Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sermon, "Women of the Bible: Deborah and Jael," Judges 4:4-5:3

Sermon 7/16/17
Judges 4:4-5:3

Women of the Bible: Deborah and Jael


Today we’re turning our attention to the book of Judges as we continue to explore the stories of some of the women of the Bible. This book represents the story of Israel between the time in which the Israelites moved into the Promised Land after the death of Moses, and the time when Israel began to be ruled by earthly kings, as other nations were. In the interim period, somewhere around the 12th or 11th century BC, they were ruled by judges. They served two functions: the first was like the role of judges today. These leaders settled legal disputes for the Israelites. But the biblical judges also served as military leaders. They were commanders-in-chief of Israel’s army.
The Book of Judges provides us with glimpses of the leadership of these judges and into the hearts of the Israelites. According to the author, the people and their leaders seem to go through these repeated cycles where they are “do[ing] evil in the sight of the Lord.” Over and over, the people seem to make the same mistakes, seem to turn away from their faithful God, seem to do the very things that they know have always resulted in pain and heartbreak in the past. If you know any stories from the book of Judges, it might be the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson was one of the judges of Israel. But I’m guessing that the story of Deborah and Barak and Jael is new or unfamiliar to many of you.
Deborah, the fourth of the twelve judges in this time period, follows one of these time periods of wandering away from God. The opening verses of chapter 4 tell us that the Israelites were doing what was evil in God’s eyes, and their actions resulted in their being sold into the hand of King Jabin. The commander of Jabin’s army is a man named Sisera, who commands a fierce army of nine-hundred chariots of iron. For twenty years, King Jabin oppresses the Israelites. We don’t know exactly what this oppression looks like, but it’s a long enough time to be feeling pretty desperate and downtrodden. Twenty years of cruelty.
Into this setting, Deborah rises as judge of Israel. She is called a prophet, a title not given to the other judges, and a title only given to a handful of women in the scriptures – a little study project for you to track down other women prophets in the scripture! A prophet hears God’s voice and speaks God’s message to the people. When our scene opens, Deborah summons Barak, a military commander, and tells him: God commands you to take 10,000 soldiers from the tribes of Israel to fight against Sisera and his army, and God will give them into your hand. Barak responds saying to Deborah, “If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go.” It’s unclear why he responds this way. You could think of his words as flattering – he wants Deborah’s wisdom and leadership there with him in the battle. Or you can think of him as skeptical, doubting Deborah’s words, or God’s words, or fearful, unwilling to step up and lead on his own. Deborah agrees to go with him, but perhaps because of his reluctance to just lead as God had called him to, she tells him that the glory of the journey, the victory will not fall to Barak, but to a woman.
As the battle unfolds, Deborah sends Barak out saying, “The Lord is indeed going out before you.” Sisera’s chariot are thrown into a panic – later in Judges we find that storm has caused all the chariot wheels to get stuck in mud, rendering them useless. And the army of King Jabin is being steadily conquered. When Sisera, the commander, sees this, he runs away. He flees and seeks safety in the tent of Jael, the wife of a man named Heber. Heber is part of a clan of people called Kenites, and they are allies with both King Jabin and Israel. Sisera expects welcome, and indeed, Jael tells him, “Have no fear.” She covers him with a rug, and gives the thirsty man a drink of milk. He asks her to guard the entrance of the tent and to turn away anyone who approaches. And then he fall asleep. And Jael takes a tent-peg and hammer and drives the tent-peg through his skull, killing him as he sleeps. Barak shows up at her tent, only to find his foe already defeated – by the woman Jael.
