Sunday, August 14, 2016

Faithfulness, Everywhere, Under ALL Conditions - Sermon, August 14, 2016

Community UMC, Quincy
“What Faithful Living Looks Like: Faithfulness, Everywhere, Under ALL Conditions”
Pastor Andrew Davis
August 14, 2016
Hebrews 11: 29-12: 3

How many of you have been watching the Olympics this last week?  Every two years, I can never get enough of the Olympics, as I find myself glued to the TV or watching online on my iPad, whether it’s the Winter or Summer Games.  With the summer games happening in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil right now, I’ve been watching the diving, swimming, gymnastics and basketball whenever I can, but I’ll also watch some of the other events as well, such as track and field, sailing, or archery.  Although I do tend to watch the Winter Games a little more, regardless of which Olympic Games are being held each even numbered year, I am always amazed at the agility and dedication of the athletes who spend countless hours training, making sacrifices in order to devote their life to the sport they love, and even the sacrifices their families have had to make in order to help them achieve their dream of qualifying, entering that stadium behind their country’s flag bearer, then hopefully, standing on the platform with a gold medal around their neck as their national anthem plays and country’s flag is raised. 
Similar to what we have just heard from our reading from Hebrews, the dedication of these athletes says a lot about faith and endurance, especially when some of these athletes have had to overcome extraordinary odds to get to the Olympics in the first place.  I don’t know if you remember the 1992 Disney movie, “Cool Runnings” which is loosely based on the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team, but I think about everything the team went through, particularly red tape and not training in snow or cold weather before making their debut at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.  Or, I think about American swimmer Michael Phelps and his story of turning to God after enduring a great many personal difficulties since the first time we saw him in in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.  I reflect on the stories of divers David Boudia and Steele Johnson sharing their story of faith and how both endured personal struggles, including a near death experience in their respective lives.  Or I think of Yusra Mardini, the 18-year old Syrian swimmer who swam for over three hours to push a boat of 20 people to safety while escaping war, a strong test of endurance in a dangerous situation.[i]  Or Simone Biles who had a tough life growing up before being adopted and going on to win gold medals in gymnastics this week.  Regardless of the backstories that we get in quite heavy doses from NBC’s coverage, each of these athletes participating in the Olympics have endured in their respective disciplines by showing faithfulness to their sports everywhere, under ALL conditions. 
Like the athletes competing in the Olympics right now, with many of them considered heroes in some of their countries, our text from Hebrews shows examples of faithfulness to God under all conditions.  Our lesson from Hebrews reads a lot like a tale of the heroes of our faith, particularly in verses 29-38, which is like a broad stroke of a paintbrush of characters who have lived faithfully under various conditions.  In our exploration of Hebrews 11: 8-16 last week, we read about how Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac lived faithfully without seeing God while continually seeking the unseen.  This week, the author of Hebrews covers even more ground from the Hebrew Bible, starting with Exodus while also flying through Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel.  But when the author of Hebrews gets into chapter 12, we arrive at Jesus and his ultimate example of faithful living in this broad story of what faithful living looks like.  But the overall theme is that none of these people had it easy.  All of them had different conditions and hardships to face.  While some of these stories ultimately ended in victory, some of them also resulted in death. 
So what does it mean to show faithfulness everywhere, under ALL conditions?  As we just heard in our lesson from Hebrews, it ultimately comes down to the phrase “by faith” and “through faith,” as we hear these words several different times in this passage.  Yet when we get to verses 36-38, the story becomes quite morbid, kind of almost like reading Fox’s Book of Martyrs which was a required reading during the second semester of church history.  Yet, each person highlighted in these stories of the Hebrew Bible showed faithfulness everywhere under all conditions, whether the story ended in victory or death.  The Israelites crossed the dry land to escape Egypt by faith.  Joshua crumbled the walls of Jericho by faith.  Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and ultimately Jesus ALL stayed steadfast to their faith under ALL conditions, regardless of the outcome.  However, like last week when Abraham and Sarah died before God’s promises were realized, the author of Hebrews says that all of these people whose story ended in death, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (Heb. 11: 49-40, NRSV).  And even if we don’t get to see God’s promises revealed or become perfect, we “gotta have faith-a, faith-a, faith, we gotta have faith-a, faith, a-faith.”
Faith is definitely something that can sustain us, even when it means having to endure hardships and adverse conditions such as the people mentioned in the stories of the Hebrew Bible.  Even Jesus had to go through betrayal, torture, and suffering upon that cross!!  Taylor Burton-Edwards and Dawn Chesser at Discipleship Ministries describe the long and short of faithfulness under ALL conditions by explaining that 
people of faith are not exempt from suffering in this world.  Followers of Jesus Christ are subject to persecution, oppression, destitution, and torment like every other human being. Following Jesus does not protect us from worldly harm. In fact, it does the opposite of that. Following Jesus calls us to risk our own security in order to stand with those who suffer persecution, oppression, destitution, and torment.[ii]

