the Red Thread
It's very good to be back here at Calvary after missing Lent in Memphis last year. When the invitation came a year ago, March of 2003 seemed very far away. Who could know what would be happening? As the days drew near the news grew more ominous, but still there were many possibilities for preaching. But the night before I was to leave for Memphis, the ultimatum was delivered. Diplomacy was over. No resolution would come before the United Nations. In 48 hours war could begin, an attack of "shock and awe" would begin against Iraq. So it is that I have come to Memphis not only on the brink of spring, but on the brink of war. We can't pretend it's simply the third week of Lent. What does it mean to keep faith in a time of war?
To try to find some answers, I've invited Rahab the prostitute to join us today at Calvary. I think Jesus would want her to be here--after all, he was often found eating with prostitutes and sinners. Maybe he'd invite Rahab to stay for a waffle after worship. But first, we need to get our bearings. If we had one of those maps that you find inside the mall--there'd be a big red arrow saying: "You are here." Here, on the EAST side of the Jordan River. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the people of Israel are waiting to cross over into the land of milk and honey. Moses had died at the top of Mt. Nebo. Like Dr. King centuries later, he only saw the Promised Land from afar.
Now Joshua has been called to lead the Hebrew people where Moses couldn't go. But it wasn't as simple as crossing the river! There was a problem: Canaan, "the Promised Land," was not deserted. Canaan was already somebody else's home: Canaanites, Jebusites, Edomites and Hittites lived on the far side of the river. They tended flocks, grew grain, built cities. Cities like Jericho, twenty-three miles east of Jerusalem, near several fords in the river, gateway to Canaan from the east.
It's a problem when you believe you've arrived at the Promised Land and discover someone else is already there. It was a problem for Joshua, a dilemma to realize that the land beyond the river was not empty. So before crossing the river, he sent out spies: "Go, view the land, especially Jericho." Find the weak points. Count the troops. See if there is any way to penetrate the city walls. The spies slipped inside the city and entered the house of Rahab the prostitute. (That seemed to be her whole name: Rahab-the-Prostitute.) She was a woman who lived on the very edge of the city--so far on the edge that her house was built into the city wall. She lived in the wall between her people and their people, in a space that divides insiders from outsiders. Which is which? Who is who? It depends on where you stand, doesn't it always?
Why did the spies enter this particular house--the house of Rahab the prostitute? Was it God's planning...or their own longing? Perhaps they came to her house first, just inside the gates. Perhaps they knew they would hear soldiers' stories at the house of a prostitute. They spent the night. Actually, the Hebrew text says they "lay there" --perhaps mixing business with pleasure. But the next day the king sent orders to Rahab. (Perhaps he, too, had spent the night in her house.) "Bring out the men who have come to you," the king ordered. What is she supposed to do? Who is Rahab to defy the king? What is the value of a prostitute who lives in the city wall? In spite of obvious dangers, Rahab took the two men and hid them up on her roof. Then she said to the king's messengers: "True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where they went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them."
Even as she spoke, she thought of the two men up on her roof, hidden among the stalks of flax bundled for drying. What if the king's men insisted on searching her house? They took her at her word. Perhaps they knew her well. She heard the gate close as they went out to into the night.
Why did Rahab lie in order to save the lives of two Hebrews? Why did some people lie to hide runaway slaves in the Underground Railroad? Why did some people lie when the Gestapo came knocking at their doors looking for Jews hidden in the attic or under the floorboards? There are times when bearing false witness is the only way to save your neighbor. But these men on the roof were not Rahab's neighbors: they were outsiders to her. She was an outsider to them. Yet on the rooftop of her house the distinctions blurred. Rahab had not stood at the foot of Sinai, nor had she been numbered among the tribes of Israel. Yet her testimony is bold: "The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below." She has heard what happened at the Red Sea. How could she have heard? (This was, after all, long before faxes or email!) Who brought that message to Jericho? Has God been places we have never visited?
Oh, she is a daring woman, and she is nobody's fool. "Swear to me by the Lord," she says, "swear to me that you will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to me." Before she lets them down by a rope from her window, she asks them for a sign. (She learned long ago not to trust the men who came to her house!) "Tie a crimson cord outside this window," they told her. "Gather all your family in your house in the wall. And you and all your household will be spared." Could she trust them? Would they bother to tell anyone to save the life of a prostitute? "She sent them away .Then she tied the crimson cord in the window."
God's own sign of Passover, the crimson cord, the blood-red sign at the window in the wall. Would anyone look for the red cord at the window when the attack began? We wait as the army surrounds the city. Joshua tells the two spies to bring Rahab and her family out of the city. Then they burned the city to the ground, "But Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. Her family has lived in Israel ever since." Like the Hebrews saved by the blood on the doorposts, Rahab was saved by the blood-red cord. The forces of death passed over her house, and the walls between insider and outsider crumbled in her presence.
Is that why Rahab is here--to remind us to beware of making distinctions between "insiders" and "outsiders"? She is the first person encountered in the land of promise--a foreigner to the spies, but at home in her own land. Old Testament scholar Danna Nolan Fewell writes:
Under the many stories of battle, of walls that came a-tumbling down and whole cities burned to the ground, Rahab stands watch at her window in the wall. She is remembered for centuries. She's there as the New Testament begins. Do you remember? In the very first chapter of the gospel of Matthew, the very first book of the New Testament, there's a long genealogy of Jesus' ancestors. The oddest thing about Matthew's list is the four women who appear there: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah (that is, Bathsheba). All of them are a bit suspect for one reason or another. Rahab and Ruth are both foreigners and the other two are unfairly portrayed as being sexually promiscuous. There she is--Rahab the prostitute in Jesus' family tree!
Don't overlook the red thread in the window. The red thread is woven throughout the tapestry that tells God's story. Without it we might see only a story of conquest and holy war. But the red thread draws us to the window where we must see Rahab's face. She bids us to be attentive to those who live in the margins of life: those who live in the walls of the city, under its bridges and in the doorways. She pleads with those who would conquer any land in the name of God--for she knows that the Lord is God of heaven and earth and will not be held captive by any nation.
As we gather today on the brink of war, Rahab can see the worry and fear in our eyes. She knows that some of us have family and friends in the desert, counting down the hours. It's not that she trusts her king--she's suffered plenty under his oppressive rule. She's still hoping for a miracle and cannot yet say, "When war comes " Instead, she says, "If war comes, remember the red thread in the window. If you watch the war on television and you see flashes of light in the night sky, remember it's not a video game. If war comes, don't ever speak of 'collateral damage' when you really mean men, women and children who got in the way. If war comes, remember than smart bombs are never smart enough. If war comes, remember all the promises you've made to us, even when the money and your patience run out.
Still she sits at her window in the wall, the window between insiders and outsiders. The red thread must not be forgotten. It is a sign of life saved in the midst of holy war, a blood-red sign tying Hebrew to Canannite, binding insider and outsider together. Today she comes among us, begging us to remember.
Copyright 2003 The Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad
Copyright ©1999-2007 explorefaith.org