A few weeks ago, I was mesmerized by a race. The Tour de France. When they say Tour de France they mean Tour de France! More than 2000 miles on a bicycle over 21 days, up and down mountains, in the flats, through villages, cities, and countryside, in heat and sometimes in rain. Cyclists endure injury, illness, accident, bad judgment, exhaustion, pain; the Tour de France is the Grand Pére of all cycling races! They kept replaying the fall that Lance Armstrong took last year when the shoulder strap of a little girl's purse accidentally hooked over his hand brake. That's all it took. He was down. This year, Tyler Hamilton, an American, was having such a great race until a fall injured his lower back. He told one reporter, "You try riding up a mountain without your lower back!" He tried to press on, but was unable. He had to drop out.
This year I learned that cycling truly is a team sport. Every team is made up of cyclists with different strengths. Some are sprinters, some are climbers, some are pace setters. On an uphill climb the members of the team take turns setting the pace for their leader. Like geese flying in formation, they block the wind, which lets another glide in their draft. And if you saw nothing else, you may have seen pictures of the victorious U.S. Postal Team riding nine abreast on the last stage of the race with Lance Armstrong in the center.
Our Epistle text today talks about a race. "Let us run with patience the race that is set before us." What race is that? An endurance race. Like the cyclists in the Tour de France, these runners were in pain and exhausted. Even though no one is quite sure who wrote Hebrews, or to whom it was written, and therefore no one truly knows the exact context of the people, there are several clues. Hebrews is full of encouragement to persevere. Usually people need that kind of support when they are about to quit. Being a Christian in the year 70 of the common era was not easy. Most likely, you lived in a Roman Province. Your neighbors considered you anti-social, and even atheistic. Much of Roman life revolved around the official cult, the religion of Caesar, and you could not participate at all! You did not recognize the gods of Roman religion, and therefore you were an atheist. You refused to make the obligatory sacrifice to Caesar, declaring him lord. Instead, in worship, you defiantly declared, "Jesus is Lord!" And for that, you could die. Nero's exploits were fresh in the mind of every Christian. At worst, you had a big label on your chest that read, "Lion Food." The sports talk around the coffee pot involved knowing the latest details of the gruesome deaths in the coliseum over the weekend. At the very least, you gave up standing in your community. Your employment, your business suffered. Only those who "fit in" could advance. You could not. You were ostracized, outcast, marginalized. You did not belong.
Every follower of Christ knew someone who had died in the faith, for the faith. Yet, you did not die. You had survived Nero. How? Perhaps now we arrive at the crux of the matter. You laid low, didn't cause a stir, didn't draw attention to yourself. Maybe you even made the sacrifice to Caesar, but mumbled something incoherent, so that only you knew it was really NOT to Caesar. You survived, not because you were the strongest Christian, strong in faith, strong in resolve. No, those guys were all dead! They spoke out first and were fed to the beasts! YOU survived because you were the weakest, not rocking the boat, flying under the radar. You were exhausted, tired of hiding, tired of feeling guilty all the time, tired of "playing the game." The price was too great, and you just wanted to quit. You were not sure that any of it really mattered anyway. Look… it has already been almost 40 years since Jesus died, and he hasn't returned yet! Maybe he's not going to. You believed it all at one point in your life, but now?… Well you just have not experienced certainty for a long time! Yep. Being a follower of Christ in the year 70 c.e. was tough.
Although here, in the U.S., we don't often face martyrdom, that malaise, that wondering if it really matters afflicts us. When the subject of faith comes up, we mumble something incoherent and quickly change the subject. We laugh with the rest of them as weekend exploits are recounted at the coffee pot. We want to fit in. We don't want that "too religious" label. We are NOT going to be Sanctimonious Sam or Sally who cram Jesus down your throat whether you want him or not. NOOOO. THAT'S not who WE are. Sam and Sally have run the race so fast and furiously that they burned everything in their path. No… OUR pace is a much more leisurely. That still doesn't make it easy… this race… We have our own entangling, clinging doubts that weigh us down.
How long, Lord, how long will you wait and not answer my prayer? I've asked you repeatedly to help my son, or my daughter, to heal my friend, to ease their pain, and sometimes it feels like I'm talking to a brick wall! I lived a clean life, I came to church, I strayed some but not TOO far. I came back. And even if I strayed all the way, where is grace? Where is forgiveness? People never forget. They never really forgive. Maybe You don't either. I'm tired of carrying around this guilt! I'm exhausted from playing the societal game, the church game, the family game. I'm sick of it! I come here week after week, I serve on committees, I teach Sunday School, I stay for coffee hour… But GOD, WHERE ARE YOU IN MY LIFE?! Where are you when I hurt? Where are you when my life is falling apart? Where are you when MY business fails? Where are you when I can't find a job? Where are you when MY dad is dying? This race just is NOT worth the price! Why should I go on? How CAN I go on? Sometimes it feels like I might as well be sacrificing to Caesar!
