In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Please be seated.

Last Saturday, a group of 35 of us returned from the Cathedral’s Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This was my second time to host the pilgrimage. And over a 12-day period, we covered a lot of ground.  Out the door and on the road by 6:00 or 6:30am every morning, we traveled across Israel and the Occupied Territories, experiencing a myriad of holy sites. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, from the Mount of Olives to the Western Wall; from the Dome of the Rock to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  From Jerusalem to Jericho, Bethlehem to Nazareth. Jordan River to the Dead Sea and many places in between. It was a wonderful experience, a powerful spiritual journey for all of us, where the entire group, from ages 15 to 80, became like family.

Now having made this pilgrimage in 2017, I was familiar with many of the places we were going to see, but what I didn’t expect was how differently some of these places would affect me, the second time around.  In particular, I had a very different experience this time inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In 2017, when I walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was struck by the power of the place itself. Here was the spot Christians had been gathering since the first century to mark and remember where Jesus was crucified and the empty tomb where he rose from the dead. And although both of these holy places are completely encased within an elaborate Orthodox style church, on my first visit, I was overwhelmed by this sense of coming home, of being at the center of the world. The Axis Mundi, where heaven and earth are separated by the width of a baby hair.

On the second visit, what struck me most profoundly was not the power of the place itself, but the overwhelming presence of the millions of souls who had been there before me, who had knelt and prayed there, who had yearned for God there, who had carried all of their worries and laid them in that special place.  When you enter the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the first thing you encounter as a large stone slab called the Stone of Anointing. This is where the church remembers Jesus crucified body being prepared for burial. As I stood by the Stone, I watched Christians of all shapes and sizes, and colors and cultures, from around the world kneel to touch it.  Or lay down and place their face upon it, or completely prostrate themselves on top of it. Many of the pilgrims would pour scented oil on the stone and then take a long piece of cloth and rub that on the stone soaking up the scented oil. These fabrics were their own personal burial shrouds, which they then placed back into plastic bags to take home until the day of their death, when the anointed shroud would be placed on their lifeless bodies in the hope that like Jesus, they too, would one day rise from the grave. I can’t begin to tell you what a powerful experience it was for me, because as I stood there watching this scene, I could hear the words from Hebrews in our lesson for this morning. I knew I was surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, of all those who had come before. And of all those who would follow, people just like me, struggling to hold onto God’s promises and striving, striving the best they knew how, to live in faith.

It was a moment I’ll never forget. In today’s reading, the author of the Letter of Hebrews reminds us of all the faithful throughout the ages who have clung to God in faith, through trials and persecutions, hardships, even torture.  As the author and preacher Martin Copenhaver writes, quote “The author of Hebrews was writing to a small band of new Christians who were suffering persecution and feeling isolated in their struggles.  In the great 11th chapter, he points to various people in salvation history who were able to face every manner of challenge and hardship because they had faith. The author says, in essence, you are not alone in this.  Look to Abraham, look to Moses, look to David and Samuel and all the others to see that you too might rise to the challenges that face you through your faith”.

My friends, in 2022 what does it mean for us to run the race that is set before us, as our lesson says?  What does it mean to rise to the challenges that face us? Well, I think it could mean lots of things, but recently I was struck by an extraordinary event that happened at the White House, some 10 days ago.  You may have read about it. A group of historians, including Jon Meacham, the Cathedral’s very own Canon Historian, gathered with President Biden to discuss the current times in which we live in the light of our nation’s history. It was an extraordinary moment. Not because there were historians in the White House, that is not uncommon, but because of the historical comparisons that were being made by these historians.  According to the article in the Washington Post, quote, “The conversation on August 4th unfolded as a sort of Socratic dialogue between the Commander in Chief and a select group of scholars, who painted the current moment as among the most perilous in modern history for democratic governance.  Comparisons were made to the years before the 1860 election when Abraham Lincoln warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And the lead-up to the 1940 election when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt battled rising domestic sympathy for European Fascism and resistance to the United States joining world war II.” End quote.

As I’ve said from this pulpit before, I worry about the health of our democracy. And I believe that as Christians, we have a responsibility to help guide our country through these difficult days. And this I think is part of the race that we have been called to run. As members of that great cloud of witnesses, who throughout history stood firm in the love of Christ, can we rise to the challenges that face us today? If we are indeed living through some of the most perilous moments in our nation’s history, what is our role as Christians?

Now in our gospel for this morning, Jesus, echoing the words of Jeremiah,  says that he has come to do what all God’s prophets do, which is to separate.  Separate lies from truth, to point out the deceitful, to draw a line in the sand between the ways of the world and the ways of God’s kingdom. I think we are being called to do the same.  In a sermon I preached on the anniversary of January 6th,  I said, “As Christians, we are supposed to shine the light of Christ in our sometimes very dark world. We’re supposed to be the purveyor of values that are essential to our nation and to our society.  Be a Democrat, be a Republican, be an independent, we need them all.  But be a Christian first, a Christian who stands up for the values of equality and freedom, justice and forgiveness and love and humility.” End quote.

I think this is the race we are called to run with perseverance, a race that says no matter what others do or say, I will stand up for the Christian values that so influence the foundations of our democracy. I will not devalue another human being and demonize those with whom I disagree. I will not stay silent when some would promote violence to solve our country’s ills. I will treat every person I encounter as a beloved child of God. And because I know that in the end love wins, because I know that in the end God wins, I will choose love over hate, truth over lies, and the pursuit of justice over the pursuit of power. My friends, this is the race that has been set before us. This is the race we must run with perseverance.

Now in closing, I want to leave you with a little bit of interesting trivia.  Both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed begins with the words, “I believe, or we believe”.  Now, interestingly, the actual word in Latin, that we translate as “believe” is the word “credo”, which really means not “believe”, but something closer to “I give my heart to”. In this sense, when we say the Nicene creed in just a few minutes, what we are really saying is not “I believe in God. I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in the Holy Spirit”.  But “I give my heart to God, the Father, the Almighty. I give my heart to Jesus Christ, the only son of God. I give my heart to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life”.  As Christian people, we are the custodians of the legacy left by that great cloud of witnesses who have come before us.  And this truth reminds us that real faith is not about believing certain propositions, rather, it is about a commitment of love. God wants our love, not our belief, because God gives us love, not doctrine. My brothers and sisters in Christ, may you give your heart to God and may the Holy Spirit empower all of us to run the race that is set before us with perseverance, and courage, and love. Amen.

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