Resistance is Fertile

When I was a child, I was deathly afraid of fire. I’m not sure what started, it; perhaps it had something to do with the raging furnace that consumed a barn on my parent’s property as I lay blissfully asleep when I was six years old, but I cannot be sure. What I do know is that well into my teens, I had an irrational, all-consuming fear that one day, I might be stuck in a housefire and that it would be up to me, and me alone, to escape.

To deal with my anxiety, I came up with all sorts of coping mechanisms. First of all, I memorized every possible escape route out of our house. Fire in the bathroom? I could run down the hallway. Fire in the hallway? No sweat; deliverance was just a quick jump out the side window into the orchard in our backyard. The hardest work was trying to figure out what I would take with me. Could I carry all of my photographs AND my diary AND my toy horses? How much time would I have? Would a suitcase filled with stuffed animals fit out the window, or would I have to bid farewell to them as I slipped into the night?

When my parents offered me the opportunity to move into my very own room upstairs, I wanted desperately to accept. But I also knew that it limited my options for escape in the event of a fire. And so I agreed to spend one “trial” night upstairs, to see how it might feel. I lasted a few hours. Images of smoke pouring under the door and nowhere for me to escape overwhelmed any sense of excitement.  And so I tiptoed back downstairs and into the room I shared with my little sister. Ultimately, it would be my little brother who would move upstairs, while I stayed firmly ensconced in my bedroom with its multiple egresses.

Fear has a powerful way of taking hold of our lives. And while fear can be entirely irrational, more often our most deep-seated anxieties are borne out of real experiences. The death of a loved one to Alzheimers that leaves us fearful of knowing whether we too are carriers. The experience of debt that leaves us pinching every penny out of fear that we might not have enough. A year on food stamps that leaves us paralyzed with anxiety that we cannot provide for our family. Our experiences of pain, of lack, of isolation carry forward into our experience of the world, and, for better or ill, color our vision.

The People of God in our Hebrew text this morning knew what it meant to live in the aftermath of fear. The book of Judges, you see, is the story of what happened after Exodus. And if you remember, Exodus is the story of God’s people fleeing from slavery in Egypt. After forty years of wandering, forty years of uncertainty and of learning what it meant to be God’s FREE people, the Israelites FINALLY arrive in the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. A land known to its own inhabitants as Canaan, the land of merchants and abundance. The book of Joshua tells their arrival as though they swept through like a whirlwind, the power of God quickening their hand as they brushed aside heathens and idolators to make space for God’s people to flourish in peace.

But our reading today comes from the book of Judges, and it tells a slightly different story. The people of God have settled in Canaan alright, but they aren’t the only ones who live there. Instead, they are surrounded by other people, cultures, and civilizations, some of whom think that the Israelites look like they would make excellent slaves for their fields, wives for their men, and converts for their own religions. Which means that their way of life is continually threatened by the military aspirations of the foreign people around them, and they often must pick up their weapons to defend their right to exist as free people in the Promised Land. Every fight is life or death—for the life of freedom that they dreamed of, against the death of return to slavery and oppression.

The authors of Judges make sense of their rough landing by explaining that the people experience hardship because “they have done what is evil in God’s sight.” Which is to say, they have struggled with remaining faithful to God in a culture where fidelity to God has no value.

When we meet them this morning, the struggling people of God have found their worst fears realized—living in Canaan, and have found themselves slaves once more, this time to King Jabin, whose name roughly translates as “the Wise Guy.” We learn that for twenty years the people have been cruelly mistreated by Jabin’s commander Sisera, or Hawkeye. This may have something to do with the weapons of war at his disposal—900 chariots of iron, built for no purpose but battle and oppression and violence.

Remember that in the time of the Judges, Moses had long passed. There were no kings (yet) for Israel to turn to for help, so they entrusted their safety to judges, men and women of faith who acted as intermediaries between God and the people. And in this instance, God raises up the first female Judge, the prophetess Deborah, whose name means Honey Bee. Considering that the people had followed Moses to a place that they called the land of milk and honey, and considering that honey and milk were often understood as “superfoods” that provided great strength and power to overcome any hardship, it would have been incredibly symbolic to have a priestess raised up whose name implied that she could provide honey for the people.

