Listen to the sermon from Sunday, August 14, 2016 titled “Finding the Faith to Finish” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
When my brothers and I were clearing out my parent’s home, we came across a stack of family albums and a shoebox crammed with old black and white pictures. Not a selfie in the bunch! We didn’t have a clue who most of them were. My Mom had written names on the back of a few, but with no explanation, so we didn’t know most of them either. I remember as a teenager, mom showing me some of those pictures and telling me the backstories, but I wasn’t really interested and didn’t listen.
Teenagers, you know? What did I care about those stern faced old people dressed in funny clothes when I was listening to the Bee Gees’ latest hits on my 8 track tape deck? But I wish I had listened now, because those parts of my family story are missing.
The famous “faith chapter” in Hebrews is all about connection and continuity in our sacred family story. Ingeniously, the author reminds the hard-pressed Christians of the early church to remember the faith of their ancestors as he turns through the family album.
Remember Abel’s sacrifice, approved because of his faith.
Remember Enoch’s transition to heaven without experiencing death as a reward for his God-pleasing faith.
Remember Noah, saved by his faith in a flood warning everyone else thought preposterous.
Remember Abraham’s risky faith in leaving his known for the unknown of God’s promise, and Sarah’s resurrection faith that God could bring a new life from their old, barren bodies.
Remember Abraham’s faith in offering Isaac, Isaac’s future-focused faith in blessing Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s faith in blessing his twelve sons.
Remember Joseph who went down to Egypt in trust God would return his descendants to Father Abraham’s promised land.
In Hebrews, faith is trust in God’s future shown by the courage to commit yourself to what you do not yet see and may not be finished ‘til after you’re gone. It is faithfulness that endures present hardship because you invest in the promises of God. It is faithfulness in continuity with our forbears whose own faithfulness passed a rich inheritance to us. Each life is built on the foundation of the faithful who have gone before.
Remember Moses who led his people out of slavery in Egypt, and the people who followed him across the sea and through the wilderness to find God’s promised land.
Remember Rahab, a foreign woman “of ill repute” who had the faith to risk receiving our forbears in peace. She, too, is a blessed member of our spiritual family tree.
Lest his audience get that same glassy-eyed look I had hearing family stories as a teenager, Hebrews starts flipping through the album here. “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.”
He summarizes their faithful-through-hardship stories: “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.”
“Of whom the world was not worthy” – What a lovely epitaph! Our hard times barely compare to what they endured. Remember “They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
Why do we save those old photographs? Why do we tell those old family stories? Not just to remember their funny quirks or even their many kindnesses to us. These family stories tell us who we are and what we can be as we face the challenges of our generation. The author of Hebrews reminded the persecuted first Christians of their sacred story from Jewish scripture.
The church continued this story by remembering the saints and martyrs who exemplified faith in God’s future. And still today we remember a Christian family album of souls who risked their lives and treasure for God’s sake to make this world more like God dreamt it. As Hebrews says, “they desire a better country,” they “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
Faithfulness is focused on hope, and their hope depends on us now. Says Hebrews: “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.”
“Apart from us.” Apart from us, their lives are unfinished. Apart from us, their story waits for fulfillment. Apart from us, God’s world remains incomplete. God’s dream for humanity is like a cathedral that takes generations to build. People work faithfully their whole lives and die with the work incomplete in sacred trust the next generation will do its part.
Each life is built on the foundation of the faithful who have gone before. The life work of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, of all the saints ancient and modern, of all who have gone before us rests on our shoulders now. They watch like a cloud of witnesses, waiting to see what we will do with what they gave us.
“Therefore,” Hebrews urges, turning to a new metaphor, “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.”
Faithfulness is not a sudden glorious sprint, a short walk down a church aisle, a quick dip in the baptismal waters. That is merely the starting line. Faith is faithfulness across a lifetime of showing up, working hard, integrating your beliefs into all your being and doing, until you join the cloud of witnesses yourself. And because finding the faith to finish is hard when the going gets tough, Hebrews shows us the most important family picture of all: “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.”
Faith is trusting God enough to run your race all the way to the finish line just as Jesus did. But he is not only our role model; he is our companion in the race. And there is that cloud of witnesses cheering us on.
Way back when I ran the New York City Marathon, I remember how the cheers of the crowds sustained me when my spirit was weak and my body wearing down. My fellow runners kept encouraging me. And there were regular refreshment stations where volunteers handed out water or orange slices to renew our strength.
I think of communion sometimes as a stop for refreshment in our life’s race, a moment to renew our courage for the run, a place to find the faith to finish. So let us gather at the Lord’s table today and remember all of those who have gone before us and their long, faithful investment in what they handed down to us. They believed in God. They believed in you and me.
Let us remember Christ who loved us and gave himself for us, how he won through and runs with us to help us win through, too. We aren’t finished yet. It is our turn now. What will we hand to the next generation? In the name of the Creator, Christ and Comforter, Amen. May we pray?
When the race is long and the course is hard, Lord help us remember the courage and risk and faith of those who came before us that we might be faithful, too, and build upon their work. Send the next generation we can trust with the completion of our work. Keep our hearts staid on Jesus that we might finish our part and be faithful to the end. Together with all your saints we look forward to the day when your dominion of justice and righteousness, grace and peace will heal our broken world to the glory of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.