Our preacher at Evensong on Sunday, May 18, was the Rev. Jeff Murph, Rector of St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church, Oakmont, Pennsylvania, and Chaplain of St. Margaret's Hospital in Aspinwall. Propers for the Evening Office on the Fifth Easter Sunday, Year Two, were Psalms 8 & 84, Hebrews 12: 1-14, and Luke 4: 16-30.
Is there more than what the empirical indicators of the world reveal? And if there is more then what is there and how are we to recognize it? These are two questions that I think actually are very pertinent in an age where, at least in Western societies, more and more people describe themselves as having no belief whatsoever. And in addition to these so-called atheists, there are many more who describe themselves as spiritual but avoid conforming themselves to any faith system or faith community at all. Often they seem to have devised a set of spiritual ideas, whether or not it has any logical coherence that becomes their personal creed. Not surprisingly, these sets of personal creeds often fit quite comfortably with the pattern these folks happen to live.
In contrast, we in the Church have a much more inconvenient spiritual framework. We subscribe to a revealed system of faith, which at times can present embarrassing beliefs, politically incorrect perspectives and which can articulate a framework that may be very challenging indeed to the way we might prefer to live our lives. What may be the worst is that we Christians all are expected to live out this faith in the context of a community, the church, which is filled with all kinds of people that we might much prefer not to associate with, not to mention the hypocrisies and petty squabbles that can characterize just about any Christian community. But I am getting ahead of myself, I want first to return to the original questions with which I began this sermon: Is there more than what the empirical indicators of the world reveal? And if there is more then what is there and how are we to recognize it?
In reality, there are more things in the world than those things that can be tested empirically. An overwhelming amount of human energy has been devoted to describing the power of love and yet, it is very hard indeed to empirically quantify a human emotion. Despite this, very few would deny that love is a great motive behind many human events. We Christians, of course, maintain that there is a spiritual dimension to this world that is very real. And yet, it does not submit itself to the kinds of empirical experimentation that our world tends to demand for authenticating reality.
In my last parish, I went to visit a parishioner who had been ill for quite a long time and who, indeed, had a disease that could have killed him. “I just don’t know for sure whether I believe if there is anything that comes after,” he confessed to me in the midst of his anxiety. I continued to listen to him speak and, within ninety seconds of making this confession of uncertainty, he then proceeded to tell me about how he had felt supernaturally guided when he was going through some of things left to him by his recently departed father. He almost seemed to be like that old story in Mark’s gospel where the father of the epileptic boy cries out, “I believe, help thou my unbelief! (Mk. 9:24). There was lacking perhaps that empirical proof that he would so have liked to have; and yet, even so, almost in the periphery of his field of sight, he could perceive God’s reality all the same.
Tonight, the writer of Hebrews, writing to a community that was perhaps wrestling with doubt, with uncertainty, with anxiety because of persecution and hard times, with the disapproval and rejection of the Pharisaical Jewish authorities, calls his readers to open their eyes to a spiritual reality that they were having trouble seeing. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” This verse has always fascinated me. In fact, it has always conjured up in my mind a giant track and field event, held before a great stadium. In this event, running along the racetrack, going as hard as we can, are we. In the seats of the stadium, cheering encouragement at the top of their lungs are all the saints who have already finished the race; aiding us with their intercessions and, of course, with the examples of their own lives.
For me, it is a dynamic vision of the reality of God’s Kingdom, both here as well as in Paradise, as well as the connection that, in Christ, binds us, the living, even to the dead—who, of course, are still alive in the Lord. But the writer also points us rather emphatically, and quite appropriately, to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
Luke, in his short account, gives us an example of Thomas Wolfe’s claim that “you can’t go home again.” Jesus returns to Nazareth, but as a noted rabbi, not as the carpenter that everyone thought they knew so well. And he is greeted with rejection—such a common human experience—and one that most of us fear so terribly. It was not, it seems a rejection of him as a rabbi, because, at least at first, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” But then he started saying things that they didn’t like, nice things about Gentiles. “Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” Only then did rejection come with fury and even with violence, as they sought to toss him off a cliff. The writer of the Hebrews seems to suggest, “Jesus knew rejection too—especially when he did and said things that other people did not like.”
Fear of rejection can certainly cause people to avoid certain things. In a way, it is how we socialize one another—don’t do or say things that confront the status quo. Isn’t this what Hebrews is about—how to stand fast in faith in Christ Jesus when the world around you is turning up the heat of rejection? As a corrective to this rejection, the writer of Hebrews reminds us of a very real dimension of reality that is not visible to the naked eye. He reminds us of the faithful priestly ministry of Jesus, who endured rejection even to the cross and the grave to rescue us from the authority of sin and death. He reminds us of the cloud of witnesses, the saints, who were just like us, enduring the hardships, the rejections, the ridicule, the sacrifices of life in this broken world and yet who had been given the grace with their perseverance to finish the race.
Just a few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Marathon was run through your neighborhood (in fact, I imagine that a number of you weren’t able to get to church that day because the streets were closed). The slowest time that I was able to research was seven hours and thirty-four minutes, and some seconds. First, let me say how much I admire this last place finisher—talk about perseverance! My goodness gracious! He did finish the race. And I don’t know but I’ll bet he had his own cheering supporters on hand at the finish line, just like everybody else.
Sometimes, life in this broken world can be so hard that you can just barely put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes perseverance just runs out of all its juice—and a encourager may be the only lifeline to help you going. People deal with hardships like illness, unemployment, jobs they hate but are afraid to leave. They deal with caring for loved ones, with unwelcome diagnoses, with despair. In a lot of those kinds of things there seems to be a built-in rejection, even if it is not explicit—and in some cases, like unemployment, the rejection seems loud and clear. In times like that, is there something to hold onto more than what seems empirically available—because all that empirical stuff so often ends up seeming insufficient? Hebrews answers, “YES!”
Times will be hard in a broken world but we are not alone. “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles”—and that includes fear, even fear of rejection. “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Jesus doesn’t just mark the race route; he runs alongside us, helping us through the hard parts—if we let him. And like my old parishioner, maybe sometimes your uncertainty bubbles over and you just aren’t sure about him—and you certainly aren’t sure about whether you can make it. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith—and remember, he has been there for you in the past—and he will be there for you to the end. Amen+