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?
It's been a big couple of weeks in the movement of marriage equality in the United States. These are the times we're living in:
As a person who believes in the right of all people to marry whomever they choose, I'm excited about all of this progress. I want to tell you why.
Growing up in the Southern Baptist Church in Tennessee-- the leadership of the church was ALL about the men.
Men are told to be the spiritual leaders of the home.
Never do you see a woman taking up the offering or being asked to lead the closing prayer or even teaching under the block of the service called "the sermon."
But what happens when you grow up and feel called to do exactly the opposite?
What if people tell you as a teenager, "Well, if you were a young man, I'd tell you to be a preacher."
What if you ARE a leader, a proclaimer, and someone who wants to discern life in conversation with your partner?
What then? I guess there are many different paths but for many it looks like this:
You must leave your "home church" and the approval of the sweet little old women who gave you peppermints from their purse every Sunday.
You must leave your "favorite" status at family gatherings when everybody talks about what they do.
Yet, you learn to sing as clearly as you ever had in your life: "I have decided to follow Jesus. No one goes with me I still will follow. No turning back. No turning back."
While it sounds fun and revolutionary maybe-- from the outside looking it-- to actually do it can be one of the hardest things you ever do in your young adult life.
It was for me.
It takes more courage than you ever thought you had. And most of all, it takes sticking closer to the message of Jesus "to love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself" more than you thought was possible.
But you do it, no matter what. You do it because you know you have to. You chose to save your own soul because in the end, it's all you can really save anyway!
Brene Brown writes this about such a process in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: “Choosing authenticity is not an easy choice. Staying real is one of the most courageous battles that we’ll ever fight.”
So, though I have never voiced, "I am gay" I have had to say: "I am no less than because I am a woman."
In this small way, I know what rejection feels like. I know what Bible verses shoved in your face feels like. I know how costly choosing the real you can be.
But, you know what made it better? Community. New friends and colleagues saying more "You can" vs. "You can't." New denominational homes like this one and this one too. And a seminary that warningly embraces you and your call to preach too.
And in return, I want to include. I want to advocate for voices that get shoved to the margins. I want to also look people in the eye when it comes to marriage and say, "Yes, you can. I will marry you."
So here I stand waving my marriage equality flag for all that is and is to come! Both for the movement of women in leadership in the church and inclusion of all our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We're all God's children after all.
On Monday, November 4th, I celebrated the 7th anniversary of my ordination.
Seven years ago this week, I stood at the front of a church-- Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC and said to the congregation gathered of family, friends and congregation members that I would serve God in my vocational pursuits. I said I would set aside personal interests for the sake of the community of Christ. I said I would seek to embody, teach and share the gospel with my life. I said I would do all of this for as long as I lived.
After the service, we gathered in the church social hall and ate sausage balls and cheese dip among my other favorite snacks made by my future mother-in-law. There was a cake with a picture of me preaching with a huge, "Congratulations, Pastor Evans!" on it.
A big day all around.
The night before the service, I sat upright the in bed lounging with my closest girlfriends who came into town for the celebration (Baptist ordained pastors as well) trying not to be so anxious.
Over a bag of chips on top of the brand new white comforter I finally had the money to buy in my first post-seminary job, I recounted to them my deepest fear about the hours to come.
It wasn't about the music going awry.
It wasn't about the having to kneel for so long at the front of the church without my legs falling asleep as people prayed prayers of blessing over me.
It wasn't whether or not I'd be able to pray the benediction as I'd planned to say without being too emotional.
No, it was a cry of: "I don't want my life to be over."
I was having pre-ordination jitters; the kind where I really knew that this moment in my life was a really big deal.
And even as my pastoral support girlfriend team sought to calm me down saying that my life wasn't really over. They said things like, "You'll still have fun. . . We'll make sure of that. Being ordained doesn't make you any less human." There was part of me that felt the weight of the shift.
It was like I was getting married to God. I had one last night of freedom.
I ate more chips.
And though I had done everything I could to finally make it to this day-- the improbable feet as a Baptist woman in ministry getting a Reverend in front of her name-- when I stood in front of the altar on November 4, 2006, the relationship of God and I being in an more intense partnership was never exactly what I envisioned it to be.
This would be no easy marriage.
Though I'd grown up with a pastor for a father and knew all the social expectations that came with the title, to be the Rev myself was entirely new. Because all of the sudden the expectations didn't just come with my family name but it was what I'd chosen.
I'd chosen to be the one who would be asked to publicly pray more than the norm.
I'd chosen to be the one who would be asked to stand the gravesides of the grieving, the bedsides of the sick and on the doorsteps of the bewildered seekers.
I'd chosen to be "on call" 24-7 when pastoral emergencies arose in a congregation.
I'd chosen that when the day came that I was legally married to a man that he'd be the kind of man that also supported the marriage I'd been pursuing long before we'd ever met.
But as is with most marriages, as it was with my ordination, it was not a one-sided deal.
God long before had chosen me.
Not that I was more special or "called" than others with different kinds of work, but that this was my path to walk with God.
And in many ways my "fear" was indeed right on-- my life as it was before 11/4/06 was over.
In this new relationship that God and I would share together, greater discipline and sensitivity to the Spirit would be required.
No longer could I ever assume that my faith was for my own edification alone, but was for the blessing of my community.
No longer could I act as though I didn't need community, for as much as they needed me, I needed them.
No long could I live in such a way that forgot the day that God and I got married-- for if their ever came a time when I felt like a new vocational path was given to me-- I'd need to release this marriage in a public way just as it was given to me.
Being married is a long-term commitment.
Seven years ago it all began. Together God and I are still on this journey.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series coming soon . . . Seven years later.