“We Are Surrounded” / Hebrews 11:36-12:2 / 13 November 2016
Others before us suffered for the things they cared about; they sacrificed for their faith, the Book of Hebrews reminds us. They ran the race that was set before them, and so let us run the race set before us. And friends, there is indeed a long, hilly, thirsty race set before us today, is there not? Others in times past gave everything to the causes of the good and the true. And now, in this day that has been assigned to us, will we do anything less? No, indeed we will not.
I think about that sometimes. I look at some of some of my classmates from seminary, people who might have done just fine in a nice comfortable parish like this one. Many of them could have led a quiet life in a leafy suburb with a decent income and a relatively respected place in society. But they were such urgent souls. Instead they followed their hearts or dreams out onto the road less traveled—and less monied—where they minister directly to the least of these. One fellow chose to start a charity that helps underprivileged families in the East End buy their own homes. His belief was that home ownership gives people greater pride and investment in their communities. It makes families and neighborhoods more stable. And true to his calling, he too bought an old house in Garfield, one of the poorest neighborhood in Pittsburgh, where he sends his three lovely blonde daughters to the public school. And I say to myself, “Yes! I could have done that. A house in the inner city, sure. A vital new work that creates stable neighborhoods, yes! My kids in the…Pittsburgh city schools? Wait, you want me to put my daughters in a less than optimal school with poor funding, and crowded classrooms, and known gang activity? It’s not exactly being sawn in two, but it would be a great a sacrifice for the faith! Could I do it? Could you?
Another was working in an established parish in Homewood, and he asked his session how they might do greater outreach to the drug addicts and street people living around the church. When his session said, “No way,” he quit his stable job and started a storefront church specifically for folks who aren’t welcome at respectable churches. He’s dead now, and not as a martyr, but he made real sacrifices for his faith, his sense of call.
Presbyterians here in Pittsburgh are known for planting new churches. Their names are usually simple nouns with an adjective or two: The Open Door, The Upper Room, Hot Metal Bridge. (It’s similar to new restaurants with names like Spoon, Salt, Pig & Chicken.) Most are located in trendy urban neighborhoods where hipsters peruse the Utne Reader in corner coffee shops, and they’re led by pensive young white guys with beards and conservative religious views. But a third seminary classmate decided to start a different kind of new church, one that reaches out specifically to gays and lesbians in ethnic minorities in poor communities—where society and especially the church tends to reject them. She’s living on $25,000 a year. That’s sacrifice. Could you even afford a goatskin coat on that kind of money?
Someone once said, “I’d like to believe that I’ll die a heroic death, but I’ll probably trip over my dog and choke on a spoonful of frosting.” Oh, and you hear these stories about all the ship chaplains who willingly went down with sinking vessels, giving up their life jackets and their places on the lifeboats to others, standing by calmly and speaking peace and blessing while everyone else panicked. Four of them went down with the Dorchester in 1943, a rabbi, a priest, and two ministers. And I ask myself, was it peer pressure? Was it just that none of them wanted to be to known as the one chaplain out of four who insisted on taking his place in the inflatable raft? One of them even lied when a sailor refused to take his life jacket. He said, “C’mon, take it. I have another.” And of course he did not. I like to think that I would have done it, too. But drowning would be a scary way to go. Would I have done it? Or would I have said something like, “Hey, um, guys, it’s really great, what you’re doing. I’m proud of you three. But if my wife finds out that I willingly died so that others could live, I’d never hear the end of it. So, uh, see ya…er, I mean, good bye.” What would you have done?