        Just like some of the Olympic athletes who have had to endure hardships in life to get to where they are, we as people of faith and followers of Christ will no doubt face adverse conditions at one time or another.  It’s something that’s inevitable in our earthly lives.  But in matters of faithfulness, the adverse conditions and challenges to our faith that we could face could range from a health diagnosis for us or a family member, a change in jobs or being laid off, an economic hardship, an accident, a broken relationship, a natural disaster, or something else.  While it is easier to question our faith in these situations, situations like these is when we need to cling to our faith through the difficult spots, just as the various characters of the stories in the Hebrew Bible did.  Sometimes, our faith may be all that we have even when the road is rough. 
        In looking back at some of the rough roads I have experienced in my own journey, I think one of the most difficult times for all of us was the Great Recession starting about eight years ago, and something that we still feel the effects of today, especially in our small towns and rural areas here in Northern California.  While I managed to keep my job at Raley’s during the recession, it was not a pleasant time to say the least.  You could definitely feel the tension and anxiety in the air. Many of us were being asked to take on twice the amount of work, basically being able to do two people’s jobs at once, schedules were always in flux, hours were cut to the bare minimum, and many of us were not sure we would still be employed at the end of the day or not.  It caused a lot of stress for everyone, from management on down.  But looking back and reflecting on that time, I also found it to be a great lesson in showing faithfulness in ALL conditions and enduring the hardships.  While I would get very annoyed at times with hearing people from church, school, or customers say “but you have a job!” whenever I would start complaining about the difficulties at work, it became a lesson of “letting go and letting God,” trusting in God and God’s promises of a better day. 
Besides the constant reminders of still having a job and still working while others weren’t, trusting God became a mantra instead.  Trusting God and showing faithfulness through the difficulties did not make all troubles go away and it definitely won’t make any present day problems go away, but it does make them more manageable and will help us endure in the long run
During the recession, there were times that I wasn’t sure if I would make my car payment, make my bills, or rent.  But somehow, I still made ends meet even if it was tight.  However, it also meant relying on what I readily had and not worrying about what I didn’t have.  I just had to remind myself and be reminded by others to stay faithful and trust God, that this was only temporary, and that things would work out in the long-run.  Enduring these difficult times through faith was probably the only way I made it through the recession, especially when it came to resisting the temptation to drive into the river, even if it took a long time to see a new life that was possible. 
        Like the experience with the recession and learning to be grateful for what I had and endure a highly stressful time in life, all of us have a lot to endure and many different conditions that will try to shake our faith to the core at different times in our lives.  Like we talked about last week, we believe in God and we seek God, even though we can’t see God.  And while we have faith in what we do not see, we still persist and endure just like these athletes in the Olympics and the various characters in the stories of the Bible.  I remember during those difficult days of the recession, the security guard at the bank inside the store I worked at and I would often have some interesting conversations, sometimes quite animated.  While he and I had different convictions and ideas about how the world should be, I told him that my faith would get me through and held onto hope, even though he asked if faith could put food on the table and claimed that hope was nothing more than a fantasy.  Well, when we do work together as people of faith, helping each other endure some of the hardships that life throws at us, yes faith can help put food on the table or a roof over our heads!!  Showing faithfulness in all conditions does require each other's support and that special connection with each other as people of faith, so that we can then encourage each other on and help each other out when the need arises. 
As we as a people of faith show faithfulness under all conditions and how faith can sustain us, it is necessary to look back to where we have been in order to look forward to where we can go in faithful living.  The Message translation of Hebrews 12: 1-3 may say it best when it says,
Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

