Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Persevere in Your Faith and Look Out for One Another” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
August 18, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As we begin another school year this month I came across an article last week about one of the top selling back-to-school items this fall: bullet proof backpacks—yes, you heard that correctly. Sales of bullet proof backpacks for kids are soaring. What is wrong with this picture? Now more than ever, we need to persevere in our faith in Jesus and we need to look out for one another. I am going to begin by juxtaposing two illustrations: one from music and one from sports.
Fifty years ago, 1969, was a great year for music—albums including The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds, and The Who’s Tommy —were all released in 1969. And there were many amazing singles also released in 1969, including, a song by the Hollies often labeled as a Hippie classic but a song that is much more than that, a beautiful gospel song about persevering and looking out for one another. Many of you will recognize these lyrics:
The road is long with many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where, who knows where
But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
So on we go
His welfare is my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know he would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
It’s a long, long road from which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share?
And the load doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy he’s my brother
That is a gospel saturated song about persevering and looking out for one another. By the way, Elton John played piano on that song—and speaking of pianos, the piano played by Elton John on his classic song “Levon”, the piano played by Paul McCartney on the Beatles’ iconic “Hey Jude”, and the piano played on Queen’s masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the very same piano—how cool is that?
Now for the sports illustration…last week there was a triathlon in Tokyo, a qualifying event for next year’s Summer Olympics there. Crossing the finish line ahead of everyone else were two British triathletes, Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown, who held their joined hands aloft in joy as they crossed the finish line together. But their joy was short-lived as the ruling governing body, the International Triathlon Union, disqualified both Jess and Georgia because they had joined their hands together as they crossed the finish line thus tying and not allowing for a clear winner. In other words, they were penalized for looking out for one another instead of trying to defeat one another. Time will tell whether Jess and Georgia, who have spent years training for the Tokyo Olympics, will still represent Great Britain next year.
We live in a world that values looking out for number one, a world in which looking out for others, holding hands with someone else as you cross the finish line in order to share the victory with them is deemed silly, and may disqualify you from the Olympics, a world where as legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi famously put it, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
This sounds accurate and motivating in our win-at-all-costs culture. And yet there is a dark underbelly of stress and anxiety caused by this way of thinking—as Bruce Springsteen put it, “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line” (from “Atlantic City” on his 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town). We live in a culture that places a pathological emphasis on winning, on defeating others, which has absolutely nothing to do with the gospel. Rather, the gospel is about looking out for others, not defeating them.
In today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews the writer compares the Christian faith with running a race:
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 unto 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 (Hebrew 12:1-2).
The emphasis in this passage is on persevering and helping out one another. It is not a “let me…let me” passage, but rather a “let us…let us” passage.
The passage starts with “therefore” and as a seminary professor taught me many years ago, whenever you come across a “therefore” in scripture, you need to see what it’s “there for.” This passage begins, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” Prior to this verse the writer set forth a litany of people from scripture who had already run their race of faith—and had persevered even when it was really difficult, persevered even when it involved suffering, persevered even when it cost them their lives. This “cloud of witnesses” included many Old Testament figures like Samuel, David, and Rahab.
This “cloud of witnesses” also included contemporaries of the Early Church, many of whom as the Letter to the Hebrews was written were undergoing severe and even mortal persecution in the Roman Empire, where if you proclaimed your allegiance to any ruler besides the Roman emperor with statements like “Jesus is Lord”, you immediately became vulnerable to persecution, as the writer put it:
(They) were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:35-38).
Everyone in this “great cloud of witnesses” persevered in their faith and everyone in this “great cloud of witnesses” looked out for one another.
And what was true then is true now. Not only are you surrounded by the “cloud of witnesses” from the Old Testament and the Early Church, you are surrounded by the “cloud of witnesses” of the last two thousand years, countless Christians who persevered in their race of faith. You are not alone. Look around you today—you don’t have to if you are an extreme introvert—you are not the only one here this morning running the race of faith. Every one of you is part of this same “cloud of witnesses,” part of what we refer to in The Apostles’ Creed as “the communion of saints” and in The Nicene Creed as the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
Back in the summer of 2006 I took my son Paul to see the animated Pixar film Cars. While I was just intending to enjoy a movie with my then seven year old son, I was surprisingly moved by the end of this film, which is replete with the gospel and connects directly to today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews. As you would expect, this film culminates with a race, the Piston Cup at the Los Angeles International Speedway, featuring Lightening McQueen (a red car number 95, played by Owen Wilson), the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, aka the King (a green car, number 86, played by Paul Newman, his last film role), and Chick Hicks (a blue car, number 43, played by Michael Keaton).
Chick Hicks has bought into the “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” mindset and is determined to win at any cost. He yells at the King, “I’m not coming in behind you again, old man!” and he knocks the King off the racetrack, causing him to roll multiple times until he comes to a smashed and steaming stop. As Lightening McQueen approaches the finish line, his victory sure, he glances up and sees on the telescreen his hero, the King, wrecked and alone.
Then Lightening McQueen does something no one expected. As he approaches the waving checkered flag, he screeches to a halt just before the finish line. The crowd falls silent. Meanwhile Chick Hicks blows past him to win the race, yelling, “Yeah! Woohoo! Alright baby! Yeah!” Then Lightening McQueen goes in reverse and backs all the way over to the wrecked and alone King, who asks, “What are you doing, kid?” “I think the King should finish his last race,” Lightening McQueen replies, as he begins gently pushing his idol toward the finish line. The King is stunned, “You just gave up the Piston Cup. You know that?” Lightening McQueen smiles, “This grumpy old racecar I know once told me something…It’s just an empty cup.” Then he helped the King cross the finish line.
That is what it looks like to persevere and to look out for one another. That is the antidote to the destructive effects of “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” That is the antidote to the stress and anxiety caused by “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” And what is our focus? The writer continues, “looking unto 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.”
That is exactly what happened on Good Friday, when Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”—who scripture identifies as “the one who began a good work among you (and) will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6) endured the cross for you. Jesus joined hands with a world that was not worthy of him in order to help that same world across the finish line, even if that meant he would be considered a loser on the “wrong side of that line.” Jesus refused to cross the finish line until gently helping those who were alone and wrecked to do so.
Jesus walked the road that is long “with many a winding turn” all the way to Calvary. And even now the Risen Jesus walks with you through your life “with many a winding turn” because your welfare has always been his concern. Jesus has never seen you as an opponent to defeat but as a brother or sister to help. This is good news in a world where people buy bullet proof backpacks for their kids.
Later in the Letter to the Hebrews the writer tells us how to respond to the gospel with another “therefore”: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:12-13).
So as we begin this school year together, forget the International Triathlon Union, forget the empty cup. Instead, persevere in your faith and look out for one another.
And may the Holy Spirit replace any sadness with “the gladness of love for one another.”