Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: Faith: A Matter of Action

Grace Presbyterian Church
August 14, 2016, Pentecost 13C
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Faith: A Matter of Action

Something major happened in the world of Major League Baseball last week. Ichiro Suzuki, now playing for the Miami Marlins, got his 3000th major-league hit last week by stinging a triple into the right-field gap against the Colorado Rockies, becoming only the 30th player to achieve that milestone in the 140-year history of the sport.
Ichiro’s case (and yes, he’s called by his first name) is a bit different than most, though. Until age 27, he played in the professional leagues in his native Japan, achieving well over a thousand hits and renown as one Japan’s best players. He was also a certifiable celebrity in his baseball-mad native country. By most definitions, he had everything an athlete could need. But instead of continuing to play in Japan and enjoying his fame and success, he maneuvered his Japanese team into posting him as available to sign with teams in Major League Baseball, where he finally signed with the Seattle Mariners. While a number of pitchers had come to the US and had success, no position player (Ichiro is an outfielder) had ever done so. Suffice to say that Ichiro broke that trend.
But why?
To say the least, Ichiro had faith in his baseball abilities. He had faith (or, in deference to last week’s sermon, he trusted) that he had the talent and intelligence to succeed in Major League Baseball whether any other Japanese hitter had or not. But he didn’t just have that faith or trust, or even belief in himself if you want to call it that; he was willing to back up that faith or trust or belief with action, putting himself on the line to prove he was as good as he believed he was. This wasn’t what most observers expected; many in MLB believed he might do o.k., but certainly most weren’t expecting him to be the major star that he has become.
Ichiro’s confidence in his abilities and willingness to back it up with action isn’t exactly like the members of the “roll call” of the “heroes of faith” we resume in Hebrews today, but it’s not a bad metaphor. Unlike Ichiro, these biblical examples of trust did not merely have to trust in their own abilities; instead, their trust was in God alone, a far more secure locus of our trust than anything we ourselves can accomplish.
The roll call resumes in today’s reading after a little more elaboration about Abraham, including that horrible moment when he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s seeming command. It’s hard to know exactly what Abraham was about in this case; was he trusting that God would indeed pull back from his command to sacrifice his son, his one heir through whom God’s promise of a great nation of descendents was to be fulfilled? Was he trusting that God would find another way to fulfill that promise, and willingly giving up his seemingly innocent son? It’s a hard story, a kind of “text of terror” that, if we’re reading scripture with any integrity at all, should make us stop short and frankly be offended by it.
Continuing, the roll call comes to Moses and his leadership of the Hebrew people out of Egypt, where we pick up a bit in the middle of the sequence. To begin anything with “By faith the (Hebrew) people … “ is actually a bit ironic, since back in chapter three of this very same sermon those same people are reprimanded for their lack of faith for their rebelliousness in the wilderness, an event that happened after the crossing of the Red Sea that is referenced in today’s reading.
There’s a warning for us here. This faith, this trust to which Hebrews encourages us isn’t a one-time thing. Since we’re in the midst of the Olympics right now I’ll borrow a track-and-field metaphor; a hurdler doesn’t get to pull up and celebrate after successfully surmounting the first hurdle. There are more hurdles on the track, and the race isn’t over until the hurdler successfully jumps all of them and crosses the finish line. Similarly, one act of trust isn’t the end of our journey of faith; the journey continues, and we have to follow it to its end, trusting God all the way and acting on that trust as God calls us forward.  
This warning is countered by the good news inherent in the inclusion in this roll call of Rahab. Do you remember Rahab, from Joshua 2? When Joshua sent spies to scope out the city of Jericho and its defenses, it was Rahab who sheltered those spies in her home and hid them from the king of Jericho’s officers. After sending them on a wild goose chase, Rahab sends the spies on with a rather remarkable confession of Jericho’s fear before the Israelites and swears the spies to safeguard her and her family (which they do in chapter 6). It’s a pretty remarkable sub-story within the greater story, and her trust in this God she would hardly have had reason to know, and her action upon it, is apparently enough to win her a place in this roll call of honor.
