The Great Cloud Of Witnesses

Scripture: Matthew 28:16-20

Originally given August 18, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY


There is a great scene in the decent movie, “Leap Of Faith,” in which Steve Martin, playing a traveling preacher who goes around from one small town to another playing on the struggles of poor and desperate folks, is gathered with his team of folks who put on these big tent revivals. And in it, Martin is talking with them and we soon learn that the team has a running bet each night that Martin cannot work the random phrases that they give him into his sermon. The very next scene shows Martin jumping on stage screaming, “aluminum siding” as part of his nightly message and thus winning the bet for the evening. This is a bit of the experience I have had over the last month as each week, sometime between Thursday, my scheduled writing day, and Saturday evening, my actual writing day,  Jameson comes to me with his topic for the week that he would like me to include in my meditation. And immediately, I am torn. On the one hand, he is, as you know, incredibly cute and it is tough to let him down, while on the other hand, it is hard to alternate between preaching about Jonah, his favorite bible story and dinosaurs, his favorite, you know, thing. So I wasn’t sure what to do when he came up to me this week and said he knew what I should be preaching on and beckoned me to his room. In it, he took one of his favorite science books about the deepest part of the ocean, and said, “Here, dad. Preach on this.” And I fully intended to look at it, offer some half commitment, and then write my sermon. This is one of the benefits of having him leave the sanctuary for kids own worship. But as I looked at it some more I began to think of the ocean in terms of the topic for today, that being the “Great Cloud of Witnesses.” 

We actually talk a lot about the water within the story of our faith. We talk about the spirit of God passing over the waters of the earth at the first moments of the life of creation and making order out of the chaos. We talk about God separating the water from the land and placing the water on top of us (the way we used to explain from where rain came. We talk about the ocean as being the home of the leviathan, the mythical  creature that resided at the top of the food chain, just a little below God. We talk about the Hebrew people passing from captivity into freedom while crossing the Red Sea. About Jonah being thrown into the ocean on his way to Tarshish and away from Nineveh to save the lives of the crew onto whose boat he has placed himself. Of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River and arising to see the spirit descending on him like a dove. The waters of the world fit prominently into the story of our faith. And we pass those stories down to our kids in the same way that our parents and grandparents passed them onto us. Like the book my son handed to me said, we, as the human race have also spent a great deal of time exploring the ocean. From the earliest stages in which it was flat and unassailable to the small boats that we built in order that we might begin to explore the world around us. To larger boats that took us around the world. We studied the tides and their affects on the land. The moon and its relationship to the tides. We have sent submarines and submersibles and divers and robots and cameras to ever increasing depths having never fully reached the bottom and yet, within the spirit of humanity is the deep and undeniable drive to do more, go further than the ones who came before us. If the previous generation went 5,000 down into the depths of the ocean then we are driven to want to go 10,000. If the previous generation was able to design a watercraft able to withstand the pressure of being a mile underwater then we are driven to design on that can go two. It is simply part of who we are, who we were designed to be, who we strive to be. We are a people who honor the lives and the sacrifices of those who have come before us by taking their work, their knowledge, their experience and advancing just a little further in the story of what it means to be human. At most we are given a hundred years as individuals to reach for and strive for and achieve as much as we possibly can before we return to the love from which we were created. And we have a responsibility to the ones who have come before, on whose shoulder we always stand to use the knowledge bequeathed to us to do all we can before passing the torch onto our children and their children and I wonder if our faith is not a similar reality.

This Sunday we are remembering the Great Cloud of Witnesses that have come before us in the faith. Those people who in living helped us better understand our faith and the movement of the Spirit in the world. Those people who have now returned to the ground of being, the love from which they were created. And in pondering that I began to think of all those people who were most formative in my faith journey who have now returned to God. My grandparents, Frank and Sally McLeod, who taught me of the parallel sides of faith that often come together to form a unified whole. My granddad, a recovering alcoholic, with over 25 years of sobriety when he passed away, taught me of the power greater them himself and myself and about clinging to that power throughout all the struggles of life. My grandmother, inquisitive and aware by her very nature, kept a running list of questions in her head with which she was going to approach God when she returned to heaven. Questions of faith and fairness. Questions of theodicy and sadness. Questions that exist in the base of most of our own faithful lives and yet she never turned them away, never sought to pretend that they weren’t there but rather faced them head on with the firm belief that she was going to be given the opportunity to give God a piece of her mind once she arrived in heaven. I think about all the time nestled into between them in church. How they formed a safe cocoon around me that allowed me to explore my own faith and call. It was my grandmother that I often credit with my own perception of a call to the ministry. My grandfather, rooted in the power greater than himself. My grandmother, always exploring, always incorporating new information, always seeking to go deeper in her own faith with the possibilty that one can lose it all in those types of pursuits. Deeply rooted. Driven to explore. Two sides of the same coin of faithful living.

