Our New Testament reading for this week (as well as the verses that come before it in chapter 11) has often been called “The Heroes of the Faith.” It recaps for the hearers and readers the history of God’s people and the ways in which they have exhibited faithfulness. It begins with reminding us of some fairly ridiculous (I mean that in a good way) things that took place because of the faith of the community that was gathered together. By faith a people crossed the sea, while those who pursued them were overcome by the sea. By faith a people walked around a wall and it collapsed. We then hear of heroes in the faith that were scandalous, such as Rahab, but also the judges who were not always all that righteous, as well as some who truly were upstanding heroes of the faith, such as Samuel. We are shown this hall of fame of the faithful as a reminder that even those with a spotty past can be examples of faithfulness and redemption.
The reading then moves on to discuss what might happen to us and the readers of this text as faithful followers. The writer of Hebrews recognizes that to be the people of God means that we will not be people of this world… and the world and its ways do not like that. We see that the faithful might be mocked, imprisoned, flogged, or tortured. We see that the faithful may even die for their faith, in some pretty graphic and unpleasant ways. They would be homeless, living in caves and holes and all sorts of unhomely places.
If you are familiar with Church history you know that the writer of Hebrews was correct. Faithful followers of the Way would suffer. They would be mocked and ridiculed, flogged and tortured, and martyred because they lived their lives for the Kingdom of God rather than the Empire of this world. The Church has honored the faithful throughout generations, remembering them as saints and the great cloud of witnesses who we look to as examples and exemplars of what it means to be the people of God following after the way of Christ Jesus.
One way that the preacher could approach the text this week is to name some saints who have made an impact in their lives by their witness and testimony. Personally, I think of saints such as Brother Juniper, Saint Benedict, Padre Pio, Saint Mary Magdalene, Dorothy Day, and others. It may be helpful for a congregation to look at some of the saints from around the world and throughout the generations to be reminded that the way of Christ can be followed anywhere in the world and that Christ can work through anywhere and at any time, which should give us hope for the here and now. Continuing on in this vein, the pastor could name some of the saints of the local church body. I think of the Cape Elizabeth church and how Mona and her mother, Mae, invested in the lives of so many and how they showed the love of Christ to a small town in Maine. This week could be a good time to remind the congregation that the Church, and the great cloud of witnesses, is both universal and local.
We are running a race, pressing on toward the goal of Christlikeness and the resurrection that is to come. This passage and this theme remind us that we can do that without being automatons, each being the same. Christ is wide. Christ can fill each and every one of us so that we all might be saints. For you to be saint might not look the same as for me to be a saint. Mother Teresa did not look the same as Mister Rogers, but they did share a desire to follow Christ as best they could where they were. Mother Teresa with the poor of Calcutta and Mister Rogers with the children of Pittsburgh.
There is an abundance of witnesses we can look to as examples of how to throw off the weights which hinder us. Urban saints, rural saints, old saints, young saints, a saint throughout history that each person can relate to in some way. They remind of us the cost faith. It can be a heavy price. It cost several of them their lives. However, it also shows us that the faith is worth it. Our faith is one that is worth dying for if need be. Ours is a faith that is worth giving up our lives in order to live in the Way of Christ. Our faith is one that is worth devoting to Calcutta or to Pittsburgh. This faith that we have received from the saints who have gone before us, both universal and local, is one that reminds us that it is worth living out Christlikeness wherever we may be and whatever personalities we have because Christ Jesus is the pioneer and perfector of our faith.
This week you might consider asking your congregation how they can be saints where they are. The local Walmart needs a saint. The fortunate 500 company downtown needs a saint. The local retirement home needs a saint. The baseball team at school needs a saint. How might our people allow Christ to live in and through them in these places so that they might be saints, providing a witness and example of how to follow the King who is seated at the right hand of the Father.