Floggings, stonings, chains, swords, homelessness! If our faith isn’t costing us something, can it rightly be called faith? If following Jesus doesn’t lead us to a cross, then it’s probably not Jesus that we’re following. It’s somebody far less demanding. Don’t you sometimes think we make this life of faith far easier than it’s meant to be? Not that we ought to be fanatics, but that we should take very seriously the call to surrender our own privilege as Christ surrendered his. Ancient tradition says that the martyrs will be appointed the task of judging all Christians on the great day. I don’t subscribe to that belief, but it does make me wonder what they’d say if they reviewed the life I’ve led in the faith, and as a “faith leader.” Could I really stand before the guy who got sawn in half and say, “Well, but I did spend seven nights a year sleeping on an really squeaky air mattress in the chapel for Family Promise”? And yet, we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses: the prophets, and martyrs, and confessors—that’s to say, the would-be martyrs whose lives were spared—the urgent souls in ages past, yes, but also the ones just across town, and those who gave us this church in all its beauty and sufficiency. We are surrounded by those who completed their race. Let us then complete ours. For just as surely as followers of Christ have risen up in every age, some far darker than this one, to be faithful, and to mitigate the sufferings of the world, we have been given this day with all its troubles and need. Will we not do as they? Others have given or are giving much. And we in our day, what are we being called to endure, to suffer, to give today?
There are two ways to look at life. One is sort of the default perspective in our culture. It says, “It’s my life, and I’ll do with it what I please.” My land, my time, my resources, they’re mine. My skills are my own to hide away forever or to share with to the world as I choose. This is the conventional wisdom of our day. Wonderful movies have been made about people who cast aside expectations and lived instead for their desires. There are some decent human beings who drift through life with this mindset: it’s mine. Ownership is the cornerstone of our western civilization: possession is nine tenths of the law. I can do what I want with the things that fall to me, for they are mine. I can spend my life on the Internet looking at cute photos of kittens, for it’s my life, for me to use any way I see fit. I can dedicate my time to going through the Post Gazette each and every day to highlight all the adverbs in fluorescent yellow. I can invest my energies into campaigning for the Oxford comma, which is sadly falling into disuse. That could be my life’s great cause, or else getting people to use the word “whom” correctly. It is my life, and I’ll make of it what I will. I could leave my church and family out of my will and bequeath everything I own to the Bushy Run Battlefield Heritage Society to help them with lawn care. Small local historic sites are always looking for funding. And if I did any of those things, people would judge me, to be sure. But in the end, they would say, “Well, it was his life, his time, his energies, his money to do with as he wished.”
The other way of looking at life says, “Well, it’s not really mine, though I get to enjoy it. I didn’t give it to myself. I didn’t wish myself into being. Life is a gift, along with everything in it. I am not free to do whatever I please with my life, my energies, my time, my money. Life is a privilege and a responsibility. Life is on loan. It’s meant to be treated with care, enjoyed, invested in things that benefit others, as well as myself, and all to the glory of the Giver.” My time in this world is short and must be used wisely. My skills are for making the world better, and if I neglect or hide them, then I’m doing a disservice to the world and its Maker. My money is meant to meet the needs of life, and if I’ve got more than I need, then mine is the task of directing it to the needs of others. While this is a decidedly more serious way of looking at life, it actually has the advantage of being more fun, too. You’d think the “it’s mine” crowd would be having more fun than the “it’s not mine” crowd. The “it’s mine” people get to indulge their appetites more freely. But indulgence is not happiness. Of course, there are people who say, “It’s my life, and I’ll use it to unselfish ends.” But as a rule, it is those who see life as a gift who are more likely to look for meaningful ways to use it. Those who give of themselves freely to things of ultimate importance are more likely to find joy in their living, and purpose, and contentment.
Oh, it all comes down in the end, doesn’t it? All the stuff we accomplish and acquire, all the empires public and private that we build, all the attainments, the glories of this world. It all comes down and passes from memory. Like a November leaf floating on a stream, it’s borne away. It first has its day as a bright spring shoot, then a rich green leaf in its prime, and after having turned a glorious yellow in the fall, it goes brown and drops, and returns to the earth that produced it. So pass the passions and the pursuits of anxious humanity! The power grabs, the politics! They pass, while eternity rolls. And yet, Hebrews speaks of this cloud of witnesses, these onlookers living and dead, who watch our lives with urgent concern, asking us to live as they did and do for things that matter more, not for the short-lived recognition of a fickle world, but to endure hardship for the sake of Christ and all Christlike things—all causes of goodness, truth, and beauty. Live for these! Live for these even in dark times, and your living will not be in vain. In living for things of ultimate concern, we are making our lives a gift to the world and to God. And this! This is the only road to happiness. It’s the paradox of the gospel: Those who would save their lives will lose them, and those who give their lives away, save them. How can we save what was never ours to begin with? Floggings, stonings, chains, homelessness! It is not only followers in ages past who are called upon to make sacrifices. It is us.
One of my favorite celebrities is Garrison Keillor, the guy who used to host the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. He’s retired now, but he still writes articles for the odd newspaper every now and again. In a gloomy article Keillor wrote about the results of the presidential election, he closes by saying this. “Back to real life. I went up to my hometown the other day and ran into my gym teacher, Stan Nelson, looking good at 96. He commanded a landing craft at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and never said a word about it back then, just made us do chin-ups whether we wanted to or not. I saw my biology teacher Lyle Bradley, a Marine pilot in the Korean War, still birdwatching in his 90s. I was not a good student then, but I am studying both of them now. They have seen it all and are still optimistic. The past year of politics has taught us absolutely nothing. Zilch. Zero. Nada. The future is scary. I am now going to pay more attention to teachers.”
Friends, we belong to God, and come what may, we will follow in the way of the Christ, and we will not be the first to run our race in the heat. But we too will be faithful, and run it we will.
What do we owe to the Stan Nelsons and the Lyle Bradleys of our lives and world? Those who’ve given much and asked for little. And how do we repay it? Most didn’t exactly get sawn in half, but some of them did meet awful fates. What do we owe to the silent veterans who never tell their tales, men like both of my grandfathers and some of you? What do we owe to the full cast of teachers and Sunday school teachers who taught us basic skills that we still use everyday? What do we owe to company of saints, who handed down to us a faith that sustains us in times of trial, along with all the lovely works of art, and the rituals, and the literature, and the buildings that go with it? What do we owe to those who understood sacrifice and, when history called upon them to make it, did? Perhaps they did not want their day in the life of the world any more than we want ours. But they endured and did the right thing come what may. What do we owe them? I’ll tell you what we owe them: The facing of our day with courage and with hope, just as they faced theirs. The generosity of spirit that says, “My life and its blessings are not mine to do with as I please. They belong to God, along with all the material and spiritual blessings they contain.”
A husband and wife were golfing when the wife got silent for a while and finally said, “Honey, if I died would you remarry?” The husband replied, “Oh, sweetheart, no.” The wife said, “I think you would. And I hope you would, too.” The husband agreed, “Yes, I guess I probably would.” The wife got silent again and said, “Would she sit in my chair at the kitchen table and sleep on my side of our bed?” The husband said, “I suppose so.” The wife asked, “Would she use my golf clubs?” Without thinking, the husband replied, “No, she’s left handed.” Ownership is a funny thing, isn’t it? We get so attached to our stuff and to our resources that we can’t even imagine rendering them up in death. But we do and we will, all of us. It’s how we hold them and share them in the meantime that matters. But what is truly our own? What do we owe to those who’ve gone before us and left to us all that they had? What do we owe to those who’ve passed down to us a world, whole and well? Or, just as importantly, what do we owe to those who will come after us? Over the dead we hold no power, but over future generations, we hold immense power, just as our forbears held power over us, no?
When I was still a rookie pastor, a young parishioner said to me, “I know that I need to make sacrifices and live generously, but why should it be the church that receives my generosity any more than any other good cause?” I hadn’t thought it through and had little to say to her. But if I had it to redo, I’d say, “Because the church is a storehouse of wisdom in a world of folly; because this church is where your ancestors brought their cries of joy and distress; because the church speaks of things eternal that no one else is willing to discuss; because the church teaches us and our children not to be afraid, that there’s more to life than meets the eye, an everlasting hope even in despair. The church gives us beauty, and story, and song that may not leave us feeling restored each time we touch it, but which over the course of years, makes our lives more whole. The church reaches out to the world in Christ’s name and connects us with the faithful in ages past and future. It gives us courage to be the people we must be today.” Let us give generously of ourselves. Let us make sacrifices for the things that matter—things like this church and the socially-engaged faith that it represents. We do not live this life to ourselves, and it does not entirely belong to us. We are surrounded by the trouble, and the turmoil, and the human need, and despair for the future that result when too many people live only for themselves. We are also surrounded by those who’ve run their race, sacrificed for the faith. And so, let us run the race before us. Amen.