Great Cloud of Witnesses, Proper 15 (C)

[RCL] Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

In today’s Epistle lesson, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to persevere in our life of faith, no matter what difficulties we face. “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The writer says, you have begun a good thing in becoming Christians. I want you to finish strong in what has been started in you.

A priest from the diocese of Maryland says, “I like to run. I’m not fast, but I enjoy running. Participating in marathons has given me an experience I have enjoyed about running. In marathons, the best runners in the world and normal mortals like myself get to compete in the very same race. I think that’s neat. I will never find myself on the same tennis court with Serena Williams. If I were ever to toss a football, none of the Green Bay Packers would be there to receive it. But, when I ran the Chicago marathon, I (and 25,000 other runners) lined up at the same starting line as runners who held the best marathon times in the world. We ran the same course. We passed the same cheering crowds.”

“But I suppose it’s the finishing that really makes the difference.  The elite runners were crossing the finish line when I was about half way through the course.  They had about two hours to enjoy refreshments and rest, while I still had about thirteen miles of one foot in front of the other to reach my goal, and was wondering if I would really make it. But the beauty of the event is that for many of us, just finishing the race is the accomplishment, the goal.”

Very few have to run a marathon — participation is for fun. But the author of the letter to the Hebrews asks us a similar question: Will we finish the race that is our life with faith? Will we persevere? Or will we run off course, or give up? And the race is hard. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us, if we follow him, if we stand up for what is right, we will experience conflict.

The writer of Hebrews, like a good coach, gives four pieces of advice about how to finish the race. To finish the race: recall who surrounds us. Remove what ways down on us. Rely on strength within us. Remember who goes before us. Recall who surrounds us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” The epistle writer wants us to picture ourselves as athletes in an arena. As we strive toward our goal, to finish with faith, in peace and holiness, we run surrounded by people. The people in the stands are people who have demonstrated faith — faith that persevered, people who by the grace of God overcame great obstacles, and finished the race. These are people of the Bible, the men and women of the Church throughout the ages, people known personally by you and by me whose witness encourages us.

They are witnesses, not just spectators. There is a huge difference. A spectator watches you go through something. A witness is someone who has gone through something herself, and the root meaning of the word witness, from which we get the word “martyr,” is someone who may have given his life going through it. We have witnesses cheering us on, not just spectators, people who have gone through what we struggle with, people whose testimonies of the strength God gave them can, in turn, give us strength and courage. We have witnesses rooting for us, weeping with us when we stumble, calling to us when we wander, urging us to finish the race.

Our coach tells us also to remove what weighs down on us. Have you ever seen a track stars running a race wearing winter parkas, or with weights tied to their ankles, or carrying a backpack full of bricks? “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” says our coach. What attitudes and actions, what past behavior and present entanglements weigh us down? What weights of sin and brokenness do we carry that cause us to stumble rather than sprint? We can set those weights down. God is ready to take them from us. God is ready to forgive and heal whatever we let get between us and God, whatever has come between us and other people, whatever wrongs we do to ourselves.

Our coach also tells us to rely on the strength within us. We are told to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” When the going gets tough, when the road is difficult, when the miles drag on, obstacles come up around every bend, when every stretch of the road seems like another steep hill to climb, we can rely on spiritual resources within us — spiritual resources we develop in training: in gathering with other Christians, in hearing and reading God’s word, in participating in the sacramental life of the church.

The word “perseverance” can also be translated as “patient endurance.” Endurance is one thing. We can endure and whine and complain all at the same time. Patient endurance looks like praying without ceasing for ourselves and others. It looks like encouraging others even in the midst of difficulty. It looks like saying something kind, or saying nothing at all when something unkind comes more readily to mind. It looks like giving of ourselves generously, even when we’re not sure what’s ahead of us and our inclination may be to think of ourselves first.

Most important of all, remember who goes before us.  We can look “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.”

We can and will finish the race strong in faith if we look to Jesus, if we keep our eyes focused on him, not being distracted by other things along the way that can cause us to lose our direction or footing and stumble. Jesus has gone before us, has shown us the way that leads to victory.  If we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow him, we will not only make a good beginning in faith we too will finish and win the race.

In the race of our life, we have people cheering us on. We have someone willing to take on our burdens. We can train for patient endurance. We have a guide who leads us and will not leave us.  Let us keep running until the prize is ours and we hear God say to us, “Well done!”

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 15 (C).

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as Rector of St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. She holds a PhD in New Testament from Marquette University and is the author of Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew. With her husband, the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, she is co-author of Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery, and A Man, A Woman, a Word of Love.  

Are you a hero or a pig?, 13 Pentecost, Proper 15 (C) – 2013

August 18, 2013

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Powerful stuff in today’s readings. Everybody seems to be on a tear; Jesus and Isaiah are full of wrath and judgment, and even the author of Hebrews slips out of his Platonic abstractions long enough to get downright graphic about the costs of discipleship. All pretty grim for a Sunday in late summer.

