Sermon – August 14, 2016

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Cloud of Witnesses

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside everything that impedes us and the sin, all that destroys, which so easily entangles us. Let us run with perseverance the race that is laid out before us.” — Hebrews 12:1.

In my comments a couple of weeks ago I regaled you with what might be called a short resumé of my background as a writer in theater and theatrically related projects. Today I’d like to, at least a little bit, say something about how I got there, some of my steps on the journey toward being a writer.

These steps started fairly early. I was probably somewhere between the age of eight and ten when I came down with the measles— not uncommon when I was a child.

Needing to be in bed for about a week, I asked for a pencil and a notebook. I was determined to outline a novel. I did not get very far since I found writing in bed quite uncomfortable.

My point is the desire to write was already there, if not the skill. And yes, writing is a talent but, if you have that talent, it is also a skill which can be honed.

Speaking of skill, I’ve always said the difference between someone who just writes and a professional writer is how the first drafts— that’s drafts, plural— the difference between someone who just writes and a professional writer is how the first drafts come into existence. Put differently, ‘where are first drafts really done?’

A professional writes all their first drafts in their head. Hence, a professional is working on a third draft before they begin to write things down in a place someone else can read the words. Someone whose first move is to write things down where someone else can read those words just writes.

So, how did I learn that skill of writing in my head first? When I was a junior in High School at least once a week there would be five topics on the board when the students arrived at English class. The assignment: write an essay on one of those topics. Take no more than 20 minutes to fill up only one side of a loose leaf sheet.

If you went over to the other side of that sheet— points off. If you fell short of the last line at the bottom of the sheet— points off. That exercise taught me something about organizing before writing— writing first drafts in my head. Interestingly— since I am a writer of lyrics— it also taught me something about brevity of form, lyrics being a fairly brief form.

Now, a milestone I mentioned in my comments a couple of weeks ago was being asked to become a member of the ASCAP Musical Comedy Workshop, a master class in writing musicals run by Charles Strouse, the composer of Annie. The other large music licensing organization is BMI, Broadcast Music Incorporated.

One composer I worked with was a member of the BMI Musical Comedy Workshop, the same kind of master class for writing musicals. These sessions were run by Lehman Engel, a well known conductor of Broadway shows.

I actually attended the BMI workshop with this BMI composer before I attended the ASCAP version, even though I was not a member of BMI. Perhaps because it came first, for me the BMI workshop was an invaluable experience. It prepared me for the ASCAP workshop and I really learned a whole lot at BMI. Specifically, I learned two necessary, intertwined, skills.

The first skill I call focus— make sure you know as much as possible about where you’re trying go before you go. Perhaps that way you can get there. Second, I learned the necessity of what Mr. Engel called familiarity with the lexicon, familiarity with the literature.

Lehman said you needed to know about the great composers and lyricists of musicals— Kern, Berlin, Gershwin— Ira and George, both (we just heard from them) [1]— Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein, etc., etc., etc.— you needed to know what they had done. You also need to know what shows broke new ground— Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Pal Joey, Oklahoma and why they mattered. Learning about these writers and shows helps immensely when you try to figure out where you might and can go.

Last and in the same way, you needed to know what was current and why that mattered. To be clear, when I was attending the BMI workshop A Chorus Line by Hamlisch and Kleban and Chicago by Kander and Ebb were the big hits on the Great White Way.

In short, you need to know where you’ve been and where you are before you can figure out where you’re going. Clearly, what has gone before and what is current offers guidance and example. Mr. Engel put it this way (and I am quoting here): “If who don’t know what was here before you arrived, you will not know the difference between what works and what is doomed to close on opening night.” (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside everything that impedes us and the sin, all that destroys, which so easily entangles us. Let us run with perseverance the race that is laid out before us.” (Slight pause.)

I hope this is clear: there is a specific claim made in Judaism and Christianity. Judaism and Christianity are faiths based in history. Yes, there are many individual stories in Scripture. But the real story, the overriding story, is about the history of the interaction of God with humanity. Therefore and also, it is about the history of the interaction of humanity with God.

