A sermon preached to celebrate All Saints Day on Hebrews 11:29-12:2 at the Federated Church, Weatherford, OK
I shocked my family when in the 7th grade I informed them one evening after supper that I was going to try out for he girls’ basketball team. They were surprised at my declaration because I’d never shown any interest in organized sports. Nor did I have an affinity for sweating (I hated playing outside). Also I didn’t know the rules. And I could not shoot a free throw without stepping over the line.
But, somehow, someway, I made the team and with much enthusiasm sat on the bench for the Chargers wearing number #24.
Our team, though full of spirit wasn’t great at scoring. We lost more games than we won. But what we did have going for us were our fans. Basketball was a big deal and folks loved to come to even the middle school games. Our fans were loud. They were energetic. And they really wanted all of us to do our best.
I remember during one of our last regular season games at a pivotal moment—a game we had a good chance of winning, the coach called a time out. As we huddled up he told us, “Look over there at those people in the stands. Do you hear them? Do you hear what they’re saying? They believe in you. They’re cheering you on. They want you to win. They know you can. So go play your best!”
I can’t recall whether or not we won that game, but I do remember the feeling of pride my teammates and I had that day—as we looked over at the stands, we heard a crowd of folks cheering us on.
We were loved and supported. What a hope-filled memory that remains with me still to today.
Likewise, if you’ve ever had an experience like this of being reminding that a group of people have you back and were cheering you on—you’re in perfect company by time you get to Hebrews chapter 11. For it's a word of exhortation about standing strong thanks to a very large cheering section.
The letter to the Hebrews, written by Paul (or maybe not) is a complicated book. It even has some of the most complicated Greek in the New Testament so much so that when I was in seminary our professors said wait until you’re super advanced to try to translate it.
But by time we get to chapter 11 in the book, the message becomes a bit clearer. We find the popular “by faith” litany that begins with this definition of faith: “Now faith is the confidence of things hoped for, the assurance of things that we can’t see.”
And then in response, we read of character after character throughout scripture, familiar names who have been champions of the faith. Characters such as Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Moses—who all acted with courage, believing in something, in someone guiding them beyond what they could see right in front of them.
And God called their actions FAITH.
In verse 29 we’re reminded of how it was “by faith” that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea—in contract to the ignorance of the Egyptians who crossed the Red Sea and were drown.
We’re reminded in verse 31 of how an unlikely woman, Rahab, a prostitute becomes the hero of the story as Joshua and the people seek to settle into the Promise Land. She welcomes the scouts into her home, providing hospitality to strangers. Rahab acts in faith.
And then the Hebrew writer adds, “What more shall I say?” Remarking as we do when we don’t want to belabor a point: “I could go on and on but I won’t.”
Or in other words— the Hebrew writer says, I’ve shown you through examples after examples of what faith looks like when it’s embodied. Do you hear me? Are you listening?
Hebrews 12:1 says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by a 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.”
What words are these! Let me repeat them again: you are surrounded by a GREAT CLOUD of WITNESSES. Let us run our race with perseverance. Let us run the race set before us—the race Christ gave us to run.
It’s another way of saying to us readers, you’ve got a calling that’s greater than yourself. Not only because it comes from God but because it’s connected to all the saints of the church.
Maybe this is why 10 years ago on Thursday, November 4th, the day I was ordained to the ministry, I selected this passage to be the text for my ordination sermon.
There was fear in my bones that day. I was about to commit my whole life to vocational ministry. I knew from that day forward when people met me and found out there was a “Rev” in front of my name they’d think differently of me. I’d have to be ready to ask a thousand questions about my life when anyone asked me what I did at a party. I remember confessing the night before the service to several of my fellow preacher girlfriends—who’d already walked the path of ordination with my most dramatic voice (I’m sure), “I fear my life is over’ (with a deep, deep sigh).
But, as these words were read on November 4, 2006 they told me that first of all my life was not over but the adventure was just starting.
In faith, God was going to lead me place I’d never be able to imagine if I tried to dream up.
And most of all, the calling I was saying yes to came to me “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” Both in heaven and on earth, I had a cheering section.
And this cheering section wasn’t given to me just because I was seeking ordination. Nope. It was the same cheering section given to any who would take up the calling to live a life of faith.
