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Cloud of witness

Andrea Fluegel, an ELCA pastor serving a congregation in Wisconsin, also serves her community as an advisor on her town’s Human Growth and Development Curriculum Committee, alongside other teachers, administrators, a school nurse, a representative from the local Council on Domestic Violence, parents, and community members. On the committee, Pastor Fluegel is the representative of faith communities.

Recently the committee met to discuss an addition to the fifth-grade curriculum about gender, biological, and sexual identity, as well as addressing the concerns of high school students and parents advocating for awareness about gender, biological, and sexual identity to be taught to high schoolers. Pastor Fluegel writes, “The teachers and administrators needed permission to teach this section of the curriculum and have a guest speaker come into the classroom. Unfortunately, the committee could not give a recommendation because we couldn’t agree.”[1]

A community member said that Christians in their school district were being persecuted because of LGBTQ+ awareness, saying that as Christians, we believe that gender identity equals our biological identity at birth, which means either male or female only.

Pastor Fluegel writes, “So I interrupted her and I said, ‘I am a Christian. And you don’t speak for me or my beliefs.’ She leaned across the table and said to me, ‘You must not believe in the Truth then.’”

I want to pause at this point in the story, this point of tension in a community meeting somewhere out in Wisconsin, to bring up that question that Jesus posed in today’s Gospel reading: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?”

Now, if I heard Jesus ask that, I would have agreed with what my friend Pastor Kristen Koch said during our study of the Scripture texts this week: uh, yes, Jesus, yes I DO think that you have come to bring peace to the earth—isn’t that what the angels were singing about when you were born?[2]

Peace, you know, it’s pretty and nice and no one gets hurt. Right? But also there’s that messy business that Jesus’s mother Mary brought up before he was born, that part where she was praising God, who has “shown strength with [their] arm,” who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” who “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”[3]

God, who has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. Have we been so arrogant that we thought we could tell Jesus what peace looks like? Have we lamented the ugly public rhetoric, the inefficiency of our political leaders, the veracity of news sources, the erosion of trust in our society? “The world is a mess, Jesus, and we don’t need more division right now, we need some peace!” Are we really so bold to announce to the crucified and risen Christ, ignoring the scars of his crucifixion, “No, lemme tell YOU what peace looks like”?

Or are we willing to let ourselves be divided, to allow each one of us, within our own hearts, to feel the pain of division that Jesus speaks about? What if Jesus isn’t really saying here that society will break into factions, each group focused on its own righteousness?

What if the division is within our own ego? Is the strength of my faith testimony made stronger because I separate myself from everyone with whom I disagree? Or is the strength of my faith testimony made stronger because I separate myself from my own sense of righteousness and instead refuse to separate myself from the people with whom I disagree?

The signs are all around us, and as Jesus said, more-or-less, “You’re not stupid. You can see what’s going on.” We make judgments about people based on what church they go to, what news network they watch, their level of education, their race, whatever—but are we any wiser by these judgments? What’s it doing to us, to be disgusted by the bumper sticker on the car in front of us, to build contempt for our own neighbors?

Are you tired of it, too? Are you tired of the assumptions and the divisions and being told to look down on other people? Can you confess this when you mess up? Can you live as though love really is more powerful than hate? Can you pray for your enemies? Can you speak with love and clarity?

Can you divide your own heart and, with great humility, ask for God’s help in mending it? Can you ask God for healing, the tearing down of your own righteousness and the rebuilding of your heart in the knowledge that God’s righteousness is indeed enough?

Let’s go back to the story about Pastor Andrea Fluegel, at the committee meeting, hearing from a woman claiming that Christians are being persecuted, so Pastor Fluegel said, “I’m a Christian and you don’t speak for me,” and the woman said, “Then you must not believe in the truth.” So what happened next?

Pastor Fluegel writes this:

“I wish I could have said something profound or quoted scripture or somehow pushed back against her words. But we weren’t sitting in that classroom to debate theology. We were there to assist the teachers in helping kids grow, thrive, and be who they were created to be. We were there to make sure that students had the tools and resources they needed to navigate this…broken world. We were there to provide a safe and welcoming environment where all students felt like they belonged.

And all I could think about in that moment was the Jewish mother of a lesbian high school student sitting between us. At that moment, I was her clergy person too. We have no synagogues or mosques or other non-Christian places of worship in our small town. Who represents her and her beliefs? Who represents her daughter and speaks out for them? Isn’t this what it means to be a community pastor or a leader in our community? Aren’t we called to represent ALL people and speak on behalf of the voiceless and marginalized in our communities?”[4]

Pastor Fluegel has given us a master class in how to engage, how to speak up, and how to stay focused on the task at hand, which is justice. We ARE here to take sides, and Jesus lets us know clearly on which side we’re to be: on the side of those who are oppressed. The stakes are high, and to remind me of this, I keep this quote in my office, from the South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I get nervous and uncomfortable about conflict or even disagreement, but at the end of the day, what kind of person do I want to be? Do I want to be on the side of the oppressor? Or do I want to follow Jesus? And the scary thing is: the closer you get to Jesus, the more difficult it gets, the more freedoms you give up, the more you die to yourself. And in the eyes of the rest of the world, you will look very, very strange.

But here’s the thing, and in fact, this is why we’re here today: Jesus didn’t come to teach us how to escape the world and all its mess; he came to show us how to live in this world with all the mess. Jesus didn’t quit when things got difficult; he kept healing, he kept teaching, even when it was hard stuff. He brought people together, people who wouldn’t otherwise have had anything in common, and made them love one another and work together.

The writer of Hebrews, whose words we have read today, wants to encourage people’s faith, recalling the stories of our ancestors in the faith, naming the things they faced because of their faith: not awards and accolades, they suffered mocking and flogging, chains and imprisonment, and painful horrific deaths.

But the writer of Hebrews created a special word for this group of people—a cloud of witnesses. That’s weird, right? What do you usually call a group of people? Usually, it’s a crowd, right? But here, they’re called a cloud of witnesses. Why a cloud?

Think back to the times in Scripture when you hear about a cloud: the cloud that goes before the people of God as they travel in the wilderness, the cloud that surrounds Mount Sinai as Moses ascends the mountain, the cloud that suddenly descends around Jesus and Peter and James and John on the mountain of transfiguration—the cloud signifies the presence of God. A cloud of witnesses is not just a crowd of people: it’s a people signifying the presence of God.

And if you’re looking around right now and going, uh, am I in the cloud too? Well, uh, yeah you are, if you’re worshipping alongside other believers, if you’re letting the Word of God matter in your life, if you’re looking for ways to live your values and show God’s love to other people and let them know who sent ya, then uh, yeah. Here you are. You’re in the cloud. You’re part of God’s presence here on earth, along with all the rest of us who don’t think we qualify and don’t even sorta want this kind of responsibility and we might even question what kind of God wants anything to do with us. But here we are.

And Jesus himself said, you can see the signs for yourself. When you see this kind of cloud rising in the west, this cloud of witnesses, people of faith from all types of backgrounds, different languages, all socioeconomic spaces, all genders, the full spectrum of mental and physical abilities, when you see this cloud rising, you know what time it is, you immediately say, “The reign of God has come near.”


Pastor Cheryl

[1] [2] The Reverend Kristen Koch brought this up during text study, referencing Luke 2: 13-14. [3] Luke 1: 51-53 [4]

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