Human and Divine Collaboration, Judges 4:1-7

I preached this sermon at Northwest UMC on November 16, 2014

As is often the case in the biblical narrative, in Judges 4 Israel is in deep do do, and this time even deeper than usual. The enemy threatening Israel this time is not Kent State or Indiana. The Canaanites are not some distant enemy as previous foes in the era of the judges have been – these are next door neighbors, and they are armed as no foe of Israel’s has ever been armed before – with 900 chariots of iron. Those chariots indicate a big change historically as humankind is moving from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. There were benefits to those changes, but it also meant people had bigger and better ways to kill each other.

In the midst of all that change there is a predictable pattern to this story that readers of earlier chapters of Judges have seen before. 1. Ehud, the former judge has died. The judges were a series of leaders of Israel during the period before the monarchy was established. They were prophets, spokespeople for God, and when a vacuum in that leadership occurred with Ehud’s death Israel again goes astray. It’s a classic ‘when the cats away the mice will play’ scenario. The text tells us simply that Israel did evil, which leads to step two in the pattern. 2. Bad things happen. The text says “God sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan.” I don’t believe God is a puppeteer who directly causes bad things to punish wayward people; we have freedom of choice. But I do believe there is a natural order to things that results in painful consequences when we are unfaithful to God’s will.

When there is a lack of leadership and vision, as Proverbs tells us, the people of God perish. And when we are in trouble we come to phase 3 in the pattern, we cry out to God to save us. And (4) God raises up a new leader or leaders who help save the day.

When I first looked at this lectionary passage my first reaction was to look elsewhere for a text – especially when I read the rest of Chapter 4 which is full of more twists and turns than a Cedar Point roller coaster. But then as I thought about Ebola and ISIS and some of the other messes our world is in I realized this pattern is still with us today. When we forget God’s ways we face seemingly insurmountable problems. What do we do when that happens? It seems to me we need to do two things: (1) we need to admit we’ve got a problem, and (2) we need to ask for help from other people and from God.

When our granddaughter Kaitlyn was a baby her parents taught her some very simple baby sign language. Most of the signs were pretty obvious – like one for “I’m hungry,” or “no more,” but my favorite was the one for “I don’t know.” There’s a ton of stuff a one-year old doesn’t know, and they aren’t hung up on pretending they know things they don’t. So I would play a game asking Kaitlyn questions I knew she would not be able to answer, and she would laugh and do the sign for “I don’t know.” Why is it that as we get older we are reluctant to ask for directions or to ask for help with some question or project that is beyond our scope of experience or expertise? Judges tells us that King Jabin had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for 20 years before they realized they better ask God for help!

Rugged individualists that we are, and this may be more of a male problem, I admit, we often add time and stress to a job by our reluctance to simply admit, “I don’t know.” One of my favorite stories about that kind of attitude is described in this letter from a man writing to his insurance company to explain an insurance claim:

“I am writing in response to your request for more information concerning block #11 on the insurance form which asks for “cause of injuries” wherein I put “trying to do the job alone”. You said you need more information, so I trust the following will be sufficient.

I am a bricklayer by trade and on the day of the injuries, I was working alone laying bricks around the top of a four story building when I realized that I had about 500 pounds of bricks left over. Rather than carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to put them into a barrel and lower them by a pulley which was fastened to the top of the building. I secured the end of the rope at ground level and went up to the top of the building and loaded the bricks into the barrel and swung the barrel out with the bricks in it. I then went down and untied the rope, holding it securely to insure the slow descent of the barrel.

As you will note on block #6 of the insurance form, I weigh 145 pounds. Due to my shock at being jerked off the ground so swiftly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Between the second and third floors, I met the barrel coming down. This accounts for the bruises and lacerations on my upper body.
Regaining my presence of mind, I held tightly to the rope and proceeded rapidly up the side of the building, not stopping until my right hand was jammed in the pulley. This accounts for the broken thumb.

Despite the pain, I retained my presence of mind and held tightly on to the rope. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel. Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighted about 50 pounds. I again refer you to block #6 and my weight.

As you would guess I began a rapid descent. In the vicinity of the second floor, I met the barrel coming up. This explains the injuries to my legs and lower body. Slowed only slightly, I continued my descent landing on the pile of bricks. Fortunately, my back was only sprained and the internal injuries were minimal.

I am sorry to report, however, that at this point, I finally lost my presence of mind and let go of the rope, and as you can imagine, the empty barrel crashed down on me.

I trust this answers your concern. Please know that I am finished “trying to do the job alone”.

Back to our Scripture: Deborah appears as the next Judge of Israel, and she is the one to whom the Israelites finally turn to for advice. She summons a general named Barak – did you catch that? I’m not making that up, that’s what it says in verse 6. So no matter what your political preferences, don’t get hung up on his name. Barak is just one of God’s agents in this drama. Deborah gives him explicit directions on how to confront the Canaanites, who, where, when, how, and promises him that God will deliver Jabin into his hands.

