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"Surrounded by so Great a Cloud of Witnesses"

a sermon based upon Hebrews 12:1-2

Last Sunday we recognized our long-time members and celebrated our choir. This week I’d like to widen that focus to appreciate the broad and beautiful gamut of other folks who offer their time & talents to keep Jesus’ Church alive and well and productive here in Alpena.

I’m not talking about our Church’s paid staff members, but more so about all of you un-sung heroes who work without pay, without office hours, who have been the backbone, muscle, and lifeblood of churches like ours since their very inception. For 156 years, you -- First Congregational UCC… Alpena’s first organized church -- has elected its officers, and staffed its ministries, and done its work (both "in house" and in our community) with a bare minimum of paid professionals, and a maximum reliance on its members.

Here at First Congregational, you will find people from every walk of life -- who do their part to make things work -- working simply for their love of God, Christ, & Church… People who are making a difference for the good in our community, the up-building of our people & programs. People like these six "Bifocal Brass" volunteers – only one of whom is actually a church member here… but who (together) make a joyful noise unto the Lord and make us tap our feet. Thank you for being with us today, and for helping to lead this Father’s Day worship service. (!) I know you could have been with your families elsewhere on this special day. Thank you!

In addition to the brass band and our choir members (who are on a well-deserved break just now) we have people like Marilyn Kettler, who serve as Lay Readers; we have ushers and greeters, and people who count the morning offering. We have nine of our church members who serve as our Board of Directors. There are those people who organize our annual SERRV sale, and those who help with other Mission & Outreach events. There are people like our usher Vicky Lindsay, and Terry Bell, who help weed and water the Memorial Garden, and like Dennis & Janet Artley, who look after the Columbarium. There are a dozen or so women who meet every Friday afternoon to do needlecraft out at Birchwood Meadows, and create "Baby Kits".

Friendships form within such groups as they work together, and then weave themselves into other settings, such as here at Sunday Morning Worship or hosting Fellowship Time. Today, for example, Curtis & Shari Davis and Don & Anne Cline are hosting Coffee Hour upstairs; please stay after worship and get to know one another better.

The point is: all these many volunteers (you!) are the ones who carry the freight and help lift the weight of our daily ministries, here at First Church. Thank you!

Right now, the chairs of our several standing committees are lining up their teams for the next year of service, which begins in July. The Investment Committee, Property Committee, Stewardship Committee, and so forth, provide the framework and schedule the volunteers, and all of us (together) pitch in the necessary financial fuel to keep things moving. From the pulpit, and from my heart, I say "thank you" for all that you do.

Some of our members have left bequests to the Church to help cover the costs associated with what they most loved about our congregation, and we are stronger because of it!

Thank you. Jennie Kerr, for example, still helps us pay for building maintenance and preservation, even though she has been gone for five years now. Former organist Olive Steele’s bequest helps pays for outdoor gardening, landscape, and exterior lighting; Lucas and Janet Pfeiffenberger’s bequests through the Community Foundation help cover some on-going church expenses and occasional capital improvements; the Jesse Besser Foundation provides annual grants to keep our church building open to public non-profit groups and individuals at no charge, and helps to underwrite some Christian Education expenses; not to mention the Andrew Comstock Fund, through which our church provides generous community grants & innovations… and has done so for 30 years! Thank you – Bravo!

The investment of one’s Time, Talents, and Treasure -- the "three T’s" of significant support -- cannot be overstated in importance to the past, the present, and the future functioning of a voluntary civic organization such as ours. As more and more of our members begin to retire from their long-held roles in leadership -- and in their ability to provide financial support -- newly recruited members will have to be trained and equipped to fulfill those functions… if they are to continue. It goes without saying that new members are vital to the continuation of our church’s ministries. The saints of old (some of whom I have just named) have brought us thus far, but it’s the saints who are sitting in these pews right beside us right now who are carrying forward that legacy.

When thinking about all of our generous, faithful, and active church members past & present, it came to my mind that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews (from which today’s Scripture Reading comes) spent a whole chapter listing people of faith from Old Testament times. Hebrews, chapter 11 says: "By faith, Abel offered God a more acceptable sacrifice… By faith, Enoch was taken up… By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen…" (and so forth).

"By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out… By faith, Sarah herself received power to conceive… By faith, Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau… By faith, Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph… By faith, Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the Exodus of the Israelites…

"By faith, Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents… By faith, Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter…By faith he left Egypt… By faith he kept the Passover… By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land… By faith, Rahab the harlot did not perish (at Jericho)…" (Hebrews 11:4-31, selected)

That list of ten names from Israel’s pre-history was only the barest beginning for the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews! "And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel, and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises…" and on, and on. (Hebrews 11:32-33) With all those faithful folks from Bible days in mind, we come to this morning’s text (as Marilyn Kettler read it for us):

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which 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 joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the Throne of God." (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Every time we gather to worship, at the outset, we ought to remember that we are not alone here. We are "surrounded" by a great cloud of witnesses – past saints in the Bible, past saints in the 2,000 year history of Christianity, as well as in our 156 years as a Church here in Alpena.

Many of our local saints (in that great cloud of witnesses) are now in the "past" because folks either moved away or up-&-died on us… (!) But (as I alluded to in last Sunday’s sermon, when we recognized our members who have been active for "50-years or more"), we are nevertheless still surrounded by them in these pews! Invisibly, so; of course! But their former influences -- and their investments in us -- carry forward… and will do so, so long as we live.

It may not show in our Sunday morning attendance, but I have looked back in our membership records… and I can tell you that in the five years that I have been here as your Minister, we have added four young people to our roster through Confirmation (Katie Mack, Gavin Plume, and Lydia & Emeline Hanna), as well as adding 36 other adult members, including Patty & myself. That’s 40 new members in the past five years.(!) Great! We know it can be done! Congratulations!

In Jesus’ Great Commission (which we read last Sunday), the church is instructed to "Go, and make disciples of all nations…", but not merely to add new members, but very specifically we are to "baptize" people…

So, I checked those records, too… Frankly, the only people we have "baptized" into the Church over the past five years were babies: (1) Lillie Barden (two years ago) -- and it was our Pastor Emeritus, Bob Case (Lillie’s Grandfather), who did it -- (2) Kristen & Jason’s baby Ty Sobeck-Barbeau, last October; then (3) Ann & Jeff Gerow’s grandson Carter James Nesmith and (4) Dick & Mary Bloom’s grandson Jack Weide, both last December. Four baptisms in five years… There’s not a lot of baptizing going on here at First Church, Alpena!

Obviously, we have modified our interpretation of what Jesus meant about "baptizing" people to become disciples… so that (for us in Alpena) it could mean any form of inclusion.

Anything that we can do to bring someone into a felt sense of "belonging" to the Family of God -- "counts" (in our opinion) toward our task of "making disciples". (I’m OK with that. Let’s not get too "literal" about actually "baptizing" people)

That sense of congregational "inclusion" -- belonging to the Body of Christ -- is most easily seen by one’s active participation in the worship life and work of our church. Coming to Sunday morning worship is "Job One" in the UCC.

It is somewhat surprising (and certainly gratifying) to know that we have more than three dozen new members who have joined our congregation since I came here… even though our Sunday morning worship attendance numbers have not grown. In part (I suppose) that is because we have also lost quite a few of our active members… either by them moving away, or by death.

Many of you will remember Lloyd & Mary Jo Springer, Lou & Marilyn Sytsma, Rick & Gail Parr, Delilah Tretinick, Greg & Betsy Adamus, Martha Vance, Kimberly & Mike Nunneley (all of whom have moved downstate or out-of-state)…

In addition we have bid a fond (but final) farewell to Jennie Kerr, Rosemary & Ed Bastow, Jeff Trelfa, Jennie Cavin, Olive Benjey, Ernestine Houck, Lucas & Janet Pfeiffenberger, Naomi McCoy, Carolyn Routley, Bill Shuler, Bev’s husband Sam Olsen & her son Mark Cousineau; Steve Tretinick, Dean Colby, Bill & Betty Miles, Bill Wedge & Pat Kreft, Margie McConnell, Margaret Naylor, Ann Saretsky, Glen Kett, Doug Wenzel, Phyllis Manitz, Joyce McLain, & my Mom (Dodi).

I have done 29 funerals in these past five years! No wonder the membership roster hasn’t grown.

What those statistics tell me is that (on the one side) we are doing what Jesus wanted -- we are calling people into a growing, deepening, transforming faith; we are serving one another’s spiritual needs, and we are welcoming new-comers -- but (on the other side) we are not really growing by bringing in very many "new" Christians from the "un-churched" world around us. It’s more like we are "treading water" than swimming; we’re merely replacing members that we’ve lost with new people in the pews. And some of them have come from other churches in our town. (You are all certainly welcome here, and we’re honored to have you! But that isn’t growing the Kingdom of God… it’s just relocating addresses within it.)

