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On Being the Church: A Faithful Inheritance

May 9, 2010
Sermon:  On Being the Church:  A Faithful Inheritance
Text:  II Timothy 1:5-7


Today, we continue our series On Being the Church.  I tried to think how best to merge this concept with Mother’s Day.  Most of the time when we come to this special day, we expect a sermon that is sweet and reminiscent about our mothers.  You will hear that kind of message.  God created two institutions:  the institution of the family and the institution of the church.  Of the two, the first was the family.  So much that we have to say about the church is based on the way the family operates.  The church is supposed to be modeled on the family.  We see many references to that analogy throughout the Scriptures.  We call ourselves “A Family of Faith, Living in Hope, Serving in Joy, and Bonded in Love.”  This family of faith is very much a church family, a Christian family in the same way that our family of origin or our biological family exists.  Nothing is more natural than putting these two institutions together in a sermon on Mother’s Day.

I am wearing a white rose on my lapel today.  I notice that some of you still follow this old custom.  Few people wear a rose on Mother’s Day anymore.  Before my mother’s death, I wore a red rose every year.  On Saturday before Mother’s Day, someone delivered a red boutonniere from my mother to my door.  She expected me to wear that rose.  She also made sure Clare had a corsage of the appropriate color:  red when her mother was alive and white after her mother’s death.  My mother thought this tradition was important enough to maintain.  

The first year after my mother died, I wore a white rose.  There have been other Mother’s Days when I honestly woke up Sunday morning and thought, Oh my!  I don’t have a white rose to wear.  When that happens, I sometimes go into the garden to find something suitable.  One year when I did not wear a white rose, my dad gave his to me.  This year, I intentionally ordered a rose and picked it up yesterday at the florist shop because I want to talk with you about my mother today. 

You may realize that the Scripture for this Sunday, II Timothy 1:5-7, is the same passage Reverend Mike McGee used last Sunday in his sermon.  Mike placed emphasis on Verse 6:  “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.”  I want to focus on Verses 5 and 7 where Paul gives us a way of remembering how we receive this inheritance of faith:  “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also…For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and a sound mind.”

In Verse 5, Paul gives the young Timothy a reminder that his grandmother Lois and his mother, Eunice, played a significant role in his spiritual formation, in the development of his faith.  For some people, the formation is like spontaneous combustion.  They suddenly come to faith out of no background of faith at all.  For most of us, though, we come to faith through people who have gone on before us, through people who set the example.  I could point out a number of people in my own life who have had a hand in forming my faith. 

My mother’s favorite verse was Verse 7, which she called her “life verse.”  I think of her every time I read this passage.  She often repeated these words.  I want to give you a glimpse into why she had so much fear when she was a child.  As life went along, she learned that she did not have to be afraid, that she could live her life with “a spirit of power, of love and a sound mind.  Some translations substitute the word self-control for “a sound mind.”  Others substitute self-discipline.  As this message proceeds, you will understand why this verse was so important to her.

Somebody asked Dad one time, “How do you rear children?” 

He said what my grandfather had always said, “You marry a good woman, and you make them obey her.”  My grandfather reared nine children that way, and my dad reared eight. 

Then the person asked my mother, “How do you rear eight children?” 

She answered, “You wear out the seat of their pants and the knees of yours.”  She meant that nurturing children took a lot of discipline and a lot of prayer.  That is exactly the way it has to be. 

I want to tell you that I am not lobbying for sainthood for my mother.  I would not call her Saint Louise, and she would not want anyone to call her that.  My mother could be a very strong and strong-willed woman.  She could be tough as nails and contrary.  At times, she was a real battleaxe.  Most people liked her, some loved her, and a few did not like her at all.  She was certainly not a wilting magnolia.  She was, if anything, a steel magnolia. 

A second passage that comes to mind when I think of my mother is I Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter.  Those verses probably come to your mind, too, when you think of the important women in your life.  You remember that the chapter concludes, “Now abide these three:  faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love” (Verse 14).  I want to use that verse as an outline for my thoughts this morning. 

My mother was a woman of faith.  She believed that God was in control.  She used her control as far as it would go, but she knew her limit.  In a little corner in her house where she kept the books that were important to her, she had several translations of the Bible.  She sat every morning in the chair there for a time of devotion.  She believed that reading and education are important.  One reason I love books the way I do is because my mother read to me when I was a child.  It is probably because of her that I love to write books.  She put that seed in my mind.  She also taught me to love the Bible.  Following my grandmothers in practicing the great Baptist tradition of bribery, she enticed me to memorize Scriptures.

