Monday, October 25, 2010

Proper 25C. 24 October 2010.

Click here and select the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost for the audio version


 

          I am back to preaching on the second letter to Timothy today.  I'm sure you remember from a couple sermons ago that the letters to Timothy probably didn't really come from Paul.  We don't know who wrote them, but as the New Testament took shape over the first 400 years of the church, the letters to Timothy were accepted, despite their unknown authorship. 

 

          I remember, when I was a seminarian, talking about this with a group of people and at a certain point one man in the group became very anxious.  He thought I was saying that because we don't know who wrote these letters that they were less valid, or shouldn't be in the Bible.  Of course, that was the furthest thing from my mind.  The reason why the Church has kept these letters is because—no matter who wrote them—they are obviously inspired by the Holy Spirit and the truth they contain has stood the test of time.

 

          It is likely that the portion we read from today is etiological.  Etiology is a description of why or how something came to be.  Quite often you will find this genre of writing in the Bible.  People didn't keep exact histories.  The Church loves etiology. 

 

          I know of a church where the Altar Guild would set out—next to the wine and bread—a drinking straw made of sterling silver.  Every Sunday it was put on the credence table next to the Altar, and every Sunday it was lovingly put away.  No one ever touched it.  The priest didn't use it for anything.  No one talked about it because everyone knew why it was there.            Time passed, and priests cycled through, and ladies came off the Altar Guild, and no one wrote down what the silver straw was for, because, well…everyone knew, even though they didn't.  Eventually it was believed that the straw was for stirring the water and wine.  That was the etiology.  It was the description of why the straw came to be, based on the information available and the best guess.

 

          Well, one day a new rector was celebrating the Eucharist and noticed the straw and asked what it was for.  The etiology made no sense, because water and wine don't need to be stirred.  After consulting with some long standing members it was discovered that years ago there was a very wealthy parishioner who had commissioned the silver straw because she suffered with lock jaw and still wanted to receive from the chalice.  She had died years ago, but the Altar Guild continued to put the straw out.

 

          There is so much about the life of Paul we do not know, but we know that he was such a formative person in the early church that people wanted to know more about him.  In second Timothy, the author has given us a faithful idea of what Paul might have wanted to say from prison towards the end of his life.  So this is our text:

 

I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

          It is clear that the author wishes to take us into Paul's mind in the last days of his life—"the time of my departure has come"—he writes, so these words are meant to sound like Paul's last words. 

 

          Last words—especially the last words of a notable person—are always meant to be received with great reverence.  They have the weight of the person's life behind them.  Deuteronomy 33 gives us the last words of Moses—that he would not be entering the Promised Land with the Hebrew people.  The author of 2 Samuel (chapter 23) gives us the last words of David.  Last words are serious words. 

 

          Any celebration of the Holy Eucharist is a re-enactment of some of Jesus' last words.  "On the night he was handed over to suffering and death"…he took bread and wine and said,  "this is my body,"  "this is my blood."  Last words.  Powerful.

 

          So Paul says, "I am already being poured out as a libation."  It was an old custom—dating back to the religions of antiquity—that a drink offering would be poured out for a deity.  You see this metaphor come through Abraham's sharing of wine with Melchizedeck, and the suffering servant in Isaiah, who is poured out.  When Jesus says that the wine is his blood and that we are to drink it, he turns that custom on it's ear a little bit, and says—I'm poured out for you, as well as for the Father. 

 

 

 

          The author of second Timothy wants us to think of Paul considering himself "poured out," but what he doesn't say is that the custom of pouring out libations is a community experience.  What Paul is implying is—I am being poured out, so now it is your turn to pour yourself out.  Paul is saying—This is it for me.  I am on my way.  It is your turn to lead the Church until Christ returns.

 

          He continues, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing."  (Pause.)

 

          I don't know how you feel about these words.  I am very comforted by that second sentence about God being a righteous judge who will approve of me one day along with all the other Christians who have longed for Christ's returning.  But that other sentence—or perhaps set of sentences— bothers me a little bit:  "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

 

          At first I thought it was because of my age in life.  You know, when you're my age you hope that life will continue to open out.  You want to see your children grow; you want to serve the Gospel more effectively.  When you're still on the front nine, you don't like to think about the back nine.  And here is Paul—putting his clubs in the trunk and returning his cart to the clubhouse.   I wondered if that was my problem.  But no.  It's not that. 

