Surrounded

  • Hebrews 11:39-12:3
  • Fox Valley Presbyterian Church

If we at Fox Valley Presbyterian Church needed a new pulpit Bible, we’d take out the catalog of a church supply company and place an order. Within a week, our new Bible would arrive. And that would be that.

But in the mid 1990s,  the Benedictine monks of St. John’s College and Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota decided on what might be the most inefficient, drawn out, and least cost effective way of procuring a public Bible since the middle ages.

In fact, they decided to do exactly what was done in the middle ages: they commissioned an illuminated manuscript: an entire Bible, written by hand, and delicately painted and illustrated with tiny pictures in the margins, woven through the text, and some entire pages of magnificent painting. These “illuminations” are not there just to make the text itself glow, but also to illuminate and engage our own imagination as we read Scripture, to tie our experience to what we are reading. In the middle ages, the illustrations in an illuminated manuscript came out of the time and experience of those people. And in the St. John’s Bible, many of the pictures come out of the time and experience of people today.

A most surprising example of this is in the front illustration for the Book of Acts. The artist was looking for a way to illustrate the concept of the church— the cloud of witnesses , the people of God, gathered together, rejoicing. And he created a scene of a great city, and with motifs based on…the people in the stands of the stadium at St. John’s College during a football game.

Now this artistic choice does not sit easily with me. It’s beautiful, like everything else in the manuscript. (I’ve left my copy out in the gathering space so that you can take a look.) As one of only a few women in my seminary class, I quickly got sick of reminding my ale classmates that they might want to use something besides football and golf for sermon illustrations. And, as a proud graduate of a college whose football team has suffered many a defeat in the St. John’s stadium, I’m not entirely convinced that place is an embodiment of God’s church.

But two weeks ago, when I was in Washington DC, this image suddenly made sense to me. I spent a week at a conference on the grounds of the National Cathedral. I lived for the week in the shadows of that great church, near to the sights and sounds and smells of a church that dwarfs and dominate everything around it. Anytime I needed a sense of peace and a sacred space, I could wander into the wide , cool openness of the Cathedral

The sights and sounds of a cathedral are very much the embodiment of the cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints. If you’ve visited a cathedral or large church, you may know this feeling already. Because, wandering through the space of a great cathedral with the living, you are also so aware of the dead, those who have gone before you. Not only are there nooks here and there where someone might be buried, but you can look up at windows and carving, capitals and columns, mosaics and murals. And looking back will be the faces and stories of nearly every Bible figure there is, and many of the great women and men of Christian history.

All that openness, all that empty space that waits for the sound of a choir or organ to fill it with praise. And yet, even in the silence, you feel that this is a space that is not “unused” even when it is silent. It resonates with the presence of God’s people.

And suddenly, that St. John’s Bible illumination in Acts made sense to me: the stadium, and the cathedral, both places that that are shaped by the spirit of the crowd that gathers there.

We know that the author of Hebrews had never stood in the middle of a great cathedral—those buildings were centuries away yet when Hebrews was written. But stadiums were part of life in that world—The best comparison the author could think of, for standing surrounded by sinners become saints who are all part of the great cloud of witnesses.

The 11th chapter of Hebrews is a cathedral made of words. It lists the men and women of faith who went before.

For an entire chapter, this author has erected monuments to the heroes of the faith— Abel and Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, David,  Their stories are not stories of people who were not perfect or always faithful. They strayed and wandered, and made mistakes. But, in moments of great faith, some of them pulled off some pretty amazing things: toward the end of the list is a string of unnamed person after person who endured what sounds like the worst of horror flicks. What every one of them gets credit for is not that they did such great things. They make the list because God witnesses to their faith.. God is the one who accepts whatever they were able to offer and credits them as faithful. Even when they could barely hold onto a claim of faithfulness, God held onto them.

And yet, even with that wonderful idea of a God who holds onto us, I find myself uncomfortable with verse 39:

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.

It sticks out in the middle of this passage, after holding up these people on whom God placed so much value, people who God counted as faith-filled. It makes me wonder if God is unfair, shortchanging some folks just because they were born before God had the time to fulfill some sort of master plan.

But the writer goes on to talk about corporate fulfillment. Somehow, this fulfillment is made all the better by all of us being in on it together.

We are not a society, though, that like the idea of group accountability.  Ask any high school student, or high school parent, how they feel about group projects and you’ll probably get an earful. I remember a number of particularly lengthy, heated phone calls about group work from parents when I taught high school. I also remember thinking that group work might be the best preparation for marriage that my students would ever had. I was never so grateful for things I had learned about marital counseling in seminary when I had to spend an hour with a “couple” whose research project was falling apart.

But Hebrews is clear on this: in God’s way of accounting faith, it’s not the faith of the individual that matters: it’s the faith of the community. And the community is like the long corridor of a cathedral—it stretches back through time and space.

All these faithful people are like the pillars in a great building—they are not magnificent on their own, it is the accumulation of them, and what they do together, the way they soar up to the sky and hold up the roof, they way they are strong enough for the walls to be filled with windows to let in the light, the way they line up one after the other to make a long corridor, this is what is amazing about these heroes of faith.

