A sermon based on Psalm 80 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2 preached on August 14th, 2016
The name Claudette Colvin might not ring a bell. Even though she’s still alive, her name has already been lost to history—erased from our text books and washed out of the fabric of our shared American story.
On the morning of March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin was sitting in a seat of her own choosing on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A black girl. 15 years old. She refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. She was arrested for violating segregation laws, and became one of four plaintiffs in the landmark legal case Browder v. Gayle, which helped put a stop to the unjust practice of segregation on Montgomery public buses.
Of course, we all have heard another story just like it. Nine months later, a woman named Rosa Parks, who was 26 years older than Claudette Colvin did the exact same thing. We have been taught that Rosa Parks stood alone as she refused to move from her seat on the bus that December morning, but that’s not the truth, really. Sure, Rosa Parks was the only one on that bus to be arrested that day. Yes, she stood up (or should I say sat down) for what she knew right even when it was illegal. But when Rosa Parks refused to get up from her seat on that bus that morning, she was not acting alone. For months and months before, she sat alongside many other men and women, white and black, who devoted themselves to a practice they called non-violent resistance. These folks trained day in and day out for that inevitable moment when they would be harassed and spit upon, hit, called the cruelest names in the book, or something much worse than that, all for insisting upon their own right to human dignity. Their training in the way of non-violent resistance gave them the moral courage to refuse returning evil for evil, cruelty for another cruelty.
When Rosa Parks sat down in her seat that chilly December morning, she was confident in the fact that a host of others had her back. That a young woman named Claudette Colvin had gone before her. When Rosa Parks sat down, she was not doing so alone. She was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who sat down on that bus right alongside of her.
Freddy Gray, Rosa Park’s lawyer, said that Claudette gave the people who led the Civil Rights the moral courage they needed, and if Claudette Colvin had not done what she did months before, Rosa Parks would not have done what she did. No Claudette Colvin, no Rosa Parks. No one acts alone, not even those we call heroes. Even heroes stand on the shoulders of the ones who went before them.
The book of Hebrews is one big sermon—12 chapters long. The preacher is so long-winded he puts even the Baptists to shame! This gigantic sermon is being preached to the 2nd generation of Christians.
The apostles have passed on, the first converts to the Way of Jesus are no longer with us, and being a Christian is becoming increasingly more dangerous. The Roman Emperor Nero was one of the most powerful men in their world at the time, and Nero’s hatred of Christians had no parallel. These 2nd generation Christians faced persecution that’s far more deadly than anything their forebears had to face. Their friends were being thrown in arenas with lions. Crowds watched as they were torn apart. Burned at the stake, killed by the sword, stoned to death. When these Christians looked around, all they could see was God losing and Nero winning. They were promised the reign of God, but all they knew was a reign of terror. They were crying out for all of it to stop. They wondered if following Jesus was worth all the trouble it was causing them. When will this end?
This sermon to the Hebrews—all thirteen chapters of it—is a preacher’s desperate plea for his people to keep the faith. It’s a rally cry for beleaguered believers. Much more than a pat on the back to say “hang in there, someday it might get better,” Hebrews is a deep reminder that even amid persecution, the right way is always the one worth fighting for, even when—or, especially when—the way is hard.
This passage has been called The Hall of Faith. We read the end of it this morning, but the entire 11th chapter is a long list all those who had gone before them in faith. The preacher gives us a cliff notes version of Israelite history in order to tell his harassed congregation that they belong to a long line of faithful people who faced monumental trials, but stuck it out and always did what God asked them to do even when the way forward was unknown to them.
Who, despite their own plans and dreams, followed God’s lead, and who by sheer faith, walked through unknown territory because they heard God’s voice and it said, “Go that way.” And in each instance, these forebears of faith never asked God, “What’s in it for me?” Instead they faithfully followed in God’s direction because they believed that God’s way was the best way forward. And with the encouragement of a long line of faithful forbears, these persecuted Christians have the strength and courage to endure.
When Claudette Colvin refused to get up from her seat on the morning of March 2nd, 1955, she said she felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one of her shoulders, and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying “sit down, girl!”
She said she felt like she was glued to her seat. Encouraged by those who have gone before her and fought the good fight.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. It’s not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abandon it.
So said Rabbi Tarfon, who lived in the last part of the 1st century and the first part of the 2nd century A.D. Indeed, the world’s grief seems so enormous that even if we could somehow muster the wherewithal—the audacity!—to think we can do something about it, we wonder where to even begin. Don’t we live in a world that has gone off the rails, that seems like it’s pummeling toward some inevitable destruction—and who am I, and who are you, to think we can do anything—anything at all—to save it?We’re not superheroes, so why even try? I’m just little ol’ me. You’re just little ol’ you. And who would ever take us seriously if we ever tried to change the world? But, what would happen if we took the words of the book of Hebrews seriously? What if, like Claudette Colvin or Rosa Parks, we had this crazy notion that one person can start something that does indeed change the world. That even the biggest social changes start with one person’s tiny attempts to make the world a kinder, better, more just place.
We are surrounded by centuries of saints who hover around us as a cloud of witnesses who have done just that. Each of them have heeded the call to try something small in the hopes that maybe one day the world could be a kinder place. The day we realize the power we possess whenever we work with each other to create change, there will be no stopping us! As Presbyterian author, musician, and activist, David Lamotte declares,
It’s not naïve to think we can change the world. It’s naïve to think we don’t. In fact, all of us are changing the world whether we like it or not.
I think of the Simone’s. Swimmer Simone Manuel who just became the first black female swimmer to win Olympic gold. And Simone Biles, who won all-around gymnastic gold and the Rio Games. Simone Manuel said after her gold medal race,
This medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who have come before me and been an inspiration to me. It’s for all the people who come after me who believe they can’t do it. And I just want to be inspiration to others that you can do it.
Both Simones seem to be fully aware that they are pioneers in their sports. And wouldn’t it be cool to see children of many skin colors signing up for swimming lessons at their local pool or for gymnastics lessons at their YMCA?! All the sudden, because of these two young women, a way has been cleared for 1,000’s of children to dream bigger dreams for themselves!
Karen and I have taken up hiking since we’ve come back from Montreat a few weeks ago. There was a mountain there that kicked our butts. Tatum and Harper made it look easy! When we got back to Barboursville, Karen dusted off her pair of Timberland boots, and I ordered my first pair of hiking boots, and now we’re sweating up a storm 2 or 3 times a week at the trails in Barboursville Park or the ones at the Huntington Art Museum.
There are many trails for us to choose from in both places. I’ve learned that those trails are sometimes made with a machine called a Trail Hog. Someone comes along and excavates a way through forest so that others can have an easier time of it. Other trails we’ve hiked were made because many others have come before us and worn a pathway through the brush and the poison ivy. Being the novice hikers that we are, neither of us would be able to walk in those places if a trailblazer hadn’t first made a way for us.
Friends, Jesus is the pioneer and perfector of our faith. Christ has cleared a path for us. The course has been set! A way has been made, but we have to walk it! So, we move forever forward walking on the shoulders of giants. We go forward just like our forebears have: informed by our past, and embraced by God in our present.
No one has told us we need to complete the journey, but we do have to walk our part of it. We are not at liberty to abandon it. But as we run this race, we run along the well-worn pathways made for us by the giants of our faith. We are surrounded and encouraged by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us—and their presence among us is a reminder that our future belongs to a God who holds us all, who is our beginning and our end!
…And our God will be faithful to the end!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!