“Never Alone”

Scripture – Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, August 14, 2022

 

Last week I shared an illustration from Kate Bowler’s memoir, No Cure for Being Human.[1] But I told you nothing about Kate Bowler, or why her story lends itself to a memoir that has resonated with millions. Kate Bowler is a professor of American Religious History at Duke Divinity School. At age 35, she had the life many academics hope for: A tenure track position at a prestigious university. A publication that had received widespread acclaim. A husband. A baby boy. Her life was on track. And then she was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer. Kate’s prognosis was bleak. She recalls a conversation with the doctor who was making early-morning rounds on the surgical floor at Duke University Hospital.[2] Not even 48 hours had passed since the physician’s assistant had uttered those fateful words — Stage Four cancer — and, already, Kate was recovering from surgery.

“I haven’t had a chance to google it,” Kate admitted. “Are there more than four stages of cancer?”

“No,” the doctor replied.

“Okay, so I have the … most. The most cancer.” After a few moments, Kate continued: “I’d like to know what my odds are. Of living. I’d like to know if I will live. No one has mentioned that.”

And, so — at 4 o’clock in the morning, while recovering from an unexpected surgery — Kate learned she had a 14 percent chance of surviving two years. She began counting: 730 days. Maybe. Since Kate Bowler has published a memoir, you might have already guessed she’s lived longer than two years. A combination of genetics, excellent health care and pure luck has given her the gift of time. And she’s used that time to reflect on life. And death. And all the truths we humans try to ignore … that we are fragile. That our days are filled with beauty and heartache and unfettered joy and unexplainable suffering. That there is no cure for being human. This is true for Kate and this is true for all of us …

A few years after her diagnosis, Kate and her family traveled to see one of the seven natural wonders of the world — the Grand Canyon.[3] “A worthy bucket-list item,” she calls it. Just off Route 66, she found a tiny chapel surrounded by ponderosa pine. It was standing all alone along the highway — no towns for miles. Curious, Kate tried the door and — finding it unlocked — tentatively walked inside. The room was a miniature sanctuary, unheated and inelegant. The floor was loose gravel, and someone had nailed together some benches to face a chunk of stone serving as an altar. But what made this sacred space particularly remarkable was how it had been embellished. Its walls were not adorned with painted icons or sculptural details … but with words. As the incandescent orange light of the setting sun poured through the windows, Kate noticed that the chapel was covered in graffiti, both fresh and faded. There were words everywhere:

I miss you every day.
Please let my daughter be the way she was before.
Did you make it to heaven, my love?
Helen, I am weak. But you already knew that.

Countless visitors had engraved their heartache onto every surface of the chapel. And, still, words filled the space. Kate looked up. Overhead, there were hundreds of slips of paper stuffed into the rafters and seams in the wall. The prayers and pleas of people grappling with grief and loss and disappointment and decline and uncertainty and pain and longing. Kate heard the door creak open. Her husband, Toban, joined her on a bench, then tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling. Neither spoke as they took in the words covering every inch of the chapel. After a few moments, Toban broke the silence: “I used to think we were the only ones.”

The letter to the Hebrews has something to say to those of us who have felt this way … Like we are alone. Like we’ve been left on our own to navigate the course of faith. Like we are the only ones limping along on this journey we call life. In this chapter, the writer sets out to dispel us of this notion by pointing to the forerunners of the faith. One-by-one, Hebrews holds their images before our eyes, as if pulling snapshots from the family photo album and posting them on the wall. Look! There’s Abraham and Sarah. And there’s Moses with his mama. Don’t forget the whole community of Israel — the ancestors who passed through the Red Sea. And, of course, David and Samuel and the prophets. And look — look at this picture! Those are the women whose children were raised from the dead. See, they’re all here — all those who lived and died by faith.

As we talked about last week, the people listed in Hebrews 11 are commended for their faith … By faith, the letter tells us, they responded to God’s promises with acts of faithfulness: Abraham and Sarah set out for an unknown country. Moses’ mother defied the empire and hid her baby boy. Rahab sheltered the Hebrew spies. By faith, the lives of these ancestors became a visible witness to the invisible promises of God! They sound like a great group. The kind of group whose portraits we might frame and hang for inspiration. Almost like the gallery of successful alums posted in a high school hallway, their silent smirks signaling: “Look what you can aspire to!”

But I don’t think that’s exactly what the author of Hebrews has in mind. In holding up picture after picture from the family photo album, the letter writer is inviting us to remember the stories behind the snapshots — the lives not fully captured in a single image pulled out and posted on the wall. And the story of God’s people is not solely a tale of triumph. Even the so-called “Heroes of the Faith” had their moments …

After years spent waiting for the child God had promised, Abraham and Sarah’s faith wavered. He complained to God; she laughed in the face of God. They both required reassurance.

Generations later their descendants’ also struggled on a journey of faith. The same congregation that watched God part the Red Sea waters wavered in the wilderness. They mumbled and grumbled … even wondered if bondage in Egypt was better than the trek through Sinai.

Moses led the Israelites for 40 years, then died before reaching the Promised Land.

David was beguiled by the excesses of power and had to be called back to a faithful path.

Yes, the Heroes of the Faith had their share of longing and disappointment, even heartache and despair. And this doesn’t account for those remembered for their suffering — the martyrs who were mocked and flogged, stoned to death or killed by the sword … The forerunners of the faith were no strangers to hardship. Quite the opposite, in fact. They were well-acquainted with sorrow and sighing and shame. They even suffered persecution and torment, sometimes dying for the sake of the Gospel. But — no matter what their journeys held, no matter what hardships they endured — these ancestors ran the race. They finished the course. And now they stand at the finish line to cheer us on.

Like those who have gone before, we are no strangers to hardship. Our circumstances are different, of course: In 21st century North America, we are unlikely to suffer for our faith, as the martyrs did. For us, faith is rarely the source of suffering. More often, it is the resource that supports us through suffering. The foundation that holds us fast when everything else seems to be crumbling. For many of us, faith is the reason we dare to hope, even in the face of all that threatens to undo us: flash floods that wipe out entire communities, the demoralizing loss of a job, the impossible choice between putting food on the table and paying for insulin, the death of the one person you always turned to for advice, the looming specter of violence, a diagnosis of Stage Four cancer at age 35.

No matter what our journeys hold, no matter what hardships we endure, the letter to the Hebrews offers a word of encouragement: Stay the course. Run the race. Not because you’re somehow strong enough to do it on your own. But because you’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who will support you when you’re not strong enough. “Look around,” the writer beckons. “These forerunners of the faith are all around you. Their pictures are posted on the walls. There are so many, they’re stuck in the rafters and the seams in the walls. I’ve pulled them out of the photo album so you can remember … So you can remember you’re not alone.”

“I used to think we were the only ones,” Toban said as he surveyed that chapel off Route 66, taking in the words scrawled across the walls and scribbled onto slips of paper tucked into the rafters.

“Me too,” Kate agreed.

“We all live like this,” Kate Bowler reflects on this experience. “We all live like this, without assurances, without formulas, desperate for the secret to carrying on.” So she decided to add her own words to the witness other saints had inscribed upon the chapel walls. Kate tore a strip of paper from her notebook, wrote down a phrase, and stuffed the slip of paper in the wall as high as she could reach. “What did you decide?” her husband asked as they climbed back into the truck.

“It was something [one of my teachers] used to say.” Kate replied. “I love thinking about [Mr. Boothe] at the chalkboard, goading us into advanced math problems as he publicly suffered from the disease infecting all good teachers — too much faith in humanity. Dum spiro spero, he would say, shaking his head. ‘While I breathe, I hope.’”

While I breathe, I hope. I dare say, we do the same. Even as we live this life without assurances, without formulas, desperate for the secret to carrying on, we live in hope. And we do this, in part, because we’ve discovered one secret to carrying on: Each other. The great cloud of witnesses. The communion of saints. We do not run this race alone, but press onward in faith — following in the footsteps of those who have gone before, drawing strength from companions on the journey. We live in hope because we are not the only ones; we are never the only ones. Even in the face of all that threatens to undo us, we have each other … a community that encourages and challenges, supports and inspires.

And — together — we lay claim to an even more profound truth, to another secret to carrying on: That there is one who ensures we never run this race alone — Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. The one who knows first-hand that our days are filled with beauty and heartache and unfettered joy and unexplainable suffering. And who is committed to being a companion on the journey. Calling us forward. Cheering us onward. Reminding us that we are not the only ones. That we are never alone. Thanks be to God.

 

Prayers of the People

Bob Stoddard

 

Ever present and vigilant God, thank you for seeing us safely through another night that may have been restful and restorative for some, but restless for others. Some of us are grieving recent losses.  Others are still grieving not so recent losses. Some worry about the rise of racism and white supremacy, deepening political tensions and division, and threats to our democracy.  Others agonize over war, famine, poverty and oppression.  Still other are weighted down thinking about droughts, wildfires, torrential rains and flooding.  We face a seemingly endless litany of life-threatening concerns about which we feel able to do little.

But at the risk of appearing uncaring and self-centered, O Lord, we turn our thoughts inward this morning.  As we finish our vacation days and start to look ahead, we pause to take stock at this time of transition and of where we are in our various life journeys.

Creator God, ever present in all stages of our lives from beginning to end, we rejoice whenever we see a rose next to the pulpit signifying the birth of a new member of our church family.  We so enjoy watching each grow from infancy to childhood to adolescence. We ask your special blessing this morning, O Lord, on our young people who are about to leave home, many for the first time, for college, vocational training, military service, work experience or a year off to better discern next steps.  We are grateful for parents and grandparents as well as our pastors, Christian educators and youth leaders who provided them with a strong foundation in our Reformed Faith.

Grant them safe travels to their various campuses, programs and job sites, O God, and may they remain well living on their own. May they make new life-long friends. May they make wise decisions and develop healthy ways of dealing with the new challenges and stress they will encounter.  May they take advantage of the educational opportunities they have earned and learn new, exciting and promising ways to make our world and planet a better and healthier place for all.  And may they know how proud we are of them and that they go with our love, support and best wishes.

Brother/Sister God, be as well with their siblings remaining at home who must now push on with their own schooling and maturing without the immediate support and companionship of an older brother or sister. May they receive the extra love, attention and support they need to get ready for going off on their own, also with our blessings, support and well wishes.

Moreover, Father/Mother God, be with their parents who will, with a mixture of pride and sadness, be transiting to an “emptier” or totally “empty nest.”  Help them adapt to the reduction in activity, absence of chaos and new quiet. May husbands and wives enjoy spending more time together and getting reacquainted. May they learn to appreciate one another in new ways and discover how they can better support each other.  May the time and energy previously expended on childrearing be redirected to taking on postponed projects, exploring old and new interests, and finding fulfilling ways to be of service to others.

God of our forefathers and foremothers, we who are even further along on our journeys follow in your footsteps for you have made and completed this journey ahead of us.  Therefore, we push on with reassurance that your Holy Spirit is with us every step of the way, and that you, along with our own clouds of witnesses cheering us on, will be at the end of our course to embrace and receive us into your eternal love.  For this assurance we give you thanks and pray as you taught us…

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

 

NOTES

[1] The illustrations contain a combination of paraphrases and direct quotes from: Kate Bowler, No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) (New York: Random House, 2021).

[2] ibid, 3-8.

[3] ibid, 186-189.