Sunday, August 20, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Nazirite: Samson, Part II"

Judges 15:12-20

Then the people of Judah said to him, “We’ve come down to take you prisoner so we can turn you over to the Philistines.” Samson responded to them, “Just promise that you won’t attack me yourselves.” 13 “We won’t,” they said to him. “We’ll only take you prisoner so we can turn you over to them. We won’t kill you.” Then they tied him up with two new ropes, and brought him up from the rock.


14 When Samson arrived at Lehi, the Philistines met him and came out shouting. The Lord’s spirit rushed over him, the ropes on his arms became like burned-up linen, and the ties melted right off his hands. 15 He found a donkey’s fresh jawbone, picked it up, and used it to attack one thousand men. 16 Samson said, “With a donkey’s jawbone, stacks on stacks! With a donkey’s jawbone, I’ve killed one thousand men.” 17 When he finished speaking, he tossed away the jawbone. So that place became known as Ramath-lehi.

18 Now Samson was very thirsty, so he called out to the Lord, “You are the one who allowed this great victory to be accomplished by your servant’s hands. Am I now going to die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” 19 So God split open the hollow rock in Lehi, and water flowed out of it. When Samson drank, his energy returned and he was recharged. Thus that place is still called by the name En-hakkore in Lehi today. 20 Samson led Israel for twenty years during the time of the Philistines. (Common English Bible)


“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Seven

As a student associate pastor in seminary, trying to absorb as much as I could, I could see my senior pastor as he strode on the chancel, jawbone in hand. He was showing us what it was, explaining the different parts of it, and then telling us that it belonged to a donkey—the same species of donkey whose jawbone Samson picks up in this passage of Judges 15 and ends the lives of one thousand Philistines.

Russ recounted his mental image of the story, of the violent nature of Samson himself and the qualms he felt personally at the notion that such a slaughter should be so celebrated by us today, in a world as fraught with violence now as it was in those days.

Then he turned and placed the jawbone down on a side table upon the chancel, and implored each of us, in our own lives, to quite simply *put the jawbone down.* To put down the endless cycle of vindictiveness and vengeance we talked about together last week that the jawbone represents, to put down violence and the vehemence with which it is being committed in this story.

And when we respond to Charlottesville, with the candlelight vigils at the University of Virginia and the memorial service in which Heather Heyer’s mother committed Heather’s soul to right action and her father preached forgiveness, and in its wake we immediately see carnage reminiscent of Charlottesville in Barcelona, as we did in Manchester and in Nice and in Paris, we would do well to heed the call of Russ in that sermon seven or eight years ago: Put. Down. The. Jawbone.

This is a (no longer altogether very) new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

We began this series with the story of the left-handed assassin Ehud, and we continued the series with the female judge Deborah and her aide-de-camp Barak. We heard in succession about three more judges—Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah, and we now come to our second week of three on the most well-known judge of all, and whose story the book of Judges goes into the greatest detail with by far: Samson.

Last week was the first of three weeks that we are spending on Samson, and we read about his reaction when he went to go see the woman he believed was his wife, who he had just married, only to find out that her father had given her in marriage to his best man (talk about a Bible story readymade for a Jerry Springer episode). This leads to cycle after cycle of grievances and hurt feelings that ends up with a number of people—including Samson’s wife and father-in-law—dead.

This cycle of grievances comes to a rolling boil now in the second half of Judges 15, as the Philistines have functionally declared war on Israel—deploying a war party to make camp and march upon the Israelites, and in case there is any ambiguity as to what their purpose is when they charge in shouting in verse 14, consider the notes from the late Bible scholar Robert Boling on Judges in the HarperCollins study Bible: “The Philistines are shouting (Hebrew, “yelling a war cry”) in triumph and jubilation.”

They’re yelling a triumphant war cry, intent on neutralizing forever the threat that Samson poses to their military hegemony in this small region of the Levant. Instead, they, too, end up dead. One thousand of them, according to the text.

