May 3, 2009

Backing into the Future
Hebrews 12:1-3

It seems rather like half-time, doesn’t it? I’ve personally never participated in a sport in which the contest was divided into halves. Baseball has its innings, tennis its games and sets, and wrestling its consecutive matches. So I’ve never heard a coach deliver a half-time pep talk. I’ve never heard a coach rant and rave over a dismal first-half performance, nor have I heard one encourage the team to stay focused when they found themselves far ahead. But I’ve heard about such talk from friends and seen various locker-room clips on TV. So, from what I can imagine, this feels a bit like half-time. Our team has played a portion of the game—whether a half or not I have no way of knowing!—and we’re looking forward to retaking the field.

In that context, it is difficult to imagine a passage in the New Testament that provides clearer and more succinct half-time instructions than does this wonderful text in Hebrews 12:1-3. In a sense, these verses sum up the whole of the book of Hebrews, which envisions the community of faith—the church—traveling through this world in route to our eternal destination. “For here we have no lasting city,” we read in 13:14, “but we are looking for the city that is to come (13:14).” We’ve played part of the game. We’ve covered a fair amount of ground, and traveled a lot of miles, but we’re not there yet. And so, the writer, the coach, gives us four simple but essential words of instruction.

Be Encouraged by Those Who Played the First Half
We’re surrounded, the writer of Hebrews assures us, by a great cloud of witnesses. The arena is sold out, the stadium is full. But not, interestingly enough, with mere spectators or entertainment-seekers like the vast majority of people who line up for sporting events around the world today. These are not people who scream for their favorite team and eagerly volunteer bits of brilliant, strategic advice—“Throw the ball!” or “Stay in bounds”—but who have never been on the playing field themselves. Such fans are important, of course, even essential. They cheer on the players, buy hot dogs at the concession stands, and pay a large portion of the salaries. But they’ve never stepped up to the plate and faced a 95 mph fastball or looked at “4th down and one” with just a few seconds to go. They’ve never lost 5 pounds over night to make weight for an upcoming wrestling match or run 20 miles a day in preparation for a marathon. In other words, they’ve never made the trip. As important and welcome as they are, they remain—well, spectators.

These are not mere spectators in Hebrews 12:1, not simply impassioned fans. These are witnesses—experienced ball players, seasoned runners, committed athletes, people who’ve been out on the mat before and know what it takes to compete. They’ve already run the race, they’ve played the first half, and done well. They were not perfect, by any means, anymore than we are. In fact, these witnesses include moral ship wrecks: liars, prostitutes, adulterers and drunkards. They include outcasts: people abandoned by their parents and abused by other members of their families. They include people of all sorts, but all of them share this in common. In spite of their moral shortcomings, relational scars and emotional insecurities, they all came to faith in God, went through training, faced the competition, and crossed the finish line. Just scan the list of people in chapter 11, a virtual “Who’s Who” of the Old Testament: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Samuel, David, the prophets. And they are watching us. They are cheering us on. They believe in us. They know that we can make it.

Look up in the seats for a moment. The stadium is even more crowded now than it was when the letter to the Hebrews was written nearly 2000 years ago. If you look up in the stands, you’ll find, not only characters from the Old Testament, but players from the entire history of the church: The Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, Fanny Crosby, C.S. Lewis, Mother Theresa and Cyrus Huber (my grandfather). If you look again, you’ll notice a host of our Anabaptist ancestors: Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and his wife, Michael Sattler, Menno Simons. There are a lot of BICers in the crowd: Jacob Engle, S.R. Smith, Francis Davidson, Henry Ginder, Charlie Byers. And not surprisingly, there is no shortage of people from the Grantham Church there, too: C.N Hostetter, Jr., Virgie Kraybill, Arthur Climenhaga, Lewis Sider. We’re surrounded by a great crowd of—spectators? No. Witnesses. They played the first half, and played it well. Now they’re rooting us on.

I sensed something of this in a particularly powerful way when I visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles a few years ago with Alan Thrush. Dedicated in 2002, the cathedral is massive but relatively simple, at least as far as cathedrals go. Hanging on the walls of the sanctuary are a series of absolutely beautiful tapestries depicting various saints from throughout the history of the church. Each of the people portrayed in these tapestries is standing sideways, facing the front of the cathedral, as though they are worshiping along with the rest of the congregation. The resulting effect is stirring, to say the least. When I was there, I felt as though I was a part of an enormous community of worshipers, a team that transcends time and culture. In truth, I am. And so are you. Be encouraged by your teammates who played the first half.

