“cloudy with a chance of story,” November 1, 2015

rain-cloudResponsive Call to Worship
We live our lives in the stories of culture unfolding,
our lives themselves unfolding within them—
confronting some of those cultural tales,
confirming others—
creating our own story.
Our story then transformationally shapes
the very context that contains it.
For the larger societal context does initially contain our story,
but only until the transcendent
reintroduces—reestablishes possibility—
only until the uncontainable,
inevitably, reasserts the wild hopes,
the fierce dreams, and the challenging visions of an alternative—
of the dreaming God whose dreaming faith
celebrates the quiet whispers of those long gone,
the glory of their lives still ringing alleluias,
in God’s yet unfolding, transforming story—
our still unfolding, transforming story.
Alleluia!

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Hebrews 12:1-13
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.
In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted
to the point of shedding your blood.
And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—
‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him;
for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
and chastises every child whom he accepts.’
Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children;
for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?
If you do not have that discipline in which all children share,
then you are illegitimate and not his children.
Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us,
and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing
to be subject to the Father of spirits and live?
For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them,
but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.
Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time,
but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,
and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame
may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.

Witness of the Living Word, ii. (and iii. and iv. and v. and vi. and vii!)
The writer of Hebrews begins chapter eleven
with that famous definition of faith:
“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”—
a forward looking perspective with the affirmation
that there’s more going on now than is known.
Hebrews 11 goes on to celebrate examples of faith in history and in faith heritage:
Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph,
Moses, the Israelites as a whole, Rahab,
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David,
Samuel and the prophets.

That’s the background for our text.
The writer was thinking of particular witnesses to faith in the God story
within the particular faith tradition of the Jewish people.

We read this text on All Saints Sunday—
thinking of the cloud of witnesses in our faith heritage.

It’s a great image, isn’t it?—
being surrounded by that cloud.

How many of y’all remember how clouds gather and form?
Warm air rises, right? And warm air rising, expands and cools.
As it cools, some of the water vapor—
water vapor being one of the constituent elements of our atmosphere—
as the air cools, some of the water vapor condenses—
changes from gas to liquid.
Now this tends to happen when the water vapor is in contact with something solid—
which would be microscopic particles of dust and dirt, pollen, sea-salt.
So water vapor condenses on and around these particles floating in the air,
and when there are enough of them—
billions and billions of them,
they form a visible cloud.

You know what those water-coated particles are called?
Cloud seeds.

And when the water in the cloud gets heavy enough, it falls.
We get precipitation.

(http://www.weatherwizkids.com/weather-clouds.htm
http://www.livescience.com/44785-how-do-clouds-form.html
http://scied.ucar.edu/shortcontent/how-clouds-form)

So today, I’m imagining grace—
a constituent element to God’s creation—
that in which we live and move and have our being—
all around us all the time—
condensing—
becoming incarnate—made manifest
around lives in a form of baptism, right?
And those grace and water-logged lives are called
story seeds,
and when enough of them gather
we have a cloud of witnesses to that story.

Story seeds gather,
and then when there’s enough weight to the story,
the story unfolds
in showers of blessing.

Here’s the thing:
if the story is told and lived in ways that do not relay blessing—
that are not heard and experienced as good news,
it’s the wrong story!

I have said, more than once, that it’s hard news
before it’s good news,
but the fact of the matter is,
it is always good news first,
then hard news,
before it’s good news again.
Good news in the beginning and at the end,
hard in the middle.
One scholar writing about our Hebrews passage
suggests the writer frames faith as endurance
(Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,”
in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XII
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1998] 147)—
getting through the middle—
reassuring—sustaining—inspiring each other
with the story we claim—
the story that claims us.

The story of God in the way of Jesus
was told to me by my parents through my growing up
in the context of both home and church.
It’s a story I saw lived—made flesh—incarnated
particularly in the stories of Dad returning
from what was then East Germany
to tell us of a church that met in a chicken coop!
Now it’s not that Baptist congregations in western Europe
met in the great cathedrals, but still … a chicken coop?
And the pastor of this church that met in a chicken coop
was Pastor Vogel, which is funny since his name,
“Vogel,” in German, means “bird!”
And I saw the gospel made real in this way:
one of the youth in Pastor Vogel’s church, Dad told us,
a little older than me at the time, was absolutely brilliant in math,
but wouldn’t go to college—
would never fulfill his potential,
because in the communism of that day,
you could not profess God and participate in the system,
and this young man would not recant his profession of faith.

