Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Yes, Christ is Risen. But, now what? That’s what I think of when I read Thomas’ story. Christ is risen. Mary Magdalene had preached a testimony of what she had seen. Jesus the Christ had risen and he had appeared to her at the empty tomb. Now what? What comes next? This reading, the one that usually comes a couple Sundays after Easter, shows us what can happen once we move from the empty tomb back into the world. Do we follow the directions we received from the Divine? Do we even tell anybody? Mary did what Jesus asked. She told the disciples. What will the rest of the disciples do?
Thomas is often remembered as the Doubter. After how horrible his last week had been, why wouldn't he have questions? Thomas was not being hard-headed. He was being realistic, especially after everything that had happened. A little doubt makes sense in times such as these. In fact, all the disciples seem to be doubting a bit. Mary had told them that she had encountered a resurrected Jesus. And, yet, scripture tells us that their response was to remain in hiding. This might also being reasonable. The Roman state had just murdered Jesus. They didn’t know if they would be next. All of their plans had fallen apart. Hiding seemed like the best option for the moment, even though Mary’s testimony could have given them a little hope, had they actually trusted her. As they huddled together, not knowing what their next steps should be, the Gospel of John tell us that Jesus would slide in past all the barriers they created to keep themselves safe and offer them peace.
Now, if you are someone who doesn't think people of faith should need physical proof of the resurrection, Jesus’ first action might surprise you. He doesn't fuss at his followers for not believing Mary. Instead, he holds out his torn hands and offers his scarred side as proof of who he is. This is a great kindness on his part... showing them what he knows they will need to believe. And, just like Mary before them, when the disciples see Jesus and his wounds, they believe. He then offers them a second great gift. He commissions them to bring about the Reign of God. Mirroring the lovely imagery of the creation story in Genesis 2, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them, enlivening their frightened hearts. Surely, this, too is a bit of resurrection for those petrified people.
Thomas, though, missed the whole thing. He was apparently the only one brave enough to leave the house. Despite of how we often think of him, until this point, Thomas has been portrayed as a brave and faithful disciple. Back when Lazarus died, it was Thomas who said they should follow Jesus and travel to help him, even if it was dangerous. When those who have been so afraid report that they have seen Jesus, he simply asks for the same kind of proof they have received. He states, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hands in his side, I will not believe.” With these few words, Thomas became known as a doubter and a counter-example of faith of generations of Christians. I would argue, not for the first time, to characterize him as anything other than faithful, simply because he wanted the same proof everyone else got, seems unfair. Not one other person in the whole story believed without seeing. Why does Thomas get called a doubter? Why should he be expected to need any less confirmation than anybody else? He, like the disciples before him, needed a little more assurance than the excited words that his compatriots could offer. He needed some evidence that his hope wasn't unfounded. There was too much at stake to go without it.
It would take a week for him to receive the evidence he needed. That scene in this reading is truly a scene of grace. Once again, we read that Jesus slides past all their defenses and enters the room. Were they still locked up in fear or was this just where they lived now? It must not matter. What does matter is that once again, Jesus offers the ones who love him a reason to trust that they can go on without him. And, this time, he gives Thomas proof. He offers up his wounds, saying, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand put it in my side." Many translations of this passage have Jesus telling Thomas "Do not doubt." I have learned from scholars who know Greek better than I do that a better translation could be "Do not be empty of faith." Jesus’ ministry has always been marked by abundance. More wine when the wine is gone. More food when there seems only a little bit. More life when there is death. Of course, he would refill faith. In Christ and with Christ, there is enough... more than enough, in fact. If proof is what Thomas needs to renew his abundant faith, then, proof is what Jesus will provide. Once again, we see a new bit of Resurrection.
Jesus’ next few words to Thomas are often considered a rebuke. He said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is such an interesting response. Up to this point, everyone in the story that we know believes in the Resurrection has actually seen it. First Mary Magdalene, then the 10 disciples, then Thomas. Seeing seems to be a prerequisite to believing. I think these words about believing without seeing are better understood as a challenge. After all, Mary, Thomas, and the 10, had Jesus' risen body to help them believe. That is very solid proof that that which they believe is real. But, no one who believes after them would have that same level of evidence. What are the rest of the believers to do when they need proof... when they need their faith refilled? If you can't see Christ's body and feel Christ's wounds, how can you believe? As the disciples go on to preach about the Resurrection, they are going to have to wrestle with these very questions. They have to start making a plan.
The beginning of this plan is in the peace that Jesus carried into the room with the fearful disciples. Remember the part when Jesus first slid in through the locked door and found the disciples? The second thing he did when he saw them was breathe the Holy Spirit onto them. This breathing life into things is an important part of scripture. Scholars remind us that this is a very similar scene to the first descriptions of creation in the book of Genesis where God took a lump of mud and loved it and breathed life into it, creating humanity. How would this story change for us if we took it not as a critique of doubt but as a reminder of the act of creation? People will need to see something to prove to them that resurrection is possible. What if Jesus created the proof the disciples would need in that act of breathing peace?
What if Thomas' story is best understood not as a critique of doubt but as the creation of a new body of proof...the Body of Christ... the church and all those who seek to follow Jesus can see when they need help believing in the resurrection. Just as God once breathed life into clay, Jesus breathed new life into his disciples. When he revived them, they went forth and found new followers of Christ. Had these 11 not been willing to leave their homes and continue Christ's work, we would not be here. What this story teaches us is that while we may not have Jesus’ own body here in front of us, we most certainly have the Body of Christ and we are still blessed by the proof that their faith offered.
If we are the on-going Body of Christ in the world, we are being called to offer up evidence of the resurrection. We can offer our bodies and ourselves, our wounds and our great joys, as proof of the Resurrection. You can see the Resurrection all over the place in this church, even as we are spread out across several towns and states. It is in the grief that you are so willing to offer up and share with one another during prayer. It is in the grace that you show visitors and those in need who call looking for help. It is in your willingness to share your stories of how you came to faith and came to this faith community. It is even in our church council meetings where everyone is working together to discern just how we will be church in this era of COVID-19. I suspect that even though we don’t have Jesus’ actual body right here with us, we can feel the Body of Christ right here, right now. Jesus' breathed new life into his disciples and we have inherited that new life from them. We can continue to carry that new life with us into whatever comes next. Seeing is believing in this text. I pray that you can see Christ here, as we worship over the internet, and feel Christ with us, as we learn, once again, how to live a new life.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
The country singer and song writer Mel Tillis was trying to write a new song and it just wasn’t going anywhere. He’d been trying to write a follow-up to a song of his about Tupelo, Mississippi, but when he played it for a colleague, the other man said he needed to try something else. Said that he needed to write about a new city. As he kept working with the tune he’d started and some of the lyrics, he began a second conversation, this time with Danny Dill, another song writer friend. Danny related something that he’d noticed when he’d been playing small shows and sets in bars in Detroit. This conversation would have been happening in the early 1960’s. A lot of people had been moving to Detroit. Danny Dill noticed that some of them were having a really hard time of it.
For some people who moved, like Black Americans who were leaving racial violence in southern states, while not perfect, the city of Detroit was still a place where a better life could be built and good wages found. The move was grounded in hopefulness. For others, like impoverished southern white people from both the Deep South and the Southern Highlands, the move to the North was more complicated. They were drawn by the same jobs as Black Americans but, with more reservations. Many would have preferred to stay where they had been raised, but, found it too hard to make a living. For many of these migrants, Detroit was a place they worked. It would never really feel like home.