        In order to sustain our faithfulness through all conditions, we need those veterans and pioneers of faith with us that we heard about in the earlier stories of the Bible.  We need those who built our foundation of faith in both our family and our church family.  But we also need each other and to keep our eyes towards Jesus.  It’s like the Olympic motto, “citius, altius, fortius/faster, higher, stronger,” as we continue along our journey of faith.  At the same time, we also need to cheer those on who are new to the faith and be encouragers too, as we are all in this race together.  We need to show that we can help others out when we accompany our faith with works of love and put our faith into action. 
Earlier this week, I spent some time in our heritage room and came across the scrapbook that covered the Christmas Eve fire of 1984.  I also learned that there have been other fires in this church in 1927 and 1928.  But I also read some of the history of our church in the “Gold Book.” It was “by faith” and through the faith of the people who began gathering here in Quincy in 1858 and those who came after that have helped bring our congregation to where we are today.  Those who established this faith community no doubt faced hardships and challenges, but if it wasn’t for remaining faithful to God and trusting God through all of the challenges that Quincy has faced through the years, we would likely not be gathered here this morning.  It’s like the bridge of the contemporary song, “Shout to the North,” which says “we’ve been through fire, we’ve been through rain, we’ve been refined by the power of his name.  We’ve fallen deeper in love with you.  You’ve burned the truth on our lips.”
As I also explored some of the church pictorial directories from the past, seeing the many who have been a part of this church, and you who are still a part of this church today also shows how we have lived by faith and through faith, showing faithfulness under all conditions. 
So why do we need to look back in our life of faith and at stories from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament?  Professor Brian Whitfield at Mercer University explains that
the writer of Hebrews is [helping] us look at our family snapshots in the gallery of faith [in chapter 11]: Remember those who crossed over the Red Sea. Remember Rahab, who welcomed the scouts. Remember those who marched around Jericho. Remember Sampson and Daniel, who shut the mouths of lions. Remember those who won strength out of weakness like Gideon and Esther. Remember those who were tortured, mocked, scourged, and tormented.
Why should we look at this photo album of faith and faithfulness? Because in looking, we learn who we are. We learn that we are not alone and that we are part of a family with particular traits and characteristics.[iii]
Faith is what binds these traits and characteristics together.  It was by faith that this church was built and has endured under all conditions, from snowfall, to rain, to fire, drought, and even through economic hardships that still even linger into today with our small business climate being stagnant.  All of these people in the Bible, the people in our own history, and all of us today have shown and need to continue to show what faithful living looks like when demonstrating faithfulness everywhere, under all conditions.  Even our Olympic athletes have also shown us what it means to be faithful under all conditions, whether it is conditions in their own lives, or conditions in Rio that pose a challenge. 
        As we embark on a new week and reflect on faithfulness everywhere, under ALL conditions, I invite you to reflect on these questions this week so that we can find ways to put these words into action:
             Where are times in our own life that was a test, but still endured through faith? 
             How does your faith sustain you in everyday life? 
             What are ways we can encourage others in faithful living and discipleship under all conditions? 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

[i] Saul, Heather. ‘Yusra Mardini: Olympic Syrian Refugee Who Swam for Three Hours in Sea to Push Sinking Boat Carrying 20 to Safety’. The Independent - People(Independent), August 5, 2016.
[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘Lectionary Calendar’. 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016.
[iii] Lose, David. ‘Commentary on Hebrews 11: 29-12: 2 by Bryan J. Whitfield’. August 15, 2010. Accessed August 11, 2016.

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