In another time, maybe we would have read this story and felt the same sort of triumphalism the author clearly feels, that the Philistines may have initially felt before they were slain, and which Samson likely feels himself once he has appealed to God and slaked his thirst. And I realize that sort of triumphalism was surely part of the original intent at least for some of the author’s original audience, if not for the anonymous author of Judges personally as well.

But that cannot be the sort of triumphalism that we celebrate as a church that worships this God. And so we too must put down the jawbone that represents this sort of triumphant victory of violence over yet more violence.

Put a different way: we follow the way of the empty tomb, not the way of the jawbone.

Yet neither have we entirely put the jawbone down, or else we would have set ourselves free from that endlessly vindictive cycle of violence that we talked about last week, and that we see escalated in the text here this week.

The way out of that cycle, though, is still in this same text, though, albeit hidden in a throwaway verse towards the end: God cracks open rock for water to flow through.

It is an outward image of what God is inwardly capable of within each of us: the softening of our hearts to let the living water that Jesus preached of to, say, the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 to likewise flow through into our lives. There is a hollowness in that rock that today’s text speaks of, yet the living water of God rushes through it, just as it rushes through the ministry of Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well who beseeched Him for just some of this living water of God’s.

In Samson’s case, the water from the rock was not quite enough. It washed away his thirst, and perhaps the physical (though not spiritual) blood from his hands, but his was one of the hearts that needed to be softened and broken through like that rock at En-Hakkore. And lamentably, that did not happen.

It can happen, however, for each of us.

Indeed, in another year of domestic and international terror, I would say that it must happen.

It is imperative that it happen.

And I believe that humanity will not survive in any meaningful spiritual sense if it does not happen.

So humanity must put down the jawbone. Put down the jawbone on the grand, macrocosmic scale, between nations and continents, but also, put down the jawbone on the smaller, microcosmic scale, between individuals, between people…like us.

In the wake of Charlottesville and Barcelona, and now this weekend in Florida with the report of two police officers shot and killed in the line of duty, reportedly by a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder--just as the murders of the five Dallas PD officers last year were likewise committed by a veteran with PTSD--this is not an ask for a kinder, more polite world from the Church of Be Nice and Chew With Your Mouth Closed. This is a radical ask from a radical Savior who taught His disciples on the last night of His life that one who lives by the sword dies by the sword.

Samson lives and dies, to put it in the context of Judges, rather than Matthew, by the jawbone.

But it should not be how we live and die.

So put down your jawbone when confronted with people different from you. Put down your jawbone when presented with someone who asks you to walk a mile in their shoes instead of presuming that your shoes fit them just fine. Put down your jawbone when given reason to tighten your grip upon it instead.

May the ground around us and our churches be littered, then, with dropped jawbones.

And may God see those jawbones and pierce our hearts at long last with living water like the rocks of En-Hakkore.

Put down the jawbone. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 20, 2017

Original image source: NPR

Sunday, August 13, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Nazirite: Samson, Part I"

Judges 15:1-11

Later on, at the time of the wheat harvest, Samson went to visit his wife, bringing along a young goat. He said, “Let me go into my wife’s bedroom.” But her father wouldn’t allow him to go in. 2 Her father said, “I was so sure that you had completely rejected her that I gave her in marriage to one of your companions. Don’t you think her younger sister is even better? Let her be your wife instead.” 3 Samson replied, “No one can blame me now for being ready to bring down trouble on the Philistines!”

4 Then Samson went and caught three hundred foxes. He took torches, turned the foxes tail to tail, and put a torch between each pair of tails. 5 He lit the torches and released the foxes into the Philistines’ grain fields. So he burned the stacked grain, standing grain, vineyards, and olive orchards. 6 The Philistines inquired, “Who did this?” So it was reported, “Samson the Timnite’s son-in-law did it, because his father-in-law gave his wife in marriage to one of his companions.” So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death. 7 Samson then responded to them, “If this is how you act, then I won’t stop until I get revenge on you!” 8 He struck them hard, taking their legs right out from under them. Then he traveled down and stayed in a cave in the rock at Etam.