Today, is All Saint’s Day—a day the church universal sets aside once a year to remember those of the faith who have gone before us. It’s a celebratory time to mark the spiritual connection between the church in heaven and the church on earth.
In the Protestant churches we don’t do as good of job of celebrating this day as some of our Catholic brothers and sisters do around the world in places like Mexico where All Saint’s Day coincides with the first Day of the Dead, a colorful festival that remembers all the deceased infants.
But for many All Saint’s Day is one of their favorite occasions of the church year because it’s so easy to come up with a list of names of people who are no longer with us, but saints that we experienced among us. Without their influence on our individual lives and the life of our churches, we would not be the people and institutions that we are today.
These are people who like Hebrews 12:2 speaks of have “look[ed] to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before [them]” modeled their lives after Christ’s cross. They loved big, even when it cost them. They were willing to not just speak of their faith, but show it with actions too.
On that night before my ordination that I was fretting about the future, my never too serious seminary best friend, Abby pulled out a gift she made for me from her purse.
At first glance it looked like a stole. I got excited right away. For years, in my want to be a preacher dorkiness, I’d looked forward to the day when I could finally wear one as a full-fledge clergy person. But while it looked like a stole it was actually a long white scarf that I guess could be worn as a stole if I pretended. Yet, what was most unusual about this scarf/ stole were the faces Abby had ironed on to the both sides.
Some of the faces were beloved youth ministers or camp leaders we both knew. Some were of our favorite professors that we’d learned so much from. But then some of the faces made me laugh.
One was of the popular contemporary Christian singer from the mid-1990s called Carmen. Have you ever heard of him? (If not, you’re not missing anything). His most popular song was Mission 3:16. If you want to see what a character, then google it and you’ll get a good laugh.
Then another one of the faces that surprised me on my gift was of Bobby Welch—the Southern Baptist Convention President in 2005 who lead a bus tour coast to coast as part of his presidency with the goal of “Witness, Win and Baptize 1 million souls” in a year. Both Abby and I had happened upon a video of his preaching that horrified us but also made us laugh hysterically when he fell out with an American flag in one hand beating the stage with the flagpole saying, “Souls, Souls, Souls. We must win souls.”
My family tree of saints was indeed colorful.
I’m not sure if Abby had this larger objective in mind when she gave me this iron-on gift with some very special additions, but as I pull it out of the closet from time to time and look at it, I’m reminded of the great cloud of witnesses, the saints of the church that is pulling me forward, that’s saying “Keep running the race.”
Even the unique saints on my gift have something to offer.
And they are with us, nonetheless, telling us to not be afraid. They’re telling us, not to give up our faith. They’re telling us that the church of Jesus Christ will go on until Christ returns—even if the form it takes changes from generation to generation looks a little different. They are telling us that our church will go on.
And what a hopeful message this is for all of us today.
We are not alone. We've got a great big ole fan club. The saints are cheering us on.
My only question is: do you hear them?
If you missed this week's first saint story, click here.
Continuing with the series today, I want to introduce you to my friend Amy-- a living colleague who has walked the journey with me for almost 10 years.
It's hard to describe my journey in ministry without talking about her presence in my life.
But in 2004, from a library computer at Duke Divinity School in between my classes, I wrote Amy a blind email asking if she'd be interested in having a pastoral intern for the summer of 2005 at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC .
To surprise of us both, she said come on!
As the summer of 2005 began, I hoped that Amy would like me. I hoped she’d give me meaningful things to do.
Yet, from the first week, I realized that a redemptive experience was underway that went way beyond these some sort of "Do you like me? Check yes or no" jitters on the first day.
Amy was and is a different kind of pastor. And she was inviting me into her sisterhood.
Amy took me quite seriously. She gave me great projects to work on such as organizing the first booth at Capital Pride on my first day! But not only did I get thrown in the deep end work wise throughout the summer (which was wonderful), I became a part of her life.
I spent time with her family. I found a safe space to share my frustrations and joys of the past and present about the crazy profession I wanted more than anything. I listened to her laments and exciting moments as well. She invited me into her process of what it meant to a young pastor.
Even as Amy juggled the demands of family, three kids, and time for herself, I never felt like she didn’t have time for me, as had been the case with other pastors I knew.
I saw someone thrive who intensely pursues interpersonal relationships in the pastorate, and I recognized the goodness of this strange gift of mine once again.