When you called me to be your Minister in 2013, our official membership rolls stood at 207. (!) We began this year with 153 members on our roster; that means we are down by 54 names since I came.

Of course, the numbers of members on the roster is not necessarily a measure of the vitality of a congregation, but it indicates a trend. (!) In this case, a trend we need to stem and then reverse! (Right?) Worship attendance is a better measure (in my opinion), and it has stayed fairly steady: between 60-80 people on any given Sunday. We were that size when I came… and we’re still that size today! What it means is that about ½ our members are in church on any given Sunday morning. Precisely which members they are varies, but the number in attendance stays fairly consistent. (Thank you!)

We have seating for 200 people in these church pews. It’s about time we begin to fill them with our friends and neighbors, don’t you think? To "congregate" is what makes us Congregationalists most happy. Growing in number, not just growing older. Growing new relationships, alongside the old.

Which brings me back to the text that Marilyn read about us "being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses"… Let’s not forget that we who are here together ought to add ourselves onto that list of saints from the past -- we are present witnesses!

There are a few of us, of course – like me, your Minister, and maybe Kat Tomaszewski (who is also one of our seven paid staff members) who tend to hog the spotlight. That’s because we are performers. We are (in effect) the "public face" of this place -- along with Gerrie La Cross in the church office on weekdays, who is our secretary and our receptionist. Gerrie is the person people get when they call on the telephone, and she is the very first person people tend to meet when they come into our church building. It is important that we make a good first impression… and Gerrie does. As does Kat, on Sunday mornings, as she accompanies our worship service with music.

For your information, the other four employees are: (1) Denise Fusina, our treasurer & bookkeeper, who receives our money, keeps records, pays our bills, and files financial reports. (2) Shelby Sexton, who covers our child care during Sunday morning worship, who graduated "top of her class" this year at Alpena High School (and who will leave for Dartmouth College in August). (3) Jeffrey Mindock, who leads Wacky Wednesday Kid’s Fun Club as well as our Sunday School activities, and (4) Mike LaMarre, our custodian, who keeps all things ship-shape and shiny. That’s seven paid people (all of whom, except me, are only part-time). Our church relies on more than the seven of us… it takes all of you 70 volunteers to succeed.

We are "surrounded" by a great cloud of witnesses, past (yes!) and present (for sure!). People from the Bible; people from our own church history, and people who are seated beside you in these pews. (!) We are in this thing together! We can lean on each other. We can draw inspiration from one another.

We can trust the saints of our past and the saints of today to "have our back" in times of trouble and to "cheer us on" as we strive for future success. We are surrounded! We are not alone, here.

And not only that: we are here with Jesus, who is called the "pioneer and perfecter" of our faith.

Jesus Christ is a "pioneer" because he goes ahead of us, into new and unfamiliar territory. Jesus launched himself like a spiritual pioneer – serving as the head of a movement that has never turned back, never wimped out, never cashed in their chips and gone home. (!) The journey that Jesus leads His Church on has been rough, strenuous, often in the face of powerful head winds of resistance and cross-currents of cultural controversy. But like a rugged pioneer, leading covered wagons westward, Jesus and his followers persevere… they endure… they run the race!

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin, which 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 ."

The perfecter of our faith. "Perfecter?" (My computer’s "spell check" does not recognize that as a word.) I guess it means that Jesus is the one who knows the way and who shows the way. The one who inspires us to follow and who provides resources for us along the way. The "pioneer and perfecter of our faith" is the one whose role model (of faith and endurance) provides an example for us to emulate. Jesus, as we meet him in the Gospels, serves as a measure of what it might mean for any of us to be similarly mature in faith.

Laying aside every weight of sin, that clings so closely (and keeps us bound), we step out in faith, trusting ourselves to the one who has run the race before us… who persevered against all odds, and who endured even the shame & pain of death on a cross… such that he is now seated at God’s right hand in glory. Yes, even Jesus Christ, himself, is in and among that surrounding cloud of witnesses, cheering for you as you run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

First Church, Alpena: You have a record of 156 years of ministry, with a roster of saints that include movers and shakers from every generation and every walk of life, here in Northeast Michigan. You are today’s congregation, carrying not the weight of the past, but the glory of the past, drawing on resources of our own past history and your own personal story. Put it to good use, my Christian colleagues. Invest your time, your talents, and your treasure to make our church Jesus’ Church for today & for tomorrow.

May you be blessed along the way -- with my personal gratitude for all you do and have done, in the name of our congregation, and in the name of the one who goes before us: Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.


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