11:29 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.
11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
11:31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
11:32 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--
11:33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
11:34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
11:35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
11:36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
11:37 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--
11:38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
11:39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,
11:40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12:1 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,
12:2 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.
A little over a month ago, Shannon, Ruthie, Sam and I went to a family reunion in Colorado. Ruth and Sam are among the youngest of the various cousins and second cousins running around the place, and Ruth made fast friends with a little 9 year old by the name of Colson. Colson had taught her a new word that she hadn’t fully comprehended- the idea of a race. Colson would suggest that they race to the elevator and take off, with Ruthie gleefully running behind him. Things got a little confusing when Ruthie tried to use this new bit of vocabulary and would suggest to Colson that they race. Colson would ask, “Race to where?” And Ruthie would just take off running and screaming, “Race, race, race!” For Ruth race just meant run or chase, but for Colson, as for most of us, a race needs to have a destination. A goal. You can’t just race towards nothing, that’s pointless. That’s just running for the sake of running.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews used the idea of a race to talk about the life of faith. Life can be a long journey- it is, if nothing else, a passage through time. If we are very lucky we get to journey through childhood, to adolescence, to becoming an adult, to being middle age, and then an elder, and then eventually, at one point or another the race ends, we die. If life were nothing else but this passage of time it would seem quite pointless, quite meaningless. It would be living just for the sake of living. We are born, we live, we die. But why? What for? What is the purpose of this life? What is the point of this race, its goal, its destination?
This is the question of meaning, as in what is the meaning of life? There are countless answers to this question, some which are the results of thoughtful reflection and some of which are merely implied by the decisions that we make, by how we choose to live. A great deal of meaning in life is found through personal development- for young people, students, much of the meaning of their life is learning, becoming smarter, trained, and skilled is the purpose of much of their life. Once these skills have been attained the meaning of life may become their deployment within a profession: having trained for years to be a doctor the meaning of my life now consists in my work as a physician. We also find meaning in caring for others- be they aging parents or growing children. We can live for our children, find our meaning in their growth, development, and happiness.
Family and work are great ways of finding meaning in our lives, but they are also limited. We will not work forever, every good doctor comes to the time for retirement. Our parents will die, and our children will grow independent, hopefully. One day they will need us less, they will be less able to provide our lives with meaning. The problem with finding meaning in our children, our or work, is that they are finite, they are passing, they are temporary sources of meaning in an infinite world. Your work will come and go, eventually it will go entirely. Your children will grow and learn and need to form independent lives for themselves, lives in which they too must discover meaning, they cannot serve as your personal stable sources of meaning forever. These things will happen and yet the world will go on, it will keep spinning, and time will keep passing, and if you are still here, you will still need a meaning for your life, a goal towards which you are running. What goal might provide this meaning, what could be a permanent source of meaning in a world in which all things pass away?
Mystery names an inexhaustible depth of meaning. The meaning implied in a mystery is not so obvious- it is difficult to comprehend, it is a deep, somewhat hidden meaning. To uncover the layers of meaning in a mystery one must return to it again and again. I recently read a theologian talk about mystery by using the example of the play MacBeth. Here is Herbert McCabe discussing the meaning of MacBeth- “Take for example a play like MacBeth. It is quite clear that you can appreciate the meaning of this play at many levels. In the first place it is a good thriller about murder and intrigue at court. At another, slightly deeper, level it is a piece of English political propaganda slandering the memory of a perfectly decent king, who was however, Scottish. At a deeper level still it is a tragedy about a man over-reaching himself; about the relationship of human life with nature and especially with time. It is about how we belong to the cosmos and to the time that is given to us and yet seek to transcend this and to belong to ourselves, and it is about the revenge that time and nature take upon us. Now, you would not expect tot see all these deep meaning in a play when you watched it for the first time; you have to learn to understand it, and you cannot take short cuts to the depth.” A classic piece of art like MacBeth is a mystery because you can never finish probing to the depths of the meaning that it contains and suggests. The more you interact with this mystery the more layers of its meaning you come to discover and to relish.
At the last church I served, First Congregational Church of Berkeley, communion was only served on the first Sunday of every month during the worship service. There must have been some among the congregation for whom this was not frequent enough, because on the other Sundays of the month, after worship had ended and people had been dismissed, those who wanted would gather at the chancel steps for a small communion service. As one of the young associates I was often assigned to lead this after worship communion, and it soon became one of my favorite duties. There was one elderly man, Will Hurd, who was 90 if he was a day, who never missed communion. On these off Sundays, everyone who took communion had to really want it, it wasn’t part of the regular service so you had to make the decision to stay in the sanctuary as people were leaving and make your way to the front. This was most evident with Will. At 90 Will got around with a walker, slowly. It required a great deal of his physical strength to get up out of the pew, it required focus and concentration to amble with the walker to the chancel steps. The decision to stay and receive communion was one that cost Will something. But it was one he made every Sunday. I would watch Will struggle down the aisle each Sunday and wonder what this ritual meant to him.
