuengling beer.
     I pulled my mother’s minivan up to the motel, The Flamingo. The “O” had fallen off the sign, so it just read “The Flaming.”  Two stories of doors open into a courtyard, with kids hanging off the railing, peering over a slightly green swimming pool. We had each paid something like $50 dollars each for a share of a bedroom.
     You know, a couple of marriages came from that senior prom. Tim is a cop, Maria is a teacher. They’ve got a kid and a dog and a condo in Red Bank that they can’t quite afford. A couple of those guys died young, drug overdoses. A few made it back from Afghanistan, but walk around dead. Many stayed in the NJ that formed us. And some of us left.
photo laura     I learned to love Bruce in part because I know his New Jersey, because he tells a story I can relate to, even if I didn’t live it.
      “Hey little boy is your Momma home, did she go and leave you all alone, oh no. I’ve got a bad desire. Oh Oh Oh I’m on fire.”  My hope in flipping the gendered pronouns is to hear how creepy this song is more clearly. If we were doing a boundary awareness class today or Safe Church training, some of Bruce’s songs would be our example of what not to do. I want us to take his music for what it is, and let it be what it’s not. I remember in seminary watching a professor try to make the case for Clement of Alexandria as a proto-feminist. Twisting and contorting, it didn’t quite work. At the outset, I want to give this disclaimer- I don’t think Bruce is great on women. The women in his songs have underdeveloped interior lives. Full grown women are reduced to “girls in their summer clothes.” They serve as the arm-candy for the men around them, “put your make up, on do your hair up pretty” or   There’s a little bit of the Virgin Mary/ Mary Magdalene dynamic where the women are either saints in Mary’s kitchen, or Roselita or Wendy being lured outside for the night or ending up in Maria’s bed. There’s not a ton of in-between. Frankly, it’s a little like Scripture- the women are there, but just barely and not very well developed when they make it into the story. Bruce is a Dude! I don’t think we can press him to be more than he is. But there’s a larger story, a story of devils and dust, of death and resurrection, of the promised land that I still believe is worth telling.
     Bruce may not be able to help us to think clearly into the full humanity of women, but I do think he gets us a lot. Bruce is really, really good on the interior emotional life of men, especially men who are being pushed aside as the world around them changes. He’s explored racial violence, police brutality and racial profiling in 41 Shots. He’s pressed us to think about returning veterans in “We take care of our own.” He pointed an anxious america to the humanity of gay male AIDS patients in “The Streets of Philadelphia.” He helps us process our grief following 9/11 and then Hurricane Sandy in “My City of Ruin.” And so much of Bruce’s songwriting invites us to think about class differences and economic injustice in America.
     I believe Bruce has cross generational possibility- My hometown, “Son, take a good look around, this is your hometown.” When I was preparing for this event, the Massachusetts Council of Churches 25 years old intern said “Why do a day on the theology of Bruce? Why not someone more contemporary, like Mumford and Sons?” But we don’t get the alt-rock, troubadour revival of Mumford and Sons without Bruce. Show me a hipster band or singer songwriter that doesn’t cite Bruce’s “Nebraska” album as a major influence. We don’t get the Decemberists, or Bon Iver, or St. Vincent, or Beck, or the Avett Brothers, or Ockerville River, or Neko Case without Bruce. And we don’t get Bruce without Pete Seeger or Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin. We even see passing on of tradition within the E street band, as Clarence Clemmons’ solo were played on the last tour by his nephew. We are in the company of saints, an apostolic succession of rock history and Bruce is very clear of his place in the stream.
     I think Bruce has enormous cross generational possibility that could teach the Church something about collaboration across the generations. He both reaches back and looks forward in ways that ought to feel familiar to the Church. This is the same guy who records the Seeger Sessions as collaborates with the guitarist Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. Morello is 49- Bruce is 64. Morello first subbed for Steve Van Zant in 2008. If you’ve not heard Morello and Springsteen play “The Ghost of Tom Joad” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, please do so immediately. Bruce is omnivorous in his music consumption too. At a concert last week in New Zealand, Bruce covered the New Zealand singer Lorde’s song “Royals” which just won song of the year at the Grammys. Lorde is 17.
     I learned of Bruce from my parents. I’m a second generation Bruce fan. My vinyl record of “Greetings from Asbury Park” first belonged to my Dad, who was raised in NJ. Bruce is just a year older than my Dad. Rick and Mary Everett are like something out of a Springteen song. (Tell the story of their meeting)
     Bruce is a cross-over figure: as someone who works on issues of Christian unity, between divided parts of the church, I have special admiration for those who stand in-between worlds. Bruce is an affluent straight white male who can still reach a working class demographic with his music. There’s sometimes a tension between the more liberal politics of Springteen that reach out ahead of where his middle-american fan base is.
      Bruce is story teller, a patron saint for preachers and evangelist. I think he can teach us lots about what makes for a good public narrative.  Hear Bruce’s own words about storytelling “…First of all, everybody has a memory when you were eleven years old and you were walking down a particular street on a certain day, and the trees—there was a certain wind blowing through the trees and the way that the sound of your feet made on the stones as you came up the drive and the way the light hit a particular house. Everyone has memories they carry with them for no particular reason and these things live within you—you had some moment of pure experience that revealed to you what it meant to be alive, what it means to be alive, what the stakes are, the wind on a given day, how important it is, or what you can do with your life. That’s the writer’s job…to  present that experience to an audience who then experience their own inner vitality, their own center, their own questions about their own life  and their moral life…and there’s a connection made. That’s what keeps you writing, that’s what keeps you wanting to write that next song, because you can do that, and because if I do it for you, I do it for me.” Can you hear the Gospel truth?
     For me, and maybe for others, Bruce teaches us a certain way to be adults. Messy, messed up, hopeful, human adults: In his words “Adult life is dealing with an enormous amount of questions that don’t have answers. So I let the mystery settle into my music. I don’t deny anything, I don’t advocate anything, I just live with it.”
     For Bruce, storytelling is a discipline: 2005 VHI Episode of Storytellers Bruce said “”Over 30 years, you internalize your craft, and the mechanics of storytelling becomes like a second language,” Springsteen says after singing The Rising. “You speak without thinking, like a second skin you feel with. So you pray to the gods of creativity and aliveness that you remain awake, and alert, and in command of your senses, so that when the moments arrive, you are ready.”
     There’s intention and craft to his performance: From a 2005 interview with British Novelist Nick Hornsby (High Fidelity, About a Boy): “There is a presentation and I think being aware of the fact that there’s a show going on is a good idea (laughs) (2). I think it fell into some disrepute when the idea of the show became linked to falseness in some fashion, which is a superficial way to look at it. It’s actually a bridge when used appropriately. It’s simply a bridge for your ideas to reach the audience. It assists the music in connecting and that’s what you’re out there for. I think if you do it wrong, you can diminish your work, but if you do it right you can lightly assist what you’re doing. It can be an enormous asset in reaching people with what might be otherwise difficult material.”
     What makes his story telling work? Let’s build a list:
 (the group gave ideas about what makes Bruce a good storyteller, things like authenticity, the particulars of his stories but the universality of his themes, honesty about how hard life is…)
      Let’s examine why Bruce’s storytelling works:
(at this point, we break into groups of 4-5 to closely examine Bruce’s lyrics. We had worked with the text of about 15 songs) Here’s an example:
——————–

