People Who Speak This Way
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
FPC Auburn, AL
32 "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 "But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
1 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. 8 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. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." 13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, 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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
An Ode To Sunday School
Months ago, as I was planning for today, my thought was that this sermon would be somewhat of an “ode to Sunday School” to get the fall kicked off. And then the summer began to unfold. Details of inhumane conditions at our southern border. Last weekend, not one but two acts of mass violence in El Paso and Dayton. And now, stories of parents being taken into custody with no thought given as to what would happen to their children. And the closer we got to today the more I began to wonder if a sermon on the importance of Sunday School would seem a bit absurd.
Unless maybe, now more than ever, the time we spend here each week in worship and study, set apart time to come before God and be strengthened in our faith - is exactly what we need to recommit ourselves to if we are to go out and witness to God’s justice and redemption.
A History of Fear
If we can find a way to take a step back and look at the greater scope of history we’re quickly reminded that acts of hate-fueled violence don’t materialize out of nowhere. They begin with words and ideologies rooted almost exclusively in a rhetoric of FEAR.
In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Act, granting black men (former slaves) citizenship rights in United States. Now, these former slaves could vote. Now, they could even run for office. They could go to school. They could have a voice, their words and ideas could be heard and shared and help bring about change following an era of inexcusable treatment.
And this scared white supremacists.
And people who are scared begin to think and say things to distance themselves from the ones they are afraid of.
“If we don’t put them in their place, they will try to take over our government.” they would say.
“If we don’t do something about this, they will try to take our property. Our women. Our money.”
For awhile, federal troops remained in the south to try and keep things somewhat under control. But in 1877, just ten years after the Reconstruction Act was passed, the troops were withdrawn and there began what theologian James Cone refers to as “a nightmare worse than slavery”. He writes:
“Assured of no federal interference, southern whites were now free to take back the South, to redeem it from what they called, ‘Negro domination,’ through mob violence — excluding blacks from politics, arresting them for vagrancy, forcing them to work as sharecroppers who never got out of debt, and creating a rigid segregated society in which being black was a badge of shame with no meaningful future.”
All this, its effects still present among us today, began with words and ideas that sprung from FEAR. We look back now at moments like this and think, “Why didn’t anyone do anything?” And the reason is - because they were AFRAID. When we start to believe in the rhetoric of fear, that is when we begin the slow turn away from the God who, throughout the canon of Scripture over and over again says to us, “FEAR NOT.”
Today’s letter to the Hebrews was written to a community struggling with their fears as they are negotiating the anxiety of the world around them. Some of its members are experiencing a crisis of faith, others have just stopped coming to church all together. They are tired. They’re not sure how much longer they can go on keeping the faith, keeping that lamp lit - staying awake until the master returns because each and every day they wake up to more bad news.
So this author decides to use human words to point to the perseverance of God’s Word throughout a history of suffering and uncertainty. To borrow some language from scholar Mary Foskett, “Today’s passage is a summons to faith and a word of encouragement to a community who appears to have grown weary of the Christian life. They… are struggling to see a way forward. The letter is written… in the hope of reawakening the community’s faith.”
And in order to reawaken their faith, the writer urges them to step out of that particular moment to reflect upon the greater scope of their history, and does so by telling their Christian story of faith back to them:
Remember when Abraham didn’t know where he was going or what was going to happen to him?
Remember how long he had to wait and suffer before God’s promises were fulfilled?
Remember how long it took for Sarah’s weeping to eventually turn to laughing?
“Therefore” the scripture says, “from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
Each one of them - and each one of us - is one of these grains of sand. No wonder we can feel so small and overwhelmed at times.
But this is our story, the letter is saying, people who walked a long and weary road because they believed God who could redeem anything.
We are people often misunderstood by the masses who operate out of fear because all they want is power and control while we worship a savior who is a servant lord, who calls us to humble ourselves and love God and our neighbor - no matter what they look like or where they come from.
We are people who believe that life can come from death - because we believe in a resurrected Lord.
