Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 30th of Fifth Month, 2021
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-3, NRSV
Cloud Of Witnesses, Painting Valley
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. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
Hebrews 12:1-3, NRSV
Even before the time of COVID-19, it seemed that we were living in an amnesiac age. Perhaps it’s just that I’m growing older, and having more trouble remembering where I put my coffee cup, or what I was intending to do when I started down the stairs from my study. But I don’t think it’s just me—much of our global media, and especially the varied means of communication and entertainment that come to us through the Internet and the smartphone, are premised on distraction and the short attention span. Seldom does a news article encourage us to investigate the context, understand the history behind the event that’s being reported, or take the long view–all of that would take up too much time and space. We have to speed along to the next sound bite, the next clickbait headline, the next outrageous video that will grab our attention for 2.7 seconds. And once that moment has passed, we’re on to the next thing, quickly forgetting whatever it was that had occupied our eyes and ears previously. The task of remembering seems increasingly rare, increasingly difficult, in an amnesiac age.
This is a season in which the world around us pauses, briefly, to take up the task of remembering; specifically to remember those who have served in the armed forces. While many will take tomorrow as an opportunity to barbecue or go shopping or go to the park, some will go to the cemetery to honor the memory of those who served the United States in some way. Part of what it means to be a community, any community, is to remember together. And in that community we call the church, the Body of Christ, memory has a particular function and meaning. We trust that the church is more than simply the group of people gathered here today—whether on Zoom or in person. Of course, the church is always wider than any one gathering of those who are seeking to follow Jesus faithfully, because it is a worldwide fellowship of all of those who are responding to that call. But even more, it is a body that extends back into history, and includes all those that have gone before—however many countless generations of faithful people who have known the same tribulations as we, some of them much more intensely and painfully than we could probably endure. It's no coincidence that our English verb for memory, to re-member, literally means to put back together. In our collective re-membering, we realize the fullness of our fellowship— acknowledging that it is larger than its visible members, and that those who have gone before still have a role to play in that fellowship.
And re-membering doesn’t just remind us of the fullness of the church—it also allows us to re-member ourselves individually, to put ourselves back together in right order. Remembering can return us to who we are and who we are meant to be. It puts us back in our rightful minds when we have become distracted by self and sin. When I take the time to think about those who have gone before me, I’m brought out of my immediate preoccupations, given the long view, reminded that others have struggled with similar dilemmas and yet acted faithfully. And remembering their action, I remember that God has called me to act along the same lines.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews encourages his audience to take up this task of re-membering in what he says in chapters 11 & 12. Now, we just read a short piece of the beginning of chap. 12, about the “great... cloud of witnesses” surrounding us, and that bit we read says nothing particularly about remembering: the focus at the beginning of chap. 12 is really on forward movement, on running a race with perseverance, looking towards Jesus. But of course, the passage begins with “Therefore...” which is always a sign that an argument is concluding—therefore, we need to look back and see what has been going on in chap. 11. And as we survey that part, we hear the constant refrain “by faith”:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time... as in a foreign land...” (vv8 – 9)
“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin...” (vv24 – 25)
“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.” (vv30 – 31)
And those are just a few of the ones mentioned. What forms that cloud of witnesses, what it is in their example that is to encourage us, is faith. Chap. 11 begins with, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for [and] the conviction of things not seen” (v1). All of those who are part of the cloud—Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Moses, Rahab, and many more—are exemplars of faith; people of the Hebrew Bible who were assured of what they hoped for, and convicted (or convinced) of things they yet had not seen. The writer goes on to connect their faith with Christian faith:
“...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.” (vv 39 – 40)
The reign of God has not yet been made perfect; it hasn’t yet come in its fullness. We are still working on it, together, guided and encouraged in part by the exemplars of faith that we know in the Scriptures, and in the generations before us in the church.
And it’s important to say that just as the reign of God has not yet been made perfect, none of these faithful people was perfect. All you have to do is pick up the Bible and read a little about Noah, or Abraham & Sarah, or Isaac, or Jacob, or Moses, to realize that they were messed up in all sorts of ways; Genesis and Exodus are remarkable in reporting all sorts of crazy things that these folks did, and questionable decisions they made, alongside their righteous deeds and prudent choices. And yet, they trusted a God who was faithful to them, and as it says of Abraham, this was “reckoned to them as righteousness”; this faith, this trust in God’s faithfulness, is what we recognize them for, alongside all of their sins and shortcomings.
So re-membering, putting people back together in our minds, needs to be done faithfully in order to be useful. When we remember, we have to resist the temptation to paint those who have gone before in only bright pastels, for we know that these were people who struggled with the sin that so easily entangles, just as we do. And in re-membering, it’s important to avoid a retreat into nostalgia—this is not remembering just for the sake of remembering, of making ourselves feel better by reaching back into a rose-tinted past. That cloud of witnesses is there to encourage us to keep moving forward, to run the race with perseverance, to move towards Jesus, the originator and end of our faith.
