Isaiah 6:1-8 and Hebrews 12: 1-2
Will you pray with me, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
Perhaps it’s the Norwegian in me, but there is nothing that I find more frustrating, or that kicks up my stubbornness with such ferocity, than when someone comes along and tells me that they know just what it is that I need, — that they know just what it is that I ought to do.
I find this particularly irritating when, what the person is telling me to do, is something that frankly I don’t want to do and, worse still, something that I actually don’t think I can do anyway!
Such it was a few years back, when a dear friend of mine decided that what I really needed to do was to run a half marathon. It was just the thing I needed. She was certain of it.
Now, for some of you, such a suggestion could be a perfectly reasonable one. But it was absolutely not for me. You see I am not a runner, let alone a distance runner. Sure, every now and then I will go out for a short jog, but I had never once run a race and had never even seriously considered the possibility of doing so.
So when this dear friend, proclaimed that I needed to run a half marathon, I was certain that she had lost her mind and I wasted no time in telling her so.
But she persisted. So much so, that a few months later, on a fine fall day, I found myself about to do the unimaginable. I found myself surrounded by a great crowd at the starting line of the Jamestown Half marathon.
Today in our New Testament reading, we hear from someone whose persistence rivals that of my friend’s. For the last 11 chapters, in our New Testament reading from Hebrews, the writer has been giving example after example of great saints of old who tenaciously held onto their God even in the midst of every obstacle and challenge. And now here in chapter 12, the writer makes a bold move that must have also left those to whom he is speaking dumbfounded.
“Therefore” he says “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 us?” I can almost hear them saying. You see, the author of Hebrews was writing to a people that were not looking to add to the challenges they were already facing. The book of Hebrews was written sometime during the end of the first century to a Jesus following community in Rome. These were difficult times for them. The fledging Jesus movement in Rome to whom the author of Hebrews is writing, was facing persecution. Nero the Roman Emperor at the time, had no love for this rogue movement that refused to offer incense on a pagan altar or swear an oath to the emperor. The Jesus movement’s counter cultural ways were raising suspicion with the authorities. So much so, that this small group of Jesus followers to whom the author of Hebrews speaks, were laying low, keeping their heads down and trying to survive.
But the author of the Hebrews has something else in mind for them. He knows what they need is not to close down but to open up, not to turn in but to turn out. He knows that they need to live with their hearts and minds and actions set on and guided by Gospel message of love, justice, peace, compassion, right now, right in the time when the rest of the world was turning upside down with violence, power grabs, persecution, scape-goating, uncertainty, instability, and fear.
And it’s there in the passage from Isaiah as well, this call to step out even in the midst of trying times. The Babylonians are at the city wall of Jerusalem there is Isaiah strapping on his sandals, filling his water bottle and heading to the starting line saying “I’m ready, I’m in! Send me!”
Are we prepared to do the same? Can we “also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and can we run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith?’”
For we too are living in an upside down time when the very fabric of our democracy is fraying, when truth is hard to come by and the rhetoric of fear resounds all around. In two days this difficult and divisive presidential race will be over but its impact on the life of the country and the world is truly just beginning. No matter the outcome, there is going to be a lot of work to do on the far side of the finish line.
In fact Tuesday is really just the starting line where we as a nation find ourselves needing to reckon with the reality that there are deep schisms, divisions and disenfranchisement that tearing us apart. And I am not just talking about the chasm between Clinton and Trump supporters, but also of the deep wounds and that divide us by race, gender, economic circumstance, land rights just to name a few. It is an unstable, contested and scary place out there. Do we have the strength, the staying power, to put ourselves at this starting line and enter into the fray of our day?
Now I knew when I was standing on the starting line that day in Jamestown that if I was going to run the race laid out before me, I would have to give it everything I had. If I was going to finish, it would take all of my strength, patience, perseverance, and discipline to keep putting one foot in front of another for all of those miles. And I thought about jumping out of that starting shoot more than once fearing that I really did not have what it would take.
But here is where the truly remarkable grace of our faith comes in, did you catch it in the passages this morning? Our capacity to run the race of our times, to carry the Gospel message of love, justice, peace, compassion, out into our world of turmoil, comes not from our own abilities, but instead it is bestowed upon us by the great cloud of witnesses, by this love and grace that is holding us, fortifying us, nourishing us right now. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race…” Since we are surrounded, we therefore can run! What we are asked to do is to see how we are surrounded, to say yes to that witness, to set down all that would keep up from joining this holy company and then to run!
Let me underscore what a remarkable grace this is. We have been so inculcated into what is a precarious, individualistic perspective that sees that every move we make is ours alone and that every success or every failure is hinges on our own capacity. We succeed because we are exceptional. We fail because we are a failure. This is a rubric we hold not just ourselves to but those around us as well.
But, what the author of Hebrews offers is an entirely different perspective and orientation. Our capacity to run the race set before us is not based on what our innate abilities may be. Our capacity to act in the world, to live love alive in a world that desperately needs to know the transformative power of love, is linked to our consent to participate in, to take up our place among the great cloud of witnesses. We are not alone but a part of a great crowd. Our strength is not ours alone but the communal strength of all who have come before, living love alive in the world, trusting that compassion, hope, healing, is the Way of redemption and salvation. We are a part of something much more beautiful, and more powerful, and more hopeful than anything any one of us could possibly imagine on our own.
And let me be clear, this great cloud of witnesses is not comprised of spiritual superheroes. It is comprised of ordinary, perfectly imperfect people like you and me. Each one of us living love the best we know how, and through that love joined together in that great cloud.
I am humbled and inspired by the fact that we are gathered today, in this sanctuary, as church, opening our hearts in love to God, each other and to the world and the very fact that we are doing so it is witness to the truth that those who first heard the words from Hebrews over 2000 did not turn away from the fray of their day but instead strapped on their sandals and set off proclaiming the power of love.
It turned out, I actually did end up finishing that race. It did take all my strength and determination, but I also discovered it took something more. Something I had not anticipated. Turned out it took a great crowd of witnesses. You see, by mile three or so, I fell into pack of about six or seven other runners. And without saying anything or agreeing on anything, we formed a kind of bond. We stuck together on that course. When one would slow, we all would slow. When one picked up a pace on a downhill we all did the same.
At one point around mile 5, my shoe came untied and I pulled off to the side to retie it. Looking up to bid my companions a good race, I was shocked to see that they all had pulled off to the side and had stopped as well. They were waiting without an ounce of irritation on their faces for me to tie my shoe and to rejoin them. I remember thinking at that moment, “I’m gonna finish this race! It may not be pretty, and it may take quite a while, but I am going to finish this race.” And sure enough, we did!
In closing, I am going to be so bold as to do that which I began by confessing to you that I find down right irritating. I am going to tell you what I think you (what we) should do. I am going to exhort you to get out there and run that race. This is the time to take up our place with that great crowd of witnesses, to follow the pioneer and perfector of our faith, the one whose living was the manifestation of what love looks like alive in the world. The one who brought healing, wholeness, and transformation. The one who stood up to the bullies of his day and laid down his life for peace. The one who cast out demons and opened himself so that heaven could more fully enter this world. This is the one whom we follow. This is the love we are to manifest. This is the race that is ours and that, praise God, is already won!
So get in the race, strap on your sandals, choose love wherever you can and however you can. Whether in your home, your work places, this church, in your school and institutions. Every day we practice being part of this vast, holy, ordinary, perfectly imperfect cloud of witnesses that keep love alive in our living.
Thanks be to our God the pioneer and perfector of our faith and the great crowd of witnesses that surround us! Amen.