Duane Henry Birt, my grandfather on my mother’s side, was a farmer – born, raised, and buried on the same little plot of land. Other than his stent as a Merchant Marine when he served our country well and saw so much of the world, he mostly stayed close to the rolling hills of southwest Iowa where the rows of corn needed to be knee-high by the fourth of the July and the wheat waved politely when the wind blew gently in due season. This is a shot of the two of us when we both were a little younger. Beyond farming, grandpa served his community in various ways. He was elected and served faithfully as County Commissioner and was a devoted Elder at the United Christian Church of Prescott his entire adult life. Going to visit the farm as a kid was a huge treat. Grandpa let me ride along as special assistant “to chore” (used as a verb) — sometimes driving the big tractor to deliver hay to the cattle; sometimes navigating the fields in his rugged, banged up pick-up that he lovingly called “Old Blood and Guts.” Dressed most days in coveralls with countless pockets all the grandkids famously combed through while sitting on his lap, I remember his boots the most. Old, hard, worn leather boots with the little metal clips on the side through which to weave each shoelace – always laced up just right; always ready for the action the day required. For all I knew he slept in those boots. I simply couldn’t imagine a moment when he wasn’t ready to do what was needed, what was necessary, what really mattered. After seventy years of marriage to my grandmother a couple of January’s ago, he and grandma both died a few weeks apart from one another. We held a joint service to celebrate them and the resurrection and laid them to rest on the hill next to the farm that the family donated to the town of Prescott years ago to serve as a place of honor for the saints who transitioned ahead of us. To me, grandpa still has those boots laced tight, cheering me on silently – much like he did when he watched me play baseball as a kid. I didn’t need to hear him to know he was there. I could look, connect with his eyes, receive that knowing nod, and dig into the batter’s box a little deeper. He’s one of my favorite saints.
There’s a pretty good chance that someday we are all going to die. I hope this does not come as a shock to you this morning. Recently, I read a blog from Phillips Theological Seminary President, Gary Peluso-Verdend suggesting that “at least once a year, I need my pastor to remind me that I’m going to die.” Consider yourselves warned. Beyond that reminder, there’s a decent chance that we won’t be ready for it when the time comes. We’ll slip our shoes off one evening expecting to slip them back on come morning but… morning won’t come. We very likely will leave some things unfinished, a thing or two that we just didn’t get wrapped up, a thought or ten that just never resolved, didn’t get answered, or a social condition not yet fully healed. This can be disheartening to us … or… it can be among the greatest gifts of grace we will ever receive. Not getting everything done reminds us that we need each other… that we need God.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews understood this well… and knew it would be a needed word if the kingdom of God would ever be fully realized. “Therefore,” the author notes, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is before us.” If we are running any race in this life, we may not think positively about the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us as they do today, named on the pillars of this church. We may be living more like, “Since we are being chased and dragged and pushed and feared into this race, let’s keep running to escape those things.” It makes us run the race of life with a totally different mentality.
I ran the 40th annual Tulsa Run a weekend ago with some 7,000 of you. It’s a 15k – 9.3 miles if you’re scoring at home. I started the race out of shape and I ended it a little more so. Races are always an interesting way to see life, however. It is customary for people to dress up in costume for this race as it is always the weekend nearest Halloween. There were scary clowns running – imitating Stephen King’s character from the movie “It,” which resurfaced this year. I also snapped this shot of Batman patrolling the streets of Tulsa which really then gave this battle of good versus evil vibe through it all. I enjoyed most of the signs people held along the way. A couple miles in, one lady held a sign that read, “You’re the slowest runner so far!” Clever (and true) as the moment you crossed her location, you were slower than everyone that passed her ahead of you. Toward the end, there were a couple of folks yelling at runners, “Push! Push! You can do it!” and nearing the point of exhaustion I felt for the first time what many describe in the birthing room at the hospital when a woman is in labor and the less than savvy dad yells, “Push! Push! You can do it!” Such doesn’t always settle well with the one who is actually doing the pushing. Nonetheless, here were a bunch of runners, running toward the finish line with who knows what motivation to keep running.
