August 14th, 2022 – Pastor Elizabeth

10 Pentecost Year C / August 14, 2022 / St. Paul’s Random Lake / Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Hebrews 11:29—12:2

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. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

32And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They 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— 38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

12Therefore, 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, 2looking 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.

Faithful Hall of Fame

Let us pray. O. Jesus, you are the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We look to you to keep us on track in the race of life with our eyes firmly on the prize of promise. Thank you for blessing us with a cloud of faithful witnesses who also cheer us on with the example of how to keep on and endure “by faith.” AMEN.

            I don’t know many sports jokes, but I first heard this one after the ’98 World Series after the Broncos beat the Packers so it may be a bit out of date…

            A certain reporter wanted to interview the coaches of both teams. She started by heading to Denver to interview the winning coach. she happened to notice a bright, red telephone sitting on his desk. The coach said it was a direct line to God. The reporter got excited and wondered if she could try it out. An interview with God would be a huge story.

            The coach informed her it would be $500 a minute. The reporter quickly changed her mind.

            Mike Holmgren was the Packer coach at the time. he too had a bright, red telephone on his desk. The reporter couldn’t contain herself. “Is that a direct line to God?”

            “Sure,” said the coach, “Would you like to use it?”

            “Depends,” said the reporter. “How much is it?”

            “25 cents.”

            “25 cents!” the reporter was shocked. “The Broncos coach wanted $500 a minute.”

            “That makes sense,” said Coach Holmgren. “For them it’s long distance. For me, it’s a local call. Wisconsin is God’s country.”

            Even the writers of the bible can’t resist a sports metaphor. The book of Hebrews speaks of the Christian life as a race to be run and heaven’s bleachers are filled with the faithful who have gone before cheering us on. As we read Hebrews Chapter 11, it comes off as a kind of Hall of Fame filled with giants of the faith like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Rahab the prostitute.

            Just imagine, you are the Green Bay player or the Olympic hopeful ready to give your all on the playing field. You look up and the stands are full of inspiration. The people you see there may not be wearing cheeseheads or be painted in green and gold from head-to-toe. Instead, they are those who have been there, on the field, playing the game, running the race. They are the ones who have struggled through and made it to the other side.

            They are people like Noah, Joseph, the Judges and the Prophets, like Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, like Martin Luther and Mother Theresa whose stories we have read and heard about. They are even people you know who has inspired you by their living witness of faith until they left this earthly field to go sit in heaven’s bleachers.

            The race we run is not easy. It is certainly NOT a game. We see flood soaked houses crumbled into mud. We witness bombed buildings tumble down across the world. We see parents devastated by senseless school shootings. After extensive treatment a cancer patient hears that the tumor has returned. A family who clung to the doctor’s words “three months to live” face funeral plans after only a brief three days.

            Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Without faith we would see only what this world has to offer–suffering, hardship and ultimately, death–backs sore from hauling mud and debris from flooded houses, bloody bandaged faces and broken bones on the news, a feeling of helplessness in the wake of illness or difficulties.

             The gift of faith is to see beyond this world to the promises of God. Faith is oriented to a future we cannot see. It is a hope that is nested in God’s promises of life, freedom and forgiveness. Faith in God’s promises assures us that while our pain and our struggles are very real, that God’s life-giving power will prevail in the end. Jesus has already burst through the final finish line. And the cloud of folks in the stadium are witnesses to that! They are the faithful Hall of Fame who patiently wait for us and joyfully cheer us on inthis hard race we are in.

            Hebrews 11:8-19 talks about Abraham and Sarah. Look at the exampl of these two “hall of famers”: “by faith” they obeyed God and seet out for the land God promised even though they didn’t have the foggiest idea where they were going. “By faith” they camped out in this strange land with no permanent roots or home because God promised someday it would be theirs. “For they looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” The text goes on to say: “All of these died in faith, without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on earth, for people who speak this way make it clear they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind they would have had an opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, a heavenly one. Therefore…God has prepared a city for them.”

            Abraham and Sarah didn’t get to make their home in the promised land, yet they continued to trust in God’s promises to them and their descendents. That is faith.

            Our Hebrews passage for today speaks of some others. The Israelites must have thought Moses was crazy to suggest they walk through the Red Sea like it was dry land, but they trusted God. “By faith” they passed through and the Egyptians who pursued them were drowned.

            Later, the israelites must have thought Joshua was nuts to think that by walking around the city of Jericho 7 times while priestd blew their horns would do any good in their attempt to conquer it. Yet, “by faith” they did as God commanded and “the walls came atumblin’ down.

            Rahab the prostitute could have easily turned the Israelite spies away to save herself. Yet, “by faith” she believed they were part of God’s plan and so, she hid them. So when Jericho fell her household was spared.

