A sermon preached at the ordination of Andrew Aaron Lemlyn
I once had a conversation with a military historian. I don’t often have such exchanges; my circles don’t include many folk well versed in the strategies and tactics of the world’s great battles. But as it happened a number of years ago, one of the commissioners from my presbytery to the church’s General Assembly was a retired Army officer, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, and during a lull in Assembly business we got into a discussion of the high drama of invasions. He made a statement that I remember whenever I read Joshua 2. He said that behind every successful invasion there are effective spies, and behind every effective spy there is a willing traitor.
Rahab, of course, is the willing traitor in the story of the spies Joshua sent to scope out the defenses of the city of Jericho. She is a “prostitute”—an isshah zonah, in Hebrew—which could mean that she has some cultic role in the fertility religions practiced in ancient Palestine, or only that she is a sex worker in the ordinary and historically common sense. In the end, I don’t suppose it matters. The point of the text is that she is someone disposable, someone without access to the levers of power in the city. Her house is located in a hollow place in the city wall—the place in every ancient city that is most vulnerable to attack and therefore riskiest to occupy. People with means live closer in and higher up in ancient cities, as they seem to do in modern ones. Rahab is not one of those. Whether religiously or economically, Rahab is a prisoner of her society. No wonder she is willing to be disloyal to it.
But Rahab seems to know something the rest of her city does not. Over the hills and out of sight of the city’s sentinels, the Israelites are gathering in preparation to attack. Part of their preparation is to gather strategic intelligence on the place: number of defenders, strength or vulnerabilities of the fortifications, etc. That, of course, is what Joshua sent the spies to find out, to scope out the place even as they remain unnoticed.
Ah, but they don’t remain unnoticed, or at least unanticipated. The ruler of the city seems to suspect they have arrived, and he sends his soldiers to arrest them. And the first place the soldiers go in the prostitute’s house-in-the-hole-in-the-wall. Where are they, demand the soldiers, these Israelites who would know our secrets and use them against us? And Rahab, already a traitor for receiving them, becomes a liar, too. “I did not know where they came from,” she lies, “but when it came time to shut the gate, the men went out.” Nevermind that the spies were at that very moment hiding beneath sheaves of flax drying on her roof. Nevermind that she had already told them that she no longer believed in her own society and was putting all her trust in them. Nevermind that she was prepared to give up what little she had in exchange for a share in what might await her on the other side of the war. I did not know where they came from, she lies.
But, of course, she did know. She knew they came from the future, from the power and pattern of a new world order that would turn her world upside down, that they stood for the possibility that a house in a hole in the wall might not be all she could dream of, that they represented the possibility that she might cease to be a victim of society and become a full-fledged member of it. Rahab knew they came from the future, and she was prepared to stake everything she had on the apparently slender possibility that that future might come true.
Here is a poem. It is entitled, “The Crimson Cord.”
The Crimson Cord
Everything depends upon a crimson cord
hanging in a window, gentled by the breeze.
Everything depends upon these last few words
said in haste, in hope that others will be pleased
to make them true. Everything depends upon
fragile promises made in times like these.
It matters not so much who will have lost or won
as whose promises are kept and whose forgot
and who when all the words are said and deeds are done
spies the crimson cord tied with a faithful knot
to the window and, recalling, stays the sword
and protects this door when the fight grows hot.
Everything depends upon a crimson cord
binding past to hope of what is yet to be:
a home, a place, a life. According to your word
so let it be. Leave now, and on the third of three
cold daybreaks rise and go. Neither pause nor turn
until you reach the future. Yet remember me
and these secrets I have kept that I might earn
a place at table when at last you’ve kept your word,
and safety in your house, a Fire that, when it burns,
consumes all. From this window like a bird
I would soar, borne aloft by gentle breeze,
no longer tethered here by this crimson cord.
