A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Girash
August 14, 2016
We don’t know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, or exactly what was going on for their community - but we can make some educated guesses. We know that they have faced difficulties, persecutions, and some of them are weakening in their faith, slipping away, leaving the track, getting out of the pool. The letter, and this portion of it, “provide deep motivation for discouraged and weary Christians to endure the struggles of the Christian life and to come to...worship with conviction, confidence and joy.” (Thomas Long, “What Cloud? What Witnesses? A Preacher’s Exegesis of Hebrews 12:1-2) First, the author goes deep into history to say - others have faced troubles and kept on - then, the author connects them to Jesus’ own life.
Listen for God’s word to you in this encouraging passage from
11:29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
11:31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
11:32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets--
11:33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
11:34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
11:35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
11:36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
11:37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--
11:38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
11:39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,
11:40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
12:2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Every four years in the dog days of summer, we sit down in our air conditioned living rooms and watch with fixed attention and great passion live feeds of sports that we otherwise have no interest in or knowledge of. Really, who knew that white-water kayaking was a competitive sport? This year those of us who are in our 40s cheered on Kristin Armstrong (42!) for the gold in cycling, and then maybe we got out our bikes and went for a couple of miles. We cheered two American Simone’s to gold. And have you heard the name Coach Karch Kiraly since 2012? I remember watching him play volleyball in the 1984 Olympics.
In 1984 there was also Gabriela Andersen-Schiess who finished 37th in the first women’s Olympic Marathon. She was so tired, so dehydrated, she was weaving around the last lap of the track. She shunned help because in that event, she would have been disqualified. If the Olympics are about athletes pushing their bodies to excel - most of us thought she had pushed too far. She only barely made it across the line.
Here’s the thing. We don’t run our race alone. We do not have to push away helpers and we do not run our race alone.
In Hebrews, the word for race is agóna - this is no easy run around a track. It is a long and grueling event. If life is a marathon, though, if life challenges you beyond what you think you can overcome, the good news is, life is a team sport. God gives us coaches and team mates, ancestors and witnesses, and sometimes even strangers, to get us across the finish line.
On April 18 of this year, Newton’s own Ari Ofsevit found out he wasn’t running the Boston Marathon alone when, he was in the middle of heat exhaustion and Jim Driscoll and Mitch Kies - total strangers - carried him across the finish line.
Megan Vogel, a highschooler in Ohio, stopped to support competitor Arden McNath across the line in their running race. Derek Richard’s dad helped him across the 400 Meter Relay finish line in the 1988 Olympics. We do not walk alone.
Asia Ford decided to get stronger and get healthier so she could stay present to her kids - but when she had trouble at the end of her first 10K race, Officer Aubrey Gregory showed up like an angel and supported her across the line. That’s the picture on the front of your bulletin today. We do not run this race alone. There is a great cloud of witnesses, past and present, teaching us, cheering us on, lifting us up, carrying us over, thank you God.
We do not run this race alone. She’s in Colombia right now but I’m going to tell a tale about Nadja. Zac, John, Nadja and I did the Walk for Hunger together this year. At mile four we told Zac he could stop, one of us would take him home. No, he wanted to go on. Maybe mile five. Then maybe mile six. Then he had a snack and got almost to mile seven but then he hit a wall. No problem, we said, one of us will get you home. But he wanted to finish. Nadja, who is a runner, said, “you know, when I’m at the end of a long walk I actually like to change my stride, change the way I’m moving. I’m going to run some of mile 8. Do you want to run with me?” And off they went. John and I walked. And we all made it across the finish line because we do not run this race alone, thank you God.
Some of us include Ginny S. in our living cloud of witnesses. She has shown us all how to live with courage and strength, to push through hardship and show love and compassion. She ministers to everyone she talks to. And she will tell you that at the center of her great cloud of witnesses is her mother, Ann. Ann, who took her to church and taught her to be a faithful woman and gave her strength to persevere in this race called life. We are not in it alone, thanks be to God.
The community of believers was nervous and tired and didn’t know how to keep going faithfully in the midst of all of their struggles. They were "hanging on by their fingernails on the fringes of the Great Roman Empire." (William Willimon) And the writer of this letter said, essentially, look, if Rahab and Moses and David and Samuel could do it…so can you. In fact, look to them for part of the strength you need. And most of all, look 'to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.' We have examples. We have history. We have a team. We don't have to go it alone. Life is a team sport.
Guide my feet…for I don't want to run this race in vain. Our great cloud of witnesses – Jesus Christ and all the rest - are there to guide our feet.
Who is in your great cloud of witnesses? Take just a moment to call forward a few of those names.
There is one name that should stand out for us above all the rest – one witness to a life of faith that outshines the rest – Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth and the Son of God. One who taught and healed and walked and broke bread and gave and loved, over and over again. His love makes us strong enough to run this race.
Our goal should not only be to run our race with perseverance, but also to help those who come after us to run their race.
Our forerunners in faith have planted seeds that we see bearing fruit. We can plant seeds that our successors will harvest. Our forerunners in faith inspire us to live up to their example. We are examples to those who follow us.
Jesus told us how to live when he was gone, and he said, don’t worry, you won’t ever be alone. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, this great cloud of witnesses helps us run the race.
And then, we look to the ones coming along behind us and beside us, we cheer them on, we hand them the baton, and none of us rue the race in vain.
Time to lace up our spiritual running shoes. Amen.