For months now, various people around here have been talking about shoes. We make announcements about shoes, we collect shoes, we talk about how many shoes we still need, we give frequent shoe reminders and shoe updates. Some days, it feels like I trip over shoes trying to get to my office. When we finally get to ten thousand pairs of shoes and this particular fundraiser for the SPF Mission Trip to South Dakota is over, I’ll be fine if I never see another unwanted pair of shoes again in my lifetime.
In any case, despite the fact that we’ve been talking about shoes and collecting shoes around here for a year and a half, few of us in this congregation have had the unique opportunity to actually count the shoes. Which is exactly what SPF set out to do a few weeks ago on a Sunday evening.
Counting all the shoes we’ve collected in this church isn’t as easy as it sounds. A few weeks ago, there were shoes in bags of various shapes and sizes waiting to be sorted and bagged in the SPF storage room here on the second floor of this church. There were a bunch of garbage bags filled with the requisite number of 25 pairs of completed shoes up in a room on the third floor of this church. And there was an unknown quantity of shoes piled in a storage space underneath the stairs in the Gathering Room right outside this sanctuary. A storage space I didn’t even know existed until a couple of years ago.
Periodically, SPF will take time during a Sunday evening meeting time to match pairs of shoes and put them in garbage bags. But the task a few weeks ago was threefold. To sort the shoes. To consolidate the shoes into one room. And to add up all the shoes so we knew our running total and how many more shoes we need to reach our final goal.
As we began, I appointed myself as the official shoe counter and I kept a running tally sheet as youth and advisors piled garbage bags of shoes, layer upon layer, from the floor nearly up to the ceiling in a room on the third floor. The final tally at the end of that night? Two hundred and seventy-four bags of shoes. Filled with twenty-five pairs of shoes in each bag equaling six thousand eight hundred and fifty pairs of shoes.
Shoes have continued to come in since that night and I suspect we are over seven thousand shoe pairs by now. A final big push over these next couple of months and I’m confident we will hit our ten thousand pair objective. In the meantime, I have seen more shoes up close than you can imagine.
I’ve seen big shoes and little shoes. Nice looking shoes and shoes so ugly it’s amazing anyone purchased them, much less wore them on their feet. I’ve seen shoes with soles worn down and holes in them and shoes with heels so high they looked like a broken ankle waiting to happen. At times shoes have become so routine and so mundane to me that I barely noticed what I was holding in my hand.
But the shoes I’ve thought about this week are the ones that have come in to the church still nicely tied. It’s an interesting image, I think…shoes all tied up ready to go with no feet in them. There haven’t been many of those scattered amidst the piles. Yet whenever I’ve noticed a pair of shoes with laces tied, they’ve struck me as shoes that still had some walking to do. Shoes that still had a place to go, a trail to blaze, a journey that never arrived at a destination.
Although I have never personally considered tying shoes to be 100 percent mandatory, I do appreciate tied shoes. Shoes that are tied signify to me that someone wants to stay in the game. Someone who is ready to go a little further and do a little more. Someone prepared to take a few more steps should the opportunity arise.
To expand the image of shoe tying, there will come a moment for each of us when we reach the end of a day, untie our shoes, slip them off and expect to put them on again the next time. But before we have a chance to put our shoes on and tie them one more time, we will take our final breath here on earth. And the next time won’t come. At least in this world.
Sometimes we’re left with untied shoes. Unfinished tasks. Unfinished lives. One of the challenging realities in human life is to work with God to try and finish whatever we might have started. All the while recognizing that there is grace in knowing we will never accomplish everything we set out to do. And being okay with that fact…
The author of Hebrews tells us this morning that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…so let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
Who’s in this “cloud of witnesses” and what does it mean? If we were to go back one chapter in the Letter to the Hebrews to Chapter Eleven, we could find out specifically who the author was referencing. Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses David, Rahab…just to name a few. They are the cloud of witnesses. They are the ones who ran God’s race before us. And by the way, together they probably constitute an entire wing in God’s hall of fame.
Then there is you and me. We might not make the “A” list of God’s heroes as identified in Hebrews. None of us will lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. No one in this sanctuary will build an ark and save living creatures from a disastrous flood. And none of us will slay a Philistine giant with a slingshot and one smooth, round stone.
Some days, in fact, it feels like you and I might not make it on God’s B, C, or D list. Some days it feels like you and I are sitting in the stands spectating while others who are more worthy actually race by us in rapid succession.
Yet the writer of Hebrews thinks about it differently. “You are now surrounded by these saints,” the writer reminds us. The ones who have gone before us have already taken their turn around the track. They’ve already carried the baton. They’ve already endured the challenges of the race…the sweat and the fatigue and the burning leg muscles and the blisters and the rapid heart rate and the breathlessness.”
They’re done racing, though, and now it’s our turn. They’ve stepped off the track and you and I have stepped on. The baton is in our hands. Meanwhile they’re the ones sitting on the stadium seats looking down at us as we click off lap after lap.
The great cloud of witnesses…the saints who have gone before us…they haven’t walked off somewhere and disappeared. They surround us and if we listen carefully we can hear them cheering us on, applauding for us on their feet with a standing ovation, giving us every ounce of encouragement they can muster.
Why are the saints in the Bible still spectating? Abraham and Sarah and David and Noah and Moses…why would they watch us?
And what about the saints in your life and in my life? Your grandparents, your mother, your father, the woman who used to live next door and take care of you after school when you were a child, the man who gave you your first job and took you under his wing and taught you morals and values? Why would they watch us?
And what about the saints of Wapping Community Church? The men and women who built this church edifice from the ground up. The ones who served tirelessly on boards and committees with little fanfare or recognition. The ones who taught church school and mentored youth and served communion and sang in the choir and maintained the property and created the budgets and led this church in mission. All those Wapping saints over the course of the last two hundred and sixteen years…why are they still watching us?
The reason why they’re watching is because the race is not over until every last one of us crosses the finish line and the realm of God finally arrives.
We all have our shoes tied. The ones who went before us, the ones who worship beside us, and even the ones who are coming along after us. We’re all in the race together. And none of us will get to the end of the race without the help and the encouragement of the others…
In the end, the author of Hebrews reminds us of two things. Two things worth bearing in heart and mind, especially on this day when Wapping Community Church holds its Annual Meeting. First, it’s all about perseverance. It’s all about finding a way to stay in the race even when it gets hard and we don’t have all the answers. The people before us did it. They showed us how. You and I race in order to make God’s love and justice known in this world in whatever ways we can. And we hang in the race long enough to be an example for our children and their children. So they can run God’s race too.
Second, we look to Jesus who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Jesus who never untied his shoes. Who persevered for our sake and for the sake of God’s realm. Who asks us to follow in his footsteps…
In the end, there may be times when you and I don’t feel like running anymore. But listen carefully. The cloud of witnesses is on their feet roaring and cheering us on. In their honor and in their memory, we go the distance. And we run with perseverance the race that is before us. Amen.