Sunday, November 6, 2016

Memories X: All Saints Day Homily

[This is the message that I delivered for the All Saint's Day service of Receiving with Thanksgiving, the ministry that our child Eli (Miriam) helped to start. 

Therefore, since so great a cloud of witnesses is set around us, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] looking away to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of faith – Jesus who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross and despised its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of God. [Hebrews 12: 1,2, ESV, altd]

The question I want to get at is, Why remember?  What good does it do, to put it bluntly, to bring back to mind those who are now dead?  If they are long gone, isn’t it just fakery to pretend that we can remember anything significant about them?  And if they have only recently passed, won’t it just hurt to bring them back to mind, and to know that that particular smile or that particular gesture of love are ones we will never see again?  I promise you, it hurts like hell.  So why do it?

Because I was asked to give the homily on this particular occasion, and because I was asked to speak from Scripture, I chose to go to the letter to the Hebrews – because it seems to me that this is the book of the New Testament which spends most time in trying to figure out how the past finds its fulfilment in the present, and how the present reaches back to the past.   This is an anonymous letter: we don’t know who wrote it, we don’t know who it was written to (despite its traditional title, which I want to say something about in a moment); we don’t even know whether the author was male or female, so if I get to refer to the author this evening I’m gonna say “she” – that’s just because I like to stir up our gender assumptions.

I actually think that this letter reads better if you hear it as written to a Gentile audience (that’s us) rather than to a Jewish (“Hebrew”) one. If you read it as addressed to Jews – which is the traditional title, because it’s about a lot of Jewish stuff, the temple and the sacrifices and all those things – then the message can come across as, “OK you guys, you Jews had a good run, but we Christians are taking over your business from now on, and here is the explanation of how we’re doing it.” This viewpoint is technically called supersessionism, and it has been a bad thing – a terrible thing – in the life of the Church and in its relations with God’s ancient people.  Whereas if you read it as addressed to Gentiles it’s more like, “Whoa, we just found this huge new family that we didn’t know we had, which goes way back into the past, and we want to understand this family and the crazy things they do – let me (the author) explain it to you.”  Not a takeover bid, but an embrace of a new community.  “Look at these new relatives we have!  Let’s learn all about what they do, and what they did, and what God did with them.”

This chapter 12, which is one of the most famous in Hebrews, comes after chapter 11 which is a long, long list of Jewish heroes – of heroes from the Hebrew scriptures – who are to be remembered (that’s the cloud of witnesses that’s being talked about here, at the start of verse 1); these are our new family members, starting just after the creation with Abel and going on patriarchs and priests, judges and prophets, those who were apparent successes and those whose only achievement seems to have been an ignominious death. It’s a long list, and it is clear that our author could have made it longer – “time fails me to tell”, she writes, before rattling off another half-dozen names. But eventually the chapter comes to an end and we get to chapter 12, where we are going to be told the point of the memorial list – in other words, the author’s answer to the question I started with: why remember? How do we remember? What does remembering mean?

I’m gonna give you three points.  I don’t know whether I would call myself “evangelical” any longer, but the law is that every evangelical sermon has to have three points, and they all have to begin with the same letter.  So that’s what I’m doing… The first reason for remembering is a word that has been used already several times this evening and that is the word community. We are part of a community, and that community stretches back into the past and it stretches forward into the future.  This is the “cloud of witnesses” which is set around us – I’ve maybe over-literalized the Greek in a few places here – you can’t head in any direction without bumping into some member of our community.  The community is not held together, held in place, by our remembering them (like some people say, “They will live in our memories”); we are a small part of the whole community, and the whole thing is held together by the “power of an indestructible life” (7:16) which is a power that belongs to Jesus alone. He is holding us – the whole community, past, present, future, in his hands, and we celebrate being all together, all one.

We are one with the saints who have passed (and I have felt that astonishingly strongly this year), and we are also one with those in the future who we don’t know but who need us, need the message of hope that we can bring.  Our community stretches two ways: the witnesses set around us, and the race set before us. These are the same Greek verb with two different prepositional parts attached, and I think that part of what that is telling us is that our future is about building community just like there was community in the past.  And I want to use that thought to lay a little challenge on us today.  You know, this (Receiving with Thanksgiving) is a tiny group by the standards of Penn State student organizations.  But there are hundreds of kids out there who need this group and don’t know it.   You can do the math.  If standard proportions hold there are maybe 2,500 LGBTQ kids at Penn State; if 10% are people of faith that’s 250, and what place is there for them in the student ministries currently on campus? No, this ministry is needed; this community is something that we are called to build.  It’s a challenge, isn’t it?  It’s a lot of fun to bring hotshot speakers to campus, which is what we are doing this year: but for me what matters is whether it ends up building a lasting community, and whether it ends up helping those people who need help.  You guys have been such a blessing to many people already (including me); let’s share that more widely.  This is my first reason for remembering; because it encourages us to build community.

