"Linked Together in Labor and in Love"
William Johnson, preaching
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Hebrews 12:1-3; Ephesians 3:14-19
Being a shy child, when people would ask me what I wanted to be when I was older, I generally said what I thought they wanted to hear. But down deep and only to myself, I would say I wanted to be a Sparta Saint. Does that mean anything to you?
When Scripture speaks of the “utter most parts of the world” it may have had in mind where I grew up in central Georgia! The county seat town we lived near was Sparta. I attended the Sparta public schools and the mascot for the high school sports was the saint. Being Georgia, football was most important and the football team was the Sparta Saints. We played against tigers and raiders, blue devils and red devils and dragons, but we were the saints, and when we scored a touchdown, the band played “When the saints go marching in.” For us, in was the end zone, not heaven, but it did feel a bit like heaven when you raced into the end zone.
For a long while that was my understanding of being a saint. My mother kept telling me I was a Sparta Saint even in grade school because all the children were, but I felt you could only be a Sparta saint if you were on the football team. I want to believe I was a good Sparta saint because I was God’s saint, even if unknowingly at the time.
Today is the Sunday in particular when we remember the saints who have died this past year and gone to be in God’s holy and unhindered presence; the saints who have joined that great cloud of witnesses who surround us, who rest from their labors, and encourage us earthly saints on. They and we compose what Paul speaks of as “every family in heaven and on earth who take their name from God.”
We are saints not because of what we have done for God, but rather because of what God has done for us. It is God who has created us, imaged us in God’s likeness, called us, is redeeming us, and who has entered in to sacred covenant with us, sealed with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. Our labor and love for God and toward others is our glad response to God’s initiating love and redemption for us. We have been called to be saints and we, day by day, as with all our serious covenants, are living into who we say we are.
Gathered in this sanctuary today are the earthly saints and the heavenly saints. Like the chain the children have shared this morning, like the all saints banners draping the balcony, we are linked together by labor and love, faith and faithfulness, witness and presence. The saints who have literally left foot prints on the floors of this sanctuary are with us as we worship Sunday after Sunday. They form what has been called that second balcony among us. I want to believe that Shirley and Ben LaMaster have moved up one floor in this room. Can you not some Sundays sense the presence of certain saints? Alive in the mystery of the resurrection, they come to us in the presence of the risen Christ. Our worship attendance is always more than we can count or see. Where else can you go and have the promise of being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses? And as we depart each Sunday to enter the world, I believe they go with us. What a gift of grace and comfort, assurance and hope. Thanks be to God.
On this All Saints Sunday, the preacher in Hebrews has a strong and compelling word for Crescent Hill saints at this moment in time. This extended and overlapping sermon that composes Hebrews is written to a Jewish Christian church that is facing compromises of the gospel, threats of terrorism, economic failure, and the struggle to remain pure and true to whom they say they are. Sound familiar? The major and abiding theme is the supremacy of Christ as our great and only high priest and the linkage of believers in the Hebrew church to all those who had gone before, beginning with Abel, culminating in Jesus Christ, and extending on to others who are yet to come. Tom Long calls it The Chain of Faith. Chapter 11 contains this roll call of faith and prepares the church for chapter 12 which focuses then on them and likewise on us.
Reminding them and reminding us that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” here is what we are to do in thankful response.
The preacher uses the image of a great race, the journey of life. It is now our race, the heavenly saints have gathered in the stadium and are surrounding and encouraging and cheering us on. The preacher offers guidance for running the race, or as we would say, words for the journey. Here they are.
Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “It means we had better get on with it. Strip down, start running and never quit. No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sin.” Those last two phrases merit our serious attention, individually and collectively.
To keep our eyes on Jesus compels us to walk by faith and not by sight.
To keep our eyes on Jesus calls for much pondering of Jesus’ life and ministry, much time in prayer and scripture, more reading other saints who have learned to keep their eyes on Jesus, laboring with saints who truly walk in the way of Jesus, who go about simply doing good.
To keep our eyes on Jesus begins to transform how we hear and how we speak, for both become more about him and less about us, more about others, less about me.
To keep our eyes on Jesus more readily enables us to lean and live into the height and depth and fullness of God’s love for us all.
To keep our eyes on Jesus sharpens our vision to see more clearly where God is at work in the world and how we can more nearly become a part of it.
To keep our eyes on Jesus binds all the saints together into the friends and family of God.
To keep our eyes on Jesus begins and fulfills our spiritual maturity into Christ’s likeness. We more perfectly become like the God we serve, humble saints of the Master.
A number of years ago on a most hectic Wednesday afternoon another shy child came up to me, followed me around for a short while, and then with all her collected courage asked me a question. “ Mr. Bill, may I see Jesus?” My initial private thought was no, not on a Wednesday in a Baptist Church. This was also before I came to learn that God, indeed, is in the interruptions and sometimes is the interruption, disguised in others.
My response was,” Carolyn, tell what you mean.” She wanted to see the lighted window in the chapel, the one of Jesus standing at the door and knocking.
I have never forgotten Carolyn Waters’ request.
My senior year as a Sparta Saint on a Friday morning during football season, I was walking through the elementary hallway .
A young lad saw me and asked me if I was number 20. I replied that I was and he said he would be watching me at the game that night. I have never forgotten his unsettling reminder.
To keep our eyes on Jesus is to become a saint that others may keep their eyes on. We have the call and privilege to become Christ to them. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith”…
So may it be for all the saints here and beyond. Thanks be to God, Amen.