Sermon: "A Cloud of Witnesses," Jazz Vespers November 5, 2017

All Saints Sunday
Rev. Ryan Slifka

This reflection was offered as part of our afternoon Jazz Vespers featuring music by Viv and Steve Ruskin and Blaine Dunaway on the theme of "life and death" for All Saints.

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.
— Hebrews 12:1 (New Revised Standard Version)

I remember a few years ago, I was watching an interview with the famous Craig T. Nelson. You may remember him as the star of the 80’s sitcom Coach. I can’t remember what the topic was, but Coach was concerned about people being paid welfare. He was worried that if people lost their jobs and received welfare, there would be no incentive for them to get another job. He then referred to himself. He was no stranger to poverty, he said. But he pulled himself out of it. And here’s the part that’s so clear in my mind. “Nobody helped me when I was on foodstamps.”[i] The irony being that foodstamps are a form of government help, of course.

I’m sure Coach regretted these words after. Or at least regretted the fact that they were all over the internet.

But what Coach said actually gets to something deeper. One of our most cherished values. In North America today, we’re often likely to see our own success exclusively as the product of our own hard work and dedication. And when people aren’t successful, it’s usually because they haven’t been willing to do what it takes.

Now there’s truth to this of course. People who find commercial, artistic, or material success often work hard to get there. And occasionally there are people who for, whatever reason, when they hit rock bottom can’t seem to find the motivation that helps to improve their situation. There’s truth there.

But even though there’s some truth… it’s not the whole truth. Things are a bit more complicated.

November 1st in the Christian calendar is a day called All Saints Day. Here at St. George’s we celebrated All Saints Sunday. It’s a day that is dedicated to the remembrance of followers of Jesus who have gone before. Jesus followers that are alive now. And those who have yet to come. We call it the communion—the co-mmunity—of saints. It’s this idea that the spiritual life may be deeply personal, but it’s not one we do alone. The book of Hebrews, chapter 12 says it this way: “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.” The writer of this passage compares the spiritual life to a race that we run. And he pictures the communion, the community of saints, those who have gone before, as inspiring us, encouraging us, and empowering us on the journey. And, of course, all people and all things first flow from a divine source at the heart of the universe. I know I’m grateful for mentors. But I’m especially grateful for the spiritual community of the church that makes my life possible. Everyone, everything, is always building on someone, or something else.

Others are always setting the stage, helping with daily tasks, encouraging us, guiding us, to where we need to go. No matter how hard we’ve worked for what we have, we are always building on the work of others. Today I’d encourage you to enter into a practice of gratitude. Give thanks today for all the people who made you, your successes and your triumphs possible. That web of friendship and effort it took to get you here. Remember you’re not alone. You’ve never been alone. You’ll never be alone.

And with that in mind, give thanks, too for the fact that there is a great cloud of witnesses that surrounds you. Those who are there not only in your successes, but also your failures. Maybe especially in your failures. Those who have carried you when you couldn’t carry yourself. And those who’ll still be there to carry you when you stumble, when you fall. Those who are there you to fill you up with hope again. When you’ve just run dry.

So, Craig T. Nelson was wrong. As much as it pains me to say it. But we just don’t do this thing called life alone. We can’t do this thing called life alone. And we don’t have to do this thing called life alone. And thank God for that.

Happy All Saints.


[i] After double-checking what Nelson said, his exact words were: "I've been on foodstamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No." You can find the video here: