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Sermon: Standing Ovation

August 20, 2010

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Good, better, best.
Never let it rest,
Until good is better
And better is best.

Many of you have heard that helpful little ditty somewhere along the line from a parent or grandparent, maybe from a mentor.  Although I am sure the intention in passing on the lesson was good, this saying probably taught you that your effort, your work—perhaps even you yourself—was never good enough.  There was always something more that could have been done, that should have been done, to be even better.  Even your best effort is always somehow lacking, because good needs to be made better, and better needs to be made best.  Failure and inadequacy is always hovering around the edges of that saying, and it is a lesson that many of us have learned too well.

Ken Callahan tells a story about a preacher who had moved to a new church and was struggling.  He felt inadequate to the task of leading the new congregation.  He was not confident in his preaching and leading worship.  Things just didn’t seem to be working in the new match between pastor and people.  Ken came to do a consultation at the church, and he spent some time in private conversation with that pastor.  He also attended worship and could see that the minister was tense, tight, nervous and anxious as he preached.

In one of the conversations, Ken asked him about his previous pastoral experiences, and in particular, his preaching.  One observation stood out.  The preacher said, “My last church was in the same town where my in-laws lived.  My father-in-law would pull out a notebook and pen whenever I started to preach.  The whole time I was preaching, I’d look over at him and he would always be furiously scribbling notes.  We had Sunday dinner with my wife’s parents every week, and as soon as we sat down to eat, my father-in-law would pull out the notebook and tell me everything that was wrong with my sermon.”

Ken listened to this and then asked, “Where does your father-in-law sit in the pews.”

“We’ve moved several hundred miles away.  He doesn’t attend worship here.”

Ken said, “No, he’s here all right.  When you preach, he’s out there.  Where do you picture him.”

“He sits on the left side, three rows from the front, about two seats off the aisle.”

“Here’s what I want you to do…Who is someone who has always been supportive and encouraging in your life?”

“My high school English teacher, Mrs. Beverly.”

“All right, on Sunday, I want you to find a place for Mrs. Beverly to sit.  Imagine she is sitting out there in the congregation.  Who is someone else?”

“My mom.”

“Okay, put her out in the congregation, too.”  Ken and the pastor chose some other people who had been positive, encouraging people, and the pastor put them in the pews.

Ken said, “Now, the next time you go into the pulpit, your father-in-law will probably still be sitting there, but the difference is that you now you have half a dozen other people who are out there, too.  You have Mrs. Beverly and your mom and Pastor Tim and all those others giving their approval to you.  If you’re tempted to look for your father-in-law writing notes, instead look over at Mrs. Beverly or one of the others.”  (Story told several times at his workshops throughout the years.  There may be a written reference somewhere in his books.)

People who criticize us and share their negativity with us—parents, teachers, friends, spouses—usually want the best for us.  They don’t intend to teach us that we can’t quite ever measure up.  In fact, you can be sure that they learned that lesson well themselves sometime in their past.  Someone else taught them that their best effort wasn’t quite up to par.

I want us now to turn to the reading from Hebrews.  The scripture began with a long list of our ancestors in faith, including the people of Israel who walked on dry land through the middle of the Red Sea, Rahab the prostitute, Samson, David.  It is quite a list, and it ended with descriptions of the martyrs, people who accepted death because of their devotion to God.  These ancestors are commended for their faith.  They did great things.  And not once did the author of Hebrews say, “However, you know the saying: ‘Good, better, best./Never let it rest,/Until good is better/And better is best.’”  The author simply said, “Well done.  By their faith, they did well.”  That’s it, no qualifiers.

It is true that the author could have said, “It’s too bad that those Israelites who passed through the Red Sea didn’t trust God more and grumbled against Moses and begged to return to slavery.  It is unfortunate that Rahab the prostitute couldn’t have made her living in a more honorable way.  Samson did not quite do his best when he let Delilah learn that the secret of his God-given strength was in his long hair.  And, David, he really failed to live up to his calling by sleeping with the married Bathsheba and killing her husband.”  The author very well could have written those things, but didn’t.

Instead, these faithful ancestors and all the others make up that “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us on every side.  They are the ones who by their example cheer us on so that we can “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  Imagine, if you will, those encouraging people that line the streets of the Los Angeles Marathon.  They are there at the start of the race, cheering as the starting gun goes off.  The roar of the crowd sends the runners off in a burst of adrenaline.  They are also there at mile seven to give support to the runners as they start to flag in the heat of the day.  And you’ll find more supporters at mile 13, cheering for the runners who are pushing toward the halfway point of the race.  More encouraging spectators will be hanging out around mile 19 when some runners are hitting the wall and doubting their ability to finish.  Their words of support might make the difference for some racers.  And then, as the race draws to its difficult close—mile 24, mile 25, mile 26—the cloud of witnesses grows.  Each step is more difficult, and the body is giving out, but the words of support, the remembrances of all those who had successfully completed the race before us—especially the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ—can spur us on to the finish line.

That is the good news of this text.  It isn’t “good, better, best,” but that there is a cloud of witnesses surrounding you.  Their example of faith, their silent standing ovation can help you take the next step when you feel too tired to go on.  You are not left to race alone, but to be lifted up, supported and encouraged over the long haul by others, none of whom is perfect, and none of whom ever needed to be perfect.

Truth is, you don’t have to be dead and gone to be part of the cloud of witnesses.  You don’t have to be one of the ancestors in faith who endured to the end a long time ago.  You can be a Mrs. Beverly whose encouragement made it possible for a pastor to preach a sermon without anxiety.  You can be a teacher who said to an outcaste girl in India, “You are good enough to train to be a nurse’s assistant.”  Or a tutor who said to a child at Toberman, “You can do this math.  I just know it.”  To someone who has just lost a loved one, or a valued relationship, or a job, you can say, “I love you.”  It is pretty simple to become one member of that cloud of witnesses that allows other people to thrive, to live out their lives of faith with confidence.  It doesn’t take much, but sometimes the most difficult part is to suppress that urge to say “you could have done better.”

Christians don’t believe that the message of the Gospel is “you could have done better.”  We believe in the message that the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was sent to us because God “so loved the world,” has done for us all that needs to be done.  All that is left is for us to believe, to have faith, to trust in God’s ability to do for us what we don’t need to do for ourselves.  That is the good news.

So I encourage you to think about some people in your life that could use a little support from the cloud of witnesses.  Who do you know who could use just a little boost?  Feel free to join the people of Israel who passed through the Red Sea, Rahab the prostitute, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets.  Join them all, people of faith who are examples and encouragers for those who still run the race one step at a time, with perseverance, getting closer to the finish line each day.

Sometimes it doesn’t take very much—just one word of hope, one conversation, one hug, one shoulder to cry on—and that can make all the difference between stumbling and crossing the finish line.  And we’d all like to cross that finish line together and run into the waiting arms of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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