Some folks would come home to Kentucky and Tennessee every weekend they had free and during every lay-off at the plant. Others would go to Detroit for a while, save some money, and then move back south. Some would be so miserable that they could never build a life for themselves in their new city. Mel Tillis and Danny Dill ended up writing a song about one of those people. The first verse of the song, known as Detroit City is:
I wanna go home/ I wanna go home/ oh how I wanna go home
Last night I went to sleep in Detroit City
And I dreamed about those cottonfields and home
I dreamed about my mother, dear old papa, sister, and brother
I dreamed about that girl who's been waiting for so long
I wanna go home/ I wanna go home oh /how I wanna go home
This is a song of lament and lonesomeness. It is a song about someone completely displaced and out of place, regretting the decision he made to follow the jobs north. He eventually says that he’s going to swallow his pride, admit that he hasn’t been able to find what he was looking for, and just go home.
I wonder what this guy would have done had he received a letter like the one the exiles received from Jeremiah in today’s scripture. Because, they were singing a similar refrain: I wanna go home/I wanna go home/I wanna go home. And, they hadn’t made the choice to move to Babylon. Sure, poverty drove some white southerners to seek jobs away from home, but, it was still a choice they made and were allowed to make. The Israelites had been forced into exile by a conquering army. They didn’t want to leave Judah and they didn’t want to stay in Babylon. They were people twice traumatized, first by the terrors of war in their homes and then by the forced removal of their leadership to Babylon. They would have said that they wanted to go home and the last thing they wanted to hear was that they would have to stay. And, that’s just what Jeremiah told them. They would have to stay.
To put this part of Jeremiah in context, Dr. Wil Gafney describes it this way: She said imagine that a foreign army has beaten our army in a war that is in our country. Now, imagine that our government has been dismantled and key religious and cultural artifacts have been stolen and carted away to sit in someone else’s palaces and museums. The president and their family, plus the cabinet, plus all of Congress and the remaining military leaders have all been forced to move to the foreign country, along with our most celebrated artists and most skilled craftspeople. There is great famine back home and great isolation and fear in the other place. It would be almost impossible to rebuild and recover. That’s how complete the devastation is. This is the kind of situation that Jeremiah was responding to.
I think the letter the exiled leaders were hoping for was from someone who was going to tell them that whatever this exile is, it would be short-lived... That they wouldn’t have to figure out how to change their lives anymore to fit Babylon. They had lost enough. They wanted someone to tell them when God would come save them and let them go home. In her commentary on this passage, Dr. Alphonetta Wines noted that some prophets, like Hananiah, had predicted as little as a two year stay in exile. That might not have been great, but it might have been manageable. Many hard things are manageable if there is an end date. It’s too bad that Jeremiah didn’t think there was going to be an end date any time soon.
Jeremiah had not been sent into exile. He was so much on the margins of religious and political leadership that the Babylonians did not think it was worth it to send him in exile. You see, the exile was a way to disrupt the leadership capacity of the Israelites. You kill or steal capable leaders. That makes it very hard to organize a resistance or rebuild. The Babylonians didn’t see Jeremiah as a threat. He was able to remain in Judah, where he experienced the trauma and post-war deprivations firsthand. It is in this destruction that Jeremiah finds his call. And, his call is to help the exiled leaders survive. Dr. Wines puts in this way, he writes a letter to the exiles to help them adjust to their current situation, rather than escape it.
As one who has been having to do a lot of adjusting in the midst of COVID-19, an event that isn’t exile but is disruptive, I can understand this yearning for news that the disruption is over and that things can get back to normal. Jeremiah’s letter is more like the direction we’re getting from scientists... we don’t know how long this is going to last, some of the changes we’re making are long-term if not permanent. But, just because we don’t know when it will be over, that doesn’t mean you can’t find blessing right where you are. Jeremiah says to the exiled that they will find blessing in actually making a life in Babylon: plant gardens, marry partners, have children. He says to them, you will feel the impulse to shrink and decline and isolate. But, don’t do that. He says build and grow and connect. This is going to take a long time and that is how you will survive.
Dr. Gafney points out that Jeremiah’s instruction to seek the welfare of the city in which they have been exiled does not rely on some kind of amend-making on the part of Babylon. It is unlikely that Babylon would have apologized for what they had done. However, Babylon and Israel were inextricably connected at this point. Anything the Israelites did to make their city more livable would only help them to survive the captivity. And, that should be their main concern: finding a way to cultivate as good a life as possible. Those who were not deported will not have this luxury. This will continue to live in great deprivation. The ones in Babylon must take advantage of whatever goodness they can find right where they were. When they are finally able to return, their people will need them to be in as good a shape as possible.
I am grateful that this scripture reminds us that beauty and life can be wrought from terrible circumstances. In some cases, the beauty is in the haunting songs that help us lament, even if we’ve never lived in Detroit City. In other cases, the beauty is in the ways communities can be reorganized by their response to disasters. Dr. Wines reminds us that much of the Hebrew Bible was collected and organized during the exile. Also, this is when synagogues became vital parts of Jewish community. Even the style of faith that developed in this era, a wrestling with questions about God’s provision and God’s relationship to human flourishing and suffering, came about in part because of people’s responses to making a life in Babylon until that time when they could return to Judah, some 60 years later. When Jewish people didn’t have a temple, they developed ways to continue their traditions. I don’t wish terrible circumstances on people, but I’m grateful to be reminded of the life that can rise up in spite of them.
When we are tempted to be Babylon, may we turn away from destruction, so that we no longer ask people to survive the unlivable. And, when we are in exile, may we remember that God is still with us, helping us create the legacies that allow us and our descendants to survive.
Sources referenced in today’s sermon:
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
There is a beautiful song called “Ring of Keys” in a Broadway show called Fun Home that I thought of when I reread today’s scripture. The show is based on the graphic novel of the same name, written and illustrated by Alison Bechdel. In the song, she recounts a transformational moment from her childhood. She was eating in a diner with her dad. This would have been in the mid- to late 1960’s in Pennsylvania. And, this woman walked in, delivering something. What she was delivering wasn’t as important as how she looked while she did it. She looked strong.
In the song, young Alison sings:
Your swagger and your bearing
And the just right clothes you're wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots
And your keys, oh
Your ring of keys
Alison isn’t simply enamored by the keys. She is amazed to see a woman presenting a different idea of how to move through the world than Alison has ever seen before. This woman takes up space. She does a sweaty job where she has to carry heavy things. She has a short haircut... not a pixie cut, but a haircut that looks more like the haircuts the men that Alison knew would wear. Even her clothes were a revelation. She wore practical things, work pants and boots, but this was more than her uniform. It was also intentional, chosen to tell people who were paying attention something about who she was. And, Alison was paying attention. In that moment, when she saw this adult she didn’t know, she saw something true that she recognized in herself and also something to aspire to. She sings, “I think we’re alike in a certain way” and “why am I the only one who sees you’re beautiful/ no, I mean/ handsome.” The last lines of the song are “I know you./I know you./I know you.” I read somewhere that this revelatory moment in the diner, where she said “that’s who I am and want to be” is one of Alison Bechdel’s earliest memories. She lived her life a little differently from that moment on.
