Pentecost X – Proper 15 – Year C
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
August 14, 2022
You don’t see it as often these days, but my grandmother Trula Everson kept photo albums scattered throughout her house. Until she died when I was 20, it was not uncommon to see an occasional new photo album appear, but you would never see one go away. As a child, I remember sitting in her lap, asking questions about who is who. She’d point out the various family members and how I was related to them, adding in commentary about what she remembered about their profession, family life, what she knew about their character, pointing out if someone was super rich, poor, and so on.
This is sort of what the author of the book of Hebrews is doing in chapter 11. He helps us remember those in the family of faith who have gone before. Remember those who passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. Remember Rahab the prostitute who welcomed the spies. Remember those who marched around Jericho, resulting in the walls falling. Remember Sampson and Daniel who shut the mouths of lions. Remember those who won strength out of weakness like Gideon and Ester. Remember those who were torched, mocked, scourged, and tormented. This photo album of our spiritual ancestors reveals something profound about faith, which he earlier describes as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen”.
Faith isn’t a guarantee that you’ll have what we think of as a “good life.” Some of our spiritual ancestors were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. Those who have a deep faith are not more likely to have more money or things or power or good looks than those who have no faith. Faith does not give us a free ticket out of pain and suffering in this life. Said another way, the theology that wealth and prosperity and blessings come as a result of having enough faith or doing enough good things is simply not biblical. For some, faith results in victory, and for others, faith results in suffering.
“Yet all these”, says the author of Hebrews, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better….” Before the “something better” is revealed, we hear a verse that Baptist teenagers like I was taught to memorize in Sunday School. I’ll read it in its entirety, and then explain why it has always given me anxiety. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses… There’s so much good stuff there, but despite the fact that I enjoy jogging (as in light jogging), perseverance, in that context, is not my strong suit. At the age of 42, I have a long history of trying to run longer distances, not persevering, then feeling guilty about my inadequacy and lack of endurance. Not a fun cycle to be reminded of.
Over the years, I’ve become convinced that this passage is not intended to evoke feelings of guilt. The witnesses might be referring to fans in a stadium at the beginning or end of a race, or they might be referring to early martyrs who had died for their faith. Either way, it’s a wonderfully encouraging vision of our fellow Christians supporting us and cheering us on, giving us courage and hope that we can indeed persevere in running the race that is set before us.
What is the end goal of the race? Where are we headed? The author of Hebrews finishes his photo album of our spiritual ancestors with a brilliant climax, the most important ancestor of all: Jesus Christ. In a moment, we will sing a paraphrase of this text in the Offertory hymn. “Behold, a Witness nobler still, who trod affliction’s path: Jesus, the author, finisher, rewarder of our faith.”
The message of this passage isn’t how my wounded psyche used to interpret it: “Have faith, do good, try not to screw up but feel guilty when you – and hopefully you’ll get to heaven one day.” The message is that whether we win the battle or suffer a defeating loss, no matter our lot, Jesus is the beginning and the end. He is indeed “something better” – the prize above all measure that we receive at the end of the race after having constantly fixed our gaze on him, and he accompanies us along the way, giving us his own self as food for the journey to persevere when we inevitably encounter both feast and famine. Jesus takes our woefully incomplete faith and makes it whole.
I no longer get anxious when I hear this passage, because rather than despair and guilt, I think we’re meant to be encouraged. But even more so with chapter 12, verse 3, which both the Baptist Sunday School teachers and the lectionary compilers unfortunately fail to include: “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
Dear friends, consider Jesus, both when you have doubts, and when your faith is strong. Consider Jesus, when the whole world seems to be against you, and when you’ve won the greatest victory of your life. Consider Jesus, when your faith leads you through the Red Sea to dry land, and when you feel like you’re drowning and ready to throw in the towel. Consider Jesus, when your faith is in shambles and you have nothing left to hold on to, and when you experience the greatest spiritual high you’ve ever had. Consider Jesus, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. Amen.
 Heb. 11: 39-40, NRSV.
 Heb 12:1, NRSV.
 Working Preacher.
 Heb 12:3, NRSV
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!