And Deborah does not disappoint. According to Judges, she sends a great warrior named Barak, or Lightning, to draw Hawkeye’s army out into battle. It would not have been lost on the people of Israel that Deborah instructs Barak to go to the Mountain of Sanctification. Or that Sisera would meet the Israelites at the River of Ensnarement. The very names of the places God sent them assured the people that there was nothing to fear—God would deliver them.

And deliver them God does, but not in the way that is expected. Barak assumes that he will be the hero, but Deborah is quick to correct him—deliverance, she says, will not come on the battlefield. Instead, it comes in the most unsuspecting of ways.

Barak turns the heels of Hawkeye’s army, but it turns out that Lightning isn’t quick enough to capture Hawkeye. Hawkeye flees to a land that he expects will shelter him—to the town of Sleepy Oaks. Sounds like a pretty safe place to run to. There he finds the tent of a man whose name means “Mr. Charming,” a man who got tired of the city where his people dwelled and moved to the suburbs to get a little peace and quiet and security. His wife Yael, whose name means Mountain Goat and likely implies that she is quick on her feet, invites him in, hides him under her rug where he falls asleep while she plots her people’s revenge.

According to one ancient rabbi, Yael induces Hawkeye’s weariness by “inviting him in” and seducing him until he was exhausted, thereby “taking one for the team,” as it were. Personally, I would have to imagine that running for your life would tire a brother out. What we know is this: Hawkeye falls asleep under the rug, Yael pulls out a tent peg, and before you know it, the commander known for his ability to spot danger from miles away is undone by a woman and a piece of wood. The rest of the story is all but over—the Israelites rout the fleeing troops, King Smarty-Pants Jabin is destroyed, and once more the Israelites are liberated from slavery and free to serve their God.

Until the next time the people fail to be faithful to God. Throughout Judges, the people will try and fail to be the people that Moses helped them to become in Exodus. It turns out that it is one thing to follow God in the desert; it is another to obey the Lord when you are surrounded by people who couldn’t give a hoot which God you serve.

Which is why I think that the book of Judges is particularly useful to us. For all the talk that America is a Christian nation, the truth is that we are surrounded by a culture that simply doesn’t give a hoot what we believe in. Our church community often looks very different from the community that we live in. And the values that we are taught as Christians often don’t seem to have a place or are in tension with the values we encounter in our schools, in our work, and even sometimes in our marriages.

If we take our faith seriously, it can sometimes feel as though we are under assault. And if we are struggling or unsure of what it means to follow Jesus, it is easy to blink and find ourselves lost in translation. And when the going gets tough, sometimes we might wish that we could just sweep all the temptations away. It would be easy to fantasize about a world like Joshua’s, where everyone agrees with us, where our enemies are easily defeated, and where we are free to practice our religion and our way of life in peace and without struggle.

But that isn’t the real world. The real world looks a whole lot more like Judges, and we need to figure out how to survive here.

We need to be reminded that, for as long as there have been people worshipping God, there have been people struggling with what that means. There was never a perfect moment when everything was easy. Not during Judges, and certainly not when Jesus walked this earth. We need to be reminded that there has always been a cost to worshipping the Lord—we will feel out of place in the culture, we will find ourselves at odds with what our neighbor is doing. Because the truth is that the world is a violent, dangerous place, full of suffering and struggle and pain, often levied by the powerful against the powerless.

But our God calls us to imagine it otherwise. In our reading from 1 Thessalonians this morning, Paul encourages struggling Christians in Thessalonica to answer the weapons of this world by “putting on their spiritual armor.” Like the ancient Israelites, Paul recognizes that the world is a dangerous place for a people who proclaim peace in the name of Jesus Christ, and the only way we can hope to persevere is by arming ourselves. But he isn’t talking about offensive weapons—no swords or crossbows here. Instead, he encourages the people of Jesus to put on defensive armor—the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” Somehow, Paul is convinced that faith, love and hope are enough to defend us from are deepest, darkest fears.

It seems absurd. How can faith, love, and hope protect us against real violence, real darkness, real pain?

The answer to that, I think, can be seen in the witness of the countless doctors, nurses, and faithful people who have risked their lives to fight Ebola, armed with nothing but their gifts for healing, their faith that they can make a difference, their hope that Ebola will soon be a memory, and their love for the people whom they serve. They, like so many other helpers in this world, trust Paul’s words, that this armor is enough.

