Great Cloud of Witnesses

My paternal grandmother had this habit; having grown up in the foothills that rolled off the Appalachian Mountains in East Tennessee, she was barely educated. When I went off to college, my folks had a bit of advice, as parents are known to do at such a critical time; their advice was to write my grandmother hand-written notes. I picked up this habit, and once every two weeks I would write to her about my classes or the weather or some other entirely uninteresting information. But nevertheless, shortly after this letter had been sent off in the mail, I would open my campus mailbox and see a small flimsy envelope with my grandmother’s unmistakable and delicate cursive writing. Each new envelope, I quickly realized, was comically predictable: weather is fine, a little cold today, the sun shined even though we didn’t expect it. After the weather update, there would always follow a hope or prayer for my education for my time in college, something that life had not granted her; she wanted to make sure I valued this opportunity myself as much as she did for me. It didn’t take long for me to begin to look forward to these letters, to begin to read through predictable script that always ended with her final prayer for me: read your Bible and stay in school.

The story of who we are is very often told by telling the story of those who have come before us; those who write predictable letters in the same faint script. Those who pray for us to remember the foundation upon which we stand and to be grateful for the opportunities we have been given. The story of who we are is told, at least in part, by telling the story of our ancestors. In our second reading today, the author of Hebrews tells the story of the people to whom they are preaching. These people have passed through the Red Sea, they made the walls of Jericho fall, Rahab, one of their own, played a significant role in their deliverance. Time, the author says, is limited, because to tell the story of every person of faith who has played some significant role in the history of the people would be to go on forever; all these people, their failures and their successes, their pain and their joy, have all worked to bring the congregation to where they stand right now. It is, indeed, a very great cloud of witnesses. In light of those who have gone before, and with Jesus as our example, we have all that we need to continue in our faith, to continue to run the race set ahead of us.

The book of Hebrews, it is important to point out, is not a letter like we often hear on Sundays, but rather is a sermon. It is a sermon to the people who were tired, who were struggling, and to a people whose faith began to waiver. Among many other things covered is the reminder of who these people are, from where they come, and what will sustain them for the journey ahead. Today we hear a litany of champions of faith to whom these people can look to remember that keeping the faith is important and worth the difficulty. But this list of people is not a list of folks who never failed or who never faced struggles, no this a list of people who were mocked, flogged, and imprisoned. They were stoned to death, sawn into two, and killed by the sword; they wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet, these – these are the people to whom the author of Hebrews points as those who were commended for their faith. Hebrews is certainly not the prosperity gospel.

Hebrews isn’t about how if you follow the Christ who was crucified and resurrected that your life will be easy, it is rather about how a life of faith is a life of endurance. A life of faith is one that requires endurance because there is so much in this world that works against the kingdom of God; there is so much in this world that falls short of the hope of the resurrection and it is our job, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, to lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely to us and to run, to run with perseverance to the race that is set before us. My sisters and brothers, whatever cares you brought with you to your pew today, whatever worries accompanied you one your drive or walk to church this morning, whatever joys you can’t wait to share at breakfast, we are not alone in this trials and tribulations of this life. Hebrews is a word of encouragement for a disenfranchised people.

While most of us haven’t had the struggles of the Hebrew people, no one here comes entirely unburdened; we’re all carrying something. No matter what we bring to the altar today, the cross redeems it all. In our own faith journeys, God is always present. We have seen it throughout history in the examples named from our passage today, to others who have come before us. Whether it is Martin or Jonathan or Pauli or Howard or Charlie or even Granny Kello, we know those who have gone before us. We know those who surround us in our own great cloud of witnesses who have given us examples of how we ought to follow Christ in days that seem to be much tougher than our own. Whoever you would add to your own litany of those who have come before you, those you would add to your own great cloud of witnesses, they stand in the space between what we think we can’t do and what we are called to do, because it is through Christ that we are connected to them; it is through Christ that we have the perfect example of what it means to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

In our walks of faith there is a risk. In our walks of faith there is the risk of feeling like the race isn’t for us; feeling that we aren’t good enough or that our faith isn’t strong enough – that maybe a life of faith requires endurance, but I don’t have it in me today. But my sisters and brothers, don’t let the regrets of the past or the fear of the future keep you from the race. The struggles that we face in this world today are vast, but we have all that we need to go out and proclaim hope into the darkness of this world. Each of us has the power, even if we are feeling tired and weak, to make an impact on those around us as we try to follow Christ. Let me tell you the truth: I am a better Christian because of Rahab, the prostitute, who stepped out in faith and helped the people of Israel, and I firmly believe that generations from now, someone will be a better Christian because of the life of faith that you choose to walk this day, this week, this year. So, continue. So, continue in your faith and lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us go out and run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky for Proper 15C on Hebrews 11:29-12:2, August 18, 2019.

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