In the drama of my imagination, I envision Rahab standing in her window, watching the spies she has just let down beyond the wall run free across the city plain, back to Joshua and the future, bearing the information that will set her free. She knows she is a traitor to her city. She knows she has signed the death warrant for the way she has lived. She knows there is no turning back. She looks at the crimson cord she has knotted to the window, and realizes that just like those spies, her life, her hope, her security, her future—everything—depends on that cord.
You know the story of the battle of Jericho. The Israelites march around the walls the spies have explored for six days, and then seven times on the seventh day. The war trumpets blare, the people shout, and the walls fall down, and the Israelites rush in to make an end of Jericho—all except for Rahab and her house-in-the-hole-in-the-wall. Rahab was true to her word, and kept the crimson cord tied in the window, a sign of her faith in the spies, a downpayment on the possibility of a future. No less true to their promise were the spies. After the battle, says the text later on,
…the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab, along with her father, her mother, her brothers, and all who belonged to her—they brought all her kindred out—and set them outside the camp of Israel….Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. Her family has lived with Israel ever since (Josh 6: 23, 25).
I don’t know if you have noticed, but crimson plays an important role in the color scheme of the Church. It is the color of the Spirit, and therefore of every Spirit-inspired gathering of the people of God’s Spirit. It is the liturgical color of Pentecost. It is also the liturgical color appropriate to occasions of ordination and installations to ministry.
This is true partly, I think, because we hope that something of that Pentecostal fire will yet smolder in our hearts and ignite our praise and illumine our actions in the world. But I can’t help wondering if crimson plays such an important role because it is the color of Rahab’s cord, tied in the window as a symbol of hope.
You see, I think the church is—we are—that crimson cord, tied in the window of our little hole in the wall of the world-as-it-is. I think the church is—we are—the sign that a new future is coming, and that we have faith in that future and are willing to stake everything we have—even our lives—on it. I think the church is—we are—an affirmation that things-as-they-are are not things-as-they-will-be. I think we are tied in the window of the world as it is to mark the place where begins the world as it ought to be.
There is a passage in our Book of Order that speaks about the calling of the Church. The Church, it says
"is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life"(F-1.0301).
The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation (F-1.0301).
We live in the present on the strength of a promised future. And in so living, we are a symbol to the world of the possibility of that future.
A little further on in that same passage from the Book of Order, we read these words:
"The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself in work and word to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord" (F-1.0301).
The calling of the Church, argues our polity, is bearing witness to the possibility that the awful sameness of things—the lies and deceit and self interest of politics, the senseless gun violence that tears at the social fabric of our lives, the grinding poverty to which so many are condemned for no fault other than the accident of their birth, the blind hatred and prejudice aimed at communities of people for no reason other than the color of their skin—that this awful sameness is not the final reality, but a way of life that is doomed to die at the hands of a new creation and of that new creation’s lord. To be sure, we live in that awful sameness, spend our days so mired in it, saturated with it, that we lose sight of the fact that it is not the only way. Our entrapment in that sameness persuades us that there is nothing to be done about mass shootings in shopping malls or racially-motivated assaults on city streets.
But the fact of our entrapment in that sameness does not mean that the sameness is permanent, and certainly not that it is God’s creative intent. And to be the Church is to believe that God is even now breaking the trap, shaking the foundations, transforming the landscape of reality, making a new creation. Our calling is to point beyond ourselves in our work and our words to that transformation, and to the possibility of a future.
Be warned. To live this way is to be disloyal to things as they are. To live as a witness to the possibility of a future is to be a traitor to the reality of the present. To bear witness to the transforming grace of God is to deny the permanence and ultimacy of gun lobbies and white supremacist groups and power structures that privilege some while imprisoning most. To be a community of faith, hope, and witness is to be a place that swears no allegiance to what is and owes all allegiance to what will be.
Every time we gather as Church, and especially on those occasions when we gather to ordain and install a new servant of the Church’s call to ministry, it is worth reminding ourselves of this calling. A calling to be disloyal to things as they are and deeply loyal to things as they will be. A calling to be the sign and symbol to the world that a new creation is being born. A calling to be the crimson cord that hangs from the window to announce our faith in the transforming grace of God.