Dare to Be Gamaliel

Isabel Rogers
Professor Emerita of Applied Christianity,
Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and
Moderator of the 199th General Assembly

Commissioners’ Convocation Dinner
216th General Assembly, Richmond, VA
25 June 2004

We Richmonders want to welcome you to our fine city. There is so much beauty and history here. I hope you get to see some of the wonderful architecture. Richmond goes back to earlier than colonial times, and I hope that you will have some time to explore some of its riches. I am feeling a little bit of concern by what I see of demolition and rubble all around, buildings being blown up and streets being blocked with construction. I don’t want you to think that we are just getting ready to rebuild after the Civil War. I assure you that is not true. Actually the construction just down Broad Street is going to be a Performing Arts Center for the Virginia Opera, Richmond Ballet, and the Richmond Symphony, and we music lovers are going to feed on music in high style.

As a matter of fact, having explosions and things blowing up is par for Richmond’s course when the General Assembly comes to town. Back in 1847, the General Assembly met here when the slavery conflict was getting tenser and angrier. At course, at that Assembly Presbyterians north and Presbyterians south were at each others’ throats. It was not many years later that war came, and the Church split apart; and it took 122 shameful years before we could get back together again. Explosion and tension – we’re used to that in Richmond when General Assemblies come!

The last time the General Assembly came to Richmond was 1955. That was the Southern Assembly. Note that year! The year before that was the Supreme Court’s decision on school segregation. The Supreme Court had declared that schools could not be segregated, and so when the General Assembly came to town, they came to a Richmond of seething anger with politicians trying to figure out how in the world to get around this law, by what they called “massive resistance.” We weren’t going to have a Court tell us what to do! But let me tell you all that the General Assembly that met here in 1954 condemned shenanigans of every kind and came out clearly for desegregation. And the Assembly of 1955 reaffirmed that commitment to racial justice.

There were two Presbyterian giants who helped lead the way in working for racial justice. The Presbyterian Outlook of May 31st has a story by Jim Smylie telling about these two. Their pictures were on the front page. Louis Powell, an attorney and an elder in the Grace Covenant Church here in Richmond, had faithfully worked against segregation, and in 1959 Louis Powell was the president of the Richmond School Board that finally brought about the complete desegregation of the Richmond schools. Of course, as you know, Powell went on to Washington to the Supreme Court where, for years, he was a voice of moderation in the life of the Court.

The other picture on this front page is of Ernest Trice Thompson. Dr. Thompson for many years was a distinguished professor of church history at Union Seminary. Year after year after year Dr. E.T. challenged the consciousness of Presbyterians on all matters of justice and particularly of racial justice. So persistently and clearly did he attack racial injustice that this Presbytery got worn out, called him up and tried him for heresy. They failed, but you can see the kind of impact he had.

When I think about Louis Powell and E.T. Thompson, it is clear to me that these two and many other faithful Presbyterians were working against racial injustice for years and years and years, but the fruit of their labors was very slow in coming. We know that when the law changed, social patterns lagged way behind. They labored faithfully and worked patiently for change, for they were convinced that God was doing this, and that God was moving in God’s own way and in God’s own time.

That reminds me of one of my very favorite New Testament characters, the Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel. Luke tells us about him in the 5th Chapter of Acts – you remember the story: Peter and James and John had been preaching in the marketplace, and the high priest and the Council said, You all have to quit doing that, and they went right on preaching, and then the Council threw them into prison, and the prison opened up, and they got out, and they were preaching further. So they finally hauled them before the Council and said, “You have to quit doing this preaching!” That’s when they said, “We must obey God and not human beings!” Picking up at verse 33:

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35Then he said to them, ‘Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’

Georgia Appleton, the great British missionary bishop, has written all sorts of wonderful devotional meditations, particularly in poetry. Not too long ago I was reading one, and it just leaped off the page at me because it was called, “Dare to be Gamaliel”. It purports to be Gamaliel speaking in contemporary language. People will rise and claim to be somebody, and they turn out to be a flash in the pan, and they get a headline for a day. Then they’re gone! Hear the crucial words of Gamaliel, “If it be of God, beware, for nothing can stop it, only hinder or delay, yet your acceptance and faithful labor can advance its purposes and hasten its blessing.”

Louis Powell and E.T. Thompson and a host of other devoted Presbyterians, they move the reality of what Gamaliel was talking about. They worked for racial justice, a cause which moved forward with agonizing slowness. We still have far to go – we know this. They had to wait and wait. There was so much to hinder and delay, but the time did come, and God did move towards the justice that they were seeking, that they believed God intended. To use Gamaliel’s words, their acceptance and their faithful labors did, in fact, advance that cause and hasten its blessing. Without a host of leaders like Louis Powell and E.T. Thompson, we would not be where we are today.

So, with us, the cause of justice for gays and lesbians to which we in the Covenant Network are committed, that cause is hindered and delayed and hindered and delayed, and we find ourselves having to hope short term and work long term.

We know for sure that God is at work changing our church and changing our society. We know this is of God; but the frustrating need for patience and waiting for God takes its toll on us, and a harsher toll on our friends and colleagues who are gays and lesbians.

Let me be very clear. When the Hebrew prophets talked about waiting on the Lord, they weren’t talking about twiddling their thumbs. We think of waiting as a passive sort of thing. It is the waiting room at the doctor’s office, and you sit idly, and you wait for somebody else to do something. But for the Hebrews the word had an entirely different feel to it. The word was Qavah, and it meant tension, hopeful expectancy. The word Qavah comes from the root Qav, which refers to a line or a string drawn taut, like the string of the bow when the archer pulls it back, and it gets tighter and tighter until you can release the arrow. So to wait for the Hebrews meant standing on tip toe in expectant tension. It was active. It meant never stopping work.

That’s our calling, it seems to me, in this time of hindrance and delay, to be working actively, faithfully, in the assurance that God is now bringing justice among us.

Second Isaiah said better than anybody the vigor of waiting on the Lord, the activity of it, in the very familiar words:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.
God does not faint or grow weary. God’s understanding is unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk –
they shall plod faithfully ahead –
they shall walk and not faint. [Is. 40: 28-31]

Amen and Hallelujah!

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