Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

February 23, 2020


Texts: 1 Kings 18:1-17; Luke 3:1-20

       It probably comes as no surprise that my favorite characters throughout history have been troublemakers. Elijah is one of my favorites; so is John the Baptist. In spite of the fact that I can’t stand him as a person, Charlton Heston as John in The Greatest Story Ever Told plays a troublemaker par excellence. Even the dialog written for the screen shows John for what he probably was: a royal pain to the royals.

       Troublemakers are those persons who remind us who we ought to be. In our own lifetime we have had a series of troublemakers who have reminded us of who we ought to be. And, after they are safely dead, we then construct holidays to celebrate their lives but only in memory or in a “day of service” as they are called.

        One does have to admit the King day of service is a better way to honor King’s memory than blow-out sales such as we have on President’s Day Weekend. The real way to honor a troublemaker is to imitate the troublemaker. And we have had our share of troublemakers without whom America would be a poorer place.

        Most of our best troublemakers do not have national holidays or little more than a line or two in a history book. They have been consigned to being called “influences” on this movement or that, but they have contributed to who we are.

Take Harriet Tubman, for instance. Born in Dorchester, Maryland, the largest of the counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, called that because the Chesapeake Bay cuts the state in two, Tubman escaped to the free state of Pennsylvania and risked her life to bring several hundred slaves to freedom.

         In the 1960s the sleepy county seat of Cambridge was the place where another troublemaker emerged. Gloria Richardson, a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., established and led the Cambridge Nonviolent Coordin-ating Committee which called for an end to segregated service. 

         When two high school seniors were arrested for “disorderly conduct” for their role in the protests and demon-stration in 1963, CNAC led peaceful marches but the Governor at the time, Millard Tawes, imposed martial law. There was violence, and it occurred on both sides. Cambridge also became the place where another troublemaker Stokley Carmichael came to national attention.

         What makes a troublemaker? Usually some event that sits deep in memory and comes to the surface when there are other precipitating events. For John it was Herod’s marriage to his dead brother’s wife. For Gloria it was the death of her uncle, a graduate of Harvard Law School, because the white hospital would not treat him and the black hospital was too far when he became ill. 

         We tend to think of troublemakers as being in the forefront of some needed action due to injustice. But there are quiet troublemakers as well.

         The quiet ones are those who, first, listen to others and then speak their mind. We encounter them at work, in churches, in our community meetings. They are also teachers who did not simply give in to administrators but worked with students helping them to bring out their best abilities. 

          When I was a student at Yale in the 1970s, my program included a course called Clinical Pastoral Education; we called it CPE. As part of the program, I had to put in so many hours at a hospital as an assistant chaplain. I was on a heavy medical surgical floor. 

          Procedures we now consider as permitting us to live a life while undergoing certain kinds of treatment at that point in time required hospitalization and a more restricted lifestyle. There was a young woman about 16–17 years old. She had suffered renal failure and was told that she would have to spend the rest of her life on dialysis. At that time dialysis required her to spend a lot of time in the hospital. 

           She couldn’t live the life she once had. At that time hemodialysis was not only very expensive but required a 12–hour stay in a hospital several days a week. Without it she could not live. But she felt that the life offered was not really living and she opted not to have dialysis. Her parents were, of course, frantic, but she was determined not to be an invalid as she put it. 

          The quiet troublemaker was her nurse who helped her through her last week of life. She worked extra shifts and helped her parents as they began to grieve the impending loss of their daughter who had been an upcoming champion horsewoman. As a student, I listened to the conversations and could only help to organize a discussion group among the nurses. The nurse who was the major caretaker took the lead. The doctors had ignored the important needs of those who cared for the dying. It was quiet, but troublemaking for sure.

          The development of hospice care in the United States, an import from England, was but another example of quiet troublemaking. We take hospice care for granted now but in the late 1980s when the first hospice was established in Branford, Connecticut, it was revolutionary. I was privileged to work with the committee in New Haven to create that model of care. Quiet troublemaking that changed the way we help people live through their dying.

        Then there are the troublemakers who became so because they encountered a situation that would not let them go. When we hear the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas we think of the high school where just two years and two weeks ago a former student with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire and killed 14 students and three staff members, wounding 17 more. 

        The activist for whom the school was named was a suffragist, a journalist, and an environmentalist. A native of Minneapolis, she moved to Miami when it had fewer than 5,000 people. Writing for the Miami Herald, she developed an impassioned love of South Florida. Her book, The Everglades, River of Grass, published in 1947 changed the way Americans thought of the Everglades. She earned the enmity of developers and large farmers by blocking their plans to drain the Everglades swamp––it really is a swamp––and making sure it is all there for us to enjoy. 

       She just did not stop with the Everglades. She worked for women’s suffrage, equal rights, and helped to form the first chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Florida. The students who survived the horrific massacre and who have gone on to form the March for our Lives movement are part of her tradition of troublemaking. 

        Troublemaking is part of our heritage, forming of who we are as a people of God. Just as Elijah called out Ahab for his worship of foreign gods so must we call out those in our national leadership who have abandoned the aspirational foundations of our Nation.

        True, when our Nation was established, the words of our documents went beyond the reality of the society of the day. As the founders signed onto the words “all men are created equal,” more than 300,000 men, women, and children were in chains, counted as only 3/5 of a person in the Constitution before the Civil War.

        Elijah was told to go to Ahab and he was afraid for he knew that Ahab could have put him to death without any compunction. We generally don’t think of prophets having a fear of death, but they certainly did, Elijah included. We do not have that fear today, but we have other fears that can impede our ability to speak the truth, to call out those who betray who we are supposed to be.

         For churches it often becomes a fear of losing people. Speaking out and taking on unpopular causes creates tensions to be sure. This church faced that twenty years ago and in spite of the fact that many left over the open inclusion of what has come to be called the LGBT+ community, we are still here. 

         But just as God tells Elijah to press on, we are told to press on. We don’t face what Elijah did or certainly not what John the Baptist did. Those two men certainly knew fear. I’m sure there were times when Gloria Richardson knew fear or Marjory Stoneman Douglas knew fear. Neither Cambridge, Maryland, nor South Florida were hospitable places for their messages.

        But they pressed on. We live in a different time now. Our comforts have heightened the slightest fears. But we must put aside what we think we fear and face the problems existing in the Nation. We must speak out not just on what might be considered comfortable issues but on what is controversial.

        To do less than that belies who we claim we are.

        Let us pray: We ask you, O Lord, to help us move beyond our fears and to reflect your call in speaking your word to the world around us. In the name of him who shelters us, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.