9 The Philistines marched up, made camp in Judah, and released their forces on Lehi. 10 The people of Judah asked, “Why have you marched up against us?” “We’ve marched up to take Samson prisoner,” they replied, “and to do to him just what he did to us.” 11 So three thousand people from Judah traveled down to the cave in the rock at Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines rule over us? What have you done to us?” But he told them, “I did to them just what they did to me.” (Common English Bible)


“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Six

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War was a watershed moment for human rights, across the entire ledger of populations. As a result of the war’s territorial exchanges, 700,000 Palestinians were suddenly made homeless. 700,000 Jews were likewise expelled from Arab countries. Ownership of the land gained and lost in that war has, in the case of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, still not been conclusively resolved.

Taking part in that war on the side of Israel was an elite unit of commandos, one of whom was a soldier named Uri Avnery, who had previously served in the pro-Israel militia Irgun, which had been founded in the wake of disappointment with the primary Israeli paramilitary group, Haganah, following the riots of 1929. Avnery took his experience in Irgun with him to the 1948 war, in which he was wounded twice in action, and after the war, editorialized in Israeli media that Israel should wage a pre-emptive war with Egypt and assist in overthrowing the monarchy of Jordan.

Yet something happened within this hardened soldier over the following decades, as he emerged as a voice not for more war, but for peace between Israel and Palestine, campaigning assiduously and at great cost to himself for a two-state solution that achieved both security for Israel and sovereignty for Palestine. To this day, he heads up the Gush Shalom peace organization that he founded in 1993, and writes and organizes extensively in support of both Israel’s existence and a Palestinian state.

And the commandos that Avnery served among in the Arab-Israeli War? They were known as the Shu’alei Shimshon—“Samson’s Foxes.” Except instead of the ones Samson tied torches to, this one from modern times seeks the preservation of the land for humanity and for peace rather than war. And in the wake of the carnage that the neo-Nazis of our neighborhoods wrought in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, a lesson on how to cut free our own fire-bearing foxes is sorely needed.

This is a (no longer altogether that) new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

We began this series with the story of the left-handed assassin Ehud, and we continued the series with the female judge Deborah and her aide-de-camp Barak. We heard in succession about three more judges—Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah, and we now come to perhaps the most well-known judge of all, and whose story the book of Judges goes into the greatest detail with: Samson.

Samson is the closest thing the Bible has to a Hercules, an almost demigod of a hero whose strength is of divine provenance and whose deeds make him a folk hero among mere mortals like ourselves—an angel appears to his parents in Judges 13 to tell them of the son they shall bear who shall be imbued by the Lord with extraordinary strength as long as his hair is never shorn. Except that Samson, while a brutally effective fighter and an uncommonly fearsome adversary, really had very few other redeemable qualities as a person or as a judge, which he still did for twenty years.

By this point in the story, Samson has already attempted to marry once, largely on a whim—he sees a Philistine woman and asks his parents to procure her for him as his bride in the shortest series of The Bachelor ever. At the wedding, in order to make good on a bet that his groomsmen cheat to win, he kills thirty men at Ashkelon, takes their belongings, and gives them to his shady groomsmen. His nascent marriage ends in divorce, with his wife being given over to his best man in marriage. It’s stuff you otherwise can only find on the daytime talk shows, but it was what Samson fought for.

At every turn throughout his story, Samson does not fight for the sake of Israel, or for his neighbors, his tribe, or even his family, really.  He fights only for himself, to avenge wrongs done to him personally, and this tit-for-tat cycle of revenge is on full display here in Judges 15.

Samson hasn’t yet learned that his wife had been given away to his best man, so he shows up seeking her, and her father has to break the terribly awkward news to him, but then, because this was how women were viewed 3,000 years ago, offers Samson his other daughter instead because, hey, one is apparently as good as another, as though they were extension cords or bookends and not people.

