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

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