After the battle, Deborah and Barak raise their voices in a song Deborah composes, saying, “Hear, give your ear, I will sing to the Lord, I will make a melody to God.” The song that they sing is thought to be some of the oldest material in the entire Bible, and recounts in dramatic fashion all the events that have unfolded, naming Deborah a Mother of Israel.
So, what do we make of this intense, crazy story? Weeks ago, I was seeking advice from colleagues about what hymns might be suitable to go along with this scripture text. And of my colleagues responded saying that it depended on what the “good news” was that I planned to share from this passage. That was such a helpful focusing question because my first response was to think, “Wait, where is the good news in this story?” I’ve wanted to share with you some of the stories of women in the Bible, since their stories are often overlooked. But is there any good news in this vividly gory story?
Perhaps the good news is in the victory: the Israelites were freed from their oppression through Deborah’s leadership, Barak’s military action, and Jael’s, well, decisive actions. After these events, Israel experiences a peace under Deborah’s judgeship that lasts for forty years, a meaningful duration of time in the scriptures. Is that enough good news for this story? One of the struggles I often hear folks express when reading through the Hebrew Bible, the stories in the Old Testament is about the level of violence that takes place that gets attached to God’s name. I’m glad people are so uncomfortable with it. I’m glad we don’t read story after story of war and violence and wonder if that could really be God’s plan. It would be worse if we didn’t raise such ethical questions. They are contemporary questions after all: Is there such a thing as just war? Does God choose “sides” in a war? Is God with one side and not the other? We can think of the religious crusades of history, of action and inaction during World War II, of turmoil over our role in Vietnam to more contemporary questions: What is the right response to genocide, like in Rwanda in the 90s? How do we respond to war and destruction in Syria? Rev. Alex Joyner writes that there’s a monster in the story of Deborah and Jael. It’s not Jael, not Sisera, but the monster of violence. He says, “But there's still that monster, isn't there? The monster that stalks our streets and our homes and our relationships even today. There's still that monster. The monster of violence can never have the last word -- not on a hill called Calvary and not here." (1) Can we give thanks for freedom from oppression, even while we lament the violent means that brought about this new peace for Israel? I think, at least, it is good news when we faithfully wrestle with texts like this, because we’re paying attention, we’re searching, and seeking God’s wisdom and clarity, and realizing how contemporary this ancient story is, how God’s word is a living word.
Perhaps we find some good news in the fact that this story is yet another testament to the fact that God surprises us, uses unexpected people, works in unexpected, mysterious ways. There are very few one-dimensional “hero” figures in the scriptures, even if we thoughtfully like to gloss over the less savory parts of the stories of biblical figures. At our animate faith study this spring, we talked about a phrase reformer Martin Luther used – “simultaneously sinners and saints.” Sometimes we think of God’s followers in the Bible as a bunch of saints. And they are that, but they’re sinners too, struggling and sometimes failing to do what God desires. Deborah, in her victory song, gloats, taunting Sisera’s mother, saying she’ll watch for her son who is never coming home. Jael – she helped deliver Israel – but she had to take some questionable actions to do it, certainly disregarding concepts of hospitality and sanctuary. I’m thankful for these women, these complex women, who aren’t painted as perfect by any stretch. But God doesn’t look for perfect. God perfects us as we learn to love and serve God over our lifetime. And so God can use people as complicated as Deborah and Barak and Jael, and draw good out of the messes we make, when our motives and actions are less than God desires for us.

