Rev. Katherine Todd
Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 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.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
My grandfather. My mother’s father. He was a Presbyterian Minister out in Texas where they lived. When he was ordained, his presbytery was so small that he was elected to serve as Presbytery Executive in the same meeting, so he signed his own ordination papers!
He liked to tell stories of his ministry – how he’d (or more accurately God had) held together a church deeply divided by listening to everyone each Sunday after church. I appreciated these stories. They told me his values. They told me that it was more important to be in relationship with one another – sharpened as iron sharpens iron – than to be estranged and separated.
In this way my grandfather deeply shaped my faith development.
I also learned from his mistakes. He was a passionate man, and not being able to discipline his grandchildren made him feel totally disempowered. So what do we so often do when we feel powerless? Quite often we unearth other more malignant tactics. So most of us grandchildren have haunting memories of him taking us off to some hallway, kneeling to our level and hitting his head repeatedly in front of us saying, “Since I cannot spank you, I will spank myself.” This was his way of trying to deter us from doing things he disagreed with. Talk about psychologically twisted, this definitely qualified!
But after my grandmother passed away during my 7th grade year in school, my grandfather changed. She had been the tender and gentle one. He had been the hard one. But after she was gone, he softened. He stopped hitting his head. He started being tender with us and kind. He spent more time with us, telling stories. And finally unbound by fear, we could enjoy him and get to know him.
Several years later, I would attend my church summer camp and find that I enjoyed learning and teaching about God, more than any other thing. I would deliver my very first sermon, drawing from the imagery of Pachelbel’s Cannon. And members of the church who had nurtured me from the time I was born were approaching me to say they could hear God’s Word in my sermon and hoped I would consider seminary.
Still new to any critical study of the Bible, I had many questions – such as whether or not women should be in ministry. And I questioned myself, as I was introverted, and I didn’t think that a very suitable quality for a minister.
But like Mary – after giving birth to Jesus and receiving the Shepherd visitors – I treasured these things in my heart and began to ask the questions of my own calling in life. I began the long road of scripture study and interpretation.
And as my own calling to ministry began to emerge, I came back to my grandfather, who, a product of his time, had always thought it wrong for women to be ministers. I half-expected him to shame me for this sense of call, but he surprised me. Instead he told me that he’d been listening to more and more women preach and that he was hearing God speak through them. They were anointed. And if God’s Spirit was speaking through them, who was he to say they couldn’t or shouldn’t be ministers.
And in this, my grandfather gave me the greatest example of faith: the example of a passionate but humble, living, and growing faith. With a lifetime full of experiences in the world and in the church, he had every reason to say, “this is not the way that things should be done.” His contemporaries would have judged me in that vulnerable place where I was considering my call. But instead, he stayed in a position of openness to the Spirit of God.
And when the time came for him to start considering the fate of his worldly possessions, he took me into his small library room – filled on every wall with books from top to bottom – and gave me the gift to his entire library.
This man who had been passionately against women in ministry – keeping my grandmother down, who had longed for him to teach her, and forbidding her from speaking on his behalf at church – this man was blessing my calling to ministry in his final years.
And he started downloading all his experiences into me – so that I would learn from him.
He once said, and it was so funny and moving that I wrote it down, “This does not deny you the right to investigate new visions. Go to it! Your old grandpa may roll over in his grave by them, but so what!?”
I loved that.
He recognized that God was still moving and working and revealing Godself in new ways. He recognized that he would never have the corner on the truth. He trusted the Mystery beyond himself.
And this example has been his greatest gift to me.
Whatever our paths and families, we ARE indeed surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. In the chapter before these verses from Hebrews, the writer reviews all the great faith figures. He is reminding us that we are not alone in this journey. It is a hard journey, but we are in good company! The Bible is full of story after story of our ancestors in the faith – who got things beautifully right and terribly wrong sometimes, and yet who were used by God.
We have them, and we have Christ!
We are not alone. And we can learn from their experiences – both what TO do and what NOT to do. God has given us a great gift through their lives.
This gift is not meant to call us back to a time that no longer exists. It is not meant to keep us in a place of nostalgia. No, the writer of Hebrews reasons that because we are surrounded by this great company of saints who’ve gone before, we run with perseverance. We press into the living of these days, of our lives, of our journeys of faith – taking encouragement from these saints and direction from Christ, the pioneer and perfector of our faith!
We look back, in order to move more faithfully forward.
And so today, we take this time to remember those in ours and other people’s lives who have strengthened and blessed us on our journeys, and we take time to give thanks for them!
In just a moment I will invite you to walk around the room (as you feel led), reading the stories of these saints, and giving thanks to God in your hearts.
When the music comes to a close, I will invite you to take a stand or a seat near the write ups that speak to you. And we will come before God in prayer together – giving thanks for those who have shaped our lives. During that prayer, we will go around the room, in order, speaking out the names of all these saints.
So I invite you now to spend time in holy listening, silently walking and reading, or seated as you like, meditating on these saints who have blessed our lives. And after about 4-5 minutes, I will call us back together for a prayer and speaking of the names.