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Witnesses to What?

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Hebrews 12:1-2

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, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

So great a cloud of witnesses. I’ve always loved this line. Sometimes in confirmation class we draw little paper clouds and we write on them the names of people who inspire us in our faith, those who teach us about God, those who cheer us on. Of course the scripture is not talking about living people. I like that image, too. There are quite a few dear saints I still miss, and sometimes I like to imagine them with me, supporting me, giving me courage to do difficult things.

That’s part of what the writer of the Book of Hebrews was talking about, but it goes deeper than that. We don’t know who wrote the book, but scholars think it was written between 64 and 70 CE, when those who followed Christ were experiencing persecution under Nero. These people did not yet call themselves Christians; they were Jewish believers in Christ. So in the verses immediately before our reading for today, we have this long list of horrible things that happened to faithful Jewish people in the past: they were flogged, tortured, and imprisoned; stoned to death and sawed in half; forced to leave their homes and wander the wilderness or live in caves. So the author was saying, first of all, we’re not the only ones to suffer. Our forefathers suffered in the faith, too. So the fact that we are being persecuted is not a sign of God’s displeasure with us. We just need to have faith, like they did, to stand against the forces of evil.

This cloud of witnesses was the martyrs who had gone before. They’re watching, the author is saying. The heroes of our faith. They’re watching us now. Therefore let us run the race.

They did it; therefore, we can, too. They were faithful; therefore, we can be, too. They are watching; therefore, we should be watchful, too.

This church has been through its share of hardship over the years. The first minister, Rev. Allen, oversaw the church during a time of theological conflict, while also enduring personal tragedy. An epidemic called throat distemper moved through the area, and the pastor lost five of his children in a week. Yet the church rallied around and stayed strong. The church experienced more conflict after Rev. Allen died, as different factions wanted different leaders. But in time the factions came back together in spite of disagreement and rejoined one another. Therefore.

During the first half of the 19th century, “there was an era of religious and moral indifference, periods of inactivity when the church did not have a settled minister . . . and years when there were inadequate funds to pay the pastors.” Throughout our history, there are stories of difficulties, yet the church never gave in, never succumbed, never died. Each storm was weathered and each indifference overcome. Therefore.

Through good times and bad, God was faithful to the people and the people were faithful to God. Therefore we have nothing to fear. We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses who can testify to God’s faithfulness.

This scripture seemed like the perfect choice for Founders Day as I thought about our church history and those who have gone before. But right now we cannot hear the word “martyr” without thinking very differently. We cannot hear the word “witness” without seeing different images in our minds. In the past few weeks we all have seen the pictures and videos of police brutality against unarmed suspects or protestors. Although we weren’t present, we have witnessed these events because of the ubiquitous nature of technology. I doubt that those who first thought to put cameras on phones realized that they were changing the course of history, but I believe they have.

Listen to this from New York Times writer Giovanni Russanello.

Beyond the scenes of protest and resistance playing out in cities across the country, a movement of a different sort has taken hold. The American public’s views on the pervasiveness of racism have taken a hard . . . turn over the past few years. Never before in the history of modern polling have Americans expressed such widespread agreement that racial discrimination plays a role in policing — and in society at large.

In a Monmouth University poll released this week, 76 percent of Americans — including 71 percent of white people — called racism and discrimination ‘a big problem’ in the United States. That’s a 26-percentage-point spike since 2015. In the poll, 57 percent of Americans said demonstrators’ anger was fully justified, and another 21 percent called it somewhat justified.

In the Monmouth poll, and in another released this week by CBS News, exactly 57 percent of Americans said police officers were generally more likely to treat black people unfairly than to mistreat white people. In both surveys, about half of white people said so. This was a drastic change, particularly for white Americans, who have not historically said they believed that black people continued to face pervasive discrimination. “There’s definitely been a seismic shift in the country,” said Steve Phillips, a civil rights lawyer and political analyst who founded the advocacy group Democracy in Color.[1]

Between the rise of cell phone cameras and social media, we are seeing things we only heard of before, and we are seeing them in more places. Our ability to see these incidents with our own eyes changes the way we perceive them with our minds and hearts. We no longer have to decide who we believe because we are witnesses. Now, let me be clear that I know not all police offers are racist. I have known some good people who were or are in law enforcement. I’m not talking about cops per se. I’m talking about the racist systems that put a higher rate of African American people in jail in spite of the fact that crime rates are pretty equal across racial lines. I’m talking about the racist systems that result in poorer quality of health. Here in Maine, as of May 20, black and African American people (who make up just 1.6% of the population) make up 16% of COVID cases in the state among those for whom we know race. That’s right, their rate is 10x more than it should be.

Those of us who are white also need to be aware of our privilege and our inclination to assume the worst in people, to make rash judgments based on the color of people’s skin rather than seeing them for who they really are. Tyler Merritt is an actor, musician, and activist who gave me permission to include this powerful video in our worship today. Now, one warning: he speaks of the president of the United States in a way that I would not normally do in worship. However, with all the silencing of black voices, it is absolutely inappropriate for me as a white woman to edit him. So I am choosing to play it in its entirety.

[Video from the Tyler Merritt Project, “Before You Call the Cops.”]

We hear the statistics. We see the images. More importantly, we see the people. We know that discrimination is real and racism is rampant. We are witnesses to the abuse that members of the black community have told us about for years. We cannot turn a blind eye. We are witnesses.

In a minute I’m going to ask you to join me in a litany of bearing witness. It uses the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Now, in case any of you do not yet understand this phrase, let me explain that it doesn’t mean black lives matter more than others. It means black lives are the ones in danger. If there is a house down the street from yours that is on fire, you don’t go up to the firefighters and say “My house matters, too.” Of course it does. But your house isn’t on fire.

Today, we need to bear witness to tragedies and crimes within our nation. When I nod to you, please respond with, We bear witness.

With reverence and sorrow, we remember the death of George Floyd, killed by white police after suspicion of a nonviolent crime.

WE BEAR WITNESS.

With reverence and sorrow, we remember the death of Ahmaud Arbery, killed by two white men while running in his own neighborhood.

WE BEAR WITNESS.

With reverence and sorrow, we remember the death of Breonna Taylor, killed by police officers after a no-knock search.

WE BEAR WITNESS.

With reverence and sorrow, we acknowledge that we do not remember and cannot name so many others who are the victims of racism. And yet

WE BEAR WITNESS.

As a community, we reflect on the thread that connects the actions of an armed police officer with our own. We examine our snap judgments. We challenge the times we have remained silent while another suffered. We know black lives matter.

WE BEAR WITNESS.

We recognize that in order to challenge a system that is built to maintain racism, we must contemplate the effects of our everyday actions. We know black lives matter.

WE BEAR WITNESS.

We do not look away from the things that are hard to see. We know black lives matter.

WE BEAR WITNESS.

When justice eludes us,

WE BEAR WITNESS.

We take courage.

WE BEAR WITNESS.

We extend love.

WE BEAR WITNESS.

We commit ourselves to working for change.

WE BEAR WITNESS.

“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.”

The sin that clings so closely is racism, and it will take perseverance to address it. You’ve heard quite a few sermons about this over the years, but we need to do more than preach. So let’s work together to acknowledge our own privilege. To educate ourselves about disparities. To confront racism when we see or hear it. To bear witness to the truth. To kneel together.

[1] Giovanni Russonello “On Politics” June 5, 2020.

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