Text: Hebrews 12:1-2
How many of you remember reading the Little House books, either as children yourselves or to your own children? Or at least seeing the Little House on the Prairie television series, with Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert? I LOVED those books, and I liked the tv show, too.
For those of you unfamiliar with either of them, the television series is based upon wrote a sequence of children’s novels which Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in the mid-1900s in which she traced the journey – or journeys – her family had made westward 75 years earlier. Her restless father – “Pa” to her readers – nudged his family from Wisconsin to South Dakota in fits and starts over a period of about ten years.
I’m sure that my lifelong fascination with American history, with the stories of pioneer women, and with the landscape of the American West began when I virtually inhaled those books as a little girl. And I always think about them when I come across the phrase in the Letter to the Hebrews which we’re going to explore together, the phrase in which Jesus is called “the pioneer and perfecter
of our faith.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had trouble merging
my mental picture of 19th century American pioneers with the way in which I imagine the first-century people who inhabit the Bible. And if we’ve read the books, we know that Pa Ingalls, much as his daughter loved and admired him, was not a man of perfection. So what does that mean, that Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”? What do we do with those descriptors; what do they mean in the context of the Christian life?
Pioneers, it seems to me, are folks who are dissatisfied with the way things are, are willing to undertake great challenges and go on great adventures in order to change things, and often endure tremendous hardship to reach their goal. Think about the men and women who settled the American West – if Pa Ingalls is any indication, they felt cramped and stifled at home. They wanted more physical space, more land, more opportunity to spread out. Some of them felt encumbered by too much family and too little inheritance; some were excluded from their communities due to their religious beliefs.
Dissatisfaction propelled them out the door, but an eagerness for, or at least a willingness to accept, challenge and adventure made it possible for them to persist. Maybe some of you know some of your own families’ pioneer stories. When I was doing some research on my own family years ago, a slip of paper fell our of a record book on which was recorded, in just a sentence or two, some notes about some of my ancestors who lived in the trunk of a gigantic tree during their first winter in Ohio, to which they’d come from Pennsylvania. A couple of generations later they were farmers and business owners, but they started out with the adventure of living in the hollow of a tree.
And hardship – yes, most pioneers had to come to terms with that as well. Think about the stories you’ve read of families crossing the Missouri river on their wagonbeds, or pushing those wagons upward and over the Rockies. If you’ve read the stories of pioneer women, you know that many of them gave birth and buried infants in spots they would never see again.
Dissatisfaction with things as they are, a willingness to be challenged and to endure hardship – all facets of pioneer life. How does the life of Jesus, the pioneer of our faith, fit within the definition of pioneer as we have it so far?
He certainly did not want to leave things as they were, did he? Had he come to accept the status quo, Jesus might have had a good life as a simple carpenter with a wife and children, the life his parents had probably imagined for themselves and their children and grandchildren. Most people in that era did not move away from the region in which they had been born and raised; the Hebrew migrations of previous centuries were behind them and most Jews traveled only for important feasts and celebrations or other events that demanded their presence away from home.
And, much more significant than geographic travel is the fact that most people did not travel spiritually. While there were many sects, many ways in which to be Jewish in first-century Palestine, people tended to stay within their own groups. And the Jewish people as a whole certainly stuck together and celebrated their identity as the worshippers of the one true God, strangers in the midst of the polytheistic Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean. With centuries of religious faith behind them, they were not looking to go anywhere, either physically or spiritually.
Jesus, however, did not come in order to foster their complacency or self-satisfaction. He did not come to fulfill their idea of a messiah who would overturn the political burdens imposed by Roman empire, or to usher in an era of monarchical triumph for the Jewish people. Any of those options, any of those long hoped-for expectations of the Jews, would not have been work for a pioneer, for someone who chafed against the status quo and its parameters.
Jesus did not come either to leave things as they were or to change things as expected. He came ready to take on new challenges, to bring to his people and, ultimately, to all peoples, a completely new adventure: the kingdom of God.
At first glance, it looks like the challenges he undertook were, while miraculous, are within the realm of what we could embrace without difficulty – with satisfaction, even with delight, but not with the sense that we are being called upon to change. Healing. Feeding. Helping. Teaching.
But those things don’t constitute his real adventure, do they? His real adventure is to open the door to the Kingdom of God among us. That perplexing, challenging kingdom. The one where those who suffer and mourn are blessed. The one where poverty, poverty of material goods and poverty of spirit, is honored. The one where love of God and neighbor are the only standards which matter. That already/not yet kingdom in which God’s love is showered upon us and God’s invitation to us to participate in that love is always open. “The Kingdom of God is among you,” he tells us and, “Your kingdom come,” he teaches us to pray. This is a pioneer adventure of the highest drama.
And it was a pioneer adventure that brought hardship. Jesus came into a world which had become unsatisfactory to its Creator and he embarked upon an adventure to bring it to God, and he did so with a complete willingness to endure the anguish necessary to accomplish its fruition. The simple difficultiesof life on the road as an itinerant teacher, preacher, and healer. The more profound challenges of being misunderstood, ridiculed, and scorned. The sense of having been abandoned by followers and friends and, ultimately, the Father who had brought him to the brink of death. The ultimate trauma of a public and physically torturous death.
And yet – none of these postures in his life – his restlessness, his rise to the challenge of adventure, his acceptance of suffering – none of them really define him as our pioneer in faith. Because – what is it about a pioneer that makes him or her different from others who live similar lives? What makes them really pioneers?
Pioneers go first. They lead the way. The Greek word – archegos -- which we translate as “pioneer,” incorporates multiple layers of meaning: beginner, instigator, leader, initiator, trailblazer. Someone who scouts out the territory ahead for those who will follow.