 I gave you a memory verse two weeks ago.  Some of you said, “How dare you give us a memory verse!  We have not memorized anything since we were in elementary school.”  A person is never too old to learn Bible verses.  I still try to memorize Scripture.  It is important to learn Scripture, even when you have a lot of mileage on your odometer.  Memorizing is not only good for your mind, but it also implants the Scripture in your heart. 

I have sometimes said that my mother should have been ordained.  She was never ordained in any official sense, but she could have served quite well as a deacon.  The word episcopate, used in the New Testament for bishop or overseer, means “see to this for me” or “take care of this for me” in the verb form.  That word fits my mother.  From that same corner in our house, she could take care of things.  She could have easily commanded a battleship from that chair.  She had the cast of characters to do it with all her children and grandchildren.  She only had to shake and point that arthritic finger.  With her executive ability and a sense of authority, she could ensure that a task was handled.  Whenever her church called on her to take care of small details, she would handle them with great aplomb and class.

I want to tell you an absolutely amazing story about my mother’s life of prayer that illustrates her faith.  When I was seventeen years old, I went to Southern Rhodesia after graduating from high school.  I spent the summer working with Uncle Herbert and Aunt Jackie, who were missionaries in Southern Rhodesia, which is a now called Zimbabwe.  That summer was very rich summer for my formation as a Christian and for my formation as a person. 

I had a very interesting experience on the way back to the States.  I flew out of Rhodesia to Nairobi and then landed that night in Khartoum in the Sudan, a country that has been in the news a lot recently.  When I presented my ticket and passport, the clerk at the counter, a tall Arab, was nasty to me and upset that I did not have a Visa for the country of Sudan.  I showed him my passport, but he took it out of my hands, saying that I could not get it back until it was time to leave the country.  This bothered me quite a bit.  One thing I learned in all my travels was not to give up my passport.  I watched carefully where he laid it.  

At midnight, the shift changed and a dark-skinned African man took his place.  I had learned a little bit of the Ndebele language, which is a first cousin to Zulu.  I know that many of the dark-skinned Africans speak a language that had some similarities, so I spoke to him the words of greeting – “Sawubona.”  He responded to me, and I used up just about all the Ndebele I knew in three sentences. 

He asked, “Sir, what can I do for you?” 

I answered, “I would like to have my passport back.” 

He answered, “Certainly.”

I pointed to the place where the previous clerk had laid it.  After he returned my passport, I went outside the airport, which was located on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and sat in a lawn chair along the one runway.  I had no water and nothing to do except sit there in the hot breeze through the night and look at the sand.     

The next morning everybody took a seat on a little prop plane with two propellers.  When one of the engines would not work, everybody had to get off the plane so repairs could be made.  We sat on a little patio, drinking the strongest coffee I have ever had in my life and watching the mechanics fix this engine by hitting it with ball pein hammers.  Finally, when the engine started, we boarded the plane.  Knowing that one of the engines was questionable and that we were going to fly across the Sahara Desert to Cairo, I slept very little that night. 

When I got off the plane in Cairo, I went to a cheap third-rate hotel.  I had been very sick in Africa, and I was still sick that night.  Feeling miserable, I discovered that the lock on my bedroom door was broken and knew that was not good.  I tried to sleep and just as I dozed off, I woke up and saw a guy in my room, rummaging through my luggage.  I jumped up and screamed at him in the Ndebele language, which probably surprised him as much as anything.  He ran away into the night.  As far as I know, he did not get anything of mine.  I would have to say I had a harrowing twenty-four to thirty-six hours.

When I got home from that trip abroad, my mother said, “Kirk, I want to know what you were doing on this day.”

After I told her this story, she said, “I stayed awake for two nights, praying for you.  I knew you were in trouble.  I did not know what kind of trouble you were in, but I stayed on my knees two nights praying for you.”

My mother was a woman of faith.  She believed in prayer.  I have always believed she had an extraordinary connection to God.  I know how much her faith meant to me.

Secondly, I would say that my mother was a woman of hope, a word that is difficult to define.  I will always admire the fact that she could find joy, even in the worst circumstances.  She could somehow find the joy when situations were really hard, as for example, in the death of a child.  She was no Pollyanna.  She did not act like it did not matter, like there was no sorrow.  She knew that in every difficulty, the joy of the Lord is your strength.  She lived with that kind of hope, hope that was undaunted. 