This abundance of slaps upside the head calls to mind a little saying from the French writer Léon Bloy. Bloy is often quoted as having said, “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.”

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig. That’s true in a scary sort of way. And it’s true of all of us.

After all, in every reading we heard today, even in the psalm, God is saying, rather strongly, that behavior is important, that God has some very real expectations of us, and that what we do, our actions and attitudes, matter.

So, we hear all that talk of demands for faithfulness, of discipline and judgment, wrapped up by Jesus’ strong words about division and fire – about what he must undergo and his impatience to get on with it.

And we need to hear this stuff. Maybe we don’t hear it often enough.

We cannot simply ignore or overlook the fact that God offers us a vision of what human life can be, of what it should be. We pretty much know what that vision is. It has to do with shaping ourselves as people by living faithfully, by keeping God at the absolute center of our lives. It has to do with telling the truth and with living not for ourselves alone but also for others. It has to do with holiness of life and with a passionate concern for the poor and oppressed. It has to do with the way we take care of the stuff and the people God places in front of us. It has to do with how we behave, but even more, it has to do with who we become.

What it all really comes down to is the imitation of Christ; Jesus living his life in us and through us. Now, God is very serious about this. God expects us seriously to try to conform our lives to it.

And when Jesus talks about fire, and about his baptism, and about division and conflict, he’s talking about what it looks like and what it feels like – for him, and from time to time, for us – to struggle to live this way, to be faithful to God’s vision of who we are created to be.

Now, in all of this, we need to see first and very clearly that God’s primary call for holiness and righteous is not made to an evil world out there, telling them to shape up. God’s first call for holiness and righteous is made to us, to those who claim to follow Jesus. It is only after we hear and struggle long and hard with these words to us, that we might have something to say, and much more importantly, something to show to a world that definitely needs to clean up its act. But it all begins with us.

Each one of us – grown-ups (whatever that means), youth, children – every one of us has the same choice. On one hand, we can choose to try, over and over, to live as God will have us live, to live faithful, honorable Christian lives wherever we are, no matter where such faithfulness may lead us or what it might cost. And that’s hard. It’s not for the weak, the lazy or the uncommitted. Such a life is truly heroic. It demands our very best. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. That’s one option.

On the other hand, we can simply put all of that stuff on the back burner, do what the world out there and our own ideas and appetites tell us to do, and hope for the chance, every now and then, to be a nicer person.

Every Christian who is not a hero is a pig.

Now, it’s also very important that we keep clear about something else here. God doesn’t give us this vision of how human beings should live so that God can sit up there with a checklist keeping score and gleefully sending us to hell if we get too many things wrong. That’s just dead wrong.

And none of this stuff about behavior and discipline has to do with whether or not God will keep loving us. God’s love is a given, it’s never at issue. Instead, there are at least two other reasons, two real reasons, why God tells us these things about how our lives should look.

The first reason for all of these demands is that God loves us, and God wants for us the fullest and the richest and the deepest life we can have. We are created in such a way that the very best that life has to offer us is available to us most fully as we try to live God’s vision of what it means to be a human being. It’s a little bit like the fact that most cars are made to run on gasoline. Sure, there are some other things you can put in cars that may work for a bit – things that might even make for a very interesting ride, for a little while. But then the car just won’t work any more. So with God’s vision for our lives. We just run better, over the long haul, when our lives are running as they are created to run.

God’s way of living promises is life at its fullest and its most abundant. God loves us, and God wants the very best for us. That’s one of the reasons God gives us his vision of how human beings should live. For our own sakes.

The other reason has to do with our mission, with our calling to be the body of Christ, to carry out the work and the ministry of Jesus Christ wherever we may be. Part of our witness to the world out there is offering it a real option – a different way to live and to be.

This is what Jesus did. The way Jesus lived forced a choice from everyone who met him. Remember, Jesus didn’t grab people by the throat and say, “You’re a jerk. And if you don’t get fixed, you are in deep trouble.” Instead, he offered himself; he spoke of the Father; he told the truth; he lived with absolute integrity. People saw in Jesus something that caused a crisis within them – and they had to choose.

And for the world to see Jesus today, it must look at us. There’s really no place else.

Again, it does no good for us, or for the church, to sit on the sidelines and shout to the world out there that it is “bad, bad, bad.” Even – indeed, especially – when it really is bad, bad, bad.

Nor does it do any good self-righteously to tell “them,” the folks out there, exactly what they should be doing to clean up their acts. Even if –  indeed, especially if – we might have some rather useful ideas. We are called, as was Jesus himself, to transform ourselves, to show and to tell the world what it looks like, and how it’s different to live as we are created to live.

That’s what’s behind all of these tough lessons. It’s the call to that wholeness and completeness and new life that living as we are created to live can bring. And it’s the call to present such new lives to a world that is dying for the lack of exactly that.

It’s a challenge, and it’s hard. Nevertheless, this is what we believe, this is the challenge we have accepted, and this is what we try to teach our children.

And the simple fact is that trying to share this vision of life with our world – or with our children – doesn’t make any sense and won’t have any effect unless we, ourselves, are firmly and visibly on that path.

Like our children, our world may not pay much attention to what we say, but it’s watching very carefully what we do.

So today, amidst all this talk of judgment and destruction, we are, I think, being invited to remember two things.

First, we are being invited to remember that God loves us, all of us, more than we can possibly imagine. God wants, for all of us and for each of us, the best life possible. For this reason God gives us in Jesus both a model of what human life can look like and the grace and forgiveness to embrace that life, and to live it faithfully.

The second thing we are called to remember is the fundamental issue of our own integrity. We are reminded to remember that any challenge to faithfulness, any vision of human life, that our faith offers – this is really about us. It with ourselves that we begin, and nowhere else.

After all, any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

Open ourselves, Pentecost 12, Proper 15 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18 (Track 2: Jeremiah 23:23-29 and Psalm 82); Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Hebrews and the gospel this week! Read them again when you get home. Then read them again and again – maybe every day this week – because if we could really understand and then take to heart these two passages, we just might be convicted enough to open ourselves to the fire of the Spirit and then to bring that fire to our church.

Jesus uses that exact image: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” He’s speaking to his disciples – the ones who would have to take up his mission and message and make it known to the rest of the world. Can you hear his frustration? “What stress I am under until it is completed.” Jesus knew he would not be among the people much longer. Those religious leaders of the time, who had lost a real sense of faithfulness, were already wondering how to get rid of him. Their fire had long ago gone out and their hearts were set on their own glory and not the glory of God.

That’s what can happen. The people who stopped reading their scriptures with fire in their hearts and a passion for knowing they were made in the image and likeness of God got self-centered, forgot about loving their neighbors as themselves, and turned their backs when the going got tough.

Jesus threw some harsh words at them. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” That doesn’t sound like our pal, Jesus. Not peace? Can he really mean that? He then gives a list of all the folks who will be divided against each other, and it’s hard to swallow. Will children be against their parents and maybe worse, parents against their children?

And then he called his followers hypocrites. He told them they could interpret nature’s signs well enough, but they couldn’t interpret the present time. That “present time” is the kingdom of God that he, Jesus, came to make clear and vibrant on the earth. He wasn’t seeing it happen.

We need to remember that the Gospel of Luke was not written for our ears. It was written for that time and for those who were just learning about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. The gospel writer was most likely addressing a gentile audience in a time when people who turned from their pagan religions to become followers of Jesus would most likely have caused division even in their own families. We know historically about the Christian persecutions that happened in those times, and we need to understand that this gospel was written to establish Jesus as Messiah, to show that he has authority over all things, and that his teachings and message were for all God’s people, Jew and gentile alike.

Jesus wasn’t saying that he wanted division to come to God’s people, he was just saying that he knew that there would be those who would turn their backs not only on him, but on those who followed him. Jesus died so that we might have life and have it to the fullest, remember. Jesus’ frustration may well have been that he dearly wanted God’s people to live out the two great commandments, to be happy and at peace, to care for the poor and needy; and as he didn’t see it happening, he cried out in anger.

That said, don’t get comfortable. We read scripture every week not just to hear about our past, but to reflect on what they have to say to us. Would Jesus have something different to say to us if he walked into our churches today?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d have to say he might just have to say the same thing. Aren’t households divided against each other still? Sometimes those “households” are groups of people or nations. Has peace really come to the world yet? Even in places where peace seems to reign on the surface, selfishness, hate, division, cruelty, and ignorance still grasp at the souls of God’s people. We’re often no better than the religious leaders of Jesus’ time who imposed impossible laws on the people but did not follow those laws themselves. We still see the clouds and predict rain, so to speak, but we don’t know how to live in the kingdom of God. We might not even believe it’s here.

So, what do we do? Are we to be as frustrated as Jesus was? Is there hope? After all the centuries that have passed from Jesus’ time to ours, shouldn’t we have learned something?

Yes, we should. And fortunately, yes, we have.

Look at the letter to the Hebrews. The author sings the praise of those who did get the message and acted on it. Look at the list of what these people did: through faith they conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight. Pretty impressive, really, and these were folks in both the Old and New Testaments – God’s people, full of the fire of God’s spirit. Women were praised for their faithfulness. Martyrs were praised for their courage. Those who were ill-treated and hated for their passion for God were praised.

