Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Judges 4:4-5

Judges 4:4-5

In seventh grade at a weekend retreat for FCA, a young leader with probably 16 years of life experience said something to me like, “You know, there is a Deborah in the Bible.” Before I could even get the profound words, “Oh cool” passed my lips, he concluded,”Yea, she killed a guy with a stake and a hammer.” Oh...NOT Cool. So that pretty much killed my interest in this Deborah of the Bible. Some years later, when I was exploring seminary, my pastor gave me a book with images of women leaders in the Bible and one image depicted Deborah weaving baskets. Which seems nice, right? But not true. None of it. She is not a basket weaver and she never killed a guy with a tent stake...someone else in her story did that.

What we do know about Deborah is that she was a prophet. She may not be one of the Major Prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah or even a minor prophet with her own book title, but she was a prophet like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron before her. This meant she had the work of listening to God on behalf of and through the whole of her community. This work meant nudging and urging, challenging and reminding God’s people of their covenant or partnership with God. So she was a prophet and even a poet, chanting hymns like Moses and Miriam. She was also a judge; one of 12 Judges with the work of guiding her people, settling disputes, helping people move on from wrongs and hurts so those wounds would not fester and break the community apart. We know she had a palm tree office located between two communities...and while we don’t know this, I like to imagine it as a bit of an oasis, with shade above and a view out in front of her and relationships restored...a pretty great courtroom, if you will. We also know she was a wife. At first glance, you might have the same response I did. When Amos was announced as prophet, he wasn’t noted as Amos, husband of Gomar. And while we might be familiar with a history of this kind of treatment of women, scholars point to something more. Wife of Lappidoth, could mean a particular household, but many suggest it means something more about her relationship to the whole people of Israel. It could be translated woman of fire, woman of spirit, woman with torches or spirited woman. And so, when we gather all those images together for our modern English-speaking brains, Deborah looks like one bad ass woman. Spirited and powerful and not someone to mess with a pillar of fire, one even suggests. A women who earned every inch of her authority to lead, giving valued judgements, holding the heart of her peoples’ hopes in her role as a prophet.

Historians point to moments when the culture is unsure as a prime time for non-traditional leaders. The structures that dictate what a leader should look like or from whom they ought to decent give way to effectiveness. It was an uncertain time in Israel, between Moses and Joshua bringing the people to a promised land, and before kings like David and Saul and Solomon. And there was a period of conflict with the Canaanites, a back and forth power struggle that put the losers lives in a space of vulnerability. Deborah led at such a time. We know it because there is this litany...”The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” beginning in chapter four.

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years. (4:1-3)

This is where Deborah took authority - and as she was working from her Palm Tree office, she sensed it is time to make a change. And she did something different from most of the male leaders in the biblical narrative; she sought help. She called a man named Barak (his name meant lightning), and she told him it was time to destroy their oppressors, the Canaanite king with his general and his 900 iron chariots. Barak, despite his name being powerful, was probably a thinking man; and this task seemed like a pretty big gamble. Further provoking the hand of their oppressor could prove even more deadly to the whole people of Israel. And so he responds:

Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’ 9And she said, ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’ Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.

He risked the glory that would have been his had he gone it alone. The scripture shares a story of confusion among Sisera’s forces and perhaps those 900 iron chariots are not so great when they are swept away, just like the chariots of Egypt before them.

‘The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver. 20 The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. 21 The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might! (5: 19-21)

Perhaps all the iron on those chariots didn’t work out this time and the whole army was reported dead. But the story continues with Sisera on foot, the general away from his ride seeks out the help of a woman.

18Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.” ’ 21But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. (4:18-21)

Wouldn’t it have been easier if we had stopped after that part about the palm tree....and just skipped this ugly death stuff? Israel was free...or at least freer. Deborah, Barak and Jael were heroes. A song of victory was sung and yet looking back today, we are left wondering if they could have achieved their freedom through peace rather than old school military conflict. It’s not exactly pretty or the happy outcome we would like, and since our lives are not hanging in the balance, it is easy to have an opinion about Deborah.