Sadly, God’s people don’t seem to be doing such a great job of working together to hold up the cathedral. We are splintered and splitting. If it is not about identifying ourselves as one denomination or theological flavor or another, we are arguing about who is right and who is wrong, who is conservative and who is liberal, who has been left out and who ought to be included. I am frequently in awe of the way, as Christians, that we can talk about the need to make peace and smooth over our relationships with those of other faiths when we maintain a stony silence with some of our closest companions in faith—other Christians.

Another young pastor friend of mine came back from the Presbyterian General Assembly in 2006 and said he was very sad. On the way to the meeting space where Presbyterians from all over the country were gathering to be church together, he said he had to walk through a hall filled with the booths of every imaginable faction and interest group of the Presbyterian Church (and, yes, as a denomination, we do have factions). He did not experience this as diversity, but as division.

It’s often hardest to mend the relationships that should be the closest—it’s easier to make up with someone who lives next door than it is to make up with someone who sits at the same dinner table.

And yet, we are part of the same structure, built on the same foundation as other Christians. Our focus, our purpose, should be the same. And healing does not come by pointing fingers at each other to blame, to say who started it. It comes by remembering what we hold in common: Jesus Christ. And it comes by remembering, somehow, beyond our wildest understandings, our faith is strongest and most beautiful when it is taken into account together.

In a cathedral, the greatest spaces for sculptures and windows are usually reserved for Christ.  The giant corridor created by the pillars and soaring arches often point to enormous round windows, and, often, these windows show images of Jesus. The focal point of the entire space is Christ. And much of the light and color that pours down that hall of witnesses is from these giant windows.

And again, Hebrew’s author speaks as if he’d been in a cathedral space. It is Jesus, he says, who is the focal point, the place where we should look. There is support in being surrounded by this cloud of witnesses. But the thing that keeps us going is Jesus. We are surrounded by others, but it is Jesus who is the pioneer and perfecter, the first and the last.

Yesterday morning, I was on the Chicago lakefront, watching groups training for the Chicago marathon. You could tell that many of them would not be doing this if it were not for the 10, 15,20 other people running with them in matching shirts. They were watching out for each other. They had support along the way—people with water and encouraging news about the miles left to go. It made me wonder if churches ought to have running teams rather than softball teams.

These training groups owe much of their success to other volunteers, people who love to run and who want other people to get involved and enjoy running. No one in any of these groups is going to finish the marathon first. Many of them are running at a pace where they’ll be struggling along at the back of the pack long after the earliest finishers have finished, had a massage, eaten a hearty lunch, and gone home for a nap. They are what people in the running world refer to as “penguins”, runners who waddle a bit, but do it anyway just for the fun of it. Penguins run best when they run together because they are surrounded and supported by other people who do not care if they jiggle when they run, people who shout encouragement, people who will stop to help you if you trip and fall. Everyone’s goal is the same, and it’s collective, not individual—they all want to finish, and they want as many as possible to make it across the finish line.

It’s easy to think of Jesus as the first person in the race, the one who everyone’s eyes follow, the one who breaks across the line before anyone else in an incredible show of endurance. But if Jesus is not just the pioneer, but also the perfecter, if Jesus is not just the first, but also the last, what does that look like?

There’s a story about a marathon runner who ran with the penguins and almost didn’t make it to the finish line. A few miles from the end of the race, he slowed to a walk, slunk off to the side of the road, and was about to sit down. But then, another runner came over to him, and said, “Hey, get up. It’s not that far. You can do this. I’ll stay with you. You just stay one sept behind me and watch my feet. Do what they do, and we’ll finish this together.” As they ran, the tired runner could tell that the guy in front of him had some energy left, probably enough to push himself and gain some time in the last few miles. But he didn’t. He stayed with the tired one, paced himself so that they could finish together.

Dear friends, we are surrounded—it is not just in a stadium, or in a great cathedral, or in the middle of an enormous race. It is not just here, in this place, in these pews. The whole world resonates with the presence of the people of God, the one who went before us, and the ones who are around us even now. Sometimes, we can barely get along with each other. But the amazing truth in Jesus Christ is this: we are all in this race together, and we are surrounded by the love of God in Christ Jesus, the one who goes before us, and the one who comes close to us; the one who wins the race, and the one who helps us limp to the finish; the one who is perfectly faithful, and the one who inspires our faith. Thanks be to God.

One Response to “Surrounded”

  1. Laura Stuart Says:

    I really like your analogy about the stadium. It struck me because I love the National Catherdral and I had just finished thinking about being part of a Christian group experience. Do you get “Cathedral Age” from the National Cathedral? There is an article in the Fall 2006 publication that says the Sermon on the Mount “is not a personal ethic… Except for three brief sections on religious life – prayer, fasting, and charity – everything else is addressed to the Christian community. The problem has to do with the little word “you.” Whenever we read the word “you” in the Bible we tend to think singularly. What we need is a way of distinguishing “you” from a Southern style “ya’ll.” The Sermon on the Mount was addressed to “ya’ll.” End quote. Page 9. I will never read it the same way again.

    PS – And on a needle crafters note – Did you see the needlepoint pew pads in the side chapel that were stitched by the Queen of England and her friends in gratitude for US help during WWII? Thank you laura

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