Rekindling the Fire
Over time a person’s faith can begin to grow cold. One’s sense of calling can diminish as well. The difficulties of life and ministry can become overwhelming, and maybe you’d just as soon give up. Perhaps, the context of life has become challenging and you wonder what will come of one’s future. It is in the midst of this sense of doubt and questioning of one’s purpose in life, that we hear two words of encouragement – one stands as a call to “rekindle the calling” and the other suggests that if only we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can replant a mulberry tree in the sea. Luke’s rendition might not suggest casting mountains into the sea, but maybe planting trees in seas is sufficient for the day. But we need to remember the context, the situation we find ourselves in.
As I read the opening line of Lamentations – “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people,” I couldn’t help but thinking of Detroit. Like many industrial cities, it has suffered a steep decline in population. But even more troubling than the decline of people, who once filled the city, is the sense of its change in status. A half century ago it was the sixth largest city in the country, but now it is barely in the top 20. The princess is now a vassal. Indeed, her friends have dealt treacherously with her. Yes, I know that Jeremiah is weeping over Jerusalem and the exiles from Judah, but does not this text speak so clearly to once mighty American cities? And no city has become a by-word for despair more than Detroit. It is in the shadow of this once great city that I do ministry. I may not live nor do I serve a church in the city, but the city casts its shadow, and I feel its pain.
It is in the context of situations such as this that we must hear the letter to Timothy. Yes, I know that Paul likely didn’t write this letter, nor did Paul’s companion probably receive it. But the message remains true – we have been given a gift through the laying on of hands, a gift that needs rekindling every once in awhile. When we become discouraged it is good to hear the message – God didn’t give us a spirit of cowardice or timidity, but instead God has given us a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline. We have what we need to go forward into the world, to bring healing to where there is woundedness and brokenness. We may experience suffering. I’ve just finished reading a biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer, and it again reminds us of the suffering he endured because of what he thought was the right thing to do. It was his calling, which was stirred up and rekindled, so that he might have courage. We have a holy calling, which this letter suggests was given to us before “the ages began.” Before there was time, there was a calling, a calling that comes to us in Christ. Like the author of this letter, we have been appointed as heralds, apostles, and as teachers. And there is no shame in this calling. As a result, we may entrust our lives, our futures, and our faith, to the one who will guard this faith with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
After reading the powerful tones of the 2nd letter to Timothy, this passage from the gospel seems to fall flat. In response to a request that Jesus would increase their faith, Jesus says all you need is the faith of a mustard seed, and then you plant trees in the sea. That seems okay and encouraging, but then Jesus tells this parable about tending sheep and plowing fields. Who would, Jesus asks, offer the servant a place at the table. No, the servant, after doing all the other work in the field, is expected to come home and cook dinner. Only then, after everyone else has eaten, then he or she can eat and relax. And then when all is done, we can sit back and say of ourselves: We are worthless slaves; we’ve done only what we should have done.” I find it hard to receive this word, for how can I be a worthless slave, when I have been entrusted with the gospel and with eternal life?
I struggle with the gospel text, because it seems overly pessimistic and derogatory, but I understand the feeling of “woe is me.” But as I think of my struggles with this text, I’m drawn back to Lamentations and wish to know how this text speaks to Detroit, a once great city that has lost so many of its people, who now stand in exile. That exile might take them into the next county, they maybe the ones who inhabit the church I serve, or maybe they’ve left for places far away. I don’t know, but I hear the cries and I wonder about the future. I wonder about the friends who have turned into enemies, those who take some glee in the decline of the city – not just Detroit, but definitely including Detroit.
May we discern God’s gifts and message for a time such as this.