Saturday, August 17, 2013

Arise, O Saints of God!

RCL Proper 20C (Series 2)
18 August 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Hebrews 11.29-12.2

         As often happens as we grow older, our memories of specific events are not as clear as they might have been when we were younger.  Such is my case as I try to remember the events of my only experience as a member of a jury.  I know that it was summer and that I had something important that was to come either in the late summer or early fall.  These details limit my search to the summers of 1975, 1976 or 1978, but I cannot be more precise than this three-year span.

         What I do remember is the challenge of serving on two juries, one of which I was the foreman, and listening to the testimonies of witnesses, victims, police and others as they provided the information for our deliberations.  I remember the first case well:  aggravated incest.  An adult father had repeatedly assaulted his teenage daughter sexually, using violence to ensure her submission.  It was my introduction to the dark world of sexuality and the power that men have tried to exercise over women, physically and emotionally.  The daughter’s testimony was given in an unemotional tone and quite specific as to times and places.  Her testimony was corroborated by other witnesses.  Yet, during our deliberations one juror refused to believe that any father could do this to his child.  No amount of evidence, no amount of debate would sway her from this point of view.  In the end we had to report to the judge that we were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.  The judge looked at us with some sorrow and asked if we thought we could reach a unanimous verdict.  I was the foreman and I had to say, “No.”  When I saw the faces of the victim, the prosecutors and others in the court room, I felt ashamed and powerless.

         The other trial focused on the armed robbery of a gas station by two men.  The prosecution’s chief witness was one of the accused who turned ‘state’s evidence’ against the accused on trial.  The problem with the star witness was his admission that, at the time of the robbery, he had been so hooked on various hallucinogenic drugs that he could not remember what day of the week nor month nor year the robbery took place.  He remembered few details and had to be prompted by the prosecutor.  As we adjourned for our deliberations, the judge reminded us that the standard was ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’.  Our deliberations were short and the accused was acquitted.  Even if I had participated in freeing a guilty person, I was not ashamed nor powerless.

        In the intervening years I have never tried to find out what happened to any of the persons who were involved in the trials.  I know that the prosecution in the aggravated incest case were quite clear in their determination to undertake another trial.  As far as the man we acquitted goes, I have no idea what happened nor do I remember his name.

         Perhaps some of you have been witnesses or have served on a jury.  It is a curious way of determining the truth, isn’t it?  Most of us want some concrete and less subjective way of determining guilt or innocence, truth or falsehood, but over the centuries we have yet to find a more certain way of determining what is or is not true.  Even science, that great arbiter of ‘truth’, has to acknowledge that it can only arrive at ‘truth’ after many experiments.  And experimental truth is itself primarily probably --- accurate 99 times out of a 100 with a 5% margin of error!

         It is no surprise that the writer of the letter to Hebrews should also depend upon the experiences of witnesses in order to make his case that Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary and Joseph, is the Promised One who has fulfilled God’s promises made since creation itself.  We cannot read all of Hebrews in one sitting, but it is a fairly tightly-woven argument based upon the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures and upon the experience of the Hebrew people, even some whose experience is only told in the deutero-canonical or apocryphal books, those writings that appear in between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  The writer of Hebrews even draws upon legends and stories only found in the oral culture of the Hebrew people.  From all of these he summarizes his case in a simple statement:  “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.” [1]

         My friends, you and I, whether we know or not, when we feel it or not, are within that great cloud of witnesses of whom the writer of Hebrews speaks.  Although our buildings, our music, our writings witness to the Christian faith, they are not the primary witnesses to a faith born in the Palestine of the first century of our common era.  The primary witnesses to this faith are flesh and blood, fallible and vulnerable, flawed and courageous.  Some of these witnesses have been our parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, friends, teachers, the list is far too long for me to name this morning.  But they are the ones who brought us to faith and it is our vocation to bring others to that same faith, a faith that sustains us as we face the challenges of the present time, a faith that enlivens our hope in God’s future.

         Some years ago the Alban Institute, a Christian ‘think tank’ for congregational development, reported that people become Christians or are renewed in their Christian faith through the witness of ordinary Christian friends and family.  While clergy and other prominent ‘public’ Christians have a role to play, the most convincing form of evangelism is one Christian saying to another person, ‘This is my faith.  Come and see what it can be for you.’

         Recently I was at an event at another congregation.  One of the lay members from that congregation came over to me and said, ‘This must be a tough time to be a priest.’  I responded to her, “Yes, it is a tough time, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting times in the history of the Christian movement to be a priest and to be a believer.  We have good news to share with a society that desperately needs that good news.  All we need is for all of us, clergy and lay, to lay aside our fears and give witness to the truth that is in us.’

         I truly believe this.  Some of my classmates in seminary would be surprised to hear me say this.  They think of me as a bit of an ‘Eeyore’ who is a bit melancholic and, at times, cynical.  While I won’t deny my inner ‘Eeyore-ness’, that does not cloud my eyes nor burden my heart about the good news of God in Jesus.  God is alive and working in us and through us to open windows that allow us to catch a glimpse of what it means to be fully alive as a human being.  It is up to us to open the shutters and raise the blinds that may prevent our friends and neighbours from seeing what we see.

         So, let us lay aside all the fears and anxious thoughts that hinder our witness to the new life that is among us.  Let us with joy share with others the life we have found and that God offers to all people.  Arise, O saints of God, and be the gospel!  Amen.

[1] Hebrews 12.1-2.

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