the great and growing cloud of witnesses

Homily for August 14, 2016

A couple of weeks ago I heard the news that the lone remaining perpetrator of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963 was up for release from prison. I learned that this was supposed happen every 15 years of his sentence, and they did not free him. To be honest, I was kind of surprised to hear that he was still alive. The bombing happened so many decades ago, 12 years before I was even born, that it seemed to me to be more a thing to remember and commemorate than a present reality.

I knew about the bombing of course, but the story reminded me of the four young girls who were killed. I learned that those girls had been preparing for Youth Sunday when the bomb went off. This made the bombing that much more tragic.

I head the names of those young girls mentioned twice in the past week. Once, on the news story, and again this week as I watched a sermon from last summer from Bishop Curry when he commemorated the lives of those he called the Martyrs of Alabama. He mentioned them by name: Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise. He also mentioned another name, Jonathan Daniels, because this was the 50th anniversary of Jonathan Daniels’ death, and the church that day was the courthouse in which Daniels’ killer was acquitted.

Bishop Curry drew his homily from the passage in Hebrews that we read today. 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.

Bishop Curry spoke of the great cloud of witnesses who actions didn’t just simply play an important role in history. As Christians we know that we are surrounded by those witnesses, they pray for us, they give us strength, they fill us with the capacity to follow God into places where we dare not go alone. They fill us with the hunger to resist a peace that does not rest on justice, they teach us that doing nothing is as much a choice as doing something. Their love for Jesus, the love that this great cloud of witnesses has for their Lord, shows us that a desire to change the world into something more loving, more like the one that God envisioned, is rooted not in anger or bitterness, but rather in joy. That capacity, that hunger, that drive, that love, is what we call faith.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. What I want you to see, though, that this is not some historical list, never to be revised or amended. The witnesses are not just the great spirits from generations or even centuries ago. What I have learned over the years is that we really ought to see this as the great and growing cloud of witnesses, for over the years there have been a great many more who have chosen to commit themselves to their brothers and sisters, who have chosen to live by faith rather than by sight, who have been willing to make what look like sacrifices when in fact they are responses to the call to follow Jesus.

The great and growing cloud of witnesses is a present reality. Does your name belong on that list? I believe it does.

So what exactly is a witness? A witness is one who lives their life by faith, and faith is that wonderful capacity to see, build and live in God’s kingdom today, to see the eternal in all our days. There’s no promise of safety or security, but there is in faith the gift of trust. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea. By faith the people of God quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, and my own personal favorite, shut the mouth of lions.

Faith is neither blind following nor is it foolish risk taking, but risk has its place. Remember what John O’Donahue taught: The soul loves risk ; it is only through the door of risk that growth can enter. But this isn’t blind faith (I don’t care for the term “blind faith” because that’s precisely backwards. Faith comes from an ultimate awareness and awakeness that gives our trust in God meaning). Faith is rooted in an ongoing and holy conversation with God. This is not blindness.

A faithful life is wildly adventurous. It means trusting that God will be with you, and going where you are called. It means knowing that you are surrounded and guided by the great cloud of witnesses. You are never the first person to go, and you are never alone

But I would be remiss if I did not also make clear that faith does not lead to an easy life, a safe life, or the congratulations of your neighbors. The writer of Hebrews also speaks of believers whose faith got them killed, imprisoned, mocked, impoverished, and persecuted. From St. Steven to Dietrich Bonheoffer, from Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley to the 85-year old Fr. Jacque Hamel, killed in France in late July, the great cloud of witnesses includes many who died for their love.

Faith is not safe. Faith cannot promise stability or prosperity. But Faith will give us the Kingdom of god, the pearl beyond price. Faith will put is in the company of the great cloud of witnesses. Faith leads us to joy, though sometimes that path travels right through the valley of the shadow of death.

Today is the feast day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian at Harvard. He was from New Hampshire and had also been the valedictorian at the Virginia Military Institute. In March of 1965, when training to become a priest, Daniels watched Martin Luther King’s televised call to clergy to become more involved in the civil rights movement. He went to Alabama that summer to assist with voter registration. He wrote that “the faith (the faith) with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown…I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lords’ death and resurrection…with them, the black men and white men, with all life, in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout…We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”

This is why the phrase “Blind Faith” is so wrong. It was an awakened faith that led Jonathan Daniels to Alabama. It was an awakened faith that allowed him to see racism for what it was, as, in the words of Hebrews this morning, a weight and sin that clings so closely. It was faith that allowed him to confront the sin that did such great harm to his brothers and sisters, and to the souls of all his countrymen, black, and white.

This is from Lesser Feasts and Fasts: “Jailed on August 14 for joining a picket line, Jonathan and his companions were unexpectedly released. Aware that they were in danger, four of them walked to a small store. As sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales reached the top step of the entrance, a man with a gun appeared, cursing her. Jonathan pulled her to one side to shield her from the unexpected threats. As a result he was killed by a blast from the 12-guage gun.”

The man who shot him was an unemployed highway worker who also served as a deputy sheriff, and he received no punishment. From the very courtroom in which he was acquitted, presiding bishop-elect Michael Curry, 50 years after Daniels’ murder, stood and summoned the great cloud of witnesses. Jonathan. Addie Mae, Denise. Carole, Cynthia. And he said,

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, it is not enough simply to commemorate what they did. We must now be consecrated to the work that we must do.

We must now be consecrated to the work ahead of us. The great and growing cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, this is not just a holy history lesson. We live in times when we must answer for our faith by the lives we lead. In reality this is true of all times, but it seems that today the need for followers of Jesus to live and witness faithfully, to seek justice, repentance and forgiveness, is profoundly needed.

But it seems, also, that the cloud of witnesses is indeed growing. The tide of justice may well be given its strength from the love of the departed saints who have gone before. From the passion of the saints who live and work among us. From the hope of the saints who speak up on Youth Sunday, and on every Sunday.

We are surrounded by the great and growing cloud of witnesses. There is room on that list for you, too.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC, 8/14/16

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About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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