29 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. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32 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— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They 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— 38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.
12Therefore, 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, 2looking 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.
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Scholars wonder if this letter was written after the Jewish temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. It may have been written to an early Jesus-following, Jewish community living in the gutted despair of God’s house being devastated, and along with it, their traditional ways of connecting to God. On top of that, early Jesus-followers really thought Jesus was coming back a second time very soon, and if this was written after the destruction of the temple, it had now been decades without Jesus’ hoped for return. And so the writer is trying to figure out how to comfort and encourage this despairing, disoriented people. As theologian Casey Overton puts it, “When the 70 CE revolution left the Temple in a heap of ruins, any Jewish spiritual leader with a soul would have been desperate for means to console a devastated people, especially if they also had waning hope in a supposed messiah who remained absent after an entire generation.” (Casey Overton, Hebrews 11:29-12:2 – enfleshed: spiritual nourishment for collective liberation, pg. 6)
The writer may very well be speaking to an exhausted people, trying to shore up their flagging resilience. Trying to help them lay aside the weight holding them down so that they can keep going. And so, these words speak to us, don’t they? Some are of older generations that never dreamed their progress to secure basic human rights could be undone so quickly. Some are of younger generations who know we are inheriting a planet so ravaged by human greed that human life isn’t looking possible in the decades to come. And I imagine all of us, depending on our level of privilege, are either exhausted from desperately working to survive oppression or emotionally beaten down as we wonder if any of our efforts to resist could ever be enough.
Into this swirling storm of discouragement and uncertainty, the writer of Hebrews decides that the best strategy to re-energize God’s people is to root them – to root us – in the stories of their ancestors. And not just any ancestors – but a lineage that actually holds some surprises in who is left out of the list and who is written in. In the Jewish Annotated New Testament, the editors tell us that this “list of heroes… reflects some unusual choices. Except for a passing mention of David at the end… the author includes no priests or kings. Certain expected highlights do not appear,” the editors write, “and unexpected ones do.” (“Heroes of the Faith” (essay), The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Second Edition, Fully Revised and Expanded, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, 2011, pg. 481.) We don’t get much on expected names like Abraham or Moses, considered basic building blocks of God’s people. But we do get names like Rahab, who is the main ancestor highlighted in this part of the letter. Rahab was a sex worker who betrayed her own people to hide Israel’s spies, leading to the destruction of Jericho. She is highlighted not as a person “distinguished by [her] comrades…” as the editors write, “[but] distinguished from them.” (“Heroes of the Faith”) Her role as an outsider involved in Israel’s history of liberation is then followed by a pretty gory description of the many trials faced by others who followed similarly wild and unpredictable paths in search of that “something better” future they believed God had promised.
So, this morning, with the author of Hebrews, I invite all of us to take a break from wearily looking forward into an impossible future as we take a moment to look back. In these times when the world we thought we knew is crumbling, let’s reclaim some of those radical ancestors of the holy resistance we may have forgotten about, who – like Rahab – our society has largely ignored, or maybe who we never knew about before. Let’s remember an ancestor some in our own church family today are related to by blood, Victoria Freeman, the great-great-great grandmother of Oliver, who we will baptize today, who, as a Black mother and community leader in 1924, refused to accept a racially-segregated status quo here in our own county. Victoria took her two sons, Calvin and Oliver, to be enrolled in the newly opened Kessler School in resistance to a principal who did not want them admitted based on the color of their skin. (Quoted from excerpt from R.A. Long’s Planned City: The story of Longview, by John M. McClelland Jr.) Let’s remember an ancestor some of you may not be familiar with, Anne McCarty Braden, “a journalist and community organizer from Louisville, Kentucky… [who] is best known for helping a Black couple buy a house in an all-White neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky in 1954… [and] she and her husband were put on trial for sedition, banned from jobs, threatened, and reviled by their fellow White Southerners for what they did.” (White Antiracist Activists, compiled by Elizabeth Denevi and Lori Cohen, Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative.) Let’s remember another ancestor, Henry Gerber, a German immigrant who founded the Society for Human Rights, the first documented gay rights organization in the United States. Gerber’s small group of co-laborers published a few issues of its newsletter “Friendship and Freedom,” the country’s first gay-interest newsletter, even though police raids forced the group to disband in 1925. (“The Legacy Project: Henry Gerber – Nominee – 1892 – 1972”.) Let’s remember ancestor Berta Cárceres, a Honduran environmental activist and indigenous leader who led a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam. She was assassinated in her home by armed intruders who were linked to US special forces training, after years of threats against her life. (“2015 GOLDMAN PRIZE WINNER – Berta Cáceres.”)
I’ve put together a handout for you to take with you today with pictures and stories of some of these saints of the holy resistance. I’ll make sure this handout gets shared in the chat with those of you on Zoom. These handouts are cut-out cards you can put up around your home, on your bathroom mirror, in your car, anywhere this ancestor can speak to you, cheering you on towards the hope of liberation for all they spent their life working towards. I’ve even left a blank card on the handout for you to fill in with your own ancestor, someone inside or outside your own bloodline, who inspires you to take your place in the great cloud of witnesses.
The author of Hebrews longs for tired and weary folx like us to know that we are not the first generation to resist the empire. When we are tired, let’s say Victoria’s name. When we want to give up, let’s remember Anne’s story. When we feel alone, let’s recall Berta and her resistance to the powers of greed. When we wonder if our resistance matters, let’s not forget about Henry. Reclaim your lineage of holy resistance today, Church. And with a deep breath, may the weight fall from your shoulders, even just for a moment, to help you take the next step on the journey. And may this cloud of witnesses lift us, encourage us, and buoy us as we make our way forward on the path of liberation. Amen.