My final year at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Kristin and I were living together in a small, third floor, married student apartment. Located on the Upper West side of Manhattan, the two windows in our apartment faced out towards Broadway at 121st Avenue. And it was always loud. Twenty-four hours day and night, there were buses and taxicabs and cars and all kinds of traffic up and down the busy thoroughfare.
None of that chaos and noise discouraged me, however, from my morning routine. Before classes started I would head out the main lobby doors of the seminary, walk up to 120th street on the sidewalk, wait for the signal to cross Broadway without taking my life into my hands, and soon thereafter arrive at the tiny newspaper store on the other side of the block where I would buy a copy of the morning paper. Then I would retrace my steps back up to the apartment where I would catch up on the news of the day…a welcome break from reading hours of theology and church history and Bible commentary.
As Kristin would be quick to point out, however, there is one part of the story I’m omitting. Even if there was snow and ice on the sidewalk and the temperature outside was below freezing and it was in the middle of a snowstorm like the storm that dumped piles of snow just south of us on Friday and yesterday…even with all that, I typically accomplished my morning routine in some version of the same outfit. A pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been one of those people who rarely feels the cold. Which doesn’t mean I’m a huge fan of snow and winter. What it does mean is that if it were up to me, the thermostat at our house here in South Windsor would hover around sixty degrees all year long. If you ever come over to my house in the winter and I’m the only one there, it’s strictly BYOC. In fact, you might want to bring your own sweater and hat and mittens along with your coat.
There is one thing I like in the winter though and it sounds a bit out of character after what I just said. I like fires in the fireplace. I’m not always the one who builds the fires in our house. And I’m not always the first one in my house jumping up to stoke the fire when the flames get low. But I like the sight and the sounds and the smell of fires in the fireplace. As many of you would likely agree, a fire in the fireplace makes everything in the house seem a little cozier, a little homier, a little more comfortable…
In this morning’s Scripture lesson, the Apostle Paul expresses his love for his young charge, Timothy, by reminding Timothy of his roots. All of us have roots or qualities in our lives, both good and bad, that we inherited.
By the same token, we all have gifts in our lives that we have inherited. Each of us can point to various gifts we have discovered because they’ve been passed down to us or passed on to us by teachers and parents and role models and mentors, including some gifts that we actively cultivate on a daily basis.
In this morning’s passage, however, Paul isn’t talking about inherited gifts. Instead Paul is telling Timothy about the gifts God has bestowed on Timothy. The gifts Timothy was born with that make Timothy who he is. And apparently, as of Paul’s writing of this morning’s Second Letter, something going on in Timothy’s life had caused Timothy’s God given gifts to die down. It’s not that Timothy’s gifts disappeared. It’s just that those gifts needed some resuscitating.
Paul comes right out and urges Timothy in no uncertain terms in verse six. “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…” Paul wants Timothy to rekindle his fire. To shake off the dust and the ashes and stoke the embers so that Timothy’s gifts can be seen and used anew in his life.
The Apostle Paul knew what any of us who have spent a lot of time around fires know. Creating and maintaining a good fire requires work. A good fire doesn’t just happen. You have to build a fire in layers using material that will catch quickly on the bottom and small kindling next and dry wood on top of that. Then you have to let the fire breathe so the fire gets the air it needs. Then when the fire catches you have to pay attention to the fire.
There was a reason Paul used the word or the image of rekindling in his Second Letter to Timothy. Because keeping watch over the gifts God has given us requires the same kind of diligence needed to keep watch over a fire. And if we’ve lose sight of our God given gifts, the things we need to do to rekindle those gifts mirror the kinds of things you need to do if a fire is waning.
The first thing you have to do when a fire is dying down? You have to stir it up. Which doesn’t mean you stand there and talk to the fire or snap your fingers and wait for something magical to happen. No, you actually have to get involved. You have to literally poke around in the fire. Move the old ashes off to the side. Find the glowing embers and try to push them together. Figure out where the hot spots are and then adjust your plan and your wood accordingly.
It’s the same process with the gifts God has given to us. If you find you’re not using your gifts or not using your gifts to their fullest, stir things up. Challenge yourself. Knock the soot and the ashes off so that you can figure out where your passion burns the hottest. Tune out the voices that stand in opposition to God’s will for your life. And tune in to God so that God can reveal God’s plan and God’s purpose for your gifts. Just because you’ve lost sight or lost touch with the God given gifts in your life does not mean they’re not there…it just means you need to poke at them a bit.
The second thing you have to do when a fire is dying down? You have to add fuel. You have to feed a fire in order to keep it burning. Find some paper or some small sticks. Start small. Then add bigger logs because you know those big logs probably won’t burn if you just dump them on top of a dying fire. Choose what you need and how you need to feed your fire carefully.
The same holds true with our God given gifts. You have to keep track of your gifts. You have to protect your gifts and nurture your gifts. You can’t just sit around while your gifts blow out. Pray, study, serve, sing, listen for God’s voice. God wants us to feed the gifts God has given to us every single day so those gifts grow and ignite ourselves and those around us.
The third thing you have to do with a fire? Watch it closely. Don’t wait until the fire grows cold before you finally pay attention. Tend the fire regularly so that the fire will continue burning brightly for as long as necessary. It works the same way with our gifts. Pay attention to the ways in which God has blessed you. Appreciate and give thanks for the gifts God has given to you. Don’t take your gifts for granted. If God gives us gifts, our task as God’s people is to tend to those gifts persistently knowing they are unique and precious and priceless.
The fourth and final thing you have to do with a fire? You have to use it. There’s a reason why we have fire, and we take better care of fire when we make use of it for a specific purpose. Once upon a time, our ancestors in this part of the country, especially, used fire for light and cooking and heating and cleaning. Fire was the essential tool that enabled families to survive through long, cold winters. And fire also represented the central gathering place for family members coming inside after chores and work and school.
Nowadays, we don’t use fire in the same ways. Yes, some of us still heat our homes with wood burning stoves, but many of us heat with oil or gas and we light our homes with electricity and we cook with ovens and stovetops and microwaves and we clean with dishwashers and laundry machines.
But when the temperature drops and the snow starts to fall outside and it’s not really safe to drive anywhere and commitments get cancelled or postponed and family members gravitate towards that one room in the house, is there anything better than a fire in the fireplace? Fire still brings people together. It still produces light and heat. It still makes a house feel like home.
The gifts God has given us are not meant to be kept to ourselves. Our gifts are designed to be used and shared with the people around us. God gives us gifts to bring people together so that we can in turn bless one another.
“Rekindle the gift of God that is within you.” Paul’s advice to young Timothy is both wise and timeless. Stir things up. Shake off the ashes and locate the hotspots in your life. Add fuel to the fire and do it carefully and intentionally so that your gifts will multiply. Watch your fire closely so that you will appreciate your God given gifts and not take them for granted. And use your fire productively so that the gifts you have will not only bless you but also your sisters and brothers around you.
Finally, Paul leaves Timothy with a promise if Timothy is willing to rekindle his fire the way Paul envisions.
“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
With the fire God has put inside us and the gifts God has given to us, you and I have all the power and the love and the self-discipline we need to do great things for God and with God. One might even say you and I will be on fire for God… Amen.