A reflection on the readings for Proper 15C by The Rev. Margaret Rose
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, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2
All around me people are dying. Some tragically, like the 30 year old daughter of a colleague who took her own life or the healthy six year old who had a brain aneurysm. Some after long lives and short illnesses, like 104 year old Lottie, or the mothers of two other colleagues who died in their 90’s or Deputy to General Convention Charles Crump. And then last week were Ted Stevens and Dan Rostenkowski whose deaths played no personal role but whose passing mark the end of some political era.
There are those who are on their way—like my friend Emmett, who is now in advanced stages of cancer. He is a priest in New London and godfather to my daughter.
Mourning these losses brings to mind so many I have known and loved and offers the opportunity not only to reflect on what is really important in life, but also on the knowledge that death is where we will all find ourselves at the last day.
Awareness of these deaths returns me to that childhood and never answered question: So what happens when we die? Not physically of course but spiritually. None of us really knows for sure though some may claim so.
Most of us have our understanding of afterlife from some place deep in our childhoods---even if our highly educated selves have taught us something different. In times of grief and stress we often go back to that place if it was good or avoid and deny it at all costs if it was bad.
For my part, I grew up in the Episcopal Church, my North Carolina mother having come from a long line of Episcopalians. My father, however, had been a life long Baptist, and joined the Episcopal Church because my maternal grandmother would not allow what she at the time called “intermarriage”! On the side of the family, my paternal grandmother who lived next door, though disappointed at my father’s “conversion”, held to the hope that he might one day return. She kept close watch on us four children fervently hoping that she could bring some good and strict moral influences into our lives. (She would sit at our kitchen table and say, “Thought I would come over and see what the plutocrats were doing today,” thus clearly indicating that there was some debauchery going on in our household.) But I am ever grateful to her for those strict influences and for her theology regarding issues such as salvation and the afterlife.
There was no doubt in her mind, for example, that there was an after life. How you lived your life here on earth determined the benefits received either in heaven or, as she would say, “in that other place”. My mother, just as staunch on the Episcopal side of things was also clear about the after life, but without the heaven and hell theology. Being good now was an end in itself for her and we all knew it. For my mother, those who had gone before were now the saints and angels in heaven. Their power in heaven while not determinative of our future was nevertheless all seeing. The angels could see all that occurred with those of us on earth. They could be useful as comforters or sometimes guilt producing companions in daily life.
This theology served me well, not just in the daily life of my childhood years, but most particularly after the sudden death of my father when I was fifteen. After the grief and pain that accompanies the loss of a parent, this knowledge of the afterlife was both a comfort and a regular thorn in my adolescent side---or might I say hormones. There was no doubt in my mind that far more than in life, in death my father was aware of my every move. I pretty much give him the credit for keeping me on the straight and narrow at least until I was 21. (My father seemed to be sitting in the middle seat of the car whenever I went on a date!)
Later on, of course as I studied theology and scripture, I began to see this presence of my father in a different light. Less big brother (or in this case big daddy) is watching you , and more a sense of continued guardianship, the guiding presence of one who had once been responsible for my very existence continuing that care in a more spiritual way. With the passing of years and the passing away of too many of those I have known and loved, including my mother and 2 siblings, I have often thought of these well beloved friends and relatives as “my dead people” helping me through one difficult time or another or simply being present in the midst of the endurance that is required of daily life.
The memory of the lives they lived was a witness to their own courage. Their watching over was a witness to my own life. Perhaps this sounds more like an All Saints sermon than one for the middle of August. But this is in large part exactly what the writer to the Hebrews implies in the text for today. “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, let us lay aside every weight and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus…” My father, mother, sister, brother, well beloved friends are as the epistle writer says, my cloud of witnesses, those who add to community and family God’s own self—surrounding me and us on every side in the sometimes perilous journey of life and faith.
This isn’t of course just Grandma Theology. It is Biblical. Throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews, the faithful are reminded that witnesses have been there in the hard times of God’s people. Remember the days of slavery; remember the days in the wilderness, the wars, the famines. And then remember Moses and Aaron and Miriam, Abram and Sarah and Hagar, remember Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, Rachel. These leaders who endured are still present, as witnesses of faith in the hearts and minds of the people. These are the great cloud of witnesses even now encouraging us, God’s people, not to give up hope, in spite of Afghanistan or murder in Manchester.
I am reminded again and again as we pray the Eucharist—we remember the Saints and angels even as we ask God’s continued presence in our lives asking that we come to God’s table not for solace only but for strength and renewal.
And it isn’t just those Old Testament witnesses I mentioned earlier or the ones we know in our own lives, but a host who have been proclaimed and remembered by the church and elsewhere... The newest edition of what used to be called Lesser Feasts and Fasts, now Holy Women; Holy Men offers us stories of discipleship and witness to faith of a host of women and men. The new ones are from every age, biblical, like Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe, or the 18th Century Molly Brant, a witness among the Mohawks, poet Christina Rosetti (1894) or more contemporary witnesses like Frances Perkins and Anna Julia Cooper who died in the 1960’s.
The Hebrews writer is letting us know that we do not go at discipleship alone. We are a community of biblical memory who even as we move out into new directions we stand on a foundation which promises to hold us up and a cloud of witnesses who surround us on every side.
Who are your witnesses? Aside from the ones we all have. But who are the ones in your own life in your own story. Call on them. Allow them to speak in these times. Allow their lives of courage or the choices they made to teach you, to claim you to offer you strength and joy for this day and in the days to come.
Maybe Charles Wesley says it best:
Let Saints on earth in concert sing with those whose work is done;
For all the servants of our King (remember it is 18th century) in
Heaven and earth are one. AMEN