The Hebrew writer’s motivation is clear – “Without you, the race of faith will not be complete.” Chapter eleven – the huge list – the “Hall of Faith” as some call it – Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Rahab and more. “By faith…” the writer says about each one followed by what they accomplished for the kingdom of God. Then the writer shares all of the pain endured to keep the faith alive – to not back down when tested but to persevere through the difficulty. It’s a story too gruesome for television – through fire, swords, stoning’s, torture, chains, dungeons, even being sawed in two. To think that all we’ve asked of you today is to scoot toward the middle of your row to make room for others – no saws needed today. Can you imagine? The writer says at the end of chapter eleven, “Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised.” God’s plan for us? “That their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.” Everyone has a role to play in this kingdom work. All y’all are saints in this regard. You not playing your role is like trying to complete a cake recipe missing some of the ingredients. It’s just not the same – the cake may not rise, it may collapse, it might not taste right. Our ongoing work may not be moving right without your contribution. And who are we to say, “My contribution doesn’t matter?” Every life… every gift matters. And if we don’t carry on the faith, then not only is our faith incomplete, so is the many who made a way for us. We can look around the very pillars of this sanctuary and visibly see the saints who are holding up this ministry. We honor them and celebrate them – even as we affirm again, today, our own role in making God’s dream a reality. We’ve got to tighten up our shoe laces and keep running. Easy to say; hard to do.
Life sometimes feels like no matter how often we lace ‘em up again or how often we tighten the knot of our shoelaces, someone is always untying them and we get tripped up in our attempt to move the meter of faith forward (as one of my colleagues loves to say). The first summer my family was living and serving among you, we were invited over to Bill and Sally Sitler’s home for the Disciples Sunday School Class party. We had only two of our three children at the time and they were very young. It’s hard to be the new pastor trying to get acquainted with people when you’ve got one eye on your toddler hoping he’s not crushing, or eating, some family heirloom. At one point, Dane, who was probably two and a half decided to crawl under the tables where people were eating and systematically untie everyone’s shoes. I was horrified. I pictured everyone tripping and falling and the headline news of the Welcome Mat saying, “New pastor ousted after mass shoe un-tying incident.” So what was a guy to do? I don’t know but I can tell you what I did. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled under that table myself and tied back every one those shoes. We need the saints to be laced up, running the race, carrying on the faith. The Hebrew writer encourages, “Don’t be deterred! Every obstacle – get rid of it. Every weight, shed it. Everything that holds you back – cut it off… every sin – repent of it and leave it behind.” Sounds easy enough, right? But then you leave this sanctuary and you have to deal with your Ex again, and your mortgage payment is overdue, you still need surgery on your knee but you’re fighting through the pain because the insurance coverage is bad and “Diet starts Monday” so you gorge yourself one more time because you know this will be the last time you ever eat real food. Even the Apostle Paul, as disciplined as he had to be to undergo his life reversal and fight the good fight, run the good, hard, uphill race of faith said, “I don’t get myself. I have every intention to keep the faith and press forward the cause. I know what is right and necessary to do this… yet I do the very thing that hinders my progress. I get stuck on that. I’m so messed up some times that I can’t do the very thing I know I need to do.” Isn’t that so frustrating?
Writer and film director, Henri Mazza, wrote a piece about this very thing through the lens of his own experience entitled, “Pulling Myself Together.” He starts in saying, “I’d like to have a cigarette tonight. Just one. Ten minutes of satisfaction, of letting my guard down, of doing whatever the heck I want to do at any particular moment. A cigarette tonight, a beer right now, and maybe I won’t go jogging tomorrow. Shouldn’t be that big a crisis, right? Except I quit smoking a month ago. For the second time in a year. And I really don’t feel like quitting smoking all over again tomorrow. And if I let myself become a regular smoker again, I won’t really enjoy any of the cigarettes I smoke. Very soon after that, I’ll start feeling miserable… because doing what I want to do makes me miserable. But not doing the things I want to do takes so much effort.”
Do you feel this pain? The flesh is weak isn’t it? That’s why the Hebrew writer throws out the word, “Perseverance.” Just gonna leave that little word right there. Perseverance. Not a word any of us relish in the moment persevering – maybe on the end of a difficulty we pressed through, persevered through… but not when we’re in the middle of the hard stuff. It’s easy to become cynical. It’s easy to look back at the Hall of Faith in scripture, and even this church, and say, “Yeah, but…” They worked hard… the fought for the right things… they stood tall when it was easier to fall back… they kept running even when their lungs were burning and their legs were buckling… but they don’t know what I carry. They didn’t have to deal with what I deal with.” And after a while, we convince ourselves that the work is not ours to do. Someone else can be a deacon. Someone else can teach junior high Sunday school. Someone else can tithe of their income to support the ministry. Someone else can call on the elderly, visit those in the hospital, or greet people coming to worship. And so we cut our giving. We drop out of that study. We skip worship. We may even think, “It only affects me. My running of the race doesn’t affect anyone else.” And so we untie our faith shoes and leave them unoccupied thinking it doesn’t really matter that we keep in the race, running with perseverance. If we all do this, we only end up with a pile of idle shoes.
This happens at my home sometimes. We have a nice little system of where everyone is to leave their shoes when we come in the house. There are five of us in the family, that’s ten shoes employed at any given time and when you account for cleats, boots, dress shoes, tennis shoes, sandals, running shoes, everyday shoes, mowing shoes, and so on, the shelving system is really a necessity. When we’re all doing our part, we keep the order and keep the line of our family life moving. But when we get tired and grumpy or lazy and just kick off our shoes in front of the door, we end up with this huge pile of idle shoes. It’s not only a tripping hazard but one can easily get sucked into it like a black hole when you’re trying to find the matching partner to the particular shoe you need for the next occasion. And do you know what I’ve found? It usually only takes one. It only takes me kicking off my shoes at the end of the day following a long meeting in a pile in front of the shelving unit to set it all off. Then it’s Hayes. He sees my shoes and boom… he adds his to the pile I’ve started. Then Carrie and Morgan and Dane… and before you know it, black hole. This is what happens when we start falling out of the race… when we don’t carry the baton. We start a trend… we lose sight of the prize. We untie our shoes and step out of the race. What the Hebrew writer knows is that the movement of faith, the kingdom of God, can’t afford to have us do that. If all of those saints before us… those that make the great cloud of witnesses… made that same choice, we would have no faith today. We need the courage that perseverance requires. We need the energy of one another in this sanctuary to say, “I’ll lace ‘em up again… today… for God… for Christ Jesus… for you.” Perseverance isn’t something we just ask others to take on. We’re a part of it. If not us, then who?
We have a rose on the table today – representing new life – a gift to the Barnard family… to our church family… to the world. Annie Kay Barnard – named after the saints in her life. She’ll grow up in this place looking at the names on these pillars, marveling at the stories from the cloud of witnesses. She will follow the witness of Jesus Christ that she sees in you too. Will we persevere for her? I had another friend who welcomed a baby into his family this week. He lives in London – had a baby girl on All Saint’s Day – her name is Freya Jacqueline Doreen Whitaker – a whole-lotta-beautiful-name. There’s this great picture of her dad, Nathan, leaving the hospital… carrying all the stuff with his little girl in hand and I just couldn’t help but think: “Here they go… into the world… into the race of life… knowing well all the joy and pain and success and struggle that is ahead to be persevered.” But I prayed… and I reaffirmed my own commitment to lace ‘em up again… run the race, make the pledge, set the example, serve the call of Christ in whatever way I must to ensure that Annie Kay Barnard, Freya Jacqueline Doreen Whitaker, and my own children, and you – saints old, young, and everyone in between – might stay the course of faith—knowing the reward discovered most fully by the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ, might also be a reward we would come to know in the here and now… and in the moment the cloud of saints makes space for us.
I’m grateful for the cloud of witnesses the Hebrew writer lifts – the Hall of Faith! I’m thankful for the names on these pillars today. I’m thankful for my grandfather who kept his shoes laced up for whatever the moment required. I’m thankful for you – who make a pledge today, who say “I’m in all over again,” who persevere even when it would be way easier to step down, step out, add your shoes to a growing, idle pile. Thank you for what you are yet to do for all the saints finding their way into the world. Someday, they will tell these stories of faithful perseverance, they will talk about how you laced ‘em up again and again even when it was hard, they’ll write your name on a little post-it note and stick it to a pillar of some sanctuary somewhere, where the saints of that time are carrying on the faith of Christ. May it be so…
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