Today marks the last week of our Stewardship season. We’ve looked back with gratitude, we’ve considered the gifts we have received from God and the gifts we have to offer one another, and today we’re looking forward. So we’re back in the Letter to the Hebrews, and the passage we’re about to hear directly follows the passage we heard two weeks ago: which reminded us that by faith, our ancestors and predecessors did wondrous and amazing and impossible things.

Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, 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.

Any time someone in the New Testament starts a sentence with ‘Therefore…’, it’s a clue for us – a flashing neon sign that says ‘PAY ATTENTION TO THIS!’

‘Therefore’ signals a ‘so what’ statement. It’s an entry point into a new journey, a new way of life, a new living. ‘This is true, therefore…’

We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses; therefore, we must lay aside all the things that weigh us down and the sins that stick to us like cockleburs, and run the race set before us. We must persevere, and when we’re faltering, we must look to Jesus – who wrote a new ending for our story in his life, death, and resurrection.

We’ve already talked about our great cloud of witnesses—those who’ve come before us who showed us the ways of Jesus. We’ve talked about the gifts and tools that God has given us so that we can walk the same path.

So the questions for today are different: what race are we running? Where are we going? Are we there yet? 

God calls us to run the race set before us.

Theodore Roosevelt said that ‘comparison is the thief of joy.’ It’s often tempting to compare our church building, our structure, our worship to the church down the road, or the preacher on TV, or the big new buildings we see on the highway.  And while sometimes it’s helpful to look for new ideas outside of our own community, we also have to remember that we may not be called to be exactly the same as our neighbors. Just as individuals have different gifts, so a church family made up of individuals will have different gifts, and a slightly different call. And even as those individuals shift within a congregation, a congregation’s gifts and the ways we live into God’s call might change.

The question we ought to be asking isn’t ‘how can we do what they’re doing,’ but ‘are we running the race God has set before us?’

In this way, Love Grows Here – our tagline and de facto mission statement – becomes not just a statement of fact, but a prayer. May love grow here. May our love for you, O God, grow. May our love for your creation grow. May our love for one another grow.

But we know full well that this sort of love—this sort of church family—doesn’t just drop out of thin air. It’s cultivated, nurtured, and taught. So as we wonder how we can cultivate that love, we also have to ask where we’re going. After all, we can’t really just start running in random directions and call it a ‘race.’ That’s not a race, that’s a head injury waiting to happen.

The simple answer is: we are running the race of love. Jesus’ love, to be more specific. This is how we run in the direction of the Kingdom of God.

The Bible offers us many visions of what God’s kingdom looks like—Isaiah talks about the peaceful kingdom, where lions and lambs snuggle up together, and a young child leads a group of cows and bears, adorable baby goats and fierce leopards, fatted calves and full-grown wolves.

Isaiah also talks about a moment in which we all lay down our weapons, and they’re turned into tools for cultivation – swords become plows and daggers become trowels—and peoples from all over the world gather together to learn the word of the Lord, and go home again to live it.

Revelation talks about a new heaven and a new earth, a city decorated in gold and jewels, where God will wipe every tear from every eye, and there will be no more death, no more pain, no more crying.

Are we sensing a theme here? The kingdom of God is a place of eternal life, of community, of embracing strangers, of learning and rejoicing and praising God together. It’s the place where faith turns to sight, and prayer turns to praise.

Are we there yet? Unfortunately, no.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t see the signposts. Every time we catch a little glimpse of the kingdom and move towards it, we take one step closer to that life.

The writer of Hebrews also reminds us that alongside the kingdom of life, there is also its opposite, enticing us to stay right where we are. There are worries and failures and temptations that would love for us to just remain, contentedly, in the world of chaos.

But it’s okay to set down the things that make it harder to run our race: our pride, our lone-ranger instincts, our tendency to take the easy way out, our desire to accumulate stuff or wealth.

I also love that the writer includes ‘run the race with perseverance.’ A lifetime of following Jesus is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself. Allow yourself to be a beginner, over and over and over again. (Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message biblical paraphrase, often called this journey “a long obedience in the same direction.”)

Y’all might have figured out already that ministry isn’t always glamorous. Sometimes, it’s cutting out stars for a kids’ craft project. Sometimes, it’s cooking dinner and winding up covered in little bits of cheesecake or soup or gravy. Sometimes, it’s cleaning bathrooms. Sometimes, it’s crying with someone in a moment of crisis.

But this is the race set before us: to love God and love one another, until the kingdom comes in its fullness. God, in God’s generosity, has given us this great cloud of witnesses to show us the way—and has given each of us the gifts we need to run with perseverance.

But God doesn’t leave it there. God doesn’t just throw us out into the world & say ‘good luck!’ The Holy Spirit goes with us wherever we are, and the work of the Holy Spirit always adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Remember our puzzle? Two weeks ago, we wrote on the back of our puzzle pieces the names of those who had taught us something about faith, hope, and love. Last week, we wrote our own names on the front. But there were still pieces missing.

God’s call for us as a church is wrapped up in our histories and our everyday lives, but it’s also so much more than that. God has given each of us our beloved saints, and our gifts—and when we offer them back to God, God takes who we are and what we have and uses that to create something bigger and more glorious than we could ever imagine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That is how, despite all of our differences and our frustration and our many, varied personalities, we become a church family—and that is how the kingdom of God becomes visible among us.

Therefore, remembering with joy all that God has given us, and all that God invites us to become, let us live into God’s generosity—trusting that God will take what we offer and make something beautiful. As we sing our next hymn, if you have them, I invite you to bring forward your pledge cards & time and talent cards and add them to the table filled with God’s gifts.

To our God, who is able to do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine, be all glory and honor—now, and forever. Amen.