Please note: the writer of Hebrews is not rattling off all that history about Sarah and Abraham because there will be a quiz. This writer is not concerned with who as much as how. The writer is speaking about where we, humanity, has been and is, thereby, laying out a path to follow.

And the history of the relationship of God with humanity and humanity with God is what that path is about. To be clear, that history is both long and complex. Indeed, you probably noticed, based on the notation of this reading in the bulletin, that a bunch of verses were skipped over.

In the verses we did hear, we heard these words about Sarah and Abraham over and over and over (quote:) “by… faith.” So, guess what was in the verses we skipped over? There was more information about the history of the relationship of God with humanity and humanity with God.

That history ranged from Moses to Gideon to Sampson to David to Samuel. And guess what words were used to describe that history? These words were used: “by faith.”

So, what this writer is trying to illustrate does not really concern the particulars of the story, who did what when. This is about the process illustrated by the story.

That leaves us with this question: at the end of this history, at the end of this story, where does faith lead? The writer of Hebrews supplies the answer. It leads us to Jesus, who— by faith— placed trust in God. (Slight pause.)

So what is the lesson we are to learn about faith? (Slight pause.) I want to suggest the lesson is simple and straightforward: God never gives up on us. God never gives up on calling us to follow. But, in order to know that, it might be helpful to grapple with what has come before us, to know the literature, the lexicon.

Indeed, this “cloud of witnesses” about whom we hear is not simply an indifferent group of spectators who turn out on a pretty day to see who might win this metaphoric race to which the author refers. On the contrary, this particular group of observers is anything but neutral.

They have received and understood the history of God with humanity and the history of humanity with God. Therefore, they line the roadway to encourage those who follow. (Slight pause.)

Well, let me come back to what I learned in those master classes. Yes, it is important to know where you have been and where you are at before you can figure out where you are going.

But I am not talking about knowing details, facts. I am talking about process. I am taking about action— the action called faith. And we heard about the faith which preceded us over and over and over again in the reading: (quote:) “by faith,” “by faith,” “by faith.”

That cloud of witnesses who have gone before us has set out a path for us to follow. And that path is called faith. (Slight pause.)

Well, let me say something very personal. As most of you know, I am in my twenty-first year as pastor with this community of faith.

And as I look out on the congregation on a Sunday and see your faces, I see your faith and your faithfulness. But I also see those who are no longer with us— some of whom are deceased, some of whom have moved away— I see those who are no longer with us, those whose faith and strength and courage throughout the race called life supported this community of faith.

But these are not ghosts or spirits I see. What I see is the faithful work they have done, the paths they have laid out for us. These people I can see in my mind’s eye are a cloud of witnesses in this place called Norwich and I shall not forget their faith or their faithfulness.

You know, we Americans tend to make a mistake about church. We tend to think of church as a building, a place to which you go. It is not. Church is, rather, a family to which you belong. And that family includes this great cloud of witnesses.

And it is up to us, today, to keep the work of those who have gone before us active and vital. It is up to us to be examples, to be a cloud of witnesses, for those who will follow us.

Put another way, we should not simply be an indifferent group of spectators who turn out on a pretty day to see who might win the metaphoric race. Indeed, we need to remember faith is not a feeling. Faith is an action. Faith supports, encourages, loves and nurtures. So, let us be about the work of faith this day as we, this community of faith, this cloud of witnesses, run the race. Amen.

08/14/2016
United Church of Christ, First Congregational

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “At the start of my comments today I addressed some of my steps on the journey toward being a writer. I think it is well to remember life is not a goal, a destination. Life is a journey. Faith is not a goal, a destination. Faith is a journey.”

BENEDICTION: The loving kindness of God, the steadfast love of God, is always present to us. Therefore, may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

[1] The “Special Music” on this mid-summer day was an instrumental version of song by George and Ira.

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