SERMON ~ 08/18/2019 ~ “A Cloud of Witnesses”

08/18/2019 ~ Tenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Proper 15 ~ Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19; Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56.

A Cloud of Witnesses

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside everything that impedes us and the sin, all that destroys, which so easily entangles us. Let us run with perseverance the race that is laid out before us.” — Hebrews 12:1.

Let me start my comments by thanking the members of this church for inviting me back. Inviting me back?

Well, on July 12th, 1992 I preached at First Parish Church in Brunswick. At that point I was a member at First Parish and in my first year at Bangor Seminary.

Now, as it happens in July of 1992 the Elijah Kellogg Church was in a transition between pastors and the interim had not yet arrived. For reasons of which I am unaware, someone from this church heard me at First Parish.

Having heard me and being in need of pulpit supply I was invited to offer a sermon on August 16th, 1992. [1] And I did. So, this is my second time in this pulpit. You have invited me back. Thank you.

Why do I remember all that in such detail? As I think you may know, after a 23 year absence, Bonnie and I have returned home to Maine.

I can recite that history with detail because after a 23 year pastorate in rural Upstate New York, we had to pack up the parsonage. 23 years of packing was not easy.

Bonnie and I are pack rats. We seem to save everything. Can you say 1995 Tax Returns? Guess what else I had saved? I saved correspondence between myself and the Kellogg Church which set up that pulpit supply.

Packing was not easy for another reason. I came across a multitude of things. Each item dredged up memories— memories of relatives, friends, parishioners— a veritable cloud of witnesses. I also uncovered memories of life before seminary, memories of my life and my work as a writer in New York City.

Now, as the biography in your newsletter said, I am a member of the Dramatist Guild, of ASCAP and had material performed Off-off Broadway and Off -Broadway. One of the things I came across was the first scene of a musical which was never performed. It was never performed because I wrote only one song and the first scene.

It was to be a musical based on the stories of the great Russian playwright and story teller Anton Chekhov. In that scene Chekhov elaborates on what those writings do. They address life— real life. What follows is some of the lyric of that one song.

“Life is everyday folks in everyday places. / Life is a tug on the sleeve and loving embraces. / Life is a walk in the park and sewing on patches. / Life is the pairing of socks and making of matches.”

“Life is unbearably boring sometimes, but soaring— / And week after week completely unique.”

“Life is a worrisome day with one more disaster. / Life is finding a way to make it go faster. / Life is a merry-some tune in four quarter time. / Life is the call of the loon, the sound of a rhyme.”

“Life is your grandfather’s beard, his strut and his amble. / Life is a great Russian play, good luck when you gamble. / Life is your father and mother, riding a bike. / Life is risking a kiss to see what it’s like.”

“Life is a trip to the store or even the zoo— / Not very much more than being with you.”

“Life is an excellent place to see how you’re living. / Life is a good way to learn about taking and giving. / Life is a whole lot of pain and everyday things. / Life is a change everyday; let’s see what it brings!”

“Life is a little guffaw, a bless when you sneeze. / Life is a mother-in-law you’re aiming to please. / Life is the seeing of friends, a swim in a lake. / Life is trying out things; you make a mistake.”

“Life is the flowers in Spring, in autumn the hay. / Life is the courage to think and mean what you say. / Life is the look of a friend when saying ‘good-bye.’ / Life is the need for an end and wanting to cry.” (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside everything that impedes us and the sin, all that destroys, which so easily entangles us. Let us run with perseverance the race that is laid out before us.” (Slight pause.)

I have often said in order to understand Scripture we need to forget we live in the 21st Century. We need to read Scripture with 1st Century eyes to discover meaning.

And so 1st Century eyes tell us this letter is written to the Hebrews, Jewish people. And who were the early followers of Jesus? It was not the gentiles, not us. The early followers were Hebrews, Jewish people.

Hence, when these words refer to (quote:) “great a cloud of witnesses” to whom are they referring? This refers to Hebrews, Jewish people— not gentiles, not us. They are this “great a cloud of witnesses.”

That provokes two simple questions. First, two sections of the Bible are commonly labeled as Old Testament and New Testament.

What does the word testament really mean? Testament is from the Latin word testimonium— to witness.

Next, to what is this cloud of witnesses who are Hebrews, Jews, giving testimony? If we read this passage with 21st Century eyes you might say they witness to (quote) “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” Jesus.

But I would suggest if we read with 1st Century eyes, with the eyes of the first followers of Jesus— Hebrews, Jewish people— we come to a different understanding of the passage. That understanding is laid out by the words “Let us run with perseverance the race that is laid out before us.” (Slight pause.)

It has been said the Hebrew people, unlike gentiles, did not have a theology, an articulated verbiage about belief. Rather, the Hebrew people did theology.

Hence, what they understood is in the work, in the message, in the legacy of Jesus, in all this, they saw continuity with the God of the covenant, the God of the Hebrew people. They saw continuity with the God of the covenant through the life of Jesus.

Why? Jesus insisted over and over again the God of Hebrew people, Yahweh, the God of covenant, calls us to love God and love neighbor. And love is a verb. Love is about action. Love is not about articulating a theology. Love is about doing theology. (Slight pause.)

This brings us back to wondering about what life is. Yes, life is filled with everyday stuff. And everyday stuff is wonderful, awful, engaging, scattered.

But what needs to be a central focus for us as we live through the experience of everyday stuff? Active doing— the active doing of loving God and loving neighbor.

Hence, I want to suggest the message we might take from seeing these words with 1st Century eyes is we need to do theology, not merely speak, express theology in each and every one of the everyday things we encounter. And when we take the action commonly called love, when love is our prime action, then we are and we become a continuation of that first cloud of witnesses, the Hebrews.

And therefore when read with 21st Century eyes, the claim this passage makes— that Jesus is the perfecter of our faith— this passage says Jesus got it right. Jesus loved God, loved neighbor. And because of the life Jesus lived, Jesus did have a special relationship with God. We Christians articulate that relationship as the Second Person of the Trinity, the Christ, the Messiah.

That leads us back to love. If we treat love as a verb, if we live our lives filled with love, seeking the hope, the peace, the wisdom God offers, we can be empowered to be in relationship with God. And what is a loving relationship about? It’s about doing. Amen.

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Love is an active verb. I think in our world we too often see active hate. Why? Hate is also a verb and in our world today it is clear some people actively practice hate. But that is exactly the same kind of world in which Jesus lived. Hence., I encourage you to see love as a very active verb. Of course, what the action known as love looks like in everyday, real life is justice and equity for everyone. Indeed, let us strive to make justice and equity for everyone an everyday thing.”

BENEDICTION: The loving kindness of God, the steadfast love of God, is always present to us. Therefore, may we love God so much that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

[1] I communicated with Marvin Starr Edgerton.

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