Un-Quiet Day: Bruce Springsteen, Prophet of Hope  Saturday March 8, 2014  #TheologyOfBruce

Exegesis of Bruce

Your group’s task is a close read of Bruce Springsteen song lyrics as you might study a section of Scripture.  Imagine you are preaching or teaching with this “text” and answer the following questions:

  1. What is your thesis? What is the main message this “text” is trying to communicate?
  2. Where do you hear the “Good News” in this text?

IF I SHOULD FALL BEHIND (1992) Album’s version

  1. We said we’d walk together baby come what may
  2. That come the twilight should we lose our way
  3. If as we’re walkin a hand should slip free
  4. I’ll wait for you
  5. And should I fall behind
  6. Wait for me
  7. We swore we’d travel darlin’ side by side
  8. We’d help each other stay in stride
  9. But each lover’s steps fall so differently
  10. But I’ll wait for you
  11. And if I should fall behind
  12. Wait for me
  13. Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true
  14. But you and I know what this world can do
  15. So let’s make our steps clear that the other may see
  16. And I’ll wait for you
  17. If I should fall behind
  18. Wait for me
  19. Now there’s a beautiful river in the valley ahead
  20. There ‘neath the oak’s bough soon we will be wed
  21. Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees
  22. I’ll wait for you
  23. And should I fall behind
  24. Wait for me
  25. Darlin’ I’ll wait for you
  26. Should I fall behind
  27. Wait for me

Released on Lucky Town in 1992.

