Our little lectionary study group got hung up on a reading from Judges. I don’t think it would matter which reading because almost everything in Judges is something to get hung up on. But in this case we were wrestling with the story of Deborah, Barak and Jael.
The question: if you were going to preach a sermon on this story only, what would you say? The point of asking it as conditioned by preach and sermon is our automatic assumption that preaching a sermon and giving a lecture are dramatically different things, and I’m not so sure that they are, at least not necessarily.
A recent column touched on the problem Christians have of not knowing the story of their own faith and denominations well enough to tell it to others. The same holds true for the story of God’s people as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Judges, for all of its violence, helps tell the story of the struggle to become a people of God. I see no reason why a sermon, even a short Episcopalian sermon, cannot be used from time to time to teach the story without trying to draw it to a close with a clear Christian moral conclusion.
When we left Joshua, it appeared that the promised land had been fully conquered and settled, all was at peace, and the only thing left to do was to get the Israelites to give up their household gods in favor of worshiping the Lord God only. It didn’t work out that way. The Israelites turned out to be a rough federation of sometimes cooperating and sometimes waring tribes. The land they occupied was also occupied by Canaanites who refused to leave. They were surrounded by other kingdoms lusting after their newly acquired lands. Local gods, partifularly the gods of agriculture, appeared to offer more than Jehovah could, especially for men who stumbled across a temple where fertility was celebrated through the services of temple prostitutes.
Judges records it all with no apology for how brutal it could get.
One obvious possibility for preaching on the Deborah story would be to concentrate on the primary roles of Deborah and Jael as early feminist models of courage, leadership, faith in God, and the ability to commit cold-blooded murder. I am more inclined to focus on the issue of just how hard it was, scratch that, how hard it is to become a people of God. They, and we, live in a hostile world. It is not hostile toward us because we are followers of God. We, and they, are not subject to violent hostility because of God, but simply because we, and they, are in the way. Moreover, as Judges fearlessly reports, they, and we, are just as active participants in violence as anyone else. Get in our way, whether fellow believers or not, and it’s war.
The truly amazing thing about Deborah’s story, and all the stories in Judges, is that God did not give up on them, does not give up on us. Why, I do not know! I would. Think about it, what story in the Book of Judges is not a contemporary story, not about others only but about us also? Many years ago I taught a Wednesday morning bible study for homeless men in lower Manhattan. The group was solid. They were dedicated in gathering each week and diligent in their study. Judges was one of their two favorite books. The other was Revelation, and that was mostly because they had personal experience with visions like those visited on St. John the Divine. But I digress, what appealed to them about Judges was that if God could do something worthwhile with people such as Ehud, Samson and Jephthah, then they also were not out of God’s reach. Those men were at least honest about being no better than Ehud, Samson and Jephthah. I think it’s a harder for you and me to admit the same thing. We identify with Deborah and not Barak, and certainly not with the heathen Sisera. We are Gideon and not his son Abimelech. And on it goes.
In the end, I’m not sure how I would preach a single sermon on the Deborah story, but I would take a shot at teaching the Book of Judges not as their story but as our story also in all of its brutal grittiness.