Sunday, July 16, 2017

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

Judges 4:1-10

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help. 4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” 8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” 9 “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him. (Common English Bible)

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

There are few heroes in the Syrian civil war. The Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad uses weapons of mass destruction against its own people, engages in all manner of human rights abuses, and has made refugees out of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. On the other side of the civil war is the Islamic State, whose brutality likely needs no introduction in the age of 24/7 news.

Also participating in this conflict are a great many other actors, including the Syrian Kurds, out of the region that they call Rojava. They, too, have committed a number of atrocities, including deploying child soldiers and abrogating the due process of prisoners. But they have also done something that is genuinely unique in the region—the areas of Syria that they control are governed over by a co-leadership model in which each executive office is divided into two positions—one held by a man, and the other held by a woman.

That is a remarkable thing in the Middle East, where few women have any chance of playing a substantive role in governing their countries. Heck, it would be a remarkable thing here, where we, too, have yet to elect a female chief executive.

In that respect, we’re still even behind a society as archaically and overtly sexist as ancient Israel, which benefitted from the leadership of a remarkable woman named Deborah, who judged Israel in a co-leadership role alongside an Israelite leader named Barak, similar to what the women of Rojava experience today. Only, as we will see, Deborah was such a singularly extraordinary person that Barak makes no bones about who looks up to who. Hint: it is he who looks to, and up to, her.

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.”

Last week, we met Ehud in Judges 3 as he assassinated the Moabite king Eglon, and here in Judges 4, it was the foreign king Jabin who was oppressing Israel—and had been doing so for twenty years—against whom the twelve tribes united. And the collectively acclaimed judge whom the twelve tribes united around, and rallied behind, was, of all people, a woman named Deborah.

Like Ehud’s father, we know Deborah’s husband’s name—Lappidoth—but again, like Ehud’s father, we know nothing else of Lappidoth. He is a non-factor, which, again, says something about Deborah’s origins—she likely was not married to a member of the ancient Israelite upper-crust and so, like Ehud, would have risen to her position as judge based on merit rather than on social standing.

In fact, we don’t even need to know what Lappidoth did for a living to say that about Deborah, simply due to the fact that Deborah was a woman. In a 21st-century country where we are still willing to elect a clearly unqualified man over a flawed, but fundamentally competent woman, it ought to say even more about Deborah’s abilities that a) she ever arose as a judge in the first place, b) that, as today’s passage says, people from all over Israel came to her as she dispensed her judgments and advice from her living space, and c) that even when it was insisted upon that she have a male counterpart in the form of Barak, Barak instead turned to her in verse eight and said, “I’ll only go if you go,” making it abundantly clear where the true moral authority of Israel laid at the time—on the shoulders of—it bears repeating again—a truly remarkable woman.

So let’s talk for a little bit about where such moral authority comes from. Of course we can say that it comes from God, and we may well often be correct in saying so, but at the same time, the church has, for centuries, declared that proscribed gender roles likewise come from God. Many churches and denominations explicitly preach this to this day, but even in churches that have rejected this antiquated notion still implicitly practice it by, say, always herding female volunteers away from building and grounds work and towards the nursery and Sunday School.

You may feel as though I am preaching to the proverbial choir with this particular message—after all, the majority of both our board of directors (our parish’s administrative leaders) and our elders (our spiritual leaders) are women. And we are a part of a denomination that just handed off its mantle of leadership from one woman to another this past week at General Assembly! That fact alone makes us very different from many other traditions, denominations, and congregations. I appreciate that, I genuinely do—one of my questions for the search committee here six(!) years ago was if any female pastors had been considered for the position they were interviewing me for, and that I now hold. They immediately and unreservedly answered yes.

But encouraging and exhorting one another to fulfill the callings and the roles that God has gifted us for—rather than the callings and roles we are dictated to must be ours by right of our gender—takes a bit more attention and care from all of us. And not just in the church, but in life. Are we capable of hearing out what someone has come to believe their passion is without us trying to tell them or push them into what we want their passion to be?

The difficulty in being a spiritual community is in recognizing that while there is a common set of ideals that unites us—that God has been revealed through Jesus Christ, and that through this revelation, we might be saved and reconciled to God—we cannot simply go through our spiritual lives with a one-size-fits-all approach or outlook, lest we become a community so homogenized that it leaves vast swaths of others out.

If ancient Israel had gone through its selection of judges through a one-size-fits-all approach, Deborah would likely never have become a judge. And when Israel does end up switching to a one-size-fits-all approach for governance in demanding a monarchy, the results for the country quickly turn south as Saul turns out not to quite be the king he should have been cracked up to be.

Far better, then, for a leader to be chosen not because they look like a leader, or fit our own limited preconceptions of leadership, but because they really do have the gifts, given to them by God through their own innate abilities and training and mentoring, to do what the role requires of them.

It is a lesson that isn’t just for us, but, ironically, sometimes, for the judges themselves—the last judge, Samuel, whose story will close out our series in several weeks’ time, learned it when he was sent to the estate of Jesse by God to seek the next king of Israel after Saul had mucked everything up. Jesse’s oldest son, who was apparently the Biblical equivalent of Ken Griffey Jr., came before Samuel and Samuel believed him to be the next king, but God told Samuel no. Then Jesse’s next son came by, who apparently was the Biblical equivalent of Russell Wilson, and again Samuel believed him to be the next king, and again God said no. But when David, the youngest, the one stuck tending the sheep, was summoned—God saw in David a gift, even though David himself ended up being a very morally dubious king. But that he didn’t look like a king? That didn’t matter to God.

That sort of giftedness is surely what the twelve tribes likewise saw in Deborah when they elevated her to the position of judge of Israel, even with the string attached that she be accompanied by Barak. It is surely what Barak himself saw in Deborah—so sure he is of her capacities that he is only willing to go to war if she goes with him.

Let that be a lesson for us—that whoever we turn to as our leaders, be they male or female, young or old, straight or gay, that we so trust them with that role that we would most want to go forth under their direction than another’s.

It is not always easy to find such leaders. They sadly come around rarely, and surely not often enough for our liking. But that also makes it all the more important to recognize them for who they are when they do appear, and to not shunt them off into other roles solely based on their gender or sexual orientation.

For even when God moves through us, and through the leaders being raised up, God also moves in far bigger ways than that. God still moves in ways far bigger than we can imagine.

Let that be our lesson for today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, from a judge such as Deborah.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson

Longview, Washington 
July 16, 2017

Original image courtesy of NPR

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