            As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews pointed out, the Bible goes on and on with Hall of Fame caliber stories that serve to inspire us in our race. Truly, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Think of your own life’s spiritual influences. Who are the people you have known personally who have witnessed to you as they have lived their faith? They are a part of that great cloud too, sitting in the bleachers, cheering you on, rooting for you. Grandparent, parent, teacher, neighbor, friend, the list goes on…

            And it’s not only the folks in the bleachers who encourage us, but people who are still in the race with us, hear in the pews inspiring us to keep on running even as we falter along the way…

            Like athletic abilities, faith is a gift. If we fail to exercise it, it may get flabby. Athletes are constantly in training. Faith needs to be exercised, strengthened, toned and developed. How? In a living relationship with Jesus where we trust him to walk with us through our hardest times, through the pain and challenges to the promise. God promises that whatever race you’re running, Jesus has already been there. He knows every bump, every curve, every rough path on the field.

            Hebrews calls Jesus the pioneer of our faith. He has gone ahead of you. He is the the one who blazes a trail for you. Hebrews calls Jesus the perfecter of our faith. When you trip or stumble, Jesus makes certain you finish the race. “Look to Jesus” 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.

            For those who live by faith in Jesus, the the promise God makes to you is “YOU HAVE ALREADY WON!” The victory cheer shouted out by the great cloud of witnesses, past and present, a reassurance of a certain and hopeful future. Look to Jesus, run the race. AMEN.

            Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot. He wanted more of everything. One day he received a novel offer. For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day. The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown. Early the next morning he started out walking at a fast pace. By midday he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground. Well into the afternoon he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point. He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run, knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost. As the sun began to sink below the horizon he came within sight of the finish line. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared. He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth. In a few minutes he was dead. Afterwards, his servants dug a grave. It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide. The title of Tolstoy’s story? How Much Land Does a Man Need?

            What killed the farmer in Tolstoy’s story? Why, it was greed of course. in a similiar way, greed plays a part in Jesus’ parable of another farmer who thinks to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’

            Pastor Niveen Sarras of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Wausau writes: “Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool to teach against greed. He emphasizes that secured life does not depend on possessions, but on entrusting one’s life to God. The scenario that Jesus depicts is a vast wealthy landholder who had an abundant harvest and decided to tear down his current storage facilities to make room for larger ones. This rich man is a shrewd businessman, but his shrewdness is very evil. By building colossal storage, the rich fool decides to hoard his harvest and not contribute to the market with his surplus. His intentions affect the food supply and create a sacristy of grain, ultimately driving the price up. This farmer is only interested in his well-being, ignoring the needs of the poor peasants around him who will be affected by his decision. Jesus describes a self-centered farmer who makes an unethical profit and harms the economy. By hoarding his grain, the rich fool “secures his economic power and position of status in the village as others are made more and more dependent on him.” The rich fool wants to control the market at the expense of his neighbors. The wealthy farmer is a fool because he assumes that his security depends on his possessions and wealth, not God, the source of all gifts and security. God summons his soul when the rich farmer invites his soul to be merry and enjoy wealth. In a single moment, all his hopes vanished. God asks him a rhetorical question, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  God’s question means that he cannot take his hoarded grain to the grave, nor does he know whose they will be. His children or his poor peasants, whom he withheld his grain, may take them.”

            Professor David Lose adds: “The relentless use of the first person pronouns “I” and “my” betray a preoccupation with self. There is no thought to using the abundance to help others, no expression of gratitude for his good fortune, no recognition of God at all. The farmer has fallen prey to worshiping the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of “me, myself, and I.” This leads to, and is most likely caused by, a second mistake. He is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future.”

             For the most part, in America we love our “stuff.”   To make things more personal, we raised our kids in a parsonage, a house owned by the church I pastored. I have to admit how much I have loved owning a home of our very own here in Random Lake.

            The stark truth is that there is nothing, no possession that belongs to us as human beings, nothing that we really own. God is the Creator and we humans are merely creatures. James 1:17 states: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift. is from above. coming down from the father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” We are but stewards, caretakers of all that God has entrusted to us. In Genesis when God says, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” God didn’t mean take control, so much as take care.And truth be told, as we look at what is going on with the world, this planet earth today, we could be doing a much better job of doing just that.

            Also in Genesis, when God chooses Abraham and Sarah as the parents of God’s chosen people, God says:  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

            This continues to be true for all of us who have been chosen by God in Christ. God blesses us not to hold on to wealth and status and power, not to hoard God’s love and forgiveness and grace, but God has blessed you and blessed me, to be blessings to all the world around us. As we learn from Jesus’ farmer parable and Tolstoy’s fable, we can’t take it with us. God is the Great Giver and we are made in God’s image, intended to give. Some may want to tithe to the church. others may have a passion for helping refugees from Ukraine or Afghanistan or at the southern border, still others may give or volunteer to help find a cancer or Alzheimer’s cure or focusing on fighting poverty, hunger or injustice. There are many different ways that we could want to share our God-given blessings. Our focus should not be on earthly treasures, but in recognizing that our real treasure is in heaven. As St Paul writes  to the Colossians: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

            The key is not to clutch the mere gifts that God has given us to care for, but focus on the Giver and how you believe those gifts should be used for the sake of the kingdom while we are yet in this world until that time when we will experience true riches, true wealth in heaven. AMEN.

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