A Cloud of Witnesses

Here at Christ Church, Bowling Green, along with Episcopalians in the Diocese of Kentucky and Christians around the country, we are engaged in 40 days of prayer leading up to August 20th and the 400th anniversary of slavery in the United States.  The Angela Project, developed by Simmons College of Kentucky is intended to raise awareness of how slavery has impacted and continues to be a part of the experience of African-Americans.  Simmons College of Kentucky as developed three resources leading up to the anniversary date: a 40-day prayer journal, a 6-week Sunday School curriculum, and a liturgy resource for the actual anniversary date.


Included in everyday of the 40-day prayer journal is an excerpt from an 1872 text, The Underground Railroad Records, written by William Still, the son of two enslaved persons who had escaped to freedom in the north.  The stories of those who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, are, as you might imagine, heart-rending.  Everyday, one reads of another human being who has been treated a less-than human.  Beatings, whippings, humiliation, rape, and being sold away from family were just some of the tools employed to keep millions of humans in bondage.

As I read these stories, especially in light of Sunday’s appointed lesson from Hebrews 11 & 12, two thoughts come to mind.  First, with each page turn, I prepare myself to read my last name among the stories.  According to family history, which I am hoping to delve further into, the Pankey family owned a tobacco plantation in southern Virginia that relied on the labor of enslaved persons for its economic prosperity.  I think about those members of my cloud of witnesses who were a part of this despicable system, and pray that I might find some way to make a positive impact on the world I’ve inherited to, in some small way, chip away at the enormous pile of damage my people inflicted on others, even as they came to Virginia as Huguenot refugees escaping persecution.

More importantly, I give thanks for the witness of our siblings in Christ and in our common humanity, who, despite nearly insurmountable odds to the contrary, risked it all to seek freedom.  The choices they had to make – leaving behind family, risking torture or death if found, leaving for the totally unknown – are harrowing, but faith in something greater and hope for something better motivated each of them.  As I think about their place even in my cloud of witnesses, I lament that their story exists even as I’m grateful that it continues to be told so that we might learn from our past, and hopefully grow into the fuller stature of Christ as we seek Christ in our neighbors.

The cloud of witnesses is a complicated one, filled with sinners redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I guess that’s maybe the point Paul is trying to make.  We’re all complicated.  We each have sins we must set aside.  But with the aide of our ancestors, we press on, running our portion of the race toward the world’s redemption as best we can.


Running with a cloud of witnesses

My sermon for Proper 15, Year C can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

I do not enjoy running.  I dislike it so much that recently Cassie bought me my own version of one of those 26.2 marathon stickers that people put on their cars.  Mine says “0.0 I don’t run.”


Still, I can’t seem to get away from running.  Cassie loves to run.  She completed her first two half marathons last year and has hopes to run a full marathon someday in the near future.  She has a friend who is an ultra-marathoner, and we’ve been known to track his progress as he spends 24 or more hours running 100 mile endurance races.  Today’s New Testament lesson has a running theme, and with the Women’s Olympic Marathon happening this morning, I had little choice but to preach about the long race of the life of faith.

