THE GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Lindley G. DeGarmo

Union Church of Pocantico Hills

September 26, 2021

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19

Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2

Numbers are on my mind this morning. The number twenty-four, for example. That was the number of worshipers who gathered here last Sunday, including Rick and me and the choir. That was down from nearly fifty the week before, our homecoming Sunday after eighteen months of COVID separation. I know a lot of our faithful members were out of town last weekend and that the point of our being here cannot be reduced to numbers. Jesus says wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there. Still, I notice.

One hundred is another number I am thinking about today. That is the number of years this congregation will have been in business, incorporated under its current name, come next year.[1] And what is our business? It is witnessing to the lordship of Jesus Christ and to his living presence in the world today and in our lives today. Our business is to give voice to the hope that is in us and buried somewhere in every human heart, the hope that we will come to the day when we will be able to connect with other people in ways that are neither greedy nor aggressive. We hope for a future that is different from the present, a future in which peace on earth and good will among mortals is not a dream but an awesome, everyday reality.

I want to call your attention to the magnificent scripture that I just read from the Letter to the Hebrews. Its author was not interested in specific numbers when he wrote those most eloquent words: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and run with perseverance the race that is set before us. The sentence actually goes on and on; it might be the longest sentence in the Bible, but its grand subject demands all that language can offer. The race that is described is a grand race that demands everything of those who participate. Jesus has already laid out the course.[2] He ran the race ahead of us and showed us what perseverance looked like. Whenever we run ourselves, whenever we take up the baton and do what is required of us, we do not do it alone, or even with the energy that exists only among ourselves. We are surrounded, the stadium is filled with so great a cloud of witnesses you can’t even quantify how many there are. They are not only great in number, they are great in faith and gathered from every time and space into this one great body.

The inspiring writer of Hebrews describes great adventures and perils: the passing through the Red Sea by the Hebrew people, with the armies of Egypt breathing down their necks; the kings and the prophets and a whole host of others, men who opened the mouths of lions and quenched fires, women whose apparent defeats were victories for God and for God’s new order of reality. So great a cloud of witnesses, you cannot even measure them.

Don’t you love the openness of this image of the cloud? I like to imagine that the cloud, described so beautifully and metaphorically 2000 years ago, has kept on expanding across the centuries up to and including this very moment. Seats in the stadium are still being filled by your cheerleaders and by mine, by people who have pulled for us and are still pulling for us, telling us, “Go ahead, step up, lean forward, get going, don’t stop until you become the person God created you to be. Don’t stop until have accomplished what God put you on earth to accomplish.” I am convinced that any of us can do just about anything if we have at least one someone in a seat in that stadium, someone, past or present, at least one someone who has been for us all the way.

Carlyle Marney, the great preacher and pastor to preachers, loved to use the metaphor of a house to describe a person. He said we have a living room in which we connect with others; we have a bedroom in which we rest; we have a dining room in which we get our nourishment; a basement in which we store our trash – yes, we need a basement, don’t we? But we also have a balcony, where all the people who have encouraged us and influenced us to do our best, all of them are gathered.[3] You can see them in your imagination. For many of us, most of our balcony people live only in memory now, but we know they are there. Among my balcony people are the grandfather and the mother who taught me to love the church, the English teacher who taught me to love words other people wrote, the co-pastors of my first Presbyterian church who taught me how the gospel could be brought to life with intelligent preaching. There are others in my balcony, famous people who’ve changed the tide of history, who have renewed the church, who have stood for justice, who have inspired me to be brave. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I love John Calvin and John Wesley and Martin Luther King, Jr. Aren’t you surrounded, don’t you feel it sometimes when you are discouraged, that there is somebody behind you saying, “I know you can do it. I can see you better than you can see yourself. I am with you all the way”?

