Throughout history, people of faith have struggled to see their way through the storms of life. The author of Hebrews called the early church to remember the “cloud of witnesses” who had persevered before them. As we endure another time of suffering in the world, where do we go from here?
Hebrews 11:1-3; 8-10
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
A little girl named Grace was a bit of a challenge for her parents. She was extremely curious, wanting to know how everything worked. This curiosity led her to dismantle seven alarm clocks. Rather than squash her daughter’s curiosity, Grace’s mother finally limited her to experimenting with one alarm clock at a time.
Born in 1906, little girls weren’t exactly encouraged to pursue math and science. With the support of her mother and father, young Grace went on to study math and physics at Vassar, then earn her PhD from Yale in 1931. After teaching at Vassar, Dr. “Amazing Grace” Hopper joined the Navy. Rear Admiral Hopper is best known as one of the first computer programmers. She believed that computer coding should be as easily understood as spoken languages and was instrumental in developing a language called COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) that directly impacted the evolution of technology we use today. Grace is also credited with coining the phrase “debugging” as an engineering term, as she once had to remove a moth from a computer she was working on!
Dr. Hopper said she was inspired in part by the quote, “A ship in harbor is safe—but that is not what ships are built for.” She made the quote her own, adding, “Sail out to sea and do new things.” Having lived through the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, she obviously knew that ships in harbor were far from safe. The little girl who took apart all of the alarm clocks knew that being proactive and challenging the status quo—even when the precise route isn’t yet known—is required for transformation.
In today’s Scripture lesson from Hebrews, we encounter one of many communities in the early church wrestling with faith in a time of crisis. Likely written about 60 years after the resurrection of Jesus, the new converts to the faith are under fire. At best, these new followers of “The Way,” have been shamed and cast out by former friends. Many have lost possessions and been imprisoned. The author reminds them of the uncertain journey of their ancestors in the faith in Hebrews 11:8-10:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
Pastor and commentator David E. Gray points to a closer look at the Greek context of the word for faith, pistis. Gray explains that, “In Greek mythology, Pistis was one of the spirits who escaped Pandora’s box and fled back to heaven, abandoning humanity.” Jesus was encountering a culture in which many believed that the spirit of faith had already left. According to Gray, “. . . The book of Hebrews was written partly to combat such melancholy and to encourage Christians who were having trouble holding onto hope when Christ did not return immediately after his resurrection.”
The author of Hebrews defines faith as “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1) Knowing that the congregation was discouraged and exhausted, Hebrews points to a series of ancestors who had fought the good fight: “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.” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Who is in your “cloud of witnesses?”
When times are challenging or when you would prefer to play it safe and keep the ship safely at port, who inspires you to step out in faith?
One of mine is still living. In fact, our family just celebrated the 90th birthday of my Grandma Patti last week. Grandma is constantly praying. She is the type of person that says, “I’ll be praying for you,” and truly will be. When I introduced my grandparents to Colleen after we had only been dating a month and they started talking about “when you get married,” it was a little awkward, but I believe that her prayers were helping me make the right decisions.
She prayed when she learned that she had polio as a young mother with three sons under the age of five, and fully recovered. Grandma prayed as I transitioned from the business world to ministry. Grandma prayed through the devastating loss of my grandfather to suicide and continues to do so today as my Uncle Garry, her firstborn, nears the end of his battle with cancer. Though she doesn’t always get the answer she wants, she keeps praying for God’s will.
Since such a tremendous cloud of witnesses surrounds us, why shall we despair?
Like the recipients of today’s Scripture from Hebrews, we are called to step out in faith as individuals and as a congregation. Looking around this congregation, I see people who are trying to start and build businesses and careers, as others seek to bridge back into employment. Our students are getting ready to go back to school, with many feeling pressure of making new friends or preparing for college. I see people for whom getting here today meant facing pain or transportation challenges.
I pray that the Holy Spirit guide you with wisdom and strength and comfort.
May you draw from your cloud of witnesses, including Jesus himself.
Beyond individual challenges, the Calvary family includes voters of every political persuasion—yes, there are more than two parties—and people from other countries processing all they are encountering in America right now. Many have told me that you feel nervous and actively avoid political conversations.
Thus, it is challenging when your church community posts Pride flags and Black Lives Matter banners. Please know that I hear you when you say you would prefer not to stir up tension in the neighborhood. I also understand why many at Calvary and in society would rather say “all lives matter” than specify any particular group.
In an ideal world, a church named Calvary wouldn’t need to feature any signs. For those new to the faith, Calvary was the hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified on the cross because God so loved the world–the whole world.