I must admit, it can be a little tricky to compare Alison’s revelation to Paul’s revelation. Alison’s revelation seems like a relief. A transformation, to be sure, but also a relief. She sees a vision of an adult version of her that bring her hope. If you haven’t read the book or seen the show, Bechdel's home life was difficult. Seeing this woman and her dungarees and boots was a bright spot in a life that could be hard. Paul, well, Saul, who would become Paul, he was pretty happy with his life. He was doing just what he thought he needed to be doing. His transformative moment was terrifying. I’m going to argue, though, that, once he got past the fear, this revelation also made his life more hope-filled. Because, before that flash of light on the road, Saul of Tarsus was going down a path ruled by fear and destruction. By the look of things, he would need something like an act of God to change him. The story tells us that God’s action did.
Saul appears to be one of those people who is very sure that God needs defending by the faithful. He is introduced in chapter 9 as one so zealous in his faith that he is willing to participate in violence to protect it. When you are brought up in the violence of the Empire, it can be tempting to replicate that violence. It’s like last week, when we were reading in Exodus, and Moses, who was raised by the Pharaoh, lost his temper and killed an Egyptian man whom he saw abusing an Israelite. Saul, likely fearful of the fate of his own faith under Roman domination, turned that fear into violence against those whom he saw as threatening his faith, particularly, the followers of the radical teacher, Jesus. Jesus, who had been killed by the state. Jesus, whose followers, like Stephen, were willing to face death even as they shared the good news of his message. Saul had no patience for those who defamed God and drew unnecessary and dangerous attention to their people.
Dr. Mitzi Smith, when writing about this passage, says “God reveals God’s self to whomever God chooses and when God chooses.” And, Saul, who had already believed in God fiercely, was the recipient of this revelation. Saul, who was well-educated and well-connected, a Pharisee who was a son of Pharisee, a Roman citizen when many weren’t, could not use all his political or social connections to work his way out of the startling encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus. A light from heaven flashed and he fell to the ground, the world that he thought he saw so clearly, becoming nothing before his eyes. Jesus, long gone from this world, but moving through the Holy Spirit, speaks to him and sets him on the journey to a new life and a new mission.
First, Saul will have to rely on his friends to lead him safely into the city. You see, following Christ is rarely done alone. Then, a disciple named Ananias will come and lay hands on him, preparing him for the work of the Gospel, and offering him the chance to make amends for all he had done wrong in the world. When Saul, whom we know as Paul, accepts this blessing and is baptized, we know, from this vantage point in history, that we are seeing a world changing ministry begin. Whatever had been preventing him from seeing a hopeful future fell away, and he was able to begin anew.
Now I don’t know if your transformation story is more like that little girl who sees herself in an adult for the first time or more like Saul, who had his hurt turned from fear and anger into hope and love. But, I bet you have a transformation story. Maybe you’re having a transformation story right now, moved by the protests and testimonies offered up to us over the last two weeks about what it is to be black and live in this country. However you come to see the thing that changes you, I hope are able to get up and go do whatever Christ is calling you to do. Your life and this world can change. This stories reminds us that great transformation is possible. I pray that you have found your part of it.
Resources consulted in this sermon:
Exodus 5:1-2, 7:8-23
Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’ But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘When Pharaoh says to you, “Perform a wonder”, then you shall say to Aaron, “Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.” ’ So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs. Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. Say to him, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.’ But until now you have not listened. Thus says the Lord, ‘By this you shall know that I am the Lord.’ See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron, “Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.” ’
Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart.
Pharaoh had a plan.
Pharaoh had a plan. It is reasonable for us to expect leaders to have a plan. We have confidence and trust that good leaders have their best interest at heart, and that those interests coincide with our best interests. Pharaoh was a powerful leader. Whether or not he was a good leader is another question. Someone was certainly benefiting from his choices. Now, this Pharaoh comes many years after Joseph and the Israelites had a plan that saved Egypt from a famine. The time has lapsed such that he does not really know these Jewish people; certainly not with the intimacy of his ancestors or the Pharaohs before him. He has long stopped viewing the Israelites as welcome refugees in his land. Instead he has grown frightened of them, not because they did anything wrong, just because Pharaoh was afraid. So, he oppressed them, enslaving them, in order to shore up his power. He was willing to do terrible things to stay in power. His plan was to keep the Israelites in bondage and hurt them in order to keep them in line.
Moses had a plan.
Moses had a plan. And, his plan was mostly to get the heck out of Dodge and stay out of Dodge. It was already a miracle that Moses was alive. Pharaoh’s plan included genocide and every Israelite boy was to die. But, there were two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who made a plan and saved the boys. And, then, a woman named Jochebed made a plan and saved her own son. That’s Moses. He survived in a time when he wasn’t supposed to and even ended up living in the household of the one who ordered his death. That story would be miracle enough on its own. But, the story didn’t end there. So many more signs and wonders will happen.
Even though he grew up with Egyptians, Moses was an Israelite and he knew it. When he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, a slave who might have been one of his relatives, and he snapped. He killed the abusive man. And, even though he had grown up as a grandson to the Pharaoh, he knew his place in the world was tenuous. A descendant of refugees and a survivor of one genocide, this son of a mother with plan, makes his own plan. He gets out of town, gets to Midian, and tries to make a life there. He marries Zipporah. They have a kid. His plan is to stay in Midian, have a family, and stay alive.
God had a plan.
God had a plan and the first part of that plan was to get Moses to go back to Egypt and help his people. Back in chapter 3, God appears to Moses and says, “I’ve heard the people. I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Moses was not at all sure that this was a good plan. “Who am I,” he says, “that I should go to Pharaoh?” Well, if God was a little snarkier, God might have said you’re the Pharaoh’s grandson. Why wouldn’t I send you? Instead, God is patient and insistent. Every time that Moses tries to work his way out of this whole liberation fight, God promises to give him what he’ll need to succeed.
Moses says what if I say that their God has sent me and they don’t believe me. God says, tell them my true name and that I sent you to help me save them. Also, I’m going to send signs and wonders, so they will see that I am with you. Moses says, but what if they don’t believe that you actually came to me? God says, I’m going to show you how to do something with that staff and your cloak that only God could help you do. Moses says, I’m not eloquent or quick with words. I will not be able to charm or convince them. God promises to be with Moses’ mouth, teaching him what to say. Moses even pleads with God to send someone else and God agrees to send Moses’ brother Aaron to help, but Moses still has to go. Moses is integral to this plan. Left without excuses, Moses agrees to go.
Part 2 of God’s plan comes when Moses goes to see his adopted grandfather, the Pharaoh. This is when we see God’s plan and Pharaoh’s plan collide. Like many things we do, Pharaoh has a formula for his plan. His method is to agree with whatever is asked of him, but then to go back on his promise once he gets what he wants. We might think that is awful, and it is, but this Pharaoh’s Modus operandi worked well. It got him out of nine plagues. It worked like this: God sent Moses and Aaron to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so they could worship God or God was sending a plague. Here’s how it goes down: Pharaoh says “No.” Plague comes. Pharaoh gets Moses and Aaron and tells them to ask their God to forgive him and he will let them go. God removes plague. Pharaoh doesn’t let them go. So, the snakes come and Moses’ snake eats all of the snakes of Pharaoh’s magicians. Then here we go. Our reading only goes through one plague. There are so many more: frogs, gnats, flies, dead animals, boils, hail, locusts and darkness. Even a terrible reproduction of the sin of Pharaoh’s original plan: the death of innocents. In all of this, here’s what Pharaoh didn’t have: A Plan B. Sound familiar? How many of us have a plan and we keep working it with the confidence and arrogance that it will continue to work. Who needs a Plan B? Well, those whose arrogance will not allow them to remember whose plan is really in charge... those people need a plan B.
