Enduring Faith for the Race of Life

Hebrews 11:1-12:3 (portions)
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

As I move through my late forties, I am becoming more aware of my body and its tendency toward decline. I cannot be sleep deprived without paying a serious price. I cannot suddenly take up jogging, as I did sometimes in the past without chest pains to go with the leg and lung pains. I have to build up to jogging by walking hard. I can do walk/runs. The only way to build endurance is to work at enduring. Ask Joy Jensen. She’s been training for months for a big walking marathon of sorts. Faith, understood as spiritual exercise, it seems to me, is a lot like physical exercise. It takes discipline to do it. Some people are more naturally spiritual athletes than others, but all of us need to try to get into decent shape, according to our body type, emotional type, and spiritual type. Pastor Tricia led the elders in training last autumn through an exercise of identifying their spirituality type. The exercise shows you whether you have a dominant head faith or heart faith or justice faith or mystical faith. Whatever your type of faith, it needs exercising. It needs practice, endurance training, and the hard knocks of life provide such opportunity.

I get deflated and frustrated when people say it doesn’t matter whether you are part of a church community, because I am so convinced that we need community to deepen our spiritual growth. That’s like an athlete saying, “I don’t need team. I don’t need a coach. I don’t need the resources of other athletes to inform my own strength. I can do this all by myself.” It’s just not true. My faith needs your faith. Your faith needs my faith. And our faith needs the faith of the the early Christians who wrote long ago “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” We need the faith of those contemporaries, who articulated faith on our behalf in recent years in documents like the Study Catechism. We need the faith of Christians like us and Christians different from us. We need each other.

I was talking to Nancy Hughes on Friday, and she was reporting Bob’s latest move to a new rehab center, after yet another trip to Manatee Memorial. As Nancy and I reflected on what a difficult summer it had been, she said, “We’ll get through this. We have faith in God.” When Nancy said that, and I imagined myself in her shoes, with the summer that she and Bob have had, and the uncertainty of diagnosis, I found my own spiritual muscles perking up.

And Bob and Peggy, who have had a rough year, waiting on the court to make a ruling on their son, Seth’s divorce, so he can get his children back from foster care. Bob and Peggy have spent many days in Ohio and Florida, praying, waiting, and praying some more. They have exercised their faith so that they may endure this trial with patience. And their faith enlivens ours.
And Gretchen and John, moving through the summer according to God’s unique time table, and the challenge of endurance in this marathon of terminal cancer.

You, my friends, all of you, inspire my faith. You and many who have gone before you, before us in this race of life. Our scripture today reminds us that we are not alone in this struggle to have assurance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen. It reminds us that we have many before us who have in faith triumphed by the grace of God, yet they had seasons of great hardship. We are heirs of their story, and we are surrounded by them in life and in death. With them, with Paul and Timothy, with Lois and Eunice, matriarchs of Timothy’s family, and with so many other Christians through the ages we intend to be able to say one day: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Tim 4:7)

Hear the word of the Lord from portions of Hebrews 11 and 12

Hebrews 11:1-12:3 (selected portions)
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach God must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
a summary of the bulk of chapter 11:
By faith Abel…Enoch….Noah….by faith Abraham and Sarah….Isaac and Rebecca….by faith Jacob and Joseph with all his brothers….by faith Moses and sister Miriam left slavery in Egypt.
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. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. 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 -- 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 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 – 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 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, 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. 3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We hoped for a year that Richard would be able to transfer his medical license into Florida. We could get very little concrete evidence that the process of filing papers would actually impress the certification board, since he’s been out of medical practice for 10 years. But we held onto faith, most of the time. And thanks be to God, the only hurdle which remains is a special exam.

All of us at Peace knew Chris Camphire was well qualified to teach, and thanks be to God, after many interviews this spring, he is now coaching teachers at Booker High School. And guess who else got a teaching job? Jo Allison Brown, who is driving down today. She will re-join our community after a very difficult season of life. She held on to faith -- her assurance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen. She had no job for at least two years, and had to move in with friends in Atlanta. But thanks be to God, she’s working again!

