O, Great cloud of Witnesses,
Intercede for us to the Lord, our God;
Pray for our strength
To train our hearts, our minds, our bodies
To run the race,
To keep the fire burning,
That we might work to bring the Kingdom of God to our broken world.
Today's second reading is an epistle to the Hebrews, though it might be better to call it a sermon. The book has classically been ascribed to Paul, though we don't actually know who wrote it. The name of the book "To The Hebrews" might throw some of us off--these aren't Jews living in Palestine to whom the author is exhorting. Rather, these are new Christians living in Greece and Italy.
And they are on the brink.
Nothing seems to be going right--and Christ has yet to return. Where is the glory they've been promised? Where is the Kingdom of God? So far, everything in their lives has been the same... or worse.
So, why did they ever change in the first place?
Why not just go back and live in the comfort of what they used to know?
In this passage (and for many passages prior, frankly) the author works his hardest to basically paint the Torah as a prequel to Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection, and future coming in glory. All of the biblical heroes and prophets were just setting the field, as it were, preparing the track meet for Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Abel setting up the high jump, Noah preparing the hurdles, Abraham readying the discus, Isaac and Jacob putting out the shot puts, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel all putting out the starting blocks on the track.
"Run the race," the author says. "No matter what, have faith."
Run the race.
This is the best we can get? Tell the Hebrew that just got diagnosed with cancer to "have faith". Tell the Hebrew that just lost his job to "run the race".
Tell it to the Hebrew that just got divorced.
That lost their spouse.
That lost their child.
That feels hurt.
That feels hungry.
That feels alone.
That longs for love.
It's kind of like telling someone that just experienced a death in the family, "Oh don't worry... They're in a better place." As my mother explained to many of us when my father was killed, that was hardly a balm for her grief.
So, what, then, is our solace?
Well. Let us look to our greatest comfort.
In the Gospel today, Jesus is... well, he's not the usual Jesus we encounter. He's not, frankly, the Jesus we even want to encounter.
He's brash from the outset.
"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!"
I can hear the Hebrews saying it now: Not exactly what we were looking to hear, Jesus. Nothing is going right, we don't understand why, and you're yelling at us?
No. It's not the Jesus we want to hear.
It's the Jesus we need to hear. It's the cry of a Jesus that knows he has to scream what is coming next--because he must show us that no matter the screams we will have in our own life, he must scream before us.
He takes the path of pain, ahead of us. He takes the path of sorrow, ahead of us. He takes it all, endures it all, wades through it all.
And all for love's sake.
It is the gift of Hope that is the gift of Christ.
Hope of resurrection. Hope of salvation. Of forgiveness. Of enduring love.
Jesus is come to light a fire on this earth.
That fire is what divides this world. The fire is hope. And if faith is the assurance of things hoped for, then by God, this fire divides us as the faithful.
Will we be a resurrection people? Will we be a people of hope? What more could we have been given than the gift of salvation? Than the gift of reuniting with our loved ones again?
We don't dabble in hope, friends. We live it. And no, hope isn't always easy. But we have to try.
And I am here to preach to you today this one thing: that hope is possible. And it is possible precisely because our savior Christ showed us it was. And the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us live in that hope.
In 2012, I ran the Chicago Marathon with Team LIVESTRONG, working to raise money for cancer survivors and their families. Lance Armstrong aside, The LIVESTRONG foundation has done a world of good for those living with cancer, as well as their friends, families, and the community at large.
I didn't choose the charity arbitrarily. Rather, I ran for someone very special to me, that I had lost to cancer five years earlier.
My Aunt Nettie. Her real name was Annette. Annette Moffatt, nee Sparks, but saying Aunt Annette, I imagine, was too difficult for the young articulations of my eight siblings prior to me. So, by the time I rolled around in 1982, it was Aunt Nettie.
Remembering Aunt Nettie means remembering some very specific things: black and white films, clogging, swing dancing, jazz, and home made apple sauce.
There's something I'd rather not remember: how she died. But it's important to note. Because without it, her story isn't complete.
After battling cancer for a very long time, her final relapse brought the cancer back with such ferocity that there simply was no stopping it. It had spread throughout her body so completely, that she could no longer dance through it all. She had to stop. She had to lay down her arms. She had to give in to what was coming.
My God, do I hate cancer. While we would like to believe it is some foreign demon come out of hell to wreck the lives of God's good children, its unfortunate origins lie precisely where we don't want it to: our own cells-- our own cells, created by the being to whom I will direct us to continue worshipping.
It's enough to make you say "enough". How many more do we have to watch die terrible deaths before we just throw our hands up and say, "Enough." Enough of God, and belief, and faith, and prayer. Let's just be done already.
Years later, as I embarked on an eighteen week training period, I looked to Nettie to be with me, especially on my long runs. Lonely Saturday and Sunday mornings become even more lonely when running 18 miles. You hurt. You're tired. You're ready for a cheeseburger.
And throughout it all, Nettie would visit me on my runs. I would see her in someone laughing as I passed them by. I would see her in a lovely couple holding hands on a park bench, tapping their feet to a jazz rhythm. I would see her as I passed the homeless woman, dancing with a surprising joy in the morning light by Chicago's Lakefront. And I would hear her voice, soft in the wind, over me singing songs from old movie musicals.
That I hear that voice. That I see her with me. That I feel her around me.
That's why I can't say "Enough".
Like the flags above our heads on All Saints' Day, here in this sanctuary, she has joined the great cloud of Witnesses above, saints and all, letting me know that yes, she is proud of me. But most of all, letting me know that she had run her race. That she had done it with dignity. And that I can, too.
That those who have gone before us ran the race we are running now. That it will, indeed, be OK.
That if she endured that terrible pain, that wretchedness, by God I can get through it.
That love is with us. That it will never leave us. That we will all see each other again.
I hope so.