That’s the story we try and tell—
the story we try and live,
as best we can—
that brings us to this now
and brings us to this here.

So you see, it’s not so much my story.
Nor is it really so much yours.
Well, it is. It is my story. It’s your story.
But it’s always more than just mine—just yours.

Sam? (Sam Laich, youth)
“The story of God in the way of Jesus
was told to me by my parents
and the congregation here at church and in my home.
It’s a story I saw lived—made flesh—incarnated
by Thankful Hearts Food Pantry in Appalachia, Kentucky,
and I saw it made real in this way:
even though they had so little
and they needed so much,
they still gave everything they had
and worked for their entire lives
to help people who had less than they did.

It’s the story we try and tell—
the story we try and live,
as best we can—
that brings us to this now
and brings us to this here.”

Chris? (Chris Waddail, young career)
“The story of God in the way of Jesus
was told to me by my grandparents
in their home in the context of family vacation.
It’s a story I saw lived—made flesh—incarnated
by my grandparents in a College Park Diner.
And I saw it made real in this way:
my family sitting around the table
celebrating the recent graduation of my brother
sharing memories, laughter—
loving one another—
our inner circle.
And yet, as we stood up to leave,
my grandfather stopped, and got to know the hostess—
her name—where she was from—what she liked to do
as if she was part of our inner circle,
and it’s that care for others that I carry with me.”

That’s the story we try and tell—
the story we try and live,
as best we can—
that brings us to this now
and brings us here.

There shall be showers of blessing:
This is the promise of love;
There shall be seasons refreshing,
Sent from the Savior above.
Refrain:
Showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need:
Mercy-drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.

Mildred (senior adult, who was just taken to the hospital)
on Wednesday, shared with us ….
The story of God in the way of Jesus
was told to her by her parents in her home
in the context of family life and church.
It’s a story she saw lived—made flesh—incarnated
by her parents and especially by her husband, she said.
And she saw it made real in this way—
in their devotion to God, to their family—
each other and their friends and co-workers.

It’s the story we try and tell—
the story we try and live,
as best we can—
that brings us to this now
and brings us to this here.

Lynne? (Lynne Heritage, less young career!)
“The story of God in the way of Jesus
was told to me by Lou in my childhood home
when I asked her about a dream I had
when I was four or five.
It’s a story I saw lived—made flesh—incarnated
by Kathy Baker and Greg Cochran outside the WEE School.
And it was made real in this way:
Being that Kathy Baker is all that’s good and right about Woodbrook Baptist Church,
she, in typical fashion, warmly welcomed and loved
me and my family into the family of Woodbrook Baptist Church
and Greg cemented the relationship by being … well, Greg.
I rarely get so sure in a decision that we are in the right place at the right time
than when we got more involved in this church.”

That’s the story we try and tell—
the story we try and live,
as best we can—
that brings us to this now
and brings us to this here.

There shall be showers of blessing,
Precious reviving again;
Over the hills and the valleys,
Sound of abundance of rain.
Refrain:
Showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need:
Mercy-drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.

Fran? (Fran Schoonmaker, senior adult)
“The story of God in the way of Jesus
was told to me by my mother, Eileen Schoonmaker
in the context of our home in western Oklahoma
and family.
Actually, many times we couldn’t get to church,
and we had church at home.

It’s a story I saw lived—made flesh—incarnated
by so many people, but one was Etta Thorpe,
who was one long-suffering Sunday School teacher
at the First Christian Church in Tusker City, Oklahoma
Etta Thorpe was faithful as a teacher
in Sunday School, and Vacation Bible School,
and then hauling us kids around to this and that.
I still draw upon examples that she gave to us
from her personal experience.
I made a note on this paper that we did Wednesday night
it’s almost impossible for me to isolate one person,
because I was loved into the faith
by a caring community that believed in following in the way of the Lord.
Was it perfect?
Absolutely not,
but it cared and loved me into who I am now.”

That’s the story we try and tell—
that’s the story we try and live,
as best we can—
that brings us to this now and this here.

Now hopefully a lot of you are thinking of people
who told you the God-stories—your story seeds.
Go ahead and name one of them now.
All together: __________.

And maybe you’re thinking about someone
in whom you have seen the story take on flesh.
You’ve seen it lived. you’ve touched it—been touched by it.
Name that person.