That’s not good enough for Samson, so he takes three hundred foxes, sets torches to their tails, and lets loose the foxes to run through the fields of the Philistines, burning up the Philistines’ crops. In turn, the Philistines show up and kill Samson’s ex-wife and her father, and Samson beats them.

The response from the Philistines is to basically declare war—they “marched up, made camp, and released their forces,” according to verse 9. When asked by Israel why they were doing this, the Philistines simply said, basically, “we’re just returning the favor.”

And so the cycle of vengeance, of eye for eye and tooth for tooth, continues unabated. But as Mahatma Gandhi famously put it, an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind—a lesson we may well want to heed both abroad the saber rattling between the United States and North Korea continued to escalate this week, and at home, with the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Philistines are blinded by their hatred of Samson. Samson is blinded by his own rage at the Philistines. And around and around we go, until someone has at long last had enough, stands up, and says, “Stop.”

It does not even have to be on a scale so grand and great as that of a Gandhi, or a Mandela, or an Avnery. After all—Samson fought all his own fights for personal, rather than nationalistic, reasons.

But today, we must speak of nationalistic reasons. We must speak of why, in the face of violent white nationalism, we must let the foxes go free and untie the torches from their tails.

It is a simple instruction, but one for which we come up with any number of excuses and justifications when presented with it, that it’s not realistic or that revenge is the only option.

But it is still an option to untie the torches from the foxtails, and let those foxes go free, just as it is an option for us to lean upon the grace of God when we make such a decision as brave and courageous free the foxes and to trust in that grace that it was indeed right for us to do so.

It is an option that clergy, among other counter-protesters, chose this weekend in Charlottesville. With songs to drown out racist and homophobic chants, arms locked to demonstrate solidarity, and stoles around their necks to show them as slaves to the Christ who condemns the racism of white supremacy and neo-Nazism, they took to the streets and to the pews alike at the University of Virginia to express a message that love can indeed still stand up to hate, and even more than standing up to it, will emerge victorious over it and must emerge victorious over it.

That is a decision the church can choose to make—to broadcast that message of divine love conquering human hate, instead of the message of tribal resentment and violence that is set here in Judges 15, by our latter-day ilk in the “alt-right” movement, and, frankly, by previous incarnations of the church that lent its morally bankrupt blessing to all manner of displays of institutional racism.

Yet it is decisions such as this, of choosing the way of Jesus over the way of hatred, that can ultimately lead to peace—peace that lasts, peace that is enough, peace that can indeed set free the foxes of Samson, extinguish the fires of their torches, and at long last be liberated from the need to seek vengeance that seems to be the Israelite hero’s only moral code.

Peace without justice is not peace. But Samson’s moral code allows for no such justice, only revenge for perceived wrongs, no matter how ahistorical or revisionist they may be—not at all unlike the racist protesters in Charlottesville, who took their resentment for perceived slights and ended up killing someone with it, and injuring dozens more.

Samson’s moral code cannot be our moral code, not if we seek something bigger than what he sought. The Philistines’ moral code cannot be our moral code, not if we seek something bigger than what they sought as well. The alt-right’s moral code cannot be our moral code, not if we truly do seek something bigger than what they sought and truly do seek a true and lasting peace in our world.

I do not know if such a peace will come about tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that. The fever of our fascist madness must break first, and we must be among the ones to break it.

But what a peace that will be to one day build. What a peace it is that we should strive to build, one heart, one soul, and one fearfully and wonderfully made image of God at time. Let that be our work.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 13, 2017

Original image courtesy of NPR

Sunday, August 6, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Sacrifice: Jephthah's Daughter"

Judges 11:34-40 

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” 36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” 38 “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite tradition 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. (Common English Bible)

“The Sacrifice: Jephthah’s Daughter,” Judges 11:34-40

“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Five

I remember seeing the retired general standing behind the podium speaking to a packed audience at my undergraduate alma mater. I was sitting too far away to see him well aside from his shock of white hair and moustache, but his voice was still clear as he recounted to us the humanitarian horrors that he had witnessed—and fought to prevent—during the Rwandan Genocide of the mid-1990s, after we had said “never again” to the genocides of the Ottoman Empire and Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia but apparently still didn’t mean it when we said it.

