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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2013

PEOPLE OF THE CLOUD

Prof. Patricia G. Bleicher

In the name of God the Source of who we are, God the Example
of how we should love, and God the Presence with us now.  Amen.

Those of us who were blessed to hear last week’s wonderful sermon, recall its message that, though “we cannot always feel faithful…we can always choose to be faithful.” Choosing. We get to choose. And, just as the Rev. Anne Turner reminded us, we choose best inside a community of friends. Priscilla, the 1st Century rabbi who probably wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, says exactly the same thing when she starts a sentence: “Therefore we, being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” It almost doesn’t matter how she finishes that thought, the first part is so important.

Put aside the theology; we need a story. Here’s the story my friend told, all those years ago, and that I was given permission to retell. He said: At the worst time of my life, I didn’t even believe in God; I didn’t really believe in anything. I knew things were messed up; I was going nowhere, and I felt really bad. Since there was no God, there was pretty much no hope. But when Sunday came, I went to church. Pure habit…it’s what we did at my house: Sunday comes, go to church. I sat there like a lump, the atheist of the Episcopalians, the atheist amid the Episcopalians. It was stupid, so I began collecting my stuff to leave.

That’s when the service got to where people say the Creed. I heard “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” I think I said out loud: What the heck am I doing here? And, at that moment, with absolutely perfect clarity, I realized…on the very day that I could not have faith, all of those people were saying the Creed for me. They were surrounding me, and holding me up, and doing the work I could not do…they were being my family in a way I couldn’t have imagined before. I looked down at the printed lesson from Hebrews in my hand, and for the first time in my life I got it. I was truly grateful, and I saw myself as one tiny droplet in a great cloud of witnesses.

These days, I still come to church on Sundays, but when the Creed is read, it has a special meaning for me. I don’t subscribe to all that’s in there, but I’m saying it, as a tiny unit of many witnesses to what we’ve learned as a church…and I’m saying it on behalf of someone, some guy who’s struggling or who’s sure there is no God. He’ll be okay, surrounded by this cloud of loving. The wisdom lives inside the cloud of witnesses; it’s part of the way salvation works. He’ll be okay.

That’s my re-telling of Rob’s story. What a wonderful image, that cloud of witnesses! My friend the droplet has been a sort of prophet to me in these teachings. Some weeks ago, we read that Jesus said: “You will be my witnesses.” And this prophecy says: When you are my witnesses, you won’t have to be alone…you’ll have other droplets all around you, loving you, holding you up and doing the work for you when you’re having a bad day, challenging you and asking you to act boldly when you’re stronger.

There are two other things people of the cloud are doing, and you just heard one of them. We tell each other our stories, and re-tell those stories to other people, because stories really matter. Otherwise, that big thick book would just be a dull collection of lists and begats, instead of the rich and wonderful storybook that it is. Stories matter because…well, basically, human beings won’t learn any way but by experience, and it can be the experience of others if we listen carefully.

Think about it: isn’t loyalty more understandable when you hear about Ruth and Naomi? Isn’t kindness easier to grasp after the Good Samaritan? Jesus of Nazareth didn’t share all those Parables for nothing. And wasn’t the importance of community closer to reality when Anne Turner told us about her neighbors in the back yard, looking up at the sky to find the Perseid meteors – together?

This week, I had the joy of sharing lunch with a member of St. John’s, and we told each other so many great stories that it was – I dunno, holy? holy communion? In the week to come, you’re invited to share parts of your story with other people of the cloud…and to listen, really listen, to the stories that come back to you.

Now, not all people in the cloud are currently living. I affirm to you that Jack Turner is here toay. And Sid and Georgia and Pamela. And Lorraine is in the front row, though she now hears perfectly.

And not all living people in the cloud are currently in this geographical location. David Wolf is here, and David Bako, and Ann Stribling, and Chris and Laura with their two beautiful children.

Finally, people of the cloud sometimes very wonderfully combine the two things we’ve considered. We experience God and tell our stories and, in the process, we become witnesses. So, as you’re praying this week, consider these things:

When did God reach you, and what did God use to reach you? Was it an event, a person, a book, a calamity, a joyous birth, messengers who arrive at exactly the right time, desolations that happen at exactly the wrong time, music, laughter, animals, accidents, meteors, seeing the ocean, not marrying the one who was all wrong for you, sudden lights, missing the train, or (in one case from my own life) a wall of little doors that had appeared in a dream more than 20 years earlier. Martin Buber says: “There is nothing in all creation that can escape being a vessel for the Word of God.” Think about the moments you got it, and tell those stories.

In the cloud, that makes you a witness, and it makes your witness authentic.

Now I can explore theories behind narrative theology, or I can tell another story. I choose the story. It’s my own. My young childhood was shaped by a Baptist perspective, so when as an adult I first encountered people bowing as the Cross enters the church…well, I thought it was a Papist thing to do, and therefore suspicious. Then Dotty got her diagnosis.

Dotty was a long-term friend, married to a man who could afford to buy her the best medical care in the world. But Dotty was told she had Stage 4 bone cancer, and no amount of money was going to change the outcome. I prayed for her and tried to help in practical ways, but I could not fix the disaster that was overtaking her. Each time I visited, she was weaker and suffered more; it broke my heart. If you have to die, bone cancer is not the way you want to go: it hurts horribly.

I took note of everything about her home, her bed, her skin color, her pain level…and I began to take note of my own reaction to all those things. What I found was that, as I left her each time, I was bowing my way out of her room. As she became sicker, I was astonished to find myself bowing out of even phone conversations with Dotty. It seemed odd, so I prayed the question: what’s up with that, God? And suddenly I got it. The innermost part of me was honoring the suffering, which was horrendous. The next time I was in church, an Episcopal church, I saw people bowing as the Cross was carried into the nave, and that’s when I really got it. They also were honoring the suffering. Now I also am a witness in that way…I can be found bowing, to honor the suffering that is the Cross of Jesus, and the crosses we all bear. In the cloud, I’ve heard a lot of stories about suffering.

In the great cloud of witnesses, some of us bow, some of us have different stories and do not. It’s all good. Some of us are pretty sure there is no God, and some of us are sleep-deprived from taking care of twins, and some of us are ill as Dotty was, and some of us are in love and filled with joy…and all of us can be reached by the one true God who loves us forever. When it happens, however it happens, we need to tell the stories. And listen to the stories of others, and share the stories every chance we get.

In the cloud, we’re all together, holding each other up. In the cloud, liturgy is important because it’s deeply rooted in reality and experience. In the cloud, spend some time this week, trying to figure out how you will finish this sentence:

“Therefore we, being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”

Amen.