But this sense identity doesn’t just happen. It has to be nurtured. And that is why the writer is urging the Hebrews to renew their commitment to be present in the community of faith. For worship, for Sunday School, for fellowship and breaking of bread. Offering this time to God each week is crucial to tending to our spiritual lives in order for us to serve as agents of transformation in a broken world.
We’ve looked at the big story - the great wide biblical story. But also important to nurturing that sense of identity are the stories that come from our particular church families of faith. And I’m grateful to Betty Hare (formerly Betty McChesney) for sitting down with me this week to share a story from this church of what it looks like for those nurtured in a community of Christian faith to become agents of transformation in times of chaos.
In the fall of 1965, Auburn High School was integrated for the first time. Two African-American students, one boy and one girl, were enrolled. This was less than a decade after the Little Rock Nine - imagine the, Auburn Two. How scary that must have been for them, for their parents. Talk about fear.
In high school, the lunch room can be an intimidating place no matter what your circumstances. So imagine that first semester, being the only two of their race in 1960s Alabama. Entering that lunch room and knowing where to sit was not just intimidating but possibly even dangerous.
But Betty had been raised here at First Presbyterian, which, like several other churches in this town, stood in support of the integrating the high school and in fact had many members behind the scenes of this effort. Betty says she always felt so encouraged and supported by this church. I imagine that the prophetic words and witness of her church family is part of what gave her the courage to invite the only black girl in the school to sit at her lunch table along with her friends who were Jewish and Catholic and perhaps knew a bit about what it was like to speak and act in a way that those caught up in messages of fear might not understand.
They all became friends, and later as the school continued to integrate Betty’s group of friends became even more racially diverse. Which some people in this community did not like. And wanted to shut down. So what did they do? Those who were afraid decided to use words - rumors, to be exact - to stir up more fear about these relationships.
A rumor began that Betty was doing things with one of these boys that she should not have been doing. It was a lie, told to create controversy, chaos, and perpetuate division.
A member of this church, Fowler Duggar, caught wind of the rumor and came to the session. He said, “This is a child of this church, and we cannot allow this to go on.” They had raised her up to be this way so now they were going to stand by her. It was decided that he would go, as a representative of the church, to the person they knew was spreading these lies, confront the behavior, and insist that the rumors stop.
We forget, I think, what a dangerous time this was in the life of our nation. And so it’s easy to take for granted the courage displayed by those who were willing to go out on a limb, both for people they knew and loved but also for the sake of what they knew to be right and true in the eyes of God. And courage like that doesn’t just happen. It grows from an identity rooted in the courage of Jesus Christ - his stories of breaking down barriers, disobedience in the face of injustice, speaking truth in the face of corrupt powers and love in the face of fear.
So back to where we started - an “Ode to Sunday School”. I believe that the members of the Auburn First Presbyterian Church session knew what to do in that moment and that the ones who spoke up against slavery in the 1860s and for Civil Rights in the 1960s knew what to say and in turn what to do because throughout their entire lives they had been shaped and formed by the words of Jesus’ gospel.
When they watched horrific acts unfolding before them, there was a voice in their head of the one who said to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be AFRAID.”
When they saw terror and hate unfolding before them, the echoes of a hymn, rang in their ears, “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us…”
But the only reason these words would spring to mind is if someone had planted them, like seeds, long ago - and then carefully tended to them throughout the years. Watering, weeding, fertilizing the message of the gospel so that in due time it would spring forth.
Christian formation happens by spending time in the community of faith, immersing ourselves in the Word through worship and study - together. Throughout our entire lives.
What if we thought about these two hours of the week as the fuel that will keep our lamps lit for the darkness we will encounter?
Just two hours - in which we tell and retell the stories of the ones in Scripture who persevered, who found strength when they were weary, who were transformed by God’s grace and then went out into the world to speak truth to power. Because when those stories become a part of us, we become people who speak in this way. And now more than ever, our world needs us to be those people.