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The Rev. Beth Birkholz The Rev. Beth Birkholz
The Rev. Beth Birkholz is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and is based in Atlanta, GA.

Member of:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Beth Birkholz: Surrounded by Superheroes

Hebrews 11:29--12:2

13th Sunday after Pentecost - Year C

August 14, 2016

 

I am a person who loves new things. I'm getting older, but I still love trying new things, and I hope that's something that always stays with me. Every time I try to accomplish something new, the first thing I do is read the stories of the people who have done whatever it is before I have.

Years ago, I decided that I would run a marathon. So I obsessively read books, blogs, magazines, anything I could get my hands or eyes on that would tell me exactly what it was like to run a marathon, and so that I could read stories about other moms with kids, people with disabilities, all kinds of people, who have run marathons.

I recently did my first section hike on the Appalachian Trail, so I looked up all kinds of information about it. I talked to people who had hiked it. I read a book about a man who was blind that hiked the whole thing with his dog. I wanted to hear all the stories, so that I was prepared for what it might be like. I even did this recently with Disney World. My family was going to Disney World for spring break, and my daughter and I were going to go to the parks for the first time in years. I read stories from people who had been recently, looked at their experiences, and tried to learn which rides were best to go to first, and which restaurants needed reservations. Here's my hint...all of them.

It sounds a little crazy, but I don't regret any of this. It's true that the only way to truly know what something is like is to experience it, and that's true with all of those things, but I love hearing other people's stories, especially people who have obstacles to overcome. It's really helpful to me to hear about how they persevered when it was time to stand in line for Space Mountain, or to push through miles 20 and 21 of a marathon, or how to set up camp when you're cold, tired, and hungry. I like surrounding myself with stories of people who accomplished more than I can ever dream of, so that I can take just one more step.

In the book of Hebrews, the writer of Hebrews was trying to do the same thing. He or she was trying to tell stories that would help the community of the Hebrews to accomplish their goals...in this case, to become people of faith in the midst of being persecuted.

The author is trying to be encouraging to those who are navigating territory that seems unmapped, uncharted, and very scary. People were being persecuted for their faith, and even killed, and at the same time they were trying to defend their faith and make new disciples. They are a Jewish community who is trying to find their new identity as people of grace, not people of the law, and the writer is trying to be as encouraging as he or she possibly can.

So how does he or she do this? The same way that many of us get our information and encouragement--by telling stories. They tell examples of people's stories, heroes of faith, who have gone before. Super heroes of faith. Moses, even. And Rahab! I love that she is included in this list. Her story isn't often told, but I love that the writer of Hebrews just kind of throws in the story of her great faith.

Rahab would have been an awesome comic book superhero. When Joshua the king was about to conquer Jericho, he first sent two spies to scout out the land for Israel. Well, they didn't scout out the land so much as they went straight to Rahab the prostitute's house. When the king of Jericho asked Rahab to bring out the spies, she tells a faithful lie that the spies were not there anymore, when in fact she had hidden them on her roof in stacks of grain from the harvest. After the king leaves, she goes up to talk to the spies, and she told them that she had heard of all the good things God had done for the people of Israel and that she wanted to protect them in the name of their God.

And Rahab says in faith, "The Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below."

Rahab made a deal with the Israelites that her family would be spared from the battle that was going to happen, and they were spared because the spies told her to hang a red cord outside their door and they would not be touched.

After this at some point Rahab converted to following the God of Israel, and her faith is held up as an example throughout the Bible. Rahab is also mentioned as being part of Jesus' family tree, one of only a few women to have that distinction.

I love that she is held up as an example alongside Moses. How beautiful that her courage, quick thinking, and creativity is counted to her as faith.

Rahab's story teaches us that having faith is scary sometimes, and tough, but rewarding. We are taught that we are gifted with faith, but my experience has taught me that faith is also something that comes and goes, like the Spirit. When I've been in transition times in my life, waiting to see what my next call or adventure might be, I struggle between feeling just fine in God's care and being terrified and trying to research and control everything.

But what Hebrews teaches us is that when we do this...when we engage in the tough work of faith like Rahab...we are in very good company.

We are, in fact, surrounded by these people, these super heroes, who have great faith.

My grandmother, who is named Edna, died this past January at the age of nearly 94. She was a model of steady faith for me, faith in a God who had seen her through some tough times; and when she died, she was so ready to go home that she kept asking everyone when she would wake up the next morning, "Why am I not with Jesus yet?"

At her funeral, the pastor was celebrating communion and came to the part in the Lutheran liturgy where she would usually say, "The feast with all the saints." This time she said, "With Edna, and all the saints, we celebrate the feast that has no end."

I thought of that great cloud of witnesses, these super heroes of faith, and I know that my grandma has been added to it. When we run this race of faith, we aren't alone. We are surrounded, Hebrews says, by a cloud of witnesses who have been through what we will go through, and much worse things. They surround us with their stories that we tell each other and ourselves for inspiration and hope. They surround us with our memories of them, and in some ways with their presence with us.

But even with all those things, says the writer of Hebrews, God has even better things in store for us. How do we gain even better things in our long run of faith to the finish? Even with all the cloud of witnesses around us, the writer says, what is important is that we keep our eyes on Jesus.

Because, I think, that's what faith is, really. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, and knowing that Jesus has his eye on US, all of us, even as we finish the race, even as we keep the faith, even as we are raised to new life. Amen.

 


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