Proper 15C – Aug 14, 2022

Witness = Martyr

Rev. Michael Swartz

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
11:29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
11:31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
11:32 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–
11:33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
11:34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
11:35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
11:36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
11:37 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–
11:38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
11:39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,
11:40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12:1 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,
12:2 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.

The word for “witness” in Greek is the word “Martyr.”

The text from Hebrews concludes with:  “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us lay aside every weight … and run with perseverance the race that is set before us … looking to Jesus.”

This passage is commonly part of our All Saints Sunday when we celebrate the faith of our spiritual ancestors.  We remember the integrity and self-sacrifice of those who have gone before and contemplate the challenges we may experience and resolve to do our part in our time to better our family and community of faith.

We have the time today to dig a little deeper to look at how circumstances change and how what was suffering and sacrifice can be a source of inspiration in our present moment.

This Hebrews passage talks about is the exercise of power and coercion.  “Flogging, chains, imprisonment … sawn in two” are examples of not only power but also intimidation and terrorism to gain compliance.  These are public demonstrations of the hopelessness of resisting the current order.  Our symbol of this is the cross of Christ – who suffered with integrity on behalf of humanity.

And the basis for exertion of such power over another is to gain compliance of the wider public.  “Let this be a lesson to you, you cannot resist.”  And those who persist and witness to what they know to be the truth stand in the way.  And this is not usually an individual truth, rather it is a widely held truth and thus a threat to the current holders of power – so the target of compliance is not so much the individual but rather others who know the same truth who need to be brought into line.  Thus the witness becomes a martyr – and example.

The point of the “Cloud of Witnesses, the Cloud of Martyrs” is that while they were once an example of hopelessness they are now examples of hope: and they cheer us on in our time.

So the anniversary of the resignation of President Nixon this week brought to mind the memorial service at which I officiated for our local Congressman Tom Railsback in 2020 at First Congregational Church, Moline, where he had been a Sunday School teacher. (Never before have I done a service for someone who has their own Wikipedia article.)  His obituary noted: Railsback was the second ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and a key member during the Nixon presidency. The Watergate hearings were a trying time for Railsback and his family as he courageously sought truth and voted his conscience.

He was later voted out of office.  Indeed, a “trying time.”

In 2020 the Times/Dispatch gave a “thumbs up” to the memory of Tom Railsback.  It read:  The Moline native was a Republican congressman who represented western Illinois, including the Quad-Cities, in Congress from 1967 to 1983.  Railsback is most noted for crossing party lines to vote in the House Judiciary Committee to impeach Richard Nixon in 1974.

 Being a witness is almost always a situation thrust upon us by circumstance, we do not seek it out; simply we were there.  We would prefer to avoid it, but it is thrust upon us.  We don’t want to be a martyr.  Few do.

But the Ten Commandments include “do not bear false witness.”  (And such a commandment is not about “what do you think of my new haircut,” but rather anticipates matters of consequence.)  Integrity in witness is an age-old value.

Is there a word from the Lord in this today?

  • It is not for nothing that our laws seek to prevent witness We try to protect those giving voice to their truth as they saw it.  And our laws seek to protect “whistle blowers.”  But since such laws are as old as the Ten Commandments it is obviously something as old as human society.  This is an important component of a “free society.”
  • Our scripture, the Bible, tells us to exercise integrity. Tell the truth.
  • When by faith we are able to withstand pressure and do the right thing, the honest thing, for the benefit of others we are often a source of inspiration to those who will come later. Hopeless becomes full of hope.
  • When we are in positions of power we must avoid coercion of others. And that includes coercion of far milder sorts than stoning or death.
  • And, we should not be quick to judge the vulnerable who succumb to fear and intimidation. The snippet on the news is often like; “I was a single parent and I did not know how I could support my family if I lost my job. So I did not speak up.”  It is a privilege to be able survive with dignity.  “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say in our heart.


When a crisis is thrust upon us by changing circumstance we pray that we are able to withstand the pressure and hold on to our faith and truth.  The crisis of being a witness is both painful and common at the same time.  It is an age-old human situation.  It is good to ponder such challenges ahead of time, when we are not anxious, even in a sermon in church.

The paradox is that circumstances continue to change; what at one time seemed irresistible is gone, and what was seen to be a great thumbs down at one moment becomes a thumbs up at a later moment.  Tough times don’t last; tough people do.  (Robert Schuler)

Tertullian commented:  “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Well, the blood of Jesus certainly has benefit.  I, for one would prefer to keep my blood out of it.  In fact, I pray that I can survive with my dignity, integrity and life situation in tact.

Our faith, as a witness, is in Jesus Christ, and the power of the resurrection.

Amen and amen.


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