 

          And then I wondered if it was because Paul seemed so satisfied passing the cup to the next generation.  Paul can say, "I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith."  Because he has.  He really has.  If Paul's life is to be the standard by which Christians are measured, I'm afraid there aren't many people who will make it into heaven.  Paul emerged from his Pharisee background to become arguably the most influential Christian ever.  He founded churches, traveled extensively preaching the Gospel, got shipwrecked, got thrown in jail—all for the utter conviction that Jesus is the Messiah and that God loved everyone. 

 

          You look at the life of Paul, and here he is passing the torch, and who among us feels adequate to receive it?  I don't.  I would almost bet anything that Timothy didn't either.  I'm not sure I will ever be able to say that I have fought the good fight.  I might be able to say that I have kept the faith—but keep the faith as Paul kept the faith..?

 

          You start to compare your life with others and it can become a very painful thing to do—especially when you pluck out those people who are unusually gifted.  Musicians live in a kind of brooding admiration for Mozart.  Poets idolize Shakespeare.  You could fill in the blanks here. 

 

          Why do we do this?  I don't know.  (Pause.)  I think we reach a tipping point at some point at which we no longer judge ourselves next to others.  It's a happy day.  I can't wait to get there.  If you have arrived at that place, then perhaps you should be preaching right now, instead of me.

 

          It's not a good thing to measure ourselves next to St. Paul, or Beethoven, or whoever.  They weren't perfect.  You hear the symphonies, but you don't see the dysfunction in their lives.  You read the books, but you don't see the author's longing for greater gifts of imagination.  (Pause.)

 

          I want you to think for a moment about your life.  But please, let's not be so critical.  Sometimes people like me step into a pulpit and it seems like everything we say carries with it an implicit criticism.  The preacher holds up virtue and the people consider their vice.  Can we just suspend all of those churchy thoughts? 

 

          I'm on your side.  I really am.  I find that the more I live the Christian life, the less I am able to claim authority in the things of God.  What I offer you is my very best guess at what I think God wants us to know. 

 

          So with that in mind, consider your life, knowing that you cannot change the past.  You were born as you were born.  You were a handful.  You were loved enough that someone changed your diapers and fed you and held you.  Without that love, you would not be here.  None of us would. 

         

          You grew up.  You made mistakes.  You were disciplined by people who did not know how much to be strict, and how much to be permissive.  Some of your parents were too strict.  Some not enough.  But you survived, and became an adult.  Adulthood brought challenges you could never have foreseen—and thank goodness, because you would never have chosen them, if you had had a choice. 

 

          I'm asking you to consider what you have come through.  All of it.  Good and bad.  Rich and poor.  Sickness and health.  All of the waters you have navigated and choices you have made.  Some where good choices, some were not.  As you look back, you wish that you had known then what you know now—but be careful, because there is so much that you did not know then, and do not know now

 

          You survived all of this.  You woke up this morning and came to church after all of this.  Everything you've been through is sitting right there beside you in that pew.  And I want you to hear me say, on behalf of the Church, and on behalf—I hope—of Almighty God:  "Congratulations."  "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."  (Pause.)

 

          I don't believe that any of you would be here in church today if you weren't already trying to live the very best life you can.  (Pause.)  My guess is that every decision you make, you consider carefully.  And your decisions carry the force of experience and the best of intentions.

 

          You have survived the human experience up till now, and after this service, you will go back to lives that you have structured by your decisions and backgrounds, and you will continue to do your very best, as you probably always have.

 

          No one has ever had it easy.  Everyone is dealt their own cards.  Every day there are choices and problems and frustrations.  It's nothing short of a miracle that we have all made it to this point. 

 

          I am saying this, because I doubt very seriously that anyone else will.  But you deserve to hear it, because it's the truth:  You have fought the good fight.  You have run the race.  You have kept the faith.  There is laid up for you—just as surely as was laid up for Paul—a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give you on that day.

 

          You are just as worthy as Paul to receive the Gospel of Christ and pass it along, as best you can.  The Gospel of Christ is not a condemnation of the lives we have been given, but a promise that those who have done their best to fulfill it will be redeemed of all their sins, and be welcome in God's presence for all eternity.  "To him be the glory forever and ever." (2 Timothy 4:18) 

 

          And to you be the support and courage you need to live the remainder of your holy life.

 

-o0o-

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Proper 23C. 10 October 2010.