The song was played frequently during The Seeger Sessions Tour. Thanks to http://www.springsteenlyrics.com/ for the lyrics. 

Unprepared: A Sermon on Luke 21: 5-19

Sunday November 17, 2013 at West Parish of Barnstable, United Church of Christ

The 1717 meeting house of West Parish in Barnstable (can you see the green tarp on the roof?)

The 1717 meeting house of West Parish in Barnstable (can you see the green tarp on the roof?)

Luke 21:5-19 // When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

We were trying to be reverential. Heads were bowed, hands were clasped in prayer. But somewhere, deep in the background you could hear the light clink of glass hitting glass and the hum of a far off a vacuum cleaner. With our eyes set on the floor below us, I could see a little bit of glitter from the night before still sticking to the shiny, waxed floor. It’s not always easy to be reverential when your trying to have a Sunday morning worship service in a banquet hall. But that’s where Grace Church of the Southern Berkshires met for worship after the wall of their church fell in. Let us pray…

It is not lost on me, and I suspect not on you either, that we’re studying a text about buildings falling down while sitting under the green tarp over your roof in the oldest congregational meeting house still in use today. For the record, I didn’t pick this text! This lesson from Luke is assigned today in the Revised Common Lectionary, the series of Scripture readings that move over a 3 year cycle. By following the Revised Common Lectionary today, we are hearing the same text that many other Christians around the world are studying as well.  We are also approaching the end of the church year, and the beginning of Advent. During this time, the Scripture readings get darker, more foreboding. They talk of the end times. They talk of the trials and tribulations to come for Jesus’ followers. As the days get shorter and the light fades for us in the Northern hemisphere, the readings also turn darker as we wait for the light of Christ to enter the world.

Luke tells of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem. This story is set on around maybe Tuesday of Holy Week- Jesus has already entered the city on a donkey, is still teaching and preaching while the leaders look for a way to arrest him.  The days of his trial and crucifixion are coming soon. Jesus is giving some final instruction to his followers about what the days ahead will be like.

The people around Jesus are talking about the beauty and impressiveness of the Temple- “adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” Jesus sees a teaching opportunity. Jesus says in verse 6, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” We are not just talking about a few stones tumbling too the ground, but every, single stone. When the Gospel of Mark tells this story, the disciples exclaim “What large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1) The historian Paula Fredriksen notes that the outer court of the Temple could hold 400,000 people. The Temple is massive. The Temple was impressive, grand, an evocative place to worship and remember the sovereignty of God.  Standing in that court, Jesus said “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The parishioners of Grace Church in Southern Berkshires saw the stones of their house of worship thrown down. Grace Church is actually a merger of two congregations, St. James Episcopal Church of Great Barrington and St. George Episcopal Church of Lee. They’ve had done the hard work of joining into one parish.  But before they merged, on July 31, 2008, the rear wall of St. James collapsed. The stones fell onto the priest’s car, a priest that had just arrived at the church 8 months earlier.  St. James was founded in 1762 by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, back when western MA was considered a foreign land.  It was the oldest church in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and they were proud of those stones laid down in 1857. Those stones that soaked in the prayers of the faithful since before the Civil War; stones that withstood snowstorm after snowstorm; stones that stood long enough to see the same people baptized and buried and their children baptized and buried; stones that had been held together by the mortar of a faithful community- those blue lime stones came tumbling to the ground.  After the stones came down, there was a hole you could see straight through in the back of the church.

When Jesus tells the people that the stones of the Temple will come tumbling down, they get nervous. I have sympathy for these people. Jesus speaks of massive upheaval, even more massive than the falling down of a single limestone church. Jesus tells of earthquakes, famines, plagues, arrests and persecution. Jesus tells of the Temple falling, the tearing down of the thing that’s supposed to represent the most stability in their lives. The Temple was the dwelling place of God for a people who had been in exile in a foreign land.  The Temple was stable, holy, massive. And now Jesus says it’s all coming down? The people want answers. They want a timeline.  They want a meeting with the architect. And probably the buildings and grounds committee and definitely the town historic buildings commission. They want to attend to deferred maintenance. In Verse 7, they asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” They ask, Jesus, could you give us some advanced warning? Could we put up some scaffolding and make some repairs to hold this off a bit longer? Could we prop it up with beams until we can complete our capital campaign? Could we cover it over with a tarp?

