8.15.10 sermon notes
“It’s all about me” t-shirt at Montreat that we put up in our office…
It’s all about me: that is what the culture teaches. But nothing could be further from the heart of the gospel. It is not about you. It is not about me. It’s about living out the good news of Jesus Christ and that good news is that there is a better way – for all of us: that God’s vision for the world is better than what we are experiencing right now. And that is as true today as it was for the early communities of people who followed Jesus. In our text from the book of Hebrews, “the Jewish Christians were discourage and demoralized. They felt excluded from the mainstream of society and felt political pressure from the Jewish religious establishment” (Feasting). So this book sets forth a vision for the church and encourages that community (and us) to stay faithful to God in the face of the challenges of life, and it reminds us that we do not do this alone.
You may have noticed that I am not one to use a lot of sports metaphors in my preaching, but this writer chose to imagine the life of faith as a race. At first, I had a hard time thinking of Christian discipleship as a race. Where are we going? Who are we competing against? Why do we have to hurry? But I come from the perspective of a 21st century Christian in America who is not being persecuted for my faith. But everything for the early church was urgent and literally a matter of life and death. Followers of this new Jesus movement could not sashay through the Roman Empire with some bread and wine and a Jesus Fish t-shirt and expect to go unnoticed. Being a Christian meant that you were a threat to the political and social status quo. So the ability to run might not have been so metaphorical for them.
So this text tells us that as Christians, we are running a race, but we don’t run this race alone. Others have run before us, and others will run after us. We are each one leg in this relay of the life of faith – not just being cheered on by a cloud of witnesses while we do our church stuff here and now. Eugene Peterson’s translation of verse 40 in The Message offers one understanding: “God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.” That suggests that our faith is also not complete apart from theirs. We are a part of a legacy, seeking with countless others to help bring about the vision of God’s beloved community here on earth.
Next month, we here at Northminster will celebrate 50 years of ministry. And while we are excited about things going on at Northminster right now, we also honor and celebrate the amazing cloud of witnesses have gone before us as a congregation- many of whom I and others of you never knew. But the stories of their witness to the good news of Jesus Christ as they expressed hospitality in this place still ring through the halls: As they stood on the porch and welcomed new friends. As they prepared meals and cared for the least of these in the community. As they sought to be in dialogue with our African-American brothers and sisters during the Civil Rights Movement. As they led and mentored the children and youth of this congregation. As they cried and laughed and danced together and found the comfort and joy of the community that is here. They were running ahead of us, preparing the way for us, inspiring us to continue their good work.
And this is not just about Northminster: Who are those people in your life who have helped form you? Who have inspired you through their faithfulness and their perseverance in the face of great challenges? Who have provided you with tools for navigating the troublesome waters of faith and life? Who have demonstrated genuine love for God and neighbor? Who have given you glimpses of what God’s beloved community here on earth can look like? It might be a child. It might be an old friend or a teacher. It might be wise grandparent. It MIGHT be a pastor. Perhaps it’s a mentor who spoke a hard word of loving truth to you to when you most needed to hear it, like the words from the prophet Isaiah I read earlier. Who are the witnesses in your life who have helped to form you?
I hope you are imagining some people, seeing their faces, remembering their stories. Their legacy – their baton in this relay race – has been passed on to us. What are you going to do with it?
People talk a lot these days about the decline of the mainline church. They point to numbers in pews and bottom lines of budgets and declare that hospice care is our only option. And yes, some churches are reaching the end of their life cycle. That’s ok. I don’t think Northminster is one of them. But as mainline churches, we might need to allow some things to die so that new life can arise. Maybe the sounds we hear about the church are not death knells, but rather the groans of labor pains. It’s funny to me that we proclaim resurrection as the center of our faith, but we are afraid to see the possibility of our churches, our denomination experiencing it.
I know the writer of this text chose to speak of a race, but I think it is also appropriate to think of the life of faith as an ongoing story. The story of amazing deeds from the past, the story of immovable resolve and faithful following of God’s will, inspires us today to be faithful where we are, to keep on keeping on, no matter what is happening around us, no matter how things appear. Things are still unfolding, and just as last week’s reading (the passage before this one in Hebrews) spoke of things unseen, there is still much more of the story to be told. How are we going to participate in the unfolding? Are we telling the story, giving testimony about what God is doing right here, right now? Are we connecting our own story to that of the saints who went before us, as well as those who will come after us?
Now, I am not a runner. Our family joke is that I only run when chased. But I HEAR, from people who run, that it is not something you just wake up and decide to do one day. You have to prepare for it. You have to train. You have to eat right to provide sufficient sustenance. You have to stretch. You have to make sure you have plenty of Advil and some ice packs in the freezer, because it is probably going to hurt a little bit. And this race that our text describes today involves a little training as well. We’re told to “lay aside every weight, and the sin that clings so closely.” What sort of things might represent burdensome “weights” that we need to put aside as individuals and as a community? Are we carrying guilt, illusions, addictions, selfishness and greed? Are we carrying ambition and self-centeredness? Are we carrying stale traditions and paralyzing nostalgia? Are we carrying grief and fear? Are we carrying heartaches and grudges that we could put down, and in so doing, lighten our load? What do you need to let go of? What do we need to let go of?
This week, the conference at Montreat I attended was called Church Unbound. We spent a lot of our time in worship reflecting on those things that bind us – as individuals, as congregations, as a denomination. What are those things that are keeping us from living out the good news of Jesus Christ? What are those things we need to let die, so that we can fully live? I think this letter to the Hebrews is making the same point. This life of discipleship is hard work. It also has a lot of joy. But we won’t even get to experience that adventure of the journey of we are too weighed-down to get off the couch.
But just laying aside whatever weighs us down in this race is not enough; we’re instructed to keep our eye on Jesus, who traveled this same way before us and knows it well; Jesus, who has set the pace and made it clear that he doesn’t expect anything of us that he wasn’t willing to undergo himself. We need to remember to tell his stories and the stories of the faithful and flawed men and women of our scriptures, just as we recall the stories of more recent saints who have gone before us. This storytelling is a crucial to our lives of faith today. Because as one scholar notes, “[It] allows people to see beyond what is right in front of them, their daily problems, to see what God is doing in their midst, to see what God has done throughout the ages, and to see the future joy God has in store for us” (Feasting).
We have stories to tell. We need to tell the stories of those of our past, and we need to tell our stories as well. Because we are part of the story, and our struggle, and our deeds, matter. Scholar Walter Brueggemann speaks of the “intergenerational mystery” of the church: “How their lives count depends on our lives. How well they did is determined by how well we do. What we do decides the quality of their faith….This letter to the Hebrews is written to people in the early church when faith was risky and dangerous. The letter is written to say to the listening congregation, ‘Everything is up to you'” (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann). I want to be clear that we are not called to repeat the lives and experiences of those who went before us. We are called to be inspired by them and build on their work and create our own chapters. So what are you going to do? What will be the legacy of our part of the story?
Our God is a God who creates and liberates and sustains. We have all we need for the journey – we just might need to let go of some things to be able to carry what we really need. We have stories of amazing folks who have gone before us to inspire us. The race has been set before us, and plenty of people have equipped and are equipping us for this adventure. But notice that we are not promised a map. We have to let go of some control and trust that the Spirit of God goes with us. It might hurt sometimes, but that’s what the advil and the ice packs and the honest conversations and the prayers are for. Let’s see where God leads us. Amen.