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Hebrews 11:32-12:2

In our world there are times when we need witnesses. There are witnesses in criminal trials, and whenever there has been a shooting or a robbery, police are quick to canvas the area to see if there are any witnesses that saw anything. Of course when it comes to crimes, some will come forward while others will not. Many children, on the other hand, will voluntarily point out what they saw their brother or their sister do. The name that the accused pins on the brother or sister is “tattletale!” But that is another kind of witness. For every wedding I perform there is an official marriage license. And in the corner of the license there are two lines that say “witnesses.” This is where a best man, a maid of honor, a parent or another person signs the document, declaring that it happened. It is often done with some ceremony, positioning the photographer on the paused pen of the signer. And the witnesses could indeed give testimony that they saw the wedding ceremony. But many people don’t know that witnesses on a license in Florida are just for ceremony. The only signature (and printed name) that is the legal witness is the officiant! Similarly a notary swears that he or she has watched people put their signature to paper and has checked their identification. Witnesses have been part of our legal system all the way back to Biblical times and before. Do you recall the line that is read in every one of our Maundy Thursday services? With the reading of Mark’s gospel, we recall the time when Jesus was brought before the High Priest Caiaphas.  The Bible mentions witnesses twice in this section. The first time was with these words: “Now the chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. But many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree.” [Mark 14:55-56.]  The second time was when the high priest asked Jesus: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’  And Jesus said: ‘I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven!’ And the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ Witnessing has been done for proof in religious settings, and at other times simply to say what one has seen.

This week I asked our secretary Kristin to write down at story that she related to me. This is another form witnessing:

On Friday afternoon after I left the office, I headed to St. Augustine to pick up my daughter. As I was driving, my best friend from back home in Michigan popped in my head. Her mother, a second mother to me growing up, had been fighting cancer for years and had finally decided to stop chemo only a month before. I usually didn’t call her during the day because we both worked and she has children she cares for in the afternoons, but something told me to call at 3:25 in the afternoon. I called and left her a voicemail letting her know I was thinking of her and hoped her mom was doing well.

The next morning she texted me to let me know her mom had passed away that morning, Saturday at about 6 am. She also told me that in the minute leading up to her mom’s death the most amazing thing happened. She had been in the hallway outside her mom’s nursing home room catching a breather. It had now been about 28 hours since she had slept, but she did not want to miss her mom’s last moments. In the hallway sitting alone, watching random residents stroll by, she heard her mother’s voice say “Amanda, I’m going to leave now.” She thought the lack of sleep had caused her to go crazy. She then went back into the room followed closely by two nurses who were also friends of the family. As they stood a few feet away from the bed watching Kathy, Amanda’s mom, with her breathing dramatically slowing down, Amanda felt chills go from the top of her head all the way to her toes. She also felt a comforting silence and tranquility fill the room. She had been praying for months to let her mother feel a little Heaven on earth in her final time. This is exactly what she imagined that would feel like. A complete peace fell over the room. She no longer felt sad. After she watched her mom take her final breath she said she witnessed the best thing ever. A huge smile broke out on her mom’s face! She hadn’t wakened up and she had already stopped breathing. Whatever she saw in that moment, Amanda is sure it was that everything we’ve believed all these years was true: that God was waiting for her with open arms, a bright light, pearly gates, mansions in the sky, or many of the other things we imagine Heaven like. The nurses said they hadn’t seen her smile like in a very long time.

Kristin finished her story by saying the exact time that she felt the urge to call her friend that fateful afternoon was the time when her friend was walking into the nursing home in Michigan to see her mother for the last time. Miles away, Kristin got a strange urge to call her friend and she did so. Astoundingly, her timing was perfect.

Those are witnesses. But some people, understandably,  don’t like another kind of witnesses because they have had religious persons on their doorstep trying to convince them to convert or repent. But all witnessing is not cold-call witnessing. Some of the best witnessing is done friend to friend, where a relationship has already been established. Several church members have told me about amazing things that have happened in their lives that they attribute to God: prayers have been answered, loved ones who have died have been seen or their presence has been felt; and others have shared times when the Holy Spirit, or an angel, touched them and chills went up and down their body. Witnessing is not about proof; it is about what someone has seen, or heard, or smelled or touched, or experienced. To make witnessing most meaningful it is offered from one friend to another.

