Kelly Gissendaner might seem an even more unlikely person than Moses to be a sign of God speaking. The state of Georgia executed Kelly in 2015. She was executed for a crime to which she confessed. She had conspired with her boyfriend, who murdered Kelly’s husband. Kelly was executed, and the man who committed the murder is eligible for parole.
In that way, the American judicial system did not serve Kelly Gissendaner well. But in other ways, it did exactly what we hope the criminal justice system will accomplish. In prison, Kelly became truly remorseful for the terrible wrong she had willfully done, understanding the full consequence of her evil actions and the awful consequence. Kelly was transformed while incarcerated. As part of a theology program in the prison, Kelly developed a deeply rooted and enacted faith. She immersed herself in worship, prayer, study, and service. She reconciled to her children and was a steadying influence on fellow inmates she counseled.
The theologian Jurgen Moltmann with whom she corresponded, the Pope, and even Gissendaner’s children asked for the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole to commute Kelly’s sentence from death to life without parole. Because of those efforts, Gissendaner’s execution was twice delayed.
When the efforts ultimately failed, her theology professors were concerned the execution would be deflating to her friends in the program. The women had found such hope in Kelly’s and the witness of other Christians speaking up for her.
The women remained fast in the faith. One woman said, “It had been so long since I had seen God move. The worst has happened, and I’ve thought about it a lot. All I can say is that I needed to know that God is still moving. And now I know.”
We may forget that Moses had committed murder. That was why he was in a far out field where there were only his father-in-law’s sheep and a burning bush. He had fled because he was a criminal wanted by the authorities.
In the murder and in the fleeing, Moses acts out of the conviction that God is not acting. There have been long generations of slavery in Egypt. Moses believes that God is unconcerned for the suffering of the people – unable or unwilling to act. When God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, Moses demands proof that this could be the voice of God.
No wonder Moses is confused. God insists that the divine will for goodness is still moving and still speaking. Then God demands that Moses – this murderer, this coward, this ethnically mixed, this foster child, this tongue-tied, displaced person – will speak.
Through Moses that God speaks to call people out of imprisonment and into a new way of life. Called Moses out of the imprisonment of his guilt and fear and called the Hebrew people out of the captivity of slavery.
In this world of sin and suffering, it is hard for many of us, Christians today, to keep the faith that God is moving. We turn to the person of Jesus, and we see God’s burning revelation that God is entirely present to God’s people. In Jesus, we see that God is still moving, knows our suffering and knows our sin. In Jesus, we see that God is moving to bring about transformation and new and unending life. In Jesus, we see that God still speaks – and demands that we speak of justice and mercy, for freedom and the end of suffering. In Jesus, we see that even when speaking does not set the prisoner free, or give life to the dying or shelter each homeless family or bring power to the powerless, speaking makes way for God to move. Our willingness to speak God’s will for life gives hope.
Murderer, criminal, theologian, Pope, professor, preacher, or product manager, sinner, student or saint, tongue-tied or stuttering, privileged or imprisoned, we can speak to set the prisoner free, to call out injustice. Our speaking gives hope that God is moving. Often we are the only way that those who suffer most will ever know.
Years ago I was at a communion service at which was a person I knew had committed a criminal act. He had confessed and been punished, which had not, of course, ended the suffering of those he had injured. My attention, during the words of institution, was overly focused on him, and my assessment of his behavior and the possibilities of his true remorse.
Then it came time to pass the cup from hand to hand, and I was reminded that the table gathers us even when we do not like each other and are suspicious of each other when we do not know each other. We are known by the one who calls us to the table. At the table, we are made brothers and sisters. We are called to the table with death row inmates, with people of faith around the world, with people building compassionate relationships and even with people who preach hate and intolerance.
We are called to the table this Sunday, when all Christians around the world celebrate communion, our brothers and sisters. It is a very big table. We might not be altogether pleased with the people who share it with us. But God appears in the most unlikely of guises, including a table of meager bread and cup.
When we speak this truth, there is hope that God is moving in this world.