Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Today God invites you and me to recognize and claim our own place in that great parade of people who have said “yes” to God, and “yes” to the things of God. I’m hoping we’ve brought our marching clothes, and that we will join in that great procession today – in this time and place. God has work for us to do, and God has given each of us an array of gifts that, in using the appropriately, will transform the lives of other; and also give us the please of making a difference in this world.
Each of us has our arena of responsibility, our place of connection. When we are paying attention, we can be effective witnesses of God’s truth. Sometimes it is easy, and sometimes it is very costly. But always, always, in generously sharing our gifts, transformation comes – new life is born, and the former things are no more.
I can tell you a couple of stories.
This coming week on the church calendar – August 14th – we are remembering Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who died on that date in 1965 in the heart of the Civil Rights movement in our country. Jonathan was a seminarian – at just my age. I was a year out of seminary by then. Jonathan, like many, felt called to action, to help in some way to re-balance the racial inequality in our land at that time. On his final trip to the south he ended up with a few others in a small town in Alabama. They were all arrested and put in jail, only to be released that evening out into the darkness. As they made their way into the little general store to buy some soft drinks they were confronted by an angry deputy sheriff who aimed his shotgun directly at Ruby Sales, a teenager of color. Jonathan Daniels quickly stepped in front of her, taking the full blast of the shotgun, and was killed.
I was deeply moved by this tragedy. I think the was, first, because of Jonathan’s willing sacrifice of his life for another. I had a sense of solidarity with him because he was a seminarian as I had been. Second, I sensed his passion for justice and reconciliation which he demonstrated in action. Certainly we had common ground in that deep idealism of young adulthood; however, I hardly had the courage, much less the vision at that time to do anything like he did.
His witness has had a transforming influence on the lives of many people, including my own. For me this was that first nudge into awareness of the out-of-balance reality that surrounds you and me in our society’ and also, an awareness that I am called to pay attention and engage with this imbalance. My sense of solidarity with Jonathan Myrick Daniels also made possible my becoming aware of some deep personal resentments that were doing their destructive work in my spirit. His ministry ended up being also a ministry to me.
Let me tell you how that happened. Jonathan was a student at ETS, the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge MA. I had been a student at the Philadelphia Divinity School, class of 1964. In 1974 the two schools merged. The Philadelphia alums were not happy. What happened is that, in exchange for the Cambridge school changing its name from RTS to EDS, now the “Episcopal Divinity School,” EDS got all the books, all the faculty and all the money. Our heritage had, it seemed to us, been ripped off. They tried to treat us Philadelphia grads as alumni, but we were not interested. East year around the time of my birthday, I would receive a telltale card in the mail with the message, “We prayed for you in the chapel today.” My thought, but un-uttered response was, “Go stick it in your ear.”
In the early 90’s the telltale card arrived, and I opened it. However, this time, instead of a picture of the Cambridge campus, there was the color picture of an icon. The school had commissioned an Icon in honor of their student Jonathan Myrick Daniels and of all the martyrs of the church.
I almost cried. I thought to myself, “Any place that would do something as fine as this can’t be all bad.” Then I thought of all the sermons I had preached on forgiveness and reconciliation since 1964, never connecting with that deep sense of loss, and the resentment which I was carrying, and which would bubble up only around my birthday. That day was the beginning of a great healing for me.
I began with God’s invitation to you and to me to join this great parade of people across the ages who say “Yes” to God and to the things of God. That “yes” was not any less complex for any of them than it is for us in our lives. The image of this procession of faithful people is useful, because the direction of the procession is forward. You gotta keep on moving. You may miss a few steps, or get out of rhythm terrible, but this parade of faithful people is on the move, and we can get in step with it now, with the realities of our own lives – our situation, our losses, our hurts, our hopes, our passions, our excesses, our reality – and off ourselves, again and again to the purposes of God in this world and in the human community.
Writer Tom Ehrich says, “I must deal with today’s questions, decisions, anomalies and agonies. The critical tools for living are open eyes, a discerning mind, the will to persevere, the capacity to love, the willingness to learn, especially from struggle and failure, with hope for tomorrow, and faith – that is, deep trust – in God, and in all that God promises to us.”
Someone has said that faith – that is, deep trust in God – really began for Jesus the day the townspeople threw him out of town. Then it grew some more when he found the disciples arguing over who would get the best seats in the coming kingdom.. And then it grew even more when he had the confront the moneychangers in the temple. And, finally, it grew in that moment of his utter loneliness in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Social advocate Lisa Fithian, a strong voice for justice, said in an interview, “When people ask me, ‘What do you do?’ I say, I create a crisis, because crisis is that edge where change is possible.”
In the crucible of our lives we can grow. Sometimes we’d pay anything to avoid these moments of truth.
How we live our lives can make a huge difference – to those around us, and in our own being. Gifts have been entrusted to us to help us make this difference. Eugene Peterson, in a paraphrase of Jesus’ words, says: “Great gifts mean great responsibilities’ greater gifts mean greater responsibilities.”
I like this image of the procession, that we keep on moving along. We only come into a new view of things as we arrive at new places in the journey. We’ll set aside some things, maybe some good things, but things that no longer serve our purposes, and we’ll embrace what is new and useful in our service of our God and others.
Our lives make a difference. You and I are accountable for all that has been entrusted to us. May we use these gifts well.
I am fascinated, and I am also terrified by William Percy’s contemporary hymn (#661) about the life of the apostles, with its daunting 4th verse:
The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod:
Yet let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God.
This marvelous procession of life with God, and neighbor, and self – that journey to completion and wholeness where God’s first word, and last word to us is identical – that word is, “I love you.”
But then always comes the invitation – “Follow me.”