Honoring the Ancestors
(Pastor Carolyn is pastor for Christian Education at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, Oakland, CA)
Hebrews 11:32-40 (NRSVUE)
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, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging and even chains and imprisonment. 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— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Honoring the ancestors. At the beginning of each program of the Friends of Negro Spirituals there is a brief ceremony to call on the ancestors as witnesses. Our teaching and preservation of the history of the Negro Spirituals is a way in which we honor the lives and experiences of those who forged these songs within the brutal bonds of American chattel slavery.
At the start of Hebrews 11, the author writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.” And we have these words at the beginning of chapter 12: “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, 2 looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith,…” In between the author reminds us of our spiritual ancestors who serve as examples of faith, those who fought on despite the obstacles. Based on their examples we are called on to lay aside “weight and sin.” This weight may manifest itself as doubt, fear, feelings of helplessness, arrogance, or even cynicism.
As the writer of the epistle reminds us, and we know from history, some died in carrying out their mission and calling – the ultimate price paid for living faithfully and trusting God. Yet many were victorious, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to win kingdoms, rule with justice and fairness, to bring justice to the vulnerable, and even to be saved from “the mouths of lions.” In faith, they put their own lives on the line – not seeing the outcome but holding strong and faithful for the sake of the generation to follow. It is their example we are called to remember in our day as we continue to move ahead into a time of continued healing amid experiencing days of chaos and confusion. As we look forward with anticipation to the celebration of the coming of the source of salvation to each of us, may we remember the paths forged by our ancestors, those in the distant past and our own parents, relatives, and mentors. Let us appreciate and pray for one another God’s continued protection for each of us in body, mind, and spirit as we journey together.