Monday, July 1, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Wife of Lappidoth"

Judges 4:1-10

After Ehud had died, the Israelites again did things that the Lord saw as evil. 2 So the Lord gave them over to King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, and he was stationed in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3 The Israelites cried out to the Lord because Sisera[a] had nine hundred iron chariots and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years. 4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth,[b] was a leader of Israel at that time. 5 She would sit under Deborah’s palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the Ephraim highlands, and the Israelites would come to her to settle disputes. 6 She sent word to Barak, Abinoam’s son, from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “Hasn’t the Lord, Israel’s God, issued you a command? ‘Go and assemble at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand men from the people of Naphtali and Zebulun with you. 7 I’ll lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, to assemble with his chariots and troops against you at the Kishon River, and then I’ll help you overpower him.’” 8 Barak replied to her, “If you’ll go with me, I’ll go; but if not, I won’t go.” 9 Deborah answered, “I’ll definitely go with you. However, the path you’re taking won’t bring honor to you, because the Lord will hand over Sisera to a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 He summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh, and ten thousand men marched out behind him. Deborah marched out with him too. (CEB)

“Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church,” Week Five

The young Presbyterian pastor was “teaching the last confirmation class at my house.  The thirteen-year-olds munched on Papa John’s pizza as we discussed the Trinity, how to pray, and church polity.  I didn’t go into a full description of the constitution of the church, just the basic things that they needed to know, like the importance of lay people in our church government.  I explained that “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word “presbvterios,” which means “elder.”

“Oh!” exclaimed (one of the students), who’d stopped chewing her pepperoni and wore one of those faces that every teacher longs for, that one which indicated that she finally got it.  “So that’s why everyone at the church is so old!”  (The pastor’s) smile fell.  Teenagers have an amazing knack for truth telling.

We tell ourselves churches must look a certain way and beat ourselves up when they don’t.  But the church is what I imagine a child must be like—as Tina Fey puts it in her memoir Bossypants, yes, you can teach a child manners and dress her up in embarrassing little sailor outfits, but at some point, that child is going to be whatever she is going to be (and, ironically or no, that very line reflects the wonder and splendor of the divine name itself from Exodus 3: I Am Who I Am).

And that’s kind of what it is like for us, you know?  Lots of people would say they know what we should look like—they want to tell us which little sailor outfits to dress up in—but at some point, this church is going to be whatever this church is.  And after being here as your pastor for nearly two years, I have found the closest thing possible to describing what this church is, and what we can become: a so-called tribal church, ministering to a missing generation of believers.

This term comes from a 2007 book of the same name by Carol Howard Merritt, a Generation X evangelically-raised Presbyterian pastor and author.  And we will be basing this new six-week sermon series on this book, as we look at what exactly a tribal church is, and what it can truly do.  We kicked off the series by examining one of the initial tenets of the book: “fostering intergenerational relationships,” followed by “encouraging economic understanding” and “cultivating unambiguous inclusion.”  Last week had the theme of “discovering affirming traditions,” and this week’s theme is “promoting shared leadership.”  Carol writes in this chapter:

Many congregations long for intergenerational growth.  Yet once it happens, they are rarely prepared for the stress that can also develop.  Often, churches do not realize that inviting young members into their congregation means allowing them to have some weight in decisions, and sharing power can be the largest obstacle in the way of ministering with young adults.  And, as Ethan Watters notes, “Things that change precipitously from one generation to the next are usually greeted by the older generation as the death of everything good and right.”  And all too often, younger generations find themselves…trying to navigate through change in the middle of a heated battle for the summit of some sand hill.  But no one likes to fight on his volunteer time.  So, young people simply end up walking downhill and resume wandering in another direction.

The story I told at the very beginning of this sermon *also* comes from this chapter, because, quite frankly, it was hard to top, for both truth-telling and for humor.

Because it is true.  Sometimes, we expect our leaders to look a certain way.  We want our church elders to be “elderly,” which means our deacons should be... “deaconly?”  Or, we want our presidents to look “presidential,” which as far as I can tell means being somewhat tall and having fantastic hair.  We want our beauty queens to be long-haired and elegant and without an ounce of body fat.  And we want our churches to, well, look like us.  If we walk into a church with lots of young people, and we are a young person, we are supposed to react like its catnip.

But that’s not us, here at FCC.  And I don’t think that’s Biblical Israel, either, under the judges.