God knew the Pharaoh’s plan. God used the arrogance and deceitfulness of Pharaoh to assure that the Egyptians and the Israelites know that God is “in this Land.” Remember, Pharaoh was considered a God. This story is a story of God making sure people knew that the Pharaoh was a human, not a God. God utilizes the predictability of Pharaoh’s character and his one-plan-negotiating-strategy to punish the Egyptians for enslaving the Jews and to distinguish the Egyptians from the Jewish people, further identifying the Israelites as His people. I don’t know about you, but I would never have made it to boils. I would have changed plans. But Pharaoh was unwilling to choose a different path, setting God’s plan in place. God knew that this Pharaoh was a leopard who would not change his spots. He also knew that Pharaoh had used this very same tactic against the Jews to kill all of their male children, yet it backfired. Pharaoh’s own undoing, Moses, was raised in his very own home.
I know that we’re missing organized sports, so let’s go with a football metaphor here: God’s game plan is for us is to be identified as God’s people. God’s game plan was to demonstrate that God was the only God and the most powerful god, and that God was in their homeland, calling the plays. When you enslave God’s people, you must be prepared for the consequences. The Israelites, slaves of the Egyptians, would be set free from their captors, clearly identifying them as His people. Many of those Egyptians would suffer and die because of Pharaoh and his stubborn attachment to his very bad plan.
Do you have a Plan B? Or, are you still banging your head against the wall, keeping to your plan like Pharaoh? When you stop trying to run your play without God being your quarterback, how do you know what to do? Just like football, you need to get in the huddle. You need to spend time with God. Reading the Word, talking about the Word, living the Word in community, and praying that God will clearly reveal your position in the play.
We are accustomed to thinking about ourselves first. There is truth in the statement that you must take care of yourself before you can care for others. There is also truth in the fact that God provides us with what we need to play our position on the team. Our goal is cultivate and nurture the community of God’s kin-dom. Our individual rights and privileges are only worthwhile if they enrich the entire team (if we’re sticking with the football metaphor). God’s plan includes all of God’s people, working together in love for the glory of God. Get on the Team! Get in the huddle! God's got a plan!
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
*All art is from the Art in the Christian Tradition collection at Vanderbilt University
Note before our sermon: This week was filled with the news of incidents of racist violence in the United States. In this sermon, which was initially envisioned as a joyful activity for the kids at our church, I also discuss some of the history our denomination has in supporting protest as a holy act. Let me be clear: Pentecost is about a holy ruckus that turns people’s lives toward God. The protests in our country are a part of Pentecost.
How can you be a part of this Pentecost protest movement, even if you are practicing social distancing?
Tithe some of your time during the stay at home order to learning more about anti-racism. Here is a good list of resources, both for kids and adults, to help us continue the holy work of dismantling racism. You could read them on your own or, if you’re feeling like connecting with others at church about this, develop a long-distance study group to talk about what you’re learning: https://tinyurl.com/antiracismresourcelist
Share your money: If you have some money to share, these programs in Minneapolis are doing great work and could use our support right now:
Become involved in local government. Ask questions about the kinds of training your town and county’s police force has received in de-escalation, implicit bias, and anti-racism. Ask about funds the department has been given for military-grade equipment. Ask about what community policing measures they are putting in place.
On to the sermon:
OK, we are going to do a quick scavenger hunt. I need help from everyone who is in elementary or middle school. High schoolers and adults can help if you want. Ok, the rules are: First, the thing has to be inside your house. Second: You can walk fast but do not run. Third, if you can’t find it in 12 seconds, you have to come back and get another assignment. Grown-ups in the house, I will need your help counting. Fourth, it has to be small enough that you can safely carry it. If it is sharp or made of glass, you have to have a grown up help you. Alright, here’s the list of things we are going to try to find:
Alright, real quick, somebody show me your ribbon, your bird, your fan, your wind-chime, your red, yellow, and orange things, your thing that reminds you of fire. Now, if you had to guess, why do you think I asked you to find this list of things? What do they all have in common? (We left some room for their guesses.) Those are all good guesses. I picked all of these things because they remind me of the story of Pentecost. The fan, wind-chimes, and ribbon all help me see, feel, and hear the wind. In the story, the Holy Spirit rushes into a room like a strong burst of wind. And, what about the red, yellow, and orange stuff: Yes, it’s the color of fire. And, you may have brought something that reminded you of fire. The story says that the Holy Spirit looked like a fire over people’s heads. What did the Holy Spirit help the people do? It helped them speak a bunch of languages. Does anyone know why it was important that they speak a bunch of different languages?
This story took place in Jerusalem, a city where people spoke a bunch of different languages. This is the fun part about living in a big city. There are many people there from all over the world. And, they speak the languages that they learned in those places. They would also know one common language so they could talk to each other. The People in Jerusalem probably understood Greek. They spoke Greek at the grocery store and when they talked to neighbors and strangers, maybe even at the synagogue. They spoke their languages at home. That’s how they sang lullabies to their babies and argued with their siblings. While you might assume that people could speak the common language, you wouldn’t necessarily think that someone who wasn’t from your country could speak the language of your home.
Were the people surprised to be hearing the other languages? Yes. They definitely were. They heard the big noise of the rush of Holy Spirit wind and they heard all the shouting and they came running to hear what was going on. You see, I don’t think this Pentecost event was quiet. We know that the Holy Spirit was loud. I can’t imagine the people who were speaking spoke quietly after that. I bet they shouted. That’s why the big group of people could hear them. There were 120 people in the room where the Holy Spirit wooshed. There is no way that 120 people, all talking at the same time, would have been quiet. I don’t think the 3000 people who came to hear them would have been quiet, either.
I bet a lot of us who are on this call today were raised to believe that most of the time holy things are quiet things. For the grown-ups especially, you might remember you parents or grandparents making you sit very still at church. If you spoke even one little bit, you got shushed and maybe got your arm pinched. You were taught that you showed respect by being quiet. That’s how I experience your quietness when I preach. This is how you learned to be respectful. So many of us learned how to recognize God in still and quiet places. Quiet walks in the woods, quiet meditations on your porch, quiet trips around a labyrinth. We are good at it because we’ve had a lot of practice doing it.
The story of Pentecost reminds us that God is found in loud and raucous places, too. And, I think this story, especially this weekend where there are people loudly protesting for racial equality all over our country, it is good for those of us used to Holy Stillness to remember this Holy Ruckus. And, to look for God at work in these protests. Let’s go back to the stuff you found in your scavenger hunt. Who all found something that reminded them of the Holy Spirit? What did you find? (they shared) Those things are all so good.
Here’s what I found. I look at it every time I write a sermon and whenever I lead worship at home. It’s a sign, that you could use as a protest sign, from one of my schools. It says, “Be a revolutionary. Question authority. Challenge the status quo. That’s not what Jesus would do. That’s what he did.” It even has a little flame on it. That’s the symbol for my school, Chicago Theological Seminary. Even though I need to find still and quiet places, this sign reminds me that that isn’t the only place to find God.
Did you know that in 1966, our denomination, the United Church of Christ worked to help make sure that TV stations run by racist people couldn’t refuse to show the protests that were happening across the South. They were trying to hide the protests to make them less effective and didn’t want people to see that the people who were protesting had a right to be angry. The people who owned the TV stations didn’t want the people in other places to see how badly the protesters were being treated. Pastors in the South, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., asked our denomination to help. They asked us because there was a Pastor named Everett Parker who worked in journalism before he became a pastor. He knew how to help them.
