Growing up, we each had chores so that we might contribute toward the family’s well-being and learn responsibility. One of mine, not my favorite, was to keep the fire going when my dad set up the grill for a cookout. After the charcoal was lit, it was my job to keep fanning the embers so they’d glow with heat until all the food was cooked. All that required was constancy, a steady hand, a good stiff fan (one from the local funeral parlor served the purpose well), and knowing how to shift the embers and add new coals when needed. Depending on the amount of food and the number of people, fanning duty might take one to two hours. However, if we wanted marshmallows or s’mores for dessert, it might take a little longer.
Because of this small aspect of my history, Paul’s words to Timothy (second reading) about stirring into a flame the gift of God he had received always resound in my soul.
Faith is the motif in each of today’s sacred texts. The seldom-referenced prophet Habakkuk had grown frustrated with the lack of faith evidenced in his people’s behavior and responsiveness to God. He was assured, however, that God hears prayers and never disappoints; he also learned that while rash people have no integrity, the just, because of their faith, shall live.
When the disciples en route to Jerusalem with Jesus learned more of the challenges of discipleship, they feared they did not have the faith to meet those challenges. To that end, they begged, “Increase our faith.” Faith is not quantifiable in terms of pounds or kilos. Nevertheless, it is the power that inspires us, helps us to persevere, enables us to struggle and not lose heart, and keeps us ever mindful of God’s abiding presence.
Jesus’ images of the mustard seed and the mulberry tree graphically illustrate the power of faith to move the unmovable and accomplish what appears to be impossible. Jesus’ parable about the servant seems to say that faith is not a reward for those who have reached the higher echelons; rather, faith is the requisite for every disciple. When we believe, when we have faith, we are merely doing our job as disciples and should seek no reward. We are to keep on keeping the faith.
That brings us full circle back to Paul and the wisdom he shared with his younger friend and colleague Timothy. Paul’s advice takes on increased significance if we know that he was in prison at the time and was intent upon helping Timothy as much as possible before he was silenced forever. Little did Paul know that his words and his wisdom would continue to teach believers for centuries. We who hear his voice today are reminded that our faith is God’s gift to be tended, stirred and fed like a flame over which we have been put in charge. As stewards of this flame, we will know fear, but we cannot be cowardly, ashamed or weak, nor can we shrink from the suffering and struggles inherent in believing. Paul urged Timothy — and he urges each of us — to take his words as the norm by which we live and guard the rich trust of the faith. We do this with the help of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us all.
We are more than duly equipped for life in this world. How do we remain so? How do we fan into a flame God’s gift of faith that has been kindled within us? One of the Lucan post-resurrection narratives comes to mind. When Jesus met two of his disciples on their way to Emmaus, he stayed with them. He cited and interpreted every passage of scripture that referred to him. He took bread, pronounced the blessing, broke the bread and began to share it with them. Their eyes were opened; the flame of faith within them was set afire. They testified, “Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
These same resources, the bread of the sacred word and the living bread of Eucharist, remain available to each of us. These are the means whereby our faith is stirred and fanned into a flame. For that reason, we return again and again to Jesus’ table, where we are fed, where faith burns, so that others may also see and believe.