United Church of Christ

Faith Witnesses

Sunday, August 18, 2019
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15)

Focus Theme:
Faith Witnesses

Focus Prayer:
God of all the nations, you rescued your people out of the Red Sea and delivered Rahab from battle; you rescue the lowly and needy from injustice and tribulation. Surround us with so great a cloud of witnesses that we may have faith to live by your word in our time, courage to persevere in the race set before us, and endurance in the time of trial. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

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. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. 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 - who through faith 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.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. 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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 or
Jeremiah 23:23-29 with Psalm 82 and
Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and
Luke 12:49-56

Focus Questions:

1. What makes someone a role model in your eyes?

2. How does the life of faith feel differently as a "race" we run rather than a "journey"?

3. When has your story felt connected to those of the ancient ancestors named in Hebrews?

4. In what way do you need to "keep on keeping on" today?

5. What burdens do you need to lay down in order to run this race more swiftly, more gracefully?

Reflection:

My niece is raising her children in the Jewish faith of their father, who is a plastic surgeon specializing in pediatrics. She tells a story about their son, Summit, whose teacher at their Hebrew nursery school was talking one day about the great heroes of their faith: Moses, Samson, Joshua, Esther, Daniel, and so on.

The teacher compared the ancient heroes to our popular superheroes, like Superman, and then she went on to say that even today we know some superheroes in our own lives, like Summit's daddy who is a superhero because he helps children who have been hurt to be all fixed up again. Summit seemed anxious when he heard this comparison, and he came up to the teacher very quietly, tugged on her arm, and in a worried voice, said, "Teacher, my daddy can't fly."

A letter that preaches

I'm reminded of Summit by this passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, which is really more like a sermon than a letter; it sounds like a pastor working very hard to encourage his little church, an early Christian community that had already endured persecution and hardship but was starting to falter in its enthusiasm and faithfulness. They were tempted to go backward instead of forward, so the writer, or preacher, of this text wanted to exhort them to keep on keeping onÖand to draw inspiration from the great heroes of their faith.

The most important thing, the author says, is to keep your eyes on Jesus--after all, he already traveled this road ahead of us--like a pioneer of faith who blazed a trail for us, and he's reached the goal we're aiming for--heaven--the "far better country" that we all hope for.

Keep your eyes on Jesus

Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, seated at the right hand of God, he preaches, and root your faith in the assurance that God's purposes will unfold right before our eyes, unfold in our own lives.

God, the preacher says, will surely and ultimately reign in heaven and on earth. And that reign, which we long for and pray for each time we say the prayer that Jesus taught us, will surely come. Now, in the meantime, along the way, there's going to be some difficult times, and we're going to be challenged, and we're going to face hardship, he says, just as Jesus' own path to God was by way of a cross. But we must never give up.

Consider those who came before us

After all, the writer says, look back on those folks who came before us, our ancestors in faith, look at what they endured, and they persevered: the Hebrew slaves escaping Egypt, crossing over the Red Sea like dry land! Joshua and his forces surrounding the intimidating walls of Jericho, which came a-tumbling down, just like the song says; and Rahab, who risked her own life to help Joshua's spies.

And there were lots more, the writer says, who has already spoken at length of Abraham and Moses--there were also Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets: by faith, they endured and accomplished great things; by faith, by trust in God's purposes, they suffered stoning and the sword; they went about destitute, persecuted, tormented; but, by faith, they 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. You get the idea. They were superheroes.

These were "ordinary" people

Or were they? I think that's where Summit's cautionary note is helpful. What makes these stories so powerful is remembering that these folks were not super-human. They were human beings, flawed, weak, and sinful, all those things that we are.

Do we need to be reminded that even Moses himself was not permitted by God to enter the Promised Land, because he had "broken faith" with God? And these other great heroes: they are known not only for great deeds, but for other things as well: we've heard of Samson and Delilah, and David and Bathsheba. If you haven't, then you've missed most of the Hollywood movies about the Bible.

Flawed yet faithful

So, if these great ancestors of ours could be deeply flawed yet deeply faithful, I find that very, very encouraging when I have to run such a long, long race. Maybe we need some great coaches, coaches who understand that it's not by our own power, let alone any super-powers, that we endure or accomplish or even live. No, we do all these things only and always by the power of God within us that is able, as the letter to the Ephesians says, to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (3:20).

We imagine that, as we warm up, train, get suited up, as we run the race, lap after lap, mile after mile (a timely image during this Olympics season) toward tht ultimate goal--that far better country that we long for--we can picture that we're not all alone in this effort.