Traditionally we approach Deborah with total affirmation or total disappointment. Women have looked to Deborah, despite this violence, as an example of leadership. Given so few examples in our tradition, it can be easy to see why we might. Early Queens of England and Scotland (frequently named Mary) lifted Deborah as a woman in whose footsteps they might follow. Others disagreed. John Knox, Presbyterian cleric, praised Deborah, even while suggesting women in his own time were unfit to lead. My favorite part of his objection to their leadership is the bold title of his essay “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” In 1558 he wrote, “Exempted by God from the common malediction given to women and against nature HE made her prudent in council, strong in courage, happy in regiment and a blessed mother and deliverer to HIS people.” This statement makes me want to celebrate Deborah and raises my gratitude that Queen Elizabeth took such offense to it that she would later limit Knox’s involvement in re-establishing the Church of England. Knox was not the first man to struggle with Deborah; her leadership was omitted in Hebrews when Barak comes up in Chapter 11. The same happened in 1 Samuel Chapter 12.

She however, survived the generations of edits and translations and invites us to look on her leadership. While some women have cheered at the thought of her, others have been disappointed, hoping for more. Her leadership used the same old tools of violence as every other leader. She might have fought for the right reason but, we might argue, she used the wrong means to her end. Elizabeth Cady Stanton commented on this piece of the Bible as disgusting, and noted particularly how Jael misuses the sacred work of hospitality.

So are those the only choices - total affirmation or total disregard? What if we could name our really high expectations of one female leader in the face of Patriarchy? It is easy to hope that one leader makes all the difference, but we have seen how one black president didn’t end racism in our historically racist country. And we know one woman leader won’t end patriarchy in our historically sexist world...not alone anyway. We know the names of King and Mandela and Gandhi and we know that they were part of mass movements, fueled by hundreds and thousands of others putting their hearts and lives on the line to make the world different, seeking peace through peace.

The thing about learning from Deborah is we can celebrate how she partnered, how she stood with her people, mended broken relationships as a judge, offered wise counsel and was deemed a woman of fire and spirit. And we can name how we wish she had done things differently. But doing that is only fair if we are brave enough to turn our gaze inward, and root out what we must change about ourselves. How we must be different to participate in the waves of change and transformation we seek.

This past weekend, many of us saw images we never thought we would see in America in 2017. White people, marching in mass, unmasked, carrying the odd combination of Nazi flags and tiki torches. Of course, being shocked should tune us into our privilege. Seeing an emboldened current of radical terrorists, that once seemed to simmer only in hushed spaces, reminds us that the progress of the past few years remains stunted until those bearing the banners of hate and terror can be brought forward into the circle of the whole human family. This is the real and challenging work of our faith. Our covenant at baptism asks if one professes faith in God and commits to the dangerous road of salvation traveled by Jesus. The next questions call us to a special reflection today: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sins? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you? Do you want to work on that together? That is the heart of our faith.

Discussion Questions:
1. What can we learn from Deborah? What about her stood out to you?

2. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sins?

3. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Jonah: The Pouting Prophet

Jonah 2:2-4: In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’

The words we read in Scripture today are the reflections of a desperate man – Jonah – who had, perhaps, reached the lowest point in his life. In a nutshell, Jonah was a well-regarded prophet in the nation of Israel when God asked him to go to a city called Ninevah and tell the people to either change their ways or be destroyed. Jonah didn’t want to go; not because he didn’t like God’s message, but because he thought the people of Ninevah were truly horrible human beings. And he was probably right – from a historical context, what we know of these people is that they were evil. These were people who tortured and killed innocent and vulnerable men, women and children. The type of people who took pleasure in hurting others for no particular reason.

So Jonah said “no,” I’m not going there. And he took off as far in the opposite direction as he could go in an effort to hide from God. But while he was on a boat, there was a huge storm. The others on the boat threw Jonah overboard because they thought the storm was his fault.

That’s where the whale comes in. Most of us who know the name of Jonah associate him with the whale. Decide for yourself whether you believe Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale or whether that whale is an allegory for something that happened to Jonah that put him totally and completely and disgustingly at rock bottom for three days. After hitting rock bottom, instead of avoiding the evil people of Ninevah, Jonah decided it might be cool to give them God’s warning and watch them be destroyed.

So he waltzed into this city that had at least 120,000 people and started yelling – in 40 days, God’s going to destroy you unless you get your crap together and apologize. Then he walked up a little hill, sat down, and felt pretty smug about having a front row seat for these people’s destruction.

