A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.  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.
Hebrews 11:39 – 12:2a
Today is All Saints’ Day, the Christian holiday in which we give God thanks for that “great cloud of witnesses” who surround us, encouraging us to “throw off everything that hinders” and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Heb. 12:1) This weekend, we celebrate All Saints Sunday, recommitting ourselves to the ministry of the Body of Christ.
Being Christian means standing in a great line of witnesses, reaching all the way back to Jesus. And because we stand in line with them — yes, because — we are called, today, to do what they did in their day. Let me share with you a few stories, one from Ascension, one from St. George’s.
Number one.
Years ago, in the early summer of 1954, a group of Episcopalians walked down Great Mills Road to check on the progress of their new church building. My guess, looking at this picture of folks standing in what is now Ascension’s nave, is that it was right after their Sunday worship in the Trailer Park office — Fr. Chuck Daugherty is wearing cassock, surplice, and stole; the Lay Reader, Mr. Natt Hogdon, is vested, too, and everyone else is in their Sunday best. (That’s Jack and JoAnn Koegel at the center rear — Jack in a dark suit and bow tie; JoAnn sporting a lovely pillbox hat.) The acolyte, also wearing cassock and surplice, in the center right? That’s young Joe Gough — a significant part and, in time, generous patron of Ascension’s life and witness. Joe continues to serve Ascension and Lexington Park faithfully and well.
Ascension under constructionYears after this picture was taken, Joe was the visionary behind the beautiful — and beautifully maintained — gardens at Ascension, a gift of green space and vibrant color to our whole community. Church of the Ascension earned well its nickname “the church with the beautiful gardens,” and it was Joe Gough’s leadership and patronage which made those gardens what they were. Joe still calls and checks in from time to time, and we’re glad to keep in touch.
But about those shrubs and plants and trees … well, they have a way of growing! And in downtown Lexington Park, at least today, obstructed views and overgrowth is not a good thing. It’s not in line with our mission to be a positive and transformative force in and with our neighborhood, so Ascension’s Buildings & Grounds Committee, together with the Vestry, came to believe that the best way to honor our history, enhance our presence, and empower our mission was to remove the overgrowth and replace it with well-tended green space — grass and unobstructed sight lines — plus, make sure to keep some shoots of color up front, along Great Mills Road and at the main entrances.
Ascension clean garden
Just imagine how lovely this will look when that straw you see, currently covering grass seed, will turn into a well-tended yard of green grass.
Back in the early 1950s, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington saw a mission opportunity in Lexington Park. The bishop (Angus Dun was his name) ordained Chuck Daugherty and sent him to St. Mary’s County. Chuck touched the life of young Joe Gough. Joe touched the lives of many in our local community. Fast forward 65 years: Church of the Ascension, recognizing its mission opportunities in 2019, did what that “great cloud of witnesses” did before — stepped into its moment in order to shine Christ’s Light.
We glorify God and we honor our history by shining Christ’s Light in our day, and precisely because they did the same in their day. That’s what it means to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. That’s what is meant by tradition. Professor Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University summed it up this way: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” he wrote. “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Story, number two.
A little over one year ago, we laid to rest our sister and St. George’s parishioner, Jo Ricks. A resident of Washington, DC and St. George Island, Jo was many things to many people — and yet, through and through, authentic, real, vibrant, and lovely. Jo straddled seamlessly all kinds of worlds: DC and St. Mary’s County, church stuff and local culture, lounge music and church hymns. She was her very true self in all of those arenas, and to be near her was to be in the presence of vibrant joy.
This weekend, we’re kicking off a new musical and creative venture in St. Mary’s County, named in Jo’s honor and designed to carry on, in some small way, her gift of bringing people together to be their very best, God-made self. Titled “Music from Poplar Hill,” the Jo Ricks Concert Series is in the incredibly capable hands of a dedicated group of leaders from St. George’s, together with Jeff Clark, Jo’s husband. This weekend’s event is a smaller gathering, more a ‘launch’ of the new series and concept.
In short order, not only will this series grow but it will move, per its name, to Poplar Hill, St. George’s Church in Valley Lee. A concerted initiative to re-think our worship space at St. George’s, long a perceived need and desire anyway, will kick into a more formal process, leading, we believe, in the spring to a church space more able to empower the church that St. George’s is becoming as well as host the spring 2020 “Music from Poplar Hill” concert. St. George’s parishioners will recall reading an invitation to participate in this conversation, announcements made in the Sunday bulletin through this past summer.
Not only do we remember Jo — and miss her — but, as Christians, we turn our grief toward a larger vision, carrying forward those gifts God brought through her to this community. That “cloud of witnesses” isn’t hovering, watching our every move, reminding us how things have always been done. That cloud of witnesses delights in our carrying forward their witness, stepping into our moment as they stepped into theirs, shining Christ’s Light, now, as they shined His Light then.
In fact, I believe that is the only way to honor our history. “Tradition,” Pelikan said, “is the living faith of the dead.” Living faith, alive today.
On this All Saints’ Day, and in preparation for All Saints’ Sunday, I encourage you to remember, and remember well. Remember those women and men who have made this world and your life a better place. Remember those saints in light who have helped you become the truest version of God’s child you have become.
And on this All Saints’ weekend, also re-commit to honor those who have gone before by doing in your day what they did in theirs — “throwing off everything that hinders” so we may “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Heb. 12:1)