I’ve been thinking a lot about deep benches of late. As our Cleveland Indians give their all to advance in the playoffs, I’m hoping our roster of players stays strong, although we’re already dealing with a few injuries that could come back to haunt us.
I can’t help but remember the 2015 Cavaliers playoff games where our players kept getting hurt and LeBron and Matthew Dellevedova had to virtually carry the team. In one of his typical satiric pieces for the New Yorker, Andy Borowitz captured Delly’s pluckiness in the face of his teammates landing on the disabled list in rapid succession:
“In a freak accident following Game 3 of the N.B.A. Finals, Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Matthew Dellavedova suffered fractures in all four of his limbs and neck, but said that he should be ready to play in Game 4, on Thursday.
“Speaking from an intensive-care unit at the Cleveland Clinic, the gritty Australian declined to dwell on the details of the accident, but said that he would not let the loss of his limbs and neck keep him out of Thursday’s contest.
“’I’m not going to give less than a hundred per cent just because I’m playing without a spinal column,’ said Dellavedova.
“Cleveland coach David Blatt praised Dellavedova, calling him ‘the kind of blue-collar steelworker lunch-pail smokestack guy who won’t let a little full body cast slow him down.’
“Blatt said that he anticipated another gutsy performance from his point guard in Game 4, noting that Dellavedova had played several games in college with a detached head.”
All joking aside, we know that the story ended well when the Cavs regained their health in 2016 and a robust line-up of players gave their all to win the first championship this city had seen in 52 years.
The image of deep benches has really captured my imagination. As both a pastor and sports fan, I am fascinated by teams blessed with a strong, healthy group of players who bring diverse gifts and work well together. I am equally fascinated by St. Paul’s description of the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12. The bottom line is that no one body part, no one person, can ever really go it alone. Like parts of a physical body or of a really great sports team, we belong to a whole that is much bigger than our individual selves. We absolutely need one another if we are to respond faithfully to God’s call upon our lives.
I’ve always embraced the idea that we are intimately connected to one another, but somehow that truth seems to be more pointed and poignant than ever before. We are instantly connected through any number of devices to people around the world and with that connectivity we are often confronted with suffering and brokenness in a variety of forms. We are devastated–broken-hearted– every time we hear of the murders of unarmed black citizens, of the deaths of refugees from war-torn countries, of the hateful public rhetoric that denies the truth that all people—no matter their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, size or abilities—are precious in the sight of God.
Last week I sat down with one of my dearest friends and colleagues in ministry for a good heart-to-heart talk. I’d been feeling depressed and anxious about the bad news that seems to hang over us like an oppressive weather front that just won’t move. She too was feeling a sense of world-weariness. As we shared our struggle we realized that we had fallen into the trap of feeling like the last man, or in our case the last woman, standing. We were feeling alone and powerless in a world run amuck. Suddenly the thought of Elijah the prophet came to mind. You’ll remember that Elijah was the great prophet of Israel who squared off with the corrupt, idolatrous regime of Ahab and Jezebel. In the verses preceding the passage Ann Williams just read Elijah had complained a number of times to the Lord about his weariness and depression, even going so far as to ask to die. But God kept firmly guiding him to the next right thing. In this morning’s text God reminds Elijah that he is not the last man standing, that there are still thousands left in Israel who have not forsaken God’s ways.
We are wrapping up a five-week sermon series on the 5 Core Values of Forest Hill Church today. We’ve reflected on our commitment to being a worshiping, welcoming, learning, and discerning community and now our commitment to being a witnessing community. Listen to the beautiful words of our Mission Statement on this value, “In God, through Jesus Christ, we witness to God’s transformative action—in our local community and our world. We employ the multiple gifts the Spirit of God has given us to spread the Good News of the Gospel in word and deed. Called to the transformation of persons and structures, we encourage ministries that deepen faith and involve us individually and collectively in acts of social justice. We bear witness to the reconciling power of God’s love.”
Given the many local and global problems that confront us it could be very tempting to doubt our ability to bear witness to the reconciling power of God’s love. We could believe the lie that we just can’t or won’t make a difference. We could give into despair over the powerful systems of this world that treat God’s people, and everything God has created, with contempt, cynicism and cruelty. We could wring our hands in desperation and succumb to depression and paralysis.
These are very real temptations so, more than ever, we must affirm the good news that we are not alone. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who in word and deed attest to the power of God’s transforming love. Those witnesses are right here in this sanctuary, and in this city, and in this state, and in this country, and throughout the world, and beyond the veil. Some of those witnesses have been nurtured and educated by this church and fed at this table. Some of them, like dear little Chloe, have been welcomed into the family of God in this place through the waters of baptism. Many are still here—we just honored a lot of them– and others have gone forth to other communities to witness to God’s transforming love. They have worked, and are continuing to work, in a variety of ways to break the bonds of injustice and bring healing to those who have been crushed by it.
For years members of this church have marched, studied, prayed, and worked tirelessly for fair housing, civil rights, and reforms in criminal justice, education and health care. At present, our Greater Cleveland Congregations members, our Racial Inclusiveness Committee, our Black History Month committee, and all our Justice and Mission ministries and missions, are energetically living out our call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. They are working among many other things, to insure that people are able to exercise their very basic democratic right to vote, that public servants are held accountable for serving all people, and that no one is denied the rights and privileges of a just society.
Interestingly enough, I was at a public gathering here in the Heights a few weeks ago and someone asked me which church I served. When I replied that I was from Forest Hill the person immediately responded, “Oh, that’s the peace and justice church!” Wow. What a testimony to the witness you, and countless people before you have made, not just with words, but with your very lives. May it ever be so!
Anytime you feel that your gifts don’t matter and you are alone in this troubled and troubling world, you must rebuke that lie. Rebuke it! It is a lie! God created us for community and called us to do his work in community. All our gifts work together in the body, or, to continue the sports metaphor with which I began, on the team. The writer of Hebrews urges us to run the race that is set before us, and after meditating on this text I am now envisioning that race as a team sport, a relay whose success depends on great collaboration.
You are not alone. As you commit yourself to the transformation of persons and structures, as you commit yourself to social justice, you are not the last person standing. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses in this church and through all time and space. My ongoing prayer for Forest Hill Church, and for the church throughout the world, is this: as we seek to live out our call to discipleship may we always be mindful of God’s guidance and strength mediated through the saints with whom God has surrounded us, and the saints with whom God will continue to surround us.
Never forget, dear friends, God’s bench is very, very deep.
In Jesus’ name.