Keep the Faith
I thought I would begin by sharing the story of my one foray into running long distances. It was a long time ago when I was in college. To graduate I had to have some P.E. credits, so I took a fitness class where you worked with a coach on learning to run the right way. To pass you had to run a 5k in a certain amount of time. I did everything I was asked to do. I stretched before running and ran every day slowly building up my endurance and distance. The coach kept telling me, “Remember the goal.” He was sure that I would come to love running as much as he did. He kept telling me, and the others in my group, that we were starting a lifelong exercise practice. Well, the day for the 5k came and I am proud to say, “I did it.” I haven’t run that far since and a few years later I developed some knee problems and almost hugged the doctor when he told me it was not wise for me to run; the pounding would exacerbate the problems. I was not created to run.
You might be wondering why I told that story. The words of encouragement I got from my coach stayed with me and they intersect nicely with what the Apostle Paul was saying to the people in Philippi.
My coach told me to not worry about how I did day-to-day. There would be good days and not so good ones. It is part of the training. He said, “Every two weeks or so you should evaluate how you are doing. Celebrate the progress you have made and then put it behind you.” Paul says much the same thing, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” Paul had a lot of negative stuff in his past. He had stood by approvingly as Stephen was stoned to death and he had been zealous in persecuting the faithful until his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Yet, he could say that he no longer dwelt on this but instead kept focused on today and the days to come.
This is part of the good news of our faith. We are not defined by our past but instead by what we do today and, even more, by where we are focusing our energy as we look to the future. So if there are things in your past that cause you to feel weighed down, release them. Know God forgives you and instead focus your mental energy on the future.
Even when things in the past are good, we need to let go of them and focus forward. All of us have fond memories of the “good old days.” For each of us what constitutes those days and what made them so good will be different, but if we focus on them and lament how today does not measure up, then we will miss the opportunities God is giving us now and, even more, not see how tomorrow might be even better than those past cherished days.
I think you know where I am going right now. We are at a time of transition in the church. I have one more sermon after today and then I am the past. Too often the new pastor hears about how things were with their former pastor who gets smarter, and more dynamic with each telling. The congregation is subtly, or maybe not so subtly, telling the new pastor that they are being measured by what has happened. My word to you is to let go of the past. No matter how much we enjoyed our time together, I will soon be history. You need to focus on the future and embrace the vision Brad has for this church. With COVID one thing is sure. What the future ministry of Trinity will be will not look anything like what it looked like in the past. Everything is and will continue to be different. Don’t lament what is lost but celebrate what new is happening. That is the way to keep the momentum we built going; not by trying to hold on to what we did but to instead see what new things God is doing.
The second thing my coach told me is that you have to keep at it, putting in the miles on a consistent basis. If you run sporadically then you will never get better and not make your goal. Paul talks about pressing on toward the goal of the prize of the “heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” You have all been called to live faithfully so that you will receive the joys of eternal life. This striving to reach your goal happens only by consistently putting into practice our faith. We cannot talk one day about loving our neighbors and the next day send out a rant on our Facebook page about someone or say disparaging remarks about an individual or worse, groups of people. Christian training requires us to daily read the Bible, spend time meditating on its words, practicing unconditional love, offering forgiveness and compassion, and more. When we do it day after day, the better we will get at living and internalizing our faith.
The hope is that the way we live becomes a lifelong pattern of faithful discipleship. I hope you are doing better at keeping up your faith disciplines than I was in continuing my running practices. I could never get beyond the daily grind of the workout. It was hard work. Those magical endorphins that are supposed to kick in after you run a ways, the runners high, never happened for me. I got through the class but because my heart wasn’t in it, I didn’t continue running after the class. We practice our faith, not out of duty but out of joy. For me, some of the best moments of each day are those moments of Bible study and prayer. They have become a joy because through them I draw close to God. If living the faith still seems to be a challenge, something you have to work hard at doing, don’t despair. Keep at it. Ultimately, we all want to experience a bit of heaven right here on earth and we do it by not just believing but becoming one with God through faith. We do this by pausing to listen and, even more, by living by those truths each day.
Both my coach and the Apostle Paul said the same thing. Focus on the goal. It is that focus that keeps you moving forward. My coach wanted us to keep that 5K goal in mind but also challenged us to make intermediary goals that would help us get there. So here is what I believe the intermediate goals are for the faithful of Trinity as you strive for the ultimate prize that Paul talks about.
Continue to figure out ways to share radical hospitality with those who come. I still am trying to grasp what that is going to look like in a COVID 19 world. So much of what we have done in the past is past, but we will find new ways to be hospitable.
Even more important, as we get back to worship, we need to invite people to attend. One of the things the pandemic has done is to make people very aware of how fragile life is. It has also made them aware of how dependent they are on others. And most of all it has made us all ask ourselves hard questions like. “What really matters?” We know church can help with all of those questions and fears. Yet, it is going to be so much harder for people to attend, at least in the beginning. When we get to worship in the sanctuary it will be with new rules, distance seating, and more. It will seem really scary to new people. It will take you inviting them and offering to sit near them to get them through the door.
Another goal is to continue embracing all the new things technology has given us. Keep asking what you need to learn to do in this digital age to stay better connected with others. I know my sermons are being listened to around the world because of it. People who might never come and worship with us are being fed. Together with Brad, you will need to figure out how to move Trinity to the next step with these tools. The church of tomorrow will be a digital church. You have to keep up!
Finally, have some personal intermediate goals. Challenge yourself to daily: do a random act of kindness or to meet a need. Set time aside each day to read your Bibles. Weekly ask, who do I need to forgive? Check yourself each day and week and see how well you did in meeting these goals. And, like my coach said, at least twice a month really evaluate your life and see if you have made progress.
You are in a marathon when it comes to living your faith. You never graduate. Each day you have to work at it, you have to keep pushing through the challenging moments looking towards the end. Keeping the faith means faithfully showing up, living, loving, and forgiving. Do not grow weary of doing good, Paul would say in another place.
We have run a good race. Soon I will pass the baton. Yet I know you will keep on keeping on. Life at Trinity will be different on so many levels, not just because of a new pastor but because we are living in a new world order. But if you don’t keep looking back on what was, you will be amazed at what God is providing for you now and into the future.