Text: Hebrews 11:22 – 12:2.
The Akan people from the West African nation of Ghana offer us this notion of SANKOFA. Sankofa is derived from three Akan words: san| ko | fa, meaning, “It is not taboo to fetch that which is at risk of being left behind.” (Berea College) The symbol of sankofa is a bird “with its feet firmly planted forward with its head turned backwards.” (Ibid) The Akan believe after a community critically examines or considers its past they are more prepared for the future. There are treasures from a community’s history that, once remembered, will help the community to regain its footing and rightly see the future.
The scripture that we know as Hebrews, including the portion we read this morning, is an example of sankofa. Hebrews is a message to encourage a community to go back and reclaim things they needed so that they could live into the future God made possible.
By the time this message comes to the community they were a long way from where they started—not in terms of distance but in terms of their lived experience.
With hope, they formed a community around their confession and belief in Jesus Christ. At their founding they were a Christian community surrounded by others who believed differently. Even as this was true they ordered their lives around their faith. We can imagine them gathering for worship and sharing the meal at Christ’s table. And through their fellowship they encouraged and built each other up. For a time, being in the minority was not challenging because their faith seemed sufficient enough, seemed big enough to sustain them. For a time, they held on tight and remembered God’s promises that came to them through sermons, testimony and song.
Eventually, their circumstances changed. Those who did not identify as Christians challenged the believers. They began experiencing increasing hostility because of their Christian faith. We can imagine: neighbors were less friendly. They were barred from conducting business. Their children were singled out and labeled. Daily living–harder and harder. Mounting pressure to say they no longer believed. Some among them were imprisoned because they held fast to their confession. Their faith—individually and as a community—was, seemingly, no longer enough to sustain them. Some, although they still believed, were so weary and distressed that the wondered whether they would be able to stay with this Christian community. Living through such circumstances, it is understandable that some of them began to drift to the edges of the community in preparation to exit unless something changed. This community needed an answer to the question, what do we do when the circumstances of our lives are “crushing and un-manageable?” (James Earl Massey)
Across the United States communities of Christians gather regularly and freely. We are not, as a matter of common practice or law, subjected to discrimination because of what we believe. Our experience, however, lines up with the community in Hebrews because like them we are sometimes challenged to see clearly the way ahead. We know what it is to come to a point on the journey when it feels like our faith is too small and insufficient for what we are experiencing.
Park Avenue we are still getting to know one another. However, in the last four weeks, there have been opportunities to begin to hear your stories and the stories of our neighbors. In person, on yellow cards, through emails and phone calls you have shared the concerns of your hearts—the things that are in your line of sight. The things holding your attention, the things toward which you direct your faith:
- Health concerns
- Grief and loss
- Inequality and injustice
- Broken relationships
- Housing insecurity
All of us will come to a point on our journey when what we see in front of us seems much bigger than the faith we possess. What do we believe and what do we do when it seems the faith we have is not enough to move forward?
To a community of Christian whose souls were downcast and disturbed (Ps 43:5), came the prescription, “we must pay greater attention to what we have heard.” The community once established their hopes based on what they heard.
In this message they are invited to remember what they learned about Jesus—his continuing connection to the tradition and the new things he made possible. The message includes:
- Jesus became our brother “in every respect” and therefore understands our suffering. (2:17-18)
- Because of Jesus Christ “we can approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need.” (4:16)
- Jesus Christ is our unlimited source of hope, and has become for us an anchor; Jesus goes ahead of us and makes it possible for us to keep moving forward (6.19)
- The message to the Hebrews also focused on God’s response to the expressions of faithful diverse people through history including:
- the Israelites leaving Egypt by way of the Red Sea as if it were dry land
- the walls of Jericho being destroyed after God’s people marched around the walls for seven days
- Rahab’s faith to provide shelter for the spies sent to Jericho
- The message to the community of Hebrews includes the experiences of unnamed men and women who suffered, were imprisoned and died rather than lay aside their faith. Their experiences are a reminder that God does not promise living faithfully will be easy but God promises to be with us and help us through this life.
HAVING encouraged the hearts of the community by laying out all that Jesus accomplished in his living, dying and resurrection the author begins wrapping up the message and gave them the instructions for how to live into the future:
“THEREFORE, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us 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] has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (12:1-2, NRSV)
To a people who did not know if they had enough faith to keep going comes the reassurance that God, through Jesus Christ, would sustain them to complete the race!
Now they know—and we know this morning—that persevering to the end and crossing the finishing line does not finally depend on the size of, or amount of faith.
“Perseverance is not the result of our determination, it is the result of God’s faithfulness. We survive in the way of faith not because we have extraordinary stamina but because God is righteous, because God sticks with us.” (Eugene Peterson)
God did not ask this community—and does not ask us—to exercise perfectly robust faith all along the journey. Jesus knows what it is to become discouraged, tired and distracted. Jesus takes our wobbly, failing and partial faith and perfects it before God.
The message comes to all those who are uncertain about finishing to look to Jesus and he will show us the way forward. This invitation to look to Jesus is best understood as something more than envisioning Jesus physically standing before us. It is instead becoming familiar with how Jesus lived—considering how his ministry and life and way of being in the world are our example, our standard. To look to Jesus is remain hopeful no matter what we see in the world because we know God remains actively involved in human history. To look to Jesus is to hold on with enough faith to endure the difficult and painful parts of life because of the certain joy that awaits us at the end of time.
To this community comes the message: you are still in the race, keep running, Jesus has gone ahead of you, we will finish.