So Great a Cloud of Witnesses
August 18, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff
This past Thursday, I had the great privilege of witnessing my nephew Pablo become an American citizen. Dan's sister adopted Pablo from Guatemala, and as the child of an American citizen Pablo had a right to citizenship in this country, but because he is 16 years old, he still had to go to the Federal courthouse in New York City and take the "Oath of Allegiance". It was a terrific experience to witness the amazing variety of people who stood alongside Pablo during the ceremony. There have been so many negative comments about immigrants in the news this year that it was a great joy to spend an hour in a room where everyone was welcoming to these new Americans.
One of the surprises of the day was the oath itself. We had been so focused on arriving at the right building at the right time with the right paperwork that none of us had thought to look up the exact wording of the oath until right before Pablo had to stand and repeat it. His reaction when we read it to him was, "Wow, that's really old-fashioned!" It began with the declaration that "I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen." This language got me Googling--and I discovered that the Oath of Allegiance is based on a British oath from the 15th century. What's more, the wording has been unchanged since 1929.
That got me thinking. My maternal grandmother, who was born in Cornwall, England in 1907 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1914, didn't become a naturalized citizen until 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II. That means that she stood in a courtroom and said the same oath that my nephew said. Dan's maternal grandmother came to this country from Hungary in 1926 and became a U.S. citizen sometime in the 1930's, so she also would have said the same oath. And my Irish great-grandfather probably said just about the same words, as did Dan's Ukranian ancestors. As Pablo stood with that line of people raising their right hands this week, I found myself imagining my grandmother, and his adoptive great-grandmother, standing behind him with their hands raised. So many millions of others--some of your ancestors, perhaps--stood in that place. Suddenly the room felt full of witnesses, all of them celebrating the willingness of these people to join in with the dreams and struggles of this country.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine your ancestors--biological or spiritual--standing beside you? Like most of you, I imagine, I tend to think of my family as my “roots”. They are what I have grown up out of, and tending to those relationships is akin to watering and mulching the roots of a tree. A healthy root system keeps me anchored and stable and allows me to reach out and grow into the open sky.
That’s an image that fits pretty well with our modern American culture, doesn’t it? We have come from somewhere, from someone, certainly, but we are loath to define our future according to our family’s past. We kind of like the sense that the future is wide open, undefined, a limitless set of possibilities, a frontier waiting to be explored. We grow, like the tree, into free and open space. This image of our past helps to explain why "go back to where you came from" is such an insult in our culture. It doesn't just imply that a person should leave this country and go live in the country where they or their ancestors were born. It also suggests that they are excluded from the forward momentum which is such a valued part of our culture. We should all be, at all times, going forward. Excelsior!
So what happens when we flip the metaphor on its head? That’s what the writer of Hebrews does at the end of the passage we read this morning. The writer reminds his readers about the stories of their ancestors, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and Rahab and so on. These people are spiritual ancestors to all of us, but if the original audience of this letter was primarily Jewish, then they would have been considered family, biological ancestors. The writer reminds his audience of the faith of these ancestors, and then he declares that all of these people stand as “a great cloud of witnesses” at the end of the race that has been “set before us”.
Instead of imagining our ancestors as our roots, as our origin, this writer says that our ancestors are our destination, where we are headed, at the end of the race, cheering for us as we go, welcoming us as we arrive. Perhaps some of you can root this metaphor in your own experience. Who here has ever been in a race of some kind—running or swimming or jumping in a burlap sack? If so, you know what it a difference it makes to have people cheering for you at the finish line. You can be almost out of steam, ready to stop, but when you hear your people cheering for you, you suddenly find the strength to keep going, keep pushing ahead. That's what our lives of faith are like, according to the Letter to the Hebrews. We're moving towards a cloud of witnesses, a collection of faithful people, in time and beyond time.
But nothing is as inspiring as the finish line--which is where Hebrews says Jesus Christ stands, having already finished the race. When I think of that image, I remember the race for crawling toddlers that we signed our daughter Rosa up for years ago as part of a family fun run. In that race--which was all of about 100 feet--the parents stood at the finish line and yelling and sang and did little dances just to keep their toddlers moving in the right direction. Sometimes I imagine Jesus needs to do all of that and more to get me to move!
Friends, it has become increasingly clear to me that if I am going to avoid getting stuck in some side alley of despair or cynicism or depression, if I am going to stay hopeful and faithful and engaged, I am going to need more strength and wisdom and power and faith than I can generate on my own. I need help--and I bet you do too. And so I've been holding in mind the diverse collective of people alive and dead who have shown us some light and encourage us as we face the challenges of our lives and times. If I close my eyes I can almost see those people standing alongside me, and Christ himself ahead of me, encouraging me to take one more step and then one more.
Let's imagine that group together this morning! I invite you to reflect for a few moments and to remember people who have come before you who encouraged you in your life of faith. Maybe these are people who formed and shaped you as a Christian. Maybe you will recall people in history who have been a model for you of some quality or value that you aspire to in your life. Maybe those people are Christians--or maybe they embody a faith of a different kind. Call these people to mind and in a minute I'll go around with the microphone and invite you to share a name or two if you'd like.. Then, we'll lift all these names up together with a prayer of thanksgiving.