Scripture passage: Hebrews 11:29 – 12:3
You have all been told that the Olympics are taking place in Athens. Perhaps you watched the opening ceremonies, or have followed the stories of the swimming rivalry between Ian Thorpe and Michael Pehlps, or are anticipating a key match up in one of your favorite sports. Perhaps you have wondered what is must feel like to be part of such an awesome event.
All the pictures are from Athens. We glimpse the Aegean Sea, the temples of the Acropolis, the olive and cypress trees, and other unique features of the Greek landscape But I would like to suggest to you today that right here in San Diego — right here in Pacific Beach — you are involved in an endeavor equally as challenging, equally exciting, equally momentous as any Olympic contest. That endeavor, requiring all your effort, all your focus, all your heart and mind and soul and strength, is the life of faith.
“Faith,” says the Bible, in the section known as “The Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” “Faith,” says the Letter to the Hebrews, requires that we “lay aside every weight, and the sin that clings so closely, and … run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfect of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Consider the images suggested by these words… Training with single-minded intensity. Letting go of anything that might hold you back. Perseverance. Keeping your eyes on the prize. Endurance. Suffering and struggle. Setting your heart on the ultimate joy. Receiving the highest imaginable reward.
Welcome to the Olympic village. You are here to live the life — run the race — of faith.
As with athletes who are always mindful of the great accomplishments of those who have gone before them, the book of Hebrews wants us, today’s people of faith, to be mindful of the heroic traditions and the footsteps in which we follow. The letter contains an extensive testimony to the great faith of the saints of the immediate and the more distant past. The saints were not perfect people, but they were people determined to follow in God’s way. The list includes Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, as well as people whose names we do not know but whose faith was profound. For a taste of this recitation, we’ll read from Hebrews 11:29 – 40, and then the first 3 verses of chapter 12, so we can hear the writer’s purpose in calling to mind the community of faith to which we belong. ========= Runners sometimes stumble. Swimmers can start strong and then fade. Gymnasts have been known to slip. Divers might lose their concentration. Fatigue and discouragement is a risk and possibility for pole vaulters, softball players, rowers — indeed any athlete. Fatigue and discouragement can come upon disciples of Christ as well. That why the writer of these words wants us to understand the power of faith, and the limitless grace of Jesus.
Our goal (our calling) is to persevere in faith, to not grow weary or lose heart, even when life is hard and the world seems to be a hostile place. So, says this writer, remember those who have gone before or beside you, and surround you now in body or Spirit, rooting for you and cheering you on.
**They had to trust God in the face of what must have seemed like disaster, or even certain death. With a huge body of water in front of them and enemies behind them, for example, they believed God’s promises and kept on walking. And they were delivered onto dry land, while their enemies perished.
**After 40 years of wandering, they stood in front of what amounted to a sign that said, “No immigrants or refugees allowed” and a wall that seemed to be made of solid rock. Yet they believed God’s promises, and the wall crumbled to dust.
**Even those who did not see such a happy outcome — those who were killed by stones or swords, and those who spent their months and years hiding, impoverished, and persecuted — even they were able to endure, or to face their deaths with courage, through faith.
These wonderfully faithful spirits did what God asked of them. But they have not yet entered into the full joy of eternity, because they are waiting for us. God’s plan is for salvation to include everybody — even us. Faith and salvation are not just for those whom God chose a long time ago. The door; the possibilities; the promises are open to us as well. God’s kingdom is not complete until everybody gets there. Right now it is our turn to run, and thus become part of the great company of those whose lives are transformed by faith. The saints of the past are waiting to welcome and include us.
I know it is possible to run with perseverance not just because of the worthy examples mentioned in this text, but also because I can look around this sanctuary and see many people who, by faith, have endured the loss of loved ones, ministered to others through kind words or the sharing of their skills and talents, survived illnesses, moves, and job changes, found new joy in life even in the midst of death, and put one foot in front of the other even when the way forward was completely obscured.
Time would fail me to tell of things created, things broken and repaired, failings overcome, forgiveness extended, leadership offered, solutions found, companionship provided, comfort received, and Christ-like love practiced, just by the faithful people in this room. Even those of you think, “She can’t be talking about me” should be aware that just by being here in worship, you are encouraging those who gather with you, teaching those who stand before you, and serving as a witness to the world that what really matters most in life cannot be found in the shopping mall, the car lot, the model home show, the stadium, the gym, or even the workplace. You may think that you have come to church just because of your own needs, but by being here you are bringing healing to others as well. By faith, our efforts amount to much more than we know. We are not only cheered on by the great cloud of witnesses, we are part of that cheering crowd as well, encouraging and reaching out a helping hand to others.
Being here today means that we have faith — even if just a little. Our goal (our calling), is to hang onto that faith, even when life is hard — or boring, or wildly light-hearted and fun — and even when the world tries to seduce us with riches, or power, or violence, or false comforts. Besides calling to mind the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, the other hope and help we can rely on is Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. If ever we find ourselves losing track of grace and gratitude, or dazed by a multitude of distractions, or turned around backwards or inside out, it’s time to look at Jesus.
Jesus’ mission was to make God known in healing touch, in spoken word, in cleansing power, and in the breaking of bread. The forces that didn’t want God to be made known put up a mighty resistance. They threatened Jesus to try to intimidate him, and when that didn’t work, they crucified him. Jesus accepted it all, no matter how painful, no matter how humiliating, because his mission was to make God known. Therefore, even through Christ’s crucifixion, God’s love and mercy and power for life became dramatically visible for all time.
“Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of your faith… so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Look to Jesus by reading the gospels; by praying Jesus, I want to see you; by studying the words and actions of those who have given their hearts and lives to Jesus. “Look what Jesus can do,” says Bill Moyers, recounting his own list of most-inspiring saints. “Jesus inspired a ship-yard worker named Edward Rogers to crusade across New England for an 8 hour work day. Jesus cause Francis Williams to rise up against the sweatshop. Jesus called a young priest named John Ryan to champion child labor laws, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, and decent housing for the poor.” Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of your faith, because life on this earth, can be a long, uphill run, especially when you’re trying to be faithful to God’s purposes.
Katie Schneider sees the race of faith as a relay race. “It takes practice to learn to hand off a baton without dropping it,” she points out. “You have to understand yourself as part of a team; you look forward but keep your hand extended back to receive. You start to run even before you receive the baton so the race doesn’t lag, and you run your absolute best while the baton is in your care. As your segment comes to a close, you focus on the next runner, who reaches back to receive what you have to give, so that she, or he, can carry on.” Skill, wisdom, strength, flexibility, grace, and courage are elements of the race we run by faith in partnership with others. We cannot expect to master it the first day. We can expect that the better we get at exercising our faith, the more exciting the race will be.
John Howard Griffin did not think he had any faith until he started going blind. The blindness set in slowly, along with paralysis, as the result of an injury sustained in the South Pacific, during World War II. Somehow, as Griffin’s sight diminished, his faith awakened. “A life without sight is as interesting as a life with sight,” he said. He felt keenly aware that he still had life, while many had lost theirs, and he felt it was important to make the most of the life he had been given.
The impairment of his vision caused him to form relationships that he might otherwise have missed. A blind beggar he became acquainted with in France warned Griffin that that worst thing about being blind was the loneliness and the way people who CAN see treat you. John Howard himself, blind or not, was able to enjoy a successful writing career, as well as marriage and fatherhood, but he carried his lonely brother, and others like him, in his heart. When, after some year’s, Griffen’s sight inexplicably returned, he almost found it hard to rejoice. He was concerned about the impact of such a development on his blind friends who were not experiencing such a recovery. The thread of faith, woven through John Howard’s life experience, had bound him in compassionate love to other people. Whether suffering or receiving a gift, his first thought had become, “How can I express my care for others?”
I don’t know what it’s like to be in the Olympic Village in Athens, but I know in this Olympic Village right here, our race has been made easier and our goal of persevering in faith more attainable because we share it with each other. With saints surrounding us, Christ before us, and brothers and sisters beside us, we have every hope of staying the course and crossing the finish line with arms upraised in gratitude to God.