The Rev. Frank
Note: This sermon was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation. The photos from that presentation are offered here online with the text. Much of this sermon comes from the writings of Brother Richard Carter, chaplain of the Melanesian Brotherhood. The full text of the sources are found linked from this online version of the sermon. Many of the photos below are linked to larger versions of the same photo. Click on the photo to see it enlarged.
The Great Cloud of Witnesses
The stadium is packed to the rafters with cheering fans. On the track a runner guts out the end of a race that has demanded every last ounce of energy and yet the race continues. The runner starts to lose focus, to concentrate on the impossibility of gutting out that last lap. Then the runner remembers one of the greats like Jesse Owens who was in this same position and ran away with the gold. The runner finds the hidden reserves to keep going full out to the finish line.
This is not a sermon on the Olympics, but on the 12th chapter of the book of the Bible we now usually refer to as the Letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews was probably a tightly composed sermon, which was so well written it was shared with other churches until it came to be realized that it had a scripture-like affect on its hearers and should be part of the New Testament. The first hearers were converts to Christianity growing lax in their faith after encountering shame, persecution, and hostility, though as our reading today notes, they had not yet shed blood for their faith.
In Hebrews 12, the writer compares the Christians to whom the sermon is written to runner in Greek games. In the stands, he describes witnesses. The Greek word used for witness is Martyr. The regular Greek word for a witness is our word martyr—which refers to those who have died for their faith.
In the chapters before today’s reading, the author has been reminding his audience of the history of Judaism and the many faithful Jews of the preceding centuries. Now he compares those faithful followers of God to an audience packing the stadium, cheering on the faithful Christians as they continue to follow in God’s ways. If you feel alone while trying to live a Christ-like life, remember those who have come before you in the faith. You are not alone on the path. Not only is God with you, but you also have a great cloud of witnesses looking down on the track as you run the race set before you.
This passage has grown in meaning as many martyrs have given their lives for their faith in Jesus. The stadium continues to fill with the great cloud of witnesses, the great cloud of martyrs watching the race. But unlike an Olympic athlete who may have many different role models, the role model for the great cloud of witnesses is the same. Hebrews tells us to look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
We can remember how Jesus ran the race set before him, as he was obedient to God’s will, even when it meant a shameful death on a Roman cross. Then we can more easily endure the comparably insignificant problems in our own lives. The embarrassment of a co-worker who sees you as an over-zealous Christian or the harassment of a friend from school who doesn’t understand why you would rather go to Honey Creek for a youth retreat than to stay in town for football game, is of no consequence when we look to the life of Jesus.
The author of Hebrews says that the trials we endure serve to discipline us. Does this mean that God causes bad things to happen in order to make us stronger? Not exactly. The comparison is to a parent and a child. Parents set boundaries, knowing what is good and healthy and then have to impose those boundaries when it is unsafe to cross them. It is appropriate for a parent to prevent a child from stick a fork into an electrical outlet. The world works in such a way as to bring us in line at times.
When you speak up for Jesus, and really try to live out the Gospel, you will find people who oppose you. God does not have to specifically bring them into your path to give you a chance to test your faith and find it firm. These tests, pitfalls and problems will come up on their own. God uses these opportunities for you to learn more about the faith that is in you. The author of Hebrews encourages us to stay on the path set before us. Do not veer away from the faith when you run into problems, but stay the course of a Christ-like life.
Let’s put this teaching to the test. Is there really a great cloud of witnesses supporting us? I do know that many times when persons have had to die for their faith, they are reported to have a holy calm, which seems beyond human understanding. But how are we helped to run the race set before us. To see a recent example, travel with me in your mind to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.
It is five-thirty in the morning. A bell made from a gas cylinder is rung. In the darkness over 100 young men, aged between 18 and 35, wake up, get up from their mats and prepare for prayer. In the chapel they kneel in silence. The sun is rising and light streams through the window above the altar. The parrots arrive and bounce on the blossom outside. First Office begins and the whole community bursts into a rich roar of song. This is Tabalia, on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. It is the headquarters of the Melanesian Brotherhood, reckoned to be the largest male religious community in the Anglican Communion. The community works in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Palawan in the Philippines. It numbers over 250 brothers under vows and more than 150 novices in training.
The Melanesian brothers live a disciplined life of prayer. They are known among the Solomon Islands and beyond as holy men. They have been valued as peacemakers in a time of violent conflict.
For years, the Solomon Islands have
been involved in bitter fighting stemming from land disputes. The complex
disputes resulted in several different militias vying for control of various
areas of the islands. The Melanesian Brotherhood decided in 1999, they could
not sit idly by in time of conflict. The Brotherhood’s headquarters became a
refugee centre for the displaced people—first for the Malaitans as they fled
off their land when they were threatened. Later when the Malaitans were to
strike back, many Guadalcanal people camped at Tabalia. So the Brotherhood
aided refugees from both sides during the conflict. In addition to that the
Anglican religious order’s houses in Honiara became safe houses; places
where people come who felt threatened.
A Radio National Report said, “They travelled with a walking stick in hand, with a medal around their neck, in very distinctive black garb. They had great credibility because of their poverty and simplicity, and they were held in real spiritual reverence.”
A Canadian writer, Charles Montgomery wrote of how one brother, Francis Tofi, intervened in a kidnapping. He said that on the trip out to speak with the kidnappers, Brother Francis seemed small and unassuming. Then he writes when,
“The moment came during a tense negotiation for a release of a kidnapped boy. Francis suddenly stepped forward and brought the two enemy groups together in a prayer. He radiated something so good and true and bigger than the moment. And the tension was washed away from the afternoon and the men with anger and guns were made humble. And of course a boy's life was saved and a gun was retrieved.”
In April of 2003, three of the
brothers were sent to the leader Harold Keke with a letter from their
archbishop, offering to serve as a go between in a peace process. One of the
brothers, Nathaniel Sado, knew Keke. Brother Nathaniel remained behind to
speak with Keke face to face. Nathaniel did not make the return 4-5 mile
trek to the community.
For the three months when we waited for our brothers to
return it felt like a very long and painful Calvary in which all of us
longed and prayed for the life which our faith promises. The news of their
deaths seemed to deny that promise forever and yet strangely, when we are
least expecting it, and as we least expected it there is a sense in which
resurrection is taking place: the knowledge of life and goodness, deeper and
wider than the boundaries of our lives. Resurrection not confined to our
demands upon God but his life in us and in our brothers who have gone before
us. How strange that in the finality of these young deaths we glimpse
something eternal and life giving.
News of the deaths traveled quickly. Keke surrendered and acts of murder and hostility are said to have cease the very moment the islanders learned of the deaths of the peacemaking monks. The whole nation mourned the loss of the brothers.
In an Anglican Communion News Service article, Brother Richard told of the funeral for the first six of the seven martyred brothers to be buried,
“Yet the funeral somehow contained this pain and transcended it. It really did. The full community of brothers and novices in white stood at the bottom of the hill which leads to our Motherhouse at Tabalia. Behind them a huge crowd from the Governor General to village children waiting for the arrival home of their beloved brothers. As one by one the coffins were unloaded from three trucks, the wailing of the crowd grew louder and broke ranks and pushed towards the coffins. Yet the brothers, with such dignity and inner strength one by one took up the coffins from the RAMSI combined police force who handed them over and a long huge procession began up the hill to the chapel. In front of each coffin a banner: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God’ and the name of the brother who had given his life in the cause of peace. In the chapel the crying was silenced by the singing of the community. A deep silence, a love which transcends the words spoken and found expression in the harmony of voices. Brothers placed the Brotherhood medals and sashes on the coffins with such respect and then the families came forward with wreathes and flowers. As we moved towards the Brotherhood graveyard there was a huge surge of grief among the huge crowd and yet again this Brotherhood like bulwarks against this ocean of loss held the chaos of grief together, gave it a form and a structure and a dignity: the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters of chaos bringing into being a new creation. And I was struck as many of us were not by a morbid darkness but by faith and light and love.”
The story of the martyrs was not complete. For as has so often happened in history of Christianity, even in the midst of persecution new ranks rise up to replace those who have died for their faith. In the wake of seven brothers dying in the cause of peace, 48 new men stepped forward to join the brotherhood two days after the funeral.
Brother Richard ended the article saying,
In a later letter, Brother Richard wrote of the feeling of being supported by the communion of the saints, which includes not just those of the past, but all who joined with the brothers in prayer,
All of us feel the very real support of that love, and beneath the grief there is a very real sense in which it is that company of prayer which is upholding us all.
The cloud of witnesses is as real as the race. You are not caught in a rat race with no meaning or purpose. You are called to following the path of Jesus Christ and in this you are not left alone. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews promised that the trials you face will make you stronger and that they lead to life, rather than death. Brother Richard put it like this,
It is as if the paschal mystery has been lived out amongst us…We have seen the brutal face of evil and known the fear and darkness it brings but we have also witnessed goodness and love and glimpsed the promise of that which is eternal.
Following the sermon, the congregation heard a recording of the brothers singing the Gloria, courtesy of the Chester Group of Companions of the Brothers. Some of the photos above are also from the Chester Group's website.
 Description by Brother Richard Carter of the Melanesian Brotherhood. The full text is found online at http://generalsynod.anglican.ca/ministries/departments/mm/2000/fall/mm03.html
 From a letter to the brothers quoted in an Anglican Communion News Service article found online at http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/articles/36/50/acns3667.html the photos from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William's trip to Melanesia are found online at http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/articles/38/50/acns3859.cfm Those photos are by Jim Rosenthal of Anglican World magazine who also serves as the Director of Communications for the Anglican Communion.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526