South Walpole United Methodist Church
Sunday Oct 6, 2013 World Communion Sunday & Blessings of the Animals
“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.