(Honoring Those Who Helped Gain Our Independence)
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Richard Chapple, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Pastor of First AME Zion Church, Los Angeles, CA, and Presiding Elder of the Los Angeles District, the Southwest Rocky Mountain Conference
Lection - Hebrews 11:32-40;12:1 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 32) And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—(v. 33) who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, (v. 34) quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (v. 35) Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. (v. 36) Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. (v. 37) They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— (v. 38) of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (v. 39) Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, (v. 40) since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
Independence Day honors the birthing of our country and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. A celebration of Independence Day further offers American citizens varied social gestures that help forge a particular political and symbolic universe. This year, July 4 could see churchgoers riding and walking to church in the pronounced colors of red, white and blue, because this year Independence Day occurs on the first Sunday of July. This juxtaposition of Jesus and Uncle Sam on the one hand, and the stars and stripes and the stripes by which we are healed on the other, makes way for churches to create a profound exigent moment, one demanding a voice that articulates a homiletic theologia. (This theological expression entails developing a “portraiture” when preaching that puts all things into play including: the homiletic situation and the larger context en route toward offering a more comprehensive view of God’s work within creation.)
On Sunday, July 4, 2010, the day brings together three elements: a Sunday, an observance of the Lord’s Supper, and a civic celebration. Each sits next to one another in the same pew. The preaching model of Samuel Dewitt Proctor in this homiletical situation requires that we ask about the “ecology” of the sermon (who and where is the audience?) and requires additionally that we ask the question “what should the word be for the audience on this day, in this place?” Or, as Bakhtin, a Russian theorist who writes about discourse, would shout to the preacher from the pew: “A specific sphere of human activity requires a particular type of utterance.” Now, what are you going to say when you preach?
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Scripture--Hebrews 11:32-40; 12:1
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
While Independence Sunday will gaze at people shouting “Amen” at the preacher and will show some also looking over their glasses at flags in pulpits, Victor Anderson and bell hooks [sic.], respectively, offer a way to enrich our preaching and liturgy for this Sunday. Anderson and hooks, though they offer diverging rhetorics of blackness, both provide empowering protest models for assigning character to the American black diaspora. Further still, though some American blacks drape themselves in the American flag on July 4, display patriotism around a picnic table, and shoot fireworks well into the night, there is an ever present angst that resurfaces amid the festivities. That angst asks us, “what are we, as black Americans, to think about this country and its legacy and contemporary treatment of our cultural and ethnic community?” Langston Hughes gives voice to this existential angst when stating, “O, yes/I say it plain,/America never was America to me,/And yet I swear this oath –/America will be.”1 This line is from Hughes’ poem, “Let America Be America Again.” Having the entire poem read in churches on Independence Day will surely add a significant backdrop to the sermonic moment.
The lection reading for Independence Day admonishes the consideration of how communities formulate their cultural and socio-religious identity. Such a reading of the lection will benefit from an interpretive overlay. Here, Anderson and hooks are helpful. Anderson speaks of “ontological blackness” as a way to depict being a black person in America. Ontological blackness is a type of identity formation and social politics that views blackness in America as a response to the abject presence of racism. Preaching and worship on Independence Day in this mode might restate our community’s need to bolster its historic Civil Rights mandate as we continue efforts to “fight the power” under one definitive banner of ethnic identity. Here, Thurgood Marshall, Jeremiah Wright, and Michelle Obama might sit on the same pew.
In ways different from Victor Anderson, bell hooks speaks also of a manner by which black Americans understand themselves; she labels it “post modern blackness.” hooks [sic.] offers that the challenge of this existential notion positions the black community to move away from its one-dimensional effort to stand all black Americans in the same line where they dress alike, speak alike, and live in the same neighborhood. There are alternative ways to be a black person, hooks acknowledges. The personalities standing in the postmodern blackness line could include President Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, Tiger Woods, and Michael Steele. Preaching and worship in the mode of postmodern blackness does more to emphasize a common albeit American identity rather than a black humanity. Whether your proclamation and liturgy conform either to Anderson or hooks’, both find substantive footing when overlaid with the actual Declaration of Independence, especially its view toward “all men [and women] as created equal” and its appeal to a “Supreme Judge of the world.”
We have so many to thank who believed in equality for all and who believed in a “Supreme Judge of the world.” These include every African who died just trying to be free after whites had gained their freedom in 1776, to every Black who fought in each war in which this country has participated (including Crispus Attucks, a black man frequently named as the first martyr of the American Revolution), to all who fought for voting rights and educational rights for blacks, to those who continue the work of gaining complete independence for African Americans in all arenas of American life. On this Sunday we remember them and thank them for helping gain our independence.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
Sermons arising from a use of this lection may find it helpful to note that scholarship clearly challenges the notion that the Epistle to the Hebrews is an epistle (a letter) in truest sense. Rather, the literary character of the document is identified most as a form of discourse, certainly a word of exhortation and most properly a sermon shaped with rhetorical astuteness. The work of Harold Attridge, noted scholar on Hebrews, is insightful when noting the rhetoric employed by the author of Hebrews. Attridge discovers in our pericope on the one hand a sermonizing that moves away from the use of “anophora” (repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive clauses) and “copia” (an abundance of examples), as both known to 11:1-31.2 Our pericope proper then begins with a use of “encomium,” the praise of a person by extolling inherent virtuous qualities.
Those who helped Israel gain their independence and who showed faith in God are named, and their actions are chronicled in detail at the beginning of Hebrews 11 which some have referred to as the chronicling of the “faith Hall of Fame.” By the time we reach verse 32, the beginning of our lection reading, the Apostle has moved to a summary account of the deeds of another set of believers. These believers do not individually have acts ascribed to their names, instead the writer gives an overview of their acts of faith. Some of what they did includes: they “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, and won strength out of weakness.”
The African American Church knows such faith warriors, too. We know those who conquered countries (or Kingdoms)—Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the thousands of independence gainers who marched with them. We know those who shut the mouths of lions—Fannie Lou Hamer did it after she got “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of mistreatment of blacks in Mississippi. Reverend Prathia Hall and Worth Long did it through their work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). John Lewis and Diane Nash did it though the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Amelia Boynton did it through launching the Selma to Montgomery March as James Bevel organized it. As was the case for the writers list at Hebrews 11:32-35, my list is just an overview of the many who kept the faith and helped blacks gain their independence. You know some of the other names; fill them in.
However, as we celebrate the country’s and our independence, remember -- it cost so much. For the faithful named in Hebrews and for those who helped gain our independence, the cost included: “torture,” reputations being persecuted, imprisonment, being stoned, stabbed, stripped of the conveniences of life, tormented and killed. But the faithful endured by faith believing the promises of God for something greater for themselves and for their people.
As the pericope continues and ends in 12:1, the author of Hebrews no longer sources his work with a recitation of Israel’s salvation history. Instead, we observe Hebrews setting the stage for a considerable Christological assertion (Christ as “pioneer” and “perfecter” of faith), an assertion whereby the author continues the rhetorical figure indentified previously as encomium and applying it to Jesus). The eventual reference to Christ (12:2) in this regard provides a way to sustain the faith of the audience receiving the words in Hebrews. Our pericope serves its author’s ardent interest in establishing that Jesus is the exemplar of faithfulness amid hardship.
As I conclude this lection, note that in 12:1, the Apostle speaks to those yet alive and tells them that it is their turn to fight the good faith fight. And as we conclude the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is now our turn to fight the good flight of faith. We now bring up the rear of the army of the Lord. A great cloud of witnesses is cheering for us and waiting to see what will be our contribution to gaining full independence for all God’s children.
We pray that the saints of these latter days will add their deeds and their names to the history of the Church of Christ; we want our days to be as heroic of those who came before us and left us a roadmap of faith. Such faith and faithful deeds lead not only to our physical and cultural independence but take us ultimately toward attainment of the greatest promise: to reign with our Savior and our God.
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Sounds: The cheering of previous generations; foreign armies being put to flight; the sounds of Christians being tortured; persons being stabbed and flogged; and
Sights: The mouths of lions being shut; desserts; women having their dead children brought back to life; people being stoned; people being sawn in half; destitute people dressed in sheep skin; mountain; caves; weights of sin; and a person running with perseverance.
1. Goppet, Leonard. Theology of the New Testament 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982. p. 237.
2. Mays, James, Ed. The Harper Collins Bible Commentary. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 2000. p. 1150.
1. “Let America Be America Again.” Langston Hughes. Online location: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15609 accessed January 18, 2010
2. Attridge, Harold W., and Helmut Koester. The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia--a critical and historical commentary on the Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1989.