My mother expressed hope in so many ways in her life.  I remember her beautiful yard, the flowers she enjoyed.  I remember her great gift of hospitality.  She could turn anything into a party.  This hope came with a kind of expectation about all of her children and grandchildren.  She summarized her hope in a lesson she had learned in her growing-up years:  “Be who you is and not what you ain’t.  If you is what you ain’t, you ain’t who you is.”  She taught us to be true to ourselves and not to be phony.  We learned not to settle for second-best.  We learned to strive to be excellent in all things.  The military has taken the corollary with “Be the best you can be.”  My mother had high expectations.  She never said, “Kirk, you ought to be a minister.”  She did not tell me what to do, but she expected me to be true to my heritage, true to my own identity.  She expected me to do the best I could in every situation. 

Mom also believed that God had a special purpose for every life and that every life was important to God.  She believed that God had a purpose for all of her children and grandchildren, those who were gifted intellectually as well as a grandchild who was profoundly limited and who had multiple handicaps.  She could see in every child something of the plan God had. 

She knew that investing in the life of a child was an investment well made.  Maybe this is the reason she taught the three-year-old Sunday School class for fifty-three years.  Maybe this is the reason she taught Bible School every year that I can remember, not just when her own children were there but even after that.  Maybe this is the reason she was involved in the very first Child Evangelism Fellowship program.  She started a Good News Club in our backyard where she taught the Wordless Bible, which is a basic plan of salvation.  So many kids in our neighborhood came to that backyard Bible club that my dad built bleachers in the basement so that everyone could meet in the wintertime.  My mother was a woman of hope who believed that God’s purposes were always good and always positive for every human being. 

Lastly, I would say that my mother was a woman of love.  When she was six weeks old, her mother died from lingering complications from her birth.  After the funeral, her father, who had four sons and lived on a farm in Barnwell County, handed his little six-week-old daughter across her mother’s grave to his brother and sister-in-law.  He asked, “Would you please take this little girl back to Spartanburg and rear her as your own?  I cannot take care of her on this farm with these four boys.”  My granny, who was my adopted grandmother, brought my mother to Spartanburg and reared her here on South Converse Street.  Her last name was Hudson, which she and my father gave me as a middle name. 

Even though that adoption story has a lot of beauty and love in it, the stigma of being adopted was difficult.  Let me tell you that my mom translated that stigma into an attitude of acceptance for every person.  When she taught us to sing, “red, yellow, black, and white,” she really meant that every child was precious in the sight of God though that was not a popular idea when I was a child. 

When Ron Welles brought the India Children’s Choir to Spartanburg, guess who became their surrogate grandmother?  My mother became the grandmother for all of those Indian children.  She was ready to give as much love as she could give.  She believed that every person needed to be loved, especially those who were disadvantaged.  “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but he has given us a spirit of love, of power and a sound mind.” 

Look back at the first verse we read today, Verse 5:  “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice…”  Replace the names of Lois and Eunice with the names of your own mother and one or both grandmothers.  See if that substitution fits for you.  Those of you who had a bad experience with your mother and those who do not know your biological mother can insert the names of women who have been significant in teaching you the faith, the women who have provided this inheritance of faith and hope and love.  On this Mother’s Day, be reminded that those are the women to honor. 

The church family is supposed to have this function of assisting in the formation of faith.  I can insert the name of Mrs. Lois Nesbitt, one of my Sunday school teachers.  She taught our group of eighth grade boys in the junior department so much about the Bible, simply by using a game she created and called Bible Baseball.  I can substitute her name in that verse as well as the names of so many other people in the church who served as examples of faith.  Hopefully, you can, too.

During our second worship service, we will have a parent/child dedication.  As a congregation, we will make a pledge to do everything we can to nurture these children so that they can become the people God wants them to be.  This is the role of the church.  

Today, I have spent a lot of time talking about my own mother, but I could have been talking about so many of the women in this church.  The point of this message is that it takes every single one of us, working together, teaching Sunday School, helping in Extended Session, leading a choir, mission group, or Scout group, or teaching in Vacation Bible School to pass along this inheritance in the faith to future generations.

Our part here is not just to worship on Sunday morning.  Our role is to be the family of faith.  If we really are the family of faith, then we become nurturing people who want every single child that comes through these doors to know the love of God and to know that God has a plan and a purpose for their lives.  I am going to ask also that you consider what role God wants you to play in the life of this church to nurture children.

An inheritance of faith begins when we accept Christ as our Savior.  If you have never done that, please let me invite you to acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Savior, to dedicate or rededicate your life.  Listen to the invitations of God.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2010

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