First Congregational Church
April 14, 2013
Third Sunday after Easter
"The Power of 'Therefore' "
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There are things that make you go "hmm." It takes 115 days for a snail to travel a mile. (hmm) The great horned owl is the only animal that eats skunk. (hmm) A pigeon's feathers weigh more than its bones. (hmm) Female armadillos have exactly four babies at a time and they area always the same sex. (hmm) On average, the life span of an American dollar bill is eighteen months. (hmm) Because of a reflex action, a rattlesnake can bite you up to an hour after it's dead. (hmm) Ancient Egyptians shaved off their eyebrows to mourn the death of their cats. (hmm)
We play on the line, "Things that make you go hmm," as a way of saying, "Huh, I didn't know that." Or "that was a surprise." The reading of our scripture passage this morning may be a "thing that makes you go "hmm," too, but in a different way. In the days of our Pilgrim ancestors, they would often 'line' a scripture. A leader would say a line and the congregation would repeat it back. Lining a scripture is a fancy way of saying, repeat after me.
Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-3 (lined)
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Thank you, Jim. Just as there are things that make you go hmm, there are things that make you go "mmm" - which is more like a expression of agreement or appreciation.
Statements that fall into the mmm category would be something like the sign outside King of Kings Lutheran Church in Altamonte Springs, FL, "Weather Report: God reigns and the Son shines." (mmm) Or the sign outside Covenant Moravian Church in York, PA: "Feeling like an alien? We have space for you." (mmm) Same church, different sign; "Life's a puzzle? Look here for the missing peace." Gotta love the one outside the Baptist Church in Two Harbors, MN, "It's hard to stumble when your are down on your knees."
Back about a hundred years ago, when I was in seminary, a word in our English language became one of those that made me go hmm. Now when I see it, it makes me go mmm. And I pray it will be so for you, too.
The word is - as you have guessed from the sermon title - therefore. I'm learning that if I put a word or question to Google, I am more often pleasantly surprised that I would ever guess. So when I started exploring "therefore," I found the word much larger than I thought.
Having ducked out of any math classes after tenth grade algebra, I missed out on the mathematical expression of therefore, in three little dots. I put them along with the sermon title in your bulletin so you would all get the idea of three little dots piled up like cannon balls. I understand that if you really want to get particular, if you put the two dots on top, it can mean something different, but I didn't want to get too deep into a subject that would allow some here to bury me in my ignorance.
My homework also revealed that the Masons use the three little canon balls as an abbreviation for "Right Worshipful." It's a title that I think may be used like "The Honorable," or "The Reverend." The other - perhaps useless - bit of information about "therefore," is that it is more often used by lawyers spelled without the final "e." Perhaps a lawyer might be able to tell you why, if you are so interested. But just remember, you may be billed for your time. : )
We hear "therefore" often enough in religious connotations. Way back in the book of Leviticus, God said, "I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy." In a post-resurrection appearance, Jesus gave the eleven remaining disciples - and us - the commission, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
For most of my life, I've read "therefore" with about as much interest as "a, and and the." Even if I had remembered that "therefore" was a conjunctive adverb, I would have yawned at the job of a conjunctive adverb - of joining two clauses or phrases together. But one day, somewhere along the line, "therefore" became a big deal - especially in the Bible. Most of us commoners get that "therefore" can mean "because", "consequently", or "for that reason".
That reference from Leviticus? We are to be holy, because God is holy. Because all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Jesus, he had the right to give the disciples - and us - the second of the two sacraments we hold dear.
From our scripture for today, "Because" we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. It's a bit of an odd word, because it is thought that the book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians as an encouragement in the face of persecution. If they were being persecuted, they would hardly have met in large groups; more likely in homes or caves or other places away from the religion police. So where was this "great cloud of witnesses?"
Perhaps they were the Christians across the area - like in their little home church, or outside the area - like in their town or district, or maybe even the "witnesses" that had died and gone on to eternal life. Whoever they were, we have the same witnesses - those within this gathering, outside this gathering, across the globe and all those that have gone on to eternal life. Because of all those people - because of all that faith and all that trust and even all those stumbles and what we might call failures, we don't have to hold on to those things that hinder our journeys - or any sin that can trip us up.
We need the stories of those who have run their courses to encourage us in our paths. For those who missed it, Army chaplain and Catholic priest Father Emil Kapaun received the military's highest honor just this week, the Medal of Honor, 60 years after he died as a prisoner during the Korean War. Most of us would be inspired or at least in awe of this man that never fired a bullet or carried a gun, cared for wounded soldiers often at the expense of his own health, and stole food to give to other prisoners. More than a few would hold their head up a bit more, knowing that when his commanders ordered an evacuation, he chose to stay, gathering the injured, tending their wounds.
What really struck me about the news segment on him this week was the recollection of two gentlemen who are here today not only because of what Fr. Kapaun did physically for them. Herbert Miller and Mike Dowd were interviewed on CBS, and they spoke of the fact that the death rate at the camp with Fr. Kapaun was 1/10th that of the other prison camps. When asked if it was the food that the priest was stealing that kept the men alive, Mr. Dowd said it was that he was "giving them a desire to live and the self-respect that enables a person in those conditions to sustain that desire." Mr. Miller said, "He'd keep building you up. He'd say, 'Hang in there boys. We're going to get out of here."
I don't know about any of you, but I need reminders every now and again, that we have a higher calling in each of our lives. So often - maybe too often - we think that this calling has to have some great work or effort to make that what we do "valid." How much more do we need "witnesses" like Mr. Miller and Mr. Dowd to remind us that the simple gift of encouragement can literally mean the difference between life and death for some people - regardless of whether they are in a physical war or not? How often do we underestimate the power of our own voices in cheering on those who need reminding that they, too, are surrounded by witnesses, examples of putting down the unnecessary to go the distance that God needs of us.
Because of all those souls, because of the joy Jesus knew was before him in returning to the right hand of God - after the trauma and cruelty, because of all that, therefore, we can count on the promise that lies under the surface of our passage for this morning. Writer and speaker Lewis Smedes (of the famous book Forgive and Forget) wrote a profound paragraph on the topic of promises.
"What a marvelous thing a promise is! When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty. When a person makes a promise, she stakes a claim on her personal freedom and power. When you make a promise, you take a hand in creating your own future."
What a beautiful ideology! Most of us would hop onto that description in a heartbeat. The trouble is that we are human. We are wise to have such goals, but sometimes life happens, sometimes our bodies or those of our family and friends do things that cause us to fail in keeping our promises - no matter how much we want to keep them. But - and here's the wonderful part - God keeps God's promises.
No matter how slow or fast, how graceful or clumsy, because of those who have gone before us, especially because of Christ's example, we can let go of that which weighs us down, and seek Christ. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." Because of that promise, we can boldly stand before God in prayer.
Gracious God of details and big pictures, we thank you for surrounding us with the witnesses of faith and encouragement. Remind all of us that our tasks are not so hard as we might think, but truly noble, none-the-less. Help us fix our eyes on you, that we find encouragement and not give in to our weariness. Thank you for sending your son, for the joy he saw beyond his cross, and for helping us let go of the trappings and hurdles that can trip us up and even keep us from running the race at all. For all your blessings, but especially for those that remind us that ours is such a holy calling, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.