I think the last time that I ran a race was in 1966 when we had to run a mile for the Presidential Fitness Program. I thought it was cruel and inhuman punishment so I walked/ran my way through that mile around the schoolyard track. I still don’t like to run but when I think of races I think of this, and of running and swimming. But, if you have watched any of the Olympics, you’ll know that there are many other kinds of races, and there are people who have devoted their lives thus far to running the race. They excel in what they do and have worked hard at their sport.
I particularly like the relay races where each member of the team, whether it’s the 100 meter track relay or the 200 meter free style swim relay, you have to be in sync with your team mates. Michael Phelps may have won his 23 Olympic medal making him the most decorated Olympian of all time, and he is a great athlete, but some of those gold medals were won with the help of others. It’s not about you solely but it is just as much about the one that is in front of you and the one that you pass the baton off too or tag that is important too. It’s about teamwork for the good of the goal and in the Olympics that would be the gold!
We are continuing our study of the Book of Hebrews picking up where we left off last week. We talked about living our lives by and in faith in the context of this ‘letter’ written so long ago. When read in its entirety this letter sounds like a pastor working very hard to encourage his little church. So we live in the knowledge that God was good and beneficent to our spiritual ancestors and we believe and have faith that God will show kindness to us too. God’s got a good track record on this.
This week is a roll call of the sinners and saints of light. On down through the ages we are reminded of the ways in which God pulled them up and out of their calamities.
It’s somewhat of a longer passage so I’ll go slowly so you can absorb its nuggets.
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.
This is quite the roster of folks throughout Biblical history. The author of Hebrews is lifting up the ‘cream of the crop’, the athletes who ‘made it to the Olympics’, the superheroes of our faith. From martyrs to military leaders, from prophets to kings, they didn’t possess sterling reputations but they all trusted God and persevered through some very rough times where their faith, was mightily tested. It was through their faith that they accomplished marvelous things that we remember today, not only their prowess.
This passage shows us a past of miracles and disappointments, the ‘thrill of victory and the agony of defeat’ as they used to say on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. And through it all it was their faith in the unknown and trust that what they were doing would ultimately be the path that God was paving for them. And, that God was with them.
So it is because of this cloud of witnesses and many others after them that we are here today. And now they are watching us. Imagine if you can a race ‘staggered over time’ [i] They’ve done their part and have now tagged us.
I wonder if we could talk with Erastus Scranton what would he say about and to the good people OCC, many of them direct ancestors of some of you. Erastus was an eager Yale Div Student when he came to us as our very first pastor. What might he have said to them to encourage and to lift their faith and lives so that they would all feel just a little bit of the kingdom of God right here in Orange or North Milford as it was called?
They didn’t have it easy then and made tough decisions. But because of their faith and determination they said ‘no more’ to traveling down to Milford for church, we want our own church right here and so our story begins.
They rolled up their sleeves, and by faith our ancestors in faith planted and built this sanctuary on this sacred land. And they lived through a lot. By faith they sent their men and women off to the Civil War and all of the following wars and battles and faithfully followed Christ endeavoring to answer God’s call as best as they knew how given who they were as a people at that time. And it was by faith that the pastors through time lead, encouraged, comforted and pushed this congregation to be the best witness of the Gospel that you could possibly be.
By faith Rev. King passed the baton off to me and I, in faith, willingly grabbed it with a firm hold. So now it is our watch, our turn in the relay. We are now running with perseverance the race set before us with Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And that is the ultimate key, having Jesus as the pioneer. If we don’t have our eyes on prize then we will lose our way. He is the reason for our efforts as we name ourselves as Christian. Through his example of ministry and the way he lead his life we are give a roadmap to follow. It’s up to us to read it and follow it, all the while discerning the Spirit among us.
So what are we going to do? How fast and far will we run? How many hurdles are we willing to go over to achieve our part in this relay? How hard will we lean into our faith so that when the time comes, and we are no longer in these pews, we will be able to confidently and faithfully pass the baton?
I hope to, in the fall, gather us together to talk about the redevelopment process. This won’t talk or make decisions about the specifics of the three initiatives underway, church governance, open and affirming, and the calling of a Director of Faith Formation. It will be more to take the pulse on redevelopment. At the start we said it wouldn’t be an overnight thing that it would take some time to discern where the spirit of God is leading. So to take the time to access and measure our success so far is prudent. It’s also wise to ascertain if we are still on the right track. Staying focused on redevelopment calls for discipline and courage to sit with the unknown knowing that God is along side of us.
It matters that the generations after us will have our faithful examples to fortify themselves as they run their course. They too will hear about the Biblical examples of faith and they will hear about us too. Although we have choice in the matter as to whether or not we want to be here individually, it is not coincidence that God has called a faithful community together in Orange. What will our legacy be to the runners after us?
God will give us the strength to preserve through redevelopment because I’m convinced that Orange needs our faithful witness. Let us not ever forget the cloud of witnesses behind and surrounding us, they’ve brought us thus far.
And let us too run the race before us, unburdened with sin and all that weighs us down, as we embrace Christ, in faith, and look towards our future. May God of the ages continue to love us and imbue us with love.