“The Balcony Is Full!”Amy Jacks Dean Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Year C: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
I know enough about him to know that I wish I had known Carlyle Marney. He was for many years the Pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church here in Charlotte. Though deceased, he remains a well-known and well-respected preacher, theologian, and pastor. He had great influence on this church because he had great influence on your first pastor of 30+ years. I found a story of his that speaks to our text for today.
I only found a retelling of the story–not a straight from the mouth Marney story–but it works nonetheless. Marney asked a group to imagine that they were each a house. He went on to describe each room in the house as a characteristic of humanity. He went to great lengths to have each person envision himself or herself as a house. After the set-up he said,
Sometimes we need to get outside and get some fresh air. Sometimes we need to go outside and see who’s on the balcony. The balcony is very large with wicker rockers and full of people drinking lemonade and mint juleps. All of these people on the balcony are saints in your life. (Not a direct quote)
Who is on your balcony? That really is what all of Hebrews 11 is about. It’s the writer of Hebrews offering a list of those who have gone before, by faith. It is the Biblical “Hall of Fame,” if you will. Everyone listed, either by name or by situation, lived by faith–moving toward a destination they would never reach. They journeyed toward a promise they would never claim. They lived a life of faith–not knowing where they were going or what the outcome would be–and in the end they were called “so great a cloud of witnesses.” That “great cloud” is the balcony of which Carlyle Marney speaks. What would it feel like to be surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses?
When I was the Minister of College Students at First Baptist Church in Clemson, SC, we had a monthly worship service for college students called “Interrobang.” An Interrobang is a punctuation mark that incorporates the Question Mark and the Exclamation Point into one symbol. Martin Speckter who was the head of a New York advertising agency first created this punctuation symbol in 1962. The function of this punctuation mark was to end an exclamatory rhetorical question. It’s for a question with a shout. It’s sort of an “ooh-ahh!; can you believe it?; wow!; and really?” all in one. The symbol never really caught on, though in the mid-sixties, it was placed on a few typewriters. (Information on “Interrobang” found on the website for World Wide Words.)
Each of our Interrobang worship services was unique and extremely creative–bordering on brow raising. We went to great lengths to tantalize all the senses in the worship experience. Our very first Interrobang service was based on Hebrews 11:1-12:2–moving from the Hall of Fame of Faith to the So Great A Cloud of Witnesses. The room was set in a Quaker square. It was silent and filled with many white Christmas tree lights and many white helium balloons and many white candles.
Toward the end of the service, students were invited to move toward the center table filled with candles–some lit and some unlit–and say a name or speak a word about someone who had made an impact on their life by their own journey of faith. As the person spoke a name, they lit a candle in memory or in honor of the one being named. One by one each student moved slowly and quietly toward the center table. I remember they spoke in almost hushed tones as if the moment were too holy for much more than a still small voice. Quiet guitar music played in the background.
As the candle lighting slowed and then ceased, and while everyone sat quietly in their seats, unbeknownst to anyone, I began to pour liquid nitrogen onto some wet carpet squares placed outside the Quaker square. A heavy, cool fog began to creep among the feet of the participants. With tiny white Christmas tree lights around the chair rail and large white helium balloons attached to the chandeliers and a list of names having been mentioned and many white candles flickering in the center and then the floor covered in a heavy fog–all of our senses told us that we were not only surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses–we were in a great cloud of witnesses?! I often wonder if, almost 10 years later, do they remember this worship service as well as I do.
Many of those students mentioned mothers, fathers, grandparents, pastors, Sunday school teachers, and the like. Their “roll call” of the faithful sounded nothing like the writer of Hebrews. Hebrews tells the story of the people who passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land and when the Egyptians attempted the same thing, they were drowned. Because of the faithful, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. By faith Rahab the prostitute was spared because she believed God should be respected.
And all the people who heard these names mentioned would have known their story–much better than we do considering many are probably thinking right now–Rahab, who is Rahab and what is her story? The writer then sighs and says, “What more should I say? If I had the time I would tell you about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets.”
Then the writer moves from naming names to telling stories of faith: conquering kingdoms, administering justice, obtaining promises, shutting the mouths of lions, quenching raging fire, abuse, torture, and acts of cruelty and violence. The writer of Hebrews, in essence, was calling the people to take a step outside of their house and take a look at their balcony. I’m not sure they saw the rocking chairs and mint juleps, but they did see a balcony full of the faithful that had been watching over–the faithful that had been preparing a way–the faithful that had been examples. Their balcony was full.
