A Crowd in the Stands – Hebrews 11:32-12:3

There have been many strange parts of COVID-19 life: wearing a mask everywhere, keeping physical distance, and becoming vaguely uncomfortable if someone coughs in your presence. Another strange thing, to me, has been sports. It’s been weird to see football games played with virtually no one in the stands, basketball games played in empty arenas. If you saw the NBA season last summer, you noticed how they put virtual fans around the court, and very carefully calibrated sounds of crowds to mimic a live game.

Crowds make a huge difference to how a team can play. In a sport with eleven players on a team, the crowd is often called the “12th man.” The roar of the crowd can boost the home team to victory and make life impossible for the visitor. In North Carolina, maybe the best example we have is Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Duke crazies, the students jumping up and down with their horizontal striped shirts, can drive an opposing team – crazy.

The University of Kansas Allen Fieldhouse has the record for the loudest indoor game, recorded at 130 decibels. That’s like standing next to an ambulance siren. It’s painfully loud. The loudest football game on record was the Kansas City Chiefs versus the New
England Patriots in 2014 it was recorded at 142 decibels during a timeout. Apparently, Kansas fans are just loud.

Tonight, at the Super Bowl the Kansas City Chiefs will play Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, except this time with those two are with the Bucs in Tampa. At tonight’s game you can expect to see 25,000 fans, and 30,000 cut outs. It’s a strange time we’re living in.

As we think about sporting events and stadiums and the effect of the crowd, we find our way into today’s reading from Hebrews. In this season between Christmas and Lent we are studying the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a New Testament letter that is really more of a sermon. We don’t know the identity of the writer, but we know that it was written by a gifted preacher who uses repeated images metaphors and phrases to encourage a struggling congregation to keep the faith. Hold on. Keep going. Persevere.

Two weeks ago, we looked at one of those strange metaphors in the form of the anchor. This anchor was not dropped into the bottom of the sea, but was hurled into heaven, inside the inner curtain and hooked onto the very throne of grace. Hold on to the anchor, the preacher said: hold on to our hope in Jesus Christ. Well, the metaphors in Hebrews just keep coming.

In Chapter 11, the preacher of Hebrews changes it up and begins talking about pilgrims on a journey. The preacher begins to name the long line of pilgrims who are making their way into God’s promised future. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Rahab, Samuel, and David, on and on, he names this parade of pilgrims on the journey of faith. He brings this parade right up to the church door, and then once more switches the metaphor. Instead of marching this long line of pilgrims into sanctuary, he takes them into a stadium. They are gathered in the stands and form a great cloud of witnesses.

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…” Marked out for us. We are the runners. We are on the track. The baton has been handed to us and it’s our turn to go; except, the preacher knows we’re tired. This congregation called the Hebrews was tired, and maybe tired in the same way we are tired. Weighed down with anxieties and frustrations. Lugging around doubts and fears and war against faith. Carrying temptation on our backs like a monkey, and stuffing our pockets with some destructive habits. We’re weighed down with all sorts of things, and we’re called to run a race.

So, the preacher of Hebrews brings us out on the track. We need inspiration. The preacher begins to point into the stands. Look at this the cloud of witnesses, all these who have gone before. Let them be your encouragement.

A few years ago, I came across a contemporary litany of the saints, called “Stand Here Beside Us. The roll call was written by William MacKaye, who was a religion editor for a long time of the Washington Post. Like the preacher of Hebrews, MacKaye looks into the
stands and calls the roll of witnesses who have journeyed toward God’s promised future. “Stand here beside us,” he asks; stand on the sidelines and encourage us in our race.
Some of the people in the stands are ones we would expect. Augustine, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther the Reformer, John Wesley the preacher.
But there are many others in the stands, ones we might not expect to find. Mozart, Benjamin Britten, Duke Ellington – “they sang the Creator’s praise in the language of the soul.” Johnny Appleseed, the mad planter of Eden. Sojourner Truth, the Pilgrim of Justice. Oscar Romero, the martyr of El Salvador, who stood up for the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr., a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.

So many names, so many faces in the cloud of witnesses. The stands are full of pilgrims who walked by faith, who held on, who kept going. They are part of our story, and we are part of theirs. This race of faith that we are running, it’s our race – together. They handed it to us, and we now take our place in a long line of runners who are following the way of Jesus. Jesus ran the race first; he blazed the trail and has called us to follow. The witnesses in the stands are cheering us on, and the race is ours to run.

That’s doesn’t mean we have to run the race exactly the way they did. We may not express our faith in the same way they did; we may not sing all the same songs as they did; we may approach issues the same way they did; we may not we believe just what they did. We don’t follow exactly in the same footsteps that they did. We make our own footprints in this race; we work out our own faith. But like them, we follow the trail that Jesus blazed. We follow his example. His truth, his grace, compassion, his justice, his forgiveness, his sacrifice, his steadfast faithfulness.

To bring this closer to home, in the last couple of weeks our congregation said goodbye to two great runners in faith. It is always hard to say goodbye to saints who have been companions in the race of faith, but it is especially hard now when we cannot gather, and we have not seen each other for a year. Dick Graham and John Jackson ran the race of faith alongside this congregation for many years, and who are now in the great cloud of witnesses.

I remember a few years ago it was a snowy Saturday morning in the winter. I was relatively new here, and I didn’t know how we handled things when it was snowing. Did we continue with our Saturday ministry or did we close for snow? I called our Associate Pastor at the time, Michael, and I asked him what the plan was. He said, “You know, I’ve tried to tell them they don’t have to be there, but there are saints who are just going to show up. They’re going to make sure we open even if it’s snowing.”

Two of the first people there on that morning were John Jackson and Dick Graham, who had driven in on snowy roads together. Dick, from the Midwest had seen plenty of snow; John started his career as a letter carrier. They knew how to run in the snow. They ran the race with joyful perseverance, and now join the witnesses in the stands.

Stand here with me on the track for a minute and look into the stands. Who do you see? The crowd in the stands make a difference, but in every crowd, for every athlete, there are a few people in the stands who have made all the difference. Who taught you how to run the race of faith? Who showed you how to handle the hills and the long miles, how to run with sore feet, how to push through when you wanted to stop? Who encouraged you? Who showed you the love of God in action?

When I look into the stands, I’m look for a teacher from high school who knew how to help students grow; for man who sang beside this awkward teenager in the church choir; for the chair of the personnel committee in the first church I ever worked for–he was full of grace; for a professor in seminary who matched love for God to the life of the mind; for a pastor who mentored me early, and inhabited the pastoral vocation to the very end of his life with more joy and faithfulness than anyone I have known. He finished the race this year. And I will look for some members of my own family who have gone before.

Of course, I’m only about halfway through life, many of the people who have encouraged me in life of faith are still running the race. They are on the track with me, and I’m watching them run. One day they’ll join the cloud of witnesses and be in the stands and I’ll look for them there.

Who do you see in the stands? The crowd can make all the difference for the runners on the track.
The race is ours to run.
The faith is ours to keep.
Jesus blazed the trail.
The steps ahead are ours to take.

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