Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
We don’t often look to the Old Testament for inspiration. Far too often the stories of the Old Testament arouse a bit of mirth. A Sunday School teacher was describing how Lot’s wife looked back on the city of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned into a pillar of salt, when a little girl interrupted. “My Mommy leaned back once whole she was driving,” she proudly announced, “and she turned in a telephone pole.” In another Sunday School room, a teacher asked her class whether Noah did a lot of fishing when he was on the ark. “No” a young knowledgeable boy, sighed, shaking his head boldly. “How could he? He had just two worms.” After Sunday School a mother asked her nine-year-old son Joey, what he had learned. “Well, Mom, our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his army build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he radioed headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge, and all the Israelites were saved.” The mother looked inquisitively, “Now, Joey, is that really what your teacher taught you?” his mother asked. “Well, no, mom. But if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe it.” No, we don’t often look to the Old Testament for inspiration.
During the summer, however, I preached for 13 weeks on the characters of the Old Testament. The names of the characters are printed on the front of the bulletin. It was a sermon series which tied together one of the five principles or slogans of the Protestant Reformation, Sole Fide, by Faith Alone, with the Old Testament characters mentioned in the Book of Hebrews who lived- by faith.
The Book of Hebrews was written in the 1st Century for men and women who were experiencing persecution for their decision to become Christians. The stories from the Old Testament reminded them, that they were not the first to walk this path of disappointment and unfulfilled dreams. Their ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah, Noah, Gideon, Samson, David had all experienced hardship and doubt as well. They knew torture, prison, and death, and yet they kept walking by faith.
This Rally Sunday, I would like to offer a final word of spiritual advice drawn from the Book of Hebrews. Consider this: Faith is not simply what you believe, but faith is also an act of focused remembering. So when life is tough; when you are feeling alone in your faith and anxious about what lies on the road ahead of you, one of the best ways to keep going forward is to look up and to see the great cloud of witnesses urging you one. You may be assured that they are present in unique places in the church, and that is what I am here to remind of this Rally Sunday.
First, look at the men and women gathered here, and study the names on the stained glass windows- even the pictures of the pastors and confirmands on the walls. These names and faces bear the story of faith. Like the Old Testament characters mentioned in Hebrews, they are not perfect, but they have known the world’s joys and sorrows, trials and temptations, peace and solace. Your present pastor isn’t perfect either. Although, I must confess that I have made all of the worshipers in all seven of the congregations that I have served perfectly happy. Half were happy when I came to their church, and the other half were happy when I left. Even the most sainted church members, have a way of surprising you. I was visiting Esther Mork, an elderly church member and celebrating Holy Communion with her when she confessed, “O Pastor Haug, I haven’t heard anyone say a bad word about you- lately.”
As tourists enter Winchester Cathedral in England a sign says, “You are entering a conversation that began long before you were born, and will continue long after you’re dead.” To be a Christian means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to make up this faith as you go. The saints will teach you, if you will listen. The heroes of the past can be your example- if you will but set your gaze on them. And it’s not just the past. There are saints walking beside you even now. Yes, they too may stumble at times. There may be moments of doubt. But these are the men and women who you may turn to as a living cloud of witnesses. None of us, you see, can run the race that is set before us alone. We need the encouragement of others along the way.
Second, look to the stone walls of this church and its steeple. Listen to the clear ringing of the bell. Of course, we all know that the church is not a building. But neither is the church a majestic mountain landscape or a pastoral meadow. There is something built into the Christian faith, something built into its very architecture that is inherently traditional or at least tradition making. Tradition is not a bad thing. It is a healthy part of telling the old, old story. In his commentary on the Book of Proverbs, theologian Walter Brueggemann says “Israel was the sort of culture that loved its young enough to tell its young what it had heard from God.” The ancient people of Israel loved their young enough to say “You don’t have to make up the way as you go. You don’t have to reinvent the path to God on your own. We’ll tell you. We’ll show you the way.” That is why we gather here Sunday after Sunday to hear the story; to become centered in that story, and to become living saints for others.
For Christians, at the heart of the story is Jesus the pioneer and perfector of the faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross. That is a powerful story to be told and it is extremely poignant for those who are experiencing the pain of running or walking alone. Loneliness comes to many people in different guises. You may be president of your company, the lone worker in a cubicle, or the oldest member of a club that has folded. But there are other forms of loneliness as well. You just found out that your cancer is not responding to treatment. You’ve been informed that your children’s dreams won’t become a reality, that your marriage won’t survive, and you feel like you’re the only struggling person on a lonely planet. When you turn to the cloud of witnesses, you hear the story of Christ’s love for you- a love that will not let you go- a forgiveness that knows no bounds- a grace that knows no ending- a peace that no war can destroy- a light that cannot be extinguished. Yes, at the heart of the story you meet again Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of the faith. Look to the stone church and the stories that are shared within its sacred walls, and you will be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
Third, listen to the music and the voices of the melodies and cadences raised up to God in song and prayer. Every once in a while, a confirmation student asks me, “How come we always sing these old hymns? I don’t know any of these songs? I don’t hear any of this kind of music on my I-Phone.” And it’s true. You and I have to go out of our way to hear this music, the readings from scripture and a sermon. We have to go out of our way to hear the words sin and forgiveness, mercy and grace. You have to get up at an inconvenient hour. You might even get a bit more dressed up. Worship is an odd practice of focused remembrance and listening to the voices of the past. But it is the one place and time where you can expect to glimpse the great cloud of witnesses that is urging you on.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music in which he hears, however measured, or far away.” Scripture is filled with these people. And so is the church. People who stand out from the crowd, who don’t quite fit the expected model. The dreamers, the high achievers, the entrepreneurs, the eccentrics, the loners. Sometimes we admire them, sometimes we criticize them. Often we misunderstand them. But my friends, they may be marching to the beat of a different drummer.
The world today needs men and women who hear the drumbeat of Christ’s call and will dare to follow and lead. At my age, I now prefer marching to running races. But regardless of whether it is a march or a race, your own families and friends, need your example of living by faith. There will be times of doubt and disappointment on your journey. There will be those who will be frustrated with you and your simplistic ways. Be assured, at those times, that great cloud of witnesses found in the faces, and the words and the movement of the Church, will be there to remind you that this Jesus Christ, this drummer, who is both the goal of your journey and your companion along the way who will never leave you alone. He is the one you go to meet, and the one who marches beside you, and races with you toward the goal. And along the way, if you will look up, you will see the great cloud of witness urging you on.
So run with perseverance the race that is set before you, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of your faith, and may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.