The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Jeremiah 38:4-6,8-10  +  Hebrews 12:1-4  +  Luke 12:49-53
August 14, 2016

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin….”

Those words remind me of growing up with two older sisters.  If I ever did something wrong, I was immediately “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” who reported to Mother every burden and sin of mine.  But having two “deputy mothers” wasn’t the only challenge connected with my sisters.  Another came to mind recently as I heard some children talking about the start of school.

When I was a boy and a new school year would start, I would have the same experience.  My teacher would ask my name, and when I told her, without fail the teacher would say, “Oh!  You’re Angie and Janelle’s little brother!”

The older I got, the more my teachers would add all the accomplishments of my sisters.  A teacher would say, “Did you know that Angie was editor of the yearbook her senior year?  And did you know that Janelle was student council president her senior year?”  Of course, every night at the supper table I had heard all about my sisters’ adventures, but like a good little brother, I simply replied to my teacher by smiling and nodding.

A brother or sister wrestles with the fact that he’s so much like his siblings, and with the fact that he doesn’t want to be just a carbon copy of his siblings:  that he wants to stand on his own two feet and distinguish himself as an individual.

The interesting thing is that this is just as true in the spiritual life as in the life of the family and the accomplishment of academics, or social life, or athletics.  That’s what Saint Paul is talking about in today’s Second Reading when he writes to the Hebrews that “[s]ince we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us[,] and persevere in running the race that lies before us[,] while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”  St. Paul is giving us a lot of good spiritual direction here.

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We “are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”.  Within the Church, within what we sometimes call “The Family of God”, this “cloud of witnesses” is another way to describe our “siblings in the Faith”.  In the Apostles’ Creed, we use another phrase to describe them:  the “communion of saints”.

In the section of Hebrews that today’s Second Reading comes from, faith is the subject of St. Paul’s preaching.  Today’s Second Reading is taken from the twelfth chapter of Hebrews, while last Sunday’s Second Reading was taken from the eleventh chapter.  These two chapters together form a larger section about the subject of faith.  Back up with me briefly to the eleventh chapter, so that we can get a running start to today’s Second Reading.

At the very beginning of Hebrews 11, St. Paul plainly states that:  “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for[,] and evidence of things not seen.”[1]  Then St. Paul offers concrete examples of what this faith looks like.  St. Paul first briefly illustrates what faith looked like in the lives of the Old Testament patriarchs Abel, Enoch, and Noah.  But then St. Paul paints on a larger canvas.

St. Paul paints his master portrait of Abraham, to show the Hebrew Christians of the first century what faith looks like in the flesh.  This portrait of Abraham made up the bulk of last Sunday’s Second Reading.  In his portrait of Abraham, St. Paul uses a particular phrase over and over to point out what faith strengthened Abraham to accomplish.  St. Paul writes:  “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place” unknown to him.  “By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country”.  St. Paul goes on until he reaches the greatest example:  “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac” in sacrifice.[2]

These verbs “obeyed”, “sojourned”, and “offered” are all action verbs.  The virtue of faith is not faith until it moves into action.  St. James insists on this even more bluntly than St. Paul.  In the Letter of James he rhetorically asks:  “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works?  Can his faith save him?”  “[F]aith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”[3]

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That background puts today’s Second Reading into sharper focus.  The “cloud of witnesses” that St. Paul speaks of are our elder siblings in the Faith.  The Old Testament records their accomplishments:  that is, how they put their faith into action.  As we in the 21st century listen to the Second Reading, we might also reflect on our elder siblings in the Faith from the New Testament and the history of the Church:  from our Blessed Mother and St. John the Beloved Disciple to St. John Paul II and Bl. Theresa of Calcutta, all the members of this “cloud of witnesses” have shown what it means to put faith into action.

But that phrase—“cloud of witnesses”—does have a more specific meaning, as the rest of the sentence reveals.  This more specific meaning is something you’ve seen during the past week if you’ve watched the coverage of the Olympics.  St. Paul specifically exhorts the Hebrews in saying:  “let us… persevere in running the race that lies before us”.  In other words, St. Paul is describing a race taking place in a large oval-shaped stadium.  The “cloud of witnesses” is the saints in the stadium’s bleachers, surrounding the racers on all sides, cheering and inspiring them.  But these aren’t just sports enthusiasts, people willing to spend thousands of dollars to travel to Rio de Janiero.  These are former gold medal Olympians like Jesse Owens, whose own examples in showing the best of human nature inspire those competing on the track.

For you and me, the “race that lies before us” is nothing other than life:  living a life of faith in a world that does everything in its power to ridicule, outlaw, and destroy faith.  Regarding this “race that lies before us”—that is, putting faith into action within a faithless world—St. Paul calls us to do two things.

