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Such A Cloud Of Witnesses

Isaiah 5:1-7;Psalm 80:1-2, 8-9; Hebrews 11:29-12:2;Luke 12:49-56

Bigfork Community United Methodist Church

August 18, 2019 –Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

We continue last week’s meditation about faith this morning. It is appropriate …maybe even necessary…that we ponder the question of faith for more than one Sunday…or one week.

This is one of those things that you are always in touch with. You do everything by faith…even in your secular lives. You do not do it in an instant.

You do faith over time. It is your spiritual DNA. You find out who and whose…and what…you are by faith. “If I do this, then that will happen.”

If you pay the price, the merchant will sell you the product or the service. If you look both ways, you can safely cross the street. If you are good, good things will happen to you. God was loving and wise to give free will to me.

But there are ups and downs in every journey of faith. Things don’t always work out the way they are supposed to. If you want to hear God laugh, it is said, tell God your plans.

So we need to look beyond our expectations to what truly is. Even Jesus experienced frustration. He expresses it today.

Charles Page was the Director of the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Studies when he came and spoke to Yellowstone Conference clergy way back in the day when we had the School for Professional Ministry in Great Falls every March.

He was involved in archaeological excavation and he was trying to plot the path Jesus took into Jerusalem, and the way his entry confronted the Roman Empire…the powers of this world …on behalf of God’s Chosen People…and truth and peace and love.

It was necessary for Jesus to live and breathe and give the gift of his life to the world…to be sure…but it was necessary for Jesus to transcend this world if he were to usher in the New Age that he heralded.

So Charles Page told us all, at the Ursaline Institute in Great Falls that year, that rejection and persecution and crucifixion were…maybe… Jesus’ Plan B.

What was Plan A? Charles Page hypothesized that Jesus hoped that we would hear the deep truths he spoke…see the great acts of power he performed…and take them to our hearts. We would receive him and accept him and give him authority over our lives. That was Plan A.

But we, the world, did not buy into Plan A. Like Adam and Eve, we had to find out what that apple really tasted like. But Jesus did not give up and walk back to Nazareth.

He stepped into the world to save the world and the world said, “No, thank you.”

So here we are at a pivot point, hearing him say he did not bring peace, but the sword. He knows and better way. He wants us to have a better way. But we have free choice.

We can be right or wrong. It is necessary for us to know that at every turn in the road. We need to look deeply into the reality before us. We need to see…not only what we want to see…but all that is there …layer upon layer.

Here is a picture I took a couple of weeks ago at White Oak. The bumper sticker caught my attention. ENVISION WHIRLED PEAS…sounds like something more universal. But it is spelled differently.

“Envisioning World Peace”, on the other hand, is such an abstract exercise…an aspiration that seems to move away from the present day even as we make it our goal.

We wonder why God gave free will to everyone. If only they would listen to us, there would be peace.

So how do we speak into the world? How do we make peace attainable? Now look at the color of the car. It is the color of whirled peas. There I am at a red light, waiting for it to change and whirled peas…and World Peace…are sitting right there in front of me.

The abstract has become concrete and the concrete has become abstract. It strikes me as a metaphor for faith. The eternal breaks into the present and the present is eternal.

One thing Jesus had was faith… he was both eternal and present…even though he was misunderstood by his closest followers. He had come to bring the message, to be sure, but he was also The Message that God sent into the world.

He can see how it all will end and the pain and anguish it will cause him, but he knows it is necessary if he is to arrive at the fulfillment of his life, God’s fullest expression of love.

He brings us an abstract concept that becomes concrete…assumes a mortal form…in his life and his teaching…and that vision is eternally true…so that he becomes love.

True, he brings fire and a sword that will cause division among people…even people in the same family. The ‘other’ that antagonizes us is to be found in people who look like us, come from the same place we do, go to the same schools, have the same background.

The things that upset us are part of our world…and part of us. It is necessary to name it in order to see it. It is necessary to claim it in order to move beyond it…to the place you have been called to be.