For the audio, Click Here and then click the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

 

          We have been reading through Luke's gospel this year.  I took a brief hiatus from preaching on Luke, but I'm back with him today.  Luke was a very orderly writer.  In fact he says as much in the very first verses of his gospel.  He writes,

 

"Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account…so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed." (Luke 1:1-4)

 

 

If you go through Luke's gospel you will discover that it stands out from the others as being orderly to the point of elegance.  I don't use the word elegance much in describing prose.  But Luke's gospel, read as a whole, is an epic drama with themes and plots and teachings and miracles, all carefully blended together into an almost seamless narrative. 

 

          Think for a moment about the task of writing the story of Jesus.  Luke had Mark's and Matthew's gospels, but aside from that not much except the stories of people who remembered bits and pieces. 

 

          And there are so many aspects to writing the story of Jesus.  It's a biography, a textbook, a collection of miracle stories, all with the overlay of Christ's journey to the Cross and Resurrection.  There are battles with the Pharisees and scribes.  There are near imprisonments, crowds, women with no names.  Parts of stories where one person says it goes this way and someone says no it's like this…and Luke had to bring the story together from that.  When you think of all the genres of writing—history, poetry, etiology, commentary (judicious commentary)—all written with tender affection, but respectful distance…  What I'm trying to say is that when you read Luke, you are reading one of the most deftly written pieces of literature ever produced.

 

          In trying to be orderly, Luke collects stories and offers them in thematic units.  Parables come in a unit of material.  Healings come in a unit.  Yet not all of them fit comfortably together, because sometimes it can be difficult to place a story. When we come to the story of the ten lepers who were cleansed, Luke gives us some indication of when this happened.  "On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee." 

         

          "On the way to Jerusalem" is a pretty broad category, it could be any time after chapter nine (9:51), where Luke writes that Jesus had "set his face" to go to Jerusalem.  The journey to Jerusalem is not just a geographical, physical journey.  This is a theme in Luke.  It is like the suspenseful music that plays when the good guys are about to be discovered by the bad guys.

 

          When we read "On the way to Jerusalem" we are meant to think, "On the way to the Cross."  Luke is playing the suspenseful music, because even though "Jerusalem" is not for another two chapters, we are leading up to it—we are headed for the climax of the story.

 

          Jesus enters a village and ten lepers approach him.  They keep their distance, of course, because that's what they were supposed to do.  The Levitical law says that lepers must live outside the village limits.  They call out to Jesus, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." 

 

          So Jesus goes over and lays hands on them and they recover, and he sends them on their way.  Wait a minute…  No.  That's not how the story goes.  Jesus neither goes over to them, nor advises them to go home.  He simply says, "Go and show yourselves to the priests."  Now, why the priests?  Well, you have to understand that whenever you are talking about leprosy, you are talking about the judgment of the priests.  

 

          Under the Levitical law, a priest had to make a determination about the severity of the illness.  A priest of the Temple had to determine whether someone could live in the community, or needed to be quarantined.  Likewise, if someone somehow recovered, the priest had to verify the recovery in order for the person to be welcomed back into society.  When Jesus says, "Go and show yourself to the priests," he is saying, "You're healed.  Now go take care of the law so you can get back to your family."

 

         

 

          This is a pretty miraculous story.  Ten lepers.  Ten!  And leprosy was the kind of disease that was often incurable—so there was shame in having it, shame in a family for someone having it.  All ten get cleansed of their disease so instantly and so powerfully, that Jesus doesn't even bat an eye before sending them off to get re-integrated in society, and reunited with their families.  It's really quite beautiful when you think about it.  Ten people with an illness that brought shame on their families were instantly healed…major, major miracle. 

 

          And they all fall down on their knees before Jesus, and they give praise to God for the power of the moment, the healing of their bodies, the healing of their families' shame.  They fall down at Jesus' feet and they kiss the ground he walks on…   Except that they don't. 

 

          They went on their way as Jesus instructed, and only one of them turns around and says thank you.  And you're not going to believe which one did that.  A Samaritan.  An outsider.  And Jesus asks, "Where not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner."  And then Jesus says to the Samaritan, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

 

          You might remember the verse better from the King James Version, "thy faith hath made thee whole."  And you would be right in noticing the distinction there between being healed, and made whole.  It goes back to the Greek.  The word for cleansed or healed is άθη, but then the word used for "made whole" is σώζω. 