Together, they went all the way to the Supreme Court and won! The court said that TV stations couldn’t have the license they needed to show TV shows and the news if they weren’t going to be fair in how they did it. If they wanted to be able to keep working, they had to stop keeping the protests off their shows. After that, the protests were able to do more good because more people knew they were happening and they would help the protesters, even if they lived far away. The protesters were inspired by God to make the world better. They could do what God was asking them to do after they found someone who knew how to help them.
The people in our Bible story were willing to follow Jesus when they saw and heard the loud miracle on Pentecost. People in our country were willing to follow Jesus better, too, and change unfair laws once they saw, on their TV screens, the truth about what was happening in the South. It’s like they finally heard words they understood, but it was images on their screens. I think this weekend is another Pentecost season, where people are telling the truth about their lives and we are seeing and hearing it, maybe for the first time. The question is, will we be like our ancestors and change because of it? Or will we be too afraid of the ruckus and miss God working in the wind?
Resources mentioned in this sermon:
In the movie Ladybird, the character Ladybird is a high school senior who does not like where she lives (Sacramento, California) and wants desperately to go to college on the East Coast, even though her mom says the family can’t afford it. She is smart and funny and argues with her mom a lot. They both are very mean to each other sometimes. She gets distracted at school, in a way that is familiar to many people who have been to high school. She nearly ruins her longest running friendship, though manages to repair that relationship before it’s too late. Ladybird just seems deeply unsatisfied and thinks the way to be satisfied is to leave. College is the way she thinks she can leave.
One of the nuns, Sister Sarah Joan, at the Catholic school Ladybird attends, a school that her parents have scrimped and saved to afford, is fond of her. And, she’s impressed by her college admission essay. She calls Ladybird into her office to talk about it. Having read the essay, the Sister Sarah Joan says, “It’s clear that you love Sacramento.” Ladybird looks aghast, as though the sister has just accused her of something. She hates where she is from and derides it as a bunch of suburbs and strip malls “without culture” whenever she talks about it. She tries to explain how she wrote such a beautiful essay about a place she doesn’t like very much. She says, “I guess I pay attention.” Sister Sarah Joan replies, “Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”
There’s a song by the Judds called, “She is His Only Need” about what sounds like a good and solid marriage between two people named Billy and Bonnie. Part of the evidence given of their great devotion to one another is the way that Billy pays attention to Bonnie. Rather than essays, Billy turns his attention into gifts, small and large. Well into their retirement, Billy wants to make sure Bonnie had everything she wants and needs. The song says, “And ev'ry once in a while you could see him get up/And he'd head downtown/'Cause he heard about something she wanted/And it just had to be found/Didn't matter how simple or how much/It was love.” His purchases weren’t about showing off. They were about showing how much he saw her, what she enjoyed and what she needed to get by. He was a good husband to Bonnie because he was paying attention.
The next time you are reading the Gospel of Luke, I want to you to note how many times that they tell us that Jesus was paying attention. They may not put it quite that way, but, that’s what he’s doing: paying attention. The scholar Ira Brent Driggers compiled a list of some of the occasions when Jesus was paying attention: In Luke 5:27-28, Jesus sees a tax collector named Levi and calls him to be a disciple. In Luke 5:12-16, Jesus see and tends to a man with leprosy who called to him to for help. In Luke 9:37-43, a man from the crowd calls out to Jesus, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.” Jesus saw him and healed the boy from his seizures. In Luke 13:12, Jesus saw a woman with a physical disability and healed her. In Luke 18, it’s a blind man that he sees and heals. Over and over again, Jesus sees people who are usually ignored. He feels someone near him who needs healing. Consistently, Jesus pays attention and, in so doing, shows someone love. In this fairly familiar story, Jesus turns that attention and love to Zacchaeus, someone who most of the community would have thought was not worth it.
Jesus was going into Jericho, an important city to Romans because it was a customs center. It was a city deeply connected to the taxation system that the Romans required the countries they overthrew to take part in. Tax collectors, like Levi in the story I mentioned earlier and Zacchaeus, in this story, did not have good reputations. Not only did the people of Israel, like any forcibly colonized people, resent giving money to support Rome, it was also understood that he demanded more than was required from people in order to fill his own pockets. Zacchaeus would have been understood to be both a traitor to his people and a cheat. He would have been excluded from the good graces and common life of his community because he was one who was materially making people’s lives harder for his own profit.
Sometimes, in those stories mentioned earlier, people desperately want Jesus to see them. They call out for him as soon as they see him because they believe he can help them. It’s not clear if Zacchaeus wants to be acknowledged by Jesus. It just says that he wants to see Jesus, possibly to see what all the ruckus is about. The act of climbing the tree is pretty extraordinary though. Most of the time, grown-ups don’t go climbing trees to look over crowds. And, yet, Zacchaeus does. Dr. Driggers wonders if this could be a sign that Zacchaeus is doing more than just being curious. He is searching for something.
The previous stories in Luke also show us that Jesus doesn’t always need to be asked for help in order to realize that someone needs it. Remember, he pays attention to people. He would have likely heard all about this tax collecting cheater named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus job, and bad reputation, would have gotten him some level of renown. Jesus recognizes him and also sees his need. Immediately, this man known to be fairly terrible, becomes an incredible host. He clambers out of the tree as quickly as he could and takes Jesus into his home.
A good person wouldn’t have dined with someone with such a bad reputation. That’s what the people in the town say when they see Jesus spend time with Zacchaeus. If Jesus was as good as people said he was, he would have known what they knew: That Zacchaeus was not worth the trouble. But, Jesus sees people, saints and sinners alike. He sees potential and pain and sorrow. He sees something worth saving. Dr. Driggers reminds us in the commentary on this story, Jesus risks judgement from the broader community to go stay with this man who was looking for something. Jesus thought his mission was worth the risk.
Loving someone who steals things will not always work out the way it does in this story. We know that. Nevertheless, something about being seen and trusted elicits a change in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus has a new plan for his life: To live it more like God wants him to. His money has come from extorting his people. His transformation means that he is going to return what shouldn’t have been his anyway. Half will go to those who have nothing, the poor in the community. He will use the rest to repay the people he has defrauded, paying four times what he took from them. It probably won’t fix all the harm he’s done, but, it will get all of them closer to the life that God hoped for them.
Jesus said “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” Jesus connects this act of amend-making to Jewish tradition. To be a child of Abraham is to be one who messes up but also continues seeking God. Even the process of multiplying what you return to people as a kind of retribution for your acts has roots in their shared tradition. Exodus 22:1, Leviticus 6:5, and Numbers 5:6-7 all direct people to pay back more than they take. Zacchaeus is affirmed as a son of Abraham when he lives out the best of their shared tradition with a promise to continue to live a life changed by his encounter with Jesus. Jesus promises to look for the lost. Sometimes that means the sick and forgotten. Sometimes that means the influential and powerful. Change is possible, with God’s help. Jesus saw that potential in Zacchaeus.