Surely, Will thought about his family and all the times that they had taken communion together in that church and other churches. I imagine he thought of his parents with whom he first took communion. And the ritual itself, the words of institution, would have reminded him of those who took part in this ritual over 2,000 years ago when Jesus was not only in the bread but breaking it as well. I don’t know his theology, I don’t know how he understood communion, but I also imagine that at the least the ritual spoke to him of a God whose love for us leads to a giving of self, of body and blood, for us; that it spoke of a grace which allows us to stand in dignity and give freely of our own lives, our own body and blood, for others. And I like to think that Will also thought of us, those who shared the meal with him on that day, and all those who would continue to share the meal with him after his passing, as we do today. Of course, I am not 90 years old, I cannot imagine all of the layers of meaning that the eucharistic mystery had for Will, I can only continue on my own journey- unraveling more and more of the meaning of the mystery of God as I continue to run my race.
The author of Hebrews writes of the heroes of our faith from the Old Testament, reminding us of those who went before us in this race of faith. There were those whose trust in God helped them to lead nations, to fight wars, to build kingdoms. But there were also those whose faith lead them through difficult and trying times as well- those who suffered persecution for their faith, who were thrown to the lions, and forced to flee their homes. In good times, and in the worst of times, each of these held on to their faith in an infinite and infinitely loving God. Their faith helped them to conquer the obstacles before them and to endure the tragedies and pain that come in this life. Their faith in a living, loving God, gave them a destination to race towards, it gave the race itself a purpose, a meaning. They raced, they lived, so as to grow closer to this God of love, to more fully experience this love of God, and to witness to it in their own lives at every opportunity they had. We are connected to these ancestors in the faith, because we run the same race, we seek to serve the same God. Their race is our race. Its fulfillment depends upon us running and seeking to witness to God as they did, and it depends also on those who will run the race after us. Yet the fulfillment of the race, the victory, is never in doubt, for it has already been won, by the faith of Christ Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. No matter how difficult, painful, and tragic our lives may be, we know that Jesus who suffered on the cross for the joy that was before him, goes with us and before us. We are never alone. The God of Jesus Christ is always beside us and ahead of us, and a great cloud of witnesses cheers us on. Running the race of faith, going ever further into the mystery of a loving God, is one way of finding meaning in this life. It is the meaning offered by the Christian church, the mysterious meaning embodied in the ritual of communion. It is the meaning provided by the mystery of a God that loves all Her children and calls us to love them too. Amen.
11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
11:2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
11:3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
11:4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
11:5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
11:6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.
11:7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
11:8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
11:9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
11:10 They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
11:11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.
I spend a fair deal of time changing diapers these days. Not nearly so much time as my wife does, but it is still a daily task for me. Changing diapers can help one gain a sense of perspective. Because the thought occurs to you, that at one point in your life, someone also did this for you. At one point you too were tiny and helpless, you too were wailing and covered in your own poo, and someone else cared enough to change your diaper for you. It is possible to go your life without once changing a diaper, just as it is possible to go your whole life without ever helping the vulnerable. Changing diapers and helping the vulnerable are optional in this life. Having your diaper changed on the other hand, being the one who is vulnerable and in need of help, this is not optional. We were all once infants helpless in our poopy diapers, and if we’re lucky, we might live long enough to need help changing ourselves in old age. Once we grow older and stronger and a little more independent, we tend to forget that for much of our lives we were in need of help, we were vulnerable and we needed to be saved.
Although Jesus is rightly famous for referring to God as Father, the prophet Hosea, writing 7 centuries before Jesus, had already imagined God as a loving and caring parent. Listen to his description of God’s election of Israel while they were enslaved in Egypt and of God subsequently leading them through the wilderness, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephrahim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks, I bent down to them and fed them.” Whether we believe God had anything to do with it or not, we are all, all of us, indebted to those who taught us to walk, those who led us with cords of human kindness and bands of love, those who fed us when we could not feed ourselves. In the Church we say that the love and grace and protection that we experience in this life are blessings from God. They are not earned, nor deserved, they are gifts for which we are to be eternally grateful. God did not leave us alone in our time of vulnerability, through parents, grandparents, loved ones, and community, God loved and cared for us, God fed us and taught us to walk.
Immediately after this beautiful portrayal of the intimate caring love of God, Hosea abruptly announces that the people have turned away from God. The result of this turning away is disastrous. “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.” The cities of Israel will be destroyed by violence and they shall be taken away by a foreign power and returned to bondage as in Egypt. The people whom God chose as God’s own, the people that God loved as a mother loves her child, these people turned away from Her. These people brought disaster on themselves by refusing to return to God.