Faith, Hope, Love—this is the fertile ground from which faithful resistance can take root. This is the place from which the light which casts out darkness shines. This is the moment where God’s Kingdom breaks through.

Let us remember this lesson as we prepare to enter the holiday season. For we dwell in a world that would love to enslave us by tricking us into believing that all that matters this season is how much food is on the table and how many dollars were spent under the tree. This world would have us believe that all that matters is that which glitters, but we know the truth. What matters is the Kingdom of God. What matters is the good news of the Gospel—of peace, and justice, and enough for all people.

Fear not, for God is with us.

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An Alternative Translation of Judges 4: 1-24

Having some fun with Hebrew today… This is my own (admittedly, limited) translation of Judges 4, the story of Deborah the Judge’s deliverance of Israel through the hand of Barak and Jael.

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The Struggling People of God again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud (The Lonely Judge) died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Smarty-Pants of Merchant-ville, who reigned in the Village; the commander of his army was Hawk-eye, who lived in the Gentile Forest. Then the Struggling People cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

At that time Deborah (the honey-maker), a prophetess, wife of flames, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of the Honeybee between the Highlands and The House of God in the hill country of Ephraim and the people came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Lightning son of Mr. Wonderful from the Sacred Place in the land of the Cunning and Crafty, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of those who Struggle, commands you, ‘Go, take position at The Mountain of Purification, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of the Cunning and the tribe of the Honored Place. I will draw out Hawk-eye, the general of Smarty-Pant’s army, to meet you by the River of Ensnarement with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” Lightning said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Hawk-Eye into the hand of a woman.” Then she got up and went with Lightning to the Sacred place. Lightning summoned The Cunning Ones and those from the Honored Place to The Sacred Place; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and the prophetess went up with him.

Now Mr. Charming the Merchant had separated from the other Merchants, who were the descendants of Mr. Protector, the father-in-law of Moses.  Mr Charming had pitched his tent as far away as the Town of Sleepy Oaks which is near the Sacred Place.

When Hawk-Eye was told that Lightning son of Mr. Wonderful had gone up to the Mountain of Purification, Hawk-eye called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from The Gentile Forest to the River of Ensnarement. Then Deborah (the maker of honey) said to Lightning, “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Hawk-eye into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.” So Lightning went down from The Mountain of Purification with ten thousand warriors following him. And the Lord threw Hawk-Eye and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Lightning; Hawk-eye got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Lightning pursued the chariots and the army to The Gentile Forest. All the army of Hawk-Eye fell by the sword; no one was left.

Now Hawk-Eye had fled away on foot to the tent of Mr Charming and his wife, Ms. Mountain Goat; for there was peace between the village of King Smarty-Pants and the clan of Mr. Charming the Merchant. Ms. Mountain Goat came out to meet Hawk-Eye, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her, “Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’” But Ms. Mountain Goat wife of Mr. Charming took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Lightning came in pursuit of Hawk-Eye, Ms. Mountain Goat went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; and there was Hawk-Eye lying dead, with the tent peg in his skull.

So on that day God subdued King Smarty-Pants of Merchantville before the Struggling People of God. Then the hand of the people bore harder and harder on King Smarty-Pants, until they destroyed him.

Sustaining the Light

H-81 Trinity 27 (Mt 25.1-13)

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. – Matthew 25:1-13

Reading this parable about the Kingdom of God, it is easy to see why Jesus was difficult for his ancient contemporaries.  What, exactly, is he trying to say here? It would seem that the story of the ten virgins presents a problem for us—for whereas in much of the Gospel Jesus speaks of the virtues of kindness, and hospitality, extravagant welcome and sharing out of our abundance as that which bring God’s Kingdom, here in our parable Jesus seems to imply that keeping our oil to ourselves rather than sharing it is what will bring us dancing into God’s presence.

