Sermon on 10 Pentecost C, Lectionary 20: Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
Preached at Bethany, Escanaba—August 18 2019
There’s an old proverb: it’s not how you start, but how you finish. I suspect you Packers or Lions fans would agree. Getting to the Super Bowl is more important than starting the season like a house afire.
It’s not how you start, but how you finish. I think of the chair we tore apart 35 years ago and dragged from house to house, hoping to reupholster, before I finally just brought it to the dump. Or the books I’ve started and stopped reading several times before placing them back on the shelf, unfinished.
Finishing was the great concern of the author of Hebrews, who wrote late in the first century. Several generations had come and gone since Jesus’ death and resurrection. The fire of the Christian movement wasn’t blazing quite as hot as at first. Many found it safer to deny their faith and fall in line with their neighbors than to face Roman persecution, even death. Jewish Christians found it easier to return to the synagogue than to be shunned by their families.
To them and to us, Hebrews says: “Don’t give up. The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. ‘Run with perseverance the race that is set before you.’ It’s not how you start, but how you finish.”
Then the writer gets very specific. “Lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely.” Hear “the great cloud of witnesses” surrounding you. “Keep your eyes focused on the goal.”
I don’t usually give three-point sermons, but let’s follow along with Hebrews today.
First, “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely.” For most of us, sin is a moral term, referring to the bad things we do. And, indeed, sin does include doing bad things. But sin is much more than that. Sin is everything that keeps us from being what God created us to be. Sin is everything which keeps us from loving God with our whole heart and treating our neighbors with compassion. Sin is corporate and personal. What we do and what we don’t do. Intended and unintended. Known and unknown. Sin is imperfection and imperfection is all and is in all. Sin is an intricate spider web with strands that catch and hold us tight.
For me, sin is trying to do too much for too many people. Sin is worrying, way too much, way too often. Sin is allowing myself to despair. Sin is not listening to my wife when I’m preoccupied. Sin is neglecting my morning devotions. Sin is forgetting the person I promised to pray for. Sin is being so frustrated with my brother as not to call him. Sin is being part of a system that discriminates against people of color. Sin is buying items made by people who are underpaid. Sin is being part of a privileged class whose very wealth keeps people in the developing world from thriving or even surviving.
Nearly every Sunday, we confess: “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” I once knew a man, a member of our church who did not come from a Lutheran background, who complained about that. He said, we should change the wording to “we were in bondage to sin,” because we are no longer in bondage if Christ has freed us. But, you know, the older I get, the surer I am that we can never be free, in this life, from the spider web which is sin.
What we can be free from is the weight of sin, the paralyzing guilt and shame it can cause. Christ Jesus lifts this burden from us. We are forgiven through the cross; we are accepted in baptism. We are nurtured and strengthened at the altar. We are filled with the Spirit.
I went through my entire childhood in church hearing something like this: “you are not a very good person, the world is a mess, and you are responsible.” When I understood for the first time that the death of Jesus was for me, and that I actually was loved by God with all my imperfections, the weight of sin was removed. I felt like an astronaut in space, floating on air. Weightless.
That realization can transform your life at any age. Because it sure is a lot easier to run a marathon without twenty-pound weights strapped to your legs.
Second, Hebrews tells us, “a great cloud of witnesses” is around you. We do not run the race alone. If you’ve ever run a race, you know this: you run it faster when you run with others. For years, I ran four or five days a week for exercise, but I also entered a few races. I recall running the Sunday Lake 5 K years ago in Wakefield. There was a woman about my age just ahead of me, who ran this race all the time. As I ran behind her, I felt myself being pulled along with her. I thought: her legs are shorter than mine. If she can make it, so can I!
The Christian life is not a competition. We are supported by those who run alongside us and ahead of us. We lean on them, needing their support and strength and experience to continue the journey. And they also lean on us.
The cloud of witnesses includes those who have finished the race, Hebrews says. And so the writer offers a kind of roll call of heroes of the Old Testament and early church, who struggled and suffered, but finished their race in faith. We could add to the list: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa. On my wall in my home office, I have the pictures of my cloud of witnesses, as many dead as still living: my parents and grandparents, Arlene, our children, Rudy and Darley Kemppainen, my Uncle Pete, Olga from Colombia. When I feel like giving up, I look up at my wall and remember: I am not alone.
Can you hear the breath of others running beside you, see the feet of those ahead of you? Faith is only as strong as those who share it with you.
Finally, Hebrews says, keep your eyes on the goal. A race without a finish line is not a race. What point would there be in just running around the block endlessly? Yet, we often act as if the primary goal of life is to avoid death and stay as young as possible. Death seems like the worst thing that could ever happen to us. But everyone will die.
During that Sunday Lake race, I remember coming down the home stretch and hearing two expert runners who’d already finished, friends Jim and Gay. I could hear Gay especially. “C’mon Dave. Use your upper body strength (she was always telling me that)! C’mon, pump those arms! You can do it!” Those last few hundred yards, all I could hear was Gay. It was as if I were running down a tunnel toward her. I could think of nothing but crossing the finish line, tasting the lemonade, chatting with her. I leaned forward, pumped my arms, finished well.
Arlene likes to say, “Life is journey and the best is yet to come.”
Someone asked the other day “what is heaven like?” I have no idea, of course, since I’ve never crossed the finish line. But I do know one who has, the One Hebrews calls the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The One who loves us best of all awaits.
The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. The race before us is not an easy one. But every day, we can set aside the weight of sin, hear the cloud of witnesses, and focus on the goal.
It’s not how you start, but how you finish. Amen.