Sunday, August 18, 2013

Final Sermon as Curate of All Souls

[1] Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, [2] Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
                                                                  - Hebrews 12:1-2

Today's epistle picks up on last week's reading from Hebrews 11 which contains the definitive explanation of faith: “faith is the substance of things hoped for , the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is the spiritual vision to see the things of eternity and trust in the reality of God's providence and promises. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that faith is not something that God invented in the New Testament. Rather there is a legacy of faith in the great men and women of the Old Testament. Abraham, for example, believed God's promise for a son, even though he and his wife were of advanced age. He believed that he and his progeny would inherit a home, even though he wandered as a stranger and sojourner in the land of Palestine. The author goes on to name other great figures of the Old Testament who belong to this hall of faith: Abel and Noah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses. Each lived by faith. In today's lesson, the author concludes this passage by writing, “wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race set before us”. Those who have gone before us in faith—including the major figures of the Old Testament—are this cloud of witnesses. They surround us and encourage us in this race of life and of faith. Ask any football player whether he would rather play in an empty stadium or in one filled with people. The fact is you play better, you run faster if you're being watched and cheered on. The author of the epistle says that the walk of Christian faith is not a solitary walk. We belong to a body, a corporation not just of those who are alive now in the church but of all faithful Christians throughout history, what the Apostles' Creed calls the communion of saints. The stained glass windows in a church are a concrete reminder that we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses.

The author of the Epistle has several things to say about this Christian walk of faith. First of all he says it is a race. Have you ever felt that life is one, long obstacle course? Or that your life goes from one crisis to the next? Or that the when of “when things finally settle down” never comes. The author to the Hebrews would acknowledge that life is an obstacle course and a battle. He says that the Christian life is a race. There is a race set before that we must run. Of course, there are different ways to approach this race, this obstacle course, and they are not all necessarily Christian. A friend reflected recently that there are two prevailing attitudes to life: one says that life is a prison; the other says that life is a classroom. If life is a prison, there are a variety of ways to cope with this reality. Some choose the route of escapism. Extreme forms of religiosity often are forms of escapism—we're biding our time for heaven and the life here and now has little or no significance. This is often just a method of avoidance in order not to face the painful, the awkward or the uncomfortable. Another reaction to the attitude that life is a prison is simply to try to make the prison more comfortable. People who take this path say that life is hard, so I am going to enjoy myself as much as I can in this dreadful place. My highest good will be pleasure, and it doesn't matter whom I hurt along the way. We've all known people who possess overwhelming material abundance and who are also quite miserable. We have all known others who went on a heedless pursuit of pleasure, only to end up miserable and alone. The ornaments of prison life don't change the fact that it is a prison. A third way of coping with life if it is a prison is intoxication. Alcohol, drugs, and even entertainment can all be used to drown ourselves in a sea of temporary forgetfulness. Maybe for a moment we will forget that we are in this prison. From this description it is apparent how many people—including ourselves at times—treat life as if it were a prison. The methods of escapism, materialism, and intoxication are generally pretty ineffective, especially as long term strategies. But there is this other attitude I mentioned, and I think it is the true Christian attitude to life. It says that life is a classroom, where God is shaping us and training us so that we might become more like him in our character. The Bible says that we are to be transformed into the image of God's Son, our Lord Jesus. The trials, tribulations, and crises of life are the means which God uses to bring about this transformation. Those trials are not the execution of punishment for us prisoners but the loving instruction and discipline of a heavenly Father for his children. The problem for many Christians is that they say they will start living into the Christian faith when life is easy or when they have the time. This is entirely the wrong mind-set. Our faith is most potent and living in the midst of life's dynamics. What we need to learn is how to live as Christians within the circumstances that we have been given rather than with the circumstances as we'd like them to be. An older friend in Albuquerque who is a widow often used to tell me that she would not mind dying, but that because she was still living, it was because God still had some more work to do on her. This attitude of acceptance of what life is rather than what we want it to be is precisely how we are called to live. The fruit of such an attitude is joy and gratitude. Life, my friends, is not a prison but a classroom.

Of course, we do not have the power of ourselves to run this race, or to run it in the way I am describing. Only God can give us the strength and endurance to finish this course. It means, as the epistle lesson indicates, we have to let go of the sin that is killing us, the sin, that as our authors writes, so easily besets us. Most importantly we have to look unto Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith”. He is the beginning and end of our faith walk, and by his grace that we can live this life of faith. Many Christians understand what it means for Jesus to be the author of their faith, particularly if someone feels that he has been delivered from some addiction, some catastrophe or even from himself. But all too often the Christian attitude is, “Thanks God, I'll talk it from here.” Such Christians act as if our ongoing sanctification were a result purely of our effort. Such thinking is reflected in the theologically preposterous, popular country song “Me and God.” I'm sorry, you and God are not a team. Such thinking also produces silly slogans such as Jesus is my co-pilot. Only the most deluded of survivors would say that the helicopter pilot who rescued him from drowning is his co-pilot. According to the Epistle, Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. He has gone the way of the cross. In other words, he knows the trials and tribulations of life, and in the midst of them gave himself wholly to his Father. It is the model for our own lives of faith in which we give ourselves to God in the midst of the storms of life. The truth is we don't get to see around the next corner in life. Usually our ability to predict these turns is middling at best. As Christians, we are called to keep on moving, keep on running the race, not worrying about what is around that next corner, knowing that there will be trials and troubles, but that we will have grace to live through them. This is the faith that Bonnie and I are trying to live into as we move to New Jersey and I take this new call to ministry. Like marriage, children or anything else in life, we can't really predict what it will be like, but as we trust in faith, we know that whatever troubles or difficulties come, God will lead us, he will instruction and shape us in this divine classroom of life. For all these things we can be joyful and grateful, just as we have been blessed to be here at All Souls.

Our last hymn this morning is a famous one: Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress is our God. One of my favorite verses is the third one which speaks of the difficulties and trials of this life, this race that we are exhorted to run. The verse reads, And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us: The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.” That word, of course, is the mighty name of Jesus. He it is who is the author and finisher of our faith. It is to him and to the word of his grace that I commend you, my brothers and sisters, both for this life and the life to come.

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