One commentary writer put it this way: “What they all had in common… was their ability to exhibit faith in the midst of unfulfilled promise. Both lived–and died–with their promises unfulfilled. And yet for all their unrealized hopes, somehow, they grasped the future as belonging uniquely to a faithful God. What is remarkable, then, is their capacity to live, and die with no clear hold on the future, and yet do both as if the future were already theirs. This is the essence of faith, as Hebrews sees it–that which gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of things unseen.” (Preaching Through the Christian Year–Year C, p. 375, Carl R. Holladay)
The trail has been blazed and the path has been cleared. Faith has a long memory and profits from the experiences of our forebears. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XII, p. 146.) The list of the faithful includes not just a prostitute, but a whole passel of significantly flawed individuals, used by the grace of God, and then praised for their faithfulness. But this is not just a story of Biblical proportions. This is not just a “way back when” story. It is also the story of the faithful in our time, maybe in our midst. Writer and Retreat Leader, Joyce Holladay, reminds us of that with this story:
Cleo Fields of Louisiana, who at 25 was the youngest state senator in the country, said during the 1988 presidential campaign: “Booker T. Washington started to teach so Rosa Parks could take her seat. Rosa Parks took her seat so Fannie Lou Hamer could take her stand. Fannie Lou Hamer took her stand so Martin Luther King, Jr. could march. Martin Luther King marched so Jesse Jackson could run.”
And that’s how the story goes when your balcony is full. When I take a step outside myself and breath the fresh air of the world around me and I turn around to look on my balcony–it is indeed full: Mama and Daddy and Ma Polly and Grandmama, Susan and Don, Rut and Ginger, Russ, and Dan and Karen, and Pam and Drew, and Molly Marshall, and Dr. Stassen, and Dr. Lester, and Steve Shoemaker, and Gent and Diane Cofer, and Dan Tyers, and Terry O, and James and Beth, and James and Amy, and David and Beth, and Wade Rowatt and Dr. Jackson and Dr. Pollard and Charlie and Allen and Gene and Marinn and Sue and Kay and I could name more, but I won’t. And there they sit, rocking away on my balcony–and most of them don’t even know each other–but they are sipping along on their lemonade and mint juleps, and they are smiling at me. They are reminders to me keep the faith because they themselves have been faithful.
Whether any of us see our hopes fulfilled, whether any of us reach our destination or not, we must be found faithful. And we must somehow grasp the idea that the future belongs uniquely to a faithful God.
Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, says, “Faith is still a surprise to me.” (page 169) And it is for me as well. But I know that I don’t go it alone. I go surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” that now includes Park Road Baptist Church and all those who have gone before us. And I go with the peace of Christ who made a way like no other before or since. If we will only look to Jesus to follow his way, the path should be at least passable.
All of this does make me ponder the question–on whose balcony do I stand? Will I, too, be considered among the people that lived “by faith?” Not only do I want to see my own balcony full, but also, I want to sip some lemonade (and maybe even some mint julep) while rocking on someone else’s balcony. It’s worth thinking about.
In the great circle, dancing in
and out of time, you move now
toward your partners, answering
the music suddenly audible to you
that only carried you before
and will carry you again.
(From Wendell Berry’s poem “Our Children, Coming of Age.”)
That is at least my hope and my faith. May it be so. Amen.
About the Author:
Amy Jacks Dean is a native of Clinton, SC and is a graduate of Clinton High School, Presbyterian College, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. After serving as an associate minister at First Baptist, Clemson, SC; Amy became the interim campus Minister at Samford University and then the Associate Pastor at Riverchase Baptist. In 2000 she became the Co-Pastor of the Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, along with her husband, Russ. Together, they share all of the duties of the pastoral responsibilities.
Amy has served as President of the Board for the Center for Congregational Health, on the national board for the Alliance of Baptists, and was President of the Board of Loaves and Fishes. She is frequently invited to preach and speak around the country.
Russ and Amy have two boys, Jackson and Bennett. Amy loves to cook and to knit, but her favorite past times involve watching her boys on a baseball field or a concert hall.
Scripture and Music:
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19.
Hebrews 11:29-40; 12:1-2
For All the Saints
O God of Every Nation
Faith of Our Fathers
Am I a Soldier of the Cross
God of Grace and God of Glory
I Have Decided
Ain-a That Good News (William Dawson)
Zion’s Walls (Aaron Copland)
Shine Jesus Shine
He Endured the Cross (Carl H. Graun)
I Have Decided to Follow Jesus