Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
29By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12Therefore, 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, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
At the Emmy Awards, in 1997, Mister Rogers was presented with a lifetime achievement award. I don’t know if you have family members who grew up on Mister Rogers, but I certainly did, and I think that they waited far too long to present him with this kind of award. It is funny to watch the video of that ceremony, because in the middle of so many Hollywood stars, so many three week marriages and ten thousand dollar gowns, Mister Rogers sticks out like a sore thumb, wearing large glasses and a tuxedo that did not fit him nearly as well as his sneakers and cardigan would have. And he stood at the microphone next to Tim Robbins and he said this:
“So many people have helped me to come to this night. Some of you are here, some are far away, some are even in Heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds, to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you, and wanted what was best for you in life.”
And he raised his wrist, uncovered his watch, and said, “Ten seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time.”
And at first, there was a nervous giggle among the very important people gathered there who were far too busy with the business of being Hollywood stars to afford themselves something so trivial as being silent for ten seconds. And then they quieted down. . . . And then they started to cry, each of them, as they remembered the people who had helped them along the way, on whose shoulders they stood, in whose legacy they rested.
And after what seemed more like a second-and-a-half rather than a full ten, Mister Rogers looked up from his watch and said, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made. You know, they’re the kind of people television does well to offer our world. May God be with you.”
How pleased they must be. I don’t know who you are thinking about this morning, but I am thinking about my friend Meredith who was one of the first people to take me seriously as I was growing up. I am thinking about my grandfather, WT, who taught me everything I know about empathy. I am thinking of Jack and Olivia, and Rebecca, and Laura, and Warren, and Judson, and John. Some of them are near, some of them are far away, some of them are in Heaven. And yet they form the great cloud of witnesses upon which I stand; they have propelled me forward as I seek to do the work to which God is calling me.
I have had the opportunity to sit down with many of you and hear your stories, and it’s funny, there are names that keep coming up: Cherry and Hal, Gerald, Hobson, Clarence and Adelaide, Herb, Allen, Myrtle and Willis, Ed and Hazel, so many more. So many saints on whose legacy we rest, and maybe that’s not strong enough language. It is not merely their legacy, but their presence upon which we rest, and we remember them, yes, but if I have learned anything from studying the book of Hebrews, it is that this great cloud surrounds us and supports us in a way even stronger than mere memory. When the writer of Hebrews says that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we are not talking about some vague recollection, some far-away memory. We are talking about the support of all those who have come before, all those who serve with us now, all those who are yet to be. For God, there is no past, present and future; they are one. And so we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses that continually calls us out of ourselves, continually supports us, continually reminds us of all the great work that has been done in God’s name. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea. By faith the walls of Jericho fell and God’s people triumphed. By faith Rahab was spared death.
We remember these saints, this great cloud, every time we read the names of long-ago saints in the Bible , or when come into the church and see the names posted on plaques on the door, and the saints are then released from being tied up in our specific memories, our specific pasts, and they are given to everyone who walks through the doors of the church, for the work that was done by the saints of old was not merely done in the name of specific people, but in the name of Jesus, the Lord our God. These saints who have gone before us are a part of the great cloud, and they surround us now, whether the names are completely unfamiliar or whether they seem so close that you can almost feel their breath on your cheek.
Why, in my office downstairs I have a picture hanging on my wall of the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, who is one of my great spiritual guides. I have quoted him here before. He was a pastor and scholar who wrote much of the theology that inspired the civil rights movement of the last century; Martin Luther King used to carry his little book Jesus and the Disinherited in his briefcase.
I didn’t meet Howard Thurman. He died two years and five days before I was born. And I don’t know if you noticed this, but I am white--and not even just a little bit. You might think that the spiritual father of the civil rights movement might not have much to say to me. But oh, how wrong you would be, for Howard Thurman is as close to me as my own heart, and his picture on my wall reminds me that though he is dead, he is not gone, for he is a part of that great cloud, holding me up on days when I need support, reminding me of God’s call on my life, not so that I will imitate he, or do the very things he did, but so that I am empowered to go forward in my own life, in my own context, to go forward in the world I live in now, working to alleviate injustice in all avenues of life—not just in the racial sphere in which Thurman worked, certainly that one, too, but in all avenues.
You know, I sometimes get frustrated when people act like all we’ve got to do is imitate Jesus, just be exactly like Jesus, and everything is going to be ok. I don’t know if you’ve ever been fully human and fully divine, but while I have some experience at being human, I have never been divine, and so I can never be exactly like Christ. I don’t think you’d appreciate me walking in with a whip of cords and turning over the tables, which is something Jesus did. We are not supposed to pretend to be exactly like Jesus. We are supposed to follow Jesus.
And in this way, we are not called simply to imitate the saints that make up the great cloud of witnesses. There’s nothing in Hebrews that says we are supposed to be just like them, or do things exactly as they would have. And thank goodness, because nothing makes me feel more inadequate than trying to live up to that kind of pressure! I mean, just look at the list of people that the writer of Hebrews points to as examples. It is a Who’s Who of the heroes of the faith.
Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel. It is quite a list!
Of course, Rahab was a prostitute, Gideon was plagued by doubt, Barak was a killer, Samson was vain, Jephthah sacrificed his daughter, David was an adulterer, and Samuel got what we all want—a direct call from God—and he didn’t even recognize the voice on the other end of the line.
Yes, they conquered kingdoms and shut the mouths of lions, but they are hardly the kinds of people you’d invite into your home or ask to look after your kids! If we were to imitate these people that the Bible holds up as the paragons of faith, we’d be in deep trouble.
You do not honor these people by behaving exactly like them. You rest on their legacies and move forward. Times are different, the world is different, the challenges are different and we are different. Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before US! Not some ancient marathon, but the race that is before us, now!
And, when the race leads us to grow weary, let us rest on this great cloud, comforted by the great promise of Christian faith that those who have passed do not leave, but they surround us still, they hold us up when we feel like crumpling onto the floor, for there is nothing—not death, nor life, nor anything else—that can separate us from the love of God. We are loved in that same place by all those who have come before, all those who bind together now, and all those who are to come, names that are familiar and those that are new, those who have been gone a long time and those who are here with us now.
May God continue to support us in this way, as we are surrounded, and may we live such that one day, when you and I are nothing but dust, we have so supported those who are to come that someone, somewhere can say about you, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made. You know, those are the kind of people the church does well to offer our world. May God be with you. Amen.