Still, though, you can imagine some reader sidling up to the author of this Hebrews sermon and saying, “But Rahab was … you know … she was a … a … a prostitute.” And our nervous nelly would not be wrong; Rahab was indeed a prostitute in Jericho. From this take with you this good news; as long as you still walk on this earth, it is not too late to trust in God – to place your faith in God – and to act upon that trust. And we “good Christian folk” had better realize that trust will not always be confined to our ranks. We are in no position to judge the trust of another, or to place restrictions on where that trust will show itself.
The good news in turn is followed by another word of warning. Our preacher starts to wind up the roll call by adding several more names without elaboration of their deeds, trusting the readers to recall them. Some of the names are familiar to us, or at least can be found in the Old Testament if you want to go looking, but some of what our preacher describes isn’t that familiar. Beginning at about the midpoint of verse 35, the fates of these heroes of faith take a rather darker turn, don’t they? Up to then it’s all winning wars and conquering and shutting the mouths of lions (sounds like Daniel there), but all of a sudden these fates turn a lot darker. Mocking, flogging, chains, prison; stoning, being sawn in two (!!!), being killed by sword; living in destitution, persecution, homelessness; again these are the “heroes of faith” we’re talking about here!
Real faith – genuine unalloyed trust in God and the willingness to act on it regardless of care or consequence – does not always win us any popularity medals. Anyone who tries to tell you that a life of faith is a “get out of trouble free” card is not speaking truth to you, and if that’s what you’re looking for this isn’t the place to find it. Nor does a life lived in trust in God seek to avoid them, but to endure them, to surmount them like our hurdler from earlier, and to continue to run the race. Again with the athletic metaphor! But now that metaphor is about to break down.
We are about a week into the Olympics now, and several “heroes” of the competition  have emerged. There’s the amazing gymnast Simone Biles, flying in ways humans shouldn’t be able to do. Or the swimmer Katie Ledecky, winning races by margins that television cameras can’t measure – they can either show her, or the swimmers behind her, but not both. Or the men’s swimmer Michael Phelps, who by winning his thirteenth individual gold medal across multiple years of Olympic competitions broke a record that has stood since literally before the birth of Christ. There have been amazing and unbelievable individual performances and team performances all over Rio de Janeiro.
Our Hebrews preacher, in 12:1, invites us to imagine a scene not unlike one you might see in Rio. A “great cloud of witnesses” in the culture of the time might have been a reference to the crowds gathered to watch one of the athletic spectacles of the time, whether those ancient Olympics in Athens or other competitions in other major cities of the Roman Empire. In this case, that “great cloud of witnesses” is gathered to watch … us. We are running “with perseverance the race that is set before us,” in the presence of those saints who have already run the race set before them.
But here’s where our Olympic images break down. We don’t compete with each other. We run together, so to speak, and I don’t “lose” and you don’t “lose” and if there are any medals they’re all the same color. We run, only fixing our eyes on  the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” Jesus Christ. The only glory we run for is the glory of Christ, the one whose run was one with its own humiliations, dying a death of crucifixion that was about as opposite to the glory of the stadium as it is possible to be.
All those saints who have come before us, Enoch and Abraham and Moses and Rahab and all of them, ran their race. Some of them didn’t even get to see the prize in their lifetimes. Yet as our Hebrews preacher said in last week’s reading, they saw the promises and greeted them from afar, looking forward to a “better country, a heavenly one,” a “heavenly city” God has prepared for them, prepared for us. They ran, we run, others will run the race after us. We each have our own race set before us, but we run together, all towards the same pioneer of our faith.
Let us run with perseverance. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#385            All People That on Earth Do Dwell
#438            Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me
#730            I Sing a Song of the Saints of God
#543            God, Be the Love to Search and Keep Me

Credit: But we are surrounded by that cloud of witnesses...

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