October 6, 2019 – Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
First reading: Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4, Second reading: 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14, and the Gospel of Luke 17:5-10
The following homily on these same readings was originally delivered at St. Pius X Parish, Indianapolis, in October 2013:
The readings for today offer a rich variety upon which to reflect. To be honest, this was a difficult week to prepare a homily; not because there was nothing to sink my teeth into, but because there was so much from which to choose.
The first reading looks at the age-old question: Why is there so much violence and ugliness in a world created by God? It reads: Destruction and violence are before me. Why do you let me see ruin? Why must I look at misery? One only needs to watch the evening news to begin to ask those same questions.
The Gospel has two great themes: One image is that of the power of faith – even if only the size of a tiny mustard seed. A second image is that of the unprofitable servant, who must do the work of God without expectation of reward or even time to rest.
But each time I read, I kept coming back to one line from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, “Stir into flame the gift of God.”
I like camping and being in the great outdoors, but I would not consider myself a survivalist. There is a show on the Discovery Channel that follows a survivalist as he takes on all that a particular rugged landscape has to offer. A helicopter drops him down into the rain forest, or the mountains, or a frozen tundra and leaves him there for a week to test his survival skills.
It becomes very clear each time I watch this show, regardless of the environment the survivalist finds himself in, that his survival ultimately hinges on fire. Not only his ability to start a fire, but to keep it going.
A campfire left untended will die out. The survivalist knows that he must occasionally stir the embers, fan the flame, and feed the fire in order for it to continue producing the desired heat.
Paul references this survival technique when he writes: “Stir into flame the gift of God.” He is not referring to a campfire, however. He is talking about the flame of the Holy Spirit – the fire of our faith.
We recall that John the Baptist said of Jesus: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. That fire, a gift from God, can also die out if left untended. Like a survivalist’s campfire, we need to stir the embers, fan the flame, and feed the fire in order for our faith to survive.
My mom died at the much too early age of 43. It happened suddenly and unexpectedly, and just that quickly, she was taken from my Dad, my five siblings, and me. I was a 15-year-old at the time, and my teenage faith was already tenuous. When I added anger at God and an unanswered “Why?” to the situation, the weakened flame of my faith was in real danger of going out.
The Holy Spirit, a gift from God never to be taken away, was still there, but was dormant from lack of use, from lack of passion, and from lack of faith. The embers needed to be stirred, and the flame needed to be fed. That was not going to happen on its own, and I was in no condition to do it myself. I was an unskilled survivalist dropped into unchartered territory with no idea how to get a flame started.
Luckily I had people in my life who reached out to me. They watched out for me and refused to let me go down the wrong path. People saw what was happening and did their best to stir into flame my dying faith.
Paul gave Timothy the directive, “Stir into flame the gift of God.” He intended his message to have two meanings. First, do what is needed to keep the Holy Spirit alive in your heart, the flame of your faith alive. Stir the embers by loving God and others. Fan the flames by being the unprofitable servant, serving God and others without expectation of earthly reward. Feed the fire with prayer and evangelization.
Secondly, Paul was encouraging Timothy to stir into flame the fires of others when he saw them dying out. Watch for those whose flame may be smoldering, and help bring them back to life. Take his call to live the Gospel message seriously.
I have been amazed more than once by the survivalist on TV, who would return to his camp after being out on some adventure for a day and a half or two days. He would look at the fire, from all appearances completely burnt out, and say something like, “I needed to see if my fire had any life left in it.” I would think to myself, “You’ve been gone for two days, of course there is no life left in it!”
Sometimes the fire would indeed be completely out. Other times, he would kneel down, take a stick, and begin to stir the embers. He would notice the tiniest red glow, perhaps even the size of a mustard seed, down in the ashes. He would bend down and blown on that weak ember and it would glow brighter. Then he would grab some brush and some wood shavings and feed that glow, blowing on it to resuscitate it. Eventually the flame would pop, the brush would catch fire, and moments later there would be a roaring fire.
A fire that looked dead, was restored to its full heat-producing capability. What kind of world could we create if we were deliberate in our efforts to keep the flame of the Holy Spirit burning in our hearts? What kind of world would it be if we each tried to fan one another’s flame of faith? If the Holy Spirit was alive and well in all of our hearts? Maybe a world with less of the violence and destruction mentioned in today’s first reading.
Pope Francis recently said: “The Holy Spirit is giving people the good news that God loves them and can renew, purify, and transform their lives. Let us be guided by the Holy Spirit, and allow him to speak to our hearts.”
We cannot allow such a gift to die. We must do our part to stir it into flame.