Don't live in a smaller world than God has given to you. Forces in our life strive to shrink our world and our hopes. We are enticed by distraction that shrinks our focus on deeper values. We are lured into conventional thinking that withers our imagination for living in God's world.
The sermon of this unknown writer, that has come to us as The Letter to the Hebrews, is concerned about how we go deeper with God and how we are transformed in Christ.
The preacher here does not want us to live in a smaller world than God has given to us. There is a full-throated attempt in these verses to remind us of those in the past who have lived faithfully and deeply in God's larger world and to guide us to a faithful, deep, imaginative tomorrow.
For Hebrews, the path from today to tomorrow is lined with a Cloud of Witnesses - remembering their own struggles as they recognize our faith challenges and reminding us of the promises of God in Jesus Christ.
As Tom Long observes on this text, "When we see the disciplined, loving, strong, merciful and faithful way that Jesus ran the race, we are motivated to lace up our running shoes, to grasp the baton, and to sprint to the finish line." [i]
Jesus is our guide to God's tomorrow.
Our Cloud of Witnesses ran their race, followed Jesus to the end, and now bears witness to the power of God. They line our journey showing us what faith lived out looks like. They are the ones shouting encouragement to us to not live in a smaller world than God has given to us.
But the race is hard, life is full of challenges that do shrink our imagination for who God is and what God does.
My colleague Rebecca remembered recently, "In college, I used to walk a path leading from the university to the main street along campus. The street had everything from a five-dollar burrito place, to frat houses, movie theaters, to all the major watering holes. This path went right past a church.
"In the middle of the path, the church had placed a sign as an invitation to come inside:
Know that God still cares for this broken world, _and for all its creatures, __ and that the cross, even when all else fails, _yet makes its appeal.
"I read that sign a lot during my four years," Rebecca remembers after September 11, before we went to war with Iraq, on the day my friend's father died suddenly. The tragedies of the last few years - the racial injustice and school shootings and all - brought that sign back to mind. So, I emailed the church recently to ask what the exact wording was.
"It turns out that the church removed it a while back during construction. When the work was finished, they didn't put it back up. In the words of the church administrator, "Some people felt it was awfully gloomy to attract students to come in."[ii]
The Book of Hebrews, instead turns us toward the cross and tells us the truth. The end of life's race leads you to joy, but it is hard in the middle. You will get tired and feel discouraged. We will experience frailty and failure, and just may want to give up.
Hebrews knows that we need encouragement. We need help to see God's presence in the hardship. We need people who have been there before. You may believe that you are alone in your life, and on this journey of faith you are not along. A Cloud of Witnesses reminds us that we are never alone in God's world.
Do not live in a smaller world than God has given to you.
Where is our Cloud of Witnesses today, and what are they reminding us in the middle of our journey?
I have an unlikely collection in mind. In Lorraine Hansberry's play, A Raisin in the Sun, a young man comes home to see his family after he has lost all the money that would have given them a future, destroying their hopes. His sister calls him every despicable name imaginable. After she curses out her brother, the mother speaks and says, "I thought I told you to forgive him." "Forgive him? There's nothing left to forgive."
"There is always something left to love," says the mother. "And if you haven't learned that, you haven't learned anything. When do you think it's time to love and forgive somebody? When they've done good? When they've made you proud? The time to love somebody is when they are at their lowest because the world done whipped them so."
A smaller world says that we have to sort who we should love and who is not worthy of our love, let alone God's love. But there is always something left to love - always, always. Do not live in a smaller world than God has given to you!
Almost 50 years ago, Duke Ellington teamed up with bass player Ray Brown to record a live performance of Ellington's standards. The original recording is prized among jazz fans, not only because of the legendary status of the musicians and the power of the music, but also because the microphones were positioned so close to the performers that one can actually hear the sounds they make in the physical effort of creating such great music.
One person described it: "Ray Brown is right there across the living room fighting with the bass to get out every note. You hear his grunts and you hear Duke moving around in this chair and even breathing."[iii]
A shrunken world of the immediate and the convenient says: don't take it too seriously - nothing is so urgent to work that hard.
Hebrews will have none of that.
. . . 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.
The work will be hard, but don't live in a smaller world than God has given to you!
