Making History

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, on August 18, 2019.

I meet every week with a small Bible study group where I live and we’ve been making our way through the so-called history books: 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. And the Bible is unlike the sacred scriptures of any other faith because of books like those, books of history. Much of the Bible is history, history, not teaching, or, rather, teaching with history. If you’re into comparative religion you can look at the Muslim Koran and the Hindu Bhagavadgita or the Buddhist Pali Canon and Agama and you will find wisdom but you will not find anything like the history books of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Even the Old Testament this morning provides history indirectly as a parable.

Today we have to look at the first New Testament reading to get the Old Testament history summarized. It has to be summarized here, the author says,

For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets– who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; . . . (They were) destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy.

The passage ends by saying:

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 author and perfecter of our faith

One modern translation puts it: Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” I like that: “pioneer and perfecter.” I like that because Americans know about pioneers: people who range out ahead, exploring new land, settling, finally, even places like California and maybe the moon and Mars. Human beings are pioneers by nature. Think of the very first Americans crossing the Bering Strait – long before Jamestown or Plymouth – and moving down the west coast of the continent and spreading out across America first from west to east: first California, then New York, – that’s not the sequence they taught me in school but that’s what those first Americans did and not stopping in California either but moving also further south, crossing the border into Mexico without a wall to stop them. And all of that is part of the larger chronicle of which the Bible gives us only snippets, bits and pieces, but significant bits and pieces in which we can see more clearly the things we need to know about human society and human nature, things God wants us to learn and knows that we can learn by experience better than books. Our sacred book, our Bible, does have teaching, yes, of course, but grounded always in human experience, in history. We know because we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we’ve learned from events.

We’ve had some history lessons in recent weeks, haven’t we? Not for the first time. How many times do we need to be taught the same lesson before we act? Take chapter 4 of the Bible, for example: the story of Cain and Abel? In the larger picture – this is a personalized summary of what happens when shepherds and farmers, ranchers and farmers, have their eyes on the same land. But Abel was a keeper of sheep And Cain was a tiller of the soil. It’s condensed history: the Jews come on the scene as keepers of sheep moving into farm land in Canaan and fighting with the native farmers for that land. You can’t grow lettuce if the cattle aren’t fenced out and you can’t raise cattle if somebody fenced off the grazing land. So Cain and Abel happened, and it happened again as the west was settled, first by ranchers until human beings recognize that God made human beings for a purpose, that God made them to live together in peace and they need to learn the art of compromise and find ways to settle disputes before it comes to blows.

There came a time, long ago, when human beings understood that well enough to sum it up in four words: Thou shalt not kill. And later they learned an even better way to say it: love your neighbor as yourself. We learned that out of history by sad experience – or started to learn it because we’re not there yet, are we? Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Gilroy, Dayton, El Paso – the list gets longer and longer. How long, O Lord, how long?

Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted that question again and again. If you are black in America, you’re bound to ask. In one of his greatest sermons, King said,

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, . . . Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, . .. . How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?” I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.” How long? Not long: How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, because: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .

And our eyes have seen the glory in the battles raging now in the streets of Charlottesville and El Paso and still in Ferguson, Missouri, where American citizens are still stopped for driving while black as a good friends of mine have been even on Long Island and in northwestern Connecticut just a few years ago. It happens. It’s happening right now. But what we see when these dreadful things take place – what we’ve seen when people come together in a common grief – what we’ve seen is always a renewed determination to work and pray for something better. Not thoughts and prayers, Not hope and pray. No, but work and pray. Make a commitment to change, make a commitment to work and give to the city that has foundations. a commitment to the kingdom of God. A commitment to work together in faith remembering, remembering what God’s people have accomplished in faith, what we read about this morning:

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, By faith the walls of Jericho fell . . .

By faith we will move on. And we read last week in this same passage from Hebrews about those others:

who confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way (we read) make it clear that they are seeking a homeland, that they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Yes, and some people are willing to wait, but I think God gives us the vision of that heavenly city to make us less patient with this one. I think we wouldn’t mind so much what’s happening if we didn’t have a vision of a different world, a better community. But we do and that’s why we’re not willing to settle for things as they are.

Dorothy L Sayers once said, “The best kept inns are on the through roads.” That was a hundred years ago. The best kept inns today are likelier to be at the airports than the train stations. We’re people in a hurry and now we know what’s possible and we’re not willing to wait. It’s because we have that vision that the patterns of life are being challenged and that’s frightening to some people who don’t share the vision, who think they can turn the clock back and build walls and deny travel documents to stop change from happening. It can’t be done. God is at work. Mine eyes have seen the glory – the glory of the vision of a nation where color no longer matters and ethnicity no longer matters but love matters and justice matters and peace matters and the faith that we can get there is the faith proclaimed in the readings last week and this: the faith that is shaking the foundations to tear down the city of human pride and build up the city of God

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