Join the Cloud of Witnesses: Hebrews 11.1–16, 12.1–2

communionofsaintsDelivered at Ames UCC on September 6, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us at 10:45 a.m. worship on Sundays.

I know it doesn’t feel like it today with the heat, but summer is about over. The kids are back to school. Football is underway. I’d wager many of us are even deep into negotiating Thanksgiving and Christmas plans.

Next week we will kick off our church year with a breakfast potluck at 9:30 a.m. and worship at 10:45 a.m. Everyone is invited to wear superhero costumes and we will receive new members in worship. Our scripture will be from Genesis. We go back to the beginning.

Which means today we say goodbye to the Letter to the Hebrews. Over these five weeks, we have heard how in Jesus Christ, God is defined by change. We have been offered a theological explanation of Good Friday and then you, in turn, offered your own. In doing so, you consistently named closeness to God as essential.

Last week we examined our responsibilities in that closeness: to keep the sanctuary open, to expand it out further and further through everyday acts of welcome and generosity. Thank you to everyone who took either a red or a rainbow God is Still Speaking comma pin. It’s been a treat to hear what conversations they have started, what sanctuaries they opened up this week. I’ve ordered more for those of you who were not able to be here.

We conclude with a beautifully crafted argument about how to live a life of faith, to live with

the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Our unknown author presents a series of ancestors whom we should look to as examples: Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham.

First, Abel: The story of Abel is messier than this reference implies. Cain, the firstborn of Adam and Eve, was a farmer. His younger brother Abel was a shepherd. Cain offered God his harvest and Abel offered his sheep.

For reasons unknown, God liked the sheep better. Cain let his hurt and anger show. God then lectures Cain on how he must master sin’s efforts to control him. Then Cain kills Abel. Before committing fratricide, Cain was just as generous and faithful as Abel. But as a result of God’s preferences, Abel is the saintly brother. We’ll need to come back to that one another week.

Next is Enoch. Enoch isn’t someone we hear about a lot. He is listed as a descendant of Adam in Genesis, chapter 5:

21When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. 22Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 23Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty-five years. 24Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.

The duration of Enoch’s life is a sign of his holiness, his goodness, rather than actual fact. Enoch’s specialness is further emphasized by the description that he did not die, but was simply “no more, because God took him.”

Enoch appears again as a prophet in the New Testament Letter of Jude:

14It was also about these that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “See, the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

His non-death is also referenced in the book of wisdom called Sirach, which is recognized in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but not among us Protestants.

It sounds to me like there was a tradition around Enoch as prophet and faithful man across Hebrew communities. He was well-known enough to be referenced in scripture, and to be credited with specific speech about faithfulness, but not quite important enough to have his fuller story preserved in written form. So we don’t know how Enoch pleased God, but that he must have such that people perceived him as being spared death.

And our final exemplars of faith are the much more familiar Noah, Abraham, and Sarah: Noah, who built an ark in a desert, despite the mockery of his community. Abraham and Sarah who for 60 or more years never set up a permanent tent or had children. They simply trusted God would provide a homeland and offspring, always welcoming God’s messengers, always offering hospitality and a hearty laugh.

Having given these examples of what faith in God looks like, our unknown author concludes,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us

I love that image of the great cloud of witnesses. Even though I don’t perceive heaven to be a literal place with the dead gathered on clouds, I am so comforted by the image of this crowd of lovers and loved ones all around.

I imagine that if I could just stand high enough on my toes, I could touch the fingers again of those I have lost, particularly those who were my mentors in faith. Like Ben Webb, Jane Bickham, and Peggy Bernal.

I am profoundly comforted by the notion that they are in my life still, yet nurturing me in my growth as a person and a person of faith. “Hello,” I imagine saying to them. “I love you. Thank you.”

They all walked with God, like Enoch, but in their own ways. Ben knew what it was like, having been born black in America in 1926, to be denied basic rights in his nation and leadership in his own church. Jane drowned out the pain of cancer with a gorgeous jazz recording of “God’s Eyes are on the Sparrow.” And Peggy shook up all my assumptions about what it means to be pastor to another.

None of them ever made it into scripture, nor will they. But, to be frank, I don’t really care about Enoch and his prophetic chastisement and his non-death like I do Ben and Jane and Peggy. I was able to see them and live with them as they tried to make sense of our faith story in this time and place. I didn’t have to get past historical context and translation before I could find myself in relationship with them. They were right in front of my eyes. They welcomed me into their faith journeys with honesty and vulnerability. What they taught me about God and church and life and death remains with me in visceral ways. Their lives are now entwined in mine. I am accountable for the gifts they gave me. I am part of their legacies in a way impossible with a character from the Bible.

The author of Hebrews wants us to

run with perseverance the race that is set before us

She invites us to look back for inspiration. I wonder if we shouldn’t also look forward.

We cannot get out of this life alive. We are all going to die.

If we have taken the risks of faith not only by being brave enough to make fools of ourselves, like Noah, or keeping our humor in the face of absurdity, like Sarah, but also by allowing others to witness our walk with God, our names, too, will be among that great cloud.

We do not run the race alone and we cannot run it for ourselves alone. We seek God not just because of those in the past but also for those of the future. The great cloud of witnesses is ours to rely on and ours to join.

Let’s close out this time we have spent with the letter to the Hebrews by hearing an invitation to become someone else’s saint, someone else’s touchstone of faith. Let our lights shine now that we may yet be guides when we are gone.

Singing, “This little light of mine…”


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