Unlike many Olympic marathons over the years, the marathon course in Rio will not end inside the track and field stadium, but instead the athletes will make their way to the famous Sambadrome, a parade ground built for the annual Carnival celebration in Rio.  As many as 90,000 spectators will line both sides of the last half mile to cheer on the racers from first place to 171st.  Having only run a few small 5K events, I can only imagine how it must feel to be absolutely exhausted at the end of a 26.2 mile run having given your all in the hopes of an Olympic medal to turn the final corner and see tens of thousands of fans cheering you on.  The adrenaline rush must be spectacular as you push harder than you thought possible to complete the course.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews was no doubt familiar with Olympic running competitions.  Like the modern day Olympic games with a whole lot less advertising and a whole lot more nudity, every four years from about 776 BC until 393 AD athletes from around the Greek speaking world would gather in Olympia to compete in events like track and field, boxing, wrestling, and chariot racing.[1]  Back then, the longest running race was called the Dolichos and was roughly equivalent to a 5k.  Runners would begin the race inside the stadium and then travel the Olympic grounds, passing by the shrines to Greek gods like Zues and Nike before reentering the stadium to cross the finish line with 50,000 fans cheering them on.[2] [3]  It must have been with that experience in mind that the author encourages the Greek speaking Christians in Rome to gain strength from the great cloud of witnesses, to run with endurance the race that was set before them, and to hold fast to their faith despite ongoing persecution.  Last Sunday, we heard the first part of his exhortation on faith as “the assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen.”  The author then goes on to describe Old Testament hero after Old Testament hero who lived their lives in devotion to God.  Noah withstood a flood of the entire world because he had faith enough to build an ark.  Abraham picked up his family and moved them to an unknown faraway land just because God asked him to.  Moses led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt because he had faith enough to take off his sandals in front of burning bush.  As we heard this morning, the list of heroes who lived faithfully in the Old Testament is too long to name, but they are worthy of our attention because they show us what it means to live lives of faithfulness: in assurance of things hoped for and confident in things unseen.

What is striking about this long list of heroes is that all of them lived before the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  None of them knew the saving love of the Messiah, and yet, the author notes, in the end, all of them will enter the Promised Land alongside those of us who have come after them and claimed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  We will all finish the race together, regardless of when we began.  This mind-boggling characteristic of God’s grace reminded me of a running story we heard from that ultra-marathoner friend of Cassie’s.  Paul is one of those crazy people who thought that 26.2 miles of running just wasn’t enough, and so now he regularly participates in races of 50 or 100 miles.  We once followed his progress on a 100 mile race that took him well over a day to complete.  We woke up and he was already running.  Went to church – he was still running.  Ate lunch – still running.  Took a nap – running.  Went to dinner – running.  Watched a movie – running.  Went to bed – the man was STILL RUNNING!

The human body is not designed to run for 24 hours non-stop, and so, these events often include pacers who run a portion of the race to keep people who are suffering from delirium and exhaustion from getting lost or doing real damage to themselves.  Paul’s last event was the Hard Rock 100 mile race but he didn’t compete for a medal, his job was to set the pace for the final 40 miles.  He waited at an aid station until his group arrived and ran with them, through the night, as they became increasingly exhausted.  What was unique about this year’s Hard Rock 100 is that the two leaders actually paced each other – running together for 80 of the 100 miles.  When one needed to stop to adjust shoes or take nourishment, the other waited.  By the end of the 100 mile ordeal, having run the last 80 miles side-by-side, it didn’t seem right for either one of them to be declared the winner, and so they “ran” across the finish line holding hands.  Jason Schlarb and Kilian Jornet had survived the 22 hour, 58 minute and 28 second journey together, and one succeeded only because of the other.

The life of faith is kind of like the ancient Dolichos, the Marathon, or sometimes even an ultra-marathon.  It can be a long and arduous journey, and if we are blessed to walk it for a while, we might grow increasingly exhausted and, perhaps, delirious.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that for thousands of years, faithful people have walked the same path, and one day we will all be gifted with the chance to cross the finish line together when we all join hands with Jesus Christ who will come again to bring about a new heaven and a new earth.

In the meantime, we cannot go about this journey alone.  We are called to take our place alongside those with whom we worship, live, and work as well as those who walk the journey in other places and even other times in running the race that is set before us – a race filled with struggles and hardship as well as joy and laughter.  It doesn’t matter if you are Moses, Rahab, Saint Peter or Mother Theresa, this race can only be completed together by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  When the race feels like it has gone on too long, when exhaustion sets in and you want to do nothing more than quit chasing after the dream of “things hoped for” and still “unseen,” remember that there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering you on.  Tap into the adrenaline rush that comes from recalling the stories of faithful heroes of the past.  Invite God to open your eyes to see their hands out-stretched, inviting you to join them as together we pursue the finish line of the Kingdom of God brought to earth as it is in heaven.  Ready? Set. Let’s go!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Olympic_Games

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolichos_(race)

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stadium_at_Olympia