In contrast with what we know about some of the other letters in the Bible, we don’t know much about Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote it. We don’t know who they wrote it to. But from the way that it’s structured, it seems like the Book of Hebrews was first a sermon. We can call the author Preacher. And as we read through it, we can start to see clues about what kind of community the Preacher is talking to.
They have been through a lot. Some of them had endured persecution and torture with bold faith. They had at one point been filled with the spirit and on fire for the good news of Christ. The preacher tells us they were full of devotion and self-sacrifice. They were happy to let the community plunder their possessions, knowing that they were serving some greater purpose. They had compassion on those in prison, and they cared for the least of these.
But now they are starting to shrink back from their earlier devotion. Faith was becoming a smaller part of their selves. They aren’t coming as often, and they aren’t paying attention to what God is doing in their lives. They are letting go of the anchors that held them fast in hard times. They were starting to become disillusioned, de-energized, demoralized.
We can’t know exactly what caused the congregation to feel that disillusionment, but I think we can identify with it. Maybe you’re frustrated with your career, your marriage, or your faith life. Barbara Bradley Hagerty says that a mid-life crisis is more rare than we think, but a mid-faith crisis is common. After the excitement of new faith and new ministry fades, we can find ourselves in a state of “spiritual ennui” that leaves us feeling disappointed with our faith.
Or maybe it doesn’t seem possible for things to get better for you. You don’t want to get
out of bed in the morning because you know you’ll hear more bad news. You feel like your prayers are hitting a brick wall. Maybe it’s just the opposite, and your marriage is fine, your career is fine, your life is fine, and you don’t need God. There’s nothing in your life driving you to your knees in prayer.
Maybe you’re thinking about the state of our country and our world. Maybe you’re thinking of those little children in Mississippi, waiting at daycare for parents who will never come home, and knowing that family separations happen every day in the state of New Jersey. Maybe you’re thinking of Syrian White Helmets, who’ve spent the last decade pulling their neighbors out from bombed buildings while the world’s attention has moved on to the next thing. Maybe you’re thinking of those murdered in Dayton and El Paso, and our nation’s laws that protect the right to take lives but not the right to have them. Or minority communities afraid to call the police because they can’t be sure they won’t be arrested or shot instead of helped.
Maybe all of this and more has you feeling surrounded by a cloud of darkness, an overwhelming sense that nothing can be done, nothing can get better, and the best that you can do is shrink back from your neighbor and hope that you might escape all that bad news.
We know disillusionment well. We know how to be demoralized people. Going-through-the-motions people. Just-waiting-for-more-bad-news people. Preacher, can you give us a message, can you tell us a word that will make us filled-with-hope people? Strong-enough-to-go-on people? Transforming-the-world people? Does the Preacher to the Hebrews have something for tired folk, for depressed folk, for barely-hanging-on folk? For us? What do they say to these Hebrews who have survived those hard days, who were once filled with passion and standing on the promises of God, but are now feeling down and out?
The Preacher says to their congregation, you might feel like you’re covered by a cloud of darkness, but you’re surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. The Preacher starts at the beginning, Abel, whose offering God loved, and Enoch who walked with God. They keep going with Noah, whose was the only righteous family in a wicked world. And then Abraham, who was 40 years old when he heard a word from God and uprooted his life to follow. And Sarah, who was 90 years old and laughed when the angels said that she’d bear a son, but they waited all those years for God’s promise to be fulfilled. They had faith. And I didn’t read you the whole sermon, but the preacher goes on to tell us about Jacob, and Joseph, and Moses, and all these other people who walked by faith and not by sight. Those who marched around Jericho with trumpets, and Gideon and Barak and David and Samuel, we don’t have time to go into them all. We could add Deborah, Susannah, Miriam, and Hannah, Shiprah and Puah and Rahab and Esther and Mary and Dorcas and Phoebe. And at the end of the roll call, the preacher says, “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,” You might feel like you’re covered by a cloud of darkness, but you’re surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.
This cloud of witnesses was given no guarantees that it would be easy. And many of these people did not see the fulfillment of the promise of God. Abraham didn’t see his great nation, he died as a foreigner with just a burial plot to his name with one child and two grandchildren. Moses didn’t step foot in the Promised Land, he never left the wilderness. David didn’t get to build that Temple for his Lord. They walked by faith, not by sight. These eyes don’t always see all there is to see to get us where we’re going. We have to look with the eyes of faith.
