In the Company of the Faithful
by Vincent Harding |
Journeying toward the Promised Land.
BUT RECALL THE FORMER DAYS when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward ...
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men and women of old received divine approval ...
By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death ... By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household ...
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised ...
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city ...
By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient ... Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute ... wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which 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 joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
—Hebrews 10:32-35; 11:1-2, 5-16, 35-40; 12:1-2
I need to reflect with you on some of the meaning for me and my life—and perhaps you and your life—of this great passage that has been so rich to so many of us, this statement of faith and hope from the letter to the Hebrew believers.
But before getting to that, I need to say that there is a set of experiences that has placed the Hebrews passage in a new and even more powerful setting for me. Over the past months my wife Rose and I have been very conscious—partly through the recent death of my mother—of the writing and thinking that's been going on in our times concerning "near-death experiences," the experiences that people have had as they approached the threshold of death and then moved back again.
One of the most powerful testimonies that occurs again and again in the words of those who have been on that threshold is the description of great, warm, welcoming light surrounding, suffusing, giving them a sense that there is nothing to fear at all. And then in the midst of that light, almost uniformly, they tell of the appearance of women and men and children, loved ones who have been important to them in their life, and who now stand in the light, in the midst of the threshold, to welcome them and to help them make the passageway through.
There is something marvelous about such scenes, partly because they bring us back to this great New Testament document that was written for those who, because of the dangerous commitment they had made to the way of Jesus, often had to face that threshold of death and new life. But what I also realize again is that not only is there this tremendous, magnificent, welcoming, loving host of folks who are prepared to welcome us into the light beyond this life, but also they are available to us now, on this side of death. Yes, the same cloud of witnesses is here now to help us live in the light; here to help us walk in the light; here to help us be enlightened in the fullest and deepest sense of that word, to help us walk in the truth.
And if there's anything I want to share, it is my conviction of how important it is that we get past any sense of spookiness, strangeness, or fear about the reality of this great cloud of witnesses whose fulfillment cannot take place without our own. I would call us to see and appreciate these folks who are like a great cheering squad for us. In the midst of everything that seems so difficult, that seems so powerful, that seems so overwhelming, they are saying to us: "We are with you," and "There is a way through; there is a way to stand; there is a way to move; there is a way to hope; there is a way to believe. Don't give up!"
To know them, to know that they are present, is to know that regardless of how alone we feel sometimes, we are never alone. We are never alone: nowhere, no how, in nothing. Never.
FIRST OF ALL I want you to remember to whom this letter was written: the Hebrew believers in Jesus, those who had come to the new way out of the Jewish experience. This letter was written to those men and women who had likely been good, upstanding members of the Jewish faith community. They were, in our terms, the ones who had been in the mainstream church for generation after generation after generation. Most of them probably knew their pedigree and their family's pedigree in that church, members from the very beginning.
But at some moment in that strange transformative time of history, these were the ones who had heard the call, had seen a vision, had been told that there is another city, there is another way to go. They had learned that "the way that my family and my family's family and their family have been going for all this time may not be the way for me, and this madman Jesus may have something to say to my life." They had heard the call of Jesus. They had heard the call of the kingdom. And what it meant was that they had to turn away from all that had been comfortable, from all that had been reasonable, safe, secure, and respectable. They had stepped out in a direction that was totally unpredictable, following a leader who had ended up on a cross.
So the writer speaks to them in loving, understanding, challenging ways, reminding them about when they first saw that light. He says, "Remember the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings" (Hebrews 10:32). You can just imagine what they must have gone through to take that step out of the mainstream into the wildness—into the wilderness with no assurance but the presence of God.
"Sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, sometimes being partners with those so treated" (verse 33). What a marvelous image! Not only were these people themselves publicly vilified and accused and called fools and stupid and subversive and all kinds of other names, but not being satisfied with that, some of them apparently—when they could have been relatively safe—went and stood with other people who were being accused in the same way. For they saw no real escape, no real safety for themselves as long as there was anyone who was under that kind of persecution.
The writer continues, "For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property" (verse 34). Yes, they are reminded, that when you went this way, some people said you were no longer under the protection of the law, and anybody could take what you had. And then you had to decide what was more important to you, your property or the way to which you were called. The letter says, not only did you accept the plundering of your property, but you all must have been crazy in the eyes of the world, because "you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised" (Hebrews 10:34-35).
