“Once Upon a Time”
1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.4By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. 5By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. 8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” 13All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.
(Hebrews 11:1-13, NRSV)
Once upon a time. These four words begin the stories that many of us remember as young children. Fairy tales read by our parents, perhaps. Stories of mystery and adventure, that take us on a wild journey. But for my eight- year-old daughter Charlotte, these are the words that begin true stories of women who left their mark on our world. In the book “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” Charlotte and I embark on a historical adventure each night as we choose a new heroine’s story and learn about her unique legacy.
One entry reads, “Once upon a time there was a girl named Harriet, [who was a slave]. Harriet decided to escape from [her life of slavery.] She hid in the daytime and traveled by night. When she crossed the border into Pennsylvania, she realized for the first time in her life, she was free. Harriet exclaimed in joy, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now that I was free. There was such glory over everything and I felt like I was in Heaven.” Harriet thought about a runaway slave friend, and her family in Maryland who were still enslaved. She knew she had to help them. Over the next eleven years, [Harriet] went back nineteen times and rescued hundreds of enslaved people. She was never captured and she never lost a single person.
Another story reads, “Once upon a time, there was a curious girl named Mae who could not make up her mind about what she wanted to be when she grew up. Sewing dresses for her Barbie dolls, she wanted to be a fashion designer; reading a book about space travel, she wanted to be an astronaut; fixing a broken toy, she thought maybe an engineer would be better; going to the theatre, she exclaimed, “Maybe I’ll be a dancer!” [Mae] went on to study chemical engineering, African American studies, and medicine. She became a doctor and volunteered in Cambodia, and Sierra Leone. Then she applied to NASA to become an astronaut. Mae was selected after one year of training and was sent into space on a [NASA mission]. There, she carried out tests on other members of the crew. When Mae came back to Earth, she realized that while she enjoyed space very much, her true passion was improving health in Africa. So she quit NASA and founded a company which uses satellites to help people in poverty. Mae Jemison was the first African American woman in space.
In our scripture lesson today, we remember the stories and legacies of those who have come before us in life and faith. Their stories remind us that faith motivates, even when the future seems bleak and when the odds seems presumably stacked. Their stories remind us that there is always more to strive for ̶ more to hope for. Hebrews is a letter written with the future in mind. It urges us to keep moving towards God’s dream for peace and justice in this broken world.
Speculations vary concerning the author of Hebrews. Few make claims that the apostle Paul wrote it, while a more widely believed theory is that someone close to Paul’s community scripted the letter. Nonetheless, theologians conclude that Hebrews is written to a particular Christian congregation that is filled with new believers in need of encouragement.
Chapter eleven is perhaps the most well-known section of Hebrews. Perhaps we have often heard it referred to as the “faith” chapter. I remember as a youth at my home church, memorizing the introduction to Hebrews 11 as it states, and “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Hebrews 11 and the verses following reveal to us a roll call of some of the faithful who have gone before us, believing and trusting God. We are summoned to remember, to reflect, and to recognize our own struggle in their stories.
We remember the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. It is noted that by faith, Abel gives an offering to God. His gift ̶ acceptable and God approves him as righteous. We remember Enoch’s unusual story as he walks faithfully with God for over sixty years, does not die, but is “taken” by God. We remember the familiar story of Noah. Noah is found faithful as he listens to God’s call to build an ark and protect his family from the impending flood. Noah becomes an “heir to righteousness…”. For generations following, Noah’s faith is viewed as a measuring device for our faith. We remember Abraham and his trust in God’s vision for his life. We remember God’s call to an aging Abraham to leave his beloved homeland. God’s call beckons Abraham, despite his circumstances. We remember a 75- year-old Abraham and his family setting out on an ambiguous journey ̶ his faith guiding his every move.
The stories of the faithful continue well into chapter 11. We remember Moses and his faith as he confronts Pharaoh and leads the Israelites out of Egypt to freedom and towards the Promised Land. As we recall these heroic stories, we remember that many died in faith without seeing the fruits of their labor. These stories link us to our past and challenge us as we embrace our future.
