Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scripture: Hebrews 12:1
When I think about clouds, there are at least three different things that I think of. The first is the old Judy Collins song “Both Sides, Now.” It’s actually a Joni Mitchell song. Mitchell wrote it, but Judy Collins had the first hit with it in 1968. The first verse and the chorus go:
Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feathered canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.
That part about how “now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone” – that’s kind of Biblical. In Matthew 5:45 Jesus says that God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Julia would want me to point out that in that particular context, rain is a blessing. Rain is a good thing when you live in a dry or arid place. Rain is a good thing if you’re raising radishes like Jessie and Ayuba and Phoebe, or tomatoes like the farmer across the street from my home growing up, or corn or soybeans which rotated in the field behind my childhood home.
So there really are at least two sides to clouds. We think of clouds as things that blot out the sun, that are dark and threatening, that bring storms and snows and tornadoes and floods. We also think of clouds as things that bring rain to water the plants and create mud puddles and fill rain barrels and create life in dry places. Clouds are the weather’s manifestation of mixed feelings, of good and bad all in one place and often at the same time, depending on what perspective you take.
When you’re going through a cloud it’s hard to see what’s going on. Depending on the kind of cloud and how thick it is you may not be able to see very far in front of you and sometimes if you’re driving, turning on the lights only makes it worse. There can be a sense, when you are physically
entering a cloud, of losing your orientation, of not knowing what direction you’re going, of not knowing where you are or what comes next. The second thing I think of when I think of clouds is a book from the 1300’s that talks about that kind of feeling, not in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense. It’s called The Cloud of Unknowing. The author is anonymous. Some people think it may have been a guy named Walter Hilton, but no one knows. It’s a book about faith and about contemplative prayer.
Even though we don’t know who wrote the book, we know that the author wouldn’t necessarily want me to tell you about it. The book is written in the format of a teacher speaking to a student, and in the prologue the teacher says to the student, “do not willingly and deliberately read it, copy it, speak of it, or allow it to be read, copied, or spoken of, by anyone or to anyone, except by or to a person who, in your opinion, has undertaken truly and without reservation to be a perfect follower of Christ.” So wherever you are in your faith journey, I am trusting that you want to do the right thing and I am going to go ahead and speak to you about the book.
Like most Christian mysticism, the book is about uniting your heart with God as opposed to your mind. Where the heart leads, the mind will follow. Reason, the book argues, isn’t what leads you to faith. The author says that when you seek God you find a darkness, a cloud of unknowing.
“Whatever you do, this darkness and the cloud are between you and your God, and hold you back from seeing (God) clearly by the light of understanding in your reason and from experiencing (God) in the
sweetness of love in your feelings. […] And so prepare to remain in this darkness as long as you can, always begging for (God whom) you love; for if you are ever to feel or see (God)…it must always be in this cloud and this darkness.”
The author goes on to say that our intellect and our worldly thoughts need to be put in a “cloud of forgetting” and that God can be loved with our hearts, but that God cannot be thought with our intellect.
There is a degree to which we can see this in our own lives. We all have things in our lives to which we are connected more by our hearts and less by our intellects. We all have things where our tie to them is more one of emotion than of reason. I’ve brought a couple of those things with me today.
This is a bathrobe that my mom made for me. I don’t know how old I was or where exactly we were living when she made it, and I don’t remember wearing it. When Mom made this robe for me, she made a matching one for my dad. I do remember wearing that matching robe when I was older. There’s a picture of me somewhere in our boxes at home wearing the robe she made for Dad when I’m home from college on Christmas morning as we open gifts.
This is Charlie. Charlie was the bunny rabbit that I slept with growing up. He stays on the nightstand next to me even today. There was another, larger bunny rabbit named Tom that I slept with too, but Tom was lost in the great basement flood of 1966 or so. Charlie’s got some scars on him. He got torn somehow when I was growing up. Maybe the dog played with him and damaged him or something, but you can see the stitches where Mom fixed him as good as new and the little pink ribbon that’s been around his neck as long as I can remember.
It makes no sense intellectually for me to have this robe or Charlie. They have no material value. I couldn’t sell them for anything, although Goodwill would probably be willing to take the bathrobe. Then again, maybe not because it could fall apart if anyone ever tried to wash it.
