I remember it like it was yesterday. I can still hear it, see it, smell it, feel it. Usually, it was on first Sundays. Well, you need to know that in traditional black churches, the first Sunday of the month is a high and holy time. It is sacred. It is formal. It is full of liturgy, ritual, precision, and tradition. It is known as “Communion Sunday.”
The communion stewards are adorned from head to toe in all white, down to the gloves on their hands and the doilies on their heads. They are sitting at attention on the first pew so as not to miss any cues in their service to the Lord; and they dare anyone to go near the altar rail and the communion table that they have so lovingly, carefully, and ceremonially prepared.
Usher Board Number 1 is on duty. These are the MVPs of ushers. Nothing gets past them. No one moves down the center aisle once the introit has begun. No one moves toward the Exits during the scripture reading, prayers, and the sermon – nope, not on first Sunday you don’t! They protect the doors with grace and fierce intentionality. And they do not move from their post until the Pastor rises to preach and invites them to retire from their feet.
The Cathedral Choir is on duty. This choir sings high church anthems, Negro spirituals, and the great hymns of the church that our grandmothers and great grandmothers taught us. None of this new-fangled stuff, you know! They are known for the difficulty and intricacies of the music, their enunciation of the words, and precision of the notes – especially the high ones!
But what I remember best about first Sundays at Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta is that at exactly 10:45 a.m., the center doors opened to the Narthex of the church. The pastor stepped in saying, “Please stand for the processional hymn, ‘We’ve Come This Far by Faith!’” Now, you would think this was just your regular run of the mill hymn singing – but I’ve come to learn that this was not that at all. As the acolytes, the pastors, the lay liturgist, the pulpit assistants, and the choir began to process into the Sanctuary – the whole church – the people and, some days, it felt like the building too – everyone began to march and sway, and march and sway, and march and sway – as if the whole purpose of the exercise was to express this “faith” they sang about with every fiber of their being. When the organ piped up, the faith oozed out.
As a child, I didn’t know that they were expressing the heartache, pain, and relief of surviving another week of life in 1980s/1990s America. I didn’t know that they were so much like the Israelites, passing through the proverbial Red Sea to leave old Pharoah behind. I didn’t know that the walls of Jericho, that Rahab, and Gideon, and Barack, and Samson, and Jephthah, and David, and Samuel, and the prophets were gathered around in the form of Mrs. Hixon, and Ms. Mitchell, and Mr. Ogletree, and Rev. Grisham, and so, so many more of whom the world was not worthy.
I didn’t know that some were wondering how they would put food on the table and gas in the cars. I didn’t know that others were wondering if they’d make it again through another week. I didn’t know that they were pressing their way through and praying their children over. I didn’t know that they were moving from discouragement to encouragement – all in the processional hymn – I just did not know.
But it was contagious. So as a small child, just like everyone else in the room, I stood up, proudly, chest out, head held high, marching and swaying, proclaiming with the gathered witnesses: “We’ve come this far by faith!”
Dr. Tom Long, in his commentary of Hebrews, teaches us that we would be well served to understand Hebrews as a sermon, and the author as a preacher. By the time the preacher gets to Hebrews 11:29, Hebrews has built to such a point that we understand the definition of faith given to us in Hebrews 11:1, “the substance or assurance of things hoped for and the evidence or conviction of things not seen.” This definition is much more than mere words. By the time we get to 11:29, we are to know that we know that we know that we know that we know that we know that faith is a lifestyle. That we don’t just believe in faith; rather, we live by and through faith. You see, faith is not merely an idealistic concept; rather, it is the reality of those who seek to survive. The preacher of Hebrews walks us through the annals of history and, thus, the annals of faith to remind us of the stuff we’re made of – of who we are and whose we are. To remind us of our strength and of the sustaining power of our faith, if we’ll just activate our faith in our own lives.
And then, the Hebrews preacher springs a plot twist on us in verses 39-40. Hear the words of the scripture again but this time from Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation of the Bible called The Message (MSG):
Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what God promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.
In other words, they were admired for their faith; but it wasn’t enough. God had something better. Preacher, what do you mean that the faith of our ancestors and heroes didn’t get them what they were promised? What do you mean that my faith may not be enough?
Well, sometimes our faith will get us almost there but not across the finish line. Sometimes, we will run out of steam right before the race is run, the exam is over, the task is completed. Sometimes, we just will not have what it takes to meet the goal. Sometimes, life will be too hard, and we will need more than our own personal faith can give us.
But here’s the good news. God did not leave us behind or without a plan. The giants of the faith did not get what they were promised so that we would all get it together. But why?
By the time we get to Hebrews 12:1, we hear the word: therefore. “Therefore” is one of my favorite words in the English language. Technically it means, “for that reason.” Biblically, “therefore” is a word of pause and a word of assurance. In this case, the “therefore” means: because something else did not happen, now this new thing, the better thing, the whole thing shall come to pass.
On the days when our faith is not enough, remember the “therefore.” Therefore, we have the great cloud of witnesses to bear this life alongside us so that our faith together gets us to Jesus, and Jesus gets us to perfect faith, which get us to joy, which gets us to the cross, which gets us to the throne of God. And when we get to the throne of God, everything that looked so impossible before fades away because my bit of faith is joined with our bits of faith, and when our faith comes together – well, that little girl who watched the transformation of the weak-worn-weary into the nothing-is-impossible-with-God saints as they marched and swayed and testified singing “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy word, he’s never failed me yet” – that little girl will grow up and she will hear those saints near when her faith may be worn out in the midst of COVID, cancer, or church messiness, gun violence, political weariness, discrimination, racism, grief, disaster, all the hard stuff of life.
It will be the faith of all, together, that provides the assurance and strength to throw off the heavy stuff, to seek a faithful and sin-resistant life, and to run the race that is before her.
So, my friend, please stop trying to do life by yourself. There will be days when your faith by itself is simply not enough. God created you to need the saints so that your faith evolves beyond just a concept you’ve read about or heard about. Our faith is incomplete without the faith of others. And what’s the point of faith that is empty and powerless?
Get some wise faith-filled friends who will point you to Jesus – the perfecter of our faith – so that when you lean in together, your faith becomes the kind of sticky faith that convicts you and encourages others to keep on keeping on.
Surround yourself with the kind of faith-filled witnesses who will tell you to lean into God’s vision, maybe even of affordable housing on Peachtree Street when everyone else says that it can’t be done.
Hang out with some saints who don’t look at you like you’re crazy when you’re having a rough day and then suddenly out of nowhere, a smile comes across your face. Because when my faith is not quite enough, I hear the great cloud of witnesses singing, “We have come this far by faith.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit we pray. Amen.