Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 18, 2013
The movie Dead Poets Society is set in a boy’s boarding school and features Robin Williams as a rather unconventional Literature teacher named Keating. On the first day of class, Keating leads the boys out into the hall where he tells them to look closely at the pictures on the wall of former students. These students long gone from life on this earth have a message to the current students. Keating tells the boys the message is: “Carpe Diem, boys. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.” Keating’s unorthodox approach unleashes a vision and passion in this class to make their lives count. It is like letting the genie out of the bottle. It’s interesting to me that Keating uses the school alums to call forth that vision.
The Hebrews passage continues this morning with a list of heroes of faith and the amazing lives they lived. Here are a few of their achievements… administering justice, shutting the mouths of lions, quenching raging fire, escaping the edge of the sword, crossing the Red Sea, and circling the walls of Jericho until they fell down. The writer of Hebrews only names a few, but goes on to tell what some endured – stoning, being sawn in two, killing by swords, wandering, being persecuted and tormented. So you can see right away, that it didn’t always go well. We certainly don’t want to lift up these as examples of the rewards of a life of faith. But there is an incredible perseverance and faith in one after another. They were so clear that they belonged to God that they would not give up no matter how difficult the journey.
Hebrews calls us to be inspired by that great “cloud of witnesses” as we run the race that is set before us. I’ve been reflecting on my great cloud of witnesses this week. I’m curious about those whose names I cannot forget and those whose names I cannot remember. It is amazing how so many people can touch our lives in a lifetime. It really is a great cloud that surrounds us. Who are those saints for you and how do they live on in you now? I encourage you to spend the day with them giving thanks for them and the way they are part of you now.
Sharon was my youth director many years ago and one of the reasons I am in ministry today. Sharon is a vibrant, gifted woman who mentored me and had a profound impact on me as a teenager. I am grateful for the way she walked with me through some of the most powerful moments in my life. My prayer life was formed through my time in that youth group. I experienced contemplative prayer in the sanctuary on candlelit evenings. As a teenager, I was blown away as I saw the ocean for the first time on a trip with my youth group. Each morning we would get up in the dark and go out to watch the sunrise and I was amazed at the way God was palpable in this place. Sharon was on the youth retreat where I experienced a powerful call to ministry. She sat with me when I couldn’t stop crying afterward. Sharon is retired now and she travels around the country building houses for Habitat for Humanity. She is one of the people in my cloud of witnesses because she witnessed so much for me and with me. She continues to inspire me and she believes in me thirty years later.
It’s humbling to name those who walked with us and invested in us. Who would we be today without them? This is true for us individually and it’s more than true for us as a community of faith.
I asked for some examples of the St. Michael’s Cloud of Witnesses this week. Here are some folks who were named:
Ann Dietz is one saint who had a vision for St. Michael's. Ann was the catalyst to bring John Tatschal, Paul Saunders and the Vestry together to tell the story of The Life of Christ in our stained glass windows. Ann gave one quarter of her inheritance from her father to pay $7,000 to install the organ in his memory in June 1955. She was organist at St. Michael's and she purchased hymnals in memory of her mother. Some were shocked at her generosity and questioned her decision. She was unswerving and today we reap the benefits of her big-heartedness.
Another saint is Myndert Gilbert - also one of the original members of St. Michael's - who served as director of the Sunday School for probably 25 or 30 years. He adored kids and made each child feel like he or she was the most important member of the church. Sometimes everything came to a halt because he let hyper-active children run the projector for church gatherings. He was also the mastermind behind the Christmas Eve posole suppers after midnight mass, and made sure that we all had the right recipe for cooking legs of lamb for the Seder suppers on Maundy Thursdays.
A third saint with a vision that has shaped who we are today is John Tadigan. John was a first class violinist who had played with the Chicago Symphony before coming to Albuquerque. He persuaded Brian Taylor to offer the Service of Reconciliation for Gays and Lesbians who had been wounded by the institutional church. Word of that service spread through the community and we had a packed house of people from all over the city and from many traditions. It was the beginning of our community becoming a sanctuary for people who had been rejected or wounded by the church. And John's vision succeeded in getting us in trouble with the Bishop who withdrew the loan for the construction of our sanctuary. That was the impetus for us as a community to define ourselves as a community who sees tries to live the Gospel imperatives of loving our neighbors regardless of differences that sometimes invite discrimination.
This community is what it is today because of those who have come before us. I am grateful for every person in our cloud of witnesses, for the ways they have blessed us with their vision and generosity and for laying the foundation for us at this time. We are in a time of change as a congregation, but it isn’t the first time. We have been here before. We will be again. We have what we need because we stand on the shoulders of so many who have gone before us. This week, I talked with someone who told me she could feel all those saints every time she walks into the sanctuary. They are here in our walls. They are in the hymns that we sing, the prayers that we pray, the peace that we pass with one another. They are in us all and they are calling to persevere and to look to Christ as we continue this race.
I am training for my first triathlon next weekend. It’s a sprint triathlon, which means the run, bike and swim are short. As I feel nervous about it, I have this assurance that it will all be over in a few hours and I’ll be on my way. The life of faith is not a sprint race; it is a marathon. It requires that we train, support one another, and that we stay focused on Christ who goes ahead of us and shows us the way.
I’m struck by the line “let us lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely”. What do we need to lay aside to run this race? To truly be God’s people, we must set aside our personal agenda and need to get what we want to make way for the greater good. We need to lay aside the part of us that wants to walk away when things get difficult. When I look back at some of what St. Michael’s has been through over the years – arson in the sanctuary that is now our parish hall, the widening of Montano taking away all of the parking, and persecution from the Diocese when we welcomed the gay and lesbian community openly – I am astounded at the cloud of witnesses who stepped up to carry the load. The strength and vitality of this community is a gracious product of all who give generously in all times and places.
I am grateful for those who stayed in the race, who kept the faith, who took risks to move forward and who generously gave of themselves so that we could be the people of God no matter what adversity we face. It is on their shoulders that we stand. It is our turn to look to Jesus and see where the race will take us next. I don’t know what it will look like, but I believe that the scenery will be stunning and that the gifts that await us in this journey are greater than we are capable of imagining.
*With thanks to Oleta Saunders for the descriptions of Ann Dietz, Myndert Gilbert, and John Tadigan.