So how does the writer of Hebrews encourage people who felt the same way? By giving example after example of faithful followers, of witnesses. How is that going to help? Doesn't it just compound their shame and guilt? It WOULD if you see a long bony finger wagging at you, and you're being scolded for not "holding fast"! But THAT's not what the Hebrews sermon is saying. We might be tempted to see only those "witnesses" listed in the famous "Hall of Fame of Faith" that is chapter eleven. If we were to do so, we would miss all the witnesses previously encountered in chapters one through ten! We would miss faithful witnesses, witnesses who show that God is as good as God's word, that what God promises, God will do. Chapter one begins, "GOD, who at sundry times and in diverse manner, spoke in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken UNTO US by the son…" Our new UCC initiative is the theme of Hebrews! GOD IS STILL SPEAKING!!! In chapter one, when God speaks, GOD is a witness. When Prophets speak the word of God, Prophets are a witness. When God speaks through Jesus, Jesus is a witness. When God sends angel messengers to prepare the way, angels are a witness. In chapter two, when those who heard Jesus and then told others, THEY are a witness. When the Psalm testifies "What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that you visit him?" the Psalm is a witness. In chapter three, when "Moses is faithful in all his house as a servant," MOSES is a witness. In chapter four, when it says, "There remains therefore a rest unto the people of God," that rest itself, that Sabbath Rest of God is a witness. In chapter five, "Every High Priest taken from among mortals" is a witness. In chapter six, when Abraham patiently waits for Isaac, for the fulfillment of God's promise, Abraham is a witness. In chapter seven when that righteous High Priest of God in Salem, Melchizedek, receives gifts and honor from Abraham, Melchizedek is a witness. In chapter eight when God makes a new covenant with God's people, when God says, "I will give my laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. And I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people," the NEW COVENANT is a witness. In chapter nine the Tabernacle, the tent of meeting during the wilderness wandering, the portable temple, the fact that God was with them in their wanderings is a witness. The blood of the covenant is a witness, and the blood of Jesus is a witness. In chapter ten, the sermon says, "And the Spirit is a witness, too."
No, the list does not begin in chapter eleven. It just gets faster and louder. There is an accelerando and a crescendo. In chapter eleven, we get a witness by name in almost every verse. The witnesses tumble all over one another as the preacher gets her shout on! We hear of Creation and Abel and Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Joseph and Moses, and the Red Sea Crossing!
29 By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land, which the Egyptians, attempting to do, were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were compassed for seven days. 31 By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with those who believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.
32 And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak, Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: 33 who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
35 Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yes, moreover of bonds and imprisonments. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tested, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented — 38 of whom this world was not worthy. They wandered about in deserts and mountains, and dens and caves of the earth. 39 And all these, having obtained witness through faith, received not the promise, 40 God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made complete without us.
1 Wherefore seeing we are compassed about by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily entangle us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who in place of the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Glory! Hallelujah! Can I get a witness?!
That was THEIR cloud. Who's in yours? What cloud of witnesses surrounds you? Consider the chapters of your life, the stages of YOUR Tour de France. Who stands in the cold and the rain along the route of your race, and cheers you on? Who has been praying for you? When you were a child, who taught your Sunday School class? Who baptized you? What congregation promised their "love support and care"? Who nurtured you in the faith? Who taught your confirmation class? Who accepted you back after your wilderness wanderings? Who led your first experience in the paths of Justice? Who feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, visits the prisoner, heals the sick? Who?
I look around and I see a cloud of witnesses right here!
By faith Robyn Petras, who works for two hours every day to beat Cystic Fibrosis, forms beauty in stained glass with her hands.
By faith Morris Battles served his church and community for 8 decades.
By faith Cami Curren and Tom Lin and Carl Gelfius and Paul Leidheiser heal the sick.
By faith Barb Poppe and Matt Stevens find shelter for homeless people.
By faith Dorothy Cromartie and the Faith Mission Crew feed the hungry.
By faith Arlene Reynolds and hundreds more give a Merry Christmas to the poor of Columbus.
By faith Heather Biggers found a way to provide an education for teens in Jamaica.
And what, should I say more for time would fail me to tell of Helen and Nell, and Sam and Betsy and Joe and Summer and Mike, who through faith, serve communion and teach the young and at 4 years old recite the Lord's Prayer. And Andrew Smith, who at 10 years old, carrying a loaf of bread offers "The body of Christ broken for you." Yes, our cloud of witnesses is full with the likes of John and Muriel and Ruth and Kathy and Tom and Lillian and Rick and Anne and Emily and Sandy and Jim and Evalyn and Amy and Lourdes and Rick and Janice and Amos and Diana and Bob and Emily and Gayle and Jane and Jan and Tim and Rick and Dene and Candy and Wally and Sarah and Heather and Ron and Dorinda and Tim and Janet and Sharon and Debbie and Mac, and Lyle and Kevin and Lynn and Sarah and Gunther and Harry and Marian, and Mary and Emily and John and Aiden and Kay. Ask any one of them if they are a hero of the faith, and they would say, "No." But they are an inspiration. You are an inspiration! Look around. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, past and present. People filled with the Spirit of God, moved by love, impassioned for justice, running the race with patience, eyes fixed on Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.
Know that in your darkest hour, when you are ready to give up, in the gray and murky fog of unspeakable doubt, someone is praying for you, and it might even be Jesus, himself, who as Hebrews seven says, "ever lives to make intercession for" us. God is cheering you on, calling you to the finish line. God is riding with you, pacing you, blocking the wind for you. God is handing you a fresh drink of water. God is clearing the path ahead. God is in your team-mates riding in horizontal unison during the last stage of the race. God is in you, as the benediction of Hebrews says, "working in you that which is well pleasing in God's sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever." Amen