The passage from Hebrews which David just read for us describes an alternative universe opening ceremonies of the Olympics–wave after wave of unlikely teams and ragged bands, led by curious flag-bearers and misfits, and out in front, carrying the torch, is Jesus, lighting the world with a flame that the darkness cannot overcome. Unlike our universe Olympic games, there is no medal count, no awards ceremonies. In fact, the author confesses, “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…”
Such a great cloud of witnesses! As we approach the 180th anniversary of our congregation, I’ve been thinking of those who’ve run the race before us, especially those I’ve had the privilege to know–Pat Haines, Gene Clark, Ginny Irwin, Marge LaRowe, Kelly Wright, Ellen Barnard, Anita Bellin, Pepper Morrison, the danger, of course, of even starting that list, is leaving out so many. Who are others who come to mind for you, maybe before my time? The portraits of former pastors on our back wall cheer us on, and, thanks be to God, the furthest one to the right is still very much alive in our midst.
In my own life, I think back to those who have given me life and witnessed in their time–my brother Bob, whose book of sermons I went back and checked to see if he had preached on this passage, my dad–CROP Walk recruiter extraordinaire, lifelong elder in the Presbyterian church, teacher of many lessons; my father-in-law Russ, who encouraged me and modeled the best of a “learned ministry” for me, my grandmother, who was a church organist for over 35 years…Such a great cloud of witnesses. Multiply that by the streaming clouds of glory behind each one of us gathered here this morning, and we get just a glimpse of the mighty multitude in which we stand.
“By faith,” the letter to Hebrews says, “Israel walked through the Red Sea on dry ground. The Egyptians tried it and drowned. By faith, the Israelites marched around the walls of Jericho for seven days, and the walls fell flat. By an act of faith, Rahab, the Jericho harlot, welcomed the spies and escaped the destruction that came on those who refused to trust God.”
By faith, by an act of faith….amazing things happened. Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets–this litany of war heroes, kings, judges, priests, and prophets triumphed and were sung over. Unnamed women received their dead by resurrection. And yet also, even with faith, others were “stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented…. wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground…”
Faith, or trust in God, is no guarantee of a medal, or any kind of success, by the world’s standards. When we ask, “How could God have let this happen?” when an innocent is killed, when a good person fails or suffers, it reveals our expectation that there ought to be some kind of reward for following the rules, for being “a good person,” for “having faith,” a reward of the likes of a gold medal, a prize of some sort, an “atta boy or atta girl,” at the very least. When our foremothers and fathers of faith witnessed these great acts of faith met with torture or failure or death, it called into question their belief in a just God. They too asked, How can God allow this to happen? And so building on their experience of the risen Christ, still present, still powerful even after death, they developed elaborate theologies of the afterlife–streets paved with gold for those trampled in the mud, crowns for those who had been beheaded, endless torment for those who in this life committed acts of cruelty and depravity. From Dante’s Inferno to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, great works of literature have been inspired by this question of faith and justice.
The writer of Hebrews has another inspiration–”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.” Peterson’s translation makes it even clearer– “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.”
…Their lives of faith not complete apart from ours. What an amazing statement! Abraham and Moses’ lives of faith not complete apart from ours. Mary Magdalene–receiving her dead by resurrection–her life of faith not complete apart from ours. All those martyrs and mystics, the ones we may have heard or read of, but so many others whom we haven’t, their lives of faith connected to our lives of faith to be made perfect or whole. That adds a new layer of meaning to what we choose to do with our lives, doesn’t it?
All those lives of heroes and unknowns connected to us, not by some miracle of celebrity or saintly worship, but because their lives were not fundamentally so different from ours. They too knew suffering and discouragement. They doubted. They were afraid. They begged God to deliver them, to undo what seemed to be inevitable. Just as every one of those Olympic heroes, male and female, sacrificed and endured pain, doubted themselves, were tempted to give up, suffered injuries and set-backs. Our forbears in faith who built Second Congregational Church endured endless meetings, lost love ones, saw their buildings burned or exploded, worried over budgets, wrestled with their calling.
This “great cloud of witnesses” knows the cost of the life of faith; and they are cheering us on.
And here’s the thing–just as “it was God’s plan that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours”–just as that is true going backwards from our lives, so it is true that generations after us are even now reaching back to us–to complete our faith and to connect with theirs. Our obligation is not only to those who have come before us, but also to those who will come after us. We owe it to them to reach forward, to let that shot of adrenaline in our souls inspire us and encourage us to keep a growing edge forward, to keep risking. In our commitment to preserving and healing the planet upon which they will live, in our efforts to learn new musical forms and melodies, in our commitment to finding ways to minister with and to people who are unlikely to seek us out, in our exploration of new technologies and formats for communication and worship, in our sharing of our financial resources into the future–in all these ways, we are cheered on by the great cloud of witnesses and prepare our place in the cheering section.
Each one of us has a part to play, for each of us is part of this great circle, reaching for completion. Our Native American brothers and sisters have a clear sense of this–
In the circle of life we each have a special gift, a special function. In the Native worldview there is no in or out; everyone in the circle is necessary. The gift and function of each person are necessary for the benefit of the whole family of human beings and those that walk, crawl, swim, and fly. We are all relatives. It is this wisdom of compassion, seeing things in their balance, that is so significant in turning aside illusions of scarcity and bringing peace to our own hearts… [Dhyani Ywahoo, Voices of Our Ancestors]
“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…” Or, as Peterson puts it,
“Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”
May these words be courage and encouragement, comfort, hope, and even joy, for the living of these days. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark