Do You Smell Smoke?

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. In worship on July 28, we considered Catherine of Siena and her testimony to the world…  Our scriptures included 2 Kings 23:1-7 (the story of young King Josiah) and I Timothy 4:4-5, 11-16.

I have absolutely no idea who these people are or where this photo is taken.

I have absolutely no idea who these people are or where this photo is taken.

I don’t know how it was where you lived, but when I was younger, the church was a happening place.  My parents joined a church that was meeting in an old farmhouse located in a growing suburb and within a few years, the church went from that dilapidated old structure to a three-building campus that featured a boatload of Sunday School rooms, a state of the art sanctuary, a highly efficient office, and a lot of smiling, capable, competent people.

And every now and then, that church would have a few of us kids get up front during “youth Sunday”.  When I was 16, they elected me to be a Deacon. All along the way, I kept hearing one phrase over and over again: “the young people are the future of the church.”  That congregation spent a lot of money on childcare, Sunday School, and Youth Group – at every turn, repeating the mantra that if they took care of the kids, good things would happen.  And know, beloved, that I am glad that they did this, and that I stand here in some measure because they acted like this. History shows us that that thousands of churches did what my church did in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

Now, listen: I know that church meant that as an affirmation.  In telling me that I was the future of the church, I think that they meant to communicate an affirmation and an exhortation to stick with it.

SundaySchoolPostcardBut know this: what I heard, frequently, was this: “Some day, son, all this will be yours…”  If I continued to sear my clean clothes and speak politely to my elders and be nice to the little kids, then sooner or later, I would inherit the institution.  People like me would get control of the mechanism of the church. I could even pick the hymns!

Do you see?  What was intended as an encouragement – “you are our future” – was experienced as a diminution – “you don’t really count for anything yet.”  As I say, I know that this is not what was intended; but I also know that millions of people in my generation looked at the church that baptized us and said, “Um, well, thanks, but no thanks.  I’m not really interested in running an institution.”

emptychurchBetween 1970 and 2000, the number of people living in the USA rose by nearly 40%.  In the same three decades, the so-called “Mainline” churches – like the Presbyterians –  lost 14% of their members.  Way more people.  Way fewer of those people in church.

I’m not sure that those people wanted to walk away from God, or from spirituality.  But I know that many of the people with whom I grew up were unable to see the connection between church politics and running the institution and the intimacy of a relationship with Jesus.

The reality is this: children are not “the church of the future”.  Children are included in the church now.  The little friends we see in our midst this morning are objects of God’s grace, recipients of God’s mercy, heirs to God’s promises, and called to participate in what God is doing right now.  Is there some level of age-appropriateness to which we need to be sensitive?  Of course.  But children are not to be put on the shelf until they are old enough to matter, mature enough to take over, or holy enough to be trusted.

This morning we are continuing our series of messages that I’ve called “Faces at the Reunion”, and this week, I’d like to introduce some of you to one of your older sisters in the faith, a woman named Catherine from the town of Siena in Italy.

220px-Catherine_of_SienaShe was born in March of 1347, the 23rd child of a cloth merchant and his wife.  The family was religious, and Catherine had her first experience with Christ when she was five or six years old.  By the time she was seven, she had decided that she wanted to devote her whole life to God. Isn’t that cute, when someone says that?  No, it’s not cute.  It’s awesome is what it is.  How do we teach our children to live in that kind of passion?

Anyway, when she was sixteen, one of her older sisters died in childbirth and her parents pressed her to marry her brother in law.  When she refused, they assigned her management of their entire household – I think that they figured she’d rather just go ahead and marry the brother in law and run that smaller house than be in charge of her parents’ home.  She did this for three years, saying that she had “built a cell in her mind” from which she could never flee.  She said that she was serving her father as if he were Christ, her mother as if she were the Virgin Mary, and her brothers as if they were the Apostles.  By doing so, she said that she taught herself humility and grace.  She also, incidentally, outlasted her parents who eventually released her from the pressure to marry.

She remained in her parent’s home and gave all of what she had, and a great deal of what they had, to the poor.  She had a fascinating ability to see the big picture and the need for the church to be receptive to the Spirit of God while at the same time paying close attention to specific individuals.

SaintCatherineOfSiennaWhen Catherine was 23 years old, she began to send letters of encouragement and inspiration.  Initially, these were sent to her family and close friends, but as she got older, the circle of recipients widened to include people with authority and power.  Most notably, she began to write to Pope Gregory and to plead with him to reform the clergy within the church.  The institutional church was a shambles at this time – about 75 years previous, some of the leaders of the church collaborated with the king of France and moved the headquarters of the church to France.  Many local priests, nuns, as well as bishops and cardinals, were confused as to how to behave faithfully as the top leadership of the church was more interested in court intrigue than in Godly living.  One account of her life puts it this way:

St Catherine before the Pope at Avignon, Giovanni di Paolo, 1460

St Catherine before the Pope at Avignon, Giovanni di Paolo, 1460

She embraced her mission with all of the energy she brought to her prayer, tackling the sinful clergy person by person, winning them over with the purity of her own life, her direct, firm admonitions and her own extremely magnetic personality.

It seemed no one could meet her without falling under the spell of her personal holiness. Priest and bishop would revile her from a distance, then, upon meeting her face to face, fall upon their knees, begging forgiveness and the permission to become her followers.[1]

In fact, there are more than 400 letters that she sent still surviving, and they bear witness to her call to personal growth and responsibility as well as the need for the Church to be responsive in the world.  And know this well, my friends: those letters changed the world.

As I said, Catherine was 23 when she started sending out her correspondence.  You might be interested to know that it wasn’t until she was 30 that she learned to read and write.  Most of her work was done through dictation – one of the greatest literary minds of the church was illiterate until the last years of her life!

As she matured, Catherine had increasing prominence in the church and the world; she was used as a peacemaking ambassador between various congregations and governments; she is credited with persuading Pope Gregory to return to the Vatican in Rome and to take efforts to reform the clergy, and finally, after a prolonged fast led to a series of strokes, she died at age 33.  In 1970, she was proclaimed as the first female “Doctor of the Church” in recognition of her leadership and influence.

My favorite quote from Catherine of Siena is this: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

Catherine Be as you oughtWhat would it mean if we were all able to take that sentiment to heart?

The scriptures this morning afford us examples of young people who clearly lived that way.  Josiah was 8 years old when he became king, and in his lifetime he reformed the people of God both through worship life and governing structures.  Timothy was only a young man when he met Paul, but he was charged with launching the church in Europe and giving birth to a new generation of Godly leaders.  Each of these young men, like their younger sister Catherine, were people who started where they were, used what they had, and lit a fire under the people of God.

Do you think…I mean, is it possible…that we could empower our children do this?  That if instead of training our kids to be quiet, sit still and wait their turn, we were able to help them see that the world needs them, who they are, and what they can bring, now?

The only way that we can do that, beloved, is if we are convinced that the world needs us, who we are, and what we can bring, now.

Here is what I’ve learned from Catherine of Siena, and from Josiah, and from Timothy:  God is not waiting for perfectly formed, capable, talented, beautiful, equipped people to show up and take charge of running the institution.

God is looking for people who will, right now, be who they are.  Who will, right now, give what they have.  Who will, right now, serve where they are.  And who will commit to growing into those places where they are not yet fully mature.

In other words, I don’t think that God is waiting for you to get your act together before you try to live a faithful life.  I think that God is calling you to be who you are supposed to be, starting today, and trust that tomorrow you can be a little closer to God’s best for your life.

What does that look like? It seems to me that the first step is an attentiveness to the Word and Spirit of God.  Can we anchor ourselves and our children in the awareness of the truth that God speaks, and that the Bible is a source of life and truth?  Can we, no less than Catherine, create a sort of a cell or a sanctuary in our own minds, where we expect to receive direction from God’s Spirit as we wait and watch and serve?

Another aspect of this would be a commitment to focusing on who God is and what God can do, rather than being so absorbed in my own limitations and faults.  Remember, we’re learning this morning about an illiterate young woman whose letters changed the history of the world.  She didn’t refuse to send the letters just because she couldn’t write them herself – she found a way to get the vision she’d been given to the hearts of those to whom God led her.

As we anchor ourselves in scripture and trust in God’s provision, we need to bind ourselves to the people of God.  Catherine, Josiah, and Timothy all worked to make the community of God a place that was more conducive to mirroring Christ in the world – and they did it by working with others who were committed to the power of God’s spirit.

There are a host of amazing and gifted people in this room right now.  Some of them are in their 80’s and have wonderful stories to tell about how God has met them in their own lives.  Others of them are not yet able to write their own names – but they have already heard that they are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Most of us are somewhere in between… Can we accept the fact that we – all of us – are the church for today?  And that we – all of us – are called to live plainly and powerfully under God’s spirit, in each other’s company, and to the end that our neighbors are blessed?  If we do, I am not sure that we’re going to set the world on fire…but at least our neighbors might smell smoke. Thanks be to God.  Amen.


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