          Σώζω can mean simply healed, but it can also be "made whole," cured, restored, preserved, delivered.  When translated into English, it's almost invariably rendered "saved"—as in eternal salvation.

 

          "Salvation" is a very churchy word.  Usually it means that someone has embraced the faith of Christ—they have become persuaded to become a Christian, and ever since the early church we've called that "saved."  The word σώζω got stuck somewhere between "acceptance of Christ" and "going to heaven," and it is no longer free to embrace us with its comprehensive meaning.  We like to parse it into the two words: "healing" and "salvation."  And it's understandable why we would do that. 

 

          In the first century Hebrew mind, the body and soul were one.  If I were to take a survey, I am sure that you would say that the body and soul are independent of one another.  That's because Greek philosophy is deeply ingrained in our culture.  It goes back to ancient Greece that the body is an animal, and the soul contains all the nobler virtues.  The soul is the consciousness.  In a civilized, noble person, the soul rules the body.  In the uncivilized, ignoble person, the body ignores the soul and does whatever it pleases. 

 

          We want to separate healing from salvation because we don't accept the belief that sickness is a product of some moral failing or sin.  You and I could easily list devout people who have wrestled with chronic or terminal illnesses who are "whole," or "saved" in the churchy sense of the word. 

 

          But I suspect that the reason why Jesus uses σώζω (instead of the weaker word άθη) for this man who returns is because the man recognizes what has happened to him and that recognition has pulled gratitude out of him.  In other words, all ten lepers were "saved" (made whole) but the difference between the tenth man and other nine is that he recognizes that he—that they—weren't merely healed

 

          Now, let me just back up a little bit to say that merely healed from leprosy is still a major deal!  The physical aspects of the disease are painful and disgusting.  When he is healed, he can go back to his job, his family, his synagogue, his life.  He has not just been healed—he has been saved, and he puts all of that together, recognizes it, and that recognition pulls the gratitude out. 

 

          "Your faith, your coming to me with this problem," says Jesus, "has made you complete."  (Pause.)

 

          Most requests for prayer are for healing.  We assume that healing will bring "wholeness," but it doesn't always.  You can be laid up for weeks with a sinus problem or some other malady, and even with God's healing of time and medicine you can come through and still not feel whole.  (Pause.)

 

          I was in the middle of working on this sermon when the telephone rang.  It was one of the preschool teachers.  Peter had fallen and hit his head on the sidewalk.  He was okay, but, of course, he was somewhat shaken by the whole thing. 

          I went over to see him.  He was sitting on this little couch with an ice pack on his head, being a brave little soldier.  As soon as he saw me, he burst into tears. 

 

          I picked him up and sat him on my lap.  My mind had been focused on this sermon all morning, and I had been trying to figure out the difference between healed and whole.  You see, there is obviously a difference there.  And when I looked down at my little boy who had just faced a kind of health scare for the first time apart from the comforting embrace of mommy and daddy, I felt like I could finally describe what the difference is. 

 

          Healing is healing.  What felt bad stops feeling bad.  That's healing.  Wholeness is healing that comes from someone who cares—someone who loves. 

 

          Ten lepers are made whole.  One of them recognizes that the healing is a sacrament of love.  The outward and visible healing is a symbol of the inward and spiritual love that comes from the Father, God.  The one leper understands this at some level, and, by giving thanks, embraces that salvation.

 

          I sat there with my son, reflexively kissing him on the forehead, on the place where his head touched the ground.  And there was something incredibly powerful in that moment between my giving of affection and the end of his tears.  I can't get in his head, but I think—I hope—he felt whole.  And I hope that one day he will translate that as feeling saved.

 

-o0o-

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Proper 22C. 3 October 2010.


 

          Last week, I preached on the lesson from 1 Timothy, and this week, the lesson from 2 Timothy caught my eye.  Both of the letters to Timothy name Paul as the author, however, we are fairly certain that Paul did not actually write the letters to Timothy.  Don't let this bother you.  We can assume that the author felt that his words would not be taken seriously if they did not drop from some height.  And that height is achieved by claiming Paul's voice.  So this is our text.  It is addressed to Timothy as if coming from Paul.  (2 Timothy 1:5-7)

I 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. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

This is the very beginning of the letter.  And it feels like one.  I am old enough to remember a time when people wrote letters.  In fact, just recently, I received a large envelope from a friend of mine who is a retired priest, asking for my input on a theological article he had written.  I was very honored to be asked.

