Susan Baller-Shepard: Now I Know


In 2008, after losing her parliamentary seat, Wangari Maathai urged tribal elders to help stop ethnic killings, following a disputed presidential election. This was a precarious season.

The text messages to her read like this:

"Because of your opposing the government at all times ... we have decided to look for your head very soon." 

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Nobel Committee said of her, that she was "a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent ... her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression."

The push for peace, for justice, made her dangerous. She'd already changed vast numbers of women's lives, pushed for civil rights, as she founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, and worked to get over 30 million trees planted in that country. 30 million trees! Of course, there was the fact that she'd faced house arrest, been beaten to unconsciousness, jailed, and received death threats. But we know this, right?

To work for peace, to work for justice, to work for civil rights is dangerous work. I got to meet Wangari Maathai in 2007, a year before these death threats, when a friend of mine interviewed her in Chicago, got to hear her sing "Amazing Grace" in Kikuyu. Four years later she died of ovarian cancer.

I thought of Wangari Maathai right away when I read today's Gospel text.

In this passage, listen to the arc of the narrative. Jesus reads from the scroll. All speak well of him. They listen to him, amazed at the gracious words from his lips. They become furious at him. They drive him out of town to a cliff to kill him.

We've seen this in our lifetimes. People praised on social media, quickly become recipients of death threats.

Prophets challenge people, things, institutions. They challenge the status quo. They shake things up. People find them "unsettling" at best. At worst? People want to do away with the prophet altogether.

In this reading from Luke, did you catch it? Why did the crowd turn on Jesus? Why so quickly?  Jesus angers the crowd because he highlights the fact, in the readings he chooses, to show how outsiders find their way to God through prophets.

Elijah goes to a widow during a great famine in Sidon. Sidon was in a Gentile region, it had a long history of paganism, and would have been "unclean" by Jewish standards. Elijah goes and lives with and helps the widow of Sidon, and it's a mixed bag, but in the end, the woman says to Elijah, (verse 24) "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth."

And then Jesus mentions Elisha and Naaman the Syrian. It's the fascinating story of Naaman, that Jesus highlights to the crowd - Naaman, a strong Syrian army commander, who had leprosy. Naaman's wife's servant girl was from Israel and she knew Elisha could help heal Naaman. Naaman didn't believe what Elisha told him. Naaman didn't want the cure, if it involved bathing in the Jordan River seven times, but eventually he's sick and tired of being sick and tired, he goes to the Jordan and is healed.

And now he knew. He knew that the God of Israel was a God of compassion, a God with courageous prophets, a God of powerful healing. Naaman said to Elisha, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel." Now I know.

It's striking what the widow and Naaman told the prophets, isn't it? Both said, "Now I know." Now I know.

I know. By this I know. Do we get this? That it's in these acts, in these times, God is known. People know the presence of God. What more can we want them to be a conduit for God, to know God, to help God be known?

In Exodus, Jethro, Moses' father-in-law says, "Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods..." -Exodus 18:11

And later, Micah said, "Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest." -Judges 17:13

Jesus was a disrupter - a paradigm shifter - a table turner. To get to know Jesus, was to get to know about the great love of God.

He made the circle bigger - and those who had power were saddened by all they lost when the circle included others.

He made the circle bigger - and those who had much had to let go or walk away and they hated having to make that decision.

He made the circle bigger - and those who had always been on the outs, on the outs of society, on the margins, those who had little were glad to be seen.

He made the circle bigger - and those who'd been ill, those who had suffered, they rejoiced because his very nature was one of healing, and they were now well, and now they knew.

Now they knew.

In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Polonius says, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it." There may be holy madness in prophetic actions.

Prophets occupy that liminal space between God and humanity. They have a closeness and intimacy with God which can be threatening, because they're fearless - Martin Luther King Jr. closed his last speech saying, "And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." The next day he was assassinated. Jesus, before his death tells Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above..." (John 19:11)

In their prophetic work they're out there suspended mid-air. They've let go of safety and security.

You know, my daughter has gone to Gamma Phi circus camps for years. She does trapeze and there's this moment that makes my stomach clench, as a mom, when she's midair. She wears a harness, but still. I've tried to catch that moment on my camera. There's the swing, and the catch. But in between is a liminal moment, when her long black hair is flying out behind her and she's suspended mid-air, before she's caught on the other side. They've missed before, not made the catch, when the timing was off. Yet, I sigh such a huge sigh of relief when the young college students, so incredibly strong, catch her hands with theirs. She gets caught on the other side - caught on the other side.

Those who have braved prophetic acts fling themselves out into the unknown, trusting God, trusting they'll be caught on the other side.

They and we do this, we dare brave things in faith because we know God and are known by God. Elisha, Elijah, Jesus, MLK Jr, Wangari Maathai - caught on the other side.

Prophets keep going, stay the course, despite visible evidence.

What prophetic action is God calling you to? Where in your heart do you know God has had a role since you were a child? To what courage might God be calling you now? Something you know God is urging you toward? To pluck up or pull down, to destroy or overthrow, to build or to plant?

First Thessalonians (1:8 NRSV) has a passage that says, "...but in every place your faith in God has become known." God will always give us a choice. God may give you all kinds of mad skills, great talents, you might have the great good fortune to have education of all sorts, but you also have the choice how to use these. At any point you can walk away.

I felt very connected to China in a deep way since I was a young child. A dream of mine was to adopt a child from China. In 2002, after a two year wait, my family, my mother, and I got on a United Flight and took the journey to meet our new family member, Yang Yu. It was Christmas.

In the midst of that eagerness and stress, good Christian people, well-meaning I know, came up to me and asked questions like, "Do you know what you're doing?" "Do you know what you're getting into? You really don't know what you're getting into." Now I know not to do that when someone is stepping out in faith. Now I know that what's needed when someone seeks to hear and follow God is encouragement.

Yet we can wish to keep people safe, situations safe, to not rock any boats, to live such cautious lives that they become devoid of meaning and become, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, lives "...of quiet desperation."

On our China trip, it turned out we got to travel with a family who had adopted before, and they reassured us at the airport, "You've got this." I needed to know that then, when we were flinging our hearts out across the miles toward a child who had not met us yet.

God is amazing at putting people in our path who will help us on the journey when we step out in faith.

Now that you know, make your faith known. Be brave. Be courageous in faith. Let go into that liminal space. Trusting God to catch you.

In her Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Wangari Maathai said this, "In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now."

The poet W. H. Auden wrote about Christ in "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio." Auden wrote: "He is the Truth. Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years."

The world needs you. The world needs you. The world needs you. Go, be brave for God's sake.

To God be all glory, honor, and praise. Hallelujah! Amen.