Isaiah is proclaiming this truth to us this morning, too. With the vineyard that is not producing good fruit, he needs to point out that God’s people, Israel, are the vineyard and Judah, the Southern Kingdom is the garden God has watched over and provided for… and they have not produced good fruit.

Sometimes you just have to admit that you have planted your hopes and invested your time in bad soil. So you need to do something new …in a new place.

You can envision World Peace all you want, but sometimes you have to settle for whirled peas. I have had the recent joy of reading…not watching, but reading…Gone with the Wind.

The book is so much deeper and richer than the movie. They did a great job with the movie, but it would have had to be seven or eight hours long to capture the subtlety and power of Margaret Mitchell’s writing.

Melanie doesn’t die in child-birth, and Ashley really does have some feelings for Scarlett. The word “Frankly” never appears in the dialogue.

There is this one scene that I especially love. Ashley and Scarlett are having, finally, a meaningful grown up conversation. They are beyond special feelings for each other, except as lifelong friends who have known each other all their lives.

The war is over and the world they knew before it is gone…gone with the wind. Ashley he is reminiscing that the old days “had no glitter but they hand a charm, a beauty, a slow-paced glamour.” Then he asks her, “Do you remember?”

Those easy years come back to her and she thinks for a long time before she says, “We’ve come a long way since those days, Ashley. We had fine notions then, didn’t we?”

Then she blurts out, “Oh, Ashley, nothing has turned out as we expected!”

“It never does,” he says. “Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect. We take what we get and are thankful it’s no worse than it is.”

As a reader you find yourself looking back with Ashley and Scarlett, remembering all that you have read about the boisterous hopes and the great days at the outset of the war…and the hardship in between…and the wave of extra destitution and injustices that came with a harsh Reconstruction.

I do believe you cannot understand the American Deep South unless you have read Gone with the Wind. You may not understand it then, either, but I admit that I was clueless before.

Jesus stands in a very similar situation, with Israel remembering its former glory and feeling put upon by the consequences of their national choices. It occurs to me, too, that just as Rhett Butler mocked the young men at the beginning of the movie who were so anxious for the war to start, so, too, this First Isaiah we are reading from now is the Rhett Butler of the story we read through today… admonishing a nation bent upon seeing things the way they wanted to see them to wake up and smell the coffee.

Paul tells us about all the people who are witnesses to the faith that brings us back to God, and every one of them had their time of hardship. Many of them died because of their faith. And they all died before Jesus arrived to show us what faith becomes when it takes on flesh and walks among us.

They all took what they got and were thankful it was no worse than it was. In fact, some of them were humbly grateful it was as hard as it was. Paul writes to Timothy, “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God.”

So I find myself coming to the end of our meditation together today wondering…if faith is believing that things will get better, no matter how bad it looks right now…or if faith is being able to see things as are, setting aside…with a calm heart… the way we wished they were.

We are presented with such a great cloud of witnesses in our Book of Truth and Life and Love who saw things the way they were, and then saw a way through the hardships and the challenges to make a great testimony of their lives.

We are blessed in this day to live in interesting times. There are days when I don’t see how we can get through all the challenges in front of us…how we can bear all the hardships that weigh upon us.

A friend of mine told me the secret once. His mother had gone to the hairdresser and had a cardiac arrest and died while having her hair done.

The next year his older sister had to have a heart transplant and developed an infection. If they treated the infection, the body would reject the heart. If they didn’t, the infection would take her…and she died.

The next year his younger sister, not yet 30, dropped dead one day of a heart attack. This was three years in a row, and I asked him, “Clayton, how do you find the strength to go on after all of this?”

“That’s easy, Captain,” he told me. “You don’t have any choice.”

If we sit and think about it…opening our hearts to God’s love, and our minds to God’s ways…we know it’s the only good choice we have.

So I wonder, when the great story of Bigfork Community United Methodist Church is written in the Great Book of Life, will they accuse us, too…of being…a great cloud of witnesses?

Will we keep the faith and dare greatly, loving mercy, doing justice and walking humbly with our God? We have been given so much, and grace is always ours if we open our lives to it.

O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world…through us…through me…this day? Amen.