The people to whom the letter to the Hebrews was addressed were a people who had forgotten there were any balcony people. They themselves were so tired and worn out they would not have been able to serve as encouragers to anyone else themselves. They were tired of walking the walk and couldn’t even think about running the race. We don’t know why. We don’t know to whom the letter was written or even the occasion that evoked its writing. We do know it was written the first century after the birth of Christ. We know that it’s really more an extended sermon than a letter, and we know that its recipients were having a major league sinking spell. We also know that the writer, or the preacher, wanted desperately for them to remember that what might seem impossible becomes possible when one keeps one’s eye on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. He wanted them to know that they had gone too far to turn back. He wanted them to know that faith would carry them through.

In order to encourage his hearers, the writer goes through a whole historical review, describing what ancestors in the faith had had to endure and how close they had come in many cases to reaching their destination, but how whatever they did was in some way incomplete until Jesus came and made everything complete and perfect. It’s not the finishing of the race that is important. Leave that in God’s hands. What matters is that you take the baton and get out there and start running and keep going.

The story is told by James Michener of how a group of pilgrims in medieval times traveled from France to the cathedral of St. James in Spain. As they neared the end of that demanding journey, they trained their eyes toward the horizon hoping to see the tower of the long-sought cathedral in the distance. The first one to see it was to shout, “My joy!” But they perished before they completed the pilgrimage.[4] In the biblical story, we have a God who wants to make sure the pilgrimage is completed, the journey is fulfilled, the race is won. He sends Jesus, who is the pilgrim for us all, who endures the journey, who passes through the valley of all human frustration and suffering, and at the end, takes his seat at the right hand of God.

Biblical scholar Tom Long asks us to envision a long cord of faithfulness that begins back with Abraham and Sarah and extends up to and includes this very day. This cord, Jesus has already taken to the high heavenly places. As it says in Hebrews: We have a hope, a sure and steadfast anchor, a hope that enters the inner shrine of heaven behind the curtain where Jesus, forerunner on our behalf, has entered and has become a high priest forever.[5] Thus, those who came before him and those who have come after him know that our running, our efforts, are not in vain.

In our day there may be no fires to be quenched or lions’ mouths to be shut, but there are risks in stepping out and doing what God calls us to do. For example, your Pastoral Nominating Committee is at work, seeking to attract a top-notch minister to lead this congregation into its next one hundred years. Many churches our size have come to the difficult conclusion that they cannot support a full-time pastor. And in the current environment, with COVID still keeping people away from church and arguably breaking their habit of attendance altogether, it might be safer for Union Church to do the same: hire a part-time pastor, at least for a while, to save money.

But your leaders have decided we can’t do that because it would have too negative an impact on what we feel called to do as a church. We feel called to serve this community vigorously, to serve young people and older people, families and those who have no one. We feel called to worship with excellence of preaching and music—and with a joy that welcomes the stranger and refreshes the soul. Resources may not be hanging from every tree, but we will press on, working together to make ends meet. We will show up, stay engaged, do our part to make this community of faith as vibrant as it can be. We will trust that if a plan is of God, God will see it through. We look forward to a future whose architect and builder is God. This is a congregation that continues the race, with a great cloud of witnesses.

We have come this far by faith, and there is no reason not to finish the race that is set before us. We ought to do it. We have to do it. I hope we will do it for the joy of doing it. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “This is the true joy of life, being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. . . I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do what I can. . .Life is no brief candle for me. It is a splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as I can before handing it on to future generations.”[6]

Every once in a while, you sense the power and the light of a particular moment, a flash of connective energy that makes you shiver with excitement over what is yet to come. Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we have the promises of God as the ground beneath us. We have a great cloud of witnesses all around us. Let us lace up our shoes and finish the rest of our lap, confident that God will give us the strength to do what needs to be done.

To our coach, to our role model, to our inspiration, to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

[1] The meeting to incorporate the previously unincorporated church was held June 7, 1922.

[2] Thomas G. Long, Hebrews (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997) 125-132.

[3] As told by John M. Buchanan, Christian Century, November 15, 2003.

[4] Long, Hebrews.

[5] Hebrews 6:19-20.

[6] Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Works, A Critical Biography (Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd Co., 1911), 512.