In preparation for the visit of our sister church later this week, Jean Lubke made pictorial montages of UBC across the decades. Using old pictures and stories gleaned from our collective lives, she displayed a part of our cloud of witnesses.
Who are in your roll call of the faithful?
Who are in your great cloud of witnesses?
Who have walked this earth with us?
Who are your spiritual ancestors?
Whose influence pervades your words, your mannerisms, your styles? Who are these people?
Maybe we can say “I saw granny in you.”
I saw that great coach or professor in that way you held yourself amidst adversity.
I heard the lilt of your aunts or uncles voice in yours.
I heard the analysis of the world it your voice. It’s just like that book we shared.
And we bear witness to all of them by the way we live our lives.
Last year, we remembered, claimed, articulated and celebrated the stories of UBC. We liked that process so much that the worship planning team decided to do it again, with a different twist. This year, we will look at the faithful who have gone before. We all have them in our lives. People who added their flavor to the stew that is our life as a people of faith. These days, several churches are taking the name Baptist out of their name because it leaves a bad taste in people’s mind (if that’s not too much of mixed metaphor). But there are things to celebrate about being Baptist. This year, we will look in particular at Baptist Peacemakers, since we are hosting the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s summer conference here this coming summer. Too often, we forget our rich heritage as peacemakers and justice seekers. And their stories, their witness may very well help us to be better peacemakers and justice seekers maybe even better Christians.
So in our worship services, we will hear about Roger Williams, Anne Hutchison, Lottie Moon, George Leisle, Dorothy Day, AJ Mustie, Menno Simmons, even ancient voices like Ephram and Perpetua. Contemporary people like Nancy Hastings Sehested, George Williamson, even former pastors like David Bartlett and Nadean Bishop, ABC Missionaries like Dan Buttry, Lauren Bethel and Ruth Mooney. People with international influence and perspective like Dr. La Wu and Anne and Adoniram Judson. We are certainly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. These witnesses help us to remember who we are and whose we are.
As the academic year starts, I’m reminded of the fact that in college we often come to grips with what we thought we believed. We find some fact behind the mythology about how the world works. And inevitably, people start deconstructing their old mindset. It’s wonderful creative work. And yet, it also behooves us to look at the next step, the things that we do believe. The writer of Hebrews said that all of the faithful witnesses were pointing toward Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of the faith.
Hear today’s scripture again: "Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us set lay aside every weight, and sin which 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.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
When I was a youth back in the 70’s, we had a great youth minister named Earl Sires. He was into outdoor education and had our youth group get out of the confines of the church building and into the woods. He had a southern twang to his voice, smoked Camels, had long hair and enjoyed our kind of music. He wanted us to call him Earl, not Rev. Sires. He often pushed and pulled us out of our complacency—stretching the rules to and sometimes past the limits. One time, to promote the ropes courses sponsored by the church, he climbed up to the top of the 165-foot steeple and rappelled down it, to the delight of the youth and the horror of the Trustees. He was dubbed by the local newspaper as “the rappelling Reverend.” When Jean Lubke calls me “Dangerous Doug” because of my sometimes cooky ideas, I think it’s in part because of Earl’s influence. He didn’t want us to be people who simply came to church and regurgitated the same theology and patterns of our parents. He nurtured a distrust of authority and he encouraged us to claim the authority that we have as children of God.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, which means that we don’t have to face things alone.
We have people who hold us together when we’re falling apart.
We have a faith that knows us in our most vulnerable and our greatest triumphs, and the God who gave us birth loves us no matter what.
Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we can do amazing things.
We can be even better than we hoped we could be.
We can endure slings and arrows that people foist against us. We can not only survive, but thrive.
When we have all of these witnesses surrounding us, no economic meltdown is strong enough to break our spirit.
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, no environmental deregulation and no political power will silence the people of God.
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, no terrorist attacks or tropical storms will sway our resolve to be peacemakers and justice seekers.
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, no missing guitar will stop us from making music and singing with confidence.
Look at the cloud of witnesses who have come before us. All of them are pulling for you. They all run this race with you. And every time you see one act of justice, one act of mercy, one act of compassion, we can say “I saw you.” I saw one of the witnesses that Point us to the ultimate pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Look across this lawn. We are here as each other’s witnesses.
If anyone is in Christ says the Apostle Paul, they are a new creation. In other words, we can never be the same old, same old. It is not an option for Christians.
Think of the people who have been important to you.
Think of the ones who wish the very best for you. Think of the people about whom you are a reflection. Who do you see when you gaze in a mirror?
Since we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, let us persevere, just as Jesus did.
Let us make our lives worthy of the name Christian.
Let us lay aside every barrier.
Let us repent.
Let us re-imagine ourselves as something else and something better.
Let us not think that we live in a vacuum.
Let us not think that what we do or leave undone does not matter.
Let us move forward, learning from past mistakes and coming closer and closer with each passing moment to being the kind of world community God has envisioned since the beginning of time.
Let us lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely. Remembering that laying aside a weight and a sin does not mean ignoring it, but repenting from it.
Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Let us give thanks for those who have gone before and may their witness be the wind beneath our wings, the hope we hold, the strength which will make all things new.
For a new day awaits us all. It’s more than a new month, a new church year, a new season. It is a new opportunity to live our lives together in a new way.
I invite you to turn to those around you and tell each other about the witnesses that buoy you up. Who are the people that continue to inspire you? Who are your mentors? Whose lives do you seek to model in your life? Take a few minutes to talk about that with one another. We’ll end our conversations with a song. Remember those whom you celebrate. We are to remember their stories, claim their stories, articulate and celebrate their stories.
Who is in your great cloud of witnesses?
Who continues to inspire you?