 

          I read his article with interest, just before the undertow of Summer took hold, and I spent some time in careful thought about how to respond.  I lived with his article the way I live the lessons for preaching.  Bit by bit, however, I forgot to respond, until somewhere between Nashville and Jackson, Tennessee while driving to Texas, I remembered.  I decided that the very first thing I would do, when I next sat down at my desk, was to hand-write a letter apologizing for the delay, giving my opinion, and assuring my friend of my regard.  And I did that.  I wrote a ten page letter, single spaced.  I was clearly out of practice.  You could see my penmanship deteriorate over the course of the letter.

          But it started out like all letters do with a greeting and devout wishes that the person receiving the letter is well and happy and will be pleased to consider your words.  That is precisely the language of this text, except that this is not a letter written to an equal.  This is a letter from an apostle of the Church to a faithful leader of the Church.  It is much more like a letter from a father to a son.

          And the author indicates this by saying "I 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."  You get the message.  I knew your grandmother and your mother.  They were people of strong faith.  And you and your faith is a product of them.

          These are very personal words.  They have that mixture of fatherly love, but with a little bit of a "look here, sonny boy…I know you…" 

 

          And he writes, "For this reason, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline."

          So we can gather from those words the general thrust of this letter.  "C'mon Timothy.  Wake up!  Rekindle the gift of God within you.  It's time to get to work. 

          What has happened to Timothy?  We don't know for sure.  We can only guess, but it is very clear that the first heady days of faith have waned, and that Timothy is in some kind of malaise. 

          I like how the Paul says, "I remind you to rekindle the gift of God.."  There are other words that could have been chosen.  I remind you to "stir up" the gift.  "Stir up" implies a faith that has perhaps settled and become complacent.  Or maybe, "revive."  That actually sounds much more "Christian" in a way—to revive—to bring life back.  Revitalize.  Renew.  Restore.  Restart.  Reinvigorate.  Refresh.  There are any number of good words that could have been chosen, but the word that was finally selected was "rekindle."  If I were preaching to a city church, I might have to explain the word "rekindle."  But we are in the land of Apple butter and woodstoves. 

          I really like that word "rekindle."  Nowadays a kindle is something you read from, but the word kindle has a venerable lineage.  It's great-grandfather was probably kynda—from the Old Norse language.  From there kynda travelled to England, got married to a bunch of crazy Anglo-Saxon letters and produced a son:  gecynd in the Old English. 

          Gecynd married a genteel English family and they had a Middle English son: kindelen—meaning "to give birth to." –isn't that something?  But kindelen was kind of a wild child.  He bounced around the Medieval era and finally moved into a commune with other English words and produced kindle along with the meaning that is—oddly enough—closest to the Greek expression used in 2 Timothy: fan into flame.  

          It's a very earthy image, isn't it?—to rekindle, to fan into flame.  It is word and an image that implies effort.  If you've ever tried to rekindle a fire that has dwindled down, you know that it can take work.  If you burn too much wood at a time it will burn too hot and too quickly.  You have to mind a fire.  If you burn too little wood, you have to rekindle it, keep it up, keep it going.  Left too long any fire will consume itself.

          The church uses this image four times a year in what are called Ember Days.  These are the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays nearest the First Sunday of Lent, the Day of Pentecost, Holy Cross Day in September, and December 13th.  These are days when the Church, traditionally, schedules ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood.  I was ordained a priest during the December Ember Days in 2002.  They are times when the infusion of newly ordained clergy are meant to rekindle the ministry of the whole Church.

          So Paul is trying get Timothy to rekindle—to mind the internal fires of faith and ministry that will keep him inspired and keep the Church inspired.  Because, you see, the fires can die down if you don't watch them carefully.  Even the most eagle-eyed person can let a fire dwindle. 

          Sometimes it's for no other reason than the passage of time.  On Sunday morning you get a new log on the fire, and the embers below it begin to glow, and something takes off.  A sermon sparks something.  A hymn verse collides.  A conversation in the kitchen, something is rekindled, and off you go.  New fire, new light.  You sit down to the evening meal on Sunday and watch the fire burn, still just as merrily as before.  The week stretches out before you, and you go to bed to sleep the sleep of the just. 

