The Book of Hebrews is a bit of a mystery to Bible scholars. We don’t know who wrote it, and scholars disagree about when it was written. The best guess—or at least the one that makes the most sense to me—is that it was written between 64 and 70 CE. Those who followed Christ were experiencing persecution under Nero.
These people did not yet call themselves Christians; they were Jewish believers in Christ. So in the verses immediately before our reading for today, we have this long list of horrible things that happened to faithful Jewish people in the past: they were flogged, tortured, and imprisoned; stoned to death and sawed in half; forced to leave their homes and wander the wilderness or live in caves. Ooh, what a happy reading for Founders’ Day!
But within the context of the book’s intended audience, it makes sense that the author would bring up these tragedies from the past. He is saying, first of all, we’re not the only ones to suffer. Our forefathers suffered in the faith, too. So the fact that we are being persecuted is not a sign of God’s displeasure with us. We just need to have faith, like they did, that God is with us. We just need to have faith, like they did, to stand against the forces of evil. We just need to have faith, like they did.
The author goes on to say, “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.”
Let’s focus just on that first part: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” This cloud of witnesses was the martyrs who had gone before, those who experienced their own times of persecution, those who had stood up for their beliefs. They’re watching, the author is saying. The heroes of our faith. They’re watching us now. Therefore, let us run the race.
Therefore. They did it; therefore, we can, too. They were faithful; therefore, we can be, too. They are watching; therefore, we should be watchful, too.
In 1733 a need was recognized. The entire area now known as Portland, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook, and Falmouth was all known simply as Falmouth. It became evident that it was difficult for the residents of our area to cross the Fore River to worship at the First Parish Church so they petitioned that a second parish be established. They saw a need and worked to meet it. Therefore.
The first minister, Rev. Allen, oversaw the church during a time of theological conflict, while also enduring personal tragedy. An epidemic called throat distemper moved through the area, and the pastor lost five children in a week. Yet the church rallied around and stayed strong. Therefore.
The church experienced more conflict after Rev. Allen died, as different factions wanted different leaders. The new pastor’s installation service was blocked by those who opposed his tenure— they actually locked the doors of the church to keep it from taking place. The installation service was instead held in a nearby apple orchard. But in time the factions came back together in spite of disagreement and rejoined one another. Therefore.
During the first half of the 19th century, “there was an era of religious and moral indifference, periods of inactivity when the church did not have a settled minister. . . and years when there were inadequate funds to pay the pastors.” In 1831 Rev. Isaac Esty “made derogatory remarks about declining church membership and the discouraging religious prospects of Cape Elizabeth families. . . . [He said] to members of the Cumberland County Temperance Society that ‘more than three-fourths of the male heads of families in Cape Elizabeth are habitually intemperate.’ As may well be imagined, his accusations did not endear him to the parishioners and sparked a bitter controversy, especially after his remarks appeared in a local newspaper.” He ultimately was relieved of his duties, but the next pastor also complained about the drinking among members, as well as general indifference to spiritual matters. However, in spite of the complaints that were recorded, the church started a Bible study, created the office of deacons, and built a new church building. Therefore.
Throughout our history, there are stories of difficulties, yet the church never gave in, never succumbed, never died. Each storm was weathered and each indifference overcome. Therefore.
Through good times and bad, God was faithful to the people and the people were faithful to God. Therefore.
Therefore, we have nothing to fear—not budget shortfalls or personnel changes; not low summer attendance; not even the loss of well-loved members. We are surrounded by them—by this great cloud of witnesses who can testify to God’s faithfulness.
But it’s not only those who have died who encourage us on. This week I came across an old message from a member of my last church. She had this to say.
It’s been a rough week. I guess everybody who really wants to be a good Christian struggles when they try to walk that path, and this week was a particularly hard struggle because I have been locked into a situation I didn’t want with a person I don’t like.
The details aren’t that important. She is just an individual who pretty much everyone I know agrees is poisonous, and she has been hounding me for the return of a security deposit on a property she rented from us with her former husband, who died tragically a few months ago. She has no moral or legal right to get any money from this situation, but that hasn’t stopped her.
And this week, faced with the unpleasant prospect of once again having to deal with this person, I really felt lost. How do I negotiate with someone who seems so horrible to me? How do I follow the commandment to “love one another” when I don’t even LIKE her? How do I let go of this anger and behave responsibly, when what I really want to do is slap her silly?
Thank God, I didn’t have to go very far to find answers to my questions. After mulling it over for a while, I realized I just needed to change the questions. How would Jane and Bob handle this? How would Steve and Val? How can I act in a way that honors the people in my church family, follows their example, reflects their love?
Which turned my mind to other questions. How lonely must this woman be? How much pain must she be in to use such tactics on a family that has been nothing but good to her? How desperate? How sad that she doesn’t have a place to go, like I do, to find her answers.
How simple the answer was, really. I needed to do more than this woman “deserves.” I needed to replace the resentment I felt with compassion. I needed to walk a few steps in her shoes and see if I could just let go of what was legally “right” and meet her halfway.
And just as I was coming to this conclusion, I got an email from a co-worker asking for help for a family left with nothing after a terrible fire. And I knew exactly where to turn–to our church family. Like drops of rain, the answers to my simple e-mail poured in. “I have a table.” “She can shop free in the thrift shop.” “We have a lot of clothes to give. What sizes do they wear?” And even one from a special kid who wants to dig into her savings to give them money. All this … for people none of us have ever met.
How funny to start a week searching for God and end a week filled with the sure knowledge of [God’s] presence. How lucky I am. How lucky we all are, to have each other.
That was written about that church and those people, but it is true of us as well. Indeed, how lucky we are—how blessed we are—to have each other, to be surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.
This church has hundreds of them—thousands of them—and so do you . . . people who taught you about faith, people who taught you about love, people who are watching you from here or heaven, and cheering you on. So please take those cloud shapes you were given on your way into worship, and write on those clouds the names of those witnesses in your life. And then place your clouds where you can see them to remember: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race—the journey—the life—that is set before us.”