After 15, 20, 30 years some of them were tired of this strange way. Some of the Hebrew Christians were surely wondering if they should not go back into the familiar way of their fathers and mothers. Everything was much clearer in the old way; everybody knew exactly what should be done in that way because people had been doing it for thousands of years. Compared to this Christian business, it seemed a safe way, and there must have been in many minds a tremendous temptation to escape all this vilification and abuse and strangeness and "walking-on-the-edge-ness."
So the loving writer says, "I understand all that, but what is needed now, more than anything else, is endurance. Don't give up. Hold on. Hold on. Keep your eye on the prize and hold on." (You may not see that in the text, but I see it. Some black folks added it to the canon in their own times of suffering.) And then to try to encourage the sufferers, he says to them, what you need most is faith, defining that faith as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).
HERE THE WRITER begins going through a list of folks who had lived in faith: Abraham, Enoch, Sarah, Noah—just running through the line-up, including a prostitute in the list of people who had lived by faith in God, making it clear that faith in God is available to everybody who is open to it.
Then the writer stops and picks up certain people, such as Abraham: "Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go" (Hebrews 11:8). That's a powerful image, important not only for the lives of those Hebrew folks, but for our lives: the call to go out to a place that does not fit into the computer program, where there is no predictability, where there is only wildness and unpredictability. That was Abraham, called to go out to a place, and he went out not knowing where he was to go.
For all those who believe that the Christian faith is a life of security, just chew on Abraham for a little while, and hear the believer who taught us that the Christian faith is not meant to lead to a life of security; rather, it is meant to be a life of "creative insecurity." If you are secure, you don't need grace. If you are secure, you don't need prayer. If you are secure, you don't need brothers and sisters. If you are secure, you don't need the power of God. You've got it all made.
But faith, the life of faith, is a life of walking, teetering, always not being quite sure whether or not you've made the right decision, but still enduring and calling out, "Where the hell am I, Lord? Hey! Hold my hand while I run this race, 'cause I don't want to run this race in vain."
Then we're told, "By faith [Abraham] sojourned in a land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob" (Hebrews 11:9). This is a marvelous way of telling us something about the way that we are called to live for this time. We are living in an age in which all the old sureties are falling apart, in which all the old structures that gave so much promise of security are breaking down and there is nothing to do but set up tents and say, "Hey! I see something else."
Set up the tents, as it were, in Washington, D.C., and say, "I see a city that is not separated by color or class, but I see a city where men and women and children of every color and every class are living and loving and working together to create a new society—a compassionate and just society, a beautiful city." Say to yourself, say to the world, "I see that, and I'm not just going to sing about it. I'm not just going to talk about it. I'm not just going to create beautiful liturgy about it. I'm going to bet my life on it. I'm going to be out there with my tent, ready for the time when the new city comes. As a matter of fact, I'm going to help make it come."
Thinking about that, saying that, doing that, we can remember that Rosa Parks didn't say, "Oh, I do believe the Lord wants us to live together as black and white and just have happy times together, and I'm going to sing about that in my church every night." No, she said, "I think the time has come now. The Lord wants us to live in a different way. I don't know why, but it looks like God's starting with me. So I'm going to stay sitting down on this seat until the Lord takes me and does what the Lord wants to do with me."
That's how things get started, by people taking wild bets with their lives, and saying, "I'm going to set up my tent here until the time comes for the real buildings to be built, and when they're built, I'm going to be right in the midst of them because I'm going to be among the builders, seeing things that nobody else sees, envisioning new ways of living, seeing cities that people say are crazy, totally unrealistic, not in the plan." That happens when we are able to testify out of our dreams, in our tents, "I believe in holiness. I believe in righteousness. I believe in justice. I'm ready for a new kind of city, for a new kind of coming together of men and women and children who can really celebrate the love and the grace of God." That's what the letter was talking about here, saying that all these crazy visionaries and tent-dwellers from long ago "died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it, and greeted it from afar" (Hebrews 11:13).