Romeo Dallaire, as a general in both the Canadian army and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, was deployed to facilitate peace between the warring Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, but when the Hutus began a genocide of the Tutsis, so much of his effort was dedicating to protecting the Tutsis from eradication, and it is estimated that his leadership and actions saved the lives of at least 30,000 people.

Dallaire’s life as a soldier and peacekeeper left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, and in 2000—the same year he retired from the military—he attempted suicide by drug overdose. He was left in a coma, but thankfully survived. Now, in addition to lecturing and serving in the Canadian government, he heads up efforts in Africa to end humanitarian abuses like the exploitation of children as soldiers—a sacrifice of our youth so blatantly morally bankrupt that it is to our eternal discredit that such practices continue, not just in Africa but also in Syria, as you may remember that we noted a couple of weeks ago in the sermon about Deborah.

Yet continue they do, and in truth, our tendency to sacrifice our children to the very worst versions of ourselves has long been a part of humanity’s story, including going all the way back over 3,100 years in history to the role of Jephthah as judge of Israel, and the fate of his tragic heroine daughter.

This is a new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

We began this series with the story of the left-handed assassin Ehud, and we continued the series with the female judge Deborah and her aide-de-camp Barak. Then we got to hear from one of the most complicated figures in the book of Judges—Gideon—and last week, we arrived at a judge who, unlike the first three, does not end up with any sort of good press from the Bible: Abimelech. We now come to a judge who, like his predecessors, is a successful military leader, but whose impetuousness with what matters most to him—his family—prevents him from being the true protagonist of this story: Jephthah.

The true protagonist, instead, is Jephthah’s daughter, who tragically acquiesces to being sacrificed to uphold his father’s bargain that he clearly thought would have involved an animal, not a human. Whether that sacrifice actually involved killing his daughter—like Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis—has been up for debate, even though Jephthah’s bargain earlier in the chapter pretty clearly specifies a burnt offering.

Some traditional Jewish sources say that Jephthah was giving his daughter over to a life of service to God, and so she wouldn’t have been able to have children or a husband. Additionally, Levitical law explicitly prohibits the practice of child sacrifice, which is referred to in Leviticus 20 as Molech worship, and is in fact, according to the book, a capital crime. It would not be an unreasonable interpretation, if Jephthah indeed offered his daughter as a burnt sacrifice, to conclude that Leviticus actually demands Jephthah’s own execution for it, so why Jephthah would risk that is unusual.

Regardless, Jephthah is, like his daughter, a tragic figure—he tears his clothes in grief when he realizes that it is she he has promised to sacrifice—but he is no hero here. He accepts no blame, no culpability. He binds her to her fate because he cannot take back a promise made to God.

Jephthah makes the critical, heartbreaking, and utterly bloodless mistake of seeing God purely as a legal figure, when, even so early in Scripture, God has been free with divine mercy. Cain was spared after murdering his brother Abel. Aaron and Miriam were spared after inciting a mutiny against Moses. And the Israelites themselves were (mostly) spared after persuading Aaron into fashioning for them that golden calf and then worshiping it.

Yet Jephthah does not even think to throw himself upon the mercy of God. It just does not occur to him in this story. His daughter may acquiesce and repeat his reasons back to him, but he does not frame this as though either he or she has any say in the matter.

And honestly, I’ve heard that sort of framing before from older generations to younger generations. I hear it all the time, sometimes in the form of manifestly unhelpful advice. “That’s not how the world works.” Okay, but isn’t the point of the church to change the world? “We haven’t ever done it this way.” Okay, that’s not a reason for not trying it a different way, though.