Worship at Grace Church in the banquet hall

Worship at Grace Church in the banquet hall

After the stones came down at St. James, things chaotic and utterly predictable began to happen: the town inspector declared the church uninhabitable, which made sense given that there was a giant hole in the wall. All the non-profits and twelve-step groups and community organizations that had been meeting in the church scattered. When a few parishioners finally snuck back in a month later, the brown paper bagged sandwiches were still on the parish hall tables from the community youth theatre group. In the months that followed, they worshiped in a conference room of a local hospital. They considered offers from neighboring UCC congregations to share space. They moved around, packing up the communion ware each Sunday and storing it in the trunks of parishioner’s cars. In the end, they ended up selling the building, and renting space in a banquet hall, which is where I ended up guest preaching 5 years after the wall fell in. Jesus said to those gathered with him at the Temple in Jerusalem, “this will give you an opportunity to testify.”

But we are unprepared, the disciples wail! We are so used to thinking our preparedness will save us. I am supremely guilty of this myself- that foreboding sense that if I just read more, just study more, just research more, I’ll be ready for whatever comes in our unstable world. But our devotion to preparedness is a bit of a national mania in a country that gives us such television shows like Doomsday Preppers about those stockpiling for the end of the world, and shows like Extreme Couponing about those stockpiling toilet paper ,10 for a dollar. Do you remember the push to prepare for Y2K?  As Americans, we think preparedness is an ultimate virtue. Shoot, in America, 75% of people wrongly believe the Bible says that “God helps those who help themselves.” . And no doubt, some preparation is good and life saving. You who live near the chaos of the ocean know better than any that listening to the warnings to evacuate during a storm can save lives. But I think in this, Jesus is pressing on something different, not our practical preparedness but our ultimate trust.

When I read this passage for the first time this week in our weekly small staff bible study, I honestly felt like I had never heard Luke 21:14 before in my life. Ever. I have no recollection of this line of scripture. It is so thoroughly and totally countercultural. Here is Jesus, talking about the unfathomable that the giant stones of the Temple will fall even as he points to the destruction and rejection of his own body. After talking about all the hardships that are to come for Jesus’ followers, Jesus says “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.”  Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. And it’s even more strongly put in the original Greek.  In the Greek, the verb is an imperative: “Put it in your hearts not to prepare your defense.”  It’s a command. How can Jesus make such demands on a scared people who may just be losing everything that gave them stability and security? In verse 15 Jesus promises, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  Jesus invites those who can hear him, don’t anchor your faith in these stones, but in the one who rolls away the stone.

Three weeks ago I got to preside at communion touching the pewter that our forbearers used in 1863. To the young child and her grandmother coming forward for communion, I got to offer the very same cup of the new and everlasting life that was offered to generations before them. I love our traditions, too.

But clinging to our pewter and our roofs and our flood insurance and our 1857 Gothic stone churches as if they are God will not save us.  Yale Prof & theologian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in his 1984 book The Vindication of Tradition:  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”

This is your opportunity to testify; I’ll give you the words and wisdom. In Luke, Jesus isn’t saying, “look for the silver lining when the stones come down.” It’s not a glib faith that looks for the good when everything around you fails. Jesus isn’t that smug. But he does say: “this is your opportunity to testify.” To say and live what you really believe, deep down. To practice that our faith is not in our buildings, but in our God.

You know this. It is built into the DNA of this congregation. Your ancestors did not sit in jail in London for the freedom to build a new building. Your ancestors didn’t sit in jail, didn’t labor across the ocean, didn’t survive New England winters in order to have a pretty building. The buildings were the tool for, not the same thing as, the worship of God. Our buildings are important, sometimes even critical for ministry, but they are not the same thing as the faithfulness that Jesus invites us to.

After the stones came down at St. James, something new was unearthed outside the walls of the old gothic church. At Advent that year, some church members went down to a local organic farm to make Advent wreaths with the Sunday School kids- which they had to do at a farm since they no longer had an inhabitable church.  One of the children said, “wouldn’t it be great if we had a farm to feed hungry people?” And they started to imagine. Gideon’s Garden started out as 1/3 of an acre of donated land on that organic farm. First it was just the church children growing a little bit of food for fun. Now it’s the Sunday School kids, local kids who come afterschool, a summer program with teen mentors and now the children of the migrant farm workers.

Gideon's Farm

When I visited in September to guest preach, they had expanded the farm to 3 acres, with all of the food grown by the children going to the local WIC program and food pantries.  There are more people connecting with the church through this garden than ever came through the stone arches of the sanctuary. When the stones came down, Jesus said “Thiswill give you an opportunity to testify.”