As I heard Amy speak daily about the church as a community of faith, living and struggling together, my similar vision of church was deepened and affirmed as well (this community stuff actually works!).
And most of all I was encouraged by Amy’s “make your dreams come true” pursuit of life.
From that summer on, I believed that barriers such as conservative upbringings or discouraging denominations can not keep the call of God from springing forth in women like me. God has created and called me with exactly what I need to minister to the local church.
From the internship I became her colleague, and then a friend. More than a year later, Amy spoke at my ordination (which I'm celebrating my 8th anniversary today!). A year after that Kevin and I chose her to perform our wedding. And two years after that, Amy was one of the speakers at my installation when I became a senior pastor a couple of miles down the DC beltway.
Now, I'm thankful Hagan household has many reasons to visit New York because of Feed the Children's presence there, so we can continue to be a part of her life and ministry.
I thank God for living saints of the church like Amy-- not just for all she's accomplished along the way (which is a lot!) but for the gift of friendship that she so richly shares with those on her path.
Thanks for answering my email back then and all the email since . . .
Today is All Saint's Day and in worship this morning at The Federated Church, we remembered the saints. Not just those persons who had died in the last year, but any person in our life that helped us grow in faith.
At the conclusion of the sermon, each congregation member wrote the name of a saint and brought it forward and placed in on a picture of the church. It was a way to visualize: these are some of the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on!
And this is who was on my post-it: Joe Smith.
[And no it’s not code for some other name. His actual name was Joe Smith—though he hated the ordinary value such a name ascribed him, for he lived no ordinary life.]
Joe and I met over 7 years ago when I was serving my first church out of seminary in the Washington DC suburbs of Maryland.
After being personally recruited by the senior pastor to come to this multi-staff church as his associate pastor, six months later, the senior pastor announced his retirement. I was devastated and worried about my job security and the possibilities for who would be brought in to replaced my beloved boss.
And Joe Smith was the church's replacement.
From the first time I laid eyes on Joe, I knew I wouldn’t like him.
He seemed eager to take my job responsibilities away. Even worse, in our first conversations, he didn’t seem have much respect for young ministers with blonde hair. I remember going home to Kevin crying one bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t going to preach again as long as Joe Smith was my boss. He didn't not want to put me regularly on the preaching schedule.
But, as time passed, the coldness that lodged between Joe and I began to melt.
We realized that our first impressions of one another weren’t true.
We both admired in each other how hard the other one worked and how much we enjoyed being with people. He learned I wasn't a terrible preacher. This man I’d once named my enemy became my friend. (See him pictured directly across from me in the picture below)
And when the opportunity came up for me to lead my own congregation, Joe was the first person I told.
He was delighted beyond words to come and be one of the preachers at my installation service when my position became finalized.
On my first Sunday at Washington Plaza in January of 2009, I found flowers on the altar that I knew he’d arranged to be present there in support of the day. When I thanked him, he just said, "I wanted you to know that we were thinking of you."
Kind, unassuming gifts were his thing.
And as he cleaned out his library in the months that followed, I was one of the first calls he made. “Do you want to come over and take some of my favorite books?” The Bible that I just read the scripture from this morning was once his.
Joe and I were unlikely friends, but from him, I learned some of the best things I know about following in the path of Jesus.
For at his best, Joe was pure in heart. He modeled for me a life that was all about showing up, believing in God to do what only God could do, and loving people through whatever life handed them. He was a very good pastor.
And when he got sick and died quickly of cancer only a year into my solo pastorate, I got a call from his wife that he had requested that I be one of the speakers at his funeral. I was shocked, asking his wife, “Doesn’t he have some more important colleagues he wants to speak?” “No,” she said, “He wanted you.”
Funerals are for the living, not the dead, as Joe knew—and I believe his act placing me on the speaker's list was Joe’s last gift of encouragement to me. His way of saying, “I believe in you. Keep learning how to live life well too.”
Joe is a saint in my book because in his own quiet way, he used his life for the kingdom. He was the prophet of a future that was not his own, not just because he was a pastor but because he loved Jesus.
He taught me so much about how to follow Jesus too. And today, I am thankful for his memory.
Over the next week, I'm going to be naming more saints I've met along my journey. Watch for another post on Tuesday! And would love to invite other bloggers to post about your #saintstories too. If you blog about a saint send me a message and I'll be sure to tag you to this series.