Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Thus begins the beautiful tribute to our ancestors in faith, found in the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. Our Epistle lesson today includes only a part of that chapter, but it would be worth getting out your Bibles and reading the whole thing! It is not just a tribute to the good deeds of those good men and women of God who have gone before us; what is held up, rather, is the power of the faith that enabled their actions. By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice; by faith, Enoch was taken; by faith, Noah, warned by God, respected the warning; by faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called.
Today's reading from the Book of Genesis also recounts a part of Abraham's story -- the seemingly impossible promise made to him by God, that his descendants would be as the stars of the heavens. And Abraham, an old man with a barren wife, we are told, "believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness." And in the Hebrew Scriptures, those descendants have preserved for all time the stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, of Moses, of Naomi and Ruth, of David. Isaac, Jeremiah, and so many more-and those whose names are recorded, of course, are a mere handful of the faithful souls, those who died in faith, confessing that they were strangers and foreigners on earth.
Most of us cannot claim actual, physical descent from Abraham and Sarah, but in a very real sense we may claim them as our spiritual ancestors. Their stories, and the stories of these other Old Testament heroes, are part of our heritage. Week by week they are read in our churches, and continue to inspire us. The Epistles and the Gospels, likewise, provide us with many uplifting examples of faith in action. Our faithfulness in hearing and reading the Word of God is essential to the strengthening of our faith; for as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the words of Christ." (Romans 10:17)
As we hear and read the stories of God's dealing with God's people, and their response, they shape our own response to God. They help us to understand what our being Christians in the world involves, what the truths are by which we must live. They provide a framework for all that we do.
Today's passage from the Letter to the Hebrews is from the eleventh chapter. Summing up the paean of praise to our ancestors in the faith, the author writes feelingly at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of the "great cloud of witnesses" by which we are surrounded. Certainly, the biblical heroes are part of this great cloud; and down through the centuries there have been men and women of faith who have added to their number. And have there not been in our own lives, in our own congregations, those whose examples of faith have been used by God to encourage us, to strengthen our own faith?
The Episcopal Church Calendar commemorates the lives of some of these witnesses. This week, two of those whom we remember are St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian and witness for civil rights in our own country.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is, of course, a well-known figure. She is one of those biblical saints whose stories have inspired generations of Christians. Her response of faith, recorded by St. Luke, is perhaps best embodied in her words to the angel sent from God: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Mary's "yes" to God played a central part in the story of God's people, and it reverberates down through the centuries. Her feast day on August 15 is a Prayer Book Holy Day.
Jonathan Daniels did not set out to be written up in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. He felt called to the priesthood, and so he had become a seminarian at the Eastern Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Assuming that all went well, Jonathan could look forward to a long life as, perhaps, a parish priest. He would be 62 years old now-approaching retirement, having probably baptized, married, counseled, and buried a large number of parishioners. He would undoubtedly have celebrated the Holy Eucharist week after week and no doubt have faithfully fulfilled the duties of his office. Who knows, he might even have been a bishop! He would have had plenty of opportunities to live out his faith. There is every reason to think that his life would have been an inspiration to many.
But fate would have it otherwise. In March 1965, Jonathan Daniels heard a televised appeal by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., asking for workers to come to Selma, Alabama, to help in the work of securing the right to vote for all citizens. Jonathan's initial impulse to answer this call was strengthened during the singing at Evensong of the Magnificat, the beautiful song of Mary, also found in Luke's Gospel. "He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things." "I knew I must go to Selma," Jonathan wrote. "The Virgin's song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead." Here we see a living example of faithful witness inspiring faithful witness, though the persons involved were separated in time by 2,000 years.
Jonathan went to Selma, where he lived with the black families among whom he and others worked as they struggled to claim their right to vote. On August 14, Jonathan and several others were jailed for participating in a picket line. Released unexpectedly six days later, the freed civil rights workers walked to a small store where they had previously shopped. Sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales, a black teenager, was the first to reach the door of the store. As Ruby approached, she was met by a deputy sheriff armed with a shotgun -- who cursed her. Jonathan pulled her aside to shield her from the twelve-gauge shotgun, and took a blast point-blank in the chest. He died on the spot.
In his book, Brightest and Best, Sam Portaro theorizes that the man who threatened Ruby Sales that day in August had been taught to fear and hate those who differed from him. He had been taught that to grant someone else -- especially a black someone else -- any entitlement is to, in some way, diminish one's own share. Jonathan Daniels, on the other hand, nourished by Holy Scripture and the sacraments, encouraged by the example of that cloud of faithful witnesses, had learned faith, hope, and love. On that top step of the little store in Selma, Portaro writes, "fear met faith, greed met hope, hatred met love. The outcome could have been predicted."
The forces that were at work in Selma in l965 are at work in the world today. In fact, sisters and brothers, aren't they at work in each of us? Must we not pray, with the centurion, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief"? Do we not struggle with fear, greed, and hatred, even as we thank God for the gift of faith, hope, and love? These are the same forces that met in the events we commemorate at every Eucharist, that we recite when we proclaim the mystery of faith: "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again."
If we draw strength from the example of that great cloud of witnesses, even more do we draw it from the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to follow Jesus, to hold fast to Jesus. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings to us so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith."