Hebrews 11:29-12:2 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.
Our culture loves heroes – especially superheroes! My superhero when I was growing up was Superman as depicted in comic books and a half hour weekly TV show. I loved the way he zoomed up tall buildings in a single bound and how his x-ray vision would show him exactly what the crooks were up to, and how he would save the world from destruction before the end of the show and he would do that week after week. But even superheroes have weaknesses and his was Kryptonite, yet Superman always overcame it. Now there is hardly a movie season without a superhero on the big screen.
Our culture also loves great athletes- all those gold medal winners who challenged themselves and other’s world records. Recently I was enamored with the high-flying, come to earth and land on her feet of the triple double routine of Simone Biles. THAT was poetry in motion. Watching her work her body – the control and mastery was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Simone is also a hero in my book for speaking up against the abuse she and hundreds of athletes suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar and how the Olympic commission failed them all.
Our scripture reading this morning doesn’t hold up the superheroes or the great athletes as role models for us, but rather inspiring faithful models. The unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews “holds up as examples and inspiration those ancestors in faith who endured much and accomplished marvelous things, all ‘through faith.’ It was not through their own ‘super powers’ but through the power of God that they were able to do these amazing things, from crossing the Red Sea on dry land to shutting the mouths of lions and quenching raging fires. These faithful ones have run the race and now are watching us as we run ours. The reading was the long history of Israel and it started to sound very much like a litany, or a great sermon, as one example after another is given of amazing deeds done ‘by faith’ to encourage those of the present age when it was written and the basis of the encouragement is faith.
Faith. What does it take to be people of faith? What does it take to grow people of faith? What does it mean to deepen one’s faith? What does it mean to have a loss of faith? Faith. How do we define it? How do we live it? What is it?
Martin Luther defined faith in An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans this way:
Faith is not what some people think it is. Their human dream is a delusion. Because they observe that faith is not followed by good works or a better life, they fall into error, even though they speak and hear much about faith. “Faith is not enough,” they say, “You must do good works, you must be pious to be saved.” They think that, when you hear the gospel, you start working, creating by your own strength a thankful heart which says, “I believe.” That is what they think true faith is. But, because this is a human idea, a dream, the heart never learns anything from it, so it does nothing and reform doesn’t come from this ‘faith,’ either.
Instead, faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever.
Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! Therefore, watch out for your own false ideas and guard against good-for-nothing gossips, who think they’re smart enough to define faith and works, but really are the greatest of fools. Martin Luther – no wonder he got into so much trouble.
I think I prefer the simple definition from an earlier verse from the chapter we heard this morning: Hebrews 11:1 says: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This is also considered to be the most concise biblical definition that we have of “faith.”
The ‘cloud of witnesses’ [in this letter] includes martyrs and military leaders, prophets and kings, women and men who trusted in God and persevered, or were led, through the worst that life can send our way – then as now. It is usually on All Saints Day in November that we lift these witnesses before us, but sometimes we need to hear the larger story of faith that can encourage us, provide wisdom, challenge us, and help us to understanding the continuing and growing connection we have with all the saints. It is significant not to lose sight of the importance of these individuals, our important place in the continuum, and the reality of those who will share the faith now and in the future. Our faith is not complete apart from those who have gone before us, as our faith helps to complete the faith of those who are yet to come – kind of an evolutionary way to think of faith. We are all important links in the chain from the past to the present to the future.
Theologian Kathryn Matthews notes: “The story of remarkable deeds from the past, the story of immovable resolve and faithful following of God’s will, inspires us today to be faithful where we are, to keep on keeping on, no matter what is happening around us, no matter how things appear. Things are still unfolding, and speaking of things unseen, there is still much more of the story to be told. Living our faith as part of the larger story.” Matthews asks: “How are we going to participate in the unfolding?” (UCC Sermon Seeds)
As I was preparing for this sermon some young and recent voices came to mind of those living in faith during difficult times, and they are inspiring to me. There are many topics that we need to tend to in our world today, but there are two that I especially want to lift up this morning: gun control and environmental issues and the young voices that are taking on these issues in our world. Perhaps you’ve heard of Greta Thunberg, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Loren Hogg and Ruben Martinez.
Last year Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl spoke out about her concern about the environment. Not intending to take on the role for an entire generation, or leading this issue around the world, she has not backed down. On September 20th there is planned an all-ages climate strike that will take place across the planet as identified in an article called Climate Strike by Bill McKibben in Sojourners. I think we can all agree with Greta that it’s not ok to make ninth graders save the planet by themselves. I am not sure what’s planned in Las Cruces that day, but maybe to just be aware of our water use that day or being sure not to throw out recyclables in the trash. Everything helps.
Within our faith community, Til Zimmerman has approached our church Board to support NM Interfaith Power and Light efforts which is part of a larger interfaith global effort to deal with climate change. There are two congregations that are already members in Las Cruces, Temple Beth-El and St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. The Board has given its support and the Faith Action Committee has moved this effort forward for our own congregation to take part in this faithful effort to save God’s beautiful creation. You will be hearing more about this effort over the next several weeks.
Maybe the names of Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Loren Hogg sound familiar to you. These are a few of the school aged voices that have emerged following the February 14, 2018 shootings that took place at the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Florida. Emma is an impassioned truth teller who speaks from her heart. Sister and brother, David Hogg and Loren Hogg, 17 and 14, have written a book, Voices of a New Generation. Each of these young people speaks truth to power and each of these individuals are determined to succeed where elders have failed. Loren and David wrote: “We’re children. You guys are adults. Work together. Get over your politics and get something done.” The March for Our Lives and Never Again movements were birthed because of these individuals response to these horrendous deaths – these horrendous murders. The common sense need for background checks and ban on assault weapons may be a good start to lessening these deaths. How can Congress not act on these simple steps to protect us – especially our children?
The next superhero I raise is closer to home – 11 year old, sixth grader, Ruben Martinez of El Paso. Ruben was left scared and anxious after these shooting and deaths at Walmart. He talked with his Mom trying to figure out what he might be able to do to feel better and he came upon the idea to challenge the community to perform 22 acts of kindness to honor the 22 victims killed to help begin the healing process in this devastating aftermath.
Ruben has the right idea to lead us from a reactive to proactive stance. 22 intentional acts of kindness may lead to acts of kindness becoming second nature – what a wonderful and simply beautiful idea this is.
I was recently reminded of something another superhero of mine, Fred Rogers, said in an interview. His mother had told him when he was a child that if there was ever a disaster that he should look for the helpers. Over the years Fred came to have faith in that statement because, “if you look for the helpers, you’ll find hope.” These young people are the helpers for this generation.
Walter Bruggemann “considers faith as trust in a God who has made promises that are true” and we are indeed a part of that story of that “intergenerational mystery”. (Sermons and Prayers of Walter Bruggemann) Through biblical stories we know many of our great ancestors could be deeply flawed individuals and yet deeply faithful. In our generation we too 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. Yes, through our time and place in history God is still speaking.
I close with a quote from one of my flawed but wonderful heroes – the Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin who wrote: “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” May God bless all our leaps of faith. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2019