Can you see the inflexibility of Jephthah, faced with the prospect of not just admitting his mistake but interceding with God on behalf of his daughter, to try to save her from his own short-sightedness, in the inflexibility and even dismissiveness with which we sometimes treat one another?

The ways in which we sacrifice our younger generations are profound, and in stories like Jephthah’s, or like what General Dallaire saw in Africa—and is now trying to prevent in Africa—may seem extreme, but they are still prevalent. Even conservative estimates place the number of children trafficked within the United States at the hundreds of thousands, and if you don’t think it is a concern here in southwest Washington, I am here to tell you that it absolutely is.

These ways in which we fail our youth and sacrifice them to our own worst impulses are, at their core, a form of latter-day Molech worship.

Offering our future generations to Molech may have been banned in Scripture, but it didn’t keep Jephthah from believing that is somehow what God required of him, it hasn’t kept criminals and warlords from around the world believing in it either, and it hasn’t kept us from pushing away youth from our own doorstep when it has graced us with its presence. And so we, like Jephthah, end up sacrificing our young ones to Molech after convincing ourselves that we are doing so in the name of God.

When we do and say things to make the young families who visit us, even join us and long to become active in the mission of the church with us, feel unwanted, unwelcome, and uncomfortable, we too are saying, like Jephthah, that it is better to give up the next generation than to come to grips with our own impulses to focus on ourselves, as Jephthah does in focusing on the ill-advised bargain he struck.

Jephthah is not the moral example in this story.

His daughter is.

Or, at least, she is the closest there is to one.

Even though she, like many other female Biblical figures, is utterly nameless, her only identifier being her kinship with a man who would sacrifice her, she is the closest we have to a hero here.

Far better for us as Christians to embody the selflessness and vulnerability of the daughter whose name we do not even know than to embody the self-centeredness of Jephthah, who puts his own standing before God before that of his daughter.

And far better for us as the church to mourn what we may lose in that selflessness and vulnerability, than to try to push away others from that which was never entirely ours to begin with.

The body of Christ stands poised to move into the future. And our children are watching.

In what manner will we choose to rise to meet their gaze? And in what way will we determine to ensure that another person might experience God in the same manner that we too have experienced the mercy of God that Jephthah so desperately needs, but cannot bring himself to ask for?

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 6, 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

August 2017: "Cornerstones from Brickwork"

Dear Church,

You may remember a newsletter column of mine from last year that appeared in this very space that told you a bit about the process the church had undergone concerning our education building and how to best leverage it as an asset, including potentially selling it. That was well over a year ago, and despite a price reduction in the interim (and now a second this month), there have been no formal offers on the building. A couple of organizations, including a church, showed significant interest in the building, but only interest.

You may also recall from the monthly town-hall style Congregational Conversations meetings that we have after worship that the board had discussed how best to use the proceeds from the sale of the education building--keeping most of it in an endowment for the denomination to manage for us, keeping a small portion to make needed updates to the main building (which has an awful lot of deferred maintenance and energy-inefficient systems), and cushioning our own savings account.

They were well-laid, thoughtful, and deliberate plans, but at the crux of the plan was the belief that there would be more interest in the education building than there has been, which puts us once more in the position of needing to consider some potential decisions, on top of instituting another price cut this month in the education building--should a sale of the entire property be on the table, with the intent of purchasing new space that better fits the congregation's needs? Should the congregation move to a part-time minister while waiting for a potential buyer for the education building and then return to full staff?

We discussed all of these options at our July Congregational Conversations, and we will be having two more such meetings in August, on the 6th and the 27th. Both will take place during our post-worship fellowship hour, and, of course, all are invited. Additionally, all church members are welcome to observe all board business that is not conducted under executive session (which is typically all business save for confidential personnel matters).

