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“Children of the Promise”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Genesis 15:1-6
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Genesis 15:1-6

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.


 

How many times have I read this scripture from Hebrews  – to run the race that is set before us – without reading the scripture before it.  And now that I am reading the verses that come before, what a different way I’m hearing it!

The writer of Hebrews lists name after name of those who lived their lives by faith, and then he continues by listing those more recently who have lived by faith and suffered dearly for their lives of faith.  In all these cases, he claims that these faithful ones did not receive what they were promised because God had something better – us!  Yes, US!

Their lives of faith were for a purpose.  Their sacrifices and risks and losses were for a purpose.  And that purpose was all of us!  Through their lives of faith, we have also heard, Christ has come, and God has poured out the Spirit on all flesh!

 

Could these faithful ones – who gave it all, who risked it all – have ever imagined that God would use their acts of faith to reap a harvest of faith in believers to come, for generation after generation?!?

Could they have known how their acts of faith would unclog righteousness that justice would flow down like the mighty waters?

Could they have known how their acts of faith would carry the torch so future generations could see and receive the Messiah, Christ among us?!?

Could they have known, how many would be set free?!??

 

The writer of Hebrews explains that WE make THEM perfect.  WE are the inheritance God promised them.  We are the land of promise.  WE are the fruit of their labors!

 

These champions of the faith have been given us, as their reward.  They have multiplied the Kingdom!  They have helped to usher in the Kingdom on earth!!!

 

 

So, how does that make you feel?

 

It sounds crazy – that the writer of Hebrews would be talking about us, as if we were so great.  But we are!  We are the substance of things hoped for, of things not yet seen.  We are the fulfillment of God’s promises to these faithful ones!  We are what so many labored and loved and worked and sacrificed for.

 

Can you believe it?

 

 

Who do you labor and love and sacrifice for?

Do you ever wonder whether or not all your efforts are in vain?

What if God showed you how your acts of faith have impacted, not only those you love, but also the many who will come after you?

 

We all affect one another.  When we carry the torch of faith, it is not about us.  It is about the God who we serve.  It is about all those God loves and is seeking out.

 

And how many will know God’s love because of us?

How many will hear of God’s mighty acts because of our lives?

How many will know God’s freedom and truth, because of us?

How many will walk in righteousness and do justice, standing on our shoulders?

 

 

It is a humbling thought.

Our lives are more than just our own. 

 

 

And knowing that as we walk in the ways of our God, we are standing amidst a great cloud of witnesses – how does that make you feel?

We are not alone.  All who have come before and ran this race are among us still.  They reside now in the presence of God, and they cheer us on.  They are witnesses to our lives, as we have taken up the torch of faith they carried and continued on.

 

We are not alone.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Even when we are alone.  We are not alone.

 

Can you see it?

Do you believe it?

 

If we remember that all those we’ve known and loved and lost are with us still, coming around us, cheering us on, what would change about our lives? 

 

Is it possible

we would finally lay aside all the doubts and fears,

sins and distractions that cling so closely?

Is it possible

We would remember what really matters?

It is possible

We would take courage from their courage?

Is it possible

we would live as though our lives really matter?

 

…because they do. 

“Our Beloved Saints”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Proverbs 27:17
Hebrews 12:1-3

Proverbs 27:17

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.

Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

 


 

My grandfather.  My mother’s father.  He was a Presbyterian Minister out in Texas where they lived.  When he was ordained, his presbytery was so small that he was elected to serve as Presbytery Executive in the same meeting, so he signed his own ordination papers!

He liked to tell stories of his ministry – how he’d (or more accurately God had) held together a church deeply divided by listening to everyone each Sunday after church.  I appreciated these stories.  They told me his values.  They told me that it was more important to be in relationship with one another – sharpened as iron sharpens iron – than to be estranged and separated.

In this way my grandfather deeply shaped my faith development.

 

I also learned from his mistakes.  He was a passionate man, and not being able to discipline his grandchildren made him feel totally disempowered.  So what do we so often do when we feel powerless?  Quite often we unearth other more malignant tactics.   So most of us grandchildren have haunting memories of him taking us off to some hallway, kneeling to our level and hitting his head repeatedly in front of us saying, “Since I cannot spank you, I will spank myself.”  This was his way of trying to deter us from doing things he disagreed with.  Talk about psychologically twisted, this definitely qualified!

