“W E ARE SURROUNDED by a great cloud of witnesses.”
The unknown writer of Hebrews has just rattled off a list of the great Old Testament heroes and heroines. Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab. We know them and their stories of faith. It is easy for us on this Sunday celebrating “All Saints’ Day” to hear that roll call of faith and find ourselves lacking.
Would we have the faith of Noah — build a boat where there is no water? Or of Rahab to hide and protect spies from a foreign army? It’s an honor to be surrounded by such a cloud of faithful women and men who have gone before us.
But the list is not complete. There’s a host of unnamed men and women, people lost to history that suffered and died — who were flogged, mocked, stoned to death, or sawed in two. Ordinary people not remembered by their names but by their faith. They also surround us as part of this great cloud of witnesses.
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IN THE CATHOLIC TRADITION, there are more than 10,000 named “Saints”. People from the past who lived exemplary lives, and who continue to inspire the church today. Well known saints like Peter, Paul, Augustine, Nicholas, Patrick, Valentine. Lesser-known like Agatha the patron saint of breast cancer. Then there is the modern patron saint of coffee drinkers — St. Arbucks….
The biblical picture painted in Hebrews is the scene of a great race. Most likely it is the ancient Olympics in his mind. The runners are on the track sweating, striving, and persevering through the struggle. They are surrounded by thousands of euphoric, crazed spectators who cheer the competitors to victory. Faithful people who have gone before us. Faithful people who have run the race. Faithful people who yell from the stands and give us courage to persevere in our own faith journey.
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THE CHICAGO CUBS WON the Baseball World Series this week. One hundred eight years since they were last champions. More than a century of trying, failing — sometimes miserably: 108 years of fans coming and going; 108 years of frustration.
But this week we noticed a lot of sweet memories from the living about the Cubs fans who have gone before and who now cheer on from the mighty cloud of witnesses above. The great Cubs announcer Harry Caray has been invoked numerous times. It seemed Wrigley Field was surrounded by a great cloud of Cubs greats — Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo and of course, Ernie Banks.
Then there are the unknowns. Wayne Williams drove from North Carolina to Indiana to listen to game 7 at his father’s grave, fulfilling a promise they had made to each other back in the ’80s.
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ANOTHER IMAGE THAT COMES TO MIND for me is from my recent bike ride. You may have seen posts of it on our website or via Facebook. A few weeks back I was supporting the charity bicycle ride of the Presbyterian Home for Children in Talladega.
A few things about that ride: I had only prepared for about three months — I could have prepared longer but I didn’t. The route was very hilly, at least in comparison to south Alabama. We’ll save the question of sanity for another day.
Somewhere between the 60-mile rest stop and the 80-mile rest stop, I started to desperately need rest. About mile 79 I sat on the grass on the side of the road. I drank the last of my Gatorade and ate a snack — something of a last supper. I was spent. My body was sore. My rear was tender. My foot had the makings of a blister right where the shoe and pedal meet. I decided to ride to the 80-mile rest stop and evaluate my options.
I sat in a lawn chair under the shade of a canopy at that rest stop in the parking lot of a Baptist church. Fresh Gatorade, snacks and a frozen washcloth for my face and neck. Sitting there I realized what this vision in Hebrews means. Modern-day faith heroes and heroines supporting me.
As I opened my Facebook page from my phone there was one after the other of encouraging words. Of prayer. Even a video from Gracie cheering me on. “You can do this. Go, Pastor Keith, Go.” Sitting there, ready to call it a day, I realized I was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses — men, women, children, praying for me, encouraging me, cheering me on, helping me persevere in this 100-mile bicycle ride.
Those words, that video, the support enabled me to ride the last 20 miles. And at the end of that ride, I was surrounded — not by thousands, but by a handful of euphoric, crazed, spectators who cheered this competitor to victory.
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THEREFORE, SINCE WE ARE SURROUNDED by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
We who are living are still running, swinging the bat, riding. Meanwhile, the faithful in Christ, who have completed their races, have joined the grandstands where now they pull for us. They shout and applaud, ringing the skies with encouragement for us to fix our eyes on Jesus.
— Keith Cardwell