In our actual world, many churches named Calvary featuring crosses have explicitly and implicitly told specific groups that they are not welcome. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has only recently deemed LGBTQI people welcome to be officially ordained as elders, deacons and pastors, and for pastors to legally officiate at weddings. While this is good progress, Christian churches in San Francisco and around the world still actively condemn homosexuality and advocate for conversion therapy. In this actual world in which gay youth are twice as likely to commit suicide as peers, we see it as worthwhile to specifically make it clear that Calvary fully welcomes our LGBTQI brothers and sisters.
Because the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t been around as long and has been labeled by some opponents as an advocate of violence toward police or statement of prioritizing one race over another, more tension has arisen.
I understand why one would ask questions, and welcome discussion in our open forum after church today, or I’m honored to meet with you in the near future.
Last Thursday when he spoke at the Interfaith Council briefing at Calvary, I asked Interim SFPD Chief Toney Chaplin whether he was offended by our Black Lives Matter banner, or saw it as an indictment of all police. “Quite the opposite,” Chaplin said. He went on to explain how he is obviously pro-police. At the same time, he has had his own share of challenging encounters with police as a black man out of uniform and knows reform is necessary. He wants to improve the community for everyone and is already working on practical changes to save lives. We discussed Calvary’s desire to serve as an ally and advocate for police reforms including implicit bias training for police and congregation members.
Chief Chaplin sees Calvary and other members of the Interfaith Council as partners to build community, listen, and take action.
Some people thoughtfully continue to ask why we would not simply put up a banner that says “All Lives Matter” or not display any banner at all. As a church that strives to welcome everyone, I applaud the desire to be radically inclusive and enter into conversation.
So why are we saying “Black Lives Matter” in the rather progressive City of St. Francis?
Please consider the following:
Black Lives Matter is about much more than policing.
As a congregation, we have already been working to address the socioeconomic disparities through partners including San Francisco Achievers, New Door Ventures, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Raphael House. The work is a start, and I am encouraged to see more people stepping up!
A neighbor from Pacific Heights dropped by Calvary last week to express support for the banners. “You wouldn’t go to a breast cancer awareness event and start shouting that ‘all cancers matter,’” she explained. “Of course everyone matters, but you must deal with the urgent need before you.” One of her family members is African-American. She described how people stare at him when he is with her and how that makes him feel like an outsider.
Black Lives Matter is about more than the implicit biases that we all have, and about more than statistics. It is about the dozens of mothers and other loved ones who have lost loved ones to community violence. Today in the forum after church we’ll hear from Paulette Brown, mother of Aubrey Abrakasa Jr., who was gunned down by six men a few blocks from Wallenberg Traditional High School (near the newer Target store here in the city). Aubrey, only 17, was not in a gang and was about to start his senior year. Today is the tenth anniversary of Aubrey’s death. Paulette continues to call for justice and Chief Chaplin agreed to reopen Aubrey’s case. As Paulette grieves and advocates, she helps lead a “Circle of Healing” for other mothers who have lost loved ones to violence. I firmly believe that Aubrey were a member of this church we would all fight tirelessly for Paulette to have closure. Through Christ, Aubrey and Paulette and all other young men and women who have lost their lives are members of The Church!
We have work to do.
We all have work to do to live into Christ’s challenging call. I know it can be very uncomfortable, and understand why we would prefer to keep things calm.
But would this relative calm be the peace that Jesus calls us to?
In March of 1956, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon called, “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.” Dr. King interprets the words and actions of Jesus to mean: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency,” King preached. “Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.”
The absence of tension is not true peace.
Yet we like to remain comfortable and all-too-easily revert to our old ways.
The alarm clock dismantling little girl who became the technology revolutionary Dr. Grace Hopper said, “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”
People of Calvary, we have worked to make strides just as those who served here before us did. As the clock ticks, too many systems of discrimination seem to be repeating themselves. Let’s take the clock apart!
As individuals and as a congregation, may we step out in faith, bolstered by our cloud of witnesses from Abraham to Moses to Martin Luther King and Grace Hopper. May Jesus the Christ lead the way!
 “Admiral ‘Amazing Grace’ Hopper, pioneering computer programmer.” Amazing Women in History, Oct. 2013. http://www.amazingwomeninhistory.com/amazing-grace-hopper-computer-programmer/
 The quote is traced to John A. Shedd’s 1928 book of sayings, Salt from My Attic.
 David E. Gray in Bartlett, David L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On the Word, Year C (4 Volume Set). 4 vols. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pg. 328-32.
 http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/, “#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and dead 17-year old Trayvon was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder.”