Lighten the Load
Encouraged by the testimony and performance of our predecessors, we have to make sure that we ourselves are ready to play. We next lay aside the sins and weights that will, if left unattended, slow us down and even trip us up. The writer specifically calls our attention to two types of unhelpful baggage that we do not need to take out with us on the field: sins and weights. Sins are one thing, of course. None of us want to live in sin, do we? Holiness is part of our theological tradition. We long to be Christ-like, and we push each other onto godliness. In certain cases, we confront each other and even exercise appropriate discipline when necessary. We believe that churches worthy of the name are not mere social clubs, but communities in which sinners are forgiven and empowered to live lives that are pleasing to God.

But what about weights? Weights aren’t immoral or intrinsically wrong, like sins are. In fact, weights might very well be good things under different circumstances. They are, however, distractions while playing the game. Hip-length boots serve a wonderful purpose—when you are fishing. I wouldn’t recommend them, however, for playing hockey. A cooler full of food and drinks is great if you are going on a picnic, but I wouldn’t encourage you to take them out on the basketball court with you. When we lighten the load, we not only leave behind what is in and of itself evil, but we likewise set aside potentially good things in favor of better ones.

What, then, are some of the weights that we at the Grantham Church might want to lay aside as we move into the next period of ministry? You might suggest a few of your own. I have time to mention only two this morning:
Perfectionism: pursuing excellence is commendable, and it is only fitting that we give God our very best. We like to do things well here at the Grantham Church, in all areas, and that can be a major plus. There can easily be a down side, however. The pursuit of excellence can, if we’re not careful, become a roadblock to authenticity and a deterrent to true community and growth. People in leadership positions can grow fearful of making mistakes, thinking that they always have to have everything together. People in the congregation hide their weaknesses, not wanting to appear needy and broken. Others shy away from using their gifts, thinking that they are inferior to the vastly more talented people in the church. And newcomers, sad to say, either struggle to fit in or soon leave, assuming—incorrectly, of course—that we here have it all together. In the second half, we must do everything to the glory of God, but we must also share our struggles more openly, acknowledge our weaknesses, and create an increasingly welcoming space for the wide variety of broken people in the community around us.
Traditionalism: we have a rich and blessed history at the Grantham Church. We have so much to be thankful for, and, in the best sort of way, so much to be proud of. I was nearly overwhelmed last night watching the video clip, singing the songs, and unveiling the book. I was thankful beyond words for the many years that I’ve been involved in this wonderful congregation. Too many people ignore history, grow unfamiliar with the past, and walk ignorantly into the future. I doubt that we will ever do that here. We must be careful, however, not to tie ourselves so closely to the past, to previous accomplishments, to memories, to favorite programs, that we fail to adapt in creative and life-giving ways to what God is doing in the here and now. We do the previous players no favors if we dwell so much on these accomplishments that we fail to make creative contributions of our own. While recognizing the glory of our past, we must adapt our strategy, and move with vision and courage into the newness of the present and future.
Traveling with heavy bags and too much luggage is enough to cause anyone to abort the trip! So we lighten the load.

Run with Perseverance
Having set aside—“ditched”—the sins and weights that slow us down and at times trip us up, we run the race. It is quite an image to use in describing the nature and mission of the church, isn’t it? A far cry from pictures of closed fortresses, out-dated social clubs, sterile institutions and crumbling edifices. Running implies movement, direction, progress, growth, goals, a sense of adventure, and the hope of accomplishment. Running with perseverance further suggests persistence, discipline, courage and a willingness to get up after falling.

Focus on Jesus
And finally, we fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He is the one we take our cues from, not the culture around us. We must, of course, be aware of and sensitive to our culture, seeking effective ways to minister in this particular time and place. But we must remain clear on this: we focus first and foremost on Jesus.

If you look more closely, the writer calls our attention specifically to three aspects of Jesus’ life that we must follow as we make our way to the eternal city. Jesus, first of all, was a “macro” person, a person of vision who saw the big picture. He looked beyond the ups and downs of this life and “saw the joy that was set before him.” Jesus, secondly, endured the difficulties and struggles of the race. He faced everything involved in being human, and then some—the cross—yet pressed on. And thirdly, Jesus completed the race and is now seated on the right hand of God. In short, we are to be inspired by the vision of Jesus, encouraged by the dedication of Jesus, and empowered by the victory of Jesus.

In reflecting on this passage, it seems as though a good bit of it comes down to this. As we move into the second half, we must always remain mindful of what God has done in the past and the testimony of the people of faith who have gone on before us. We don’t want to be forgetful. At the same time, we must always resist the temptation to be frozen in the past, choosing instead to move ahead with courage, creativity and hope. In a sense, to quote my former professor and dear friend, John Oswalt, we must “back into the future.” Fully mindful of what God has done in days gone by, we “back” with confidence into the new and unknown.