The cornerstone of our church has been, and must always be, the people of God, whose relationship with their creator is made manifest in their belonging to our loving congregational community. How we best continue to build around that cornerstone has been, and will continue to be, a topic of much discussion, and I welcome continuing that discussion alongside all of you.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, July 30, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Cautionary Tale: Abimelech"

Judges 9:7-21

 When Jotham was told about this, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim. He raised his voice and called out, “Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, so that God may listen to you! 8 “Once the trees went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’ 9 “But the olive tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my oil, which is how gods and humans are honored, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’ 10 “So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be king over us!’ 11 “The fig tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’ 12 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and be king over us!’ 13 “But the vine replied to them, ‘Should I stop providing my wine that makes gods and humans happy, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’ 14 “Finally, all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be king over us!’ 15 “And the thornbush replied to the trees, ‘If you’re acting faithfully in anointing me king over you, come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the thornbush and burn up the cedars of Lebanon.’ 

16 “So now, if you acted faithfully and innocently when you made Abimelech king, and if you’ve done right by Jerubbaal and his household, and have treated him as his actions deserve— 17 my father fought for you and risked his life to rescue you from Midian’s power, 18 but today you’ve risen up against my father’s household, killed his seventy sons on a single stone, and made Abimelech, his female servant’s son, king over the leaders of Shechem, because he’s your relative— 19 so if you’ve acted faithfully and innocently toward Jerubbaal and his household today, then be happy with Abimelech and let him be happy with you. 20 But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech and burn up the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo and burn up Abimelech.”

21 Then Jotham ran away. He fled to Beer and stayed there for fear of his brother Abimelech. (Common English Bible)


“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Four



It would likely not have made huge news here in the States when it took place in 1905, and almost certainly is not a part of our collective consciousness now, but when Norway formally separated itself from Sweden, a remarkable thing happened: a country got to choose its own monarch.



Sweden, like many European countries, was (and is) a constitutional monarchy, and originally, the brand-new Norwegian government had offered their throne to one of the younger brothers of the King of Sweden, Oscar II, who turned down the offer. This offer was controversial in Norway as well, as republican (small ‘r’) members of the Norwegian parliament voted against having a monarchy, and a cabinet member even resigned over the possibility of having a monarch.



So when Norway approached its next candidate, Prince Carl of Denmark, Prince Carl came back with a remarkable nonnegotiable: he would only take the throne if the Norwegian people and their parliament both voted to institute a constitutional monarchy in a countrywide referendum. It wasn’t until after both the people and the parliament voted to call Prince Carl as their king by a nearly 80-20 margin that Prince Carl accepted the offer of the crown, becoming King Haakon VII and eventually leading the Norwegian resistance to Hitler as king and through his government-in-exile in England. He died nearly fifty-two years after accepting the crown a national hero for his leadership against Nazism in a time when not all European nations were able or willing to show such resolve.



This is not a story to weigh in favor of any monarchy in our present 21st century context, but to weigh in on the consideration and deliberation with which Haakon took the throne, doing so not because he wanted to, but because the democracy asked it of him—not entirely unlike the popular acclaim the judges of ancient Israel would ride into office upon…with one exception: Abimelech.



This is a new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.



The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.



But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”



We began this series with the story of the left-handed assassin Ehud, and two weeks we continued the series with the female judge Deborah and her aide-de-camp Barak. Last week we got to hear from one of the most complicated figures in the book of Judges—Gideon—and today we arrive at a judge who, unlike the first three, does not end up with any sort of good press from the Bible (even Gideon, despite his eventual idolatry, has his good moments in Scripture): Abimelech.



Abimelech, like the other judges we have met so far, came from a family of nobodies. Yet while Ehud, Deborah, and Gideon all rightly rode the popular acclaim of their neighbors to their mandate as judges, Abimelech tried to take his by the tip of the proverbial sword, as Yale’s Hebrew Bible scholar John J. Collins conveys:



Abimelech has no reservations about claiming the kingship, and he clears his path by murdering his seventy brothers, except for the youngest, Jotham, who escapes. Like Jephthah in Judges 11, Abimelech is of dishonorable birth; he is the son of a slave woman. Unlike Jephthah, or some other underprivileged figures in the Hebrew Bible, he is not asked to assume leadership but pursues it aggressively, even murderously.