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Regarding the race of putting faith into action, St. Paul first exhorts us to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us”.  Here also, an example from the Olympics sheds light on what St. Paul is trying to get across to us.  You might have seen a television segment about the lengths that Olympic athletes—whether runners or swimmers—take to have running suits or swimsuits that are as aerodynamic as possible, even if only to increase their speed by a fraction of a second.  Those athletes don’t want anything, no matter how small, to hinder them.

Why shouldn’t we take the spiritual life just as seriously?  No bad spiritual habit, not any vice at all, no matter how small, ought to burden us and prevent us from fully putting our faith into action.  So, St. Paul insists, “let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us[,] and persevere in running the race”.

In ridding ourselves of every sin, we need to be honest about how even venial sins can prevent us from putting our faith into action.  If it’s been more than three months since your last good confession—that is, before the middle of May—then you need to take St. Paul’s words to heart and seek God gift of Divine Mercy in the Sacrament of Confession.

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Each of us needs the forgiveness that comes from Jesus, whom St. Paul in today’s Second Reading calls “the leader and perfecter of faith”.  In fact, St. Paul explains to us, we need to run the race of faith “while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.”  But often, modern Christians take their eyes off Jesus, and this for two reasons:  first, because a Christian believes that his sins are too small to worry about; or second, because the Christian believes that he himself is too small for God to worry about.

If you’re a Christian who sometimes thinks that small sins are nothing to worry about, there’s a story about how small sins can add up.  You might have heard the story.  One day a little girl was sitting and watching her mother do work in the garden.  The girl suddenly noticed that her mother had several strands of white hair standing out from her dark brown hair.

The girl looked at her mother and curiously asked, “Mommy, why are some of your hairs white?”

Her mother thought a moment, and then explained, “Every time that a little girl does something wrong and makes her mother unhappy, one of Mommy’s hairs turns white.”

The little girl thought for a moment, and then asked, “Is that why all of grandma’s hair is white?”

That little girl might not have gotten dessert that evening, but she was on to something.  Small things make a difference, especially over time.

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Then again, sometimes we shy away from God because we think we’re not worth His time and attention.  We might tell ourselves:  “Sure, the saints of the Old and New Testaments and the saints of the Church were true athletes of the faith.  They ran the race well in putting their faith into action:  some of them even shed their blood for Christ!  But how do I merit God’s attention when I have older siblings in the Faith like them?”

This past Wednesday the Church celebrated the feast day of one of those older siblings of ours who shed his blood for Christ.  Saint Lawrence was a deacon of the Church of Rome:  he personally served Pope Sixtus II, as well as the poor of Rome.  Because he refused to violate his faith on orders from the pagan government, he was burned to death in the year 258.

In the Breviary, on St. Lawrence’s feast the Church prays from a sermon that St. Augustine preached about St. Lawrence.  St. Augustine lived not terribly long after St. Lawrence, but after Christianity had become the religion of the empire.  At the time of St. Augustine, Christianity was no longer illegal, and martyrdom was largely a thing of the past.  To be a Christian in Augustine’s day was a fairly “ordinary” way of life.  So St. Augustine, in preaching to his congregation, knew that his listeners would consider the example of St. Lawrence hard for them to live up to.  St. Augustine’s congregation were the younger siblings, while St. Lawrence was the older brother in the faith who had won the crown of martyrdom.  Here, then, is what St. Augustine preached about being an “ordinary Christian”:

“I tell you again and again, my brethren, that in the Lord’s garden are to be found not only the roses of his martyrs.  In [the Lord’s garden] there are also the lilies of the virgins, the ivy of wedded couples, and the violets of widows.  On no account may any class of people despair, thinking that God has not called them.”

“Let us understand, then, how a Christian must follow Christ even though he does not shed his blood for Him, and his faith is not called upon to undergo the great test of the martyr’s sufferings.  The apostle Paul says of Christ our Lord:  ‘Though he was in the form of God He did not consider equality with God a prize to be clung to. … But He emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave, made in the likeness of men’.”

“Christ humbled Himself.  Christian, that is what you must make your own.  ‘Christ became obedient.’  How is it that you are proud?  When this humbling experience was completed and death itself lay conquered, Christ ascended into Heaven.  Let us follow Him there”.[4]

The virtue of humility helps the Christian realize that it’s not possible to be too small for God to worry about.  God wants us to be small:  like little children.  Jesus warned that  “unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”[5]  God wants us, in all our littleness, to run the good race of faith, to put our faith into action.  It doesn’t matter if we are not great.  God only needs our faith to be great.

[1] Hebrews 11:1.

[2] Hebrews 11:8,9,17.  There is a strange discrepancy in English translations of Hebrews 11:11.  The NAB (which the Roman Missal in the USA currently follows) reads:  “By faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age—and Sarah herself was sterile—for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.”  Yet the RSV, Second Catholic Edition reads:  “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.”

[3] James 2:14,17.

[4] St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 304§1-4, quoted in the Ordinary Form Breviary, Office of Readings for the feast of St. Lawrence, Deacon & Martyr (August 10).

[5] Matthew 18:3.