September 10, 2017 —Rally Sunday
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield (guest speaker, Rhoda)
Not Quite Fifteen Minutes
Oh my dear people! How sweetly splendid is it that you invited me to come and talk on Rally Day. I love this! I’m Rhoda. I travel through time and talk to churches. I’m a slave from the Bible, and I’m Christian like you. I work in Jerusalem, in the home managed by Mark’s mother. Now do not worry. I did not have any trouble getting in the building this morning. People love to joke with me, “Oh don’t get too excited, Rhoda, and forget how a door works!” No worries, I made it inside! And here we are.
In case you haven’t heard of me, do not feel bad. A lot of people get me mixed up with Rahab from the Bible. I like to think this is because we both have similar missions, you know? Not our day jobs. Rahab owned a brothel at the edge of the town, but her fifteen minutes of fame came when some Jewish spies needed help. She hid them on her rooftop under flax, then she straight up lied when the authorities came looking for them. She was working for God.
I have never hid spies I don’t think. Fugitives? Yep. All the time. But what Rahab did?! That girl is amazing! So I like to think this is why people get us mixed up, but I know. More likely it’s because both our names start with R and have an H in the middle.
So to clarify her name is Rahab. (There’s also a sea monster in the Bible named Rahab.) My name is Rhoda which means rose. (There are also roses in the Bible if you get into the juicy bits.)
If you’ve never heard of me before, no worries. If this whole time you’ve been thinking I’m Rahab, that’s okay too. But if you have heard of me, I thank you for giving me a chance to clear up some misconceptions.
Oh there are some Bible scholars out there! (Between you and me, I’m not saying that some of them can get a little “mansplainy” if you know what I mean. Okay I’m not saying that…) So I’ve been portrayed as a ditzy damsel. A foolish little girl. A thoughtless house maid. Let’s check the math. You have a young woman, who is also a slave, who had a traumatizing albeit hilarious incident that got captured in the Bible, and you add that together and it equals unintelligent? Really? Oh you Bible scholars, you can do better.
But there is one I have to tell you about. This guy worries me because he might be on to something. He says that I am, get this, a Stock Character, something called the “running slave” in Roman literature. So this is a thing! Apparently, there is a standard comedic character, a slave, who is always out of breath, running from one place to another, and forgetting things. This character exists so people can laugh at the slave! Yeah. Okay so I have two things to say about this.
First, I don’t think you should worry about laughing at me. It might be that I am a genuinely funny person; I feel like this a theory we should at least entertain. Here’s one of my favorite jokes. You know what happened to the guy who invented the knock-knock joke? He won a “No Bell Prize!” I love that!
Second, whether or not I’m a Stock Character is kind of up to the people who read the story. It’s on you! There are always going to be those people who say, “Oh that Rhoda. She is just a Plot Device, that ditzy damsel.” Or. You could read this chapter in Acts and think, “I’d like to know more about Rhoda…” Because we all have to decide who to believe. This decision is the work of our faith, and it’s always before us, and it’s such a small thing. And it might be everything.
There’s also this. Imagine if fourteen-and-a-half minutes of your life got written about in the Bible. Maybe you’re bringing your children to see Jesus, or doing your job as a tax collector, or dealing with a demon inside you.
Later people come up to you, “Hey I read about you in the Bible!” And you think, “Oh was it that time I rescued a baby from a burning barn?” They say “No, it’s when you were in the crowd complaining about Jesus plucking grain on the Sabbath.” And you’re like, Of course that’s the moment that gets in the Bible! See we’re all trying to tell our own stories. We’re all trying to sort out who to believe, and maybe there’s always more to it…
What happened to us on the night Peter got out was hands-down hilarious. We laugh about it now. But you know, at the time, it wasn’t so funny. It was actually terrifying. Everybody knew Herod and his men were coming after the Christians. The tension had been going on forever but it was reaching a boiling point. You could feel it, like the pressure changing before a storm.
