Year C, Proper 15, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, “Stormy weather”
August 14, 2016
“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, 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.”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
We can’t always see them,
We’re not always aware of them,
But they are there.
This great cloud of witnesses.
People, who have walked the walk we walk, and who persevered.
They surround us.
They came before us.
They are yet to come.
There are those in heaven above.
There are those next door.
And one by one their lives tell the story of faith.
To live by faith is to cling to the promise of God’s unfailing love in the midst of all the stormy weather that is this life. And stormy it can be.
The passage from Hebrews we have been reading for the last few weeks calls to mind some of those witnesses and the hardships, trials, and tribulations they have experienced, but who through it all, lived by faith.
I wish that the life of faith was one in which we would always experience the good life. That if we were just faithful, everything would be just fine. But that is not the case. The witness of the saints is that by faith they overcame the hardships of this life, not that they were spared from experiencing those hardships.
This cloud of witnesses “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 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-- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
Not only did they experience all of the difficulties that life threw at them, but they did so, without receiving the promise. They were commended for their faith, but did not receive what was promised. Rather, they were told to wait. Told to wait until that day when we might all be made perfect, together.
To live by faith, is to lean into the future, and to claim as a present reality, that which is yet to come.
In the service for Yom Kippur and at the conclusion of the Seder meal, Jewish people recite an ancient phrase that, for me, exemplifies faith. “Next year in Jerusalem.” This phrase came to be embraced by the Jewish people during the times that they were dispersed all around the world. In reciting it, Jewish people clung to the hope of the day when the temple would be restored, Israel reborn, and there on the holy mountain, they might once again worship God.
Next year in Jerusalem.
The thing is that for centuries the Jewish people lived into this promise even though they died without ever having seen its fulfillment.
Yet that hope sustained them in faith, even through the worst of times.
Imagine, for example, those words on the lips of people in the Nazi death camps during the holocaust. Next year in Jerusalem.
Each of us could tell the stories that have shaped our lives. Stories about the “cloud of witnesses” that surround us. About all the people who persevered through the difficult challenges of this life, and did so, in faith.
Or we could think about the experience of our nation, and the quest for peace.
World War I was the “war to end all wars.”
And then there was World War II.
And the Korean War.
And the war in Vietnam.
And then Kuwait.
Now, we fight in Syria.
“Peace on Earth” the angels sang at Jesus’ birth. It is a promise. A promise that to this day awaits its fulfillment.
I wish it were different.
I wish that to live “by faith” meant that we would be rewarded in very tangible, delightful ways in the present moment. Wouldn’t that be great?
Simply put your trust in God and everything will be OK.
You will be richly blessed.
You will experience no hardship.
Just have faith and everything will be alright.
I’m reminded of the lyrics from Jesus Christ Superstar where Mary Magdalene sings to Jesus:
Try not to get worried
Try not to turn on to
Problems that upset you
Oh, Don’t you know
Yes everything’s fine
And we want you to sleep well tonight
Let the world turn without you tonight
If we try
We’ll get by
So forget all about us tonight.
The problem is that everything does not always turn out alright. Life is difficult at times.
Elsie was a dear friend of ours and a member of my first parish. She struggled with numerous chronic health problems. She endured what was at best a difficult marriage. One day, she shared her exasperation after having visited the doctor only to find out about another chronic condition for which there was no cure.
“Pastor, if that doctor tells me one more time that ‘I’ll simply have to learn to live with it.’ I’ll give him something to live with.”
Sometimes I feel that way about God.
I want God to make everything alright.
I want God to make my problems go away.
I want God to do all those things for me that I cannot do for myself.
I want to feel good.
I don’t want to have worries.
And I certainly don’t want to suffer.
But what the Bible says is not that if we simply have faith, life will be good.
It talks about “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.”
For the sake of the joy that was set before him, he endured the shame of the cross. And there he died.
This is the thing.
If I were to stand here and tell you that if you just have faith, everything will be alright,
I would not be telling you the truth.
Hardships will continue to come and go.
And in the end, we will die.
Perhaps we will die with those words “next year in Jerusalem” on our lips, but we will die.
We will die waiting for the promise to be fulfilled.
That is the truth.
What we can say, though, is that in the midst of all the struggles, we will meet Jesus,
the crucified one,
the one who suffers with us,
the one who loves us.
The last words Jesus speaks to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew are
“Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Life is difficult.
But we are not alone.
Life has its challenges.
But nothing so great as to separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.
I need to remember that.
We all need to remember that.
That no matter what comes, Jesus is with us.
That as difficult as life may be we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses that has walked this path before.
And the greatest witness of all is the crucified One who has promised to be with us, to lift us up whenever we fall, and to lead us on into the promise that has been given to us.
May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus our Lord.