The lectionary today places us on the second Sunday of a four-week reading from Hebrews. What we are reading is essentially a classic early sermon.
Last week we began with the famous definition: “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Today’s reading concludes with “so since we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight … and run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith.” Today’s reading is often also used on All Saints Sunday, when we remember and celebrate all those Christians who have gone before us.
So what we have today is essentially a sermon on a sermon. The point of the sermon that is here in Hebrews is how we appropriate the legacy of earlier generations of those who followed God in what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. And how do we understand those scriptures in the light of Christ?
The writer interprets the earlier tradition using some words, some categories from the Greek language, the language of the New Testament, the Christian Scriptures. I want to lift up two of those words, faith and perfect, pistis and teleia.
Teleia is the word for perfect. You have probably heard most of this before. The English word “perfect” often means without blemish, (Think of the lyric: I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s; And his hair was perfect), while the Greek word is more like mature, ripe, complete. We use perfect in this way when we talk about “perfecting a motion” on the floor. Bringing it into its final form. We recognize the “tele” part from tele-vision, tele-type, tele-pathy. There is a projecting forward quality in all of these. Jesus perfects, completes, matures, ripens the faith that had gone before. And this is not simply by bringing a right understanding, though this he does, but also through being and action that completes or matures the Hebrew legacy. He completes it through the Cross and obedient, loving, faithful action.
The action part brings us to “pistis.” In Greek mythology, Pistis was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. In Christianity and in the New Testament, pistis is the word for “faith”. Faith, along with hope and love, is a key Christian virtue. The word pistis is sometimes translated belief, as in “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” But to understand this as intellectual assent alone is a little shallow. Intellectual assent is a part of it, but that assent is followed by faithful action. What we do matters. It is not simply as sign of our faith, but an integral part of it. (Our English word faith derives from Latin, fides, from which we get Fido as a name for dogs. Clearly, a dog’s intellectual assent is not what we value.)
The preacher in Hebrews gets on something of a roll:
Others (through faith) suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 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 … They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
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And herein lies the sermon: though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, … so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
How do we complete, mature, perfect the faith of our immigrant ancestors who have gone before?
Sometimes memory can be a curse as well as a blessing. I remember an argument that my dad was having with my sister about money for college tuition. Dad said that college for women was not so important because they would simply get married. Yikes!
Some time later, on the day my sister Gloria graduated from Cal State Northridge, first person in our family to graduate, dad was actually pretty proud. And then he said, “I’m sorry my mother did not live to see this day, she would have been so proud.” Well, dad got better. But the notion that stuck in my mind was that Gloria had done something that made my grandmother’s humble life more complete. Grandma (Martha Taylor Swartz) had been a cleaning lady in a downtown Indianapolis office building, a single mom supporting five kids.
We have a generational contract to do our best, to accomplish worthwhile things and to live well. And this is not only for our posterity. It is also for our ancestors. We perfect, we give added value to their sacrifices, their work, their suffering. They did their part not only for themselves, but for us too. And we can bring them to greater perfection. Gloria glorified grandma in dad’s mind.
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So this week my mind has been dwelling on my Great-Great grandmother from another branch of the family; Sophia Christine Schmidt. She arrived on a sailing ship, a barque named the Helene from Bremen, Germany, at the battery in New York on June 2, 1853. The arrival point facility was called Castle Garden. This was some 40 years before Ellis Island. She was then a 52 year old widow, along with four children, Carl 19, Sophia, 13 – (my great grandmother), Heinrich, 12, and August age 9. She ended up in Ohio, where she may have had family before – or at least people from her area of Nassau, Germany. (Near Frankfort.)
It is difficult for me to believe that a 52-year-old woman with four kids could do this without some significant assistance from someone. She certainly did not hit the ground of New York self-sufficient. She and her children were in steerage on the ship, along with some 290 other souls. She had no occupation listed.
She was part of some 4 million Germans who migrated to the United States. There were 150,000 German migrants in 1853; 240,000 in 1854. She was part of the same wave of migrants from Germany who came to Davenport; not all of the 48’ers arrived in 1848 alone. These were folks fleeing political instability in Europe and seeking economic gain. Some 100 million persons in the United States today have some German ancestors who migrated to this golden door. I share a German heritage with the Bush family and the Trumph family – and 100 million others.
The arrival of the Germans stimulated a period of Nativism.
How do we honor the legacy of our immigrant families that came before us? How do we perfect their existence? How do we perfect their faith? Their yearning to breath free? Would they be honored and proud of us today? How would they react to our words about current migrants?
Last summer I finally read Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. And the German families in that novel were the objects of Christian charity from the March family. They were in need. Cold, sick and hungry; in the novel the baby dies. Does that echo my great-great grandmother’s experience? No one wants to be the object of anyone’s Christian charity. But better love than disdain. Better love than nativism.
One of the Ten Commandments states: Honor thy father and thy mother that you may live long on the land the Lord has provided to you.
The final image of the Hebrews reading is of a amphitheater filled with the blessed dead who have gone before, cheering us onward as we run our race on their behalf. Would our ancestors, would Sophie Christine Schmidt, be cheering what we are doing today?
In a little church south of Indianapolis there is a window with the name of Sophie’s daughter, my great-grandmother Sophia and her husband, Frederick Swartz painted on a window. I saw that in one of my visits. Clearly those earlier generations sought to honor their ancestors who had gone before.
Amen and Amen.