Second reason – remember it has to begin with the same letter – the second reason is cheering.  There’s two ways of interpreting what the cloud of witnesses do (and I’m going to try and have it both ways, here), but one of them builds on the athletic metaphor which is obviously prominent in these verses.  We are running a race – our life’s calling, our vocation – and they, the witnesses, have finished it.  And now they’re rooting for us from the stands, from the spectator’s benches – that is the sport metaphor picture.  This is the second reason to remember the witnesses (can also be translated “spectators”)  – they’re after us, they want us to win, they’re pushing us: “Train! Shape up! Lose weight!” (see the second part of verse 1) so that you can have the endurance you need to run the race that’s set before you.  That’s part of the encouragement we derive from the cheering community: Yes, the race can be run, we can make it, we can make a difference – because they did!  We have power, the power of Jesus, to effect change. And we need that cheering, don’t we, because change is sometimes very hard to see.

But I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t share that I hear a little problem with this interpretation, taken on its own – which is why we also need the second verse, and the third “c”.  You can see a bit of what I’m getting at in the phrase “sin that clings so closely”, but for me it really hits me when I get told to lay aside every weight.  The Greek word for weight here is onkos – it means a “weight” or a “mass” or more specifically a “tumor” – and when I go see my oncologist, very early tomorrow morning, for chemotherapy, that is because I have an onkos, a mass.  And I wish it was as easy as this verse makes it sound to “lay it aside”.  But it’s not.  And sometimes it’s just not.  Sometimes we can’t just walk away from the way our lives are screwed up or weak or broken.  Cheerleading isn’t enough; we don’t have the ability to untwist ourselves from what clings so closely.   So what do we do?

Well, this Scripture has a message for us here too, in the second verse:  looking away (most translations don’t have the “away”, but it is there in the Greek, again) to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith – Jesus who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross and despised its shame, (don’t LGBTQ people know all too much about despising shame that others lay on them? Goodness.) and is now seated at the right hand of God.  Anyway.  What’s the third “c”-word.  The third “c” is consummation – bringing something to completion, to its final end.  And that final end is Jesus.  In this interpretation the cloud of witnesses are not just watching us, like spectators; they are pointing to Jesus, like martyrs.  He is where it all begins and ends:

•    Jesus is the pioneer of our faith.  This means, before our faith ever got going, He was active. We didn’t get this faith business, this trust business, started by ourselves; we got started in faith because He reached out to us.  As he came to earth, as he endured the cross and despised it shame, he opened wide his arms to us, and welcomed us in.

•    It’s also become very meaningful to me recently that Jesus is the perfecter, the endgame of faith.  What that means, simply, is that we don’t have to get it all right before we die. When your days start feeling short, you realize that you will never get everything sorted out, all your relationships as whole as you want, all your plans completed, before you go.  You won’t.  And that’s okay because I am not the one who has to make my life perfect – not now, not at any time.  He’s the perfecter, just as he is the pioneer; the end, just as he is the beginning. 

•    One more thing.  Did you notice the repetition of set before between verses 1 and 2: the race is set before us, the joy is set before him? Did that feel a little unfair – Jesus gets this banquet of joy and we just get a workout at the races? That’s not the right way to read it.  The “set before” menu – everybody gets both courses.  What was set before Jesus originally was the cross, the shame, the workout.  He despised it – faced it down. And because he faced it down, there was for him the table that Psalm 23 says God prepares in the presence of our enemies – the table of “unspeakable joy”.  And because that was set before Him, and because he is our Pioneer and Perfecter, that same table of joy is going to be set before us – and that same table of joy is now, I believe, before Eli and before those others who have run the race and are among the cloud of witnesses.  This is the third reason to remember: the witnesses point us to the table of joy which we shall share with them, with a huge family of new brothers and sisters, and with Jesus our elder sibling. 

For all those reasons: for the community we are part of and remember with thankfulness, for cheering on for the energy and sweat with which we can run our race in the present, and for the witness to the future consummation and the table of joy – that’s why we remember.

I’m going to conclude by reading the prayer that is prescribed for this day from the Anglican prayer book of 1662:

O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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