Cloud of Witnesses lead by faith

Sermon for Memorial Day Weekend Sunday, May 27, 2018.  Another connection to Church of Resurrection’s stained glass window.

 

As we enjoy the Memorial Day Weekend as a holiday, the purpose of the holiday can easily be ignored—at least in today’s social environment. Memorial Day, the last Monday of May, began in 1868, and its origin may surprise you:

[show CBS video on Memorial Day from You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7ozdFkwHP8].

Memorial Day became familiar to me as a time to decorate the graves of family and friends more than just a time to honor veterans. I remember picking peonies, iris and roses, putting them in aluminum wrapped coffee cans filled with water and driving to at least three different cemeteries, leaving the flowers and sharing some of the people’s stories of the graves we visited.

Maybe the emphasis, or maybe I should say the de-emphasis, on veterans was due to the fact that we did not have any family veterans. My relatives were farmers and very few actually served in the military until my dad and his cousin enlisted at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean Conflict.  And none were killed during their service. Instead, Memorial Day honored those who defined our family.

Each of you has your own family history and your own traditions on holidays like this.  I am sure some of you do have family who died while serving in the armed services.  I am sure some of you spend time this weekend visiting graves and decorating them with flowers.  And while you do this, you remember all those who have contributed to who you are in one way or another.

These same family members and friends modeled their faith and helped define your own.  Their lives witnessed their faith in their own ways, much like the Cloud of Witnesses depicted in the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window.

The list of witnesses includes Old Testament and New Testament figures.  The window cannot possibly include all the characters in the Bible, but there are 23 images faintly imprinted through the stained glass cloud.  The images visible are:

Old Testament:

  • Hagar–Sarah’s handmaiden given to Abraham to have a child, Ishmael
  • Jachebed—Moses’ birth mother who hid him in the bulrushes
  • Joshua—successor of Moses
  • Rahab—the harlot who sheltered Joshua’s men in Jerico
  • Caleb—founding father of Cabbites and spy with Joshua
  • Samuel—son of Elkahan and Hannah; tutored by Eli, prophet and king of Israel
  • Deborah—Rebekah’s nurse; Israelite judge and prophet
  • King Solomon—son of David & Bathsheba, succeeded David
  • Isaiah—prophet
  • Jeremiah—son of Hilkiah; prophet

New Testament:

  • Zechariah—(four listed) father of John the Baptist, one of the Old Testament minor prophets
  • Elizabeth—wife of Zechariah; mother of John the Baptist; cousin to Mary the mother of Jesus Christ
  • Joseph—(also a common name) faither of Jesus
  • James—son of Zebedee, brother to John and both apostles
  • Lazarus—brother of Mary & Martha; Jesus raised him from the dead
  • Martha—Jesus’ close friend & follower
  • Mary—(seven different ones listed); mother of Jesus is one; another was a close friend & follower who was sister to Martha and Lazarus
  • Joseph of Arimathea—took the body of Jesus from the cross to the tomb
  • Matthew, Mark, Luke & John—the gospel writers.

 

These witnesses carried God’s story forward through history.  They have served as models of faithful living.  They also created The Church, at least the ones in the New Testament who continued Jesus work after his resurrection.  The Church today exists by the faith of a cloud of witnesses.

Scripture:  Hebrews 11:1-3

Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation.

    By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.

 

Reading through Hebrews 11, the list of Old Testament witnesses continues.  The author includes many more witnesses, but each one is introduced by the key phrase “by faith”(a sampling Hebrews 11:7, 8, 32):

  1. It was by faith that Noahbuilt a large boat to save his family from the flood. He obeyed God, who warned him about things that had never happened before. By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world, and he received the righteousness that comes by faith.
  2. It was by faith that Abrahamobeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going.And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. 10 Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.
  3. 32 How much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and all the prophets.33 By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. 35 Women received their loved ones back again from death.

 

The Church depends on the cloud of witnesses.  The stories filling the pages of the Bible, whether in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, are available to us yet today, in the 21stcentury, because their story is the same as our story.  We face challenges to our faith daily, and the battle of good versus evil can wear one down.  For this reason we turn to scripture to strengthen our resolve, our faith.

Reading on in Hebrews 11:35-40, the author continues the illustration of the Old Testament witnesses:

But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. 36 Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. 37 Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half,[d] and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. 38 They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.

     39 All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. 40 For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.

Over the last several weeks, we have reviewed so many stories of Biblical characters and other historical figures who have kept The Church growing.  These individuals share the common advice in Hebrews:  live by faith.  God’s story and the work of the witnesses have continued Jesus’ message.  The Church has grown and continues to exist by faith.

Hebrew’s author, and experts cannot agree on who that is with only the clue that it could be Paul, Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, Silas, Phillip or Priscilla due to the reference that the letter includes to Timothy as “brother,” does not list witnesses from the New Testament.  Those we might consider New Testament witnesses would have been contemporaries or peers.  The stained glass window’s references are based on the same criteria, though, they are the ones whose written record show that they lived by faith.

The letter to the Hebrews continues (12:1-13):

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.[e] Because of the joy[f]awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people;[g] then you won’t become weary and give up. After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin.

     And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children?[h] He said,

“My child,[i] don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and don’t give up when he corrects you.
For the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.”[j]

     As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all. Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever?[k]

     10 For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. 11 No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.

     12 So take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. 13 Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.

 

The words provide guidance for us yet today.  The scripture is timeless.  The message remains steadfast.  The crowd of witnesses knew God’s story and their lives were as typical as our own.  We are fortunate that we do have the stories.  We study scripture independently and in community in order for us to remain faithful when life challenges us.

Today is an ideal opportunity to add names to the cloud of witnesses that are personal.  I know that you have examples of faith that fills your memory.  They might be family members who lived by faithor maybe a best friend survived a challengeby faith.  I invite you to share the names of those who you would add to the cloud of witnesses (have members share the name and the story that nominates someone to be added to the cloud of witnesses: for example):

  • Betty:pastor’s wife, cancer patient, teacher
  • Kern:assistant superintendent, fellow Methodist, my dyslexia tutor
  • Beth:dairy farmer’s wife, Polio survivor, mother, friend
  • Bill:UMC pastor, son of a manic depressed mother

 

The names we share inspire each of us to live by faith.  The promise of life eternal may be realized by so many of those we consider to be witnesses, and we have so much work left to do in our earthly life.

We are blessed to know the stories of the cloud of witnesses.  We are blessed to know witnesses personally who have provided us guidance in living our own lives by faith.  This weekend we honor those who have served to protect us, who have served as our teachers, who have guided us in our own faith journeys.  May we, too, live our faith out loud so others may know us as part of the cloud of witnesses when we leave our earthly lives.

Closing prayer:

Dear Father Almighty,

 

Daily we are challenged to live by faith.

The news darkens our world

And we need your light.

The chores we work through in our homes

Tire us and we grow weary.

The relationships in our lives become strained

Yet we continue to love one another.

Evil seems to creep up on us in quiet

And we need strength to defend ourselves.

 

Thank you for the cloud of witnesses

That has walked this earth before us.

Thank you for the Biblical stories guiding us

On how to live by faith

Thank you for those Christians whose stories

Preserve and grow The Church by faith.

Thank you for the Christians witnesses

Who have walked by faithbeside us.

 

Guide us through these examples of faith.

Guide us in reading the scriptures.

Guide us in fellowship growing in faith.

Guide us as we share our own stories

So others may see us living by faith.

 

Amen, Lord, amen.

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