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"Cloud of Witnesses" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 5, 2017

posted Nov 8, 2017, 4:37 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

On All Saints Sunday we celebrate the truth proclaimed in the Letter to the Hebrews.  “For we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.”

But this Sunday, amid ever new revelations of sexual harassment and abuse of power, it seems like we are surrounded by a great cloud of creeps.  Harvey Weinstein seemed a cliche of Hollywood misbehavior, but former President George H. W. Bush and the chief of the NPR newsroom?

I took special note of the accusations against Kevin Spacey, the lead actor in House of Cards.  People long rumored about Spacey’s sexuality but he always demurred when asked if he was gay.  Then another actor came forward with a story of Spacey assaulting him as a teenager.  Spacey responded by announcing, “I choose now to live as a gay man.”

Spacey tried to distract the world from his abusive behavior by painting himself as a marginalized man; tried to make the story about him being gay instead of him assaulting a teen.  Dan Savage said it best when he responded, “I’m sorry, Mr. Spacey, but your application to join the gay community at this time has been denied.”

And yet, it’s worth pausing to consider just what Spacey did in his “gay defense” move.  Of course, at one level, he reiterated the homophobic stereotype of gay men as pedophiles.  But beyond this, he did what all the famous men recently accused of sexual assault have done: try to distract us.

We can see a deeper pattern in Spacey’s actions, what I’d call a “rhetoric of domination.”  First, the domination: Spacey used his position of power - as an adult, as a celebrity - to get away with criminal behavior.  According to the accusation, Spacey physically picked up a teen, carried him to a bed, pinned him down, and sexually assaulted him.  He literally overpowered the teen.  Spacey used his power to get what he wanted regardless of the emotional and physical harm he caused.  And then the rhetoric: when caught, Spacey tried to claim a disadvantaged status to deflect attention from his responsibility for his actions.

Jesus faced something similar in the Gospel; confronting the “rhetoric of domination” spouted by religious leaders and political authoritarians.  Just think of Jesus’ trial before Governor Pontius Pilate.  Pilate decided to execute Jesus because it was politically expedient.  Pilate abused his power as judge, sending a man to his death whom he knew to be innocent.  It perfectly captured the way the Romans dominated people under their control.  But then Pilate added a rhetorical defense: he stopped to publically wash his hands and declared, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”  Only the rhetoric of domination could find a judge executing innocent people not responsible for his actions.

And yet, despite all of Pilate’s efforts, he couldn’t dominate Jesus.  Pilate whipped him.  Jesus still spoke the truth.  Pilate nailed him to a tree.  Jesus still prayed to God.  Pilate thought he won when Jesus died, but still Jesus lived, risen from the dead, unable to be permanently dominated.

The rhetoric of domination which sought to ground down Jesus thought the shame of crucifixion would end him.  We know the ways a domination system works to silence people, just think of the people abused by powerful men who get shamed when they come forward.  But Jesus refused the rhetoric of domination, refused its logic of shame.

And he can be our model now.  As the Letter to the Hebrews said, “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.”

Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” overcame the rhetoric of domination he faced, standing against the abuse of power, rising above those who sought to silence him with shame, triumphing over all the powerful people who sought to entomb him.

And this Sunday we celebrate not only Jesus’ triumph but all those saints who followed in his way, the people who ran with perseverance, women and men who like Jesus confronted the rhetoric of domination.

This All Saints, as I look to that cloud of witnesses around us, I’m struck by the life stories of three women: Ona Judge, who escaped enslavement; Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who fought segregation on public transit 100 years before Rosa Parks; and Anna Pauline Murray, who stood among the “firsts” in several fields.  By faith, each of them lived courageous lives fighting domination.  These women can be our saints in our struggles for justice today.

Ona Judge grew up enslaved by George Washington.  Martha Washington considered Ona a “favorite” slave and made sure Ona attended her when the Washington’s moved to Philadelphia during his first term as President.  In Philadelphia, Ona met free blacks and saw the possibility of escape.hqdefault.jpg

Escape involved risks.  Not only capture, but also the loss of connection to her extended family.  Then Ona learned the Washington’s planned to sell her and her relatives, breaking the family among many different plantations.  And so one day - probably assisted by Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church - she escaped.

George Washington mounted a massive search for Ona, a search he never abandoned.  As a fugitive, Ona remained on the run for most of her life, a person whose freedom remained undocumented, always worried by the knock on the door.

She had clearly broken the law, including the Fugitive Slave Law which George Washington had signed as President.  And one can hear that in the ad Washington placed in the newspapers, “Absconded from the household of the President of the United States on Saturday afternoon, Oney Judge.”  The rhetoric of domination labeled Ona a law-breaker, a fugitive, an illegal; someone who showed the temerity to steal herself!  But Ona knew the real crime: her enslavement.  She fought the domination system of her day even to the point of defying the President and his laws.  And in that she’s a saint for us today, showing amazing courage in her willingness to confront the rhetoric of domination.

