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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Keep Your Eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-3)


So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.  Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.  He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.
Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up.

Today’s message is one of the more unusual and difficult to put together in my four years as your pastor.  It is not just any sermon, but a final sermon, a farewell sermon, a benediction to bless you as you have blessed me.

Today is my last Sunday as your pastor before I begin as the pastor of Morehead United Methodist Church in Greensboro.  Today is a day of mixed emotions for me – on one hand, excited to be going to a great church, to cut my daily commute from 25 miles to 12, and none of those miles along I-77 (can I get an “Amen!”), and for a new chapter and all the promise and possibility that holds.

On the other hand, moving forward into that next chapter requires leaving behind so many of the wonderful people who have been a part of my life for four years.  So many of you have blessed me in ways large and small.  I am grateful for the countless ways you have supported me, for our relationships, for the ways you have been open to the subtle and not-so-subtle movements of the Holy Spirit, for the ways you have grown in your faith and for the ways you have pulled together to make this church better and stronger.  It has been an honor to have a front-row seat to watch you grow as the love of God and neighbor expands in your hearts, that all people may know and experience God’s grace through you.  You should not be surprised when you hear these words one day: “Well-done, good and faithful servant.”

I am leaving you in the hands of another good and faithful servant in Pastor Carol, who is excited to begin as your next pastor.  I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hand things over to someone who has been a good friend of mine for the better part of 11 years.  Many of you have met her already; is she not great?  The rest of you will have an opportunity to meet her, and I know you’ll quickly grow to love her.  I can’t wait to see what God is yet to do through all of you and Pastor Carol as you work together to be the church God wants you to be.  I look forward to hearing her tell about what a happy and fulfilling ministry she is having here, and I expect each of you to try to outdo one another in being her biggest cheerleader and supporter.  Deal?

Today, the word of God for all people comes to us from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the 12th chapter, verses 1-3.  It represents my sincerest hope and prayer for you as I depart:

So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.  Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.  He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.
Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up.

If I may summarize: “Keep running the race.  Stay the course.  Look at the wonderful people – past, present, and future – God has surrounded you with!  Keep your eyes on Jesus.  Train yourself toward him.  Train yourself to be like him.  Whatever you do, don’t give up.  Keep your eyes on Jesus.”

The Christian life is a journey, and here in Hebrews, a long-distance foot race.  Any long-distance runners among us today?  I am not a runner – I know you’re shocked – but I know enough about running to know that you don’t just wake up one day and decide to run a marathon.  What do you have to do?  You have to train.  Serious long-distance runners train for months, sometimes years, for one big race, slowly building their endurance and capacity, not trying to get there in one fell swoop but growing, growing, growing.

Being a follower of Jesus is very much the same.  We may commit our lives to Christ in an instant or over time, but being a follower of Jesus, deepening in our faith, expanding in our love of God and neighbor, takes a lifetime of training and stretching, challenging and growing.  Following Jesus is a discipline.  It’s a commitment.  It’s a lifestyle.  But those who commit to it find it not to be a burden, but one of life’s greatest blessings.

In many sports, the adage is often “Keep your eye on – the ball.”  Keep your eye on the ball.  Why?  It’s pretty simple, actually, because “What you see – is what you get.”  If you can’t see the ball, you’re not likely to get the ball.

Many of you know I enjoy playing golf.  If I am starting to consistently mis-hit shots, the first thing I check is where I am looking, and nine times out of ten, it’s not at the ball.  Now, I think I’m looking at the ball!  I’d swear I’m looking at the ball!  But in reality, before I’ve come through, I’ve picked my head up and by the time my club comes through and makes contact with the ball, I’m looking 300 yards down the fairway while the ball is still at my feet.

I’m looking where I hope the ball is going to be, where I’d like for the ball to be, but that’s not where the ball is.  You ever do that with Jesus?  Look for him where you’d prefer for him to be, rather than where he actually is?

Keep your eyes on Jesus.  What you see is what you get.  If you’re focused on Jesus, guess what you’re going to get?  Jesus.  And if you’re not focused on Jesus, then what do you get?  What you see is what you get, and I want you to get as much Jesus as you possibly can!

Keep your eyes on Jesus.  Now, that’s not an easy thing, sometimes.  There is so much to distract us, so much to take our attention away from Jesus, extra baggage, things that trip us up, so God has given us some help in the form of training partners – a great cloud of witnesses who surround us, encourage us, challenge us, and hold us accountable in love for staying focused on Jesus.  Look around at the great cloud of witnesses who have assembled here today – what a gift you have been given in this particular community.  Your job is to cheer each other on, despite whatever obstacles and challenges you may come across, keep cheering each other on and supporting each other and keeping your eyes on Jesus.

The cloud of witnesses who surround us are not only those we see here and now.  The cloud stretches back into the past and off into the future to include all followers of Jesus of every time and place.  I can’t help but think of all of your loved ones who have left this life and gone on to the church triumphant, especially those I have had the honor to bury over the last four years:
·        Mary Edythe Britt
·        Alma Efird
·        Thelma Elkin
·        John Foster
·        Jo Gurganus
·        Wylene Hinkle
·        Frank Honeycutt
·        Lucretia Kinnaird
·        Bob Kinnett
·        Marie Landis
·        Mary Bryce Langford
·        Margaret Levan
·        Clint Maxey
·        Ellie Stratton
·        Mildred Walker
·        Jetta Williams

Think for a minute of their example, the way they ran their race, kept their eyes on Jesus, embodied Christlike character, lived lives full of God’s love and grace.  Has the witness of any of those people made a positive impression on you?  They have finished their course, but they have now taken their seats in the great grandstand of life and are cheering us on.

The great cloud of witnesses stretches off into the future, as well.  One of the things I love about being a pastor is welcoming new folks into the life of the church, as they begin their discipleship journey through the sacrament of baptism.  I can’t help but think of all those I have had the joy to baptize in my four years here:
·        Rowan Clarke
·        Robin Franklin
·        Stacey Perrow
·        Cameron Wilcox
·        Chance Franklin
·        Rob Vervoort
·        Adam Vervoort
·        Missy Meyer
·        Braxton Hudson
·        Adalynn Watford
·        Elle Neill
·        Cannon Davis

Friends, these do not represent the next generation of the church; for they are part of that great cloud of witnesses this day.  They are looking to us, as part of that cloud of witnesses, to run our race, to keep our eyes on Jesus and nothing but Jesus to show them the way.

Another way to think of the great cloud of witnesses?  Saints.  A young boy was once asked what a saint was. The only saints he had ever seen were the saints in the stained glass windows in church. So he replied very simply: “A saint is someone who lets the light shine through!”

Keep your eyes on Jesus, and his light will shine through you.

It has been my honor to run this leg of the race with you.  Keep running the race.  I won’t be here with you anymore, but I’m still rooting for you.  Just consider me part of the great cloud of witnesses that is cheering you on.  So, stay the course.  Look at the wonderful people – past, present, and future – God has surrounded you with!  Keep your eyes on Jesus.  Train yourself toward him.  Train yourself to be like him.  Whatever you do, don’t give up.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, so others can see Jesus through you.  I’ll be cheering for you.

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