WE KNOW SOME of those folks, too. You remember the black young man who on that last night said, "I've been to the mountain top. I've seen the promised land. I may not get there myself, but you will get there." That's what it means to live a life of faith, not trying to gobble everything that you can get your hands on, not saying that if I can't see it, if I can't have it myself, then I don't believe in it. It means knowing that there is a city set out there, within here, for God's people, for all people, a city that is better than anything we have known. Living in faith means knowing that this is not someplace in the sky, but that it is in the hearts and lives of the women and men who will work for it, who will seek to create it.
Living in faith is knowing that even though our little work, our little seed, our little brick, our little block may not make the whole thing, the whole thing exists in the mind of God, and that whether or not we are there to see the whole thing is not the most important matter. The most important thing is whether we have entered into the process. Like Martin King talking to the old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, during the long bus boycott, asking, "Mama, why are you walking like this, walking miles and miles to work? I mean, you're not even going to benefit much from this new situation yourself." And she said, "Dr. King, I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing this for my grandchildren." That's why she could also say to him then, "Yes, Dr. King, my feets is tired, but my soul is rested."
That's how your soul gets rested, when you stop being selfish, when you stop thinking, working only for yourself, and start dreaming, as the Native Americans do, for seven generations beyond us. Your soul gets rested when you realize that your life is not meant to be captured just in your skin, but that your life reaches out to the life of the universe itself. And the life of the universe reaches into us and demands of us that we be more than we think we can be, demands that we live out these dreams.
So we look again at the letter to the Hebrews, the letter to us, and realize that this is living by faith. For people who speak and act in this way make clear that they are seeking a homeland, going to the homeland, bringing in the homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, the land of safety, the land of security, the land of doctrinal clarity, then they would have had the opportunity to return. But these crazy, wild sojourners desire a better country, which is a heavenly one. Therefore, we are told, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for God has already prepared for them a city.
Then the writer goes on to talk about all the other folks who are moving toward that city and, as they move, building, creating, adding to the city the quality, the truth, the integrity, the faith of their own lives. We are not allowed to forget them. The Hebrew Christians are not permitted to forget them. Here are the heroes of the faith. Here are the people. Here are the beautiful, suffering, overcoming people: women receiving their dead by resurrection; faithful ones tortured, refusing to accept release; the people suffering mocking, scourging, chains, imprisonment; and some stoned, some cut in two, some going around in caves and in deserts.
What a wild company we belong to! I mean, do you understand? These are our foreparents. Do you understand? These are the founders of our faith. Do you understand? These are the old alumni. These are the ones who established the "institution"—these wild people, persecuted people, afflicted people, impractical people, going-out-not-knowing-where-they're-going people.
IF THIS IS our ancestral faith community, then what is it that we are now called to be, to do in this day, in this hour? Has the work all been done, so that we can now sit down in quietness, safety, and security because the crazy part, the dangerous part is all over now? That doesn't seem to me to be what the writer was saying then, and I don't think that any of us living in the United States of America today can really believe that.
So the text speaks again to our hearts, speaks to our lives, as if to say, "Listen, sisters and brothers, we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. Sisters and brothers, do you see, do you know why we are surrounded by such a powerful community of struggle? Not so that we can admire them and talk about them and sing about them and pray about them. All of that is okay, beloved ones, but not sufficient. No, they are here so that they can fill us with courage and strength and life, in the great tradition of the wild baptizer by the Jordan, in the company of the lover on the cross. They are here so that we can move right on into the struggle that they helped to establish." Therefore, "let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run," let us run, let us run, "let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Jesus the Word was the pioneer of our faith both before and after Jesus of Nazareth. It was this compelling Word who drew all those long-ago people out of their safe places, out of their quiet places, out of their easy places, and said there is a city that needs to be created, and I want you to put your hands, your hearts, your minds to work.
And now we come in a place like this, we come in a city like this, we come in a nation like this, and we are tempted, almost before we begin, to be overcome. We are tempted to think there is no way that we can possibly deal with this imperial behemoth in which we are lodged. We come thinking that the powers of this world are just too much for us: multinationals, State Departments, Soviet and U.S. military juggernauts. There is just too much conflict, poverty, biting away, grinding away at the lives of our brothers and sisters, and we are tempted to run into a carpeted hole someplace and call that Christian faith, call that the church.
