“So Great A Cloud of Witnesses”

Hebrews 12: 1-3

Church anniversaries call us to consider the great cloud of witnesses who surround us, encouraging us to run the race before us with perseverance.  I love the ebb and flow of the letter to the Hebrews. It’s a book of the Bible we know little about in terms of its origin. Its author is anonymous. Its timing, according to most scholars imprecise…sometime between 60-100AD. And we know very little about its first audience or congregation. But, what we do know about its theme and its flow more than makes up for its question marks. I describe it as a long sermon or proclamation of encouragement. It closely enjoins doctrine and application of Christian doctrine. It speaks with passion at the same time it gets you thinking. Tom Long, teacher of preachers in Atlanta (Emory) describes Hebrews as a narrative of hope for people who have yet to arrive, who may be tired of waiting for fulfillment, but who nevertheless strive to say yes to the call of God in Jesus Christ.

It is particularly appropriate – its message is for those of us in the church of 2012. Not yet perfected, indeed quite imperfect – sometimes tired of waiting and extremely busy. Yet, straining forward to say yes to God’s call. The words of the twelfth chapter are a rallying cry. The preacher has cited a list of the heroes and heroines of the Faith, describing their particular achievements, their triumphs, their unique legacies (Abraham, Moses, etc.). Then his words turn-on a specific conjunction-therefore-and he begins the exhortation: “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith”—Having just received the names of the folks in the Israelite Hall of Fame, he encourages by saying a loud, emphatic, Therefore—let us run too, or also! It’s as though each ancestor is still alive— and sitting in the bleachers, shouting out their cheers, still filled with inspiration, still very much real, which they are. Like one of my history teachers who always spoke in present tense! Figures in history were not so much a part of a dead past—but a living present.

Think with me. Who do you include in your great cloud of witnesses? Who are the messengers who imparted the story of the Christian Faith? Whose faces do you see…whose memory inspires you? If you were writing a sequel to the letter, who would be there in the great company of those who came before, but whose influence on you is still palpable?

Would it be your mother or father, your parent or perhaps a grandparent who loved you with a Christ-like love that still makes you want to sing to this day? Did your mother give you the gift of wisdom, the gift of critical thinking that enabled you to understand what matters in faith and life? Is it a parent or family member I see in your great cloud of witnesses?

Perhaps your circle of influence, faithful influence is led by a Sunday school teacher who conveyed Christian Faith in such a compelling way that made you say: “I want that for myself!” It was that teacher who took you seriously –who made the Bible come alive, who made it easier to forget how hard it is to get up early on Sunday mornings? How hard it is to return to youth group on Sunday afternoons or evenings!

Was it the chaplain or campus minister of your college or university, who did not judge you or reject you for your doubts, perhaps your borderline irreverent questions? Was it a professor whose love of her discipline or field was contagious, encouraging you in your journey?

Or perhaps the great cloud of witnesses contains only one person…a community servant whose dedication to you and to others always went the second mile. She was a person who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the prisoner and comforted the afflicted. Someone was there whose heart filled the voids left behind by neglect, scorn, self-destruction. This community servant never received
recognition or popularity – but she is there in your great cloud of witnesses.

Perhaps that great circle of witnesses includes one of the pastors of this church –who wept with you in your hour of grief. A pastor who stood by you at the cemetery and pronounced the benediction. When Jack Stotts was president of McCormick Seminary, a student’s relationship with the man she thought she was going to marry ended abruptly, painfully. Forever the student’s president—Jack listened—and then he himself began to weep.

Anniversary years are a good time to take stock of those whose influence brought us to this point in our pilgrimage. Who do you name, whose faces do you see in the great cloud of witnesses in your life? Whose voice do you hear…They may have been dead a long time…but their voices of encouragement still speak to you.Encouraging you to say yes to the call of God. Encouraging you to say no to the evils we deplore. I don’t know the composition of your great cloud of witnesses—but you do. And if you listen, they are still speaking. If your heart is still open, you can feel their embrace.

This congregation has a great cloud of witnesses whose influence is encouraging. I see them depicted so beautifully in your windows. There is Martin Luther-the conscience-torn priest who did not envision a new church when he protested the sale of indulgences, and nailed his 95 points of protest to the church door at Wittenburg. There is Roger Williams who colonized Rhode Island in
pursuit of a religious liberty worth dying for. There is the Quaker Mary Dyer—hanged in Boston for defying Puritan laws—(I am not proud of what Presbyterian ancestors did to the Quakers who sought refuge on Long Island—persecuting them for being different! One of the smaller islands within an island is called Shelter Island-it was a haven for Quakers as well as a stop on the Underground Railroad!) There are others in the great cloud of witnesses whom I hear speaking through your windows—There is Francis Makemie, Samuel Seabury, Thomas Campbell. And to my
delight John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. If these witnesses and these windows are merely a monument to a distant past—then we are the poorer. But, on the other hand, if you can hear their good words across the chasm of time, then rejoice. Rejoice because you have caught the tenor and rhythm of the sermon we know as the Book of Hebrews.

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, disregarded the shame, and now sits on the right hand of God!”

Flying back into the windy city I think of those whose Illinois influence is still a big part of my life—whose encouragement stays with me. There are those in this great state whose work inspires me, whose witness is contagious, whose lives I will not forget.

