Sermon for Sunday, August 18, 2019 || Proper 15C || Hebrews 11:29–12:2
One of the great honors of my profession as an ordained pastor is the opportunity to preside at funerals. As a matter of fact, we had one here yesterday for longtime parishioner Bill Everett. Some funerals carry the weight of incredible sorrow; others buzz with palpable celebration. Most hold both sorrow and celebration in tandem, as the two are not enemies but rather both are sincere expressions of love. As I prepare for a funeral, and especially as I write the homily, I find my thoughts drawn to the eternal nature of the love of God, which God made tangible and so very present in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As I imagine my way into a funeral homily, the beautiful picture from today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews often dances in my mind: the beautiful picture of the great cloud of witnesses. The writer of the letter has just finished a long passage telling the stories of many of the faith-filled characters of the Old Testament. And then the writers says this:
“Therefore, 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…”
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. Do you feel them? Can you sense their presence, always alive and embracing the eternal love of God? This room where we are sitting has been prayed in for over a hundred and fifty years. It doesn’t feel holy and set apart because it’s a church building; it feels special because of the great cloud of witnesses, whose prayers are mixed with the very paint and mortar. I felt the same specialness at my seminary chapel, an awkward and not very attractive building, but one that had been prayed in since the 1820s. Tragically, it burned down in 2010. I visited the new chapel last fall for the first time. The space is functional and attractive, if a little austere. But what was missing was that sense of centuries of prayer lifting to God like the wafting smoke of the candles.
Now, I’m not saying the great cloud of witnesses is only present in old buildings. Rather, we feel with our souls’ magnets the spiritual attraction of their presence in places of deep peace, thin places where ages of the faithful have encountered God. If we limited our interaction with the cloud of witnesses to such places, however, we would miss the encouragement of their enlivening presence in our daily walks with God.
Most of that great cloud of witnesses, that holy roster of the faithful who have gone before us, is unknown to us personally. But there are people in that cloud who we did know, who influenced our lives in ways we might never be able to grasp fully. Appreciating the beautiful influence such people continue to have in our lives can help us embrace and then share the eternal love of God.
That’s the premise this week: we’re going to get in touch with some of the discrete elements of the great cloud of witnesses. Don’t worry: we’re not going to contact ghosts in the beyond, we’re not going to have a seance or break out the ouija board. Rather, I’m going to give you some homework for the week. So listen up. I’m going to demonstrate the homework for the rest of this sermon. Here it is.
Your homework, if you choose to accept it, is to select three people from your life who have died and who are now alive as members of the great cloud of witnesses. For some variety, I invite you to choose (first) a member of your family; (second) a friend or mentor; and (third) someone well-known for their faith, a saint or other luminary. Call each one to mind in your prayer, and then thank God for all the ways those people influenced your life for the better. Here are mine.
First, my grandmother Dorothy, who died just a few weeks ago. As I think about her influence on my life of faith, her quiet confidence and constancy spring to mind. Her belief lived in her bedrock rather than her exterior. The moorings of her faith were sunk deep. She was a faithful member of various church communities throughout her life. And then when she moved into assisted living and couldn’t make it to church, she made her own private liturgy by reading my sermons. In the first few years of my website, I kept writing because I knew she read everything I wrote. It didn’t matter how many hits my blog received. Only hers mattered. Now that she is part of the great cloud of witnesses, I thank God for the example of her endurance in the faith.
Second, my friend and mentor Ruby Browning, who died back in 2012. If you’ve read my book Letters from Ruby you know the impact she had on my life, but here’s the snapshot. Ruby was an elderly woman at my first church in West Virginia, where I was the curate. I was fresh out of seminary and had no idea what I was doing. In her gentle way, Ruby took me under her wing and taught me how to be a pastor, how to care for people and love them and walk with them through thick and thin. As part of the great cloud of witnesses, I thank God for her example of loving as constantly as breathing.
Third — and this one took me a while to decide — theologian Howard Thurman, who was active in the first half of the 20th century. I had to read his book Jesus and the Disinherited a second time for it to sink in, but now that it has, Thurman’s influence has shifted my understanding of Jesus and the role of the church in God’s loving, life-giving, and liberating mission. Thurman speaks passionately about Jesus as the oppressed liberator and re-centers God’s mission towards those “with their backs against the wall.” One of Thurman’s famous sayings enters my mind often: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Each of these members of the great cloud of witnesses has touched my life, making me become better versions of myself. And through the eternal love of God, they are still influencing me. As you contemplate the people God has gifted to you, pray also for the ears to listen for how God is making you a gift in the lives of others. How will your life of faith influence the people you meet? Someday, we will all be gathered home to the great cloud of witnesses. And yet, through that eternal love of God, our marks on the lives of others will not vanish. With God’s help, let’s make those marks beautiful.
If you are interested in hearing about the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, please check out my sermon from three years ago: “Peace Beyond Propaganda.”