We don’t have to think very hard to name people in our own time we can add to this list. There are of course, the named ones: Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Katharine Jefferts Schori. But there are also the ones who aren’t famous – those people who have been our mentors and teachers, those who have taught us to be faithful. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who help us grasp Jesus’ message in many, many ways. We, too, should count ourselves part of that great cloud. Don’t forget to consider every day not only the ways you could be better, but also the ways you were indeed an example of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. It’s critically important for us to accept God’s gift of the Spirit and to know with absolute certainly that we are bearers of God to the world with every breath we take.

So, 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 joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God where we too will sit one day.

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Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz
The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

Ready to be set on fire, Pentecost 12, Proper 15 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 23:23-29 or Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80: 1-2, 8-19 or 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12: 49-56

As it says in today’s reading from Jeremiah: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Or as it says in the Sanhedrin: “As the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings.”

Perhaps this Talmudic interpretation of Jeremiah gives us some purchase on Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire upon the earth. … Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

We might naturally wonder just what these statements from Jeremiah and Luke have to do with one another. We read them out loud and conclude, “The Word of the Lord,” after which we dutifully respond, “Thanks be to God.”

Just why do we give thanks for fire, division, and splintering rock?

In a time when all kinds of people both inside and outside the church are showing great interest in “The Word of the Lord,” perhaps it is worth stopping and looking at just what that is. What is the word of the Lord?

The very first time that phrase is used in the Bible is in Genesis in the Abraham saga from which we have heard recently. The operant phrase in the Hebrew Bible is “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” It’s all over the Old Testament, mentioned several hundred times. The word of the Lord comes to people in and out of visions – which makes it sound as if the word of the Lord is difficult to pin down, for it is somehow in transit; it is always coming to us. And as it comes to us born on the winds of the Spirit, Jesus says in John 3 :“You do not know whence it comes or wither it goes.”

Curiously, the word of the Lord always seems to come to the prophets in the form of poetry. The words of the prophets and Psalms and Revelation may be the most carefully hammered-out words in the Bible. Writing poetry takes time and meticulous working and reworking of the text to get it just right. Poetry is also open to endless meanings and interpretations.

The rest of the Bible tends to be an eclectic collection of sayings and sagas endlessly told and retold in oral tradition and variously remembered in written traditions. It’s then later retold and edited by so-called Biblical witnesses.

For example, the book of Revelation is popularly believed to be the dream or vision of someone named John– some suggest of John of Patmos – or a direct revelation from God. It turns out that of the 400 some odd verses in Revelation, nearly 300 are direct quotations or references to stories in the Old Testament. That is, someone has carefully re-edited and re-worked existing Biblical material with some added connective tissue.
Then you get things like the Noah’s ark saga. In Genesis 6 we read that God instructs Noah to take two of each animal, one male and one female. Then in Genesis 7 it is suddenly seven pairs of each animal. So which is it? Modern scientific folks that we are, we want to know which verse is “right.”

We quickly see how difficult it can be to read the Bible literally. And when it comes to poetry and visions, it becomes even more demanding.

When God’s word is like a hammer on a rock, splitting it into many pieces, those pieces render many different meanings. This makes us uncomfortable.

And that seems to be what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading. Jesus says he did not come to bring peace to the earth but rather division. Depending upon whether we choose to get with the Good News of Jesus or not will leave us divided, redistributed. Jesus does not come literally to divide, it will just be a natural consequence of his coming and the subsequent distributing of God’s spirit among us.

The word of the Lord comes to us. We know not whence it comes or wither it goes – where it will find us and where it will take us. When the word of the Lord comes to us, we are called to do something new, be something new, to see all things new. We are called to co-create with the God who says, “Let there be … .”

The word of the Lord in the person of Jesus is an invitation to stand in the midst of the fire of God’s utterances throughout time.

The word of the Lord is like a hammer on a rock, reverberating throughout the ages with endless readings, endless tellings and re-tellings, endless remembrances. From age to age each verse, each word, each letter gets re-examined, re-thought, re-told, newly uttered, newly acted upon.

Looking at the world, our country, and even our church, one can readily see the kinds of divisions Jesus describes. Is it any wonder that Jesus wants to kindle the fire of God’s word?

Is it any wonder that God’s word wants to be a hammer to break our rocks – the rocks of our flinty, fossilized, and rigid beliefs, understandings, and misunderstandings – into little pieces so as to make them all new?

As it says in Hebrews, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the One to whom we must render an account.”

Are we ready to be set on fire? Are we ready to let our current understandings be smashed to pieces? Are we ready for the word of the Lord? When we say, “Thanks be to God,” we are saying, “Yes, Lord, send your word to me here and take me someplace utterly new! Give me your fire, and splinter my rock. Bring me closer to the life of your Kingdom.”

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, MD, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word. E-mail: kkub@aol.com.