If the story ends there it would be sort of like a very predictable Hallmark movie. Sure, God wins, God always wins, with or without our cooperation; but whom God uses and what happens along the way raises some surprising and difficult questions. In the verses immediately after Deborah guarantees Barak a victory, he says a curious thing, Barak 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 Deborah 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 Sisera (Jabin’s Commanding General) into the hand of a woman.” (Judges 4:8-9)

If someone guaranteed you success at a difficult task that would save your people and make you a great hero or heroine, wouldn’t you do it? Barak’s refusal to go without Deborah raises questions the story doesn’t answer. Is he insecure about his own leadership ability? Is he lacking in faith that God will truly prevail against this powerful enemy? We don’t know, and Deborah’s reply only adds to the intrigue. She says, OK I’ll go, but you aren’t going to get the glory – a woman is.

In the sexist world of that time, that could be a real put down. A real leader wouldn’t need help and certainly not from a woman. But as a judge, Deborah is God’s representative –maybe Barak just wants her along as assurance of god’s presence. We don’t know. We also may think we know that Deborah is tooting her own horn, assuming she is the woman in question who will get the glory for this victory. Don’t jump to that conclusion too quickly.

The battle with Sisera’s army is waged and it’s like Pharaoh’s army at the Red sea – no contest. Verse 16 says, “All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.” But here comes the next twist in this tale – one person did escape we are told. Sisera jumped down from his iron chariot and fled on foot, He seeks refuge in the tent of a non-Israelite woman named Jael, who is the wife of an ally of King Jabin.

Warning, here’s where the story gets a bit R-rated but not in the way you may be thinking. Neither Sisera nor Jael have romance in mind. He is just looking for a safe place to hide, and Jael, even though she is not an Israelite, welcomes him according to the customs of hospitality for strangers we find in Hebrew Scriptures. She shelters him, covers him with a rug, and gives him a drink of milk. And then when he falls asleep she turns on him in a most inhospitable and brutally murders him by driving a tent peg into his temple.

What are we followers of the Prince of Peace supposed to do with that gory detail? As my granddaughter would say, “I don’t know.” But at least one mystery is solved – Jael shows Barak what she has done, and we realize that she is the woman into whose hands Sisera has been delivered, not Deborah. But the bigger mystery of why Jael did what she did is left unanswered. Barak and Deborah just sing a victory song and give thanks to God for delivering them from their enemy. And we the readers are left to wrestle with the moral dilemma of whether the ends justify the means, even when God has ordained the victory.

The ambiguity is because the Bible is not an answer book. It is an interactive narrative of God’s actions in human history. Issues are raised in Scripture that are uncertain and complicated because life is complex. God’s middle name is ambiguity because there is always something mysterious about God’s nature that will forever be beyond the grasp of our finite minds. In our human condition we will always see in a mirror dimly.

But having said that there are some lessons we can draw from this curious story. This is a story about human and divine collaboration. Deborah, Barak and Jael all three play critical roles in this story, but none of the three can claim total credit for the victory. All of them contributed and the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Harry Truman once said, “We can accomplish great things if no one is worried about who gets the credit,” and that’s what happens here. Like any team effort, the contributions of every player are necessary for success. Imagine the scientific and international collaboration it took to land a spacecraft on a comet 300 million miles away!

A second take away from this story is that God uses unexpected actors to accomplish God’s goals. And not just in this story. God is very consistent. No matter whom God taps to carry the ball at any given time – uneducated fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes, adulterous kings or sneaky self-centered rascals like Jacob – God wins. When God sends a redeemer to deliver Israel from the exile in Babylon, God doesn’t choose an Israelite – but Cyrus, King of Persia, as in modern day Iran! And the ultimate redeemer – because we know the story so well we forget what a surprise that peasant kid born in a barn was.

God wins – always – but that does not eliminate the need for human responsibility and accountability. We can’t just sit back and wait for God to take care of us. Deborah promises Barak the victory, but he still has to round up his troops and confront the enemy. God’s ultimate victory is a given. The question is when that victory comes will we be among those on God’s side. If we want to be part of the victory we have to do our part.

To be sure that happens we need to be open to God’s leaders from unexpected places. Like Deborah, a female leader, heretofore unheard of in the Hebrew Scriptures where Noah and Moses and the patriarchs are always the prime actors. Judges is a book full of strong women, and sometimes, like men, they make mistakes or behave in questionable ways, like Delilah or Jael in this story. But the point is that God can use us all if we are willing to trust and obey what we believe God is calling us to do as best we can discern.

And that’s the final lesson learned here. Human collaboration and shared leadership is necessary and sorely needed in our day. To say the least I am skeptical but still praying for collaboration and compromise to break out in Washington D.C. instead of the partisan bickering and backstabbing that accomplishes nothing. To achieve that dream more than human collaboration is needed. Collaboration with the will of God that supersedes human pettiness and selfishness is required if we are to face the complex issues our nation and world must confront.

We need leaders with vision who speak the will of God. Who are those leaders today? Look in the mirror, it might be you! Pray and really listen to what God is asking you to do to make a difference. We spend so much of our prayer time telling God things God already knows instead of listening for what God wants us to know.