I don’t know what’s ahead for our country, or our church, or your roof, or for any of us tomorrow. All I have is this strange promise from Jesus inviting us to relax a bit, to stop our frantic preparations, to  “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I will give you words and wisdom.” I think that is the promise that our forbearers in the faith clung to as well.  May this promise be the rock to which you cling through the storms ahead. Amen.

 

 

Brokenness as Kindling: A Sermon on 2 Timothy 1: 1-14

South Walpole United Methodist Church

Sunday Oct 6, 2013 World Communion Sunday & Blessings of the Animals

2 Timothy 1:1-14Image

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.

6For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

They sat on the cool linoleum floor together at the seaside cabin having an indoor picnic when the summer thunderstorms drove them inside. They baked Swedish pastries, dozens and dozens, every year in the days leading up to Christmas, leaving the house smelling like yeast and a faint hint of cardamom. And especially, her granddaughters and nieces and nephews remember her teaching them how to sew, first potholders and pajama bottoms, things with straight lines. One after another, I heard the grandchildren of the deceased stand up and recall the sweet times with their grandmother. And then the people from her church rose to speak about the ways she diligently taught Scripture to those new in the faith. I sat in the back of the funeral thinking of my own grandmother, who loved me from a distance, but never taught me to sew. She loved me as best as she could, I suppose, but her schizophrenia and anger at the Church and all the damage that had been done to her put distance between us. St. Paul writes to Timothy “ 5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Will you pray with me?  … Amen.

It makes so much sense, really. They grow so fast, they get so dirty. There’s no need to create more disposable stuff in the world. Most of the time, hand me downs are a good thing. Gently worn, broken in, assured that they do what they were designed to do. A friend spoke of the strange, lovely experience of having the clothes he gave to his cousin’s for their first child gifted back to him when his son was born. Another friend told me of the pleasure in wrapping her hands around the wooden planning tool, smoothed by years of wear in her grandfather’s hands.  And another pastor, waiting to have her first child any day now, told me of receiving baby clothes from other friends, with initials of the previous children already on the tag. She took out the Sharpie marker and added the initials of her own child.  Good hand-me-downs are the ones we’ve outgrown, but not worn out.

The scripture lesson today thinks of faith as something that’s handed down. St. Paul writes a letter to Timothy. Well not actually, Paul. It seems like the letter was written around 10 years after Paul’s death. This second letter to Timothy has much at stake in preserving Paul’s reputation & Timothy’s as the Church around them is changing. In the opening of this letter, we get the great lineage of a faith passed down from “ your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” to Timothy. Given the high praise and the relatively few women actually named in scripture, you’d think we’d have more children named Lois and Eunice. The faith of the matriarchs is praised. It’s a gift from one generation to the next, a family inheritance worth preserving.

A few days ago, we marked the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  Giovanni was called Francis by his father, so everyone else did too. Francis was born into the family of successful cloth merchants in central Italy.  Fine brocade from France, thick wool from Germany, lush silk from far away lands that could barely be imagined. Like his father before him, Francis was expected to take over the family business. To his surprise and everyone else’s, Francis underwent a conversion over time, and heard the voice of Christ say “Francis, repair my church.” He came home, sold his horse and some of his father’s cloth and gave the money to a priest. His father was furious and dragged Francis before the bishop to talk some sense back into him. First his shoes, then his socks, then pants and shirt- Francis took off all his clothes, the fabric from his father, and handed them back- standing naked before his Father in heaven, for whom he would serve the rest of his days.

Sometimes the hand-me down clothes from our family don’t fit. There is no way I would ever fit into my mother’s size 2 wedding dress from 1972. Francis could not go into his father’s line of work. And sometimes the hand-me-downs from our family are so tight, so ill-fitting as to do harm.  The British poet Philip Larkin wrote “ This Be The Verse.”

