Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Law & Disorder: Deborah's Song [sermon excerpt]

Time and time again, by his choice of judges, God upsets people’s expectations and goes to unlikely sources to achieve liberation. We saw it in God’s use of Othniel, the younger-brother to Caleb the Warrior Spy, to overthrow Cush of the Double-Wickedness. We saw it in God’s use of the unclean left-hander Ehud to overthrow that manicured fat-cat Eglon from the Midianite throne.

Now we see it in God’s use of two women, who are willing to stand up to the swift fury of Canaanite’s iron-fisted rule as the men cower in fear and unfaithfulness to God. It foreshadows the ways of Jesus when the unlikely ones are called as Judges and Saviours for the people of Israel. Not only does it show God’s desire to use the “least of us”, but it is also God’s way of opening doors for the previously discarded. It is also God’s way of overturning the assumptions of the people and honour systems of the culture in order to foreshadow another way.

With Deborah God defies everything we continue to assume about the place of women and of leadership today. Of course, we have ways of maintaining those assumptions, even in the face of Deborah’s story. One way we do that is by saying Deborah and Jael are exceptions to the rule.... and there is a sense in which that is true. Patriarchy would generally prevail for many more centuries, and Deborah would prove to be an exceptional case, prompting men to follow her example more courageously in the future when they were called upon by God to do so.

But let’s not assume that this makes women in leadership no more than an exception to the patriarchal rule. Nowhere in the Bible does God say that Deborah was a less-than-ideal choice as Judge. No doubt Deborah is an unlikely Judge and Rescuer at that time--but to return to the Rule of Male Leadership would be as justified here as maintaining the Rule of Right-Handers or Oldest-Brothers only.

Does that mean that from then on we saw women’s equality prevail? No, not at all. Like I said, Patriarchy would continue to be the cultural norm for generations to come—and not always to the total detriment of the women of the day. Just as the Bible does nothing to discredit Deborah’s leadership or the honour of Jael, neither does it hail them as hasty revolutionaries for women’s liberation.

This has led many to conclude that the Bible was content with Patriarchy, uninterested to see it overturned. But others have seen something different going on in this text. Others have seen it as a text which upsets our assumptions not only of gender roles but also--and even before that--as a text which upsets our assumptions of what it means to be a strong and courageous Christian leader at all.

It is subtle but it is there. You need to have a bit of a lyrical eye to see it but it is there and, as a song, it asks to be read that way. It is right there in the beginning and the end of Deborah’s song, in chapter five.... We have to notice how the song is framed, which is so important:

Notice who sings Deborah's song.

Even though Barak refused to obey God’s instructions and Deborah had to go with him to get it done; even though it was Barak’s tribe who suffered most at the hands of Jabin and Deborah had to come way up from the south to give them the courage to step up for God; even though Deborah prophesied that the honour would go to a woman and it ended up being a foreign woman at that.

Even though the honour was to go to a woman, when Deborah is revealed as Israel’s Saviour and Judge and sings one of the earliest of Israel’s songs, is she content to go solo? Is she happy to sing it alone? Is she interested in the honour codes of her day and taking it for herself? No.

She brings Barak along and together they sing a duet.

In verse 12 they turn to each other and encourage one another in the Lord to wake up, to arise, and to follow the Lord their God.

It’s a precursor not just to women in leadership, but to the type of leadership we would have to learn when Jesus Christ came and fulfilled the Law and the Prophets of Israel. It is servant leadership, rather than grasping for honour and power. It is a Kingdom built not on power and violence but mutual submission in reverence to Christ.

It leads me to believe that Deborah herself, as the example of faithful and humble leadership she is, might have preferred that her song be titled some other way. She’d probably insist that it be known by its climactic and final line:

“May all who love you Lord, be like the sun when it rises in its strength.”

That is to say that our strength is revealed each new day, and its source is not of this world and its systems and means of honour and power and glory. The source of our strength is the Lord, and the sacred means of his kingdom in this world is love. Because God gave His Law for our good, and time & time again we’ve turned it to disorder, but God stepped into the mess in Jesus Christ, and reorders us in the goodness of his grace and peace.

(to check into all this, see Judges 4-5)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Law & Disorder: Ehud & the Book of Judges [sermon excerpt]

This is an excerpt from today's sermon on Judges 1-3, specifically narrowing in on the story of Ehud. This is the part where I warn against a couple interpretation-mistakes we'll be trying to avoid as we work through the book of Judges. I'll cut right to it, so if you want to read the Ehud passage for background see here.

Now, I think we are right to be careful with scenes of violence, because we certainly do not wish to glorify them. But frankly I don’t think that’s even the most common or worst misuse of the book of Judges we have to watch for today. In fact, I need to clear up two very dangerous misconceptions before we go back to the story of Ehud for application, or go on with the rest of the series.

The first mistake we make with books like Judges (and Joshua) is that we assume that if God used something once then God must have blessed it for all time.

We make this mistake with ancient slavery, with ancient gender roles, and we make it with ancient wars—the same way we make it with modern sins. We figure: “God used it for good before, so we’ll keep doing it.” But Paul warned against this in Romans 5 when he celebrated that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more,” and asked the rhetorical question: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!”

What we have to understand about the Bible is that God always meets us where we’re at and moves us forward redemptively from there. So we see the ancient Israelites taught a kinder master-slave relationship and we see the seeds sown for abolition—but God does use slavery and slaves for good along the way. That doesn’t bless slavery. It is the same with patriarchy and with violence and war: That God made use of them does not mean they are blessed forever.

At least not the way we think.

The truth is that bloodshed is the sacred means of our salvation, for God. But when Christ comes he takes the place of the sacrificial fat bull on the altar and dies for our sins and for the sins of our enemies as well, freeing us in his forgiveness for the courageous self-giving love of justice and mercy in this world—freeing us even to love our enemies.

In Jesus Christ the spotless, eternal, holy Son of God takes the spot of Eglon, so that the sword is absorbed in his flesh and taken right out of our hands.

(picture credit: James-Michael Smith)
The second mistake we make is that we assume the we are always the guys in the white hats in these stories.

If you like big words or have been reading my blog you might recognize this as the “supersessionist” mistake. It is the source of too much of the world’s racism and prejudice and superiority. Supersession is when we supercede or substitute ourselves for Israel and conclude that we are to act toward the world the same way they were told to act in that time when they were to conquer the Promised Land.

We do this as individuals, easily inserting ourselves any old place we want, like when God promises Joshua he will be prosperous and successful—neverminding that this might not apply in cases where our calling is to suffer on the side of the poor and oppressed. And we do this as religious groups and nations, easily placing the white hat on all our good intentions, declare that you are either with us or against us, and place a black hat on anyone who gets in our way. Like when colonizers and missionaries married whiteness and industrialization to the idea of Christian civilization and conquered indigenous nations under the assumption we’d be doing them a favour. Even thinking the white hat is the good-guy-hat means we assume too much!

The supersessionist mistake is to assume that the church or a Christian nation replaces Israel, and gets to freely apply their ancient command to conquer. Even the nation of Israel today would be wrong to assume that! The promises to Israel have been fulfilled in Christ in such a way as to open up God’s promises to all nations, as they are reconciled in Christ! We may have to come back to that in weeks to come, but for today we need to bring this to a close and get back to Ehud.

Even the Israelites would not have expected Ehud to wear the white hat. But time and time again, by his choice of judges, God upsets people’s expectations and goes to unlikely sources to achieve liberation. We see it here in the victory of this left-hander Ehud over this fat-cat on the throne. Ehud comes from a tribe whose name means “sons of the right hand”—but 3:15 says literally that Ehud is disabled in his right hand. He’s not just a lefty, he’s disabled.

In those days being left-handed meant you were unclean, unable, and unlikely. I imagine it occurs to Ehud on his way out from having literally beat the crap out of the manicured palace-dweller: "Who is unclean now?"

This reversal foreshadows the ways of Jesus when the unlikely ones are called as Judges and Saviours for the people of Israel, just like Ehud. Not only does it show God’s desire to use the “least of us”, but it is also God’s way of opening doors for the previously discarded. Here it is the left-hander—whose tribe later trains itself to be ambidextrous, perhaps inspired by Ehud and his element of surprise. Next week it is Deborah—who defies everything we continue to assume about the place of women in leadership today.

That’s next Sunday. Today we end where Ehud’s story begins: With the phrase that starts each episode in Judges: “Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” That’s why they came under the rule of Eglon. But then it says (as it often will): “[Once] again they cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer.” Sound familiar? If you’re going to insert yourself for Israel, do it here.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Crises of Faith

In the twenty years since I was baptized I have come to think of the life of faith as a thing that inherently includes recurring crises of belief and disbelief. Sometimes these crises are long period of wrestling intellectually or emotionally; sometimes they are circumstantial and sudden. Sometimes renewed belief will come with feeling; sometimes it will work itself out in action long before it is felt or articulated. But faith is something more than that felt- or articulated-renewal. In fact, sometimes it is faith itself which carries on with the crisis rather than giving up or giving in.

The thing about a crisis is that you don't know how it is going to end when you are in it. What follows are four of the most interesting artistic renderings of the crisis of faith that I have heard/seen. Two of them pronounce disbelief, two of them end in something like a wordless reconvening of the life of faith and trust. In either case, they make for compelling expressions of the kind of thing I am talking about.

(viewer discretion advised with the Andrei Rublev trailer)

Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (click image to view a clip)