In the time of COVID-19, our ability to meet together has been so sharply curtailed that we haven’t had a memorial service for any of the beloved Friends who have died in the past year and a quarter. Some of you have heard me say that this feels like the the hardest thing in our life as a meeting during the pandemic. Today is not the day to re-member any of these Friends in depth, but I do want to mention the names of Bernice Wisehart, Phyllis Wetherell, Dorothy Coffin, Ruby Shaw, Brian Rodgers, and Phyllis Holden. These are the most recent people of our meeting to join the cloud of witnesses, and probably some of them have already come to your minds this morning.
Today I do want to say a bit about some others that have been exemplars of faith for me:
First—John Punshon: author, writer and teacher. Some of you knew him personally when he taught here, at the Earlham School of Religion, or you may have read his books, or heard him speak at Quaker gatherings. It was my privilege to have taken a two-week intensive at ESR on Quaker faith from him during my time there. By then he was no longer on the faculty, but he came out of retirement every once in a while, and I was fortunate to have been around at one of those points.
There were many things to appreciate about John—his wry English sense of humor and deep concern for others come to mind—but particularly significant for me was his profound appreciation, as an unprogrammed British Friend, for pastoral Friends in North America. He could speak to both parts of our tradition with integrity, and he was never stinting with either honest criticism or heartfelt encouragement. Friends could accept both of these as gifts because of his humility and clear commitment to Christian Quakerism.
(If you haven't ever read any of his writings, Encounter with Silence is a very good start, and then his Reasons for Hope is an excellent assessment of evangelical & pastoral Friends. The meeting library and I have copies of both.)
Second—Katherine Jacobsen: elder, encourager, and companion on the way. Some of you might also have known Katherine through ESR, when she served on the Board of Advisors. If you didn’t know her, you have nonetheless benefited from her ministry at second hand, in Marcelle Martin and in me.
Together with her husband Ken, Katherine served several Quaker organizations, including Chicago Monthly Meeting, which is where I first got to know her; Pendle Hill, near Philadelphia; and the Olney Friends School. But her influence as an elder went much further than that, especially in and through Ohio Yearly Meeting, which was her spiritual home even when she and Ken lived elsewhere.
Katherine was one of the first people to bring ESR into my awareness. She and her husband Ken were a tremendous encouragement to me as I was considering the change in vocation that eventually led me to ESR, and then into pastoral ministry among Friends. They continued to do so at various later points when our paths crossed, and her memory will stand as a continuing encouragement for me and countless other Friends.
Third—Tom Fox: activist, musician, and peacemaker. I cannot claim deep personal knowledge of Tom; I only met him once, through Christian Peacemaker Teams, in 2005. He and I were preparing to represent CPT at the Friends United Meeting Triennial, and we sat down to discuss how we might do that rather tricky task, in the wide constituency of FUM, with CPT being the radical activist organization it is. That was to be later that summer, but alas, he was not able to make it because bad weather in Baghdad prevented his return to the US at the appointed time.
And then late the next year, Tom was one of four men abducted in Iraq, members of a CPT delegation there. Many of you remember that time, and were faithful in prayer for CPT and Tom and his fellows over the five months of their captivity. As a member of CPT’s Steering Committee at the time, I was part of the crisis team that worked for their return.
I learned a few things about Tom during that period, but the most revealing account is that written by Jim Loney, one of his fellow captives. Jim describes how Tom supported the rest of them even when his own mental and physical health were failing. And then, of course, he was separated from the rest, likely because he was the one American citizen in the group, and murdered in March 2006. The others were freed by the British military the next month.
Alongside what Jim wrote about Tom, I think the most important lesson I’ve learned from him is in one of his own writings, a blog post from the year before his captivity. He wrote of one of the central challenges of peacemaking, which is to resist the temptation to dehumanize the other. Dehumanization is what makes violence possible, and Tom knew, directly and personally, how easy it was to yield to that temptation. Central to his faith as a Quaker, and to his practice as a peacemaker, was the effort to continue to see the humanity of the other, whether that other was a Palestinian refugee, his Iraqi landlord, or a US soldier.
These are a few of those in the great cloud of witnesses for me; not perfect people, but ones who lived in faith. Ones who, as I remember them, encourage me to move forward, with my eyes fixed on Jesus.
In that great cloud of witnesses, who stands nearest to you? As you look over your shoulder, who is standing close by, encouraging you? As you remember them, how are you, yourself, re-membered, brought back to who you are and who God means for you to be?
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