As I thought about them this week I was overcome with a sense of gratitude for them in my life. Gratitude for their witness to the faith that so deeply shaped my own faith. Gratitude for their lives and the love and calm with which they gifted me especially during that period when the realities of life necessitated that I stay with them for a long period of time. They gave me so much, what do I owe them in response?

Now, of course, love and security, faith and calm are gifts that we all should and do give without worrying about the cost. Like the grace of God, it is offered up freely and in abundance and yet do I, do we, not have a responsibility to take those gifts and use them to the best of our abilities to make the world a more loving and secure place, to make the world a more faithful and calm place. To reach out to everyone we encounter and seek to offer these gifts to them as well. To put it another way, are we not called to go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them, and teaching them of the way of Jesus?

You have to wonder if the disciples had any idea what they were doing when they made their way to that hill in Galilee, to the place where Jesus had told them to go. The whirlwind nature of the last couple of months had surely begun to have them questioning which way was up and which way was down. And so as they crested the mount and the person of Jesus was already waiting their for them they must have been filled with a mixture of peace and anxiety. Peace because they were once again with their risen teacher and yet anxiety at the thought of what might be coming next. And little is told to us of this episode in the lives of the disciples. I wonder if much of it was simply too intimate to put into words. But eventually Jesus gathers all of them around him for one final charge and benediction. “All authority has been given me in heaven and on earth,” he told them. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, and the son, and the holy spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you and know that I am with you always, even until the end of the world.” Other versions of the telling of that story include that following these last Jesus began to ascend into the clouds and return to God. And I wonder how the disciples felt as the person of their teacher grew smaller and smaller in the clouds until finally the last one decided that he could no longer see Jesus. I wonder if the enormity of it all finally hit them. That the reality that they were now the ones they had been waiting for began to dawn on them. That all of time and history and the Jewish story, Adam and Eve, Jacob, Rachel, and Rebecca, Moses and Miriam, the judges, the kings, the prophets. Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna, John the Baptist and Mary of Magdalene had come together on a mountain top in Galilee and where the faith would go, where their story would go, was now completely up to them. It was now their responsibility to spread the gospel of peace, justice, and love to the world. There was now no one else who could do it.

I want you to take a moment to ponder something for me. Now, it is always a little dangerous for a preacher to ask a congregation to ponder something because it is always possible that they will find that which they are pondering much more interesting than the sermon. But I want you to think back into your life and think about those that have come before you in your own lives. I want you to think about those that taught you the faith. Those who created cocoons of safety and security while you grounded yourself to the Divine. Those who created peace and calm for you while you explored the curves and contours of your own faith. I want you to think of those people and maybe, like for me, they have passed on and taken their own place in the great cloud of witnesses to the faith. And as you think of them, I want you to think of what it is that we owe those who came before us. What do we owe them when we talk about telling the story of our faith to those who will come after us. What do we owe them when we look at the world that was bequeathed to us, the world that they too struggled to make more loving, more calm, more peaceful. What do we owe them when we look at the resources that they left for us? What comes next in our telling of the story of our faith? of our church? of our community?

Much like the disciples on that day atop the mount in Galilee we must realize that there is no one left to do the work that needs to be done both for the faith tradition of which we are a part and for the world of which we are members. All of time and space, the whole of the story of our faith and our history as a species, has drawn together into a single point in which we now dwell. We are the people for whom we have been waiting. We are the ones tasked with going out into all the nations, spreading the love of God, telling the story of our faith, baptizing all who we meet, and telling them about the way of Jesus. We are the ones tasked with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving sight to the blind, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed. We are the ones who are called to declare the year of God’s favor for all people. We are the ones. Look around you. You, we, are the children of God, connected to God for deep inside all of us, under the muck and mire of brokenness, freed from all the things that vie for your time and commitment, unburdened by the demands made on you by your human, finite life, is a fathomless connection to the Divine. Thou art that.

In the story of our faith dwells many faces that we don’t know. Countless persons who have come before us to lead the faith to where it finds itself today. In our own lives are those who have personally brought us to a deeper understanding of God and God’s ways within the world. It is now our turn to take up the story of our faith and tell it to all those with whom we come in contact. It is our turn to tell our children and our children’s children. It is our turn to do as much good as we possibly can with the time within creation with which we are gifted. God is in you and thou art that. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples, Alleluia, Amen!

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