But it is very clear by now that that is not the way of our forebears. Rather, their way, and our way, is to get out of the hiding places, and to stand up, and to be afraid, with our knees knocking, with all kinds of tears coming to our eyes, with all kinds of unclarity about what even the next step is, but to stand and to know that we are not alone. It is to know that we are surrounded by a company, by a gathering, by a whole bunch of folks who care about us, who care about us because we're a part of the same company, part of the same wild community, citizens of a country that does not yet exist—and yet does.
AMONG US NOW are folks caring about us, crowding around the table of the Lord, leaving space for us. No one can tell you what you should say to them, but I would urge you to say something to them, because they're here, presente, present and accounted for. I know what I want to say to them, maybe the same as you, maybe something different, but let us welcome them.
Dorothy Day, thank you for being with us, you magnificent old curmudgeon! You beautiful, strong, determined woman, you old lover of the poor, thank you for being here. Teach us how to live creatively with the poor. Teach us how to live for the poor. Teach us how to make the poor the center of our concerns, Dorothy. And don't let us excuse ourselves with anything about being women, about not being married, about being old, about anything. Teach us, Dorothy. I don't know what you want to say to her, but that's what I want to say.
And Fannie Lou Hamer. "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." Thank you, Fannie Lou. People said you had only a fourth-grade Mississippi education, which they claim was no education at all; therefore, they said you were unqualified for anything. But, Fannie Lou, you taught us that life does not begin at Harvard or Princeton or Yale, but that it begins where women and men determine that they must lead a new life, and they must take on the powers of oppression, and they must not give in to injustice, and they must not allow anybody to press them down into the dirt.
Fannie Lou, teach us how not to let even poverty become an excuse for failing to enter into the process of creating God's kingdom. Thank you for your music. Sing it to us. Thank you for your life. Live it through us, Fannie Lou Hamer. Well, well! Something good can come out of the Delta of Mississippi! Thank you.
I need to deal with brother Clarence Jordan. For what Clarence showed me and showed us was that there ain't no sense in making all kinds of generalizations about white Southerners, and white Southern Baptists, and what they are and what they ain't, 'cause Clarence was white, and Southern, and Baptist, and Christian, and one of God's great heroes of this generation, who loved in such a way that all of the old hindering stuff could not only be overcome, but could be transformed into a gift of life.
Clarence needs to talk to us about something else, too. That is, how can you, after you have seen the light, after you have been led into the light, how can you—as he did—go back to your mama's and daddy's native soil and deal with those people there, and let them know that you have seen something else and that you're going to have to be something else, not in defiance, not in self-righteousness, but in love?
Clarence, it's hard to know how you did it, except through amazing grace and that great sense of humor. Now, brother Clarence, some of us ain't got much of that humor at all, especially when it comes to laughing at ourselves. So help us with that. That's right, you're the patron saint of senses of humor. Help us. Help us to laugh our way to the table.
AND HOW CAN we come to the table and not know that brother Tom Merton is right here, with his old, beat-up, longshoreman's wool cap on, looking like anything but a monk, but being an ultimate servant of God. Stand with us, Tom. Teach us how in the strangest, most isolated places you can let the pain of the world come into you, how you can feel black people in the monastery in Kentucky. How you can feel poor people, how you can feel them so much that you have no peace in your peaceful setting. Teach us, Tom, how to live in peace out of peace, how to stand in that paradox—and write poetry!
Of course, I want you to understand that you can't come to this table and have Tom Merton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, and Clarence Jordan here without somebody who used to be called Detroit Red walking up to the table, too. Yes, I know Malcolm X is here. Whatever else anybody thinks, thank God Malcolm is here, caring about us, knowing how to go through brutal, terrible, and desperate valleys of experience, and to keep moving with endurance, to keep running the race until the poet could say of him, "He became much more than there was time for him to be."
Malcolm, teach us how to become much more than we have time to be. Detroit Red. Oh, brother of the faith. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Oh, companion of Jesus in the hard way. Thank you. Assalam 'alaikum.
And I know that A.J. is holding him, old A.J. Muste. I don't know if he's still smoking his perennial cigarette, but if he is, then he's holding Malcolm with one hand, and saying, "Malcolm, I understood you all the time. I knew what passion for justice you were coming out of, and I'm so glad that we are here together."
