Hebrews 12: 1-2 and Luke 12
Pastor Joe Lees is a new member of our Bishop’s staff and just last week, he got back from doing an epic journey. 500 miles walking the traditional pilgrimage journey called Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a journey that begins in many places and ends on the west coast of Spain. He had been planning this journey for 3 years; he was invited by his niece… and on that walk he learned this phrase, “Tourists look, hikers walk, pilgrims search.” It’s a journey with no maps. Pilgrims simply follow the trail until they see another sign with a shell or an arrow. Pilgrims are not alone but surrounded by others making this journey… young adults, people turning 50, people at a moment of needing to reimagine their life with intentionality, people hoping to know God better through the challenges and benefits of the journey. Pastor Ralph Baumgartner, who is a member here at Christ (although you may not have seen him very often since he’s been serving as an Interim pastor at Hope this past year) is going to be traveling the Camino beginning in mid-September. On September 11, we will bless and send him… but today, I bring this up because of this Bible image from Hebrews of running in a great race.
It’s a marathon image, and specifically an ancient Greek marathon image. It imagines a huge stadium where all the runners who have finished are surrounding those who are still coming in, who have not yet completed the race, cheering them on…
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us, those who still join us around the table each time we share Communion… since there are onlookers, watching us, hoping for us, wishing good for us… let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.
How do we practice that, laying aside the heavy weights, the brokenness, the problems, the barriers within and around us that threaten to bury us? In the gospel from Luke, Jesus says we’re divided. We’re divided in families and across generations, and this is just reality, despite our best efforts to connect. A colleague shared a joke… “Do you know why grandparents and grandchildren get along so well? Well, because they have a common enemy.” And I thought… I think this will be more funny when I’m about 70 years old. We’re in conflict as church, despite our best efforts for unity. We are divided between those who want most deeply to hold on to our most cherished traditions and those who want most deeply to break new ground. We have many opinions about what are the most important tasks of church and how to best use our time and money. We are divided politically and we experience very different versions of life across our diverse community… we are pressed down, and sometimes, when we are longing for peace, when we are longing for Jesus to be our Prince of Peace, it is unnerving to come on a Sunday and hear Jesus’ words, “I have come not to bring peace but to make people choose sides…” or as it says in another translation, “I have come not to bring peace but with a sword.” What?
But the fact is, when Jesus calls people to follow, there are inevitably ways that we will be called to new life that will cut deep. We will no longer have just the same priorities, we will be called to a way of life that will sometimes be in contradiction with what it seems like “everybody else” is doing… and the fact is that it can be incredibly difficult to discern Jesus’ call, so sometimes, we’ll even disagree about what is going on right now and what in the world we out to be doing… or even praying for in response.
It reminds me of this week’s Olympic games in Rio… on one hand, what an amazing event, in which amazingly talented people from all the world are brought together for games. The stories of this year’s Refugee team have been particularly moving… and then on the other hand, there have been a few stories of the deep poverty of those who live around the Olympic sites, on the hillsides… children and adults whose lives are considered worthless and expendable… and a whole nation of citizens who have watched stadiums be built, roads and waterways be sanitized, and all the while, the country is in such a mess that they are working to indict and remove their president.
Easy enough to look at another country… more difficult to see the ways in which our daily life is build on injustices that we have trouble really seeing… ways that we are hypocritical and unable to see what is going on right now that Jesus would describe this way, “I am going to be put to a hard test, and what stress I am under until this work of changing the world is completed.” And if we really do imagine that we are the Body of Christ (which Jesus has said that we are…), this means we could say the same, “We are going to be put to a hard test, and what stress we are under until it is completed.”
What does this look like? Well, I don’t know for sure what it might look like in your life and in our shared life together… but maybe it is going to work each day with perseverance and being salt and light in an environment that is soul-crushing, or maybe it is taking steps to make a change so that your daily life and work is more in line with God’s vision, God’s reign… or maybe it is being faithful to the promises you made at baptism and renewing your commitment to taking up new practices that will help you treat family members, neighbors, and strangers as the beloved children of God that they are (however challenging their current behavior)... or maybe it is taking a risk to give money or time as an act of faith that God will provide… I don’t know but whatever it might be that God is calling each of us to take up or let go of… we do so, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who somehow had such a vision of God’s abundant love that he was even able to endure the cross.
For those of us who want to avoid pain and shame… or who seek it out… I wonder how it changes things that Jesus moved through pain and shame over to the other side? We don’t have to avoid it, or be stuck there, we don’t have to immerse ourselves in it… we move through pain and shame, noticing it, being honest about it, learning… and we follow Christ to a new place, looking to Jesus who the letter to the Hebrews describes “has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Like a beacon, like a mountain on an otherwise flat landscape, we look to Jesus who has made it through, and we follow… somehow, mysteriously, holding on to the promise that Christ walks with us as we search.
Life is difficult, filled with distractions, difficulties, divisions… and today we find Jesus wishing for a refining fire, something that would help God’s beloved and frustrating people (that’s us!) to be able to know and to see what is going on… inside and around us. We are called to attention, invited to watch the clouds not only for signs of how the weather is changing, but to recognize how we are not at all alone in our suffering, in our inability, in our challenges. No, others have suffered and are suffering, right next to us.
We look to Jesus, like a mountain by which we can set our course, and we’re invited to continue the search, setting aside every weight, every sin; to walk, to run even… forward where Jesus calls us to go. We aren’t alone. We’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, waiting breathlessly to see where we’ll go, Body of Christ, looking to Jesus who is right there with all we need to keep moving until the race is done.