There shall be showers of blessing,
If we but trust and obey;
There shall be seasons refreshing,
when we are part of God’s way.
Refrain:
Showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need:
Mercy-drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.

We perpetuate truth in our living.
Some truth or another—
the priorities and principles by which we live,
not necessarily the ones we profess—
the ones we live by.

And after we die, they live on.
They are remembered.

I come back, time and time again,
to the truth that day by day,
the choices we make—the details of each day-to-day
name our truth.

So what are the stories that keep being told
and retold—
the truths of our times?

Well, all around us, all the time we see the truth and the priorities of
the myth of the rugged individual,
who against all odds, makes it on his or her own,
closely related to the myth of the underdog,
and then, of course, there’s the prevalent myth of redemptive violence.

Hear the question we have for our time:
what stories are truly worth our living?
And that question comes along with these corollary questions:
what stories are worth the lives of our children?—
the time, the energy, the schedule of our children?
Which of our priorities are actually worth the living we give to them?

I’d suggest three:
the affirmation and the subsequent living based on the affirmation
that we are so loved;
the affirmation and the subsequent living based on the affirmation
that grace surrounds us;
trusting that God’s redemptive love is always working transformation
for the hope and possibility
of health, wholeness, and holiness.

Imagine these affirmations and priorities
as the gathering cloud—clouds—storm
to wash the world—
baptize creation
in the story lived—made manifest
in lives not made words—but of words made flesh

and lived within all the different details of different lives—
different languages, cultures, and countries—
different ways of telling the story,
but yet the same story,
that unfolds here and there and everywhere
and brings people together
because it’s a story that has to be told and lived in community.
And people of the story find each other
here, there, and everywhere.
And we have ended up here today—
within the greater cloud of witnesses
all to the same story—
the story of God in the way of Jesus.

We have been brought to this now
and to this here,
maybe having heard this story from so very many people.
Maybe from just a few.
Maybe having seen this story lived out in the family context,
by friends and fellow pilgrims on the way.
Or maybe having heard the story
and still looking for the assurance of it lived out!
Maybe there’s someone here thinking:
“I’ve never seen this story lived out.
I keep coming in hopes of seeing it lived out.”

Here’s the thing … or another thing …
I think there was a thing earlier …
the point is not just to hear and see this story
lived out in others’ lives.
To go back to Hebrews and read our passage this morning
after that list in chapter eleven—
that great remembering of livers of the story,
you realize what within the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us,
individuals are named for the purpose of inspiration,
not as those to look upon in admiration.

Last night, ghouls, ghosts,
goblins and gore descended upon our neighborhood—
to join the spiders and skeletons
that have decorated yards and homes for weeks now.
Story characters—both heroes and villains of the imagination.
Various forms of the so-called “undead.”

And we remind ourselves that Halloween
was once a night of confronting fear—
of making fun of real fears,
because—because and only because
Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve led to today
led to All Saints—
led to the assurance of that cloud surrounding us—
that cloud of grace—
that cloud of people we remember—honor—celebrate
that story cloud of resurrection—
not the “undead,” but the ever-living—
showering us with blessing—
the blessing of stories and lives that do not die—
of the love that does not die—
that gather us into itself
from the moment we receive it
and never lets us go.

That is an assurance with which to live.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Ezekiel 34 (excerpts)
The word of the Lord came to me:
Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy,
and say to them—to the shepherds:
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel
who have been feeding yourselves!
Should not shepherds feed the sheep?
You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool,
you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.
You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick,
you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed,
you have not sought the lost,
but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd;
and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.
My sheep were scattered,
they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill;
my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth,
with no one to search or seek for them.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:
As I live, says the Lord God, … I am against the shepherds;
and I will demand my sheep at their hand,
and put a stop to their feeding the sheep;
no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves.
I will rescue my sheep from their mouths,
so that they may not be food for them….

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.
As shepherds seek out their flocks
when they are among their scattered sheep,
so I will seek out my sheep.
I will rescue them from all the places
to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness….

I will feed them with good pasture,
and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture;
there they shall lie down in good grazing land,
and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,
and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.
I will feed them with justice.

I will make with them a covenant of peace
and banish wild animals from the land,
so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely.
I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing;
and I will send down the showers in their season;
they shall be showers of blessing.

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