Deborah, Barak, and Finding Fidelity
2008-11-12 by Marcia Mount Shoop
The lectionary gives us Judges 4:1-7 this week.
In the face of extreme military might and cruelty Deborah, a judge and a prophetess, summoned Barak, a military officer, to trust God and to go after the leader of the Canaanite army. She calls in Barak to rally the troops against Sisera in a story of Israel's triumph before decline.
Yes, it is weird that this name, Barak, appears on the scene this week so soon after a new president-elect with a very similar name is chosen in our country…
But for all who want to read something into it, I tried and I really don’t think we can! Afterall, God doesn’t speak to us in code language (I would argue that to be true even in John’s Revelation). Barak (in Hebrew it means “lightning”), a military officer, understandably has trouble trusting Deborah’s instincts given the twenty years of persecution they had endured and some possible tribal disunity (that plays out later in Judges). The fact that he wants the prophetess to go with him (v. 8) isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness or cowardice; it could be more about how much he wants some divine assurance that this is really going to go down the way Deborah says it will. But all that conjecture is outside of the bounds of the passage the lectionary invites us to use in our preaching this week. And, even if it wasn’t, I do not think the discussion gets us where this passage is inviting us to go.
The perennial transitions of the people of God often give birth to strong leaders—and sometimes those leaders come through, other times they disappoint. Here there are an array of unlikely movers and shakers that do their part to cooperate with God’s attempts to help Israel get out from under Canaanite oppression.
Keep reading in Judges and you’ll wonder sometimes whether Israel did much better with the land entrusted to them than their oppressors did, but for now, in this passage, we are called to focus on just how attuned we might need to be to God’s unlikely hopes for us. Here a strong woman calls out the underdog military strength of her people to trust God’s promise to provide. Our own hesitancy to trust that promise today won’t necessarily thwart what God envisions for us. But our halting efforts to listen and act on God’s call may mean we miss the forest for the trees and the journey becomes more circuitous than it needs to be.
Fidelity allows for God’s relationship with humanity to deepen. Consistent contact and communication makes the scope of God’s creative hand in our lives more broadly effective. Our salvation history invites us to see that this kind of consistency has been a problem for us. Staying close to God and letting God stay close to us on an every day, every way basis brings with it the promise of not just endurance in adversity, but a better way to live out who God made us to be. The story here is, once again, about dependence on God. Israel is having trouble with covenantal consistency. This theme plays out again and again in scripture. True to form, fidelity gets you somewhere in this chapter of the salvation story.
Let's Start with Psalm 123
2008-11-12 by Marcia Mount Shoop
Calvin liked using the Psalms in worship; he preached on them and they were regularly sung. People were steeped in their rhythms and language, as well as in the range of human experience and emotion that they embody. So, before we get to the parable I’d love to spend some time in the Hebrew Scriptures. We’ll start with Psalm 123.
This is a psalm of people on the move—those engaged in transition, pilgrimage, going home, or maybe just going somewhere that promised some sort of satisfaction (whether it be spiritual, material, emotional, etc.). It expresses a collective experience. The psalm moves from the “I” to the “us” in its expression of our absolute dependence on God and in its plea for mercy. We are waiting, Lord! We’ve had enough, Lord! We have had more than our fill, Lord!
If scholarly hunches are correct and this Psalm is post-exilic, then we have a telling moment of human experience on our hands—one that can speak volumes to us in our current American context. Coming home doesn’t solve all of our problems. Arriving at our destination doesn’t solve all of our problems. In exile or post-exile, we need God’s mercy and God’s help to live differently than we have been able to in the past.
No more contempt, no more scorn, no more hardness of heart from those who seem to have it all—that’s what the psalmist seems to want, and that’s not too far off the message the American people just shouted out in our country’s election. The moment of truth comes when spaces are opened for changes to occur. Will we continue to ask God to guide us, help us, and stretch us into new ways of being together? Or will new people in power succumb to passivity, stubbornness, or arrogance? Staying in contact with our dependence on God even when exile appears to be over is an urgent, if not subtle, need.
“So our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us.” And when there are moments of mercy, let our dependence elicit thanksgiving; and when scorn and contempt recycle themselves in our common life, let humility and our dependence on God diminish any harm they might inflict.
2008-11-11 by Tom Steagald
I have one more thing to say. The word for "entrust" is the Greek word paradidomi, sometimes translated "give over" or "hand "over," which is the same word used for what Judas did to Jesus in "handing him over" to those who arrested him.
Now, whether or not that sheds light of Judas and his motivations (for my part I think it surely does; see Klassen), it may give an interesting slant on the story. We consistently translate paradidomi "betray" when we reference Judas' action, but "entrust" otherwise (the LXX says Joseph's brothers paradidomi-ed Joseph to those who took him to Egypt). I am wondering if part of the complexity, the thickness, of this parable relates to the story of the son mistreated and killed by the wicked tenants. This landowner entrusts his "property" to the three, which word connotes the attributes of God, or may. But entrusted with the property of the journeying man, they put that property in the ground (kill and bury?).
Just a thought. Also, while the judgment is stern and the reward great, the generosity at the beginning is the same. In fact the generosity of the man creates the crisis even before the stewards do a thing.
All I have to say...
2008-11-11 by Tom Steagald
is that right now, today, the guy who puts his money in the ground looks like the wise steward! Those that went out and traded with them lost their shirts when the Dow-Jones tanked.
I wonder if this current financial crisis helps us see this parable in a way that keeps it from turning into, as it often gets preached, a moralizing stewardship sermon.
Do we bury our faith in the ground right now for fear of losing what we have? Or do we keep trading with them in this greatest gift entrusted to us?
This week's guest lectionary preacher is
2008-11-09 by CJ Teets
The Rev. Dr. Marcia Mount Shoop, an ordained Minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a theologian. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN and her PhD in Theology and Ethics from Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Marcia has served churches in Chicago, IL, Tampa, FL, and Oakland, CA. She is currently serving an eight month stint as the Theologian in Residence at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC, that began this fall (2008).
Marcia is a national board member of the Multicultural Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and just completed work on a group Lily Grant that involved studying pastoral excellence in the context of multicultural ministry with five other ministers from Oakland, CA. She is also involved in a “Repairers of the Breach” clergy group in North Carolina charged with reconciling and building relationships with clergy who differ on various social issues that divide the Church. Marcia grew up in Kentucky and is the fourth generation ordained to the ministry in her family. She has worked in church, academic, and community settings on racial reconciliation and awareness. Her book entitled Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ is forthcoming with Westminster John Knox Press in 2009. Her husband, John Mount Shoop, is the Offensive Coordinator for the University of North Carolina football team. They have two young children.
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