Tonight the state of Georgia will execute a beloved child of God. Last time they planned to execute her, the Holy Spirit intervened in the form of a cloud. Read below (and listen if you like, download is available here) the sermon I wrote in March before Kelly’s last scheduled execution.
We must not give up hope while Kelly has breath that God will intervene. And if there is no intervention, may the LORD receive Kelly into the eternal grace she has shared with so many.
Hope Is Still Alive
Genesis 17:1-9, 15-22
A theologian once said in her graduation address, “We must remember that the clearest hope about what is going to happen in the future is what God has been doing in the past.” This is why we have decided to look at the Old Testament texts through Lent; to examine the whole story of God’s promises to creation since the beginning of time.
Today we explore God’s covenant with Abraham. This is the third passage of Genesis in which a covenant with Abram is presented, yet this one marks a definite turn in the story. This passage is where Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. The name change marks a new identity as a result of God’s promise. Abram, meaning exalted father, becomes Abraham, father of multitudes. Sarai, meaning quarrelsome, is renamed Sarah, Princess of nations. Even a new name for God is used in this story. I am El Shaddai. The direct translation remains unclear, but it is a significant shift from Elohim, the plural “gods” to El Shaddai, read in most Bibles as “God Almighty”.
What is the promise? That the new names would be fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah would produce not just one son, but many nations. Abraham falls on his face at this and laughs. Imagine someone telling Ms. Nan, at 98, that she was going to produce a multitude of nations through childbirth. And though Abraham already has one son, Ishmael, through his wife’s maidservant Hagar, God makes it clear that this blessing is to come through Sarah.
This is particularly significant because Sarah has remained unable to produce an heir. In the ancient world, and still in some places in our modern world, infertility or the inability to produce a son, renders a woman as worthless. Her ability to produce children is her only source of social pride and value. Sarah, at 90-years-old, has given up. She is lucky Abraham has not discarded her. But what we see as barren, God promises to make fruitful. While Abraham receives the message, it is for Sarah whom the covenant is intended. God offers a covenant of abundance of offspring through Sarah, which will bring Abraham great honor and redeems Sarah from her shame. What the world saw as a lost cause, God saw as the seedbed for a nation of blessings.
A story on the front of my mind this week which began as hopeless and tragic has sprung forth with hope. You may have read that the only woman on death row in the state of Georgia was set to be executed last Wednesday. Kelly Gissendaner, who was convicted in 1996 for planning the murder of her husband, Greg Gissendaner, was sentenced to death, though she never touched the murder weapon and her accomplice will have the opportunity for parole in 8 years. Though state sanctioned execution is always of concern to me, as I believe all are capable of being redeemed by grace and only God should determine when that opportunity in life runs out, Kelly’s case was of particular concern because she is a graduate of the prison theological studies program that many of my Candler classmates and professors have taught. Were she not behind bars, I might have encountered her in my circle of acquaintances, as she is called friend by many I know. Kelly was denied clemency, but her execution date was pushed back to tomorrow night due to the winter storm warnings last week. In that time, what has sprung forth is an abundance of blessings.
Since Kelly’s execution date was pushed back, stories began to circulate about her in a mass media campaign to save her life. For Kelly not only found God in prison, but began to embody her role as a Christian and a theologian. A New York Times article tells of her correspondence and friendship with German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who has said that Kelly’s devotionals gave him “much inspiration” and came to visit her when he was lecturing at Emory. She mentors and has become the spiritual guide for many women in the prison. Kelly directly prevented three of her fellow inmates from committing suicide.
These are word’s from Kelly’s commencement speech for the Certificate in theological Studies:
“The theology program has shown me that hope is still alive and that, despite a gate or a guillotine hovering over my head, I still possess the ability to prove that I am human. Labels on anyone can be notoriously misleading and unforgiving things. But no matter the label attached to me, I have the capacity and the unstoppable desire to accomplish something positive and to have a lasting impact… I have a placed my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
What we see as barren and hopeless, God sees as a seedbed for abundant blessings.
There is another great theologian to consult on this text, who was guilty of the same crimes as Kelly. Before Saul became Paul, he orchestrated the murder of countless Christians, yet was also redeemed by the intervention of God’s promise. And in speaking of God’s covenant to Abraham and Sarah, Paul tells us in Romans 4 what this covenant means for us.
13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith…16 That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations.[c] So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence. 18 When it was beyond hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise God spoke to him: That’s how many descendants you will have…. 21 He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness. 23 But the scripture that says it was credited to him[e] wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. 24 It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us. Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness,[a] we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Romans 4:13, 16-18, 23-5:1 CEB)
We inherit the covenant of Abraham, to be a part of the nation of blessing. And we receive peace through our Lord Jesus Christ. All of us. The continuance of a covenant we remember each week at this table as we partake in the loaf and the cup. Knowing and believing in this covenant of blessing and grace changes us. In Kelly’s words “There is only one who can bring a clean thing out of something unclean, or turn a tragedy into a triumph, and a loser into a winner. When this miracle occurs, and only through Divine grace, our life is not wasted.”
As I saw stories spread about Kelly, some who know her best began to use her full name, the name that would have been used in her baptism, the name God claims upon her; Kelly Renee. In the original French, Renee means redeemed.
What we see as barren, God sees as a seedbed for abundant blessings.
As long as Kelly has breath, we have hope that the hearts and minds of the parole board and Governor Deal might be changed to see that Kelly is a success of the corrections system, living a redeemed and grace filled life. She is an inspiration not just to her fellow inmates, but to all who hear her voice. And her words speak to today’s passage “I implore you not to allow prison to rob you of your dream or vision, nor of your dignity or self-worth.” I implore you not to allow your barrenness to rob you of your dream or vision, nor of your dignity or self-worth.
Or your depression, or your unemployment, or your addiction, or your body image, or your fear, or your anger, or your shame, or any disadvantageous position life has placed you in to rob you of your dream or vision, nor of your dignity or self-worth.
For where we see barrenness, emptiness hopelessness, God sees the seedbed of abundant blessings.
The New York Times article about Kelly ends with this quote, “Professor Moltmann, who has written of his own remorse at having fought in the German Army, offered his own ide of what awaits his friend. “If the State of Georgia has no mercy,” he said, “she has received already the mercy of Heaven.”
May God grant the same mercy of abundant life through faith to each and every one of us. Amen.