Twenty years ago we were all learning about a new and terrifying phenomenon- the suicide bomber. The events of 9-11 awakened us to the reality of this new danger, but the men who killed themselves and thousands of others that day, were merely a few among thousands that made the choice to end their own lives by taking as many innocents with them as possible. I can remember how incomprehensible this action was at the time. Who would do something like that? Who are these people? Perhaps the easiest way to deal with this phenomenon was to ascribe it soley to others, others who were somehow so unlike us that being a suicide bomber would make sense to them. It must be something about their religion or their culture that caused them to do this. So we labelled them radical Islamic terrorists. We learned that they were radicalized over the internet, where they nurtured a sense of grievance against the world, a sense of grievance so strong that it led them to hate those who were different from them, so strong that it could lead them to kill themselves and others in the name of God or country. We made sense of this insanity by locating it only in others, others a world away, others completely unlike us.
Over the last week our own country experienced three domestic terrorist attacks: in Gilroy, California, in El Paso, Texas, and last night in Dayton, Ohio. These are only the most recent of the now hundreds of such attacks that we have suffered in the past twenty years. These attacks are carried out by white men, men who look very similar to me. These men have nurtured a sense of grievance over the internet- where they found an ideology that blamed all their misfortune on black and brown people, on immigrants and Jews. These men purchased weapons of war and attacked innocent people, killed innocent people, and then killed themselves. Even those who did not kill themselves and were not killed by law enforcement, even they did not have a follow up plan. No plan for escape, no plan to continue their action, just the plan to kill as many as possible before being killed or captured themselves. The difference between a mass shooter and a suicide bomber is only in their choice of weapon, and the people they have learned to hate. That which seemed so incomprehensible that it could only be done by others completely unlike us, has become commonplace in our own country.
I do not believe that these shootings are the will of God. It is my strong belief that the God who loved us into life wills only the best for all of us. The God of which Hosea speaks, the Holy One who fed us all and led us with bonds of love, this God does not will for his beloved creatures to suffer. However, I do believe that sin has consequences. Just as Hosea believed that Israel’s turning away from God would bring their destruction, and just as Paul said that the wages of sin is death, I believe that our failure to love God and neighbor as ourselves comes with devastating consequences. We elected a President who openly demonizes immigrants and asylum seekers, who refers to populations of non-white people as infestations, who claimed that we are being invaded by Hispanic people. And now we have mass shooters who adore this president, who echo his language of genocide, and who give their lives taking the lives of others that they believe are inferior. Any ideology that values one group of people over all others, any ideology that demonizes other human beings, any ideology that uses the vulnerable as scapegoats for our larger problems is a sinful ideology. Adhering to it is turning away from the God who lovingly created us all. This turning away from God, this sin, has fatal consequences. The sword raged in the cities of Israel, the assault rifle rages in the cities of the United States.
What then are we to do? Are we doomed to reap the wages of our sin forever? Will these domestic terrorist attacks ever end? Has God abandoned us to suffer these consequences of our sin? Hosea did not believe that God had given up on Israel. Despite their sin, Hosea believed that God still loved and cared for God’s people. The cords of human kindness and the bands of love could not be broken by the people’s failures. Listen to Hosea’s words, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am a God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” Nothing that we can do can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. There is no sin too awful for God to forgive. There is no situation that the love of God cannot redeem. When the people of Israel were dead in their sin, even then God called them to return. I believe that God has not given up on us either; God has not abandoned us to the consequence of our sin. I believe that God is calling us right now in this very moment to repent of our sins, to return to the ways of God, to once again walk hand in hand with our loving and merciful God.
But the decision to repent, to give up our sinful ways, and to heed God’s welcoming call is ours to make. To return to God we have to give up our sin. We have to stop thinking that United States citizens are somehow superior to other people. We have to stop believing that where you were born or what religion you practice determines your value to God and to the world. We have to start believing that lives are more valuable than legal precedent. We need to recognize that the vulnerable are not our enemies, they are our sisters and brothers, they are us. When people come to this country fleeing violence with their children in tow, we should recognize them as people who are vulnerable just like we often are, instead of making them out to be criminals, and monsters.
Our worship of whiteness and gun ownership is idolatry and it cannot and will not save us. If we wish to end this warring madness we have to return to the God who commanded us to love our neighbor and to honor all people. We must begin to recognize that evil is not only located in others; we must recognize that we are as capable of great evil as everyone else, and we that we are presently enthralled by this evil. This is what repentance will look like for the United States. It is our moral, ethical, political, and religious duty. My prayer is that God will give us the courage to face our own vulnerability, to see ourselves and Christ Jesus in the faces of the vulnerable, and to begin living from the truth that we are all vulnerable people loved by God and commanded to love one another. O God of love and power, make it so. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast