The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Mickey Mantle was among the best baseball players who ever played the game. In fact, most experts, agree that he might have been one of the two or three greatest players ever had he not spent most of his life playing fast and loose with his health.
Mantle once said, “If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Mantle’s family history had all the indications that Mantle would die at a young age. His father and grandfather had both died of heart attacks before they reached the age of 40. Friends said that because he was afraid of the death that he assumed would come to him at a young age, Mantle lived recklessly.
Several days after he received a transplanted liver, Mickey Mantle held a press conference. He knew that he was largely responsible for the illness that had ruined his liver. Mantle also knew that some people still regarded him as a hero.
“Look,” he told anyone who’d listen, “I’m an example alright – an example of how not to do it.” Near the end of his life Mantle told people, “Don’t live like I did. If you’re looking for a hero,” he basically said, “you’ll have to look somewhere else.”
And that is the point the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is making in today’s epistle. However, at first glance, this might not be apparent, for we are faced with a veritable litany of biblical figures. There is Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and their accompanying deeds of note. The author tells us (these) 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, and put foreign armies to flight.” The author also lists those who suffered for their faith whose names are not included in the previous litany. They include those who were tortured, mocked, chained and imprisoned. Some were stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, left destitute, persecuted and otherwise tormented. These, we learn, are part of a great cloud of witnesses by whom we are surrounded.
Yet even though they form a litany in this reading, they are not the example that we are to follow. To learn this, we need to look to the imperatives stated in today’s lesson. There are three of them. In the first verse of chapter twelve, the author says, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out before us.” In verse 2 he adds, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus is our example. Jesus is the one upon whom we are to focus. In short—if you want to imitate someone, there really is only one person who sets the bar and that is our Savior.
That’s sound advice, as far as I’m concerned. Remember a few years ago when the slogan of the day (at least in Christian circles) was “What Would Jesus Do?” In the southern part of our country WWJD was plastered on bumper stickers and plastic bracelets, keychains and other tchotchkes that were distributed to children at Vacation Bible Schools by the thousands. I confess—the branding of things was a bit much; but the question itself is a good one. What would Jesus do? When faced with a conundrum, ask yourself the question—and, if you’ve spent any time at all with the gospels, you probably know how our Savior would respond. That isn’t to say you’re going to like the answer, just that you know what your example would do.
So, before you hit send on that e-mail that is designed to put someone in their place, employ a rude comment to a bad driver, succumb to cheating—in a small way, or large, ignore a person in need or categorize someone unfairly—ask yourself. What would Jesus do? He’s your example. He’s the one to whom you are to look.
On the cover of today’s program there is a picture of paradise. Giusto de’Menabuoi painted the masterpiece in 1378. It resides in the dome of a baptistery in Padua, Italy. Now, a baptistery is a separate building or room in which converts to the faith were baptized. The font would look something like a large hot tub (minus the jets) with three steps down on one side, and three steps up on the other. The number three is important, it represents the days our savior spent in the tomb, as well as the Holy Trinity. So, as you descend into the waters and they cover your head, you die, and as you rise, you are given new life. And as you rise from the waters of death into life, what is the first thing that you see? Jesus.
Now, this Jesus is massive—even if you suffer from a severe case of myopia, you can’t miss him. And just in case you are really clueless—he’s holding a book which says “I am Alpha and Omega”. In other words—I am the beginning and end of all that is—I am the beginning and end of the universe, creation---and you. What’s more, his eyes are open—and he is looking directly at you, with his hand held in a sign of blessing. That’s powerful. Surrounding Jesus are a multitude of figures. These are the cloud of witnesses of whom the author of Hebrews writes. There are saints and apostles, even some angels thrown into the mix. They’re all different. Interestingly, none of them is looking at you with the same depth and intensity as is Jesus. They seem otherwise occupied.
The message of this painting is this—Not only is Jesus the beginning and the end—Jesus is invested in you. He’s not simply an example to follow—he’s committed to the outcome. He is always and evermore on your side, from the moment of your baptism, on.
Now, there are a good many worthy people in this world and fine examples to emulate. But none of them—be they the finest athlete, supermodel, scientist, politician, rights advocate or scholar, has the kind of investment in you that your Savior does.
The Gospel hymn for this morning “I want to walk as a child of the light”, was written by Kathleen Thomerson in 1966. It’s an elegantly simple hymn but far from simplistic. It’s a hymn about grace and hope, about holding Christ at the center of our lives and looking to him both as an example for us to follow and a Savior with whom we will be when we finish the race we are set to run. That’s good news. In fact, it’s the best kind of news we can be given. In Jesus’ name. Amen.