In a manner, Biblical Israel had a democracy of sorts during the time of the Judges—Israel itself was not a formal nation, more a confederation of the twelve tribes, and whenever a threat arose—usually one of war, and in this case, war against the foreign ruler Jabin, who had oppressed Israel for twenty years—that threatened the interests of all twelve tribes, the Israelites would all rally behind a collective leader who was called a judge, and would then rule for many years, until a new set of circumstances dictated the need of a new judge.  It wasn’t a formal democracy, but it certainly was closer to a meritocracy than the absolute monarchy that followed.

And I feel secure in saying that precisely because of Deborah.  We live in a country with full rights for women, and we are still waiting for our first female president, but Biblical Israel, with some awfully draconian laws concerning women—especially regarding marriage—has now a female judge, whom we know only as the wife of some dude named Lappidoth: Deborah.

Deborah was not like the kings—and many of the judges—for a simple reason: she ruled collaboratively.  In this case, she judged Israel—ruling on disputes, dispensing counsel, and the like—but in military matters, she led alongside an Israelite man named Barak…but if you read through their interactions in this passage—especially Barak’s declaration of “I’ll only go if you go” in verse 8, it’s kind of clear who wears the pants in this relationship, and who irons them.

In other words, even with a man leading beside her, Deborah’s judgeship over Israel breaks the norm.  And that is what we must be doing in the church today.  We must break the norm. Because, honestly, being in the norm is what can sometimes get us into trouble.  If we get complacent with where we are, and too comfortable in what we are doing here, our spirituality is liable to atrophy—to grow weaker from disuse.

And that is a difficult thing to admit, because it implies that all of us—myself included—are NEVER done growing as Christians.  There are always growing edges, always learning curves, always some other dimension to this thing we call being a Christian.

But I worry that we are frightened by those growing edges and those learning curves to the point of active resistance—that we become, as Carol noted, like the generation who sees new things happening and bemoans the downfall of everything good and right.  In fact, I am willing to bet that there were some Israelites—maybe even quite a few—who saw the reality of having a female judge lead them and shook their fists at the way things had become!

And I think the church—and Christians—can be particularly prone to that.  We elevate previous incarnations of the church, stretching all the way back to Acts of the Apostles, to almost mythical status, and suddenly whatever the church we have now does, it cannot ever quite measure up.  The doctrine has become too loose.  The music has become too sacreligious.  The preacher has become too young.  (Ruh-roh!)

But promoting shared leadership means being able and willing to accept some leadership from unlikely sources.  And I think we have done that in a big way here already, not only by saying to ourselves, “Hey, there’s this 25-year-old pastor in Berkeley, let’s pluck him out of there and make him ours even though he’s just a pipsqueak,” but also by allowing new leadership to ascend to our Board of Directors and to our elders.  Out of all the themes presented in the Tribal Church book, this is one where we are, at least on paper, probably ahead of the curve here.  With myself and Justin, we have two board participants under the age of 30.  Trust me, that is a rarity.

And I think that is a rarity because visitors to a church see things very differently from long-times members.  If you’ve been around the church a while—and some of you have heard me say this—you’re liable to view the church like, say, the Soviet planned economy in Cold War Russia: you are assigned a job that meets the pre-determined needs of the collective.  The church thinks it needs a 6am sunrise sing-a-long service?  You’d better be there with bells and whistles.  But the visitor or brand-new member is more apt to look at that and say, “Why?”  They’re the ones who would, at the risk of just killing this metaphor, get packed off to Siberia for dissent.  They questioned the pre-determined needs of the collective, and as a result, they weren’t welcome.  And you’d be amazed how often that happens in the church.  It’s astounding.

Promoting shared leadership, then, doesn’t just mean letting newcomers into our way of doing things, it is them letting us into their own deepest hopes and dreams for this wonderful thing that we call the Christian Church.  And that’s the way it should be, in the end, because we cannot always look for our leadership in the most expected of places.

If we did, Israel would have never called the wife of Lappidoth to be their judge and leader.

The Pharaoh of Egypt would never have called Joseph, an incarcerated slave, to be his governor.

God Himself would never have called Moses, an exiled murderer, to lead and liberate His people, nor would He have called David, a baby brother shepherd boy, to unite Israel as a nation.

And most importantly, the Son of God would never have come as a humble, itinerant carpenter.

Promoting—and thus also submitting to—this sort of leadership is rarely a straightforward, orderly affair.  We have tried to make it such, with formulaic prayers of salvation and memorized creeds, but the reality of godly leadership is such that it transcends our attempts to place it neatly and tidily into a box, for no other reason than that God Himself is so, so much bigger than that.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 30, 2013

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