A sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri on October 6, 2013.
Anglican Bishop and Bible Scholar NT Wright
tells this touching story[i]
about his childhood as he ponders this
text before us from Second Timothy:
There was snow outside,
and the living room was cold
when I came downstairs.
I don’t know why I’d woken up early,
but I now shivered as I huddled on the sofa
and waited for one of my parents to follow me downstairs.
(I can’t have been more than about seven or eight I suppose).
Before long my father appeared, and began to work the fireplace.
He twisted some newspaper,
laid some fresh sticks,
placed coal around the edge, and then,
blew very gently at the base of the fire.
He didn’t need to use a match.
He’d seen that the coal
in the very bottom of the fireplace was still glowing,
still just alight.
As he blew, I watched in amazement at what seemed like magic.
The coal glowed brighter and brighter,
and then suddenly the newspaper burst into flame.
Within a minute the sticks were alight,
the fire was going
and the room began to warm up.
A small childhood memory, Wright explains,
of the days before central heating
But I am reminded of it when I hear Paul urging his young friend
to rekindle God’s gift,
to bring it back into a blazing fire.
Something is glowing there, deep down inside Timothy,
and he must blow gently on it to bring it back into flame.
* * *
Now, I don’t think that I was drawn to this passage
merely because of the drop in temperatures this weekend
that had me scrambling for extra quilts in the middle of the night.
Yesterday, I actually had to dig out the box we use
to keep gloves and scarves and hats neatly contained
so that I could have warm fingers
at our daughters’ soccer match.
I do not think we are quite ready for fall at the Herring household.
I think NT Wright’s story rings true
because I like the idea of God stoking our fire.
I’m looking forward to God rekindling us
rekindling me in my day to day life as someone trying to
follow God on the way of Jesus
rekindle our churches and Christianity in General
rekindle all of humanity, if I’m serious about it
and the way our squabbles lead not just
to government shutdowns, which are bad enough,
but to terrible wars
and parents forced to choose
between medicine and food for their kids
and news reports about Sarin gas.
I’m ready for God to do some rekindling.
And, if I’ve read the tea leaves right,
this first week here at the Kirk,
I get the sense from many here that the Kirk is yearning
for the breath of God to blow over the coals
of the hearth that we call our church home
and to set us ablaze once again.
This image may be apt for us to hold in our hearts this day,
this day of new beginnings, of looking ahead to God’s future
as we ponder what we might be wanting to do to get a good start.
* * *
My heart has been full this week.
You all have been incredibly warm and gracious to me
as I’ve begun to do the work of being your pastor.
Some of you, whom I know I’ve met before
but can’t quite conjure up your name right away,
have spared me the embarrassment by offering it before I can ask for it.
Or in casual hallway conversations
you’ve clarified for me bits and pieces of the Kirk’s history
how the Sack Lunch Bunch got started
what exactly it is the Friday Morning Bible Study does
how Christmas in October serves the community
why you seem so confused by a pastor with so much hair…
Its only been a week,
and some of you already know that I graduated High School the same year
Boys II Men were popular.
or that I’ve considered getting a tattoo of a Hebrew word
on my forearm
and already two of you have connected with me on twitter.
These have each been moments of grace to me,
and I am deeply humbled and touched
by the way you have so readily welcomed me and our family
into the life of the Kirk.
The history of this place, this Kirk, has its own flow,
its own rhythm, its own idiosyncrasies,
and it will take some time before they meld with my own
and I can begin to call it in some real sense my home.
This is true for any one new to any community,
and not every community exhibits the same kind of welcome
or the same gift of hospitality that you have offered.
It warms my heart. It testifies to the way in which God has nurtured you
to guard and protect the good treasure
that has been entrusted to all of us,
as the author of our Epistle also suggests to Timothy this morning.
That is to say: to make as your own God’s gifts of gracious welcome.
Thank you for sharing it with me, and for your desire
to help me get off to a good start.
* * *
The author of Second Timothy sees something
beautiful and loving in this young Timothy
and is writing to offer words of encouragement
words of excitement
words of expectation.
There are two things that stand out to me
as I read the opening words of this letter
and ponder what we might make of it
during this time of hoped-for rekindling.
First, the author celebrates the faith that Timothy has.
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.
the author doesn’t say DEEP Faith.
Timothy’s faith isn’t called perfect or unflappable or even substantial.
It is called SINCERE.
Timothy is praised because he honestly, truly trusts in God.
It is a faith that trusts in God’s steadfast love,
the love we heard from the reading in Lamentations this morning.
Timothy’s heart, his soul, is in the right place, as it were.
Let me be honest here:
I am so glad that Timothy isn’t lauded for a perfect faith.
How many of us, when asked to do something perfectly,
shudder to consider our own imperfections?
Or how many of us long for a perfect faith,
only to discover, often through some difficult trial and error,
that there really is no such thing?
But Timothy is lauded for a SINCERE faith. A true faith.
One that is honest about who he is and what he has done
about where he is and what he needs to do to make that faith
come alive in his living, his loving, his doing.
This is a faith that has roots. It has a history.
It was handed down to him by faithful women in his life,
from his mother Eunice and his Grandmother Lois
and it now lives in him:
three generations (at least) of sincere faith in God.
Let us consider that for a moment.
This helps us today celebrate the faith that resides here,
in this very room.
How many generations of faith are embodied here?
