Surrounded by so Great a Cloud of Witnesses

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Texas has only two seasons: The first is ten and a half months of unbearable heat followed by six weeks of ice storms. So, it was always assumed that the beginning of school would be hot, especially in a building without air conditioning. Even so, on my first day of first grade I wouldn’t have minded if it had been 200 degrees with 300% humidity. I was so glad that the day had finally arrived. Fearful that beginning school too young might hurt my chances of success my parents kept me out a full year, so that I was only weeks away from my 7th birthday before entering first grade.

I savored every moment of the start of that day, the still air hovering in the marble tiled corridors, the aroma of paste, wax crayons, and white chalk mingling in the atmosphere, with undertones of Salisbury steaks and mashed potatoes wafting over from the nearby cafeteria. Sliding into my desk chair thrilled me the way a newly commissioned naval commander might feel mounting the bridge of his own carrier. This is it, I thought. The world is mine! Music, art, books, and an intriguing course called “cursive”, which, as it turned out, did not actually teach me what I thought it would.

At the front of the room a single chair was placed beside the teacher’s desk and, one by one, each of us was called forward for a private chat, the substance of which I could not hear. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that several of the children began to weep while seated in that chair. Something didn’t seem quite right. I tapped the boy who sat in front of me, and asked if he knew what was happening.

“Oh yes,” he answered with great confidence. “It’s a test. You have to be able to count to a hundred. Those kids are crying because they can’t. If you can’t, you have to go home.”

What?!?!? What did he mean? A hundred?!? Is such a thing even humanly possible? So I asked, “Can you?”

“Sure!”

“Well, can you teach me?”

But, alas, it was too late. Before he could answer, she called my name. That was the shortest best day ever. Anne Boleyn could not have walked up those wooden steps to her judgment with a heavier heart than mine as I made my way out of the desk – to which I felt certain I should never return – and up the aisle to take my turn in “the chair.” My composure was gone, and the accumulated grief of all of my almost seven years on earth gushed out in racking sobs.

“Why are you crying?” she asked as she handed me a tissue. Just an aside, we didn’t have tissues in our house; we had only cloth handkerchiefs, so I was momentarily distracted by this new thing and stopped crying long enough to answer.

“Well, I can’t count.” I confessed.

“Oh. Well, we can teach you how to do that, but not today.”

“Well, that boy said I couldn’t stay if I couldn’t count.”

Which boy?” she whispered, and I pointed him out.

“Hmm. So, is that why you were crying?”

“Yes. Isn’t that why those other kids were crying?”

She ignored my question. “I was just noticing that your name is really long. Would you like to go by another name now that you’re in school?”

Oh my goodness, I thought. What is this brave new world?!? We can pick our own names?!? Like any name or are their restrictions or guidelines? I mean, how much freedom is there in this new life?

Wishing that I could summon a list of names other than the few that were coming to mind – Cinderella, after all was no shorter than Cynthia — she interrupted my joyful reverie. “By the way,” she cautioned, “be careful who you listen to. Not everything you hear is entirely true.”

We often hear in church about this “great a cloud of witnesses” and we assume, of course, that they are all remarkable people, much stronger in their faith than we are; after all, some of them were sawn in two. But when we look more closely at who made it on to the list, we begin to see that indeed, some in that great cloud of witnesses are chanting encouragement, while others may be discouraging us, reminding us of how they failed when they tried something new and, in effect, saying to us “Who do you think you are?”

A good question: who do we think we are? And what, exactly, do we think we are doing? We are beloved children of God and we are doing the best that we can each day, just as the early Church did. What we can glean from a text such as the Letter to the Hebrews is that part of their struggle derived from genuine well-based anxiety about the world around them and its increasing hostility toward their ethnicity and their religion, and with good cause. We know from the historian Josephus that the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second Temple, and the reign of terror against the ancient Near Eastern Jewish and Christian residents of Judea were horrific. The call to remain faithful required them to imagine their present suffering as transformative, and their ability to endure reproach and sustain life in the margins as the means to strengthen their resolve and increase their chances at survival. Did they make mistakes? Absolutely.

  • Gideon was so unsure of God that he required 3 miracles as proof that God was really listening
  • Barak was a military leader who was so terrified of going into battle that he would only agree to go if the prophetess Deborah would go with him
  • Samson, despite the prodigious physical strength that God granted him, was a jealous man with serious anger management challenges who suffered from a fatal attraction to bad women
  • Jephthah put his own daughter to death in a bargain with God to grant him a military victory in order to win the approval of his half brothers who didn’t like him anyway
  • David arranged for the death of a perfectly honorable and loyal soldier in his own army in order to conceal his adulterous affair with the man’s wife
  • And though Samuel was so blessed by God that none of this words spoken to Israel ever fell to the ground, his own sons Joel and Abijah whom he appointed as judges in Beersheba did not follow God but turned aside after personal gain, taking bribes and perverting justice.

This list of heroes and the “cloud of witnesses” of which they are a part does not suggest that we – like them – must do this perfectly. They didn’t and we cannot. But, we must be diligent about laying aside those things that we know are not helpful, remembering that not everything that purports to be helpful to us as Christians is, just because someone says that it is. We don’t seek out “hard things” – like counting to 100 – for the sake of overcoming something hard. But we recognize the opportunity when hard times come to deepen our prayer life and make sure that it is, in fact, Christ to whom we look for help and not to other models does strengthen us.

Just as the gospel text today is not a command to turn mothers and fathers against their children or against each other in order to be like Jesus. But it is a warning that the time may come when following Jesus may alienate us from our own families. And should that time come, we must seek God with greater zeal in order to see clearly what path lies ahead and what counsel we should attend to. Because if we are honest, in too many cases, unchallenged family loyalty creates unhealthy and quite destructive situations and some families could do with some shaking up!

It is the possibility of beginning again that we find when we “look to Jesus”. For, despite their shortcomings, God used these people in powerful ways.

  • Having begun his battle with over 20000 soldiers, Gideon eventually whittles down the number to only 300, because of his concern that it be evident that victory would come from God’s might, not theirs.
  • Barak, one of the most progressive thinkers in the ancient world recognized that his own fears risked the safety of his troops, and so rather than risk their lives, his humility allowed him to bring in a substitute in Deborah who the army already revered.
  • Knowing it would cost his own life, a blinded Samson begged God for prodigious strength one last time in order to end the Philistines’ boast that they had defeated Israel’s God.
  • And at the end of David’s life, when faced with the angel’s wager on the fate of the people, David finally confessed that it was him, alone, who had sinned and deserved God’s punishment, sparing his people the wrath of God.

Each of these faith stories bears witness to God’s power to transform situations – however desperate. There are as many “faces of faith” as there are believers. We are not called to imitate superficial traits but actual practices such as regular prayer and worship, service to the world, and action against injustice in whatever space we encounter it. I am aware, for example, that even in our language around a compassionate response to the poor that we often talk about ways to “bring them in” as though we are the legitimate center of things. It is very exciting, therefore, when I see our people “going out” from this base camp whether its Good News at Noon or going into neighborhoods in the Read, Learn, Succeed program that promotes the importance of parents reading to their young children, spending a time in someone else’s world, uncomfortable, ill at ease, and perhaps seeing things from a wholly different perspective, from whence the cry for remedy often is not quite loud enough to be heard across E.E. Butler.

In the spirit therefore of dedicating new ministries, of commissioning our new choirmaster and our new children’s formation minister, (which we will do next Sunday) I want to publicly recommit myself to you, this congregation. Our work together in ministries of compassion is not only an opportunity to participate with the Holy Spirit in appropriate response to those who suffer, but, in the process, to experience our own deep healing, to recognize in our own stories those moments when by God’s grace we experienced liberation, when we were able to move beyond those standards that would disqualify us from participating and experienced the exhilaration of taking our place on the bridge of our own carriers, cutting through the waves on the great mission to wherever God leads us, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, the one who alone is able to restore, redeem, and save the whole world.

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
August 14, 2016
Year C

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