Another week leading worship at the campground and each week surprises- so far in addition to amazing people I had been surprised by a dog running in when I talked about the Holy Spirit and the bingo board lighting up during my sermon. Today as I was about to read the lessons twenty more people walked in, Mennonite and Amish families camping,adding about 14 extra children to the children's message time. And we gathered round our collective news of the week and ran the race together:
As I prepared for this week, I began thinking about Luke and the fire and by Wednesday found myself wondering about life after a fire. But then Wednesday we learned about the killing of 10 medical aid workers for Mennonite Central Committee in Afghanistan. And on Thursday morning the first parish I served while in seminary located in Dillsburg, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. The cross on the belfry was struck and shattered and the pieces caught the building on fire some say. These events showed me about life after a fire but also about perseverance to continue to run the race we hear of in Hebrews this day.
Walter Elliot in his work, The Spiritual Life, claims “perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.” There’s truth in the notion that our lives are a series of beginnings when all seems bright and hopeful in our vision. I thought about that last week as we prayed for all those newlyweds. Somewhere after the beginning, amidst the blessings are those times when a painful reality bursts in, devastating times of our lives when it feels that all is stripped away. Some people believe that if you just have the right faith you will achieve prosperity and your life will be immeasurably blessed. I’m sure that some if not many of those early believers in Christianity imagined this to be true-a new and glorious day would come to fulfillment in their lifetimes. After all, throughout the Old Testament there are stories of faith that conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war and put foreign armies to flight.
But sometimes not. And sometimes not right away- those great stories of faith often are about “not right away.” Welcome to the reality check that feels like a bitter slap in Hebrews, a book that speaks of “faith” more than any other book of the New Testament- 24 times in the 11th chapter alone. I’m glad for its sting because who wants a faith that denies the gap between vision and reality here on the ground? Literally or figuratively we too know those feelings of being destitute, tormented- from emotional strain to those who this week gave their very lives to live faithfully. Times we find ourselves wondering and wandering in .places where we feel like those who live not fully seeing the promise, or worse, experiencing great pain and loss and suffering that take things away seem like they can’t be replaced. It can be overwhelming to conjure up the persistence needed amidst the shock, numbness and the dark shadows where once there was light, when we’re weighed down.
These past weeks in our prayer time and conversations many of you have shared these places in your lives and in the lives of those you love. Where we feel like we’re dying where we hear words like “inoperable,” “divorce” or “total loss.” We are flogged and torn amidst “final stages of cancer,” “hospice” “Parkinson’s. ” We can all add to this list. This was also the world of that first parish I served during seminary struck by lightning. Fire can suck the oxygen out of room. Hearing what happened took my breath away. A profound sadness settled in like the weight of all that water soaked ash. So many thoughts flooded my mind- the faces I know well; their new pastor who was just installed this past Sunday. Built in 1894, it’s a country parish still affectionately known as "Filey's Parish" though its formal name is Christ Lutheran Church, where I heard tales of when the church did not have indoor plumbing, and of the spring that runs through the basement of the house the next field over. Of generations of seminarians who have been trained there, perhaps some now part of the cloud of witnesses of the church. Where I learned important things about being a pastor, including no Easter Sunrise breakfast is complete without pickled tongue. I can reminisce how they patiently worked with me to teach me the right way to ring the bell, including how not to lose the rope up the belfry. What amusement I provided as I struggled to pull hard enough to ring without double ringing. Now that belfry is gone. But it was also the first pulpit I ever preached in with the nervous altar guild lady who plied me with water when I had bronchitis so I could get through the sermon. A place where you could tell the passage of time by the various styles of architecture in the sanctuary. The light up stained glass Jesus, and the giant cross that looked like a matchstick cross with the ends singed and the windows from the 1900’s all together, all lovingly given out of someone's vision of the promise.
I think of all of the baptisms, weddings, confirmations that filled the space where God laughed and rejoiced with them. And of the funerals where God cried with them. As lightning leveled their world, how the lectionary for this day and it's baptism of fire must sound. Could they even have the strength to be exhorted to faith much less to run?
But at their prayer vigil Thursday night, they are still teaching as they spoke of the gift and promise in the ashes-there is something about these experiences. The same thing I learned from a friend battling cancer who wrote me one day and told me her cancer was a gift. It brought clarity and brought her closer to God. When all else is stripped away, we can see what matters. That fire and cancer and all of the other trials and tribulations cannot destroy what endures- the faith and hope of the cross, the promise made sure in Christ. So it is for each of us. Still there is the promise, the reality of the cross of Christ that allows us to step out in courageous new ways. To live in the way song writer Andrew Peterson calls “dancing in the minefields.”
In a moment we’ll hear his song. I thought I would share some of the lyrics first.
We went dancin’ in the mine fields. We went sailin’ in the storms.
It’s harder than we dreamed but I believe that’s what the promise is for
Don’t give up. Don’t give up on me. Don’t give up.
So when I lose my way, find me. When I loose love’s chains, bind me.
At the end of all my faith, to the end of all my days, when I forget my name, remind me.
Cause we bear the light of the Son of Man, so there’s nothin’ left to fear.
So, I’ll walk with you in the shadow lands, ‘til the shadows disappear.
He promised not leave us and his promises are true,
So in the face of all this chaos, maybe I can dance with you.
So let’s go dancing in the minefields and kickin’ down the doors. This is harder than we dreamed but I believe that’s what the promise is for.
Someone once said, “The greatest oak was once a little nut who held its ground.” To the world around us we are a little nuts. People tell us to give up, that it’s not worth it, that our faith is a sham. The pastor of Filey’s was asked by the media if she thought the fire was an act of God against her church. We know that’s not our God talking, and that there is more to our lives than meets the eye. We’re following Christ who goes before us, who has secured the future. Our faith and perseverance come from knowing that God’s promises are sure and that God’s purposes won’t fail to be achieved even when everything or everyone around us speaks to the contrary. And we know we don’t race alone. We’re in the company of each other and that cloud of witnesses by our side, sometimes walking, sometimes running and sometimes even dancing, cheering us on in the joy and pain together, ever reminding us of God’s promise. AMEN.