If for no other reason than this, Abimelech stands apart from the other judges, and not at all in a positive fashion. In the violent ethos of the time, it is one thing to be bloodthirsty—after all, Samson, who we’ll spend three weeks on next month, became famous and celebrated among the Israelites for his various massacres of the Philistines—but it is entirely another to be bloodthirsty towards your own kin. Family, clan, and tribe were everything, which really is not so different than today. After all, we are far more apt to mourn those close to us who are lost to violence than those from foreign lands who are likewise lost to violence. And that is not a compliment.



Abimelech’s murderous treachery prompts, then, this parable of the different trees we heard today from his youngest brother, Jotham, and it serves as a cautionary tale to those who would rush headlong into kingship, no matter the human cost or price, but it likewise—and, honestly, even more so—serves as a cautionary tale to those who would make such a seeker of a crown their monarch to begin with.



All of the trees seek a ruler to crown, and go one by one through their lineup looking for one, and it is not until the thornbush—the brambles—that they find a sovereign, but as they quickly learn, simply crowning one a monarch does not imbue one with any innate goodness. That is the fundamental difference between earthen and heavenly kingship, the goodness that is innate in the latter but must be assiduously sought after in the former. It is why we honor Jesus as the one true king—only a Messiah can be this innately good.



The thornbush, simply, is not. And it does not take a Biblical Sherlock Holmes to realize that Abimelech is represented by the thornbush, and that his murderousness is represented by the fire the thornbush issues to destroy the famed and treasured cedars of Lebanon—which, as Jotham explains, in turn will be paid back in kind right back to Abimelech by the kings of the neighboring kingdoms.



Juxtapose, then, such impetuousness and selfish violence with the patience of someone who does not seek such power and authority without a mandate from the people—the Abimelech’s predecessors as judges, or Haakon VII, or even our own leaders today. Much as we like to complain about them, and as much as they often richly merit such complaint, they are democratically chosen.



Take that process one step further, then. Jesus, like the judges of old, like any good leader, awaits to be chosen by us. Jesus is not a guide for us in the mold of Abimelech. And while theologically speaking, taking the New Testament and shoving it directly into the Old is problematic, but in terms of using two different figures as moral examples, this is an important comparison that we can make.



So Jesus awaits our selection of Him to be our teacher and Messiah, to follow and learn from, to draw strength and life out of. Not because He needs the wait, but because a connection built on coercion or ruthlessness is not the connection to have with Him.



Abimelech, then, is a cautionary tale—one of many throughout the Bible—who offers us a foil of sorts with his evil. We ought to learn from his example. So far in our collective history, though, we seem to have not yet done so.



Think of the highly staged choice that Pontius Pilate posed to the temple authorities on Good Friday—he drags out Jesus, proclaims, “Behold the man!” and tells the Jewish leaders to choose between a nonviolent carpenter and a murderous rebel. The authorities, and the crowd that they incited, do not have the best interests of their people at heart. They choose wrongly. As too, repeatedly, time and again, have we.



Let us turn, then, from the ways and promises of Abimelech and those who would be him, lest in doing so we condemn ourselves to heartlessness, our neighbors to hatefulness, and God’s creation to lifelessness. Abimelech’s way cannot be our way, even as it has so often, horrifically and terribly often, been the world’s way.



And may we find anew in the presence of God as revealed by Jesus Christ the promise that there is indeed another way—one that we can follow, and should follow, towards life rather than deadness, towards love rather than hate, towards grace and mercy rather than revenge and retribution, and, ultimately, towards that goodness that is innate in God, and that keeps God as our true monarch.



Long live that one true God, and long may that one true God reign.



May it be so. Amen.



Rev. Eric Atcheson

Longview, Washington 
July 30, 2017