What happened next was a bit of a plot twist – because these horrible, no good, very bad people actually listened to Jonah and feared God. From the king to the lowliest servant, they begged for forgiveness – and Scripture says “God had compassion and did not destroy them.”

When this happened, the smug prophet became the pouting prophet. The self-righteous prophet became the angry prophet. He sat on his little hill and pouted. He didn’t want these people to live! He had suffered through his own rock bottom and he believed with all his heart that these evil people deserved to die a horrible death. God’s response – basically to call Jonah a hypocrite. Here’s a guy who believed he deserved a second chance but didn’t want the same standard for the people of Ninevah.

Because of Jonah, I was thinking this week about the ways we hide:

  • Our fears
  • Our hopes
  • Our shame and embarrassment and failures
  • Our dreams
  • Our anger
  • We hide them from each other
  • We often hide them from ourselves, burying things deep inside
  • We hide from God

When confronted with difficult circumstances, Jonah chose to hide; literally needing to hit rock bottom – and even then acting like a bit of a douche. When confronted with difficult circumstances, the evil people of Ninevah chose to humble themselves, drop to their knees, apologize, and vow to change. Neither was wrong. In both circumstances, God was compassionate; God was patient; God was waiting; God was THERE.

Last week, Pastor Debra talked about John Wesley’s pursuit of perfection and how it turned out to be a myth.  Wesley discovered that the greatest achievements happen in our ability to pick ourselves up after falling down. It can be difficult (maybe embarrassing) in the context of a world that tells us to judge each other. We watch reality shows that encourage us to criticize and “vote off” those who don’t sing well, or dress well, or cook well! We pursue the perfect body, perfect home, perfect family – but perhaps we need to celebrate our imperfections and the journey of living.

CS Lewis – I want to lay before God what is truly in me, not what I think should be in me.

Story about family who decided to be imperfect together: In this house there were seven – five family members, one housekeeper, and one large dog named Moose.  They instituted a new system in the house where everyone is assigned a day.  On that day, whatever may go wrong, the person who is assigned (and ONLY that person) is to blame for everything.

The housekeeper is to blame on Saturdays; they planned it that way because it’s her day off so she doesn’t have to hear the things for which she’s to blame.

Moose the dog started it . . . One morning when the dad was raging around the kitchen over who drank the last of the milk AGAIN and who didn’t go to the store for more AGAIN, his daughter walked in with the dog and said, “Moose did it; and he’s so very sorry.”  Moose did look guilty – and the family laughed about it – and suddenly the milk crisis was forgotten.

For a while after that, Moose got blamed for everything, and seemed to accept his martyrdom with silent dignity.  Then the daughter complained that Moose’s burden was becoming too heavy to bear.  That’s when they all decided to share the blame.

In this family, when it’s your day, your job is to apologize and grovel a little while asking for forgiveness, which is easy when you and everyone else knows that you’re not really to blame for whatever happened.  What started out as a joke became the new family way. They laugh and they lose track of guilt and blame and imperfections.

WARNING: There’s a small but powerful condition attached to all of this: when I live in imperfection, I need to know you are there for me (and I for you) to listen, encourage, hold accountable, love – this is the responsibility of the body of Christ. This is who we are.

HIDE AND SEEK (by Robert Fulghum):
In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide and seek. How long since I played? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. But adults don’t play hide and seek. Not for fun anyway. Too bad.

Did you ever have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so well, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide and seek, not hide and give UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide and seek and yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide too well again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.

A man I knew found out last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And he knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Some people said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody. But privately, his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say goodbye.

He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide and seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. We say things like, “I don’t want anyone to know” or “What will people think?” or “I don’t want to bother anyone” or “would they still like me if they knew?”

Better than hide and seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is IT goes and hides, and everyone goes looking for him. When you find him, you hide alongside him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody giggles and somebody laughs and everyone gets found.

Medieval theologians described God in hide and seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.

Olly olly oxen free! The kids in the street are hollering the cry that says, “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all of you who have hid too well. Get found. Olly olly oxen free!

May we be a people who want to be FOUND – by each other, and by God. May it be so – Amen.

Discussion Questions:
1. What does it look like when you hide?  How does it feel?

2. From what are you most likely to hide?  How does hiding impact your most important relationships?

3. Why is being found hard for adults?  How can you help someone?  How can you take steps to be more vulnerable with others?