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The Church with a Hole in the Floor
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
August 18, 2019
The letter to the Hebrews is one of the more mysterious corners of scripture. We don’t know who wrote it, though of course there are more than a few guesses. We don’t know to whom it was written; the original document didn’t come with a title, and so some scribe some centuries later appended “to the Hebrews” to the front of it, almost certainly because of the copious references to stories from the Old Testament. It’s not even, strictly speaking, a letter; it has no greeting on the front of it, it doesn’t feel like correspondence. As you may already know, and as I hope you will hear, Hebrews feels like poetry. It feels like rhetoric. To my ear, it feels at times like good preaching. And I think what you will hear in this morning’s text is precisely that — good preaching, to a church that maybe needs to hear some good preaching. Friends, we pick up the sermon to the Hebrews in the 11th chapter, verse 29, in the middle of a long recitation of all of these Biblical figures who have gotten by on faith. Listen for the word of the Lord.
A Reading from the Book of Hebrews
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should 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, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
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, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
If Hebrews is a sermon, it’s a very long one, long enough that even just this one illustration can’t quite fit into our worship in one piece. So the lectionary breaks it in half; last week we could have heard the first half of this recitation of the faith of the ancestors, going all the way back. By faith Noah respected God’s warning. By faith Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith Sarah. By faith Jacob. By faith Moses. And you heard the rest. By faith all the people passed through the Red Sea. By faith Rahab received the spies in peace. And then the preacher starts running out of breath. “Time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets,” though he tries anyway. Stories of folks who not only followed God into unseen circumstances but also folks who put up with the worst sorts of consequences — “they were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword…” Faith, for about eight paragraphs of about two thousand years of Jewish history, faith, in the hands of this preacher, gives these folks a tremendous amount of endurance.
And then comes the therefore. You had to know there would be a therefore. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight … and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” When I was in Preaching 101 they’d make us underline the focus statement of our sermons. Here it is. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The preacher puts this congregation right on the track, right at the final turn, and then she fills the stadium around them. All of these stories you know, all these stories you tell are all about folks whose faith kept them in the game. And now here they are, the great cloud of witnesses, a packed house, standing room only. They know what it’s like. They’ve been there before. They have persevered before. And now they are here, cheering you on. They are willing you around the track. They are looking down on you with love and with conviction and with solidarity. And just for a second, the preacher says. Just for a second. Just for a second I want you to look up and see all the people who have been where you are before. Just for a second, before you bear into the straightaway. Look up. And know you are not alone.
Many of you know that I spent a few weeks earlier this summer in Israel with a group of clergy from here in Austin. We spent most of our time visiting traditional sites of Christian pilgrimage, which is a very dangerous thing for a preacher to do, because I am reasonably sure that you all will get tired of hearing about these places a long time before I get tired of talking about them. I’m going to talk about some of them in the Faith & Life class two and three Sundays from now, but today, I wanted to tell you about the first site there that I loved, which is the church with the hole in the ground. In Galilee, in Capernaum, one of the small towns mentioned a few times in the Gospels, the site of the first miracle performed in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus enters the synagogue and casts out his first demon. That synagogue, like most of Capernaum, exists now only as archeological ruin; most of the experience of walking around Capernaum is just walking around looking at what remains of old stone walls. In the case of the synagogue, however, there are a few more layers to it. Quite literally.
What you will see now, if you come to this site, is a chapel built by the Franciscans about half a century ago. It’s a chapel in the round, built over the ruins. It’s got a sort of distinctive 60s / 70s architecture to it, which means it looks almost like some visiting spaceship landed and planted roots. But what makes the chapel most distinctive is that when you go inside you are immediately greeted by a large hole in the floor, an octagonal cut-out, about twenty feet in diameter, a huge pane of glass in right in the middle, so that in the very center of the worship space is a spot where you can go and look down through the history. The first ruins you will see will be of some church built by the crusaders, only eight or nine hundred years old, now reduced to stones. But if you let your eyes focus, you can see another octagonal outline, this being the foundation of the Byzantine chapel underneath dating back to the fourth or fifth century. And if you let your imagination wander, and you can conjure up underneath that even the shape of the ancient synagogue floor, the place where Jesus and that demon did battle. The Franciscans have built this chapel specifically to commune with all the saints who have come to that holy ground before.
