This passage from Hebrews which Tom read for us this morning could be the outline for a year’s worth of Sunday school lessons. Do you know all those stories? The story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea as if it were dry land, the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho, when the walls came a-tumblin’ down, the story of Rahab the prostitute and the spies whom she sheltered? How about those other names–Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets? Great names in the pantheon of faith. And then there are others whose names have come down to us in stories– those who shut the mouths of lions (remember Daniel in the lions’ den?), quenched the raging fire (Shadrach, Mishach, Abednigo), those like Stephen who were stoned to death, and the nameless ones–most of the women, of course, but those who suffered mocking and flogging and even chains and imprisonment, ones who were sawn in two, killed by the sword, those who went about in sheep and goat skins, destitute, tormented, persecuted. “By faith” they were able to do these things, the writer of Hebrews says; “yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
That’s really quite an extraordinary statement. All these people–some famous, most not so famous–didn’t “receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” Peterson puts it this way–”Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.”
We are connected to all these people, our lives integrally woven together with theirs. “We are surrounded,” the writer says, “by so great a cloud of witnesses…” “All these pioneers [Peterson puts it] who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on!” And, of course, it’s not just Biblical figures. It’s all those lives after the backcover of our Bibles was put on–Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Hildegaard of Bingen, Francis of Assissi, along with those other saints, whom we could spend the rest of the morning naming–Pat Haines, Pepper and John Morrison, Rose Tobias, Steve Green, Max and Mary Webster, Sue Dana, Estelle Atwood, Kelly Wright, Mary Madkour, Ginny Irwin, my brother Bob, my dad, Russ and June Clark, my grandmother, ….Call out a few names of the cloud of witnesses who surround us here, whether human or animal….
“God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.” You may have recognized the title of the song from which I took the title for my sermon today–”Will the circle be unbroken?” Do you know it? “Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by; there’s a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky.” But it’s not just “by and by…in the sky”. It’s right here and now. Their energy is as present with us as the energy within and between us. It surrounds us, infuses us.
Christian Wyman, whose book My Bright Abyss I told you about last week, writes to his twin daughters, now 6 or 7, who will have to deal with their father’s death if –and when–his incurable cancer finally wins over his body–
[he writes], I will be with you, even if I am not with you…My loves, I love you with all the volatility and expansiveness of spirit that you have taught me to feel, and I feel your futures opening out from you, and in those futures I know my own. I will be with you. I will comfort you in your despair and I will share in your joy. They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives. If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us. Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us. It may be the love of someone you have lost. It may be the love of your own spirit for the self that at times you think you hate. However it comes though, in all these–of all these and yet more than they, so much more–there burns the abiding love of God. But if you find that you cannot believe in God, then do not worry yourself with it. No one can say what names or forms God might take, nor gauge the intensity of unbelief we may need to wake up our souls. My love is still true, my children, still with you, still straining through your ambitions and your disappointments, your frenzies and forgetfulness, through all the glints and gulfs of implacable matter –to reach you, to help you, to heal you. [My Bright Abyss, p. 161]
“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” “…their faith and our faith… come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours…”
And “since–because–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…” Looking to Jesus, who has run this race before us. All these others–Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Rahab, David, Samuel, Mary, apostles, martyrs, disciples–we know they were flawed human beings who inspite of their flaws–maybe even because of their flaws–were used by God to do great things. Somehow, often through no particular choice but maybe even because there was no choice left–somehow they trusted in God–which is what faith is– and were able to persevere. And those modern day saints–those whose names we lifted up–we know they were flawed human beings, as much as we loved them, none were perfect. So we can look to them, perhaps, for strength, as models of how we might also overcome obstacles or hindrances. If they could do it, perhaps so can we.
But “let us look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”? What kind of model is a God-man for us mere mortals? Our forebears in faith knew that if Jesus was only God in human guise, he could blaze no path for us. So they insisted that he was “fully human” and “fully divine.” But so much of Christian tradition pulls away from that humanity, that incarnation – that embodiment in human flesh – and talks only of the miracle man, or the shimmering figure of the Trinity who is enthroned within the Godhead. “Let us look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”? Jesus, if his Way is to be our way, had to be fully human, and what he was able to “perfect” was that utter trust in God, which is faith. It’s still a daunting standard, but remember that our faith is part of the circle that includes his faith. All flesh shall see it together.
You know, as we read this list of names of faithful ones, each one is set in the context of struggle and even despair. This is not a gospel of easy living, of prosperity and fame and fortune. Many thought the world was coming to an end. Many were pretty sure that their lives–the world as they knew it–were coming to an end. Their lives of faith were set in a context not so very different from our own. I’ll spare you the litany of dangers and calamities and tragedies that are part of our lives today, but there are plenty of dire, end-of-the-world scenarios out there to “shake our faith.” The title of Bill McKibben’s book that many of us are reading–Eaarth–spells Eaarth with 2 “a’s” because it’s no longer the earth that human beings have inhabited for so many years.
But instead of steeling our hearts, instead of closing ourselves off from the pain and sorrow, we are called to “lay aside every weight and the sin–or separation from God–that clings so closely.” We are called to open our hearts, open our entire selves, to God, to empty ourselves of everything but God, as Jesus did, in radical trust in that Love and Power. Again, it is that trust, not some list of “things to believe,” that is faith.
The wise Buddhist teacher Pema Chodrin puts it this way–
These days the world really needs people who are willing to let their hearts…ripen. There’s such widespread devastation and suffering: people are being run over by tanks or their houses are being blown up or soldiers are knocking on their doors in the middle of the night and taking them away and torturing them and killing their children and their loved ones. People are starving. It’s a hard time. We who are living in the lap of luxury with our pitiful little psychological problems have a tremendous responsibility to let our clarity and our heart, our warmth, and our ability ripen, to open up and let go, because it’s so contagious.
We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, cheering us on, tugging at our hearts, assuring us that no matter how deeply we feel–the pain or the joy–nothing can separate us from them or the love of God which envelopes all of us. The circle will not be broken. Loren McGrail, the missionary from Palestine who spoke to us on Wednesday afternoon, told of a video conference with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who suffered through the agony of apartheid. He spoke by Skype to a gathering of Palestinians and urged them on, and then in his high, joyful, yet quiet voice, she said, he told them, “We win! In the end, we win! Evil will be defeated.”
“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” The circle will not be broken. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God – and this great cloud of witnesses – is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark