Sunday, August 28, 2016

Faces in the Cloud

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
August 28 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

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.

The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.

Did you watch the Olympics this past month?
Did you have favorites – the Simones? or the divers, or the swimmers?
It’s always inspiring to watch great athletes compete, even if you aren’t terribly athletic yourself. If you are an athlete, or if you used to be, you are acutely aware of the amount of effort and focus and dedication that goes into any competition, whether it is track and field in school, or the Olympics. Everyone knows that when you compete at that level, you play to win. Of course, it is always an honor just to GO to the Olympics, but the reason athletes go is in the hope of winning.

That’s why I think it’s really compelling that the biggest story from Rio this summer was not about Michael Phelps. It was not about all the winners. It was about a runner -- someone who lost – Abbey D’Agostino. She came in last because as she was running, she tripped over New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin. Instead of getting up and running on, as her coach had taught her, she stopped, helped Nikki up, and said, “Get up. This is the Olympics!”

Abbey and Nikki - video

That kind of perseverance, that kind of commitment, is a rare thing these days. But it is just that kind of perseverance that we heard about in Hebrews. The reading starts in chapter 11, with a recounting of a kind of family tree. It isn’t a genetic family tree, but a faith heritage we’re hearing about. The list is like a hall of fame of faithful people. Chapter 11 starts out with the definition of faith “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Then, examples of the faithful are given – Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Moses. And it seems that the writer realizes that listing everyone is going to take forever, so we come the verses you’ve heard today – the delivery of the Israelites from slavery, the victory at Jericho, when the walls came tumbling down. Then we hear of people who ran the race, starting with Rahab, a pagan prostitute, and going on to heroes of the Hebrew scriptures: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets— the martyrs who died for their faith, who had died for “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Then, we see this most amazing assertion:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”
THEREFORE – this is the conclusion coming up – get ready.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.”

That cloud of witnesses? All those faithful people just named. Who knew we were surrounded by the Israelites, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Joshua, David and Solomon and the martyrs? And not only them – that cloud of witnesses is all of the people who lived by faith and have joined the church triumphant. They now are in the bleachers of heaven, cheering us on.

Wait. Stop one second. Who demonstrated that kind of faith in your life?
What faithful person showed you how to be faithful?

For me, it was my Grandmother Shultz, who raised nine children, then learned Spanish and went to Mexico City and taught Bible stories to children in one of the poorest parts of the city. For Jamie and Amanda, whose daughters will be baptized today, one of the faces in that cloud of witnesses is their grandfather, June Lee, and another is their grandmother, Callie Lee. Maybe for you it was a parent, or a grandparent. Maybe it was a Sunday School teacher, or youth leader, or a neighbor. Maybe it was more than one person. Whoever it was that guided you in faith, that face is in this cloud of witnesses. So we run the race, cheered on by those saints. Can you see them?

If we want to run well, to finish well, the scripture says,
“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.”

Like Abbey D’Agostino, we say, “This is the Olympics! We have to keep going!”

But our eyes are not fixed on the finish line, or on those who run alongside us, or even on those beloved, encouraging faces in the cloud of witnesses. No, as we run, we are looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He’s the one we run to, the one who endured the cross,
who gave up glory and took on shame,
who never medaled in anything
who was a not a winner in the world’s eyes.
who sits at the right hand of the throne of God.

In ancient Greece, the runners ran as tribute to Zeus. In the modern Olympics, they run for their countries, for honor, glory, medals. We run toward the open and loving arms of Jesus.

As we run with endurance, we run alongside one another, helping each other along, hearing the cheering of the cloud of witnesses, not worrying about who gets the medal. In a few minutes, when we baptize Molly and Ellie, we will invite them to come with us. Their parents will promise to bring them along, and we’ll promise to help Kevin and Amanda and Kyle and Jamie. We’ll promise to support and encourage them in their faith, every step of the way. We’ll promise these baby girls that they are not entering a competition-- this is a race they cannot lose!

We will stop and wait for them, pick them up when they fall, and cheer them on as they grow. We promise all that, and we want to keep those promises. That’s why we try so hard to stay connected to our young families, to the children we have baptized, because we want to be an encouraging and faithful presence in their lives. We like to think that someday, when they think about the “cloud of witnesses” maybe they will see OUR faces in the cloud.

The race, of course, is a symbol, a good metaphor for our lives. Another less competitive metaphor is “the circle of love.” Marianne Williamson says, “The circle of love is deep and strong. It can forgive mistakes and cast out error. It can foster greatness and bring forth new life…. This is our function in each other’s lives: to hold the space for each other’s beauty, that our beloved can leave us and we still feel in his or her absence how beautiful we are.”

That’s a beautiful way to think about the community of the baptized – a circle of love, where we hold space for each other, and everyone knows they are beautiful. The truth is, though, that church life isn’t always puffy clouds and unicorns. The community of faith is not made up of perfect people. While we seek to teach, to mentor, to mother, and to encourage, sometimes we don’t get it right.

But there is no other place like it.
Anybody can teach their children to be nice people.
Anybody can read Bible stories to their children.
Anybody can pass on moral lessons and old hymns to their kids.
But baptism is about more than that!
Church is about more than that!

I always tell the parents of children about to be baptized that the only place they can receive what the church has is in the church:
an intergenerational faith community,
a place of complete acceptance, no matter who you are,
a place to explore and question and learn about faith,
a place to learn how to get along with all kinds of people,
a place where sometimes we are linked – through a shared love of Jesus –
with those we may not understand,
a place where we learn how to pray and worship and share the peace
with someone we may not even particularly enjoy.

You can’t get that at school, or in your family, or in a club.
You won’t get this in a sorority or fraternity, or even on a sports team.
You can’t get that at the mall or at

In our baptism, we receive a new identity, a name and family that we share not only with those present, but with those who have joined that great cloud of witnesses. There is no other place in the world where a child can be so beloved, and can be so inspired, and so challenged.

When everyone is going the same direction,
when all eyes are fixed on Jesus,
when every voice joins in the same hymns of praise and promise,
when everyone prays the same prayers of confession,
when each heart hears the assurance of God’s pardon,
when every person is blessed simply because they are alive!
when everyone comes to the same table,
receives the same bread, the same cup,
it is truly a foretaste of heaven – of the great banquet in the presence of God.

In those moments, everyone wins.
Love wins.

And God does that, not us, you know?

When I went to do some research about Abbey D’Agostino I thought I’d learn about an Ivy League runner with an extraordinary sense of sportsmanship. And I did. But the person I encountered was not just an extraordinary young athlete. She is a committed, faithful Christian.[1] About helping Nikki up in the race, Abbey told USA Track & Field, “Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here he's made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance—and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it."[2]

Isn’t that something?

What informed Abbey’s action is her Christian faith. I can’t help but believe that there were some faces in the cloud of witnesses that were alight with joy that day at the Olympics. All of us who saw it, or watched the video clip, had tears in our eyes. This past week, D’Agostino and Hamblin became the 18th and 19th recipients of the Pierre de Coubertin medal. It is not awarded at every Olympic Games. Rather, it is reserved for the most exceptional displays of sportsmanship and the Olympic spirit. But there’s even more to the story.

Abbey D’Agostino didn’t just lose the 5,000 meter qualifying heat.
She came in last, long after everyone else had finished.
But the crowds in the stadium were cheering their heads off.
Abbey didn’t know that they were cheering for her.
In an interview, she was asked about the cheering crowd.
She said, “I wasn’t really sure if it was happening in the front
You never know what’s causing the fans to go wild…
But I definitely noticed, when I was finishing, I was the only one on the track.
I was praying my way through the finish. It was crazy because I knew my leg just wasn’t right. But I knew God was able, and I wasn’t. I’m thankful to have been a witness to that kind of power that wasn’t my own.[3]

Friends, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
since we have promised to nurture the faith of those who are baptized,
since we have fixed our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith,
let’s run together, toward Jesus, 
encouraged and urged on by the cheers and smiles 
of all those faces in the clouds.





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