There is Ed Steele—the foreman of buildings and grounds at the former seminary campus at Fullerton and Halsted. Ed was a giant of a man, a Navy boxing champ in his prime. He was known to enjoy his spirits…and could turn a tense situation into a time of comic relief. Ed loved the students— and didn’t pretend once to know or justify the rigorous demands of Greek/Hebrew and the other courses of study. He didn’t realize it, but he was a pastor to those of us who at times were ready to give up this sacred calling and consider some other line of work. In the aftermath of the Democratic Convention in 1968 Ed opened the Old McCormick Gymnasium which backed up to the Fullerton El stop. He turned it into a make-shift hospital and recovery center for many of the protesters who had no place to turn. He did not like to talk about it in 1972 when I started…but stories abounded of how Ed created a refuge for strangers and picked glass from the wounds of one young man, helping him and others heal. I still hear him in my great cloud of witnesses—I hear him with his great big belly laugh. I see him with his red face—and blood pressure a little too high. There he is in my great cloud of witnesses yelling run the race, Chuck!

I drive through the great city of Chicago and consider the neighborhoods. Immigrant neighborhoods with clear boundaries. When my brother first visited, he fell in love with this place because in his estimation it had a feeling of a large metropolis made up of conventional small towns. I think of Jane Adams while here—pioneer of the settlement house and social work movement. Two of her  autobiographical books are worth reading: Twenty Years at Hull House and The Second Twenty Years at Hull House. Her understanding of the immigrant experience in America was unmatched in terms of sensitivity and how people can adapt to new circumstances. In short, Jane Adams knew how to get people to feel at home in what could be very intimidating circumstances. A visiting professor from Prague was once giving a lecture at Hull house –his last name was Masurek. He appealed to his fellow Czech-Americans to rise from the chase of material success, which made them forget their roots. Jane Adams describes a Bohemian widow who supported herself and two children—by scrubbing—very poor. But she was there to hear this presentation which inspired her pride. She hastily sent her younger child to purchase (with the $.25 which was to have supplied them with food for the next day) a bunch of red roses. She presented these roses to the lecturer in appreciation of his testimony to the reality of things of the spirit.

Jane Adams achieved countless other victories for people searching to make this a home. She is there in my great cloud of witnesses speaking softly—but surely: Run the race before you. And don’t forget the gifts and cultures of others who search just as you search, for the place called home with God.

Since we are surrounded by a living community, you and I are not alone. Those gone before us still encourage us by what they believe and how they labored. Your own church is part of that great cloud of witnesses whose voices sing you forward on your pilgrimage. I love it when I hear the church doing that! Yet another face and name in my circle of influence is the man whose last name makes up the state motto of Illinois—land of Lincoln. I appreciate Abraham Lincoln more and more as time marches on and I manage to read his prescient words. Abe Lincoln who was martyred, ironically, while attending a Good Friday matinee at Ford Theater on April 14, 1865. Who not too long before had gone to Richmond, Virginia as a gesture of reconciliation. That he wished to be President of a reunited nation was an unfulfilled wish. His second inaugural address is as close to sacred writ as anything I’ve read. It is brief (700 words) and was briefly delivered: 7 minutes –(It was cold and not everyone could hear!) But its ending is worth repeating because it sets the bar high for civil discourse and openness to reconciliation. “With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right. Let us strive on to finish the war we are in…To bind up the nations’ wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and for his orphan…and to do all which may achieve a just and a lasting peace among ourselves, with all nations.”

Abraham Lincoln did not exclude anyone from this mission-and echoes the rhythm of the sermon from Hebrews-exhorting the American people to rise from the ashes of a deadly war to heal creation. Abraham Lincoln is part of my great cloud of witnesses as he is yours. He is pictured in one of your stained glass windows. You can almost hear him straining against the deeply partisan way we live – and encouraging us to run the race of our citizenship – with malice toward none and charity for all. Abe Lincoln is in that great cloud of witnesses! In December of 2000—on a very cold day—I walked south on Woodlawn to the Rockefeller Chapel for the memorial service for the late Gwendolyn Brooks, poet laureate of Illinois and the United States. South Side poet extraordinaire—“Kitchenette Building”, “Birth in a Narrow Room”, “We Real Cool.” She was known as a generous tipper—all the cabbies competed and hustled to transport her when she was on the move. Rockefeller Chapel was filled, despite the terrible weather. Mayor Daley spoke. Letters of consolation were read from world leaders including our President.

The greatest tribute of all came from an artist—a singer whose tenor voice was unmatched. He told us how Gwendolyn Brooks had encouraged him to ascend Broadway’s ladder and sing from the heart. He closed his remarks by singing the number from George Gershwin: The way you wear your hat/The way you sip your tea/The memory of all that!/No, they can’t take that away from me!

We stood in applause—not for his performance, good as it was. But, stood in reverence for one who is part of the great cloud of witnesses. God gave us Gwendolyn Brooks and all the others who shout run: “Run the race before you, to the glory of God.”

Thank you, Kenilworth Union Church—for your part in such a great cloud of witnesses! And thank you God, for speaking to us through them all! Keep running and keep the faith!

Amen!