But after my grandmother passed away during my 7th grade year in school, my grandfather changed.  She had been the tender and gentle one.  He had been the hard one.  But after she was gone, he softened.  He stopped hitting his head.  He started being tender with us and kind.  He spent more time with us, telling stories.  And finally unbound by fear, we could enjoy him and get to know him.

 

Several years later, I would attend my church summer camp and find that I enjoyed learning and teaching about God, more than any other thing.  I would deliver my very first sermon, drawing from the imagery of Pachelbel’s Cannon.  And members of the church who had nurtured me from the time I was born were approaching me to say they could hear God’s Word in my sermon and hoped I would consider seminary.

Still new to any critical study of the Bible, I had many questions – such as whether or not women should be in ministry.  And I questioned myself, as I was introverted, and I didn’t think that a very suitable quality for a minister.

But like Mary – after giving birth to Jesus and receiving the Shepherd visitors – I treasured these things in my heart and began to ask the questions of my own calling in life.   I began the long road of scripture study and interpretation.

And as my own calling to ministry began to emerge, I came back to my grandfather, who, a product of his time, had always thought it wrong for women to be ministers.  I half-expected him to shame me for this sense of call, but he surprised me.  Instead he told me that he’d been listening to more and more women preach and that he was hearing God speak through them.  They were anointed.  And if God’s Spirit was speaking through them, who was he to say they couldn’t or shouldn’t be ministers.

And in this, my grandfather gave me the greatest example of faith:  the example of a passionate but humble, living, and growing faith.   With a lifetime full of experiences in the world and in the church, he had every reason to say, “this is not the way that things should be done.”  His contemporaries would have judged me in that vulnerable place where I was considering my call.  But instead, he stayed in a position of openness to the Spirit of God.

And when the time came for him to start considering the fate of his worldly possessions, he took me into his small library room – filled on every wall with books from top to bottom – and gave me the gift to his entire library.

 

This man who had been passionately against women in ministry – keeping my grandmother down, who had longed for him to teach her, and forbidding her from speaking on his behalf at church – this man was blessing my calling to ministry in his final years.

And he started downloading all his experiences into me – so that I would learn from him.

He once said, and it was so funny and moving that I wrote it down, “This does not deny you the right to investigate new visions.  Go to it!  Your old grandpa may roll over in his grave by them, but so what!?”

 

I loved that.

He recognized that God was still moving and working and revealing Godself in new ways.  He recognized that he would never have the corner on the truth.  He trusted the Mystery beyond himself.

And this example has been his greatest gift to me.

 

Whatever our paths and families, we ARE indeed surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  In the chapter before these verses from Hebrews, the writer reviews all the great faith figures.  He is reminding us that we are not alone in this journeyIt is a hard journey, but we are in good company!  The Bible is full of story after story of our ancestors in the faith – who got things beautifully right and terribly wrong sometimes, and yet who were used by God.

We have them, and we have Christ!

We are not alone.  And we can learn from their experiences – both what TO do and what NOT to do.  God has given us a great gift through their lives.

This gift is not meant to call us back to a time that no longer exists.  It is not meant to keep us in a place of nostalgia.  No, the writer of Hebrews reasons that because we are surrounded by this great company of saints who’ve gone before, we run with perseverance.  We press into the living of these days, of our lives, of our journeys of faith – taking encouragement from these saints and direction from Christ, the pioneer and perfector of our faith!

We look back, in order to move more faithfully forward. 

 

And so today, we take this time to remember those in ours and other people’s lives who have strengthened and blessed us on our journeys, and we take time to give thanks for them!

In just a moment I will invite you to walk around the room (as you feel led), reading the stories of these saints, and giving thanks to God in your hearts.

When the music comes to a close, I will invite you to take a stand or a seat near the write ups that speak to you.  And we will come before God in prayer together – giving thanks for those who have shaped our lives.  During that prayer, we will go around the room, in order, speaking out the names of all these saints.

So I invite you now to spend time in holy listening, silently walking and reading, or seated as you like, meditating on these saints who have blessed our lives.  And after about 4-5 minutes, I will call us back together for a prayer and speaking of the names.