There is a Zen Buddhist teacher named John Tarrant who once said, “Attention is the most basic form of love. Through it, we bless and are blessed.” I hope that you feel Christ’s attentiveness to you, especially in the midst of this trying season. I hope that you can practice some Christ-like attentiveness, too. Maybe you’ll offer a teenager a kind word and affirmation. Maybe you’ll buy something sweet for your spouse. Maybe you’ll give someone a second chance, even if you’re not sure if they deserve it. Heck, maybe you’re Zacchaeus in this story, desperate enough to see Jesus that you’ll do anything to catch a glimpse. It would be easy these days to be distracted or to ignore what you don’t want to see. I hope you’ll remember this story and remember that something beautiful and redemptive can happen if you pay attention.
Resources noted in this sermon:
2 Samuel 3:7, 21:1-14Now Saul had a concubine whose name was Rizpah daughter of Aiah. And Ishbaal said to Abner, ‘Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?’
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. The Lord said, ‘There is blood-guilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.’ So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.) David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?’ The Gibeonites said to him, ‘It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put anyone to death in Israel.’ He said, ‘What do you say that I should do for you?’ They said to the king, ‘The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel— let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord.’ The king said, ‘I will hand them over.’
But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night. When David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded. After that, God heeded supplications for the land.
Sometimes Your Plans Are Wrong: 2 Sam. 3:7, 21:1-14
I don’t know any kings or concubines. Those parts of this sad and terrible story are unfamiliar to my daily life. This story in itself is not a regular part of the reading schedule I follow in my preaching. Following that reading schedule, it would be so easy to never even come upon the story of Rizpah, the brave woman who watches over the bodies of her dead children. I might even hazard a guess that, even those of you who have decades of Christian faith under your belt... who have heard hundreds of sermons, there’s a good chance that you haven’t heard one about her either. Some things in this story are familiar though, even if you don’t know the details. A powerful man is trying to fix a problem. He misunderstands the nature of the problem. His plan for fixing the problem involves sacrificing someone else’s lives and children. His plan doesn’t fix the problem. But, he realizes what he has done didn’t help. He takes steps to make amends. It doesn’t fix the damage he’s done, but it gets his people closer to the life God hopes for them. As our church has working on our plans for the next steps of our common life in the midst of COVID-19, this story of plans that do harm feels timely. How do we care for the Rizpahs in our midst, instead of demanding the unimaginable from them?
We don’t know a lot about Rizpah. We do know that she is attached to King Saul. The New Revised Standard Version refers to her as a concubine, though Dr. Wil Gafney thinks it’s better to translate it as secondary wife. It’s not that Saul didn’t have concubines. It’s just that Rizpah wasn’t one. Kings, because of their power and privilege, had access to women in lots of ways. Only some of those ways, the kings entered into a level of legal responsibility with some of the women. These women were the wives, who could be of lower or higher status. Rizpah was a wife of lower status, secondary to Ahinoam, Saul’s primary wife. We learn more about Ahinoam’s children in other stories. Her son Jonathan loved David deeply. When Jonathan died, David wept for him, saying his love surpassed the love of a woman. Her daughter Merab was initially engaged to David, though married off to someone else. Merab’s sons are among the dead that Rizpah tends in her grief. Ahinoam’s other daughter Michal was in an emotionally complicated marriage to David. We know little about Rizpah’s children other than that her two sons are killed. They weren’t entitled to the same privileges as the children of primary wives.
We actually only know two stories about Rizpah, this one, and another, where Saul’s nephew, Abner, is accused of assaulting her. The wives, primary and secondary, as well as the concubines and slaves, were always at risk of attack from men who sought to overthrow their husbands/people who owned them. If you staked you claim on the throne, you might also stake your claim on the wives of the man you want to replace. Rizpah found herself in the middle of an argument between two men, David and Abner, who both wanted the throne. Abner might have used her to try to get it.
Today’s reading is actually the second story where she is a primary figure, though the first one where we get to see her acting on her own behalf. In the first story, she is acted upon. She doesn't even have lines of dialogue. In our reading, she acts. And, at the very least, it changes the plans of the one who betrayed her. This story takes place soon enough after David is able to unite Israel under his kingship that he might be worried about his ability to keep the country united in the face of a tragedy, like a famine that lasted three years. David asks God what was going on and why the country would be so afflicted? David hears back that Saul, his father-in-law, and former king who died in battle, and Saul’s whole lineage carried guilt because of their mistreatment of a neighboring country, the Gibeonites. The story tells us that though they were covered under a treaty, Saul sought to wipe them out.
Initially, it seems like David is making a good choice. He is going to the people who were wronged and asking them how to make amends. Amend-making is no small thing, especially on the national level. Even if David is only going to them out of a sense of self-preservation, it’s still good practice. But, the Gibeonites ask too much and David does not have the wisdom to deny them. They ask for the lives of seven of Saul’s heirs. Remember, Saul’s sons are David’s brothers-in-law and his grandsons are David’s nephews. This is David’s family, too. And, unimaginably, David says yes.
David doesn’t hand over Jonathan’s son. Jonathan is also already dead, having died in battle. David loved him too much to sacrifice his son. He does take Jonathan’s half-brothers, Rizpah’s sons, and Jonathan’s nephews, Merab’s five sons, and hands them over to the Gibeonites. If I could rewrite a portion of the Bible, this is a place where I would be tempted to start. I want David to argue on behalf of Saul’s family. I want him to say that the sacrifice is cruel and cannot be paid. Or, I want him to check in with God, one more time, and for God to say, no. I don’t need seven more deaths to fix things. That’s not what this is about. I want David to realize that just because he started on one plan, that doesn't mean that he has to keep following it, especially when the plan is leading him in such an awful direction. It’s like that Pete Seeger song: knee deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool said to push on. David pushed on. People died because of it.
I don’t want Rizpah to have to be the only one who tends to the bodies of the dead. That seems like cruelty heaped on cruelty. If nothing else, she shows us what it means to do right by your people, even if the face of the powerful people that were willing to sacrifice them. It reminds me of those nurses who have been standing up in protest and saying the names of other nurses who have died of COVID-19, often because they didn’t have the proper protective equipment when caring for their patients. Or, the images I’ve seen of gay activists in the 80’s who wouldn’t let their friends and partners’ deaths be forgotten because the government wasn’t yet serious about addressing the AIDS epidemic. Somebody had to make sure that everybody else knew this wasn’t right. Somebody had to tend to the ones who had died.
Dr. Gafney tells us that Rizpah kept watch over her sons and nephews for six months, from April or May, at the spring harvest, until the fall rains, what would have been September or October. Maybe it takes David six months to pay attention to her. Maybe he decides to wait to see if his terrible bargain will work. Whatever the reason, he finally realizes that this was not right and the ones who were killed deserved a proper burial. He retrieved Saul and Jonathan’s bones, that had also not been properly interred in a story early in 2nd Samuel, and gathered up the remains of the sons and grandsons and buries them. Notice, scriptures says this it is not the deaths that bring health back to the land. It is the burials. God ends the famine when David takes steps to make amends.
What do we do with this story today? Hopefully, we work to identify the Rizpahs in our midst, those who already carry a burden of violence, and we refuse to submit them, and the Merabs, to more suffering. We refuse to consider their lives and their children’s lives as acceptable losses for the greater good. Secondly, we pay attention to the ways that our plans, which may start out as great, veer into violence and callousness. David couldn’t control the Gibeonites’ malice but he could control how he responded to it. He did not have to give them what they wanted. We have to say no when we are asked to sacrifice someone else, even when yes is the easier answer.