But there is one other kind of witnesses that I think Hebrews 12: 1 addresses: witnesses who have gone before us in our faith. As I showed the children the letterhead with pictures of some in this congregation who have gone before us, I picture a great cloud of witnesses; not ones that particularly saw what you did or what I did, but ones who lived as witnessed to others, demonstrating how Christians live. Those people were conduits for God’s work that moved our congregation to this point. When I begin every funeral, I say these words: We are gathered here to praise God, and to witness to our faith.” That means we show the world that we believe in life beyond this life, and that it matters how we live while we are here! And with absolute certainly I tell you today we are not just surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us; we are surrounded by great witnesses who are here even today! They are in these very pews. Around you are people who have lived their faith, loved their Lord, and have been good and faithful servants of our Lord. Around you are younger people whose decisions are still being recorded in the book of Life. And your life is not over yet! Your story is still being written too. God is watching us; our Savior is watching us; people in our everyday lives are watching us; and, most importantly, little eyes of children and discerning eyes of teenagers are watching us. What kind of witnesses are we to them?

Witnesses; they are not just people who see things; they are also people who do things; who decide; and who act. They are people who love. Jesus had so many metaphors for how his followers were supposed to change the world: he said “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its flavor how can it be salty again?” He said “You are the light of the world; but if you hide your light under a bushel, how can the light shine?” Jesus needs us to be his witnesses; Jesus counts on us to be his witnesses to change the world and to respond to his call “follow me.” He has no other plan!

Can Jesus count on you?

Jeffrey A. Sumner        August 18, 2013

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Hebrews 11: 1-12

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is easy to quote Hebrews 11:1. But if someone were to ask you what faith is, what would you say? Today I want to explore two answers about what faith is: First, the faith is like trust. And second, that faith is like belief.

First, faith is like trust. This would have been an easy concept for the writer of Hebrews if he knew anything about the historical Jewish faith. The first testament, or Old Testament as we call it, has a number of faith examples. For most Jews and actually most Christians, the pinnacle story of radical faith-like trust occurred in Genesis 22. It was there that a wandering and faithful man, originally from the land of Ur, became a man of exemplary faith. In the ultimate test of trust, God asked Abraham to go to the land of Moriah, to a place known as Mount Moriah, and there God asked Abraham to take his son, build a fire, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Modern day people are horrified at this request, but upon closer look we find God setting himself apart from all of the nature gods of Canaan, to whom people regularly sacrificed even children. God, on this ludicrous request, was ready to take his stand, telling Abraham and those hearing the story for generations that he was not in the business of human sacrifices. Later the prophet Micah said to the people that God wanted no sacrifice like that; what God wanted was for his people to justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God. And the translator of Psalm 51 as it appears in our hymnals says the sacrifice the Lord accepts is a humble spirit. But let’s return to Abraham; what could he have been thinking when the Lord asked for such a sacrifice?  The story has been told for generations with this understanding: that as much as Abraham loved his only son, and indeed he loved him mightily, he loved God more.  And so he began, raising the knife over his son; and God watched in amazement at Abraham’s faith. God sent an angel to intervene in the nick of time and Abraham passed the test. The angel stopped the upcoming human slaughter, and Abraham became the textbook case of trust. Just like a child shows great trust by being willing to fall straight backwards into the hands of her grandmother or someone else she trusts, faith as trust is something that God values highly. What is your faith as trust quotient like? Some in our jaded world don’t trust anyone, certainly not church people. Some trust the world so much they put on Facebook where they are in town or that they are out of town! Think carefully about in whom you place your trust!  Now in the midst of a rather icy relationship between our president and the Russian President Putin, we recall the phrase of our earlier president Reagan during his tense negotiations with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev: “Trust, but verify!” That sounds very close to not trusting, doesn’t it! As I have said before, I try to build a circle of people around me who I trust. Perhaps you do that too. If faith as trust is important to us, it is at least as important to God.

