Sunday, November 16, 2008

Strong Together: A Sermon on Judges 4:1-10

“Strong Together”
Judges 4:1-10
November 16, 2008

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? What do we do, and what does God do? Does God notice? Does God even care?

The lectionary leads us this morning into the book of Judges, the chronicle of the first several hundred years the Israelites spent in Canaan. I need to make a confession to you, in the vein of “the levels to which a mother will stoop.” When my son was about 12 years old, and I was trying to encourage his interest in reading the bible, I recommended the book of Judges to him. Why? Because it is the most godawful, bloody book in all of scripture, bar none. It’s horrific. For a kid who had already managed to get his hands on Metal Gear Solid and Medal of Honor, and a host of other video games with high body counts, I thought this would be right up his alley. Mea maxima culpa.

The book of Judges is one long liturgy of war and depravity. Each story in it begins like ours today… “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died.” This is the way it goes, story after story. There is no clear leader for a time, and everyone goes his own way. Then the situation begins to deteriorate, as the people do evil… by which the writer means, they worship the local gods instead of Yahweh. They wind up under the thumb of their enemies. Then, they cry out to God for rescue. God takes pity on them, and raises up a charismatic leader—a judge—to bring them out of oppression. Until that judge dies. And then the cycle begins again.

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? What do we do, and what does God do? Does God notice? Does God even care?

Here is the background for the story. The people of Israel are now in the Promised Land. Slavery and their forty-year wilderness sojourn are behind them. This is where it’s supposed to get fun! This is when God’s promises of land and children are supposed to fill everyone with an overwhelming sense of well-being and joy, an age of peace and prosperity. But the people, lacking the guidance of Ehud, the most recent judge, are forgetful of God’s role in their story. They turn their backs on God, and they do evil. Imagine their shock at discovering that there is still more suffering in store for them, more hardship. The Israelites are on the wrong end of technological innovation. They’re stuck in the Bronze Age, while their enemies—native Canaanites, it should be said, who have no patience with the Israelite claims that “God gave us this land!”—their enemies have advanced to the next age, the iron age, as evidenced by nine hundred iron chariots, the ancient world’s equivalent of the Humvee. The Canaanites have oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years. The people are suffering. They are crying out to God for help.

It’s tempting to overlook a crucial detail in the story, one that is so unsavory I really would rather gloss right over it, except that it is repeated again and again. Throughout the book of Judges, it is God who is the cause of the suffering of this disobedient, evil people. God is the one who sold the Israelites into the hand of the oppressive Canaanite king and his cruel general, Sisera. I wish this detail would go away, because it doesn’t match my ideas of how God works. But there it is, so we have to decide what we believe about it. Do we believe this idea that God is the cause of suffering, that God deliberately inflicts it upon those who are evil? Is that the truth of this historical situation? Or is that something the Israelites concluded in hindsight, as they assessed their own history and wrote it down?

In any event, this is a very human story. We follow a leader, unless there is no leader to follow. We do well, until we don’t do well. Life goes our way, until it doesn’t. Somewhere along the way, we lose our connection with God, with the community God has provided for us… and whether we believe it is God’s doing or our own or a random universe’s, we suffer. We suffer, until our suffering is so severe that it wakes us up, brings us back, and we cry out to God for deliverance. And sometimes, we realize that God does notice. God hears our cries. God acts. God rescues. But our rescue doesn’t always look the way we expect it to look. Our rescue doesn’t always look like a man emerging from a phone booth in a cape, with a check for a million dollars in his hand. Sometimes, it looks like a woman quietly sitting under a tree.

Deborah, whom scripture calls isshah lappidot, which means either “wife of Lappidoth” or “woman of torches”—both are good translations—Deborah is a judge in Israel during the twenty-year oppression. She can be found, to mediate disputes, to give military advice, or to prophesy, sitting beneath a palm tree in the hill country. In a time of chaos and hardship, we tend to want “doers” to take charge. The person who takes charge in this moment in scripture is, first of all, a thinker, a contemplative. She is still.