And, when we do wrong, we must work to make amends. I think of the Maine Wabanaki State Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That’s another story about children sacrificed for someone else’s good. When you listen to the testimonies, you hear Rizpah and Rizpah’s children. The on-going work in our state is showing us how to pay respect and acknowledge what was lost. This process has definitely begun some holy work in this land, though it is far from over. In our Unraveled journal, Lauren Wright Pittman offers up these words that seem like wise counsel going forward: “When we see someone unraveling in inexplicable grief, may this sight unravel us from the ways we are entangled with injustice.” I pray that we can be unraveled for the good and we no longer need Rizpah to keep watch on the mountain in order to get us to pay attention.
Resources for this sermon:
Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. Jesus Walks on Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55906.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Recently, Tasha and I watched a scene in a tv show that has stuck in my mind over the last several weeks. In the scene, the stakes are very high: like, fate of the entire universe high, and two regular humans are trying to figure out what to do. One character, Dr. Jurati, who has been making some questionable and destructive choices, is in the midst of her redemption arc and is working with Jean-Luc Picard, our hero. It’s just the two of them on a spaceship and they don’t quite yet have a plan to hold off more than 200 enemy ships while they wait for reinforcements. Dr. Jurati is noticeably and reasonably concerned. She says: “So, how do we hold off two hundred and eighteen warbirds ‘til Starfleet gets here. If they get here. Are you not answering to build suspense?” Picard, sitting in the captain’s chair and trying to figure things out says: “At the present moment, Dr. Jurati, I'm trying to pilot a starship for the first time in a very long time without exploding or crashing. If that is all right with you.” Dr. Jurati says: “Totally. Good call. One impossible thing at a time.” One impossible thing at a time.
She had heard Picard and maybe his old friend Raffi saying that. When looking at a huge and terrible thing, it is too easy to get overwhelmed by all of it. Better not try to figure it all out at once. Better not get ahead of yourself. Every piece of it might be impossible, but, if you’re lucky and work hard, the piece right in front of you might be more possible than you first imagined. In another series, in another time, Picard said, “Things are only impossible until they’re not.” He’s a little playful, you see, even in times of great stress. This idea of “one impossible thing at a time” is both a plea and a plan. Please, only one impossible thing. Yes, I can manage one impossible thing at a time. Let’s get to work.
I remembered this bit of Star Trek: Picard when I read this impossible story from the book of Matthew. While they were not facing down 200 enemy ships, Jesus and the disciples’ world was getting increasingly dangerous. Jesus’ cousin John, the one who had baptized him and ushered him into public ministry, had been murdered by a powerful, cowardly, and cruel king. The tension around Jesus’ ministry is mounting, too. Jesus’ popularity had been growing. In the verses before today’s reading, the crowds were so big, so desperate, with so many people in need of healing and wisdom trying to get close, that they practically crush Jesus. They even follow him to the deserted place where he has gone to mourn John’s death. Jesus would have been in his rights to tell them to back off and give him some time. He needed to grieve. But, he saw their desperation. He had compassion for them. He began to heal people. This is the first of the impossible things in this chapter.
As the chapter and the day went along, the people didn’t look they were going anywhere and the hour was getting late. There was no Hannaford and no Peppers and no Fast Eddie’s. It was not easy to find food, much less food for scores of people. Jesus, who loved the people, even as he was overwhelmed by them, knew that they’d need to eat. The disciples, noticeably and reasonably concerned, did not know how that many people were going to find that much food. “How are we going to feed all these people?” they said. It looked impossible, like defeating 200 star ships impossible. And, then, Jesus, breaking down the big impossible task into something smaller, asked for the food they had to share. It didn’t look like a lot: five loaves and two fish, but, it was enough. More than enough. They fed everybody, a job that was impossible until it wasn’t. They even had leftovers.
That all happens right before today’s story. Today’s reading is the next impossible thing. Jesus still needed some space to mourn and pray. He sent his friends off in the boat and headed up the mountain to be by himself. He went to the mountain for fortification. But, notice, he rarely does his ministry by himself. He needed coworkers, disciples. When it came time to be with the disciples again, they were far out in the water, having been driven out by a storm. Jesus didn’t need to be alone anymore, so he started walking. Typically, walking is not the way that one crosses water. Jesus is not typical. And, besides, things are only impossible until they’re not.
The disciples, having spent the night on a stormy ocean are terrified by what they behold. They even think they are seeing a ghost. After the overwhelming last few days, I do not blame them for being afraid. In fact, I’m surprised that even one of them could muster a response to such a vision. I think I’d have been huddled around the mast, waiting for the storm to be over. But, Peter was watching and listening. He heard Jesus counsel to not be afraid. And, he decided to do something about it. Maybe he was able to see something hopeful in the moment. Or, maybe he’s trying to test what he thinks might be a ghost. Whatever the reason, he called out, offering to do the impossible... to meet Jesus part way.
He had watched Jesus heal people and feed people from almost nothing. Walking on water might just have been the next impossible thing that will become possible. And, for a moment, it is. Peter is doing it. He is walking on the water. And, then, he is not. Dr. Mitzi Smith put it this way in a commentary on this story: “Peter soon discovers that it is one thing to be battered by strong winds while in the same boat with others. It is a whole other matter to be on the water surrounded by strong winds and all by yourself, without others who share in the same vulnerability.” Peter, whose name means the Rock, sinks like a stone. “Lord, save me” he yelled.
Faith is a curious thing. Peter had faith enough to step out into the water. That is no small feat. Nobody else thought to do it. Lisle Gwynn Garrity wondered in her meditation on this scripture for the Unraveled devotional if we weren’t seeing Peter trying to convert some desperation into courage. Remember, it had been a rough couple days capped off by a stormy night that may have left him in fear for his life. Maybe he felt like he had to get across that water to get back to Jesus in order to get through everything that had been going on. But, that initial desperation wasn’t enough to keep him walking. You can’t build your faith entirely out of desperation, even if it’s what gets you off of the boat in the first place.
Mitzi Smith wondered if Peter didn’t actually just need to stay in the boat and wait for Jesus. If Peter needed the presence of Christ, all he really had to do was be patient. Jesus was on the way to the boat. Had Peter waited, he would not have been alone and he would have soon been back in the soothing presence of Christ. Peter didn’t have to walk for this to be a miracle. A beautiful, impossible thing still would have happened, whether or not Peter stepped out of the boat. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. That’s how the apostle Paul put in in Romans. The storm would not have stopped Jesus. Nor would the grief. Nor would the cruelty of unscrupulous rulers. Peter didn’t have to do the impossible. Jesus was going to do it for him. But, in that moment, he wanted something impossible to help him know that what he was seeing was true, to help experience faith in Jesus in a way that overpowered his fear in the moment.
Jesus loved Peter like he loved the hungry crowds earlier in the story. So, he reaches out to save him. He wondered about the paucity of Peter’s faith. Is this Jesus castigating Peter for falling in the water or for even getting out of the boat in the first place? It’s not clear. What is clear in the story, is that Jesus’ arrival in the boat brings calm. The wind no longer buffeted them about. Suddenly, with him there, this whole impossible ministry seems manageable again. It says they worshiped him there, because they knew he was the Son of God.
I imagine that you are looking at some impossible things coming up. I also imagine that you are noticeably and reasonably concerned about the decisions that you will soon have to make. Maybe you are praying this plea and plan: One impossible thing at a time. I pray that you will have faith enough to walk toward Christ and also to ask for help if you fall. Remember, even if you sink, it’s possible for Jesus to lift you up, into his calm. This is a time of impossible choices. But, they are only impossible until they are not. And, Jesus still specializes in the impossible. May you see him coming towards your boat.
