Each one of us has people who have paved the way for us, taught us how to be Christ followers, or who have simply made it possible for us to believe. Drew talks a little bit about some of his as he walks us through Hebrews 11:29-12:2, which tells of the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us all.
A Cloud of Witnesses
The construction of Notre Dame, the great cathedral in Paris, was begun in 1160, with the building of a road, to ferry supplies to the site of construction. Over the next twenty-five years, laborers built the choir and the High Altar, which was consecrated in 1182. In 1196, Bishop Maurice de Sully, who had envisioned the project and overseen construction, died. The next bishop continued with the project, dying in 1208, nearly fifty years after construction had begun, with the nave, that’s the main body of the church, still incomplete. By 1220, they were 60 years in and on their fourth architect. He helped them complete the stained glass rose window at the front of the church in 1225. From then through the 1260’s, more than a hundred years after the church was begun, they built the transepts, those are the wings on either side of the building. But the cathedral wouldn’t be complete until 1345, one hundred and eighty-five years after they began construction on the project. It takes a long time to build the church.
Thinking about the hundred and eighty-five years it took to build Notre Dame makes this church seem young in comparison. I don’t know if it was mentioned in church last week or not, but this past week the church celebrated its 139th anniversary. Our church was organized on August 16th, 1874, by Rev. W.M.Hall and families of this community, many descendants of whom are here today. Those first families, pastors, and parishioners understood what a blessing a church could be, what a transformative influence it could be on the community, what an incredible place they would be building for themselves. They acted in faith, not only for themselves, but for all the generations to come who would be sheltered, nurtured, and challenged by this church. And it is a testament to them that we are still building this church today, 139 years later.
Our passage from the book of Hebrews talks about what it means that people have come this way before. Chapter 11 is sometimes referred to as the “Hall of Fame” of faith. At this point in the chapter, the author of Hebrews has taken us from the faith of Abraham, who left comfort for covenant, through the patriarchs to Moses, who had a vision of the promised land and led his people to it. Our reading begins with a list of even more Biblical and contemporary examples of the faith of people on The Way. Through faith the people of Israel were able to cross the Red Sea, shout down the walls of Jerusalem, defeat powerful armies, escape persecution, and much more. And the author of Hebrews does not just mention those who survived unscathed, but those who suffered persecution for their faith, who were mocked, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. Obviously the author is speaking to a people not unfamiliar with struggle, strife, and persecution.
And after listing all of these people of faith, from every time and era of God’s covenant with Israel, the author says, “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.” Since we have so many examples of faith around us, we should be encouraged and emboldened to step out in faith unafraid.
Each of us has a cloud of witnesses standing with us and behind us. People whose faith have paved the way for us to tread.. I went to see one of mine last weekend, Ken Evers-Hood, the pastor of the church I went to my senior year of high school. He met with me every Wednesday morning for an hour before school, and we talked about theology, life, and my dreams for the future. He’s the one who suggested that I go into the ministry.
When I went before my Committee on Preparation for Ministry, I mentioned my breakfasts with Ken and got a very strong reaction. One of the people on the committee said “That was a very special thing that he did for you. He didn’t have to do that. Do you know that?” I said yes, but the truth was that Ken never hinted that this wasn’t his favorite thing in the world to do. I never realized that he was going out of his way to be a part of my cloud of witnesses.
There are many more. Robert Followell, at the church I was raised in, carried rolls of quarters with him and gave them to anyone who wanted a coke. Thank you, Mr. Followell. Because of you, I take seriously Jesus’ command to “give to everyone who asks of you.” Bill, whose last name I’ve forgotten, but who taught me the best thing about church: “Forgiveness is mandatory.” Thank you, Bill, for forgiving me every time I missed Men’s Group, and for showing me what church is really about. For Laurie McNeil, who walked me through the Trinity when I was in doubt, and spent every Sunday of my year of field education taking me through real scenarios of ministry so that I would understand what I was going into. I can’t thank her enough for teaching me what it means to be a pastor. Thank you Laurie, for showing me how to love the church even when it doesn’t love you back.
My cloud of witnesses extends beyond those whom I’ve known personally. It includes Vernon Hunter, who founded the church I grew up in, knocking on doors across town, then built a community that taught me what church can be. And Rudolf Otto, a German theologian, who put into words what I could never articulate, but had definitely experienced. And it includes people here, who have shown me what church can be when everyone treats everyone else like family.
Every single one of you has a cloud of witnesses that surrounded you in faith. I’m sure if you think back you can remember many people whose witness made a difference in the way you live your life. They were people in this community and in communities all across the country, people who put bricks into the foundation of a church they would never see completed. People from this congregation. Pat Ribb tells of Dorothy Harkey pulling her aside in town when she was a rebellious young woman (something I find hard to imagine) and telling her “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but you need to get yourself back into church. It doesn’t matter what you think of someone else, because church isn’t about them. It’s about God.” No individual brick ever thinks itself responsible for the building. But each one stands to uphold something greater than itself.
Church can be exhausting. Building a faith community involves a lot of effort, and it can be hard to see the rewards. But brick by brick the cloud of witnesses that walked this way before us built something for us, with their hard work, with their faithfulness, and with their love. This is why we fight the good fight. It’s because we have so benefitted from the great cloud of witnesses that we want to join them in providing those same benefits to those who go on after us. This is why people make estate gifts, because they don’t just want to provide comfort to their families, they want to provide for an institution that will be there for them for generations.
We know what it is to grow up in a place where we are surrounded by love, and we want that for our children and grandchildren as well as children everywhere. We know what it’s like to lose someone, and suddenly find ourselves surrounded by warmth and empathy and love. We know what its like to have trouble in our marriage, in our job, in our family, or in our body, and have someone say, “You don’t have to go through this alone. Pray with me.”
By the time Notre Dame was completed, the grandchildren of the grandchildren of its original builders were long gone and forgotten. But what they produced was not. Notre Dame continues to be one of the greatest cathedrals in the world. It is a testament to the people who lived and worked to construct this great space that it still exists today more than 800 years after construction began.
Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we too should bear witness whenever we can to the promises that have been held for us. There are people whose lives we can change with our witness, whether our witness is teaching or cooking or caring. There are children who need a safe place to learn and grow, filled with people who will build them up, because the rest of the world will tear them down. There are broken homes, broken families, and broken hearts, that all need mending. This is what we do in church. We reach out to those in needs and we share with them our faith in the one who is able to heal all wounds, who washes away pain and suffering, who saves us from the sinfulness of our actions. It is not easy. It seems especially difficult now, though I suspect if you asked those who have been witnesses before us they would tell you that their time was not easy either. But be comforted that even as we try to bear witness we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, who have come before and who show us the way.
So, to the heroes currently holding the church together. To the ones Paul would call saints. To the great cloud of witnesses who have a vision of what the church can be and want to take it there, who provide a safe space for our children to grow, who lead by example and show us all what a life of faith is, thank you. Let us all run with perseverance the race that is set before us, until we join the cloud of witnesses of every time and place, who forever sing the glory of God’s name.