Next in our great cloud of witnesses I see Elizabeth Jennings Graham.  She lived in and around New York City during the 19th century.  Elizabeth’s father became the first African-American to hold a patent; his concerned a new process for dry cleaning.  Income from the patent and his business allowed her father to liberate her mother from slavery.  Both her parents taught Elizabeth the importance of learning and the necessity of direct action to change society.

Elizabeth’s moment came unexpectedly one Sunday morning.  She played the organ for her congregational church.  Running late, she hopped on a streetcar.  But the conductor demanded she get off his segregated car.  When she refused, the conductor used force, even calling on a cop to help, pushing her to the ground.

Elizabeth sued the streetcar company and, in 1855, won a judgment against it.  The company was one of four companies operating streetcars in New York City; it took another ten years before lawsuits would force each of them to desegregate.  But the actions of Elizabeth set in motion the desegregation of transportation in New York City.  She would not allow her dignity to be compromised; even when pushed into the ground, she would not be shamed, but rose up again to fight for her rights.  Elizabeth refused to bow to the rhetoric of domination which sought to confine her to the back of the streetcar; and the voice she raised for her rights would reverberate long after.

One more saint speaks to me this morning: Anna Pauline Murray, known to her friends as Pauli.  Pauli grew up at the start of the 20th century, grew up as an orphan raised by extended family in North Carolina.  She succeeded in her segregated school, graduating with distinction, the kind of student easily accepted to the North Carolina College for Negroes.  But she didn’t want to go there.  For even from a young age, she found ways to resist the dominating logic of segregation.  She walked to avoid segregated transit and she skipped movies rather than sit in segregated balconies.  Now, ready for college, Pauli looked north.


But there she found new limits.  Columbia, her dream college, accepted blacks but not women;  Barnard took women, but cost too much; Hunter College offered free tuition, but only for New York residents.  Pauli moved in with relatives in New York City, attended high school for another two years, and then finally began her studies at Hunter.

After college - and skimming by in the Depression - Pauli got involved in the early Civil Rights Movement, getting arrested in Richmond, VA.  Fighting unjust laws led her to apply to Howard Law School.  There, as one of the few women, she rose to prominence.

A classroom debate arose about the strategy to defeat Plessy v. Ferguson, the “separate-but-equal” decision.  Most classmates argued for the conventional wisdom of chipping away at the “equal” portion of the decision, questioning whether an all-black school was equal in resources to an all-white school.  But Pauli spoke for a different approach, challenging the “separate.”  Ten years later her professor remembered her argument when he stood before the Supreme Court; he argued that the “separate” education violated the constitution in Brown v. Topeka.  That moment captures something essential about Pauli: “[she was] both ahead of her time and behind the scenes.”

Her legal acumen led her to pursue further graduate work at Harvard.  But Harvard sent her a “Jane Crow” letter which explained “women need not apply.”  Pauli wrote back, in humor that both spoke to her wit and witnessed to her pain.

“Gentleman, I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements,

But since the way to such change has not been revealed to me,

I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds on this subject.

Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?”

Pauli continually challenged systems, pressing against the rhetoric of domination she faced as an African-American and a woman.  But also against less visible forms of discrimination.  For her funny comment to Harvard hid in plain view her own struggle with her gender identity.  Pauli had in fact sought for years to find a medical way to become the man she felt herself to be.  But all she could do was choose a sort of boy’s name - Pauli - while still referring to herself with female pronouns.

Later, after the highwater mark of the 1963 March on Washington, Pauli suggested in a speech that women organize a Women’s March on Washington.  While the press seemed shocked by the idea, Pauli’s imagination caught the attention of Betty Friedan.  Together with a few others, they launched the National Organization for Women.

A decade later, Pauli’s own spiritual quest led her to seek ordination from the Episcopal Church, even though the Episcopal Church didn’t ordain women at the time.  Pauli tried anyway.  And just as she graduated, the church changed its position, making her one of the earliest women ordained in the Episcopal Church.

All of these moments in her life demonstrate a unique ability to imagine a future others can’t see.  Pauli saw beyond the rhetoric of domination to imagine a new world, saw beyond the injustice of her day to anticipate a world that could come.

This Sunday look to our great cloud of witnesses, women and men who followed in the way of Jesus, confronting the rhetoric of domination.  See the courage of Ona Judge, the uncompromising dignity of Elizabeth Jennings Graham, the imagination of Pauli Murray.  May these saints and others guide you as you run with perseverance the race set before you.

Alleluia and Amen.


  • Kumar, Rose, “The Power Principle and Kevin Spacey,” Huffpo, Nov. 2, 2017 (Accessed Nov. 4, 2017)

  • Never Caught

  • Wikipedia, “Elizabeth Jennings Graham” (Accessed Nov. 3, 2017).  

  • “St. Pauli,” The Atlantic, April 2017 (Accessed Nov. 1, 2017).