Deborah’s meditation, her time of sitting under the palm, leads her to the conclusion that military action is necessary, and she commissions Barak to take command of an army made up of several tribes. Barak shows some hesitation… he desires Deborah’s presence. He wants her to come out from under her tree and be with him in battle. She agrees, but she also reminds Barak that he will not get the glory of the victory. Sisera will be delivered into the hand of a woman. We are given to understand that this is all God’s doing—the pre-ordained victory, the work of Deborah and Barak in bringing it about. God has achieved God’s objective: the people have come back. They have called out, cried out to God for help. And so, God responds, God helps.

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? What do we do, and what does God do? Does God notice? Does God even care?

What do we think? Does God inflict punishment on evil people? For much of the Old Testament period, this seems to be the assumption. But then there is the book of Job, which stands as an unflinching witness to the contrary: Job is just, and he does not deserve all the terrible things that happen to him. The witness of scripture shows that those who are suffering are not necessarily guilty, and those who are guilty do not necessarily suffer (in the here and now). God’s ways, with regard to evil in the world, are pretty inscrutable. We can see instances—look at Darfur, look at the reign of Stalin—where evil continues unabated and unchecked by either divine or human intervention.

Nevertheless, when we are suffering, it is almost impossible not to ask God, “Why? Why are these things happening to me? What have I done to deserve them?” I know that I have done some of the best praying of my life when things were their bleakest. Does that mean that God afflicted me with various sorrows, so that I would turn to God in prayer? I don’t believe that for one second. I cannot reconcile that notion with my conviction that ours is a loving God. But I do believe that prayer is one of the unexpected consolations to be found in suffering. Talk to any addict in a 12-step program, and you will hear stories of people who are grateful for their addictions. Grateful! Why? Because hitting bottom, suffering horribly, knowing they were utterly powerless over their addictions, made them turn to God.

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? There are no easy answers to these questions. There never have been, even though stories like this one try to persuade us otherwise. But let’s see what we can glean from this reading. Deborah sits under a palm tree. When we are suffering, we might consider stillness. We might sit under a tree, or in a chair, in order to pray, meditate, contemplate. Prayer is one of the unanticipated, unexpected consolations of suffering. When we are suffering, we might consider prayer. That’s one idea to be found here. And here’s another: Barak asks Deborah to accompany him into battle. We might decide that our best strength can be found not alone, but in community—joining forces with someone whose gifts complement our own. We might find that we can be strong together, stronger than we are on our own. Be still. Reach out to someone. These are things we can do when we are suffering.

But does God notice? Does God even care? In every instance, in the Old Testament and the New, in stories of Judges and in stories of Jesus, the answer to these questions is a loud, unequivocal, Yes. God notices. God cares. And God provides glimmers of hope for us in our suffering, torches of hope, even. In the stories of Judges, the torches of hope always look like other people, whether they are the judges themselves or the strength found in assembling into a larger community—a tribe, an army.

Maybe your torch of hope looks like a woman sitting under a tree. Maybe it looks like someone showing up on your front porch holding a pot of soup in their hands. Maybe it sounds like a ringing telephone, the voice of a friend on the other end of the line saying, “Let’s have lunch.” Maybe it has the cadence of a song or a psalm, the timbre of many voices raised together. Maybe your torch of hope looks like a whole throng of people, milling around the dessert table at coffee hour, or surging forward to come to the communion table.

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? What do we do? This is the way it goes, story after story. We pray. We reach out to other people. And what does God do? God gives us opportunities for stillness. God invites us into prayer. God gives us other people, in response to our suffering and to theirs. Does God notice? Yes. Does God even care? Yes, yes, Oh yes. Thanks be to God. Amen.

"Deborah the Judge" by Powell Brothers Stained Glass, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Key West, FL


Gannet Girl said...

Oh, this is a wonderful sermon. I wish I could have heard it.

Magdalene6127 said...

Gannet Girl, thank you. That means a lot to me, coming from you at this moment.


Reverend Potato Head said...
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