Rev. Anna Carter Florence, in reflecting on this text, poses the following thought experiment: what if we were to interpret Jesus’ other sayings in light of this parable? How might it change the way we read previous teachings from our Lord and Savior? And she came up with a few that I would like to share:

(Matthew 6:19ff) Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, although to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part of what I said; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven. Or (Matthew 6:25ff) Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear. Worry about your oil; that’s the main thing. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else; they are not your problem. Or (Matthew 7:7ff) Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it. Or (Matthew 7:12ff) In everything do unto others as you would have them do to you. In everything, that is, except oil, which changes all the rules.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like this message. It makes me uncomfortable. It appears to fly in the face of what I believe about God. It seems to contradict the core of so much of what Jesus taught about God’s generosity and abundance, and our call to extend hospitality to one another. It seems to imply that what matters isn’t mercy or hospitality or sacrifice for those who have less than us. Instead, it seems to imply that taking care of oneself, even hoarding resources in the name of Jesus is what matters most. And if that is true, then instead of “Feeding the Five Thousand” we may end up with “How A Few Prepared Followers Made it into Heaven.”

And if that is what the Gospel is about, then we honestly don’t need it, because that is a message we have already received loud and clear. We are literally surrounded by it. We live in a world where success is equated with being more prepared, where having more oil equals more power, more security, and, we hope, more happiness. Turn on the television and you are bombarded with the message that more oil will get you everything you ever desired. American culture teaches our children when we are young that having enough stuff is the most important thing. That being self-sufficient is what matters most. That a big paycheck makes you a better person. That having less or that unfortunate circumstances are somehow deserved.

That’s one reason why so many smart young people flocked to the financial sector in the early 2000s—rather than pursuing careers in medicine, or social work, or early education, our youth had gotten the message loud in clear that what mattered more was having more “oil” than everyone else—so they took jobs with big paychecks and little impact on the well-being of others. Jobs that encouraged them to take the kinds of risks that played a role in the economic crisis that we find ourselves in today.

But, we believe in the Gospel because we know there has to be more to it than that. We follow Jesus because he calls us to something better than looking out for number one. We already know how to care only about ourselves. But we want to follow the God who challenges us—to love our neighbor, and share our resources.   We want to believe in something bigger than me.

So I have to believe that this isn’t what Jesus is trying to tell us—this can’t merely be a parable about looking out for number one and hoarding your oil. And if that isn’t what this parable is about, then we have to ask ourselves—what is Jesus trying to say?

The key, I think, is right there in the text itself, although we may not notice it at first. The text, you see, is silent about so much—we don’t know, for example, how much oil each woman had to begin with. The text is silent. But we do know this: when these young women went out to meet the bridegroom, the wise ones took a flask of oil with them, and the foolish ones didn’t. And so, when the bridegroom was delayed, the wise women had enough oil to keep their lamps lit, and the foolish women found that they didn’t have enough with them to keep their light shining.

I wonder if this isn’t so much a parable about who has the most oil, as it is about those who remember bring their oil with them when they go out into the world. Perhaps this is a text about what we carry with us as we live our lives for Christ. Maybe, to be wise rather than foolish is to carry with you that which keeps your light shining for Jesus. For indeed each of us, if we follow Jesus, seeks to shine Christ’s light all around us. We say as much when we baptize new Christians, asking them to be a light that shines for Christ in the world.

But Lord knows our lights don’t shine on their own—even the brightest flame dies down to nothing if it has nothing to sustain it. And our faith is much the same. Each and every one of us must find ways to nourish and sustain the spark of divine light that flickers within us. And whatever those reserves are, we must use them. We must carry them with us, for if we do not, we risk letting our light die.

And we cannot let the light of Christ that is within us burn out, for it is that light that sustains us as we walk the road of discipleship. To carry your lamp is to live the life Christ has called us to.   It is that light which encourages us as we do the work of God. It is that light, for example, that sustained Amos as he raged against the injustice around him, calling his brothers and sisters to care not just for themselves but for the poor, and the helpless, and the outcast. It was the light within him that gave him courage to speak when he knew that speech could mean the end of him. It was the light that he tended which pierced the darkness of his age and brought the people back to God.

We too can burn our lamps for the sake of Jesus, who promises that we pierce the darkness when we feed the hungry and the thirsty, tend to the sick, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, pray for the hopeless, welcome the stranger, speak for those who have no voice, and walk in the way of the cross. And if we keep oil in the lamp, if we take care of our spiritual lives and tend to them carefully, then we too will be able to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord.