Being and Being Better
I want to tell you the story of a little church. A church which began as a new church start in a blossoming part of Fort Wayne. A church which began with a mission, but no building. A church which instead spent gathered in a business space, where they could rent a room. But there were those who believed that there could be more, who believed in the ministry that was happening, those who believed in sharing the Gospel as best they could. And a vision was shared, the vision for a new sanctuary. And money was gathered, and architchetural plans were drawn, and cornerstones were placed. And the people believed in the church. And it grew. And before long an education wing was added, and nursery school was invited to join ranks, and new rooms were needed and so another wing was added. It was the little church that could. And it did.
And then after time of steadiness, establishing rituals, naming their mission, recognizing who they were and what they wanted to become there were a few changes which rocked the boat. Pastoral changes, and demographic changes, and growing churches around them. And as other churches in the area grew, some of the little flock left. And as some of the changes happened, it wasn’t as easy to remain hopeful. And there came a time when the church faced a feeling of true loss, and when they were even asked by a pastor whether they could keep their doors opened.
But in the midst of that fear, and in the questions and doubts, there remained a remnant of people who dug their heels in and believed in the church, and believed in what it meant to follow the steps of Christ. It was these people, this cloud of witnesses, some of whose names we heard read this morning, some of whom still sit in the pews with us, who believed in digging their faith deeper, and who trusted that God would lead them out of the wilderness they felt they had been led.
It is to these sorts of people, to the believers, to the hopers, to those who remain that Paul spoke when he wrote his letter to the Hebrews. His letter was in essence this, “Keep on keeping on. And thank you for it.” When Paul wrote this letter, this letter which encouraged them to run the race set before them, he knew what they were going through. He knew what kind of ministry that had once been, and then hadn’t been, but could be again.
At that time, the second coming had been promised. The date had been predicted. And so these Christians that Paul wrote had lived their lives day by day, in anticipation of that event. And still year had followed year. The oppressive government of Caesar still ruled and had not been overthrown. Christians were still mistreated by the government and there was no let-up in sight. Congregations that followed Jesus were taunted by unbelievers who asked, “Where is your Lord that he doesn’t get busy and do something?” Or when they weren’t taunted, they were ignored, as if they did not exist. Time passed for them slowly. Some believers left the flock. There was talk of giving up. “Why keep on?” they asked.
Many of you know already, that I am a runner. I’m not fast, in fact I laboriously lumber up and down the streets or around the track. I’m not graceful, I have been known to trip and break an arm or toe. And I am here to tell you that the idea of a runner’s body being muscular is a myth in my case. Up until a month ago I had never run in a race, despite the more than twenty-two years I’ve spent running. But this year, this year, I decided things would be different, and in an effort to raise some money for the nursery school, Tonja Ashton and I loped through the streets of Fort Wayne at a healthy ten minute per mile pace for six whole miles. And as I think of that day, I remember the crowds gathered on the streets, calling our names, ringing cowbells, waving to us and offering us water, or at one eccentric place, even offering shots of beer [we didn’t partake…]. I remember the ecstasy of the last few hundred yards as we circled the Parkview stadium and ran across home plate. But just as much, just as often as I consider that day of glory, I remember more the training that got me there. I remember running five miles in the rain, and one afternoon at Foster Park at dusk when I had run for a good forty minutes straight and thought, if I take one more step I will surely pass out right here on these pretty roses. I remember mornings of lacing up my shoes and wondering why I was committing myself to this thing which seemed impossible. But all that training, all those miles, was where the race was really determined: not when we started out like a big happy parade crowded together; not even when we ran faster toward then end and saw our faces on the jumbo-tron, but in those long lonely runs in rain, on those days when I had to walk after fifteen minutes and cursed myself, on those days when I bandaged my blisters and doubted my abilities. The race was determined because of the training. The race was completed because I persevered.
This morning we celebrate All Saint’s Day, we remember all of those saints who persevered in running the race of faith. We remember people like Harvey Miller, who built the cross which stands behind us. We remember people like Phil Dunkle, who dressed as Santa Claus for countless years to make our children laugh. We remember Lowell McLaughlin who was a charter member of this church and one of its first board chairs. We remember Wallie Sterling, and Jo Condo, Bob Rich, and Brenda Kelly and many, many others. Beloved members of this body who lived lives of extraordinary ordinariness. Folks who loved their families, and loved their God, and lived out their faith in everyday life. People who persevered not just when there were smiling crowds and finish lines but long lonely cold runs with blisters on top of blisters. We remember the great cloud of witnesses who have run their race and who, in running it, cleared another path for us.
In his book, The Screwtape Letters, the writer C.S. Lewis tells us a thing or two about perseverance. The book is written as a compilation of letters from an old devil to a young apprentice devil about how to deal effectively with Christians. In one of those letters, old Screwtape has this advice: “It is so hard for these creatures called Christians to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful hopes, the quiet despair of ever overcoming the temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives—all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.” Now, I don’t buy into the idea that there is a devil training program, but I love style with which Lewis writes and the truth about Christian life that he speaks.
The testing of our faith usually comes not in those mountain-top experiences of life, those moments which are the flashbulb, still-frame images of our memory. The testing of our faith instead comes on those drab day-to-day, ho-hum, no-big-deal days. Just as the testing of our commitments to our partners don’t come in the day we stand in front of the church and take our vows, but comes in the middle of the night when we sit together with a croupy baby, or negotiate car pools, or face midlife crises. The testing of our faith comes not when our commitment to our church and its ministry involves only tangential connection, but connects us to the core of what we believe about service, and when we find our places there even when the others have abandoned it. The testing of our faith comes not when we go along with the crowd, but when we speak out in those quiet moments when we think no one is listening. It is in those thousand quiet, seemingly inconsequential moments, those miles and miles of training runs, that we commit ourselves to the great race of discipleship. That race run by the saints before us.
This week, as I’ve contemplated All-Saint’s Day, a poem by Maya Angelou has been rattling around in my head and I want to share it with you. When great souls die/ the air around us becomes; light, rare, sterile./ We breathe, briefly./ Our eyes, briefly/ see with/ a hurtful clarity. / Our memory, suddenly sharpened, / examines, / gnaws on kind words/ unsaid, promised walks never taken…/ And when great souls die,/ after a period peace blooms,/ slowly and always/ irregularly. Spaces fill/ with a kind of / soothing electric vibration. / Our senses, restored, never/ to be the same, whisper to us./ They existed. / We can be. Be and be/ better. For they existed.
I believe that this is what it means for us to continue to run the great race, surrounded by that cloud of witnesses. We can be. We can be in all our humanity, and all our messiness. We can be in all our weakness, and all our fragility. And we can be in all our striving for the good, in all our earnest desire to follow Christ. We can be and be better because we have known the saints who have gone before us, the saints who have persevered, the saints who have run this path a time or two before. We can be. And we can be better, for they existed.
If you come close to the worship table after the service you can feel the heat of all these candles. Already you can see the light they cast. Those who have gone before us in this congregation, and in our own lives, have left a legacy. And because we remember them, they live here, just as surely as they live in the realms of light beyond.
Friends, all too soon the bell will toll for us. Take this day to ponder the legacy you leave. Consider the path you want to clear for the next runner. Wonder about what you will do in those quiet moments when your faith is tested. And above all, friends, may we look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who will lead us all the way home.