Your Great Cloud

A Sermon for 13 September 2015 – Worship inspired by the Scottish Highland Games

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-31, 12:1-3

A reading of various verses from Hebrews chapter 11 and 12. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. . . . 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 in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’ . . . By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. 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. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. 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. . . . 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.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Perhaps you’re like me and today, in this Scottish-inspired service of worship, is the first time you’ve really heard of tartans. But that doesn’t mean we know nothing of our ancestors – at least I hope not! . . . After a year and a half of having my life in storage, it all arrived this week at the house I’ve been moving into. Box after box after box! Though exhausting, the fun has been unpacking to find hidden treasures. Late the other night, I tackled a dish barrel that wasn’t very well labeled. Before I knew it, I was walking down memory lane. I unwrapped dish after dish after dish from my maternal grandmother. Sometime when I was about ten, my grandmother set out to buy up 24 place settings of dishes for one of my sisters, our cousin, and myself. Do you remember when you used to be able to do that one piece at a time at the grocery store? 24 plates, 24 cups, and 24 saucers for each of the three of us. As I unwrapped my set the other night, I was overwhelmed by the determination of my grandmother. That couldn’t have been an easy task! Through that grocery store points for dishes or however that all worked, she was dead-set on ensuring the three of us had enough place settings to feed a small army! The wonderful thing is that her devoted gift connects me still not just to her, but in a special way to my sister and cousin too. Grandma died while the three of us still were in high school – which really turned our lives upside-down as she was the pillar of our family who got us all together at her house at least one or two Sunday lunches a month. Her place settings remind me of her deep commitment to being a family together. Knowing each other and sitting down together regularly to eat and laugh and enjoy each other. I hope today you too can remember a grandmother like that!

In another box from the moving truck, I pulled out memories of my paternal great-grandfather. He was ancient for as long as I can remember him. No longer able to see when I was a kid, great-grandpa and great grand-ma lived next door. It was a great treat to be the one to bring them their daily mail. Great-grandma would go to get you a cookie while great-grandpa entertained you with his simple tricks. He had this thing he could do with his fingers – some cool way of rapping his knuckles on the counter top that I never have been able to mimic. In the winters he logged in the woods at the lake, which is how he lost half of the fingers on his left hand. It’s what made him make that extra cool noise when he rapped his fingers on the countertop. He always wanted to make us kids figure out some sort of trick. He engaged us and taught us so much – some of it even useful. Did you have the good fortune of knowing such a great-grandparent? . . . Before my great-grandpa lost half his fingers, he was an amazing artist. Chalk was his preferred medium and I am proud to have three incredibly intricate, beautiful scenes he created. I’m sure some would look at them and think: “Uh. They’re ok.” I look at them and remember the hands of that loving man who was a tender trickster – the way he showed his great-grandchildren that we really mattered to him. And whatever wisdom, love, and fun he could pass on to us, he’d certainly do his best to do it.

It’s not just the tartans and family symbols we’ve each brought here with us today that remind me of such things. It’s Hebrews also. Abraham and Sarah. The faith of Moses and the Israelites. Even Rahab, a foreign prostitute, whose courageous actions on behalf of God’s people name her a hero in the great line of faith from which we all come. Such an amazing cloud of witnesses, Hebrews reminds us. All of them – though we’ve not met them in person – still, as ancestors in Christ, it’s as if they surround us in this great arena called life. Urging us on by the testimony of their lives. By the encouragement of their faith. Like a roaring crowd of fans peering on the field to see how the players carry out the next move. All of these surround us each day as we seek to faithfully live the moments of our lives. . . . We’ve got the incredible trust of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah too. Imagine setting out for a whole new way of life when you’re about 80 years old – all because God shows up to whisper in your ear: “I’ve got a little something yet for you to do.” . . . And Moses. We fail to remember his great sacrifice. He could have kept himself in line with the Pharaoh of Egypt, having been raised by the princess in her kingly father’s luxurious palace. But somehow Moses not only saw the injustice, but he also decided to side against it. He was enraged by the suffering of his people who had been made slaves of the Pharaoh in order to keep him and his land in the lavish lifestyle they had come to expect. Moses fled Egypt – only to be brought back years later as a mighty liberator. One courageous enough to go stand before the Pharaoh to say: “The Sovereign LORD of the universe says: ‘let my people go!’” . . . And what about Rahab? She didn’t have to act with such bravery. She didn’t have to aid the spies of Israel against her own Canaanite people. Her courage, her insight, her determination to keep peace for herself and her family with those besieging her city ensured she and her family were safe – even as she showed her awe of the God of the Israelite people (Joshua 2). . . . These all are a part of our collective great cloud. Those from whom we can learn because of the faithful examples of their lives.

What about your great cloud? Who else from your life is a part of it? . . . I wish each one of us had time to tell today of the family symbols we’ve brought. But more so, I wish we each could speak of the way we’ve been shaped by the people behind our symbols. Maybe we can tell each other about it at coffee in the fellowship hall after worship. . . . Did you learn to read because of one of them? Did you know your worth because of one of them? Despite one of them, did you grow into a more loving person – a person ready and able to let go and forgive so you wouldn’t become a reflection of another’s bitterness? . . . Who is in your great cloud cheering you on each day? Leading you by the example of their lives all throughout your years? We are because they were – are still. . . . As our liturgy of the tartans reminded us at the start of this service: we have a responsibility because of them – because of the heritage of faith passed on to us by them. . . . We have been gifted, and comforted, and challenged by the love of our families – our moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas and brothers and sisters all in God’s great family of faith. Because of them – because of those who make up our great cloud, we are to welcome the stranger as one of our own. We are to sacrifice too to live out the love of God despite the cost because others will come after us who need our lives to be their testimonies. Because of the families and nations and ancestors all around, we give thanks to God and we re-commit ourselves to doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God. This is our way to be Christ’s grace each day. This is our way to carry on the faith of our great cloud and ensure our lives are added to the great cloud for the benefit of those yet to come.

Therefore, carry on! As the writer of Hebrews so eloquently put it: “Run! Run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 11:1b-2a). Do not grow weary or lose heart. . . . And when you feel like you are, listen for the cheers of your great cloud! Let them direct you back onto Christ’s path each day!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

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