Joseph Polisi may be surprised to be included in a Cloud of Witnesses. Polisi spent half his life as President of the Julliard School until his retirement two years ago. When asked what was his proudest accomplishment of his tenure, he did not list Julliard's alumni - Yo-Yo Ma, Jessica Chastain, Wynton Marsalis, Nina Simone, Audra McDonald. No, he said it was building a freshman dorm where these young women and men, who had been encouraged their whole life to nurture their individual gift, learned to support each other.
"Polisi encouraged students to be more than just concertizers. Instead, he sent these budding stars to perform in hospitals and hospices seeking ways to have a broader impact on the world."[iv]
A withered world of "strive and achieve" will tell you every day that you have to compete alone. But, it's a Cloud of Witnesses, it's not a personal coach. We cannot live, love, or experience faithfulness without the bonds of community.
Do not live in a smaller world than God has given to you!
After the death of Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander wrote, "I never met Maya Angelou, but when I was named the poet for the 2009 Inaugural, Ms. Angelou called me on the telephone - the second poet to read for a presidential inaugural calling the fourth - her sense of history and of community fully evident in the gesture.
"Before she said her name, I recognized the voice: lustrous, deliberate, precise, a diction well known to me from countless elders. She spoke in the rich chest-voice of a grandmother singing a song at bedtime. Her words and voice drew me close. I was attempting to write the inaugural poem, agonizing and spinning in the thickets with the task at hand. I do not remember the substance of what she said, only the even, reassuring tone of her voice that made this task seem possible.
"And then, Maya Angelou spoke these words, 'If you have a song to sing, who are you not to open your mouth and sing to the world?'"[v]
The shrunken world of grievance and argument, in which we marinate far too much, has no song. But you, who are you not to open your mouth, singing to the world?
Do not live in a smaller world than God has given to you!
Father Gregory Boyle tells the story of a young man named Pedro. Caught in the gang life on the streets of LA, Pedro was filled with rage and resentment that he covered up with addiction to crack cocaine. Whenever Father Boyle would offer to take Pedro to rehab, he would decline.
Until one day, Pedro changed his answer and began the long, hard journey of returning to himself. Thirty days into Pedro's rehab, his younger brother, caught up in similar demons, took his own life. When Father Boyle called with the news, Pedro is devastated.
Father Boyle later was driving Pedro to the funeral when Pedro began to tell Boyle about a dream he had the night before. In the dream, Pedro and Father Boyle are in a large empty room, alone. There are no lights, no windows. It is complete, total darkness. In the dark silence, Father Boyle takes a flashlight from his pocket and turns it on. Slowly, deliberately, he shines the flashlight around the room until its narrow beam illuminates a light switch on the wall. No words are spoken, no explanation offered, just a beam of light revealing a switch on the wall. In the dream, Pedro stands up slowly, with some trepidation he makes his way to the switch, takes a deep breath, he flips it on. The room is flooded with light.
At this point in the retelling of his dream, Pedro is sobbing. With a voice of astonishing discovery, he said, "And the light is better than the darkness." As if he did not know this before. Then he said, "I guess my brother just never found the switch."
Boyle writes, "Possessing flashlights and occasionally knowing where to aim them has to be enough for us. We all find ourselves in this dark, windowless room, fumbling for grace and flashlights. You aim the light this time, I'll do it the next."[vi]
The Cloud of Witnesses has lived the truth - light is better than darkness. They point their flashlights directing us to greater light. They are reminding us that God's love has no limits, that there is hard work to be undertaken for the sake of faith and that we do it all in community, together. They are shouting encouragement to us, "Let your light shine! Sing God's song loud and clear at the top of your voice!
Just never again live in a smaller world than God has given to you in Jesus Christ, the one who has endured everything, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
[i] Thomas G. Long, Interpretation Commentary on Hebrews, JKP, 2011.
[ii] From a sermon by Rebecca Gurney, preached at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC, June 19, 2016
[iii] Thomas G. Long, Christian Century, August 25, 2009, p. 21
[iv] "Julliard's President Decides to Step Down" by Michael Cooper, The New York Times, October 6, 2016
[v] Elizabeth Alexander, "In a Commanding Literary Voice, Singing Out to the World," New York Times, May 28, 2014
[vi] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, p. 38