When we take time to listen to God, even in the midst of all life’s challenges we can embrace the mystery of God wrapped in faithful assurance of the ultimate outcome. We can dwell in God’s peace that passes human understanding that enables us to act faithfully without knowing the details of what happens in short run because we do know who holds the future.

Life is like a game of tag. When God taps us and says “You’re it!” we can say like Barak, “Yes, Lord, I’ll go, but you have to go with me.” And God will.

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Welcomed In, Sent to Serve

I was privileged to be invited to share some memories of my time as a student at the Wesley Foundation at Ohio State University recently. The occasion was Alumni Sunday at Summit United Methodist Church as we celebrated 60 years of ministry to students and the university community in the building at 82 E. 16th Ave. in Columbus. Summit church was created in the late 1970’s by a merger of the Wesley Foundation, Indianola UMC and University UMC. The Scripture for the day was the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15.

I identify with the prodigal son because my first memory of visiting this building when it was the Wesley Foundation was as a scared little kid lost on a huge campus. OK, I was 20 years old and a junior – but it was my first quarter on main campus after two safe years of living at home and attending the Lima Branch, as we then called it, of OSU. The year was 1966, and less you think I was a total wuss, you must know that my lecture classes that quarter in University Hall were bigger than my entire high school student body, and the number of students at OSU was about 6 times the population of my home town.

I was homesick for my mommy and without being able to name it also for a God I felt at home with. Having grown up in a loving United Methodist congregation, my parents had told me the Wesley Foundation was a place I would be welcome. Had my parents known what radical ideas and people I would encounter here they would probably have sent me to the Baptists – but thanks be to God, they didn’t know any better.

So, what was the first thing to greet me at the front door of this building? A warm smiling face? Not really. Instead there was a huge statue in the foyer of a 10 foot Abraham holding a big knife about to kill his son Isaac because God had told him to do so. Not exactly the kind of father figure one would rush home to. I realized later that that story of how God saves Isaac is a great metaphor for how God redeems us from very frightening situations in our troubled world, but at the time it was intimidating and too much like the wrathful God I had been taught to fear as a child.

My understanding of the nature of God began to change the next quarter when I got a phone call from Glenda Cail, a member of the Wesley Foundation staff. She invited me to a student gathering at her apartment on a cold January Friday night. It would be a gross understatement to say that no other women were inviting me to their apartments, and it sounded better than another night of bowling with my roommate. So I went to that gathering, and Glenda’s simple act of hospitality changed my life.
I met my future wife at that gathering, and I found at the Foundation a new home where I felt welcome and safe to explore the first serious theological challenges in my life. I remember in particular a book study led by Bill Trudeau on James Michener’s book The Source that introduced me to new and exciting ways of thinking about the nature of God, fellowship with guys in the Methodist service fraternity, STE, and my senior year living in Wesley House where everyone made a commitment to practice living as best we could according to Christian values.

Wesley House was exactly the kind of experience I needed. I grew up in a good Christian family, but one where the motto was, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It was quiet at our house a lot. Wesley House was a 180 degree turn where the philosophy was more like Ephesians 4:5 where we are encouraged to “speak the truth in love.” It was a place where it was not only ok to disagree and express our feelings, it was required. All 20 of us met every Sunday night up in the Hackler Lounge with “Whitie” (Lloyd White) and Jack Shepherd, a chaplain from Riverside Hospital who may have invented tough love. They facilitated open, honest discussions of whatever issues were going on at the house and how they could be resolved in a collaborative way that was fair to everyone involved.

Maybe the President and Congressional leaders should try living in that kind of covenantal arrangement? There must be room at the White House for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to move in. But seriously – the atmosphere of hospitality and honest safe communication we experienced here in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s wasn’t just good for personal faith development, it was critical for helping us become engaged and active citizens in a time of social transformation.

The Wesley Foundation was a safe place where we were nurtured, but also challenged to go out from this place to witness and practice our faith in ways that helped create a more just society and world for all of God’s children. Wilfred Cantwell Smith defines faith as “feeling at home in the universe.” The Foundation helped me feel at home in this big university, it introduced me to the social gospel, and prepared me to move on to the challenges waiting for me in seminary at MTSO and beyond.
I think what my years at the Foundation meant to me was best expressed by Jason Leighton, one of the MTSO students who helped plan this service. Jason said that without the theological challenges and growth he had through his campus ministry experience as an undergrad he thinks his head would have exploded when he got to seminary. Thanks Jason, I can’t sum it up any better than that.

I mentioned the Hackler Lounge earlier, and I want to pay a special tribute to Darold Hackler for whom that room is named. “Hack,” as we called him, was the founding director of the Wesley Foundation who served in that capacity for over 20 years. He was critical to the very existence of this place even though his name doesn’t get mentioned as often as others. That’s because “Hack” was a quiet, behind the scenes leader. He took care of the administrative details – kept the bills paid the Bishop happy so all ministry and programs could happen here.

So as we celebrate 60 years of student ministry in this building, I’m grateful for Darold Hackler and all the other leaders who have and continue to serve here. And I am thankful that after 60 years Summit is still a place where all of us prodigals are welcomed and nurtured and prepared for the challenges of being agents of transformation in the world.