Then Herod killed James. He just seized him and killed him, and the crowds loved it. It was a deliberate attack on the Christian community. When Herod saw how the people celebrated the murder of James, he seized Peter.
Oh there would be people coming to our house church, staying all night, trying to devise a plan. If you’ve ever seen any movies with generals standing around in a war room looking at maps, that’s what was happening. But instead of generals there were church leaders, and instead of strategizing, they were praying over whether to scatter and hide or whether to keep on meeting.
Basically, we were sitting ducks. Everybody knew we were the safe house for Christians in trouble, but when everybody knows you’re the sanctuary, you might need extra security measures. You might need—I’m just going to suggest — an unsuspicious house maid to staff the gate and be ready to sound the alarm when the soldiers come or you know, get the fugitives into hiding before they’re spotted.
It was also Passover — the same time they killed Jesus. So we knew Herod seized Peter in order to kill him. We just didn’t know when or what would happen to us when they did.
And, see, we knew Peter. He was one of ours, you know? I’ve heard him preach a zillion names; I’d know his voice anywhere.
So on this night, the people were upstairs singing and praying all night. (In these days, nobody was sleeping.) I was trying to listen for activity outside because everyone knows police raids happen right before dawn. That’s when I heard him.
I will tell you (and this is kinda funny) but my first thought was spooky: What if this is Elijah? I mean it is Passover and all! I knew it wasn’t Herod’s men because they announce themselves but they don’t knock. That’s when I heard him calling: “Open the door! I need help!” And I knew like you know your own child in a crowd. We had just been praying for Peter. And he wasn’t dead! He was here.
I ran in and told the others. They were so tired. One of the older women looked at me and said, “Rhoda Honey. Bless your heart. You are out of your mind.” I mean, who among us has not lost her mind? “Surely you’re mistaken,” they said. “Peter is dead,” they said. “It’s probably his angel,” they said.
Okay, since when do angels knock? I’ve never heard of an angel getting stopped by a locked gate. Can you imagine? “Oh no. It’s locked. You think we should start an earthquake? No no, let’s just keep knocking. We’ll surely get one of those No Bell Prizes this way.” Those angels.
So the first thing that happened was nobody believed me. The second thing that happened was I got them to come and see. It really was Peter! We had to quick get him in the house before the soldiers came. The sky was staring to lighten up, and Peter wanted to leave before dawn, but first he told us how the angel sprung him from the joint. He didn’t believe it was really happening either; he thought it was all a vision. Then the angel disappeared, Peter knew it was real, and he needed to get off the street.
Now look. You’re not going to believe every story you hear. Sometimes people are mistaken, or lying, or out of their minds. But there will come a time, when somebody is telling you the truth. Maybe about a trauma they survived or an extraordinary vision of angels. Believing a person who is telling the truth is such a small thing. And it is everything.
(Because can you imagine if I had not recognized his voice and believed him? I could’ve left Peter standing there until the soldiers came and nabbed him in the morning. And that angel that got him out of prison would’ve been like, “Seriously Rhoda! You and your security measures! I do all the work to get past the guards and you can’t even open the gate!”)
So you don’t know. Somebody might knock on your door this week. Maybe it’s somebody asking for money who doesn’t need money. Or maybe it’s somebody who does. It could be those women saying Jesus got up from the dead. Everybody knew they lost their minds, remember? Except Peter who went back to the tomb to see for himself. The Gospel is still going, and this could be your fifteen minutes.What I know is there will be somebody asking for your help. And you could believe them, and the world won’t be the same.
(Except if they’re telling you they’re an angel and they just can’t figure out how to open the gate. Angels can get in anyplace they want. They’re super stealthy ninjas. Now on the other hand. It could be Jesus. He’s always standing at the door knocking. So you don’t know.)
Look everybody, I have loved being with you this morning! God bless everyone who knocks, every one of us who goes and opens the gate. See you next time!
 Harrill, J. Albert. Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social and Moral Dimensions. Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, 2006. pages 59-66.