And we find good news in this: God is faithful, offering us redemption again and again, offering us paths to freedom even when our captivity was a result of our own destructive choices, present with us even when we doubt God’s plan, surprising us even when we sure we’ve got it all figure out, giving us grace even, perhaps especially when it is undeserved. Deborah and Jael and Barak are part of a compellingly strange story, but it is one story of many in this long cycle of judges, and one story of many in our long story of turning away from God who never turns away from us, and one story of many where we fail to see God’s constancy through victory and failure. Thank God for unsettling stories, and God’s consistent grace within and throughout them. Amen. 

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Sermon, "Women of the Bible: Sarah and Hagar," Genesis 18:1-15, Genesis 21:9-20

Sermon 7/2/17
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:9-20

Women of the Bible: Sarah & Hagar

            Time is such a funny thing. It rules our lives in so many ways. We’re governed by time, appointments to get to, schedules to be kept, not enough time to do what we want, time wasted. Time that seems to drag too slowly for us, and time that rushes by. Today is my one-year anniversary of being the pastor here, and people sometimes ask me, “Does it seem like a long time?” In some ways, I can hardly believe it has been a year already. I can vividly remember my first day as pastor here last year, which was the last day of Vacation Bible School that year. It was really hot – as was most of the summer. And I got a flat tire that day. I can tell you what I was wearing, and I can remember some of the people I met at VBS, and I remember struggling to learn all the new names and faces I was encountering. It seems like just a moment ago. But it also seems like a long time, too. I don’t feel like your “new” pastor. I feel like we’ve been in ministry together for a long time, like we’ve been working together on this following Jesus thing for a long time now.
In my first religion class in undergrad, I learned what is still one of my favorite theological concepts: Kairos. There are two common words for time in the scripture: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, for example, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen. Kairos. God’s right time for action.
            Can you think of a promise someone made you that took a really long time to come to fruition? Or plans that you made that were in the far-distant future, and you had to wait, and wait, and wait for the day to arrive when your plans would become reality? Today, as we start our summer series of looking at some of the stories of the women of the Bible, we encounter Sarah and Abraham. Sarah and Abraham started out as Sarai and Abram, but God gave them new names, a sign of the covenant God was making with them. When Abram was seventy-five years old, and Sarai was in her mid-sixties, God spoke to Abram, told him to leave his home and travel to a new land that God would point out, and there promised Abram that God would bless him, make of him and his descendants a great nation. Today, we read about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah when Sarah learns that she will give birth to a son. By the time Sarah delivers her child, Isaac, Abraham is one hundred, and she is ninety-one years old. Twenty-five years pass between God making a promise to them and when the promise is fulfilled. Twenty-five years for it to be “God’s right time.”
            Today’s first text opens with God appearing to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, where Abraham’s tent is. This is a holy place – it is at this place where Abraham earlier built an altar when God renewed the covenant with Abraham and Sarah and gave them their new names. God appears in the form of three men, messengers of God. And Abraham, seeing them, immediately makes arrangements for their welcome. He has their feet washed, invites them to rest, brings them water, and has Sarah make them cakes from choice flour. Often, in fact, this passage is cited as a text that leads us to think about hospitality and how we welcome strangers into our midst. But today, I’m more interested in the message these men bring.     
            “Where is Sarah?” they ask. “Sarah is in the tent,” Abraham answers. Nearly twenty-five years ago, Sarah and Abraham had been told by God that Abraham would be blessed with descendants more numerous than the stars. After more than ten years of waiting on God’s promise, Sarah took matters into her own hands. She told Abraham to have a child by Sarah’s slave, a young woman named Hagar, so that at least Abraham’s line would continue, even if not through Sarah. This is the best way Sarah can figure out how to make God’s promise come true. And indeed, Hagar has a son by Abraham named Ishmael. We’ll come back to that in a bit. Then, another decade and a half pass until we reach today’s scene. “In due season,” one of the men says, “Sarah will have a son.” Sarah is listening from the tent, and she laughs when she hears this news. She’s not laughing happy, joyful laughter. She’s laughing her disbelief, her skepticism, her disappointment. She is ninety years old. She is in menopause. She has already secured a son for Abraham. She has waited two and half decades on God’s promises. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” she wonders. She thinks that God, in the form of these three visitors, has lost it.
            God says to Abraham, “Why did she laugh?” Why did she express doubt? “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? This is going to happen.” Suddenly, Sarah wants to deny laughing, fearful of God’s response, and in my favorite line, God responds, “Oh yes, you did laugh!” It’s like two children arguing: “Nuh-uh.” “Yuh-huh.” Beyond today’s passage, we find that indeed, God “deals with Sarah” as said, and God does for Sarah what has been promised, at God’s right time, twenty-five years later. Sarah’s son is named Isaac, which comes from the word “to laugh,” for, Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Her laughter, once the laughter of bitter doubt and disappointment, has been transformed into joyous laughter at last.
            Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Throughout the scriptures, we hear similar sentiments. With God, all things are possible. Nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe it? Sarah tried to fulfill God’s promises by her own actions, in her own way, in her own time, and the results were not so good, which we’ll hear more about. Have you ever found yourself trying to force God’s plan into your own plan? Into your own sense of timing?
I remember while I was on sabbatical a few years ago, I was trying to make some decisions about my next steps in ministry. I was trying to listen to God’s voice, but I was impatient. Every year, pastors and churches have to fill out paperwork expressing their hopes about ministry appointments in the coming year. When I asked friends to pray for me, to pray for clarity for me, I would ask them, “Please tell God to give me an answer by November 1st. That’s when my paperwork is due!” Last year, when I was appointed to come here to Gouverneur, it was most definitely not my timing. I wasn’t ready to move. I wasn’t looking to move. And I can’t say that Gouverneur was one of the places I had imagined myself serving as pastor. And yet, here I have found blessing upon blessing, because it seems that this has been God’s plan for us. Is anything too wonderful for God? Of course not. We can say it with our lips. But frustrated by God’s strange sense of timing, by God’s strange sense of humor, by God’s dreams that seem impossible, we end up getting in the way of the truly wonderful that God wants to reveal to us at God’s just-right time. God is faithful, and God’s promises to us are always, always fulfilled. Let that knowledge fill our hearts with the laughter of deep joy.

