August 14, 2016
Luke 12:49-56, Hebrews 11:29-12:2
“Running with the Saints”
When I read a scripture like the one you just heard, I feel like I should apologize. Do you ever want to apologize when Christians say hate filled things? When that happens, I want to yell, “That’s not Jesus. Jesus is all about love.” I believe that. But what do we do with a text like the one we just heard? It’s not exactly the picture of love. It is strangely out of character when Luke’s gospel begins with the proclamation from Zechariah that Jesus will “guide our feet in the way of peace” (1:79). When Jesus appears to his followers after the resurrection, he greets them with the words, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36) So, who is this Jesus who comes talking about bringing fire and division rather than peace? I suppose I still want to tame Jesus and make him into a nice guy who would never offend anyone. But tame and nice guy are probably NOT the best words to describe Jesus. He offended people all the time. It cost him his life.
What do we do with this guy that talks about bringing division into families? Many of us know the experience of divided families. We have witnessed or experienced family members who don’t speak to one another. We may know the pain of being cut off because we took a stand on an issue or voted for a candidate that offended someone else. Perhaps we have left churches or organizations that no longer fit our values. It may be that Jesus’ words today are not prescriptive, but descriptive. Jesus isn’t trying to cut us off from people, but saying that when we are clear about who we are and what we stand for, we will likely experience some alienation from others who disagree. Election years really bring such divisions to the surface and is it just me, or is this year particularly divisive?
Jesus is not the great placater. He does not come to pat us on the head to build our self-esteem. He tells the truth and the truth is not always easy to hear. He calls us to be disciples and he wants us to know this will not always be easy. In fact, it will be downright difficult. We have to be prepared for some loss when we make a commitment to follow Jesus.
The Hebrews passage continues this morning with a list of heroes of faith and the amazing lives they lived. Here are a few of their achievements… administering justice, shutting the mouths of lions, quenching raging fire, escaping the edge of the sword, crossing the Red Sea, and circling the walls of Jericho until they fell down. The writer of Hebrews only names a few, but goes on to tell what some endured – stoning, being sawn in two, killing by swords, wandering, being persecuted and tormented. So you can see right away, that it didn’t always go well. We certainly don’t want to lift up these as examples of the rewards of a life of faith. But there is an incredible perseverance and faith in one after another. They were so clear that they belonged to God that they would not give up no matter how difficult the journey.
Hebrews calls us to be inspired by that great “cloud of witnesses” as we run the race that is set before us. This text is perfectly timed as the Olympic track and field events are going on this weekend. It is stunning to watch these athletes do what they have worked so hard to do. It is inspiring to witness their determination and hope and it is beautiful to watch them finish the race.
I’ve been reflecting on my great cloud of witnesses this week. I’m curious about those whose names I cannot forget and those whose names I cannot remember. It is amazing how so many people can touch our lives in a lifetime. It really is a great cloud that surrounds us. Who are those saints for you and how do they live on in you now? I encourage you to give thanks for them and the way they are part of you now.
Some of you may have met Sharon and Fred last week at church. Sharon was my youth director many years ago and one of the reasons I am in ministry today. Sharon is a vibrant, gifted woman who mentored me and had a profound impact on me as a teenager. I am grateful for the way she walked with me through some of the most powerful moments in my life. My prayer life was formed through my time in that youth group. I experienced contemplative prayer in the sanctuary on candlelit evenings. As a teenager, I was blown away as I saw the ocean for the first time on a trip with my youth group. Each morning we would get up in the dark and go out to watch the sunrise and I was amazed at the way God was palpable in this place. Sharon was on the youth retreat where I experienced a powerful call to ministry. She sat with me when I couldn’t stop crying afterward. Sharon is retired now and she travels around the country building houses for Habitat for Humanity. She is one of the people in my cloud of witnesses because she witnessed so much for me and with me. She continues to inspire me and she believes in me thirty years later.
It’s humbling to name those who walked with us and invested in us. Who would we be today without them? This is true for us individually and it’s more than true for us as a community of faith.
This week I asked who are First Congregational’s Cloud of Witnesses? Here are two responses:*
“From long ago Bill Atkinson and his wife Jo. Bill was a prominent ABQ lawyer...head of a prestigious ABQ law firm. He was such a loyal, thoughtful, kind member of our church. One could always trust his judgment. Bill and Jo taught middle school (even with their extremely busy lives.) One time the kids dressed up in Bible time clothing and went to a fast food restaurant to act out and film the story of the Good Samaritan. Bill and Jo were creative teachers who provided the kids with this kind of experience of living their faith.
A more recent saint is Lee Albertson. The church had voted to become Open and Affirming, but being called ONA and BEING ONA are two different things. Lee was called to be our pastor, and by his very being...his unassuming ways, his gentleness, his kindness, his honesty, his openness, his commitment to the UCC, he helped us turn a very big corner. We went from saying we were ONA to actually being ONA and being totally comfortable with it. He lived his life proudly, and we were thrilled to have him as our pastor. Lee was the beginning of our evolution. He made us be who we said we were!”
This community is what it is today because of those who have come before us. I am grateful for every person in our cloud of witnesses, for the ways they have blessed us with their vision and generosity and for laying the foundation for us at this time. We are in a time of growth as a congregation, and we are discerning what our future looks like. We have been here before. We will be again. We have what we need because we stand on the shoulders of so many who have gone before us. I can feel all those saints when I walk into the sanctuary. They are here in our walls. They are in the hymns that we sing, the prayers that we pray, the peace that we pass with one another. They are in us all and they are calling to persevere and to look to Christ as we continue this race.
I’m struck by the line “let us lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely”. What do we need to lay aside to run this race? To truly be God’s people, we must set aside our personal agenda and need to get what we want to make way for the greater good. We need to lay aside the part of us that wants to walk away when things get difficult. When I look back at some of what First Congregational has been through over the years, I am astounded at the cloud of witnesses who stepped up to carry the load. The strength and vitality of this community is a gracious product of all who give generously in all times and places.
I am grateful for those who stayed in the race, who kept the faith, who took risks to move forward and who generously gave of themselves so that we could be the people of God no matter what adversity we face. It is on their shoulders that we stand. It is our turn to look to Jesus and see where the race will take us next. I don’t know what it will look like, but I believe that the scenery will be stunning and that the gifts that await us in this journey are greater than we are capable of imagining.
*Thanks to Meth Norris for the descriptions of Bill and Jo Atkinson and Lee Albertson.