A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
August 14, 2016
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul Minnesota
Former MPR commentator Kathryn Lampher moved to New York City a few years ago and recounts what happened when she went into a nail salon which was operated by Asian immigrants, as many of them are. She was greeted with the routine, “How are you?” and Lampher responded that she was new in town, she missed her family and her dog, she couldn’t fit her furniture into her apartment, she had a cold. The salon owner interrupted abruptly, “Don’t be big baby. We do nails now.”
You can’t be Big Baby approaching today’s lessons, that’s for sure. Isaiah expects justice but sees bloodshed. Jesus says he will bring fire and division to the earth and calls his listeners hypocrites. And the Epistle describes the tortures and torments of the faithful.
I’m going with the Epistle because it presents one of the most beautiful and evocative phrases in all of Scripture: the “cloud of witnesses” specially witnesses to Christian faith many of whom were persecuted and tormented and worse. Of course, we hear the stories of our spiritual ancestors in the readings each Sunday, but our own personal cloud of witnesses may be less dramatic. It may be a grandmother who went to church every Sunday, baked cookies for her neighbors and taught you about God’s love by loving you. It may be a public figure like Desmond Tutu or the martyrs of Mother Emmanuel church who welcomed the stranger and paid with their lives. It may be a dead writer who taught you about faith in a way you could understand, and in their work “throws you lifelines from the grave,” in poet Christian Wiman’s fine phrase.
What do these people witness to? I think it is to the reality of God’s presence, to the power of love, and to the importance of justice.
But remember that we, too, here are part of this cloud, this chain of witnesses. There is a passage I’ve read at every funeral at which I’ve ever preached, from the British writer Richard Llewellyn in his epic novel about Welsh coal miners in the late 19th century called How Green Was My Valley. Even though we don’t all have children, we are still part of this chain. It bears repeating today (feel free to change the gender references):
“I saw behind me those who had gone and before me, those who are to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers and in front to see my son, and his sons, and tthe sons upon sons beyond
And their eyes were my eyes.
As I felt, so they have felt, and were to feel as then so now as tomorrow and forever, Then I was not afraid for I was in a long line that had no beginning an no end and the hand of his father grasped my father’s hand and his hand was in my hand, and my unborn son took my right hand and all up and down the line that stretched from Time That Was, to Time That Is, and is not yet, raised their hands to show the link, and we found that we were one, born of Woman Son of Man had in the Image, fashioned in the Womb by the Will of God the eternal Father.
I was of them, they were of me, and in me, and I in all of them.”
My mother went to the Lutheran church almost every Sunday; my father seldom. She had a Bible in the bedroom and knit and crocheted for the Christmas bazaar. She saw that I got to Sunday School. But religion was never spoken about in our home; prayers were never said out loud. Going to church equaled faith. And I went along with it until my late teens when the whole thing seemed frustrating and irrelevant to me. I left the church for ten years and only came back to get my kids baptized — that to end the passive aggressive messages from my mom. I checked out a church nearby (that was not Lutheran) and met an Episcopal priest who told that we don’t do Baptism as “fire insurance,” or to please the grandparents. It is an initiation into a community, he said. So if you want to be part of the community fine, but you’ll have to get educated and then decide.
Reluctantly, I went to what I thought would be stupid classes and things opened up for me. My cynical questions were the vehicle for understanding the church and religion in a different way and I found that I could still be as smart as I fantasized myself to be as well as a person of faith or at least a seeker. I threw every question I could think of at my Episcopal mentor – and he had answers for many of them, this good man who is forever in my own cloud of witnesses. I found I did not have to check my mind at the door of a church. This was incredibly important to me.
I also encountered a cloud of witnesses on the printed page: Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, T.S. Eliot, Joan Chittitser, along with those in Scripture and in my own life. I finally saw my mother’s faithfulness for what it was and that of her three tall, Nordic brothers, all churchgoers and men of such warmth and principle.
What happened to me was echoed much later by the poet Christian Wimans who described it this way:
“When I consented to the faith that was latent within me …. It seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.” These words – this witness made in an impossibly hard book—was a profound gift to me in the recent year Maybe those in your own cloud of witnesses will be holding musical scores or instruments or paint brushes or baking supplies or fishing rods. So many of mine, it seems, are holding books. (Some might be holding an iPhone…)
Some times a witness is only visible in retrospect, as in this poem by Robert Hayden that echoes part of my story:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
There are witnesses to love, to faith, and also witnesses to the principles of faith like justice and inclusion. and again the witnesses may emerge only in retrospect. There is a famous picture from the 1968 Olympics of two barefoot black men receiving gold and bronze medals for their wins in the 200-meter race. Their names are John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Their black-gloved fists are raised in the black power salute, as they took a stand for civil right on the awards podium in a year of tragedies that had included the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
But on the second step of the podium is the silver medalist, usually ignored in the epic picture. He is Peter Norman, a relatively unknown white man from Australia, a country that had strict apartheid laws, almost as strict as South Africa.
Smith and Carlos had decided to get up on the podium wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights circular badge, representing a group of of athletes in support of the battle for equality. They also would receive their medals barefoot, representing the poverty facing people of color. They would wear the famous black gloves, a symbol of the revolutionary Black Panthers’ cause. But before going up on the podium they realized they only had one pair of black gloves. “Take one each.” Norman suggested. They did.
But then Norman also got hold of a badge representing the Olympic Project for Human Rights and pinned it on his chest.
The three went out on the field and got up on the podium. Following the Star Spangled Banner, the stadium went quiet. No applause.
Within an hour, the head of the American delegation vowed that these athletes would pay the price their entire lives for that gesture, a gesture he said had nothing to do with the sport. Smith and Carlos were immediately suspended from the American Olympic team and expelled from the Olympic Village.
At home they faced heavy repercussions and death threats.
But time, in the end, proved that they had been right and they became champions in the fight for human rights. A statue of them was erected at the San Jose State University. Peter Norman is absent from this statue. A forgotten athlete, deleted from history, even in Australia, his own country. It was only after his death that the Australian government and the Olympic committee issued an apology to him and commended him for his witness to equality.
And the pallbearers at his funeral were John Carlos and Tommy Smith.
Wimans says that when someone dies, they leave a legacy which he explains this way: “To die in faith is to leave an afterimage whose dimensions and meaning we could never never have guessed at. Something of us — something most us… is saved and made available for others.” This “after-image” is more than memory; it is strength. It is inspiration. It can be healing.
God is bigger than our questions or doubts, more encompassing than our own lifetimes. There is something about talking about faith that activates it. Believe me, I know.
Sources: Christian Wimans, My Bright Abyss:Meditations of a Modern Believer, 2013.
Richard Llewellen, How Green Was My Valley, 1939.
Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays,” Collected Poem, 1966.