A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 18, 2013
By Rev Julie Emery
Texts Luke 12:49-56, Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection.
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not recieve what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
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 perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The image is as striking as it is beautiful: a woman’s body, athletic and strong, arms bent at her sides, legs in full stride, hair waving behind her, running down the beach. She is the paragon of movement and form, beauty and poetry. Her muscles are strong and defined, and they flow seamlessly down to her legs, which are capped by two carbon-fiber prosthetics, shaped vaguely like the hind legs of a cheetah. She is speed, she is beauty, she is strength, she is … disabled.
Certainly the last word one might use to describe Aimee Mullins is disabled, and yet that is how our culture defines her. Born without fibulae in both legs, Aimee was given a prognosis at birth that she would never walk, and doctors amputated both of her legs on her first birthday. The doctor that delivered her says that Aimee has been making a liar out of him ever since.
By the age of two, Aimee learned to walk on prosthetic legs, and spent her childhood living as actively as her peers: swimming, jumping, playing softball, and running. Not only that, Aimee was a bright student. Her brilliance brought about extraordinary scholastic achievements – she was awarded a full ride scholarship through the department of defense to study foreign affairs at Georgetown. It was there that Aimee became the first amputee to compete in the NCAA. She was the first person to be fitted with woven, carbon-fiber prostheses modeled after the hind legs of a cheetah, and set world records in several track and field events.
Beautiful, brilliant, athletic, disabled. Aimee first spoke at the TED conferences, (a global network of conferences under the heading of “idea’s worth spreading”) in 1998 while she was in her senior year at Georgetown, there she showed off her new legs, and spoke about the perseverance that came naturally to her. She returned to TED in 2009 – by then she had become a world renowned model, challenging the boundaries and definitions of beauty, an actor in an epic sci-fi film series exploring creativity and whimsy through prosthetics, and a public speaking phenomenon.
Aimee returned to TED in 2009, speaking on the opportunity of adversity, and during one of her talks Aimee read the thesaurus entry for “disabled,” from the printing that existed when Aimee would have entered primary school. It includes words like “useless, helpless, mutilated, crippled, maimed, wounded,” the antonyms listed are “healthy, strong, able, whole and wholesome.”
Those contrasting words remind me a bit of the list we encounter in our lectionary text this morning, a continuation from last week’s reading from the book of Hebrews. We begin with a list of faithful people throughout the history of Israel. It, too, is a list of contrasts. The list includes Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David and Samuel. Some of these well-known heroes of our faith, others obscure and even conflicted. That contrasting list continues, as we hear both of those in our faith tradition who achieved success in war, who are seen as just and righteous, and also those who were killed by the sword, or stoned, persecuted and imprisoned, flogged, destitute, sawn in two, tormented. The list is almost bizarre in its severity.
This passage is one that most challenges the popular notion that if we are faithful Christians, we will receive only blessings and prosperity. There is no guarantee, as revealed in the variety of experiences of the faithful that have come before us, that our faith will keep us from even the worst that our world has to offer.
That this is true is not hard for us to see. We have watched or experienced for ourselves the pain that life doles out: death and diagnoses given to those too young and too good. Job loss and home destruction, addiction and mental health struggles that do not discriminate. The challenges of aging bodies and minds in an era when life can be prolonged indefinitely, of families ripped apart and strained beyond imagining. Christians in our country are no longer persecuted, sawn in two or stoned, but still we are not immune to adversity, pain and suffering.
Jesus himself suggested this very thing in the passage read to us by Susan McLaren just a moment ago – “I have not come to bring peace but division,” he says. It is one of the more difficult sayings of Jesus, it highlights not what Jesus intends for us but instead the obvious consequences to following his teachings. The closer we find ourselves to truth, justice, serving and seeking the Kingdom of God, the more we find ourselves in conflict with the ways of the world and the culture that champions selfishness, independence and success no matter the costs.
Adversity seems to follow us like a shadow, as Aimee Mullins says, “sometimes we see a lot of it, sometimes a little but it’s always with us.” Certainly no one, not even Jesus, said it would be easy, to follow a life of faith. Most of the time he said it would be harder.