Resources mentioned in this sermon:
Genesis 18:1-15, 21-17
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’
Why did Sarah laugh? Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Sarah’s life is strange. Very strange. We don’t know much about the beginning of it. When we first meet her, she is called Sarai and announced as the wife of Abram. The values of this family are occasionally questionable. In Genesis 20, it says that Sarai is Abram’s half-sister. Most cultures frown upon siblings marrying one another. Other members of this family, namely Abram’s brother and eventually his son, also marry relatives, though they are nieces and cousins. This is not usually a good idea, both for genetics’ sake and for the ways it disrupts trust and care within family units. Nevertheless, it is a part of this family’s life. Dr. Wil Gafney, in an article about Abraham, wondered if this isn’t supposed to clue us in from the beginning to the idea that these people, though they are the heroes in our story, were far from perfect and, actually, sometimes made some pretty bad decisions. And, the bad decisions happen early in their relationship.
The other strange thing about Sarah’s life is that she was married to someone on a mission from God. And, not just any mission. God told Abram (who would become Abraham) that he would be the father of a great nation. Not only that, but he would have to leave their home country to do it. This wasn’t some fly-by-night fantasy of youth, either. Abraham was 75 years old when he set off on this mission. He didn’t have any biological children at this point. He took up his family, including his nephew Lot, and all of everybody’s stuff and took off to follow up on God’s promises.
Sometimes, Abraham isn’t all that sure that God is going to do what God promised. There’s this one time that the family became climate-related refugees, having moved to Egypt to escape a famine. Abraham is a little scared about things, and, seeing how beautiful his wife is, begins to worry that someone might hurt him to get to her. So, he asks her to tell people that they are siblings (which they might have been?) and not actually spouses. It’s like he doesn’t think anyone will come after a brother the way they would a spouse.
Sarah apparently agrees to the scheme and it backfires on all of them when some henchman for the Pharoah sees Sarah, decides that the Pharoah would want Sarah, and tells the Pharoah about Sarah. Pharaohs usually get what they want, at least temporarily. He takes Sarah. We don’t know how she feels about this. We do know that the Pharoah pays for her in sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves, and camels. God helps Sarah out by afflicting Pharoah with plagues until he gives her back. Even the Pharoah is appalled at the situation. He says to Abraham, “What have you done to me? Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife! Take her and be gone!” As if that weren’t enough, there’s another story a couple chapters later where they tell a second king that they are siblings and not spouses. And, this second king takes Sarah and God tells the king to give her back. And, that king is so freaked out about what happened that he pays Abraham to take her back! And, he lets them settle wherever they want in the king’s country. It's like they bumble into good luck despite their terrible plans. I’m telling you. Sarah has a strange life.
I try to keep all that in mind when I read this story about an unlikely dinner party that Sarah and her husband have found themselves hosting. This story happens between the two royal wife-taking stories and just after God has changed the couple’s names to signify their place in God’s promised future. I am indebted to the work of the scholar Bruce J. Molina for helping me understand the some of the ways that Sarah and Abraham’s hospitality is working in this story. We need to pay attention to the way this couple welcomes guests. Their lives may be strange, but their welcome is deep, and apparently pretty typical for their time. Their practices of hospitality may be one of the few normal things in their lives.
Molina argues that we should understand their welcome was a process of transformation, showing us how a stranger changes into a guest. This transformational hospitality had steps. First, a stranger is tested to make sure that they aren’t a threat. Sometimes this means inviting them to speak. Other times, like in this story, there is ritual foot-washing to demonstrate mutual concern. The foot-washing a sign of a willingness of each party to be put in a vulnerable position near one another. Vulnerability requires trust. If they are willing to grant one another trust, they shift out of the role of strange, and into the roles of guest and host. And, both the guest and host have responsibilities.
The act of transformational hospitality required all parties to opt in to the relationship and to live up to their responsibilities. Sarah and Abraham were required to care for the guest’s well-being. They offer food and assure their guests' safety. We often think of God as the one doing the caring. But in this story, humans have the opportunity to offer care to God though being hospitable to God’s emissaries. In return, the emissaries were to show the appropriate level of graciousness. Notice how respectful the guests are. They do not treat the camp as if it were their own, or insist that they be served first or even ask for a particular kind of food. They also always eat the food served to them without complaint.
There is always a measure of reciprocity in this kind of interaction. If someone is a good host, the stranger who has become a guest will return the kindness at a later date. Or, maybe the guest and host will transform again, building their relationship into friendship or family. At the very least, the guest will spread a good word about the host. While this kind of relationship was not exactly transactional, it was normal for a host to expect something good to happen if they were hospitable. I’m not sure that Abraham and Sarah could have planned for the good thing that happened to them after this measure of hospitality. I mean, let’s look at their plans. They almost never work out. Abraham’s plans get Sarah swiped by kings at least twice. Sarah will make a plan to get Abraham a kid that will result in her feeling jealous and abandoning that kid and his mom in the wilderness. Sarah and Abraham are not good at making plans. I don’t think they had a plan here. But, they did have a practice. They knew how to welcome a stranger. And, something incredible happens when they do.
The guests tell Abraham that Sarah will soon be carrying their long-promised child. Of course, Sarah laughs. Her life is strange, but not that strange. She is far beyond child-bearing years. She knows that women her age do not get pregnant. She and a person they had enslaved were doing all the hot and sweaty parts of hosting, you know, the meat prep and the cooking. She wasn’t in the room with the guests. This laugh is probably a sign of her exhaustion and exasperation. Why wouldn’t she laugh at this wild promise? She might be willing to follow her husband all over creation because of his mission from God. In that moment, she had to laugh at the idea that she would have this particular part in it. How could she even believe that she would have a child. That is such a reasonable response that I cannot hold it against her.
It looks like God might not have held the laugh against her either, though God did ask about it. God said to Abraham, “why did Sarah laugh? Can’t God do anything?” Sarah, who had spent some time with a king who thought he was a God, realized that laughing at that moment might have been a mistake and denied doing it. Again, I do not blame her for making that call. But, God knew what God heard and makes sure she knew it, too. Notice, though, that that laugh and the lie about the laugh don’t ruin things. Sarah and Abraham’s own hare-brained, and sometimes cruel plans won’t even stop God from fulfilling God’s promise. Let’s remember: While this is a story about Sarah and Abraham, this is also a story about God making and keeping a promise.
I do love that Abraham names Sarah's child after her laugh. Isaac means laughter. Laughter, once the sign of her exhaustion and exasperation, in this child, becomes a sign of God’s grace and covenant. Sarah may have even told people this story, laughing again, this time at the goodness of it all. “God who has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” As your plans unravel, and they surely will, even if they aren’t as bad as Sarah and Abraham’s were, I pray that you will remember this laughter and you will find your own sign of grace and covenant. Maybe it won’t be a child. But, some new life will surprise you. I can’t wait to hear you tell the story about it.
Resources consulted for this sermon:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
When I was in Divinity School in North Carolina, our program had developed a tradition around graduation. Just before the graduation ceremony, we would have a party to celebrate the new graduates. There was food, of course, but also some fun activities. The graduating third-year students would leave gifts to first- and second- year students who were following in their footsteps. And, the first- and second-year students would write a very silly play where all the characters were members of the graduating class. In my class, that was about 24 people. The more junior students would volunteer to act like the out-going students in the play.
Resources mentioned in this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.