The last time I remember seeing A.J. in any fullness was back in 1963 when John Kennedy was assassinated, when the Peace Walkers were traveling from Quebec to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and when they got stopped in South Georgia, and people were ready to kill them there. They came into our house to find refuge and quiet, and they were all upset, and some were a little crazy because they were under such stress and such pressure. Old A.J. came down from New York—or somewhere—and just calmed them, just said, "Now let's sit and talk about this. What are we going to do? What should be done?"
I want in my life AJ.'s grace under pressure, AJ.'s capacity to be calm and quiet facing the guns. In the midst of climbing over fences to get into missile sites, in the midst of holy disobedience, refusing to give his assent to the ways of war, in the midst of war itself, I want to be like A.J., so that when they're taking me off to jail, I'd want to, like him, know what the score is in the Yankees game that day. Thank you, A.J.
There are so many. As the writer says, "Tongue can hardly name them." Barbara Deming—sure, she's here. I don't understand all of Barbara Deming. I don't understand how she put together so many parts of her life. But I know that Barbara was in that Albany, Georgia jail with black people and white people, just calling upon Jesus in her own marvelously agnostic way. And I want the Barbara Demings to know that I know that they are here, and that we need their courage; and that some of us need to know how to be woman—how to be woman tough, how to be woman loving, how to be woman compassionate, how to be woman courageous, I how to be woman. I think Barbara knows something about that.
Do you know, do you sense, do you feel Martin here? Thank God for Martin Luther King Jr. Let him teach us whatever he will. Let him teach us how to choose, how to make hard choices for peace and freedom, even, as he did, against the fears of his parents and his friends. Let him teach us how to choose even against the ways of his tribe. Let him teach us how he got on the case for the poor, and once that scent was in his nostrils, how he was never to be turned aside from his total conviction that the poor must find life and power in our society. Martin, help us.
Gandhi, help us. Some people might wonder what you are doing at the table of the Lord. But if they are wondering, they probably don't belong here themselves. Thank you, thank you, brother Gandhi. Teach us the way of self-discipline. Teach us the way of fasting. Teach us the way of prayer that we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Bishop Oscar Romero. Presente. Thank you for being here. Teach us how to change our minds. Teach us how to face our own sons with the guns in their hands. And teach us to speak to them of love and compassion and the way of Jesus, which is not the way of guns. Teach us how to stand with the people, for the people, no matter what comes.
And then in this time there are witnesses who are very fitting for just this American hour, like Bonhoeffer, like the Confessing Church of Germany. What you taught us is that the time comes again and again in Christian faith when Christian people must go against their own government in order to go for life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, help us to know how to do that without self-righteousness, without fear, without recrimination, and, if you have learned, without being overwhelmed by the temptation to violence. In a time when our own government is moving against the compassion of God's love for the world, teach us how to speak and live truth, no matter what the cost. Teach us how to love America and its people so much that we will risk our lives in the struggle for transformation, for the new city, for the new land. Thank you.
Of course, each of us has some of our own most personal and cherished witnesses to deal with, to talk and listen to. I've got Mabel and Gordon and Dock and Fred and Howard and Sister Viola. Thank you for your love. Thank you for your light.
WELL, HERE WE ARE, all present and accounted for. What a gang! What a table! What a host! What a chance for holding and being held, for feeding and being fed, for giving, receiving, and being the light.
No excuse for drooping—at least not for long. No excuse for not running—or at least walking strong. No excuse for staying down. 'Cause we are surrounded, folks. So, let's straighten up, and shuck off; let's get refreshed at the table, and then get down with some real long-distance walking and running—and maybe even some flying, like eagles, in due time. That's our tradition. That's our destiny. That's our hope. So go right on, sisters and brothers, people of the tents: walk in the light, run with the cloud, mount up on your wings, follow the Pioneer. There is a city to build.
Now, until we meet again, until we meet again in love and struggle and hope, may God bless you and strengthen you and keep you—and give you at least a few good laughs along the way. Amen. Amen.
When this article appeared, Vincent Harding, a Sojourners contributing editor, was professor of religion and social transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. This sermon was preached at Sojourners Community worship in February 1985.