Surrounded!

Meditation on Hebrews 11:29–12:2

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Aug. 14, 2022

Link to worship service with the Baptism of Ella VIctoria Bunton: https://fb.watch/eW5gFUxKh3/

My granddaughters are being raised to be strong, curious women. They ask a lot of questions. Jessie is 8 and a half going on 40.

Last weekend was the first time she and her 4 and a half year old sister, Maddie, with their parents, came to visit us here on Long Island.

    Our whirlwind weekend included visits to playgrounds, a water playground, a beach, and an aquarium. We swam, had picnics, ate soft ice cream bought from an ice cream truck and enjoyed cookouts on our back deck. We watched videos of Jessie’s gymnastic competitions, listened to Maddie sing solos of songs from Encanto. And we found a shrew in our basement. We tried to catch him with a Tupperware container. He got away.

     I miss them already.

     It’s hard to be a long-distance grandparent. We worry about their physical health and happiness; we worry about their spiritual well-being.

     We wonder if we are bearing witness to our faith to them. We are keenly aware of our own weaknesses and imperfections. We know that we don’t always live faithfully.

   Our reading today in Hebrews is all about faith; it’s a piece of a much longer teaching on the subject of faith. Chapter 11 begins with a definition, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.”  We are warned that without faith, it is impossible to please God.

    The faith that is modeled to us by people in the Bible isn’t a passive assent to believe. It’s not an intellectual exercise! The faithful answer the call to risk and act in ways that reveal their faith—their hope in what cannot be seen—in difficult times.

     I want you to notice that in this long list of faithful, we find no one who isn’t flawed, who doesn’t make mistakes. We find no one on this list who never messed up, never stumbled in their walk with God, never had doubts, never sinned.  And only one on this list isn’t a man. She’s not even an Israelite. She’s a Canaanite, an outsider—and yet so important to the continuing story of God’s people that she is listed in the family tree of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.

    I laughed as I prepared my message this week, when I realized that on the day we baptize little Ellla, the sermon about faith would lift up as our example a prostitute who ran a whorehouse on the edge of town.

     Rahab reveals an active faith that leads a person to take risks and stand up for what they believe, though it may mean that they lose their very life because of it. An interesting thing about Rahab is that she is a new convert! She is a Gentile who has come to believe in God when she hears the stories of God’s faithfulness to the Israelites in the wilderness. God has already prepared her heart to act courageously and welcome the two Israelite spies whom Joshua sends to investigate Jericho, a city of palm trees, an oasis in the dessert.

    When the king of Jericho himself goes to Rahab’s establishment—demanding that she produce the Israelite spies—the woman who is marginalized in her society because of what she does for a living tells a lie mixed with some truth. “Yes, the men came to me,” she says to the king, “I didn’t know where they came from. The gate was about to be shut at dark, and the men went out. I don’t know where the men went. Pursue them quickly,” she goes on, “because you can overtake them.” The king’s men pursue them and never find them on the road toward the Jordan River, where the Israelites will cross over into the land of the promise with the ark of the covenant.

    The one who has become a believer through hearing the stories of God’s faithfulness says to the Israelites hiding on her roof, “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family.” She asks for “a sign of good faith”that the Israelites will spare her family. The men promise to deal kindly and faithfully” with her when the Lord gives them the land.”

    Then she lets them down by a rope through the window, for her house is on the outer side of the city wall, and she resides within the wall itself. 

    We know how the story ends —how the spies return safely to Joshua and the Israelites win the battle of Jericho with their warriors and priests circling the city, blowing trumpets and carrying the ark of the covenant of God.

    As we sing in that familiar hymn, “And the walls came tumbling down.”

    But that isn’t the end of the story, really. Rahab joins the family tree of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew because the new convert to the faith of Abraham marries an Israelite: Salmon, who falls in love with a strong woman who has left her past self behind. She is no longer a prostitute running a whorehouse on the edge of the town of Jericho. Together, they have a son named Boaz. No wonder he is so gracious and accepting of an outsider–because of his mother! If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the husband of Ruth—another outsider and new convert to the faith of Abraham. Ruth, from Moab, gives birth to Obed, who gives birth to Jesse, the father of David.

    What amazes me in our passage in Hebrews today begins at verse 39 with the word “yet.” The list of flawed individuals who are commended for their faith didn’t receive the fullness of God’s promise because we are needed for that promise to be fulfilled. They will not, apart from us, be made perfect. Hebrews is saying that we are already a part of this Great Cloud of Witnesses, connected to Christ and being made perfect or complete, together.

        We are comforted in the knowledge that we are not alone in our calling to the mission field, which includes our families. The whole Cloud of Witnesses that is with us, that surrounds and includes us, is cheering us on!

       Here’s something else the Spirit is teaching me. Running the race of faith doesn’t require actual running—or rushing around in an overscheduled, overcommitted life. More isn’t always better, my friends!

        I want to encourage Ella’s family—and every young family—that the race of faith requires patience, endurance, and time. We have to allow time and space in our busy lives for the Spirit to work. It’s hard, isn’t it? To make time for the quiet, intimate, spontaneous, Spirit-filled moments to happen. But how sweet those God moments are, when we are suddenly having conversations with our children and grandchildren that matter.

      One of those intimate God moments happened for Jessie and me in the kitchen on Saturday. Jessie, 8 and a half going on 40, doesn’t quite understand how she has 3 grandmothers, while her friends only have two. She talked about the three-grandmother problem on our visit to her home in Cambridge in 2020—and she’s still puzzled about it, two years later. Divorce and remarriage can make for complicated family relationships. To Jessie’s scientific mind—as she is the daughter of a biochemist and a pediatrician—it’s a biological impossibility to have 3 grandmothers.

     So, suddenly, on Saturday right before dinner, I can only say that it is the work of the Spirit when Jessie is telling me that she has come to believe that it’s a good thing that she has 3 grandmothers. It means that she gets to go to more fun places to visit them. And she has more love.

     Friends, we are not alone in our calling to a mission field that includes our families. We are already caught up with and being made complete with the Great Cloud of Witnesses as we imperfectly serve the Lord with our lives.

      We are surrounded by witnesses, cheering us on!

Let us pray.

Holy One, Source and perfector of our faith, thank you for the many models of our faith in Scripture. We give thanks for Rahab, the prostitute, who offered hospitality to the Israelite spies and risked her own life for her new-found faith in the God of Abraham. And we thank you for your Son, Jesus, the greatest example of all of humility and self-sacrifice, the author and source of our faith, who has promised to complete a good work in us at the day of his return for His Church. Give us eyes to see the Great Cloud of Witnesses that includes all of us—Christ’s followers in every time and place. Help us to hear their voices, cheering us on and be strengthened to endure the race that is set before us, keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. In His name we pray. Amen. 

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Rory, a standard poodle.

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