Back in the 1970s America gathered around its TV sets, fixated by a mini-series about an African American family. Alex Haley’s Roots was one of the most important events in TV history, in part because of the size of an audience it drew, but more importantly because it brought to life the struggles of African Americans as they made their way through life in America. For the first time White America caught sight of the dark side of its history.
Roots did something else; it encouraged people to explore and to own their own histories. In telling the story of his own family, from the time his ancestor Kunta Kinte was captured and brought to America on a slave ship up to his own day, he showed us the importance of passing on our stories. Owning our family history – warts and all – is key to knowing who we are as individuals.
Each of us has a family history, full of stories, both bad and good. They tell of both struggles and triumphs; they will contain even a few skeletons in the closet. We’d all like to think we descend from nobility or even royalty, but that may not be true. We may pass these stories down orally, through pictures or even in writing. But, however we pass them on, these stories form a legacy that should be received, respected, and even honored.
1. Passing on a Received Faith
In our tradition we practice Believers Baptism, which means we expect candidates for baptism to profess and own their faith for themselves before they’re baptized in water. Because of this fact, we often say that there are no second generation Christians. Each of us starts our journey of faith fresh. While this is true, we are also products of a history. The substance of our faith is a legacy that has been passed on from one generation to another. And no one plays a more important role in this process than a parent. It is the life and the words of a parent that often forms the foundation of a person’s faith journey.
Now not everyone thinks it’s a good thing for parents to pass on their faith traditions to their children. Some parents have decided to leave it up to their children to decide and so they don’t provide any religious education. I’m not exactly sure where they expect their kids are going to learn this stuff. And Richard Dawkins, a brilliant scientist and a militant neo-Atheist, has boldly stated that to raise a child in any faith, including the Christian faith, is tantamount to child abuse.
Obviously I disagree with both ways of looking at this issue. Although we must explore our faith and decide for ourselves whether we’ll own it or not, there is much to be said for passing on the legacy of faith from one generation to the next.
In this letter, a pastor writes in the name of Paul to a young man, who may be a pastor as well. And the older pastor gives thanks for the legacy of faith passed down from a grandmother to a mother and then to a son. Timothy is a third generation Christian, whose faith has been formed in large part by the gifts of faith passed from Lois to Eunice to him. This passage is such a strong reminder of the importance of family to our faith development – in fact it is in the context of family that faith thrives. We may leave behind that legacy. We may change our views over time. But that initial gift helps make us who we are, and even if we walk away from our inherited faith, we may very well rediscover it in time.
For some, the journey of faith starts when they’re a child and they never really deviate from this path. Although my journey hasn’t been a straight line, I can’t say there ever was a time when I was truly not part of the Christian community. But for others it has been different. They remember a time when they weren’t Christians. Still these stories have been told, and they’re part of who we are. How and when we own them will likely be different.
2. Rekindling that Inherited Faith
As I said, Timothy appears to be a third generation Christian. He’s been taught the faith by his mother and his grandmother, and he seems to have embraced it fully. He’s even taken on leadership in this church. This is the gift that’s been given him by the Holy Spirit, but he must continually rekindle it. He needs to restoke that fire by letting the Spirit breath some more life into his faith – just like oxygen on a fire.
I don’t know if Timothy’s fire is cooling off or not, but I think the word we hear is that we need to regularly attend to our spiritual life. Sometimes our journeys get difficult and sometimes we even stall out. But when the Spirit blows we’re revitalized and empowered to continue the journey that is faith.
3. Embrace it with Boldness
Not only is he told to keep the fire going, he’s told to embrace that faith with boldness. First generation Christians tend to have a greater sense of zeal than do subsequent generations. That’s to be expected, but Timothy is being told here to go for it, to take the risk of faith. There’s no room for timidity or cowardice. While cowardice is a bit of harsh term, the fact that it’s used here reminds us that when we hear the call to follow Jesus, we need to give it our all.
4. Legacies Received and Passed On
I want to return to this issue of legacies and passing on faith from one generation to another. Faith is, as they say, a gift that keeps on giving. We stand here this morning on the shoulders of hundreds of generations of Christians that go all the way back to that first generation that includes Lois. Each generation has to learn the story and figure out how that story influences the way they understand and live this faith. Because faith is a precious gift, we need to take good care of it. We need to handle it with care and with deep respect. But,
we’re not just supposed to take care of it, we’re also supposed to pass it on to others.
This morning our congregation will receive a gift and a legacy. Representatives of the Artesia Christian Church have come to pass on to us a set of banners and a cross. This church has decided that it’s time for them to disperse into the body of Christ. Although the Artesia church as an institution has come to an end, their legacy of service continues on in the stories and the symbols of their life together.
As we receive these banners and consecrate them for use here, we are committing ourselves to carrying on the legacy of this congregation. Their stories will become our stories. Their faith will be our faith. Yes we must own it and live it and practice it for ourselves, but whenever we see these symbols of God’s love, we will be reminded of lives lived in service to God’s kingdom. That knowledge can serve as a call to rekindle our faith and live it with boldness.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
October 7, 2007
19th Sunday after Pentecost