They f*ck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were f*cked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

(I did not say ‘f*ck’ from the pulpit, but the English major in me can’t abide in changing a poet’s precisely chosen words)

Harsh words by one who is has been wounded by family. Our families don’t always pass down the faith. Part of the scandal and genius of Christianity is that we are part of this crazy, unwieldy, global, cross-generational community not by lineage or ethnicity or nation, but by this strange affiliation in faith.  Faith is a gift, not something to be earned. It may be a gift from your family, or from. But wherever faith comes from, it comes not from us, but from our contact with one another. We do not practice Christianity in splendid isolation away from the mess and gift of human relationships. We are bound together in faith. You are my brothers and sisters in Christ, you who I do not know and never met before, as much as the faithful at Grace Episcopal Church in Great Barrington who I was with last week or the people of First Congregational Church of West Tisbury before that, as much as every church around the world reading this same scripture lesson today because of the ecumenical innovation of the Revised Common Lectionary, and as much as St. Francis is or Eunice is. Even as St Paul is praising Timothy’s family history of faithfulness, Paul is building a new set of family relations. Paul is a sort of spiritual godparent to Timothy, bound not by blood or family lines but by faith. The childless Paul claims Timothy his “beloved child.” For those among us whose families did not or could not reflect the parental love of God, these new bonds are indeed good news.

But for this author writing in Paul’s name, being a part of the family of faith isn’t enough. Timothy doesn’t get faith from his mother and grandmother like a set of silverware passed down. Timothy has his own relationship to this gift of faith, and his own obligation to tend this fire. In verse 6, Paul says “6For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.” Rekindle the gift of God that is within you. It is not enough to have the faith passed on from our ancestors, blood relatives or not. Faith has to be rekindled anew in each generation and for each person.

In the first US edition Scouting for Girls: Official Handbook of the Girl Scouts, published in 1920, the guide to camping says this:

The forest floor is always littered with old leaves, dead sticks and fallen trees. During a drought this rubbish is so tinder-dry that a spark falling in it may start a conflagration; but through a great part of the leaves and sticks that lie flat on the ground are too moist at least on their under side, to ignite readily. If we rake together a pile of leaves, cover it higgledy-piggledy with dead twigs and branches picked up at random, and set a match to it, the odds are that it will result in nothing but a quick blaze that soon dies down to a smudge. Yet that is the way most of us tried to make our first outdoor fires.

The Girl Scout Guide goes on to direct the novice camper on how to make the proper fire for the proper activity, naming three main types of fires: “1. quick hot little fire that will boil water in a jiffy and will soon burn down to embers that are not too ardent for frying; or a 2. A solid bed of long-lived coals that will keep up a steady, glowing, smokeless heat for baking, roasting or slow boiling; or 3 a big log fire that will throw its heat forward on the ground and into a tent or a lean-to and will last several hours without replenishing.” With all these fires, the initial task is the same. The Girl Scout guidebook is clear. You need kindling to start a fire. You cannot simply strike a match to a log. You cannot start with the biggest logs, but instead begin with tinder. To kindle a fire, we gather up broken things. Dead things. Charred things. To rekindle our relationship with God, we have to bring forward the kindling of our lives.

Ever time we approach the table where bread will be broken, we confess our own brokenness and our participation in broken systems. We confess that we are as spiteful and partisan as Congress,  that our divisive words embolden theirs. We confess our broken relationships with one another and the toxic bile of our resentment. We confess the ways we have been given this gift of faith in Christ Jesus but fail to take the time to tend the fire. We confess our brokenness and come to be made whole by broken bread. God doesn’t want to work with our big logs burning brightly that we’ve so proudly placed upon the fire, but with our tinder, our kindling, our brokenness. Throughout Scripture, God’s not working with the polished and complete, but broken people again and again.  Here, in our brokenness, in our tinder and lint and twigs of our life, all the things left for dead and cast aside, here is what God wants to use to fuel the fire of faith.

In her 1995 book “The Fire in these Ashes”, the Benedictine Roman Catholic nun Joan Chittester tells the story of the Irish custom of starting the first fire in a new home from the already heated coals of fires from other homes of family or community members. The fire must come from somewhere, but in each new home, it blazes anew. Speaking of our religious practices, Chittester writes, “’We are not the first generation for whom this is the content of our lives, but unless we do it with all our hearts, another generation may not get the opportunity to do the same, to warm themselves at the same fire, to heat the world with the coals of their lives.”

The life of faith is a constant process of kindly and rekindling the fire. The life of faith is not a Duraflame all prepackaged and contained. The life of faith is not a 12 hour video loop of the Yule Log. The life of faith blazes and dies back to embers, leaving ashes that can still give off enough heat to light the kindling anew. It’s a constant process of rekindling, of gathering up the brokenness of our lives and asking the Holy Spirit to ignite us again. There is still heat in these embers, Church. A rekindled fire is possible, if we bring the tinder of our lives before God. May it be so. Amen.