***

            There is another woman in the story of God’s promises to make Abraham into a father of nations. As I mentioned, when Sarah was not conceiving a child, she decided to take things into her own hands. She gave her slave Hagar to Abraham, and Hagar gave birth to a son named Ishmael. This isn’t a part of the story that often gets a lot of attention, because it is all pretty uncomfortable, isn’t it? Hagar is a slave, and she has no choice in what is happening to her, no option to give or withhold her consent.
            What is unusual, a blessing in its own way, is that we get to hear some of Hagar’s story, even though she is a woman, even though she is a slave woman. We’ve been talking about God’s special care for the most vulnerable, and Hagar qualifies on more than one account. Some chapters before we encounter Hagar in Chapter 21, when Hagar became pregnant, the text tells us that Hagar “looked with contempt on Sarah.” We don’t know exactly why this is, whether she feels proud that she has been able to conceive, whether she’s hopeful that bearing Abraham’s child will mean her freedom, whether she’s angry that she has to be a parent on terms that were not her own. But because of Hagar’s contempt, Sarah, with Abraham’s blessing, begins to treat Hagar harshly. Hagar runs away. One of God’s messengers finds her in the wilderness, and tells her to return to Abraham and Sarah, promising her, just as she has promised Abraham and Sarah, that her offspring will be numerous, her descendants numbering more than a multitude. The messenger tells her to name her child Ishmael, which means, “God hears.” Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah, and her child is born, and for a while, everything seems ok.
            Until Isaac, Sarah’s son is born. Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and something seems to snap. She tells Abraham to send Hagar and her son away. “The son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Abraham is reluctant, but God says essentially that in both Isaac and Ishmael God’s promises will be fulfilled. So, with some food and water, Hagar is sent away, and again, she finds herself in the wilderness, this time with her son. God’s messenger finds her again, when she is at her most desperate, believing that she is going to have to watch her child starve to death. “Do not be afraid,” the messenger says, “God has heard the voice of the boy. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast, for I will make a great nation of him.” God opens her eyes to see a well of water, a sign of life and hope. We read that Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, becoming an expert with the bow, and God is with him. Yes, God fulfilled the promises made to Abraham and Sarah, but God had promises for Hagar too, and was as faithful to those promises as the ones that drive the “main” story of the scripture.
            Uncle Bill has told me that when he and my Aunt Shari were expecting my cousin Ben, their second oldest child, Uncle Bill was filled with anxiety, sure that he would never be able to love Ben as much as he loved his firstborn Bekah. But, with my grandfather reassuring him, Uncle Bill discovered that his love would grow, would stretch, would multiply, rather than be divided among his children.
            Even though Sarah had just experienced the fulfillment of her wildest dreams, her deepest joy, come true, it somehow still wasn’t enough. She let herself be ruled by fear. It was as though she were afraid that someone else having joy meant there would be less joy less for Sarah, that God’s promises being fulfilled in Hagar would mean that promises to Sarah would somehow be lost or ruined. Even though I believe we know better, somehow, when it comes to God, God’s gifts for us, God’s promises to us, God’s love and grace in our lives, we end up afraid that blessings for someone else leaves less for us, as if God’s love needs to be divided among us, portioned out. Sarah has gotten all that she could barely even hope to receive, and somehow, she lets her blessings, her promises received seem like a meager portion. God, though, is faithful, the God of Isaac and Ishmael, the God of Sarah and Hagar.
            When have you been Sarah, trying to make God’s promises fit your own plans? When have you been Hagar, needing a reminder that God will see you, hear you, be faithful to you, even when you feel hopeless, lost in the wilderness? When have you been like Sarah to a Hagar, worried that God has less left for you, because of the blessings another receives? Nothing is too wonderful for our God to bring about, in God’s right time, in God’s right way, in fulfillment of God’s faithful promises to us. Let us open our hearts and lives to the wondrous ways that God wants to work in all of us. Amen.