As February is Black History month, we remember the more recent people of faith who have brought us to this time and space in our modern day history. We remember countless women and men who paved the road for a more just and peaceful world. Many, like in the letter to the Hebrews, not able to see the future imprint on the world, but continuing to walk in faith, nonetheless.
We remember the legacy of Sojourner Truth ̶ abolitionist, orator and women's rights activist. Born into slavery in Ulster County, New York, she escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. Her words inspire us as she once wrote, “Truth is powerful and it prevails.” We remember the legacy of Frederick Douglass ̶ former slave, social reformer, abolitionist, orator, and writer, who once wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.” We remember the legacy of Rosa Parks, “the first lady of the Civil Rights” who once said in response to her refusal to move to the back of a bus, “No, I was not tired. Just tired of giving in.” We remember the legacy of James Mercer Langston Hughes ̶ poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. Hughes inspires us with his insightful words as he wrote, “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” We remember the legacy of Maya Angelou ̶ poet, singer, speaker and Civil Rights Activist. For she inspires us with her vulnerability through poetry as she proclaims, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.” We remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ̶ Baptist minister and leader of the civil rights movement. He inspired us with his life and with words like, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” We are challenged by his faith as he once said, “Faith is taking the first step when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Sometimes we see the fruits of our faith and actions, but often times, we do not. Perhaps the message of Hebrews is that we need each other in order to see God’s larger redemptive work in our world. The stories of the faithful stir up something bold and courageous within us. They give us hope that we are moving toward something better ̶ that we are moving towards light and love; not just for some, but for us all. In their stories, we see facets of our lives and parts of our own struggles in their journey. In their stories, we see God’s Spirit at work. In their stories, we sense God’s Spirit moving in our very lives. Their stories challenge us to keep moving forward in faith, in justice, in kindness, in equality and in love.
The prologue of “Good Night Rebel Girls” was written only two years ago, but reads as if could have been written by the author of Hebrews. Had the author written a modern day prologue version to the stories of those long ago, it may have sounded similar to this. It reads, “May these brave pioneers inspire you. May their portraits impress upon [you] the solid belief that beauty manifests itself in all shapes and colors and ages. May [you] know the greatest success is to live a life full of passion, curiosity and generosity. May [you] remember every day that we have the right to be happy and to explore wildly. [I] can feel the hope and enthusiasm for the world we are building together. A world where gender [or any other factor] will not define how big you can dream or how far you can go. A world where each of us will be able to say with confidence, “I am free.”
In the back of the book, is a blank page with the words’ Once upon a time” written across the top. It is a page dedicated to the reader. It is a page of endless possibilities. It is a page for the reader to write his or her own legacy story. I often ask Charlotte, “How will you want your “Once upon a time” story to read one day? What will you be remembered for?
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. Church, what will our “by faith” story be? How will our story unfold? How will we carry the legacies of those who have come before and build upon it? The Spirit of God is at work here in this church. The Spirit of God is at work in our world and in this community. Once upon a time. What will they say about us? AMEN.
Living God, our refuge and our hope, come among us today to give us energy and purpose. We need the inner strength that comes to us through your love and this time of worship. God we hear you calling us to a life of gentleness and love for each other. We ask that you would draw us to a common faith, in spite of our differences.
O God we seldom look beyond our own interests to the well-being of our sisters and brothers. We can see the wasteful acts of other people but not our own selfish habits. Free us O God that we might respond to vast needs around us. Make us instruments of your peace and justice in a world so filled with fear and anger.
We come before you this morning with both private and corporate hurts in need of your redeeming power; some hurts known only by you. May your loving kindness be evident in the lives of those who are hurting and in need of peace.
Give us sensitive eyes and ears to do your work in our world. Make us more sensitive to you and to one another as we seek to care for all people. Join us together in both heart and mind as we continue in worship as a family of faith. We ask these things in the redeeming name of Christ, who gives us life. Amen.
Prayer adapted from a prayer by Lavon Baylor.
 Favilli, Elena and Francesca Cavallo, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women; 2016