Lord, despite the challenges we face, let us play the hand we’re dealt. Amen.
My message is straightforward and to the point today – play the hand you’re dealt. Reviewing today’s lesson from the letter to the Hebrews which continues from last week, I thought about the old card playing saying which speaks to making the best of what you have, no matter the challenge, and going forward anyhow! I thought that this message was particularly appropriate given the school year is starting tomorrow in Prince George’s County, and the challenges facing us here at St. John’s. Yes, young people, it feels like the school year just ended for the summer, and here you are about to start tomorrow. That’s lousy, that’s too soon, that’s just not fair, and I agree. But, that’s what is, and you’ve just got to make the most of it. Likewise, it’s lousy that I’m leaving St. John’s in five weeks. Although I’m going to a great opportunity with the Diocese, this departure is sooner than I would have liked, and sooner than we’d like, and we’re trying to see our way through. To top it off, week before last Eric resigned as our organist and we’re trying to figure out how we fill his very big shoes. We’re also losing stalwart members of our parish like Vestry Member Pam Piper-Yeung, Dave Clarke, and Shirley Redmond. So these are challenging times, no doubt, but that’s okay. We must play the hand we’re dealt, and move forward.
Now, I’m using this card playing metaphor intentionally, because there was a time in my life when I played a whole lot of cards – specifically Bid Whist, in college, and after college with my parents. Bid Whist is a game of skill, craftiness, less luck, and more making the most of what you have to work things out. I learned a lot about life playing Bid Whist with my parents and their friends. Bid Whist is a game you play with a partner, and you communicate by bidding on what you have in your hand based on what you think you can do before the game begins. Sometimes, though, you don’t have much, but you bid anyway, and you probably won’t do what you say you can, but you try anyway with the help of your partner. I was always fascinated watching my parents and their friends play Whist when they were bidding. I would peak into their hands after the cards were dealt, and I’d be like, “That’s a lousy hand. There’s no way they’re going to make their bid. They’re crazy.” And yes, often they wouldn’t make it, but they’d keep on playing well into the night. Sometimes, though, despite the lousy cards in their hand, through craftiness, skill, the help of their partner and a bit of luck, they would make their bid. I’d always wonder, “How did they do that!” The Bid Whist marathons at my parents’ house taught me to play the cards you’re dealt – play with perseverance, with a partner, and you’ll be okay. Sometimes, even, you can win!
That’s what the author to the Hebrews is talking about in this week’s lesson. As I mentioned last week, the author is citing the heroes, and sheroes of the faith as examples of how we must endure hardship and struggles but keep on going. The author talks about the faith of Gideon, Sampson, David, and even Rahab the prostitute who helped the Israelites conquer Jericho. The author lists all kinds of perils the faithful confronted, lions, raging fire, sword, torture, mocking, flogging and imprisonment, yet it says they won strength out of weakness. We have a picture of the horrible atrocities that faced the faithful through the Hebrew history and we have a window into the hardships the early Hebrew Christians endured. The author, as mentioned last week, is writing this letter to give them encouragement through their hardships. They’re asked to remember that despite the difficulties these heroes and sheroes of the faith endured, they kept on going, not always seeing their just reward in this life, but keeping the faith nevertheless. The author says that these persons are our “Great Cloud of Witnesses” whose example we should follow as we run our own race of faith. The text says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I love the image of the cloud of witnesses. The cloud of witnesses most often represent those heroes and sheroes who have gone before us, endured hardships and kept the faith. As I mentioned last week, and as we remembered last All Souls Day, these are the people in our lives and in our history who have now gone on to glory who‘re still cheering us on in this life, as we run the race of faith. I truly believe that those who loved us are always connected to us, even after death, and are with us as partners as we continue faithfully in this life. I tell you there have been times when I have felt Father Bals with me here at St. John’s. No, I never met the man, but I have felt him here at St. John’s, supporting me, and cheering me on. Remember all our heroes and sheroes, St. John’s, some who are buried right behind us, for their spirits are still here inspiring and encouraging us as we run our race of faith.
Moreover, we have a mortal cloud of witnesses who support and encourage us each and every day. We are members of this earthly cloud of witnesses, and it’s our job to be loyal partners with each other in the race of faith. Last night I spoke with my good friend, the Rev. Anne-Marie Jeffery, who testified about St. John’s. She said, “Tell St. John’s, Paula, how strong and resilient they are, how incredible and persevering they are. They will miss you, but they will do amazing ministry after you’re gone. I have seen them in your absence, and they are awesome people of God.”
Indeed, you are awesome people of God, and even though you’re going through a time of hardship now, you have partners in the faith, both visible and invisible who will support, encourage, and cheer you on in the race of faith. So don’t lose heart despite the challenges you face. Move forward in faith, play the hand you’re dealt, and keep your eyes on Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of your faith. As a reminder that we all have partners in the faith, I want you to think about who your partners are in the great cloud of witnesses and write down the names of two people who will help get you thru this time of challenge – whether visible or invisible, mortal or immortal. I have our display board from All Saints Day here. Stick the names of your two cloud of witnesses on the board. I’m going to leave the Board up through the picnic and next week as encouragement that we are not alone in our struggles. We all must play the hand we’re dealt. But if we remain faithful, persevere, and rely on our partners in the faith, we will win! Amen.