CLOUD OF WITNESSES
PROPER 15 – YEAR C
Trinity Long Green, MD Aug. 14, 2016
CLOUD OF WITNESSES
I hope you will forgive me but I have NO intention of preaching on that gospel!
So, Anyone here NOT watched at least a bit of the Olympics? Or read about the results?
Every four years, or every two years now that the winter and summer Olympics now run on alternate schedules … Every two years we focus our attention on the most athletic young adults from around the world. Of course we cheer on Team USA, but who can’t help admire the grace of the Chinese male divers or the strength their gymnasts, the speed of Jamaican Usian Bolt, or for those aware of the equestrian events, the grace of the German “Dressage Queen” Isabelle Werth?
We quickly assign “hero” status to many of these athletes. We put their faces on cereal boxes. Gymnists carry their trademark moves to future generations – the Biles tumbling move, for example.
For at least as long as the Olympics have been prime-time TV events, coverage has included back-stories for many of the athletes. Chariots of Fire became a hit movie telling the story of the creation of the modern Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian Scott who believed his speed was a gift for God and refused to compete on Sunday; and Harold Abrahams, a Jew, who ran to overcome prejudice (their stories are the basis for Chariots of Fire).
There have been many others:
- Jesse Owens competing against the racial prejudice of Nazi Germany
- Jim Thorpe, Native American and Olympic hero;
- Mark Spitz American and a Jew, winning 7 golds in Munich, an Olympics marred by the terrorist murder of 11 Israeli athletes;
- Bruce Jenner winning the decathlon in 1974. I can remember watching and rooting for him as he won this capstone of male athletic prowess.
This year has been no different. We have learned that:
- Simone Biles, who has been called the greatest gymnast in the world and who won this year’s All-Around Gold, was adopted and raised by her grandparents (her parents, as she states matter-of-fact);
- Michael Phelps, local hero, plagued by Attention Deficit Disorder as a child, and several errors in judgment involving marijuana and alcohol following his first Olympics, who has now won more gold medals than any other Olympian in history!
- Simone Manuel, swimmer, gold and silver medal winner at the Rio Olympics proving that given the opportunity, black people CAN swim!
We cheer these athletes on, and we are encouraged by their struggles and successes to try things we would never attempt, to persevere when the going gets rough, and to keep our eye on the prize. We also cannot help but realize that no athlete succeeds without a lot of support. Everyone needs a cheering section.
Including those who seek to live according to the manner of life taught and exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth. So it seems appropriate that, in the midst of this Olympic Season, we hear from the book of Hebrews.
Sometimes called the Letter to the Hebrews, Hebrews reads more like a sermon. Last week we heard the beginning of the list of the heroes of the faith – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob – all living in hope of promises they did not see fulfilled.
Today’s reading adds to that list of faith heroes:
- The Hebrew refuges from slavery in Egypt;
- Moses who led them to the promised land, but who did not enter himself;
- Rahab the prostitute who saved the lives of Hebrew spies before the walls of Jericho fell;
- Gideon who by the power of God achieved a great victory over a much larger band of Midianites;
- Barak who won a great victory over the kings of Canaan directed by the prophet Deborah;
- Samson, whose strength overcame the power of the Philistines;
- Jephthah, who delivered Israel from Ammonite domination. ……OK, here I have a bone to pick with the author of Hebrews. I would NEVER have included Jephthah in this list of heroes of faith since he sacrificed his daughter to fulfill a STUPID vow – you will have to read Judges chapter 11 for the full story;
- David and Samuel, obvious candidates for this list.
- And others described but not named who endured great suffering yet held onto their faith in God and in God’s promises.
The church has added to this biblical list of heroes, calling them saints. Prior to 1979 the Episcopal Church practiced a rather limited honoring of the saints and included them in this book (Lesser Feasts and Fasts, about 400 pages). We gave them the honorific “saint” only if they were from the Biblical era – Matthew, Luke, Paul, John, James, Mary, Martha, etc. We honored those the undivided church (that is; the church before the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Churches parted company in 1054) acknowledges as “saints” although we did not call them saints. After that division, we honored those the Roman Catholic Church called saints until the reformation, and then only honored those in the Anglican tradition.
Now the Episcopal Church takes a much broader view on the heroes of faith, calling them Holy Women, Holy Men (almost twice as many pages) and subtitling the book “Celebrating the saints.” Included are:
- Elizabeth Seton – founder of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity and leader of the St. Joseph’s Free School to educate needy girls in Maryland;
- Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson – early champions of religious liberty in the US;
- Frederick Douglas – born a slave, prominent in the abolitionist movement, and strong advocate for racial integration;
- Christina Rossetti – poet and author of “In the bleak midwinter,” a favorite Christmas carol;
- Thurgood Marshall – who before becoming a Supreme Court Justice successfully argued for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka;
- Nicholaus Copernicus – the astronomer who first theorized that the earth revolved around the sun;
- John Calvin – premier theologian and leader of the Reformed Wing of the Reformation, what most of us know as Presbyterian;
- Joan of Arc – who inspired the forces of the Dauphin, later to be King Charles VII of France, to victory at Orleans, and was later burned at the stake for heresy;
- John the 23rd , Pope – who threw open the windows of the church and allowed the Holy Spirit to usher in significant reforms in the Roman Catholic Church;
- Harriet Beecher Stowe – outspoken critic of slavery and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin;
- Johann Sebastian Bach and George Handel – composers of some of the most sublime church music of all time;
- Lottie Moon – How many of you recognize that name? You would if you were Baptist as she was a prominent Baptist missionary who worked in Northern China to educate girls and women;
- Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth – known respectively as Moses and Miriam of their people, who risked their own lives to work for the freedom of African-American slaves.
Time prevents my mentioning of all the new saints the Episcopal Church now recognizes.
Although we may not face the degree of persecution endured by the first readers of the Book of Hebrews, we need heroes of faith every bit as much as they did. Like Olympic athletes, we need a cheering section to encourage us to strive for goals that seem beyond our reach, to hold onto our hope for a better world, to cling to the promises God makes to be with us always and to empower us to do the work God gives us to do.
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, since the heroes of faith are there watching and encouraging our efforts to live as God calls us to live, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, hatred, prejudice, greed, jealousy, power-hunger, everything that tempts us to follow our lusts rather than God’s love, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, never giving up even in the face of insurmountable obstacles, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, until we achieve the goal of the higher calling of God, until we are the people God has created us to be and until the world is all that God intends it to be.
Supported by such a cloud of witnesses, encouraged by such a cheering section we cannot fail to win the prize.