In the Cloud

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Psalm 82

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets–who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented–of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, 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,looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

***

Have you been watching the Olympics?

If you have, chances are you’ve seen a lot of gymnastics and swimming, because American athletes are doing pretty well in those areas, and we all like watching ourselves win. I haven’t seen too many broadcasts of the track and field events, although admittedly I haven’t gone searching for them either. The big races, I think, start airing today.

The Olympics are one of the great gifts to preachers, because they’re one of the rare instances where we have the opportunity to watch on live television an event written about in our Bible.

As you probably know, the Olympics were just one of many ancient sporting spectacles, and races made up a huge part of such games. So when the author of Hebrews talks about running the race that is set before us, his ancient hearers would have envisioned a track not terribly unlike those we see in Rio—without the television cameras, of course.

Now, I’m not really a sports person, but I do know that the basic goal of running is that you get to the end first. I have vivid memories of watching Usain Bolt shoot out from in front of the pack at the 2008 games in Beijing—and again, it takes a lot for sports to make an impression on me, so that’s saying something. There’s something really exciting about that lone runner out in front, leaving everyone else in his—or her—dust.

That’s the kind of running we celebrate—the solo superstar. Whoever gets to stand on the highest podium in Rio this week will have gotten there because they managed to leave everyone else behind them.

Is that what our scripture is talking about? How to be a Christian super-athlete? How to leave everyone else in our dust as we strive to nab that gold medal for holiness? Somehow I don’t think so. Because the paradox of this metaphor is that, as Christians, to leave others behind is to lose sight of the goal we press towards. There are no solo winners in this race: we are called to run as a team.

There is, of course, such a thing as team running: the relay races. And that wouldn’t be a terrible image for this scripture. It starts with a veritable roster of faithful runners, if you will: the Israelites and Rahab the prostitute, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets, mothers, and martyrs who refused to give up on God, each generation handing its faith over to the next like a baton in a relay race.

Now, 2000 years after the author of Hebrews wrote this list, we could add our own names to the roster. Who has taken up the baton of faith and passed it down to you? Think about it for a minute. Who belongs in your cloud of witnesses—who are members of your track team? Who taught you what faith meant? Whose love showed you God’s love? Who first asked you to serve Christ’s church? Who cheered you on every step of your journey?

One of the great gifts of my life thus far has been the opportunity to be a part of several communities of faith—my home church, which I was a member of from the time I was four years old until my ordination, my college church, my seminary, and the church down the road from my seminary, the church I interned with, the church I’ve preached for for the last two years, and now Crescent Springs. When I was ordained in June, I tried to have as many representatives from all those communities there as possible—it meant a lot to me to have my cloud of witnesses present on that day. What I did not know was that my mother had been devising a way for me to carry that cloud of witnesses with me. At my ordination, she presented me with this stole, signed by people from all through my life—this stole had been mailed all over the country for people to sign.

I’d like to share a few stories from my own cloud of witnesses. I hope that they will encourage you to think about the stories from yours.

  • Essie. By faith, Essie spent a year in Belfast, Ireland, working to repair Catholic-Protestant relations among teenagers.
  • Candy. By faith, Candy went back to get her seminary degree in her 70s, serving her fifteen-member church with joy and perserverance.
  • Reed. By faith, Reed and his wife Susan have adopted two children, bringing their family up to a riotous five.
  • Miriam. By faith, Miriam nurtures the college students under her care as a college chaplain.
  • Anna. By faith, Anna cared for her husband while he suffered from cancer, and by faith knows she will see him again.
  • Carolyn. By faith, Carolyn taught Vacation Bible School to twenty rowdy middle schoolers. That takes a lot of faith.
  • Brian. By faith, Brian endures the struggles of being a seminary president so that students can have a place to learn and grow.
  • Laura. By faith, Laura serves every month at her church’s soup kitchen and strives to be a good example to her friends in high school.
  • Daniel. By faith, Daniel has spent the summer caring for families and children in the pediatric unit of the VCU medical center.
  • O’Neill. By faith, O’Neill serves underprivileged clients as a social services lawyer.
  • Katie. By faith, Katie teaches her education students not just how to teach students but how to love them, just as she taught me, as my confirmation mentor, not just who God was, but how much God loved me.

There are dozens more names on this stole, and each name is a story. By faith, these people have walked through fire, and they have found joy, and they have cried and prayed and laughed and served and supported each other and supported me. This is what just one small part of my cloud of witnesses looks like.

Those of you with eagle eyes will notice that there is a blank spot, here at the top of the stole. That’s because my cloud of witnesses is ever-growing, and now that spot belongs to you. When I am installed here at Crescent Springs, I’ll have this stole out for you all to sign.

This is my team. These are the folks that run with me in the race. Because our faith is like a relay race—but not quite: we do not drop out when we pass the baton on. We keep running too. We run together, so that everyone reaches the finish line together, and no one is left behind.

Like I said at the beginning, I’m not a runner. My actual memories of having to attempt the five-minute mile in elementary school are mostly a blur of being out of breath and acutely ashamed of how slow I was. I wasn’t necessarily last, but I was close. And that is why a story like the one Glennon Melton Doyle tells will always bring me to tears.

Glennon’s son runs cross country. There are twenty five kids on the team, and twenty four of them finish around the same time. But, she says, “there’s one kid – this hero kid- who always finishes last. By a lot. And so while everyone else is drinking their water and sitting with their friends and hugging their parents, this kid is still running. Every week. He is last, he is moving slow, but he is STILL MOVING FORWARD. At his OWN pace. The battle is between him and him.

And so this is what happens EVERY WEEK. The rest of the kids finish the race. And they get their water. And they watch for the hero. And when he’s on his last lap- that last, tortuous, lonely stretch- they all run to him. And they surround him. And they run beside and behind him- encouraging, cheering, chanting his name. And then- when they all shepherd him to the final stretch- he just takes off. Their love propels him. He runs like the freaking wind and they are all left in his dust cheering and he finishes first- last, but first – with his whole team behind him (and many runners from other teams) and the coaches and parents cry and jump and hug each other. Because they recognize heaven on Earth when they see it.”

Friends, this is what it means to run the race that is set before us with faith. It means that we do not run alone—that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, running right by our side, chanting our name, cheering us on, even though we may sweat and stumble and wonder why we ever signed up for this thing called faith in the first place. If we could only see, we would know that we are part of a track team of billions, of men and women from every time and place, who run with race with us. We would Abraham and Sarah and Rahab, David and Samuel and Gideon. We would everyone who loved us, taught us, nurtured us, brought us casseroles and taught us VBS songs, everyone who coached and mentored and brought us up in the way that we should go. I’ve shared some of the names from my cloud of witnesses with you. I hope you’ll spend some time this week remembering names of your own.

Who runs beside you this week? And just as importantly, who are you being called to run alongside?

Remember: our goal is not to get there first. Our goal is to get there together.

And before we forget, let’s add one more name to our roster: Christ, who is with us, guiding our feet, every step of the way.

For the strength to run when running is hard,
for the joy of running alongside friends,
and for the faith that sees us through each leg of our journey,
we give thanks.

Amen.

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