While it will not be the case for all of us,
many of us were nurtured in the faith
by our parents and grandparents
or by Sunday school teachers or former pastors
or someone we shared coffee or a beer with
when we got laid off or lost a loved one
or flunked that exam.
We too have a legacy to celebrate that has inculcated deep in our bones
a SINCERE faith: one that longs to follow where the Spirit leads us
whether along tried and true roadways
or along new and maybe scary paths.
When we ponder what we might build upon
or better, what God might build upon
as we’re asking for our coals to be rekindled,
this might be a good place to start:
Our SINCERE faith in Jesus Christ,
our hope and our salvation,
who leads us into the future, whatever that may be.
* * *
If the first thing to note is Timothy’s sincere Faith,
maybe the other thing to note is all this other stuff about shame.
Do not be ashamed, then, the author writes,
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.
I’m not sure the author would have written this
unless there was something that Timothy felt shame for.
What that could have been for him, we don’t know.
The text doesn’t really tell us.
But I think this encouragement is particularly important for people of faith
in the 21st Century.
At a time where we’re trying to rediscover God’s way for the church
during a time of rapid cultural change
when going to church isn’t all that popular
and, if we’re honest, some expressions of the Christian family
don’t elicit in us much beyond shame:
the admonition here to not be ashamed of the core of our faith
can really be helpful to us.
The honest truth:
According to the Barna Group[ii], the word “church”
has never been viewed so poorly by those under 30 as it is today.
Only 7 percent of respondents viewed the word favorably.
Most, instead, associated “church” with images of hypocracy
or judgment or the like.
Now, this isn’t like any church I’ve ever been a part of,
nor is it anything like the Kirk,
but it is instructive for us to hear
what kind of uphill work we have to do.
For the work of sticking to the core of our faith,
and sharing the wild, life giving, heart healing
wreckless love of God:
take heart, the author says
and don’t be ashamed.
The world needs us, now perhaps more than ever.
* * *
So where might God be ready to rekindle us:
whether we are talking about the Kirk or the Church at large?
I don’t know. We’ll have to listen for that together.
But I want to share a story about the kind of church that excites me:
The story is told by Tony Campolo, the evangelical Sociologist and preacher.[iii]
Once upon a time, Campolo traveled to Hawaii for a conference.
Thanks to jet lag, on his first night there he woke up
around three in the morning.
Hungry, he went out looking for a place to eat.
And he finally found a tiny coffee shop.
As he sipped his coffee and munched on his donut
he was joined by eight or nine skimpily dressed and very loud prostitutes.
Nice, pious Campolo, overwhelmed by all the noise and flesh,
was about to leave when he heard the woman sitting next to him say,
“You know, tomorrow is my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”
Her friend responded in a rather nasty tone,
“So what do you want from me? A birthday party?
What do you want?
Do you want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”
“Come on,” the women sitting next to [Campolo] said,
“why do you have to be so mean?
I’m just telling you that’s all.
Why do you have to put me down?
I was just telling you that it is my birthday.
I don’t want anything from you.
I mean, why should I have a birthday party?
I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.
Why should I have one now?”
It was then that Campolo knew he had to do something.
After the women finally left,
he turned to the guy behind the counter and asked,
“Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
“The one right next to me,” [Campolo] asked,
“does she come in here every night?”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night.
Why do you want to know?”
“Because,” [Campolo] replied,
“I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday.
What do you say we do something special for her?
What do you think about throwing a birthday party for her,
right here in the diner?”
The counter guy agreed, and even offered to bake the cake.
The next morning, at 2:30 am,
Campolo went to the diner and decorated the place.
He said, “The word must have gotten out on the street
because by 3:15 that next morning
every prostitute in Honolulu was in that place.
The diner was wall-to-wall prostitutes — and me.”
When Agnes walked in,
everyone jumped up and yelled, “Happy Birthday!”
She was floored.
She burst into tears. She was so moved, she couldn’t even cut the cake.
Instead, she meekly asked if she could take the cake home,
to keep for a while, maybe not eat it right away.
After all, she said: it was the only birthday present she’d ever received.
She promised to be right back. And she slipped out to rush the cake home…
After she left, Campolo broke the silence by offering to pray.
That was when the guy behind the counter took objection and said,
“Hey, you never told me you were a preacher.
What kind of preacher are you anyway? What church do you belong to?”
Campolo answered quietly,
“I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes
at 3:30 in the morning.”
The counter guy thought a moment, and then almost sneered as he answered,
“No you don’t; there is no church like that.
In fact,” he concluded, “if there was, I’d join it.”
* * *
“What kind of church do you belong to, anyway?”
That’s the phrase that haunts me from this story.
What kind of church do WE belong to, anyway?
What kind of church do we WANT to belong to?
I think it’s the kind of church that seeks to help EVERYONE
feel loved and welcomed and cared for
because that is the kind of God we serve.
What would your answer be?
as we celebrate the sacrament of communion
along with Christians around the world,
as we begin to ponder our future together
may we celebrate that God is moving among us
blowing new breath over faithful coals
kindling something amazing to behold.
And may that fire serve to warm the hearts and lives
of those around us
during the coldest fall days and the warmest summer nights.
May it be so.
[i] N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Pastoral Letters: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (Louisville, Kentucky; Westminster John Knox Pres, 2004) pp 83-84.
[ii] See David Kinnaman, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianty…and Why it Matters (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books, 2007).
[iii] This story is told in many places. See for instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWlMV-UmueM or http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2008/june/15742.html (accessed October 8, 2013)