Others are waiting for some sense of resolution in a very difficult relationship or are working to settle into new circumstances. A new school year bring both excitement and some anxiety for all you who are students. You will have new teachers and classmates, new subjects to master, new peer pressures, and always the challenge of hanging on to your faith in a world which is cynical about Christians. And with each of you, we remember that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Keep your faith in Jesus Christ. Don’t let anyone or anything take your trust in God away. You know who holds your future. You know whose love will never, ever let you down. You know you can keep running and not grow weary because “in Christ you can do all things.” (Phil 4:13)

We’re waiting together for our church community to grow large enough and for the economy to stabilize enough that we can build a center for worship and ministry on Lorraine Road. Assurance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen. We can be patient about that because we know God knows the right time. At the national Presbyterian NCD conference in St Pete this week, I heard a preacher talk about contentment and discontentment (our subject last Sunday) and the sermon reminded me that we must learn to accept where we are right now before God will bless us with more. Until we settle into faith, into the assurance of God’s providence, until we give up what we want and say with Jesus in Gethsemane, “Not my will but yours” then God may need to use our circumstances to teach us more about faith. We want to run from our circumstances, thinking our circumstances are the problem when sometimes God is trying to use those very circumstances, even hard ones, to teach us something crucial about dependence on and contentment in God. God’s trying build up our faith muscles so we can endure all things, as Jesus did.

How do we sustain faith so that we can keep walking or running with strength through this life? Chapter eleven tells us the stories of the saints who have gone before us. When I read this, I am keenly aware that I haven’t had to shut the mouths of lions or quench raging fires, except of course the fire of my own tongue and the fiery words of others. I haven’t faced the edge of a sword or fought the enemy, except perhaps a pesky community college, which seems determined to make our weekly life challenging. Though I have internal and external battles with evil, my life has never been truly threatened by them.

But I’m not always aware of all the spiritual struggles which are going on. Chapter twelve of Hebrews tells us about the great cloud of witnesses, who are cheering us on, and I believe those saints are making a daily difference in our lives in ways we cannot see. Gretchen and I have had conversations about the things I hope she’ll accomplish for us when she is not limited to earthly power. She promised she would do what she can to help us all, and I believe she will make a difference from the other side, just as believe other people of faith are doing for us right now. Who is in your cloud of witnesses? A faith-filled grandmother, a brother-in-law, a friend and mentor. Do you think about their presence in your life guiding you, their presence with God uniting you to a deeper place of faith.

We know our faith is imperfect. Some days, some months, some years are gloomy and we wonder why we even bother to cling to our hope, but then God breaks through to us with examples of faith in other people. And it’s like we just got a shot of adrenaline in our veins. And we can again cast off the weight of disappointments and the sin which clings to us and slows us down. We have marvelous examples of faithfulness, saints past and present all around us. We may choose to be cynical, but we can also find inspiration in those narratives of the faithful – people we have known personally and people who have pointed us toward Jesus with their words and their lives. Most significantly, we can find hope in looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

Stop and think about that for a minute: Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter. The pioneer blazes the trail. You are all pioneers in this church, laying a foundation for many others to come. Jesus is the pioneer of our faith and the perfecter.

Do you remember when you were little and needed help with something and a parent or older sibling would come along and fix it. Or a teacher would guide you the right answer or a friend would point out something that you did not see. Jesus fixes, he perfects, he guides, and renews our weak faith, our broken faith. All we have to do is look to him. This life is a race, and sometimes the hills are steep, the road is curvy, and the terrain rough. Sometimes we get distracted by idols, by sin and realize we are lost. We wander on side roads, wrong paths, and eventually admit to God and ourselves that we have lost your way. Sometimes we get tired and weak, especially if we are trying to go it alone, not sharing our struggles with our Christian brothers and sisters, nor even with God through prayer. At such times it seems like we will never muster the faith to go on.

But if we look to Jesus, if we fix your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, we will have strength to walk on, though the road is steep. So walk on, my friends, following Jesus your pioneer and perfecter. Walk on, remembering the saints, living and dead, who are cheering you on, and offering you guidance. Walk on, no matter how hard. If you are struggling with chronic pain, chronic doubt or chronic anxiety, know that you will make it by the grace of God. Walk on or ride on in your wheelchair, or be carried up the trail by some devoted saint, knowing that you will make it to the finish line. And make sure you are always ready to say to the Lord of your life, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I kept the faith.” And God, who is waiting eagerly and lovingly for you, watching for your return, will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”