Serious question: when have you wanted to give up? In anything - from as small as trying a new recipe...to training for a run...to quitting a habit...to fighting for change in a business or community or relationship....to living a life of faith...maybe even living.
When have you wanted to give up? What weighs you down to make you want to give up? Unworthiness...guilt...certain behaviors...pride….insecurity?
What keeps you from giving up? Is it your friends and family? Is it lessons from the past? Is it the words from a trusted counselor or therapist? Pure stubbornness?
This is the thought process from today’s reading. The thought process of wanting to give up and what keeps us going.
These Scriptures from Hebrews are a continuation from last week addressing faith. It is a continuation of the author speaking to a community of people who likely wanted to give up because of persecution and other obstacles. He talks about the faith of the ancestors, and draws a bridge from the past to the present in order to give hope for a future….AND ENCOURAGE THIS GROUP OF PEOPLE TO NOT GIVE UP THEIR LIFE OF FAITH.
These are essentially the words from a life coach on faith. A paraphrase: “Y’all, we are surrounded by amazing people who have witnessed hardships. We know that they endured life-altering challenges, so let’s figure out what we need to let go of so we, too, can be witness to God working in this world through us. It isn’t easy, we’re going to want to quit, but Jesus has shown us the way through and around all that the world may try throwing at us.”
The author drew on stories from the great cloud of witnesses from the past to encourage present people toward the future.
Who are our great cloud of witnesses?
To be completely transparent, when I typed that question and thought further, it brought tears to my eyes. Maybe it was the rainy day at the end of a busy and hard week...or maybe it was because I have drawn on those witnesses so much for strength. When I get overwhelmed with certain decisions, I think of my dad (who passed away 8 years ago) asking me “Will this matter in 5 years?” (I very clearly remember being upset in high school over a test grade and him asking me that question.)
When I think of the commitment and challenges that may come in getting married next year, I think of a group of adults in NC (all still living) who have shared with me how they maintain healthy marriages through struggles. I think of my personal cloud of witnesses, and I am sure you have a similar collection of people.
(It makes me think of the movie Mulan - A Disney movie from 1998 - where a grandmother prays to the family’s ancestors for the safety of her granddaughter. As she prays, a whole host of ancestral ghosts appear and “hold court.”)
In a broader sense, for our faith, it is great for us to be encouraged by the stories of UCC ancestors. Within the UCC and its parent churches, we have a rockstar lineup of witnesses.
- Antoinette Brown, the first [recorded] woman ever ordained
- Lemuel Haynes, the first African American person ordained by a mainline church
- Bill Johnson, the first openly gay person ordained (actually, Bill is still alive...).” (Kathryn Matthews, ucc.org, Sermon Seeds)
Knowing this is so encouraging for continuing to advocate for equality and inclusion within churches.
Outside the UCC, I’m thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who paid such a high price for fighting for their faith and hope in the future. “It was as if they could "see" something with their hearts that their eyes could not yet perceive.” (Matthews) Similar, to the saints mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, he didn’t get to see fully the promise, yet he still fought for it.
These faithful ones have run the race and now are watching us as we run ours. The examples of Antionette Brown, Lemuel Haynes, Bill Johnson, and Martin Luther King Jr are, of course, large scale examples. Please don’t be overwhelmed by those examples, thinking that there is an expectation to make huge waves and change the world.
These faithful ones, along with the examples from Hebrews, are held up as superheroes of the faith. Yet, let’s remember two very important things:
1) Not all superheroes come with capes. Not everybody is going to spur a nationwide movement to further human equality. I mean, it’d be great if we did, because I’m thinking it would all be solved at that point. However, that’s not reality.
2) And these superheroes of faith were not perfect. It is so encouraging to me to know that these people weren’t carbon copies of Jesus and lived perfect lives. Because I can’t do that! I can’t live a perfect life, neither can you or anybody else. Yet, in spite of our flaws or sometimes because of our flaws, we can impact this world with God’s love.
I have no doubt that these cloud of witnesses that Hebrews mentions, the UCC witnesses, my dad, and whoever is in your list of witnesses all had to lay aside something at some point.
As the torch of faith is passed on to us, what sort of things do we need to put aside? What would your cloud of witnesses tell you to put down? (Sometimes we’re so good at encouraging others to improve themselves - but don’t listen to our own advice.)
Do we need to put down judgments so that we can see every human being as a worthy human?
Do we need to put down greed so that we can be generous in helping others?
Do we need to put down an addiction so that it doesn’t give us a false sense of security?
Do we need to put down guilt or unworthiness so that we know we are worthy vessels of God’s love?
For those who are new to Christian Scripture, with all of this language, you may envision being in a stadium at a track meet and bleachers full of people cheering you on and thinking “I don’t run unless something is chasing me.” That’s fine...imagine that all the evils we fight against in this world (hate, lack of compassion, inequality, etc.) are chasing you. Imagine that scene from Mulan, where the ancestors are gathering.
For those of us who have grown up in church, we’ve heard “run the race” and “a great cloud of witnesses” before. So, we may gloss over this lesson. However, what fresh meaning does it have? You have never been in this point of your life before. You are facing new things in your personal life. We, as a community and nation, are facing situations unique to this time. What reminder do we need from this Scripture?
Your homework: think of your great cloud of witnesses that speak to you. Whether it be someone you personally know or a historical figure. Think of where you are tempted to give up in life right now - in your personal life, at work, in the community, in your family, in your church. Now, think of what that cloud of witnesses would say to encourage you. Write it down. Put it on a sticky note or somewhere you’ll read it.
Church family, be encouraged to live a life full of Jesus’ love and compassion - for yourselves and for all others. We have generations cheering us on. Amen.
Scripture: Hebrews 11:29-12:2