We do not run alone

No, we don't run this race in vain, and we don't run it alone. According to this letter, we can take courage, find strength, seek inspiration, let our spirits be lifted by the assurance that we are surrounded by a "great cloud of witnesses" who are watching us and who are wholeheartedly cheering us on. You know that they know where the power comes from.

Of course, that cloud of witnesses holds a lot more people than Barak, David, Gideon, and Samson, people who lived long ago and far away. The ancient preacher who wrote this sermon to a struggling congregation seems, in his own time, to be saying, "God is still speaking." I think about the stories, then, that the nuns used to tell us about the great heroes of my childhood faith.

Remembering the saints

I remember reading about Father Damien, who went to Molokai in Hawaii to minister to the lepers and became one of them; I remember hearing about Catherine of Siena, the great doctor of the church who wasn't afraid to lecture the pope (I especially loved that she was my patron saint and lectured the pope).

I think it was Vincent de Paul who traded places with a man condemned to the galleys, just like Father Maximilian Kolbe many centuries later who took the place of a young man condemned to be executed in a concentration camp.

Courage to speak

And of course I remember my favorite saint of all (probably everyone's favorite), Francis of Assisi, who not only loved animals but also went to Rome and gave the pope something to think about (maybe this is the job of saints, telling the powerful where things have gone wrong, as prophets do often do). Francis was instrumental in the beginning of the renewal of the church after the corruption of the high Middle Ages, but apparently it wasn't enough because we still needed the Reformation.

And speaking of the Reformation, in our corner of the church, the United Church of Christ, we have our saints, too, our pilgrims, our abolitionists and missionaries, our Antoinette Brown, the first woman ever ordained; our Lemuel Haynes, the first African American person ordained by a mainline church; our Bill Johnson, the first openly gay person ordained (actually, Bill is still alive, but he's a saint who has cheered on many a fellow Christian, many of them in authorized ministry who continue to bless the church with their gifts).

This letter tells us that even those who have died are still with us. They still care about us; they're watching us, and they're cheering us on.

They're cheering us on

Eugene Peterson's version of this passage (in The Message) speaks about those who have gone before us: "God had a better plan for us: that they faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours." That means that we do, matters, not just to us, but to those who have gone before and are now watching us as we run the same race.

And it matters to us that those who follow us will have examples of faith to fortify them as they, too, run the course. Not only because we tell them these stories about people long ago, but because we will have added our own stories as well. Our faith is not "apart from" the faith of our great-great-grandchildren. We're part of something greater than ourselves, a bigger picture, a more ancient story.

Peace and justice are "things unseen"

As we hunger and thirst in this day for the coming of God's reign, for God's shalom, for peace and healing in the world--in places close to us, like our homes and families and neighborhoods, including the cities and towns in America shaken by gun violence, and in places far away, like the Sudan and Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; even in places like France and Germany--we know that the race we run is long and hard, that wholeness is so often a faraway place.

So much of the time, peace and justice are "things unseen," and yet faith, according to the author of this same letter, faith is the assurance of things unseen.

It's not over till it's over

We may stumble, we may even fall, on our way, just like those heroes and saints long ago. But we know we're not alone, that our eyes are fixed on Jesus and, if we listen closely, we can hear and feel the encouragement of those who have gone before, those who are still watching the race that is not over yet.

I remember once hearing an interview of a member of the United States Olympic women's gymnastics team who was asked, "Is it hard to be a team when you're also competing against one another?" The young woman never hesitated: "When I'm up there competing," she responded, "all I hear is my teammates cheering me on, and it makes me do my best."

We are never alone

Remember that song from the musical Carousel, "You'll Never Walk Alone"? It may bring a tear to the eye, but isn't it saying the same thing? God does still speak through musical theatre, too, after all. The father who made lots of terrible mistakes still, still loved his daughter so much and wanted her to know that she was not going to live her life without his presence watching over her.

I suspect that if you asked people why the song moves them so much that they'll say that it helps them to feel that spiritual presence of a God who loves them, and the people who love them who are now with God, watching over them and cheering them on until they reach that great goal that lies before us all, the goal we share just as we share this road together. They're not going to leave us to run this race alone, or in vain.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, 21st century
"Scripture is much more full of hope than of journalismÖ."

Confession of 1967, Presbyterian Church USA
"Life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage."

John Philip Newell, 21st century
"[W]e need to find ways of sharing our intimate experiences of the Mystery, for we are one. It is through one another that we will know more of the Life that flows within us all. It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life."

Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Profound joy of the heart is like a magnet that indicates the path of life."

Franz Kafka, 20th century
"Even the merest gesture is holy if it is filled with faith."

William Sloane Coffin Jr., Credo, 20th century
"I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings."

Gordon B. Hinckley, 20th century
"Our kindness may be the most persuasive argument for that which we believe."

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