Sunday, August 18, 2013
Bring a Towel
29By faith [the Israelites] crossed the Red Sea as if they were on dry land, but when the Egyptians tried it, they were drowned.
30By faith Jericho’s walls fell after the people marched around them for seven days.
31By faith Rahab the prostitute wasn’t killed with the disobedient because she welcomed the spies in peace.
32What more can I say? I would run out of time if I told you about Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. 33Through faith they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, realized promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34put out raging fires, escaped from the edge of the sword, found strength in weakness, were mighty in war, and routed foreign armies. 35Women received back their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured and refused to be released so they could gain a better resurrection.
36But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. 37They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. 38The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.
39All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith. 40God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us.
12:1So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, 2and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
When I was in high school, every August meant the same thing: Lawn mowers on the football field, lines being carefully measured and painted on a practice field. It meant hours assigning uniforms and making sure that every piece of equipment was in top shape, ready for the first game of the season. It meant drilling and fundamentals and practice after practice. Each August of my tenure at Freedom High School was the beginning of another season in the Marching Band.
Each hot August afternoon was spent on the lumpy practice field in the nearby park as we learned the show we would perform at home games and band competitions. 140 of my closest friends and I would march around in the 90 degree weather while the drum majors and band directors called out commands. We stood at attention while mosquitoes and gnats ate us alive. And when the first year marchers asked us why we bothered with all this unpleasantness, we pointed toward an experience they didn't know yet, and told them to trust us. It was all worth it. We pointed to the moment at the first home game after we marched onto the field and were called to attention, after the drum major counted us in for our opening number. We pointed to the moment after the thousands of precise steps, after the hundreds of measures of music. We pointed to the instant we finished our last note and brought our instruments down together, when we could hear our last chord reverberate off the brick stands as the applause and cheers of the fans mingled with and overcame it.
At that moment, we are breathless, exhausted, and overcome with joy because we have accomplished something together that none of us could do alone. We have to rely on each other to get through the show, to play the right notes, to watch our neighbors and keep our lines straight. The only way to get through the show and for it to be good, is for us to trust and rely on each other.
Because no matter how talented an individual band member is, they cannot do it all. We need the great crowd of musicians all around us to bring forth that wall of sound that makes the emotional impact of the music so powerful.
In my experience, when we talk about the gifts God has given us, we're talking about the gifts each individual in the group has. God has given you the ability to turn raw materials into a sound and solid structure. God has given you the resources to provide employment for others. God has given you the talent to play a musical instrument. God has given me words that I may speak.
Those are certainly all true, and worth valuing in ourselves. However, the kingdom of heaven is not a bunch of individuals all praising God in whatever way pleases them. It's a community that gathers around a single table. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a bunch of performers all waiting their turn on the stage, it's a dinner party sitting in stunned silence with all eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who has told us that this is my body, broken for you.
The greatest gift God has given us is himself, as Jesus Christ. The second greatest gift God has given us is each other: the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. United Presbyterian Church is not a building in which individuals gather to be spiritually entertained each week. United Presbyterian Church is a community that shares a history that goes all the way back to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. It is a community based on faith in the one who endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God's throne.
We often use "belief" and "faith" nearly interchangeably. We start our Affirmation of Faith with "I believe." There's just a tiny difference between the meaning of the two words. There's a significant difference between "I believe it will rain this afternoon" and "I have faith it will rain.
Christianity is not about knowing the right answers or even believing the correct doctrine. Belief is a thought, often a dearly held one. But faith is something more. Faith begets action.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said on Twitter a few months ago that "The good thing about Science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it" If that's not a statement of faith, I don't know what is.
We can spend all day debating the merits of that faith, or the accuracy of its target, but that tweet reflects a faith in the scientific method to discover truth and improve the lives of humanity, and Dr. Tyson has dedicated his life to its service. His faith in science has compelled him to participate in that process.
Our faith, however, is not in our own ability to solve problems, or that greater knowledge will give us greater abilities. Our faith is in the God who is the source of all our gifts. Who intervenes in the lives of his people, who is the way and the truth and the light, whether or not you believe in it. This is our faith, and that of the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.
By faith they crossed the Red Sea as if they were on dry land. Through faith they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, realized promises, shut the mouths of lions, put out raging fires, escaped from the edge of the sword, found strength in weakness, were mighty in ware, and routed foreign armies.
This history of great deeds is included so that we might know that we have a mighty shared history that spans nations and centuries, all based on faith in the living LORD our God.
These are great heroes through whom God worked great wonders because of their faith. However, faith does not always make for an easy road. It doesn't promise to fix all our problems, and it doesn't always soften the blow of what falls on our path.
Others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. They were stoned to death, they were cut in two. They went around wearing skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. The world didn't deserve them.
I'm currently working as a Chaplain Extern at Spartanburg Regional Hospital, and yesterday a tear-stained face told me that "God doesn't give you more than you can handle, but sometimes I feel like I can't handle it, and sometimes I feel like I don't want to." I am certain that she is not the only person who feels that way.
There are people who are suffering from overwhelming burdens. To ask them to carry them alone is to abandon our call to love them. The suffering that many of our brothers and sisters endure is not what God intended for them. It breaks God's heart to see his children suffer in this way. But the suffering is not the end of their story, because our God takes that pain and shame on himself. All these people didn't receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith.
God provided something better for us so that they wouldn't be made perfect without us. While we may find ourselves given more than we can handle, I promise you that it is not more than God can handle. Jesus endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him.
That joy is the kingdom of heaven made real. It's the joy of a family playing a game together where each one of them has a chance for their particular talents to shine through, laughing together and knowing that the game would be less fun if one of them were absent. It's the joy of a long-carried burden being taken up by a loving community of faith. It's the joy of our faith, perfected at last in the resurrection of that great shepherd of the sheep: our Lord Jesus Christ, who took a towel and wrapped it around his waist, and washed his disciple's feet.
The British Science-Fiction author Douglas Adams writes in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy on the subject of towels. He writes "a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a [non-hitch hiker] discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the [non-hitch hiker] will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost".
A towel is a simple thing, just a bit of woven cloth. In Adams's novel, knowing where one's towel is shows that you've really got your life together. It's a symbol of a life of adventure. For us, it's as symbol that we serve one another, it's an affirmation that we do not have our lives together, but that God keeps us together anyway. God gives us each other, and we love and serve one another because we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.
Because we are not meant to run the race that is laid out for us on our own. It is not God's intention that we push our way to the front of the crowd so that we can be first through the gate. It is not God's intention that we go through our lives relying only on ourselves, the perfect self-made person, a pioneer in her field, a perfecter of his technique.
It is God's intention that we go through our lives loving God with our whole selves, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith's pioneer and perfecter.
I cannot do it by myself, and neither can you. There are gifts I do not have, things I do not know. But God has given us each other, so that we don't have to do everything. Though none of us have every gift we will need, each of us does have some gift to offer. We are guided by the Spirit to be a people of God, not just a collection of Godly persons. By faith we are drawn together to be a great cloud of witnesses, sharing in the joyful work of the one who sat down at the right side of God's throne.