The Great Cloud of Witnesses is thick in the air. Even then. Even as I was standing there, looking down through the glass, I was powerfully aware not just of those witnesses, but all the ones around me, a steady stream of pilgrims coming in to pay their respects. Being a Christian pilgrim in Israel in 2019 is very much a tourist enterprise and our bus never had a parking lot to itself. And on this particular day in that chapel they came in buses from Nigeria, and from Korea, and from Russia, and they would gather around the hole in the floor in awe, and they would sing a hymn, or say a prayer, and I was aware that I was standing in this place where for two millennia people have come looking. Some of them are nicer than others, of course. The history of that land and the history of pilgrimage to that land is run through and through with violence and bloodshed. The Great Cloud of Witnesses is rarely on its best behavior. But still. To be a pilgrim in any age. To make the journey. To endure the long road. To come that far, by faith.
It helps to know that you’re not alone. And indeed you are not alone. Not one of you, not now, not today, not gathered in this place, not gathered in these pews where for decades pilgrims have gathered in search of the holy, not gathered within these melodies where for centuries pilgrims have gathered in search of the holy, not gathered within these words of scripture where for millennia pilgrims have gathered in search of the holy. Of course not a one of them, ever, in all those decades, in all those centuries, not a one of them has had it right. Not exactly. None of them, and not a one of us. But nonetheless. They are here. They’re here right now, a packed house. Standing room only. A great cloud witnessing to this moment, witnessing to our moment, witnessing to us, reminding us that we too can endure the long road. That we can endure the everyday stuff. That we can endure the extraordinary brokenness of the age. That we can persist, nevertheless. That we can wake up every morning and wrestle with God’s grace. That we can wake up every morning and struggle with God’s mercy. That we can wake up every morning, over and over again, that we can wake up for a lifetime of mornings and keep going, and keep going, and keep going. By faith.
That would be the whole sermon. But then I looked up.
After some minutes spent looking down through the glass, and some minutes just watching the pilgrims stream through the pews, I looked up. And there, embedded in the ceiling of this little chapel was the Gospel, in architecture. Centered just above that octagonal glass floor, forty feet above us, was yet another octagon, it was just the slightest indentation in this otherwise simple, plain white ceiling, one more octagon. It wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t calling attention to itself. It felt rather almost like a perforation, like a dotted line painted onto the architecture. It felt like assembly instructions for some church yet to come, like some hundreds of years from now, the next time somebody decides to build a chapel on top of the chapel on top of the chapel on top of the chapel on top of the synagogue where Jesus fought the demon. They can just cut along the dotted line in the rood, and pop off the top, and build a new church with a hole in the floor. And those worshipers will look down through the glass. And they will imagine those first disciples in Capernaum, and those first Byzantine worshipers, and those blood-stained crusaders, and even the tour buses, with pilgrims from around the world. And they will feel the presence of the generations of pilgrims that have come there looking for the holy. Among them, even me.
This, I think is the whole story. Not just that we are surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses. But that we are a Great Cloud of Witnesses, or at least we will be. The text isn’t just a blessing. It’s a calling. It’s a calling that says we too are some part of this cloud yet to be fully formed. It’s not just that we are gathering in the pews where generations have gathered before us; it’s that generations from now, we will be the ones whose spirits haunt this place, whose legacies shape this place, whose perseverance gives hope to this place. They will endure because we choose to endure. They will persist because we choose to persist. They will struggle with God’s mercy because we show them how to struggle with God’s mercy, and they will wrestle with God’s grace because we show them how to wrestle with God’s grace, and they will keep going and keep going and keep going because we will have kept going, by faith. Because we will have remembered our place in the unfolding of all God’s creation. Because we will have taken our place in the stands, a packed house. Standing room only. Because we will have drawn our own dotted line on the ceiling. By faith.
Thanks be to God. Amen.