Marian Wright Edelman said Dr. King used to say: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole stairway. Just take the first step.” Abraham and Sarah, Noah and Moses, they didn’t get to see the whole stairway. But they trusted that God knew where they were going, so they took the first step. And the next, and the next, and the next. They ran on faith, not confidence. They ran on hope, not optimism. They ran on God’s strength, not their own strength. They ran because they knew it was the right thing to do, not because they knew that they would be rewarded for it. They saw with the eyes of faith, which is a different way of looking at the world. And when we look with the eyes of faith, we don’t see the cloud of darkness, we see the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, and the God whose steadfast faithfulness upholds their testimony.
What step is God asking you to take in faith? Where are you covered by a cloud of darkness, but might be able to look around you and find a cloud of witnesses? Our denomination is encouraging us to move boldly into the future. We’ve spent two decades in conflict with each other, and we’ve spent much longer in anxiety, trying to save ourselves from institutional change and decline. The Presbyterian Mission Agency and the General Assembly have called us to act boldly in faith. To leave nothing on the table.
We’ve been invited to be a Matthew 25 church. Matthew 25 is the parable of the sheep and the goats, in which the sheep say to God, “when did we see you naked, and when did we see you sick or in prison, and when did we see you hungry, and God says, “whenever you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” And we’re invited to see this story as the core of our ministry – caring for the sick and in prison, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. We can do that by committing ourselves to one of Presbyterian Mission’s focuses for 2019-2020: Building Congregational Vitality, Dismantling structural racism, Eliminating systemic poverty. I’m glad they gave us two years to do it, because I’m not sure we can get all that done in one.
Being a vital, life-giving congregation that is filled with the spirit. Trying not just to soften the problems at the heart of our society but root them out. Heck, just living our lives, fighting depression, and cancer, and mental illness and job loss and being overworked and overtired and under-loved. All of it can feel overwhelming. It can feel like we’re covered in a cloud of darkness. Will we ever have enough? Enough money, enough help, enough faith, enough energy to do the things that have been set before us? Can we shine a light bright enough to illumine the darkness in our lives and in our world?
And we’ve got to remember that when it feels like we’re covered in a cloud of darkness, we’re surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, who walked by faith and not by sight, and show us how to make our way in this world. Can we take a second and remember our own cloud of witnesses? The 90 and 9 who put their money where their mouth was, signing pledge cards before they had a place to worship? Gertrude Foster, who raised money and wrote to the governor and built the bell that we rings out the good news in the morning, even though she was disabled and never got into the building to hear it ring. Paul Rutgers who led us in fighting for Civil Rights and Marched on Washington in 1963. Bruce and Carolyn Gillette who led us into mission in Honduras, and into becoming a congregation open and affirming of LGBTQ people into our community as siblings in Christ and as leaders. For Agnes Schumann who helped turn us from a church into a family and Miriam Daly who was everything for us and Doris and Fred Oltmann who taught our children how to adventure and all those who have walked this road before us in faith. They might not have seen the whole stairway, but they could take the first step. Some of them didn’t see the fruits of their labors, but we do. What will the next generation see?
We walk by faith and not by sight. We know there will be bumps along the road, there will be obstacles that we have to overcome, there will be slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But faith turns to righteousness. If we can line up our actions with the work that God calls us to do: being filled with the Holy Spirit, fighting the powers that be that divide us into haves and have nots, sneetches with stars on our bellies and sneetches without, fighting to make sure that our siblings have food in their bellies and a safe place to sleep at night, then we will know that we have not run our race in vain. Hang on. Encourage one another. Give somebody the strength. Receive your strength from somebody. Learn to see with eyes of faith, not just your bodily eyes.
If you look with the eyes of faith, you’ll see that even when it feels like you’re surrounded by a cloud of darkness, you’re surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Take that first step, even if you can’t see your destination. This isn’t a race for the strong, or the perfect, or the righteous, but a race for those who keep on trying, who keep on walking, who keep going, even when they don’t know if they’ll make it, even when they can’t see all the way to the top. And someday we will join that cloud of witnesses who trusted God and accomplished more than they thought possible, who paved the way for us that we might see God’s glory, and who walked by faith and not by sight.
 Hagerty, Barbara Bradley. “Crossing the Wasteland of Faith” Christianity Today, December 2016, pp. 46-47.