Risking a Different Narrative

Judges 4:1-7 | Psalm 123 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 | Matthew 25:14-30

This Sunday is the only time in our Sunday Eucharistic lectionary that we get to look at the book of Judges. This provides a great plug for Bible study, thanks in part to our prompting from the collect to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. We’ll talk more about doing this in Christian Education after the 9:15, but let me point just a few things out for you, especially why I prompted you to read at least all of Chapter 4.

After Joshua died, Israel got a series of judges, of which 12 are presented in the namesake book. This is important because the Israelites don’t have a good track record when left to their own devices. (Even with judges, they’re not perfect.) The Israelites had a tendency to go along . . . and then pull a little like a car out of alignment, drifting out of line. They do wrong, anger God (expressed by oppression by enemies), then plea for repentance for which the LORD sends deliverers, or judges. This is a pretty predictable pattern that plays out time and again.

With Deborah, the fourth judge we’re given, we hear that the Israelites have displeased God. They’re being given over, sold to an enemy. Defeat is certain, what with the fancy iron-clad chariots and all. But Deborah, prophetess and judge, gives then an alternative, their hope for repentance and for getting back on the right road. She offers a teaser to their victory, that Sisera, the opposing military general, will fall at the hand of a woman.

Will it be Deborah? We’re mindful, of course, that Deborah may be judge and prophet, but she’s not the military commander; that’s Barak’s role, the one she’s directing. We could be left with the mystery, but I think it’s worthwhile to know that we get a more complicated, detailed story. There’s the basic pattern, but we have more (which is why I encouraged you to at least read all of Chapter 4).

Looking at what follows Deborah’s outrageous command, Barak basically says, “Deborah if you’re not going with me, I’m not going.” It sounds almost endearing, like President Obama saying he wouldn’t take the Oval Office without Michelle (like I’m sure he did!). Or like Moses not leading the people without Aaron to speak for him. Or like Jacob not letting go of the angel he wrestled with until he had the angel’s name. When we’re heading into battle, into stormy territory or rough water, we want to know we go with God’s assurance and blessing, especially when the prospects look grim.

So of course Deborah goes with him, and they’re victorious over the army, and they sing a song like Miriam did after they crossed the Red Sea (because we so often repeat our stories). But Sisera fled, commander as he was, and he hid in a tent where he happened to find the smith’s wife–the smith who had likely forged the iron for Sisera’s chariots. Surely at this tent, Sisera would be safe, Jael the wife providing him refuge. But she doesn’t. She gives him milk, not water (which would have indicated true hospitality–maybe like our coffee?), and when he sleeps, Jael drives a tent peg through his head–a graphic scene of violence (of which Judges has many) our lectionary opts to omit from our comfortable Sunday mornings.

Except maybe our Sunday mornings aren’t as comfortable anymore. There’s nothing that says our churches are a guaranteed, promised violence-free sanctuary. Another pattern has emerged. A headline appears. Multiple fatalities. Details about the town, the place, the victims, and the perpetrator. An investigation that lingers longer than our attention span, not bloody enough to lead the news anymore. We wring our hands and lament the loss of life, the senselessness of it all, hug our babies close and send them back to school, go back to work, go back to church, and lock our doors at night. All this in an effort to keep safe.

I spent three hours at a seminar on Thursday, a Safe Worship workshop aimed toward clergy to get us to see how or why our church might be vulnerable. They offered practical steps to keep ourselves safer, and at vestry this next week, we’ll talk about which things we’ll implement: some are simple, while others will require your help, too. We’ll keep you posted.

But I wonder what Deborah would say. When violent crimes at churches have increased about 870% from 2004-2017, where would she lead us? What would she tell us to do?

Let me offer one more insight I shared at the Continuing the Conversations on Wednesday. Tuesday night I attended a lecture at the UofA. Professor Carol Anderson, who teaches African American Studies at Emory University, shared with us the story of how in 2014 all the news stations were showing Ferguson on fire. All the anchors were saying that the African Americans were burning their home. She repeated this, as she heard it repeated over and over again. In the midst of this narrative, perpetuating that there’s something wrong with the black folk–obviously–because they’re destroying their home, she stopped.

Wait a minute. Folks don’t just burn up their homes.

She said that we were so focused or maybe even distracted by the flames that we forgot to look at the kindling that sent the flames sky-high. She talked about patterns of systemic oppressions, where profiling, incarceration, and voter suppression–thus lack of representation–were destroying the fabric of their society. Finally a match was struck, and the flames revealed the rage that was already in the offensive position. Only the narrative was focused on the reactive. And if we only ever respond to the reactive, does anything ever change? If we only get the homeless a hotel room every once in a while . . . or only treat those without insurance in the ER when they’re very sick . . . or only look at mental health or gun reform when people are gunned down . . . what will change?

When we’ve gotten off track, what do we do?

Deborah would say we’ve got to listen to and follow God.

Dr. Anderson would say we’ve got to wake up to the facts and imagine a different narrative than the one we’ve bought into.

And the Gospel? The Gospel tells us it’s complicated.

The Gospel is complicated because we want to think and believe that if we just listen to our master, our commander, the voice of justice, then we’ll be rewarded justly. But we’re given instructions, and then we’re left to our own devices. What do we do?

The parable today rewards those who took risks, and the one who thought he knew the master’s nature and did what was safe, was cast out. This surprises us because the master apparently isn’t the best of guys. But the servants are getting a lot of money–a bag of gold, 15 years’ wages, or $1.25 million are descriptions I’ve read of what a talent is. The third guy played it safe and didn’t do anything but hide his treasure. He had a choice. Barak had a choice. He could have disobeyed Deborah or tried to hide, but then as in Matthew, there’s an inevitable accountability to God. And we just don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. It’s complicated. We won’t always get it right, and we won’t always know how it’s going to end.

But a good combination of listening to God and taking risks for the sake and love of God, that’s worth our all. Stopping in our tracks to ask questions, standing at the brink of disaster and asking, “What’s going on here?”–that’s a hard and scare place to be . . . but so worth it. We know it’s worthwhile because we’re not the same person afterward. We have new knowledge about the world, our community, and ourselves. This knowledge fills our vision with awareness and clarity we didn’t have before, as if we’ve woken up to see another dimension. We see a way we can take all our talents and use them to make a difference in the world around us.

What we realize is that listening to God and taking risks transforms us into the people God needs us to be so that the world God imagined, redeemed by the Son, could be made manifest.

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