We are tired. Overprogrammed. Schedule-weary. Dropping with Battle-fatigue. And when it comes to our faith, we often feel like we have nothing left to give. We sometimes neglect to worship God because it starts to feel like another “must” at the end of a long list of “musts” and we figure that God, at least, will understand. So how then can we develop wings to fly?
We are blessed by many leaders and saints. They have been examples of people of faith, grace-filled people. And more than just being examples, often they have encouraged us to in times of struggle. These are the folks that we reach out to when we need an encouraging word. Those we remember after they are no longer with us and think of what they would say.
Hebrews. The writer of Hebrews describes these special people as “a cloud of witnesses.” Tom Long says that “In its original setting, the phrase (cloud of witnesses) provides deep motivation for discouraged and weary Christians to endure the struggles of the Christian life and to come to congregational worship with conviction, confidence, and joy. [i]
In truth, life is complicated enough that we do need encouraging voices to helps us travel our roads with faith and perseverance. So who are your witnesses? Permit your minds to wander a bit as you remember them. Think about the early influences in your life. Those people who, when school was hard or friends hurt you, offered a listening ear, words of encouragement and reminders that “this too will pass.” Remember those who took time to enrich your life with the gifts of music, art, poetry, theatre, the mysteries of science to help you see new wonders. They were your witnesses.
Remember those people who in your teen years, as you were struggling to discover who you were and what mattered to you – those people who persisted in believing the best of you. Those who offered words of wisdom that put your experience in perspective. Often an adult other than a parent, who you shared worries and fears with and you knew they would be held in confidence. The folks who shared stories of their own struggles so you knew you weren’t alone in what you were experiencing, and told you what they WISHED they had done, the lessons they learned, and shared their confidence in YOU to do better than they had done . They were your witnesses.
And who are your witnesses today? Who are the people who are examples of love, forgiveness, mercy? The people who you watch and say, “When I grow up I want to be like____________?” The people you would name first as those who live out their faith. Who care even when it costs them. Who volunteer to help when they are tired because something needs to be done. Who are patient with the difficult people in life. And who offer words of encouragement to you when you are struggling? We may even dream about them offering us encouraging words after they are gone. They give us a lot. These are our witnesses.
Maybe you have a file folder somewhere like I do that is full of notes of appreciation and encouragement from your cloud of witnesses. Our district superintendent when I was entering ministry suggested keeping such a file – and taking it out to reread on the weeks we were thinking of leaving the ministry. The cards of “Thank you” for memorial services that really touched the hearts of the grieving, the notes of appreciation from parents who saw transformation in their teens, the messages when we were leaving one church for another that detailed how their lives were touched by God through my ministry…those notes kept me going. They gave me wings when I seemed to be bogged down in the minutia of ministry or discouraged with the apparent lack of difference in my ministry. Those notes remind me of the cloud of witnesses that surrounded me – that surround us all. We are all surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. People who have encouraged us in our lives.
Right now, we need encouragement perhaps more than we have anytime in the last century. The church is facing battles within and battles without. Our faith is challenged by a secular culture who finds us to be sorely out of date. AND by those who want to follow rules rather than the grace and love shown by Jesus, our Lord.
While we are gathered in worship this morning, delegates in St Louis from all over the world are gathered to try to figure out the problem of the American Methodist Church on how we respond to issues of gender and sexuality. And we don’t know what the decision will be – no one knows, not even the delegates. It will likely be a split in our denomination such as the Presbyterians and Lutherans have already experienced. And it will be discouraging and inconvenient and messy for everyone. No one will really be happy with whatever the decision is. And many will be extremely discouraged. And words of encouragement will be needed. Words that remind us that God didn’t call us to a denomination, but to a ministry. Maybe even reminders that the history of the church is full of schisms and divisions. And too – that this isn’t the end of the world. Perhaps we can now turn our attention and energies to being witnesses in love to the world around us. Perhaps we can point to what God is doing in our midst.
Fussing. But more than just what is happening in St Louis, we have been distracted from being lights to the world by minor agendas, by complaints, and by what our grandparents would have called “fussing.” Just plain fussing.
THINK. Some churches have posted a rather interesting poster in their kitchens and fellowship halls. (To eliminate the “fussing.” ( Irving Park…..)
Geese. Some of you are probably familiar with what is called “Lessons from Geese.” Geese, while they can be persistent pests in some situations, are rather remarkable in their level of cooperation. They fly in formation with their flapping wings providing and uplift for the birds behind. The V formation allows the flock to add 71% greater flying range than if each goose flew alone. They take turns in the lead as well. When the lead goose tires, it rotates back and another goose takes the point position. And that wild honking that we hear when they are overhead is the geese in the rear encouraging those in front to keep up their speed. While geese are remarkable in several ways, it is especially the consistent encouraging honking that I hope we will follow.[ii] We need encouragement right now.
Encouraging others is part of our calling. “Build up one another in Christ,” St. Paul tells the church in his first letter to the Thessalonians (I Thess 5:11) “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” ESV. Actually, there is a passage about encouraging each other and building each other up in the body of Christ in almost every epistle in the Bible. 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4: 11-16, Colossians 3:16. Build up one another…encourage one another – important instruction in the early church because perhaps we all need to be told. Complaining comes rather naturally, after all. We may need to be told to encourage each other.
Randy Pausch. Chapter 25 of The Last Lecture which is called “Training a Jedi,” begins, “It’s a thrill to fulfill your own childhood dreams, but as you get older, you may find that enabling the dreams of others is even more fun.” Part of the back story is that the writing of the book was one of Randy’s intentional decisions as he was dying of cancer. And he took the time, even dictating while he was exercising because physical strength postponed the disease, because he wanted to leave more of himself for his young children and also for his students. The book is about living. It is one of the most encouraging and inspiring books you will ever read. And it will encourage you to be an encourager of others.
We can be witnesses. John Ed Mathison tells a story about an Atlanta businessman named Jack. Jack received a call from a friend of his who worked at the Boys’ Club asking for a favor. There was a boy who had leukemia and he needed a ride to the hospital for treatment. Jack was busy enough that he could have said he didn’t have time and have it be the truth – but he agreed and drove to a run-down apartment building in a part of Atlanta where he had never been before. Jack went to the door and introduced himself, and the mother took him to Joey. Joey couldn’t walk, and so Jack carried him out to the car, and placed him with his head in his mother’s lap and his feet in Jack’s lap. Jack tried to start of conversation with Joey about baseball, but Joey didn’t say anything until they were stopped at a red light. “Mister,” he said and Jack turned to look at him. “Mister, are you God?” Jack didn’t know what to say so he asked, “What do you mean?” The boy told him. “Yesterday Mama prayed and then she told me that God was going to come and take me home. Then you came to get me. Are you God?” And Jack said, “No, I’m not. But I’m going to be.” Joey went to the hospital where he stayed for a short time – before he went home to be with Jesus. Jack, a successful businessman, decided that he wanted to be God’s hands and feet on earth, helping people. So Jack quit his job and how works in full-time ministry.[iii]
God will use each one of us as an encourager if we offer ourselves for that work. And whether we call it training Jedi or being the hands and feet of Jesus, it is rewarding work.
Will we be encouragers like those in the clouds of witnesses that surround us? The world needs encouragers rather desperately. We can choose to offer words that build up rather than tear down. We can follow the example of Jesus, who served humbly rather than seeking recognition. We can help others build their wings. Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we can fly. And help others to fly too.
[i] Thomas G. Long, What Cloud? What Witnesses? A Preacher’s Exegesis of Hebrews 12:1–2 Copyright © 2008 by Word & World, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota. All rights reserved. 349 Word & World Volume 28, Number 4 Fall 2008.
[iii] John Ed Mathison, Treasures of a Transformed Life, 254-5.