These things are a tangible, physical reminder of a place that I do not live any more, an age and a feeling that I will never know again, and people that I will never see again on earth. It’s not the same thing as being connected to the cloud of unknowing, but it’s like that on a much lower level. They are physical, tangible things that connect me to emotions that my intellect needs prodding to feel once again, to memories that slow the fading of memories that comes to us as we age.
The third thing I think about when I think of clouds is Hebrews 12:1. Actually it’s the first thing I think of, just the third thing I’m talking about today. 🙂 The writer of Hebrews talks about clouds too, and talks about a cloud in much the same way that I just talked about Charlie and the bathrobe. As a reminder Hebrews 12:1 says, “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…”
Who are those witnesses the writer refers to? Hebrews 11 lists a ton of heroes of the Jewish faith. Hebrews 11 talks about Able. We never talk about Able, or hardly ever. About all we ever say about him is that Cain killed him. But Able is one of the cloud of witnesses. Able is one of the heroes of the Jewish faith.
There are so many names listed. Names that we talk about often, like Abraham or Moses or David. Names we mention from time to time, like Rahab or Samson. Names we hardly ever mention, like Jepthah and Barak. There are several more the author talks about, and finally the author says that I don’t have time to even mention them all.
That cloud of witnesses, those heroes of the faith are the people that are held up to the readers of Hebrews as examples of the rewards of faithfulness, as reminders that connect them to those who have come before and sacrificed on their behalf.
For us one of those reminders is outside the glass doors on North Carolina Avenue next to the rain barrel. The weeds had grown up in there so much that you couldn’t see it, but at a workday a few weeks back Ayuba and Jenn and Nate cleared out the weeds so that you could see the cornerstone for the newer wing of our building here. It says Washington City Church of the Brethren – 1961. That’s why I said the new-er wing, because at 60 years old it is definitely not a new wing.
It’s new compared to the wing that we’re in now, though. This is an article from the Washington Star in 1945 about the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The pastor then was Warren Bowman, and the Bowman family lived at 2910 Twentieth Street NE. The sermon the week this article appeared was “A Timeless Example”, services were at 11 AM just like they are now, Sunday School was at 9:45 AM, and there were communion services at 4:30 and 7:00 PM that Sunday.
The article talks about the church building here being built in 1900. That means that the educational wing, dedicated in 1961, is almost exactly in the middle of this congregation’s history. 61 years before the dedication and 60 years after it. Before the church was built in 1900 the congregation met at the home of the first pastor, Albert Hollinger, at 349 11th Street SE.
There is such a cloud of witnesses in this congregation’s history. From Albert Hollinger through Warren Bowman through Duane Ramsey up until today there have been so many different pastors and leaders, so many different preachers, full-time, part-time, interim, and bi-vocational. There have been so many people who have given and worked. There have been so many lives that have been touched, so many that have been literally saved through the ministry of this congregation. Whether it’s the Brethren Nutrition Program, or the incredible efforts at outreach and work for social justice that have been part of this congregation since it’s beginning, whether it’s the effort to be a welcoming, multi-cultural presence on Capitol Hill, whether it’s through the presence and gifts of people famous in the denomination or of people forgotten to all but time, there are so many witnesses to our work here. So many heroes urging us on. So many folks wanting us to succeed. So many who have sacrificed so that we can help people seek justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.
Who’s in that cloud of witnesses in your own life? I could probably name some of them. I may have done funerals for some of them. I know I’ve done funerals and weddings and baby dedications for some of my own cloud of witnesses. I’m grateful for the things that connect me to my own cloud, things like the story we shared earlier about Dale Brown, or things like Charlie and the bathrobe. I’m grateful for things like this little newspaper article from the World War II era that connect me to the cloud of witnesses in this place.
This is my last Sunday to preach as part of the ministry team here, next Sunday will be my last Sunday to worship here, and the Sunday after that will find us on the road to Polo, Illinois. I will then become a part of your cloud of witnesses, and you will become a part of mine, and I will be the next in the line of witnesses at Polo.
The cloud of witnesses does not connect us directly to God. The cloud that surrounds God is a cloud of unknowing, with which we connect only through our own hearts where God’s law is written.
But our cloud of witnesses helps us continue to persevere. When we reflect on our cloud of witnesses, we are connected to the past from which we come and to the future towards which we move. We look at, and see, and are connected to both sides of the cloud now. Amen.