Monday, August 19, 2013
Hebrews 11: 29 – 12:2, NT page 226 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. Sermon Mrs. Ruth Green revealed to one of her great grand-daughters, that she remembered well the first telephone she ever saw. It was an amazing thing – to be able to speak with neighbors and friends without having to leave the house. It changed things, of course. Rather than always speaking face to face, conversations could take place through the power of modern technology. Things with this new phone weren’t perfect and they continued to progress, but to be able to pick up the phone and talk to an operator who would connect her to the household that she requested seemed quite amazing to Mrs. Green who lived long enough in the world without a telephone to be amazed by the world with it. This innovation changed things considerably. Before the telephone she would drive her mother in to town. They would park the car right up on the sidewalk along with everyone else, then walk up and down that row of cars to visit and catch up with neighbors and friends. There was no Facebook – no other means to share all that news and all those pictures so important but not worthy of the newspaper, so to catch up on the news of new babies, children grown and starting a life of their own, good news, bad news, and everything in between – it had to be passed from person to person directly in that time before the telephone. Comparing this pre-telephone world to her world, Mrs. Green’s great grand-daughter was amazed by the idea that her great grand-mother lived in a world that seems so different from her own, and was even more amazed when she realized that her great grandmother was remembering the world before the telephone and not just the world before the cell phone. I am sure that Mrs. Green’s great-grand-daughters know how lucky they are to hear stories like this. They are blessed to be loved and cared for, not just by their parents, not just by their grandfather, but by three generations they are loved and valued, by three generations they are encouraged, and they benefit from the knowledge and experience gained by three generations of faithful people. They can look at the world around them and know that things have not always been the way that they are now, so there is no reason to believe that they will always stay the same. They will face their own trials and challenges, but they will face them knowing about endurance and strength, having heard the stories of their great-grandmother and their grandfather in addition to the stories that their parents tell, all of whom have already displayed endurance and strength. A race these great-grand-daughters will have to run, but they will not run it alone for they are surrounded by, as the author of Hebrews, our second scripture lesson calls it: “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Of course that is a gift. I did not grow up with a great-grandmother close by, but I remember being in her house. She kept poodles, it seemed like hundreds of them, and in addition to having them groomed she painted all of their nails. She also had pictures all over her house, most of them black and white, and having seen the Wizard of Oz where scenes in Kansas were filmed in black and white and scenes in Oz were filmed in color, and having no knowledge of different kinds of film but imagining instead that there was one kind of film and two different kinds of worlds, I imagined that my great-grandmother was unfortunate enough to have had to live a portion of her life in a black and white world – and how fortunate she must feel to now be living in the color world with us. But those were not pictures of a different world in the sense that there was no color, those were pictures of a different world in the sense that so many of them were taken before the Great Depression, before the 2nd World War. I remember asking my grandmother to describe her childhood, some of those formative years taking place during the Great Depression. She remembered having less, but not so little that her mother, my great-grandmother, didn’t still have her hair done once a week. It’s that story and others that I hold close, especially during the last few years of economic recession. You see – I know people who lived through the Great Depression. I know that there are cycles of loss and recovery, downturn and upswing, so why should I be afraid? It’s a similar message that the author of Hebrews brings, calling to mind great heroes of the faith who, having run their race, have now gone on to their place in glory. Remember that “by faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land,” and know that if the Lord made them a way through a sea so also the Lord will see you from a place of tears to a place of joy – from unemployment to a job that you love – that the Lord will carry you from addiction to recovery - though the way seems impossible remember that the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. Remember that “by faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days,” so what other obstacle might the Lord remove? And what more should I say? Do you know the stories “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”? If you know the stories of what God has done for the people in the past than you may be bold to believe that God will do the same in the future – that there is no reason to despair – that there is no reason to lose hope. But if you don’t know the stories – then you are like a child with no great-grand mother, left to believe that the way it is is the way it has always been. This is a dangerous place to be. The one who has always had a washer and dryer doesn’t know that clothes can be made clean without one. The one who grew up in a two car family probably doesn’t know the first thing about getting on a bus or walking to school. And the one who has never had to go without may not have any idea how to make it on a starting salary. Words enable us to speak, new ideas drive the mind, but stories – stories tell us what is possible, what can be endured – stories tell us who we are, and where we can go, because we go following in the footsteps of the people who go before us – but if you don’t know their stories you walk alone. In divorce there are those who feel as though they are all alone, and then there are those who have heard the stories of brothers and sisters who have walked that road before and can testify that joy will be found again. In tragedy, there are those who weep all by themselves, but then there are those who are held close by friends and their stories of grief – a great crowd of witnesses who can share in sadness because they know it first-hand. In times of heartbreak there are daughters and sons who feel a pain that seems as though it will never go away, and thank God for those mothers and fathers who can tell their own stories of love lost, assuring their children that broken hearts will mend and true love will be found. But pity the one who faces a broken heart alone, who walks that road believing that they walk it by themselves. There are those who believe that divorce is the end, that tragedy cannot be endured, that broken hearts cannot be mended – because no one is there to tell them the stories. There are those who believe that the Christian faith is under attack today, that not being able to display a Christmas Tree at the courthouse is the end of the world – but let that one hear the story – that “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.” You see – being here matters, because the church has the stories that you need to hear. Bringing your children to Sunday School matters, because they need some stories that will see them through this life and you and I both know that as good as Sesame Street and the Disney channel are, they won’t get stories of real and lasting value on cable TV. They’ll need stories to help them endure hardship, so let them hear about the ones who “wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground.” And they’ll need to hear that hardship can be endured, so let them hear about the faithful of scripture who, “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.” Today at First Presbyterian Church, this is what we call Genesis Sunday, and for the sake of stories that you need to hear I pray that you will take advantage of today to renew your commitment to this church, participating in her programs, studying scripture with your brothers and sisters in Christ, in order to hear the stories of the faithful in the Bible, but also to hear the stories of the faithful who you are sitting next to. We will all face trials, but you do not face them alone. And the story that matters more than all the others is the one told in this morning’s anthem that was sung so beautifully by Beth Patton – “Dark midnight was my cry, dark midnight was my cry, give me Jesus. Oh when I come to die, oh, when I come to die, oh, when I come to die, give me Jesus.” For when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you walk a well-worn path. You follow in the footsteps of all the faithful who walked right through adversity, toil, and trial, and walked on into glory. You follow Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” So by faith in him, follow him on to glory. Amen.