August 18, 2019

“Clouded Judgment”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Isaiah 5.1-7

Hebrews 11.29-12.2

August 18, 2019

The passage we read today from the letter to the Hebrews is a continuation of last week’s lectionary readings. We read about how faith is something we cannot see, something we cannot touch, but something that can strengthen us through those ancestors who have gone before us. Last week’s example was Abraham and Sarah, who received the promise of a son, and Abraham became the father of many nations. They picked up their lives, left their familiar homes, and went into their own wilderness experience. The fact that God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah reminds us that God is faithful to us, even when we are in the wilderness.

Today we are given more examples of saints who have gone before us and have received God’s promise – people of faith. Last week we talked about how place and culture shape our views and perceptions. We are also shaped by people – friends, family, those who are our models in life, for good and for ill. We are supported by those who have gone before us, and we learn about faith through history and reading scripture.

We have more examples – the Israelites who wandered in the desert, Moses, who parted the Red Sea. They had faith in times of trial. The story of Jericho and defeating empires reminds us of those who had faith in times of power struggles. Rahab, a prostitute, showed faith when others wouldn’t trust her, when she was bold and hid spies. Prophets offer a picture of faith in God, and the women at the tomb remind us of faith in what others were too afraid to believe. All of these people are commended for their acts of faith. They could not see the future and they did not know how their lives would turn out, but they put their trust in God in the darkest of times.

One commentator named these people “Heroes of Faith.”[1] What does a hero of faith look like to you? Obviously they didn’t have a cape or superpowers. Yet, some of the best heroes are those who were ordinary people. I believe our world is beginning to examine who becomes heroes. It seems that in the wake of so many stories of #metoo and with social media reporting every word that comes out of someone’s mouth, those who were put on pedestals at one time are looked at differently. Some people who were once idolized become fallen heroes. Yet, I also think it makes those who are true heroes stand out even more.

The author of Hebrews talks about the cloud of witnesses. This metaphor is the idea that we are surrounded by people we cannot see – maybe like a cloud or mist – but that is always with us. This intangible group of people supports us and cheers us on. We have these heroes, these exemplars right there with us, in our memories and in our scripture.

Jesus is always with us. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The metaphor changes from clouds to a race, or perhaps we think of those clouds cheering us on in our race. We are all running a race in life – sometimes it might feel like a rat race where we just keep running in circles, but Jesus reminds us that our race is not in vain. God created the course and the Spirit sustains us to make it another mile.

In my brief time as a runner I have learned that it is not how fast you run but that you finish and do so proudly. I’m really great at starting off too fast and then halfway through the run I’m exhausted. Recently on a run I saw a man pushing a stroller up a slight incline. As I approached, I realized that he was pushing his adult son with disabilities up the hill, never looking strained. We exchanged a few words of encouragement as I came closer, and I mentioned how I could barely move when pushing a stroller. He said, “You just have to take your time. Don’t be in a hurry.” What great advice not only for running, but for running the race of life. We have to pace ourselves – we’re in this for the long haul, and Jesus is right there with us, with our clouds cheering us on.

The clouds in the Isaiah passage are more ominous. They aren’t the pretty, fluffy clouds but the dark clouds of rain that will be withheld. The speaker presents this like a case in front of a jury – the reader is the jury, considering the facts for judgment.[2] What began as a love song turned into a testimony. The speaker was a careful and loving gardener, planting and clearing and creating a space for growth. Yet, wild grapes grew in abundance. After all that time, energy, care, and resources, the produce was not profitable or edible. The Hebrew word for these wild grapes can also translate to “stinkers.”[3] This whole situation just stinks.

The speaker takes matters seriously and removes the hedges, destroys the garden, and demands the clouds not rain upon the grapes anymore. The author of Isaiah uses a wordplay here: the words for justice and bloodshed are similar in Hebrew, as are righteousness and cry.[4] The gardener, God, does not receive what is planned for – but instead, quite the opposite.

We all make mistakes. We can find ourselves like a cloud of witnesses, saint-like, and we can find ourselves as the wild grapes, reaching for clouds. There is not dichotomy – we all have cloud moments and stinker moments, mixed within. The cloud metaphor is beautiful – sometimes clouds are graceful dancers in the sky, and sometimes they are frightening and full of lightening. The clouds can bring rain, block the sun, or seemingly destroy in a storm. We are humans, and we make mistakes. Are we being nourished by the clouds – those saints who have gone before us, or are we drying up from no cloud in sight?

Today, I encourage you to take a moment to remember someone in your cloud of witnesses – someone who showed you Christ’s love. Think of what gifts they had. Think of how that has affected you, and maybe it still impacts you. The person can be alive or dead.

Write the person’s name on the cloud. Write the gift on a raindrop. Write the impact on the flower.

 

 

Holy God, we offer you thanks for these, your witnesses, who have nurtured us in their lives. We offer thanks for the gifts they had and the impact made. Help us to be witnesses in the world to your love and grace, and to live our lives in praise of you. Amen.

 

[1] Harold W. Attridge, “Hebrews” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1253.

[2] Anna Case-Winters, “Hebrews 11.29-12.2” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 340.

[3] R. Coggins, “Isaiah” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 442.

[4] Ibid., 442.