Deuteronomy 4.5-9

Hebrews 11, selected Verses

On the Shoulders of Giants

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A week ago Friday I stood in the ancient Roman Pantheon.  Built in the middle of the second century, it was dedicated to all the gods -  pan theon – all the gods the Romans revered. It held statues of Venus and Mars as well as of the emperor Augustus – emperors were also regarded as gods.  Five hundred years after it was built the Pantheon was converted into a church – renamed St Mary and the Martyrs – and the pagan statuary was removed and replaced with Christian statues and symbols.  While St Mary and the Martyrs is still nearly universally known as the Pantheon, it stands as an example of one tradition building upon another.

This pattern of one tradition or culture succeeding another occurs regularly through history, especially evident in that part of the world.  I noticed it when we visited northern Greece and Turkey years ago, where Greek and Roman Christians and Ottoman Muslims held a kind of centuries-long tug of war over the territories.  For example, in Istanbul there are multiple mosques that were originally churches, and some churches that were originally mosques, and it is worth remarking that they coexist so well.  I never sensed any tension between the two faiths when I was there.  But the most striking example, to me anyway, is the church of St Panteleimon in Thessaloniki, in the Macedonian region of northern Greece.  Built in 1295 as the Monastery of St Isaac, it was converted in 1548 and became the Mosque of Ishak, the Islamic word for Isaac.  And then in 1912 it was converted back into a Christian church known today as St Panteleimon named for a 4th century saint  So you’ve got a Christian church that was built on a mosque that was built on a Christian Church.  One tradition building upon another building upon another.

Now there are different ways to think about this.  One might be to lament the fact that an earlier tradition has been superseded or supplanted by another.  And I confess, this is what occurred to me when I stood in that grand Pantheon in Rome last week.  The dome of the Pantheon is the largest unsupported and unreinforced dome in the world.  At the very top is the oculus, an opening that looks up to the sky.  It is one hundred forty two feet from floor to roof and one hundred forty two feet in ceiling diameter.  And since it was a monument to the ancient gods, there is a part of me, believe it or not, that wishes the church had not removed the ancient historic statues and replaced it with Christian imagery.  But at the same time, the fact that it was converted into a church is probably what saved the Pantheon from being destroyed during the Crusades when nearly everything that was considered pagan was either razed or brutally repurposed.

But another way to look at it is to honor the fact that each succeeding iteration finds a way to build upon its predecessor, without having to make the assumption that it somehow has to be either better or worse than its predecessor.  It is neither better nor worse, it is just next.

We get a sense of this succession in this morning’s reading from Hebrews.  Hebrews 11 is a long chapter, which is why I read only sections from it, but we get the sense of generations of God’s people emerging as the chapter unfolds.

“By faith Noah built an ark to save his household… by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance… by faith Moses refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter… by faith Rahab did not perish with those who were disobedient… by faith the people Israel passed through the Red Sea as if on dry land… by faith Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets…” 

Each one builds upon who has come before until in the end it comes home to us:  “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

The unnamed writer of Hebrews is not trying to demonstrate that each successive generation is better or more faithful than the one that came before.  Each is noteworthy and remarkable in his and in her own right.  What they all have in common is that each plays a role in the long history of God’s salvation, and each makes a contribution to the development of a faith and a culture that leads to Jesus Christ.

“If I have seen further than others it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.”  It was most likely Sir Isaac Newton who said it, but it has been applied to a wide variety of uses.  “If I have seen further than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Newton was referring to the work of Descartes and others who went before him.  But we know what Newton meant:  we are the people we are thanks in part to those who have gone before us.  God’s covenant with Noah made the covenant with Abraham possible.  Moses’ faithfulness led to the people Israel trusting him as they crossed the Red Sea.  Samuel’s wisdom led to the anointing of David as King.  And the long list of Hebrew witnesses – and remember, this New Testament book was written particularly to the Hebrew people – set the stage for the advent of the messiah.  We are the people we are thanks in part to those who have gone before us.

So I wonder, how does this work for you?  Two weeks ago Marie Ready preached in our pulpit; I’ve been told by more than one of you that between Marie and Lol Fearon, I’ve got some serious competition on my hands, and frankly, I’m grateful for it!  My only lament is that I wasn’t here to hear them.  But I do know one of the reasons Marie wanted to preach that last Sunday in September is because the date was close to her mother’s birthday, and her mother was an influential person in Marie’s life.  In fact it’s safe to say that Marie is the woman of faith she is today, at least in part, because of her mother before her.  And it’s not just our parents.  You and I have been shaped by grandparents, by uncles and aunts, by neighbors and teachers, by co-workers and colleagues, sometimes by random acquaintances who have taught us important life lessons, perhaps unknowingly.  I know that one of the reasons I can enjoy my ministry among you so much as I do is because of the work done before me by people like Kathy Peters and George Easton – ministers of the gospel on whose shoulders I stand.

The same idea applies on this Columbus Day weekend, as it has become coupled with honoring the people who were here before Columbus arrived, when we reflect on America’s Indigenous Peoples.  As much as it is a day to celebrate an explorer, it is also one to remember those on whose shoulders that explorer stood.  In our own little corner of the world we lift up those who lived in the Valley region before it was settled by Europeans.  That’s why it’s important to know the meaning of words like Connecticut, Pattaconk, Cockaponsett, Higganum and Wangunk – and not just their meaning, but whose words they are.  Because here too is the sense that we stand on the shoulders – indeed we stand on the very ground itself – of those who were here before us.  If indeed we can see further than others, it is thanks to them.

And so that leaves us with a question:  who will stand on our shoulders?  Who will be able to see further, to do more good work, to change others’ lives for the better, to witness to the love and justice of our Lord Jesus Christ, because of the work you and I have done to create the foundation?  To put it another way, we – you and I – are the giants on whose shoulders future generations will stand.  What kind of world will they inherit?  What will the environment look like?  How will they exercise social justice?  What of our lives will tell them about the God we love and serve?  How will they love and serve their community and their world?  How much further will they be able to see from our shoulders?  May the answers to these questions be our lasting gift to them.

Amen.

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