          In the morning the log is still burning.  If you have a little time to pray the embers will glow a bit more brightly.  But after the newspaper and email, and getting busy with this and that…  It's just the passage of time.  The log burns, but you know…

          I have known it to be the case that you can have a fire burn down further and further to where you almost forget what it looks like when it's ablaze.  Oh, you know, one time…  One time it was a nice fire.  It lit up the room.  You could stand beside it when you're young and have to endure the indignities of those first struggling years to establish yourself in the world.  The mean boss, the sour co-worker, the petty gossip who was always looking for something on you. 

          And whenever those cold winds of jealousy or hatred or bigotry tried to penetrate your skin, you could always stand next to that fire in your soul.  That merry little fire of faith that bubbled and popped with words like, "Greater is he who is in you that he who is in the world."  "If the world hates you, know that the world hated me before it hated you."  "Greater love than this hath no man, but that he lay down his life for his friends."

          The cold world could not dispel the light or heat that came from the burning of this love for God.  Pity the souls who did not know.  May we have the grace to impart this fire that they may not be so cold. 

          Evangelism.  Wouldn't it be nice if faith could be so easily passed as a flame jumping onto the wick of a tiny candle?  And from there brought to flames of fire with the kindling of the Holy Spirit, and strong, cured verses of Scripture, like oaken promises and parables…

          Oh, wouldn't it be something if Christianity were as easily spread as fire.  And would that it would only gain in strength till the world was so ablaze that violence and hatred and suffering could never blow it out.

          Those early fires burn so readily in younger souls.  All the paths of life stretch out ahead of you, and beckon you to come.  "Bring your fire, bring you light! Show us the way!"  But the fire does not burn on its own.  It never has.  It's just that the energy to keep it going takes it's toll with time.

          Steady prayers that greeted each new day like the ring of a school bell have been distorted on the winds of experience.  We prayed each day for the watchful eye of God and the benediction of nature.  The apples and peaches were plentiful.  There was bread and butter and milk.  The fire burned so brightly.  We could even see it in the eyes of those wonderful old souls in church, and in the smile of the parish priest.  When we grow old we will smile those smiles and the faith will burn just as brightly as it does now.  We can see the promise in those eyes and smiles.  Nothing will diminish it.  Nothing can quench the fire.

          The years rolled on and the fire burns, but lower, and lower.  And the smiles, which once seemed as uncomplicated as a cup of black coffee, have a slight tinge to them now.  It makes you begin to wonder: Is the fire in me as bright as the fire in them?  Have they been burning, too?  Or have I been burning the fire alone all these years?

          They are subtle thoughts at first, not conscious of any depth of meaning.  They drift along at two o'clock in the afternoon, but then coming down the lane at the end of the day, these thoughts open themselves to real worry.  The fire has dwindled.  The prayers have not been prayed as tenderly as they once were.  The children have grown.  Can it be that the fire was ever, really, that big to begin with?

          It's a pernicious line of thinking, and it takes its measure of fuel from the fire, because it calls everything into question.  If this really is true, then why don't more people believe?  Why does it seem like God is absent sometimes?  The self-help article in the magazine seems to know what I'm going through much better than the scripture reading on Sunday.  Have I placed my trust in the wrong thing?

          You begin to think that you are really alone.  The fire has dwindled with the passage of time and the honest questions that surface with age and experience and tragedy.  What is really meaningful?  What is really true?

          And then you see someone.  Someone new or someone old, someone whose fire still burns.   And they smile.  And the twinkle in their eyes and the lightness of their being reveals how low the fire has gotten in you. 

          Amidst those ashes there glows a little ember that sees the full fire in someone else, and is ready to give its life to a fresh batch of kindling.  But you're going to have to want it. 

          You can't just appreciate the fire in someone else and expect that to rekindle your own.  It takes some effort.  It takes a renewed commitment.  It takes, as Paul wrote to Timothy, "a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline."  (Pause.)

          There is so much about life that is disheartening.  And we often do not know how to respond to it.  We stretch out our hands to receive blessing.  We strive to fulfill the expectations of others.  We want to lead lives of quiet dignity.  We want to do what is right and honorable.

          I think God knows the anxiety we feel—the loneliness of our imperfect relationships, the sharp edge of discouragement, the pangs of desire for real, uncomplicated friendship. 

          I think God longs to gather us into his lap and hold us as only a father can.       This longing for us, and our longing for God is this fire that is rekindled when our hearts return.  My prayer for you and for myself is that we would never let the embers grow so dim that we forget that he loves us. 

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you …for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

-o0o-

 

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The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842