Cleansing Journey, Rev. Kinsey
The Hebrews list of faithful witnesses in chapter 11 is a long and detailed one. Cain and Abel, Noah and his family, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Joseph, Moses and the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt, and Rahab. “Time would fail me,” says the writer of Hebrews, “to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephtha, of David and Samuel and the prophets.” Although, unable to hold back, he tells little bits of their witness as well, just to wet our whistle.
“Therefore,” this Jewish-Christian writer concludes: “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.”
Amy-Jill Levine notes how unusual the list is, naming three general characteristics these faithful all have in common: 1) a near-death experience; 2) the ability to see the future and act faithfully in light of that knowledge; and 3) an alienation from the people of their generation. These are not the usual suspects, but are, says Levine, “heroes portrayed as outsiders and non-Israelites.” And these heroes and their unusual characteristics, would set the tone for all the followers of Jesus, all the faithful, who commit to the journey we are called on as disciples.
On the Youth Mission Trip to Iowa this past week, our theme was, God’s call to discipleship. Our Youth helped lead worship last Sunday at the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Dubuque, who hosted us, proclaiming the call story of Peter and Andrew, James and John, who left their boats and nets on the Sea of Galilee to immediately come and follow Jesus. As followers on a mission, our Youth’s journey included a trip downtown, to the Dubuque Rescue Mission. This Benedictine founded non-profit, houses some 45 men seeking recovery and safety from homelessness and addiction, and employs them in their kitchen and public meals program. The small but talented staff of 5 helps them get back on track in their calling in life, sometimes a re-baptism by fire, but always renewing and life-giving.
Ashley, the program director, shared pieces of her call story, and how she came to work there. As a recovering alcoholic herself, she can relate to the clients she works with. But it was her faith in Jesus’ message of love and transformative justice, that really led her to find her journey fulfilled, at the Rescue Mission. You could see it come alive as she proudly showed us the painting, done by one of their own clients, no less, that was hung in the Chapel. It was a modern-day depiction of Jesus combining a number of gospel stories: the healing of the paralytic, feeding the 5,000, the Good Samaritan, among others – all clothed in contemporary clothing, mostly people of color, except for the white police officers, warily overseeing what Jesus was doing, as Ashley noted. It was a large and striking painting. You could tell this is a story she liked to tell, and had probably recalled with many other volunteers in the past, drawing out the parallels to our own situation and time.
And our Youth were encouraged to see how the Great Command – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” – was foundational to all our callings. A calling by God is always centered on this greatest commandment, as Pastor Emily reminded our Youth, and whether our call is an action, attitude, or way of being: it always centers on loving God, by loving others and loving ourselves.
This is an important message for all of us, living, as we do, in a culture that prizes winning above all else. How else to explain our Presidential election contest that drags on and on, officially, for an entire year, but more and more, begins unofficially as soon as the previous one concludes, an unending 4 year reality show, turning a state-by-state primary season into constant national news, and a one day national election, pumped up on steroids by corporately controlled news departments across the country, into a frenetic never ending race, by holding up a false binary choice of win or lose, as if our very souls depended on it, though all too often, it has little to do with our daily struggles and life-long faith journey, being tested as they are, with a whole host of decisions, which in their dilemma’s and diversity are often by their very nature, un-winnable. No, not everyone can be President, not everyone can be an NBA world champion, not everyone can be a billionaire – no matter how hard you try. But that doesn’t make us losers!
Instead, we can see how the perseverance of our faith journey is an asset for living in this world, because faith sees that we are not called to be winners at the expense of others losing. Baptized into Christ, we understand and become one with the saints, whose faith comes from, a near-death experience, first of all; and two, called to a journey of faith with the saints, we see the future that God is calling us to, and have the support of a community of faith to get there; and thirdly, as outsiders to this culture of winners vs. losers, we may experience alienation, a separation from the world, as a consequence, even as we have our eye on the prize. Or – as our Youth are learning – loving God, and our neighbor as ourselves, requires commitment, which calls us to a work we haven’t done before, even as it makes a difference in the world, in a good way, whether at the Rescue Mission, or in so many other ways, in our lives.
“I came to bring fire to the earth,” said Jesus. “51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
“Jesus warned that those who make a commitment to him will be persecuted,” as Alan Culpepper says, “that a commitment of faith also means …that moral responsibilities must be taken with even greater seriousness… [so that as] our commitment to Christ shapes our values, priorities, goals, and behavior, it also forces us to change old patterns of life… Some of the most unexpected crises we face come from the opposition of others when we set out to do what we perceive to be the good, moral, and right thing to do. Jesus himself knew how devastating such crises can be, and he warned his followers to be prepared to encounter them also.”
Of course, Jesus doesn’t advocate conflict just for the sake of conflict. But he is suggesting, I think, that on our faith journey, we will inevitably encounter it. On this side of the grave and gate of death to eternal life; in this struggle to enact justice; in this world where the kingdom of heaven has not yet fully arrived on earth, we will encounter conflict and division, if we commit to be his followers.
Fire can be either divisive, or purifying, in scripture. Jesus was to baptize with the Holy Spirit, and with fire, as John the Baptist witnessed and proclaimed. And Mary, Mother of Our Lord – whose commemoration day is tomorrow, BTW – was warned by Simeon that the 8 day old baby Jesus, even as he was blessed in the Temple, was “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and [would] be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2:34-35).
Our faith journey is not always an easy or smooth ride. Its commitment does not erase conflict, but often brings it on. “Smile, Jesus loves you,” may be a popular bumper sticker. But it is not the kind of ‘Minnesota-nice-love’ Jesus had in mind when teaching his followers the Great Command.
Our faith journey as disciples, though, is the road to authenticity, and the way to ultimate and everlasting peace. So “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” as the writer of Hebrew says, “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, [who] has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”