Last weekend when I was at the Presbyterian Conference metaphorically called the “Presbyterian Big Tent,” I invited a young couple with a child to join us for our Friday night dinner. Dinner was served in a huge convention hall to 1500 people. Down they sat: young, gentle, devoted to each other and to their beautiful young daughter. I learned that their names were Ryan and Alethia White, and their two year old daughter was Ariella. They said they were new Presbyterian Mission Co-Workers who were assigned to Berlin Germany to work with Iranian refugees there! Yes I said that right. They are going to give pastoral care and Christian witness to people who are finding new faith in a new congregation called the Iranian Presbyterian Church of Berlin!  I asked them how they decided to accept that call and she said, “It was a leap of faith.” I said, “Tell me about it.” She said: Ryan graduated from seminary and we were married. Even though I was trained in a different field, we are a team and we are Christians going where God wants us to go. So we decided to apply to become Presbyterian missionaries. We applied and then we waited; we heard nothing from the Mission Agency even though we prayed for a response. We waited some more, and then we decided that God wanted us to put our faith in him completely. We prayed and took a big step that the world would see as foolish: we both resigned from our jobs to show God we were serious about our desire to be missionaries. And you know, it was just 5 days later when our phone rang and it was the Mission Agency, offering us the position as missionaries! So later this year, we will move to Berlin.”

Abraham went from his homeland of Ur to the foreign land of Canaan. The Whites are leaving the comfort and familiarity of their jobs, and their home and moving to a foreign land too. Both are examples of great faith. Faith can move mountains, and it can open doors.

The other way people think of faith is that faith is like belief. Again, Christians and Jews need look no further than a story in 1 Kings about one of the greatest prophets. His name was Elijah. He was so great and had such belief in God that when he died God lifted him up to heaven in a whirlwind! In fact, sharp Christians will remember there are a number of references to Elijah in the New Testament as well. The things that showed God his faithfulness was standing up to the menacing and compromised King Ahab, and also dealing with his “not to
be messed with” wife Jezebel! She influenced her husband to believe in the Canaan nature gods called “Baal” instead of in God the Lord. But Elijah stood up to the prophets of Baal in a great contest on Mount Carmel. He took a great leap of faith, showing how much he believed in God. In the contest, he challenged Baal to rain down fire on the mountain. No fire came. With extraordinary belief, he then called on God to rain down fire on the mountain and God did. It is recorded in 1 Kings 18 verse 38. And the rest is history. Elijah was great and Abraham was great because of their faith.

But sometimes faith is fleeting. This week Cara will be holding a class on Wednesday evening that I commend to you. It is called “A Question of God” as you have heard, and it is the written testimonies and examinations of two great people followed by panel discussions. One person studied is Sigmund Freud, a man who was born into a Jewish family yet became an atheist; the other was C.S. Lewis, the beloved writer of Christian books for both adults and children. He was an atheist in his younger years but later became a Christian. One man moved toward faith, one man moved away from faith. When I was doing the research for my doctoral thesis “Discovery in the Dark Night of the Soul” it was evident that great people in our world, during at least one time of crisis, had their faith in God intensely challenged. People who struggled with faith included Mother Theresa, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, Ellie Wiesel, and, as we heard, C.S. Lewis among others. Others who may struggle with faith are mothers, fathers, grandparents, single people, married people, and even pastors across the globe. If faith were easy it would not be such an accomplishment to embrace it. So faith as belief may feel present when it has not yet been tested; but the best faith does not evaporate in times of testing. The writer of Hebrews listed examples of faith, and faithful people in chapter 11. Imperfect people are lifted up like Abraham and Isaac, and like Moses and even Rahab, because of their faith in God.

Faith as trust; faith as belief; both are vital to God. And as God has done with others who fell into darkness or despair in their times of trying to stand fast, God comes to us; sometimes God’s comfort is in the form of an angel, or a message, or a human being, or even a bird on a tree or a song in the air. God ministers to those he loves. And as he does, smoldering doubts can be doused by the living waters that flow from the throne of God. Cling to the cross; cling to Christ; and cling to your faith in God the Lord.

Jeffrey A. Sumner August 11, 2013