It is this list: these heroes of our faith: those who won and those who lost gravely, those who experienced justice and those who died unjustly, those who rejoiced and those who wept bitterly, who reveal that truth to us. These heroes of our faith who are brought to mind when we are reminded that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, and that we should run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
If you’ve ever done any amount of running, or any long-distance athletic activity, you know the power of that metaphor, both the exhilaration and the strain of it. You know the determination it takes to continue practicing even when you are loathe to tie up your laces. You know the feelings of building strength and muscles, as well as the body ache that happens the day or two after a long run. You know that racing is about 80 percent mental, and one’s ability to complete the task is deeply tied to one’s ability to imagine it happening.
So too the life of faith is filled with exhilarating and painful moments. Moments when you no longer want to take that path, and moments when the grace of God is so tangible, you cannot imagine anything else.
Perseverance in the Merriam-Webster definition is the continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition. It gives as a synonym for Perseverance the word “steadfastness,” a deeply theological word that covers the Old Testament in describing God. When the writer of Hebrews uses this word to describe and encourage our faith, it is no accident. He is speaking to a people who have experienced great hardships, beyond what we could imagine, persecuted and martyred for their faith. Be steadfast, as your God is steadfast, he tells them, you are not alone.
Aimee Mullins provokes our imagination when she brings up the word, “disabled,” she challenges us in the language we use to describe a person: “What do we want to call into existence with our words? A person bound by the limits we proscribe for them? Or a person who breaks those limits through mere imagination?”
Our text asks us as well to imagine our way through the journey of our faith. It is faithful imagination that allows us to see the grace and witness of God present in both the rescue of the Israelites from captivity and the courageous endurance of martyrs. It is faithful imagination that perceives God’s work in both the work of just and effective leaders as well as the suffering of those persecuted for their faith. It is faithful imagination that sees God’s hand in the joyful celebration of life and the tragic sorrow of death.
Why not see the challenges we face as opportunities for God to show power and grace and love to us and the world? Why not imagine our way through conflict, creatively, adventurously, willing to see the possible in the impossible?
So too, it is faithful imagination that ultimately sees us through even the darkest days: war and poverty, violence and bloodshed. As ethicist John Shelly notes, “Often our moral failures are more a failure of imagination than a deficit of good intention or goodwill.” The promise given to us, the one fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the one we are a part of alongside of that great cloud of witnesses is not simply an extension of the present reality but a new creation that imagines the world the way God intends it to be – where the blind see, where the oppressed go free, and where the lame… run like a cheetah.
Aimee tells another story about a time when she was speaking to about 300 children at a children’s museum. She arranged for the kids to come in without the adults for 2 minutes at the beginning of her talk, so they could come up and touch and explore her twelve different prosthetic legs.
These are extraordinary legs – along side legs that look like real flesh and bone, and her cheetah running legs, she has legs made from wood carved into heeled boots from a runway show she did with designer Alexander McQueen, legs made from soil and beet roots, legs that look like jellyfish, from a sci-fi film she was in.
The kids were of course enraptured, touching and testing the legs, and Aimee asked them a question. “This morning,” she said, “I woke up wanting to jump over a three-story house. If I wanted to do that, what kind of legs would you build me? What animal or other thing would you model my legs after?” The kids immediately began shouting out ideas: kangaroo! Go-Go Gadget legs! The Incredibles!” another said. And then one child stopped them all by asking “Why wouldn’t you want to fly too?”
Aimee describes that moment as a moment of imagination. Where a group of children who could have been taught to see Aimee as disabled, instead saw her as someone with amazing, even super-ability, even with the potential to fly. Would that we could have that kind of imagination.
So, imagine with me: whatever race you are on – one filled with joy or with sorrow, a road pocked with challenges or lined with shade trees and flowers. Perhaps you are running on old and tired legs, or strong or youthful ones. Perhaps you could use new, carbon-fiber legs. Imagine this – lining the street there are champions of your faith, those that have come before, who have seen great adversity, those who have seen triumph, those that know the pain you endure daily, those that know your deepest joy. You might scan the crowd for Jesus – but no, he is not on the sidelines, instead he is just ahead of you, setting the pace, guiding your feet, encouraging you to continue, to persevere, to be steadfast. Indeed you are not alone. None of us are.