And remember – it’s a Greek word. In Greek athletic contexts, the archegos was the captain of the team, the one who set out first to lead the way in the race. In other words, the archegos, the pioneer, is not someone who sets out on his own without much interest in whether anyone else follows.
The Ingalls Family of the Little House series – they set out to make a new life for themselves. We think of them as pioneers, but only because they were among the first, not because they intended to lead the way for others. The Greek archegos, the Greek pioneer, connotes a different motivation. It means a person who not only heads out to tackle new challenges, but one who does so for the purpose of leading others. It means someone who sees the goal ahead as a goal for all, who traverses the challenging ground ahead for the purpose of making a way for others, who serves as their leader, encourager – and finisher.
And there’s the other word we want to pay attention to today. Jesus is not only the pioneer of our faith; he is its perfecter, its teleoites, as well. Now when think of the word “perfect,” we think of something without blemish, without error. A perfect body. A perfect test score. A perfect pie. But the word the writer of Hebrews uses, which we translate as “perfecter,” means “finisher” or “one who completes.” The one who finishes the race; the one who completes the task. Jesus not only pioneers the way for us; he is the one who completes it. We are running the race of faith; he is the one who gets us started and whose perfection is its completion.
Over the last week or so, we all heard the news reports of the story of ten medical workers from four countries killed after providing care to people in a remote area of Afghanistan. They had had to hike with pack horses over mountainous terrain to reach their destination, and during their return trip were allegedly shot to death by Taliban militia, who claimed that they were “spying for Americans” and “preaching Christianity.” All reports indicate that the mission organization with which they were affiliated is registered as a nonprofit Christian organization that does not proselytize.
Pioneers? One might say yes, in the sense that these medical professionals were evidently impelled by a dissatisfaction with the status quo, by a desire to change things for the people of Afghanistan, by a desire to do something of great meaning with their lives. They took on a significant challenge and withstood enormous hardship to achieve their goal ~ and, ultimately died for it. Their stories are heartwrenching and inspiring: The dentist who gave up a successful practice so that children with no other chance of ever encountering dental care could have healthier teeth and gums. The eye doctor from New York State who with his wife had lived in Afghanistan for 30 years, working and raising their family. The British doctor soon to be married.
But who is the pioneer behind such commitment? Who set out to establish a kingdom in which people are healed and made whole by those who follow him? The doctors and nurses who died took on the training, the physical hardship, the risks to personal safety –but they did so because someone else blazed the trail for them – and will finish it as well.
By our human standards, their work clearly remains unfinished, interrupted as it was by irrational hatred and accurate bullets. It looks far from perfect; in fact, it appears quite the opposite. The possibility of increased danger will mean fewer medical workers will be able to make the effort that they did -- fewer children will receive basic care, more women will die in childbirth, more people will suffer festering wounds and illnesses that would respond to simple antibotic treatment. In such grim situations, if we had no one but ourselves upon whom to rely for the ultimate outcome, most of us would give up. But the ultimate outcome, the final perfecting touches, the all-encompassing gft of life and hope, comes from another perfecter. The one who started all will finish all.
A friend of mine posted a brief note on Facebook last week-end with respect to those medical workers. She used a quote from novelist Barbara Kingsolver to describe them, saying that they were “living inside their hope.” And since we’ve been talking about ancient words –archegos for pioneer and teleoites for perfector, let me throw in another one that might help to describe what “living inside our hope” is.
Inclusio is a Latin literary term; you may have encountered it before. It refers to a literary technique in which a word or phrase is used at both the beginning and end of a passage, is used to “include” the rest of the passage. The similarity of word choice lets us know where a section of text begins and ends but, more importantly, it signals the artistic intent of the writer to gather together all that he or she has to say and highlight it, mark it off, with words that serve as a sort of shorthand to remind us of the meaning of the passage as a whole. A passage in a text lives inside an inclusio
I’d like to suggest that the phrase we’ve explored today – “pioneer and perfecter” – tells us that Jesus himself is the inclusio for our lives. Jesus is the Word who marks the beginning and end of our lives. Jesus is the hope we live inside. Jesus is the one who starts us on the journey of faith that leads us to become dissatisfied with things as they are, to take on challenges of we might think ourselves incapable, to accept hardships we might otherwise avoid. Jesus is the one who has instigated the adventure of our lives – and he is the one who will perfect it. He embraces us, from beginning to end; he showers us with the love which encircles all that we do and which assures us that, even though our beginnings may seem tentative and our endings murky, they are all part of God’s project for God’s creation, and will ultimately be woven into the work of the great perfecter.
Most of us are not going off to provide medical care to those in need in remote and dangerous areas of this world – although from what I’ve learned of this church, at least some of you have been or at some point may be off to help provide education in rural Liberia. For most of us though, the adventures we undertake will be right here, in Cleveland, in the Heights, perhaps even in our own homes.
Sometimes the challenges in which we look for the guidance of a pioneer and the hope of a perfecter are dramatically spread across a world stage – sometimes we head off on mission work or in support of an initiative far beyond what we might manage on our own, Sometimes , as we volunteer with our own church, or help an elderly neighbor with yardwork, or care for a loved one with cancer, our adventures seem much more constrained, perhaps even to the walls of our own home. In either case, adventures they are – adventures we live within the embrace, the inclusion, of our pioneer and perfecter.
God’s invitation to us is that we “live inside our hope;” that we live as those who acknowledge the pioneer who initiates the way and the perfecter who completes it.
Thanks be to God.