City of God

The California Coast was shrouded in fog on the morning of July 4th, 1952.  Twenty-one miles to the west on Catalina Island, a 34-year-old woman waded into the water and began swimming toward California, determined to be the first woman to do so.  Her name was Florence Chadwick and she had already been the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions.

The water was numbing cold and the fog was so thick she could hardly see the boats there to accompany her swim.  Millions were watching on national television.  Several times, sharks were driven away with rifles to protect her.  As the hours ticked off, Chadwick swam on.  Fatigue had never been her big problem in these swims—it was the bone-chilling cold of the water.

More than 15 hours later, numbed with the cold, she called to the boats and asked to be taken out.  She couldn’t go on.  Her mother and her trainer, alongside in a boat, told her they were near land.  They urged her on, “Don’t quit.”  But when she looked toward the California Coast, all she could see was the dense fog.

A few minutes later—at 15 hours and 55 minutes—she was taken out of the water.  It was not until hours later, when her body began to thaw, that she felt the shock of failure.  To a reporter she blurted out, “Look, I’m not excusing myself.  But if I could have seen land, I might have made it.”

She had been pulled out only a half mile from the California Coast!  Later she reflected that she wasn’t beaten by her fatigue or even by the cold – it was the fog. The fog beat her, by obscuring her goal.

I remember hearing this story many years ago, when I was a teenager sitting in the pew. I don’t remember what text my pastor was preaching on that Sunday, only the lesson of Chadwick’s swim – “don’t let the fog get to you.”

A few years later, I was in college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, involved in campus groups advocating for social justice and active in a young adult Bible study. At a protest one day I learned a new song – well, new to me, anyway: The City of God. Many of you probably know it. The chorus goes like this:

Let us build the city of God
May our tears be turned into dancing
For the Lord, our light and our love
Has turned the night into day

 I sang that song with members of Pax Christi as we protested the nuclear arms race and called for a freeze. I sang it at Bible study as we read Ron Sider’s classic book, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.” I sang it in the Rocky Mountains drying wet wool socks on sticks held over a campfire as we marveled at snowcapped peaks, while worrying about the population explosion and a hole in the Ozone. I hummed it driving home from the state capital after a debate over the death penalty in Nebraska. I was only nineteen, and it seemed like there was so much to do to save the world from sin and destruction. All could be lost in a volley of nuclear blasts or everything could be gained as the world came together to end violence and fix a heartless economic system and finally bring peace with justice for all. The promised land, the very reign of God on earth as it is in heaven, was our goal. The fog of war, cynicism, greed, violence, racism and injustice was thick. But I was not alone in the water.

At one protest, we carried a large hand painted banner that read simply “Choose life, that you and your descendants might live.” It was God’s word to the Israelites as they prepared to cross over the water and enter the Promised Land. I don’t remember if that banner was at an anti-nukes rally or an end the death penalty demonstration. But what exuberant confidence we had that our witness mattered. Armed only with butcher paper and poster paint, a few folk hymns, and a smattering of scripture verses, we were certain that perseverance would bend the long arc of history toward justice – just as the Rev. Martin Luther King had prayed.

We are sons of the morning
We are daughters of day
The one who has loved us
Has brightened our way
The Lord of all kindness
Has called us to be
A light for God’s people
To set their hearts free.

Let us build the city of God! What an impossible dream.

Scripture is filled with such dreams. Filled with stories of people who face bracing waters in the fog of impossible tasks. In story after story, those who become known to us as biblical heroes falter as the fog surrounds them. One after another, they want to give up. Abraham and Sarah well into their retirement years, are stunned into laughter at a God who sends them packing for a wild adventure in a new land. Not to mention the nonsense about a baby. Gideon faces battle against a superior force and pleads with God to find someone else, someone more qualified. The prophet Nehemiah rallies returned exiles from Babylon to rebuild the city wall around Jerusalem, though he stands in the midst of rubble where once their Temple gleamed.

In each story the would-be hero is recruited for an enormous challenge. An impossible dream. And then the challenge is complicated — by further obstacles and outright opposition. Abraham and Sarah, wandering in new territory most go up before the Pharaoh. God’s response to anxious Gideon is “reduce your army further – send most of your soldiers home and then fight with the handful who are left.” Nehemiah’s exiles start building that wall, but the locals destroy their work as fast as the exiles can stack stones. It’s already impossibly hard – and then … the fog thickens.

In another story, two military commanders, Abishair and Joab are fighting under King David, against terrible odds. And then, another nation turns against them and they find themselves in the vise of two foreign armies suddenly allied against them. Ammonites press in on one side and Syrians on the other.  Each commander takes the forces under his command and sets off to one of the now two enemy lines. In parting, commander Joab says to Abishai:

If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me; but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come and help you. Be of good courage, and let us play the hero — for our people and for the cities of our God — and may the Lord do what seems good to the Holy One.

It’s amazing what faith can do, even in the thickest fog of war.

In our reading for today from Hebrews, the author tells us that faith gives substance to, makes real and apparent to us, the very thing we cannot yet see. Faith assures us of the truth which is not yet visible. Faith projects a vision of that hidden shore toward which we are striving.

Through a long list of struggling biblical heroes, the letter points us to the power of faith which makes it possible for us to experience the present reality of “God’s hoped for future.” By faith, God’s plans are brought into being that previously did not exist. By faith, the city of God, the building of God’s design, is brought into existence. Abraham, for example, looks beyond the fog, the temporal boundary of his life to the full reality of God and the fulfillment of God’s promises. Within his spirit, the future oriented promise was already realized.  “He looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” For Abraham, this city is a sharp contrast to the tents in which Abraham and his family lived. God’s place in this world has a permanence, a security, a stability that goes beyond mere earthly existence.

In the fog of injustice, oppression and loss, the city is obscured. But God’s eternal dwelling place, the city of God, is more fully present than any house made of stones. Our failure to see it does not make it any less real.

Almost forty years after I first learned the song, City of God, the challenges to the work of building that city remain. The threats to our economic, environmental, political and societal health seem on some days to be worse than they ever were. It is difficult to see any progress in this chilling marathon. One forgets the many nations which won independence from their colonial oppressors. One forgets the fall of apartheid. One forgets the growing presence of women in leadership around the world. One forgets the civil rights hard fought for people of color and for LGBTQI folk.  One forgets. Because it’s hard to see or feel the progress made when the water is still icy and the fog thickens. And the fog thickens with every new mass shooting, every child put in a cage, every community torn apart by an ICE raid, every hate-filled, racist manifesto uploaded to the internet. Like those exiles building the wall around Jerusalem, it seems each stone we lift gets knocked down again. We long to see the gleaming shore. And yet …

And yet, Abraham and Sarah in their old age finally became parents and from their seed sprang a nation of God’s people. Descendants more numerous than the stars. Gideon’s tiny guerrilla force won the battle for freedom. Nehemiah and the exiles did rebuild that wall and the gleaming Temple within God’s holy city. Joab and Abishai watched each other’s backs and brought home a victory.

And Florence Chadwick, two months later, dipped her body back into the icy water of that same channel, to try again. I’d like to say the clouds parted, the sun came out and she had an easy time of it on the re-do. But that would be a lie. Again, fog obscured her view. But though she couldn’t see it, this time she held in her mind a vision of the land she was swimming toward.  And she found it this time. Not only was she the first woman to swim the Catalina Channel, but she beat the men’s record. By two hours!

Let us build the city of God. “For faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand the world were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”


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