Stuck In The Middle

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Matt Hambrick about the readings for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (Judges 4.1-7, Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30). Matt is the pastor of Trinity UMC in San Diego, California . The conversation covers a range of topics including the joy of collecting vinyl records (and why OK Computer is so good), the importance of place-names, the myth of originality, being stuck between joy and sorrow, militaristic language, and using our God given talents. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Stuck In The Middle

 

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Strange Stories From Scripture: A Week In The Word – Sermon on Judges 3.12-23

Judges 3.12-23

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. So the Israelites served King Eglon of Moab eighteen years. But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he fastened it on his right thigh under his clothes. Then he presented the tribute to King Eglon of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” So the king said, “Silence!” and all his attendants went out from his presence. Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.

Today marks the second part of our series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As a church we are taking time to look at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about during Sunday school. These are the stories that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.

Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can even recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives.

Our first story was from the book of Numbers regarding the foolish prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. We explored how the donkey attempted to steer Balaam in the right direction, and pondered about the donkeys in our lives.

Today we are talking about Ehud and King Eglon from the book of Judges.

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Monday.

I’m sitting in my office, going over the emails from the weekend when I pull out the list of all the scriptures from now until Christmas Eve. I reread the plan for the sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture, I wonder if people felt convicted by the sermon on Balaam and his donkey yesterday. I check the email once again to see if anyone took the time to send me a complaint about the sermon. The only one I receive makes a comment about seeing such a “smart… donkey” in the pulpit, but I file it away for later.

The A.C. is pumping out cold air, and I open up my bible to Judges 3 to read the scripture for Sunday. The story of Ehud and Eglon. As the words flow past my eyes, I can’t help myself from giggling in the office: Ehud stabs him in the belly, and Eglon was so fat that the blade disappeared and the dirt came out. I quickly scan through a number of other translations to see what they do with the vague “dirt” description. Some call it dirt, most call it dung, but at least one calls it poop.

When I see the word poop in the bible, it just makes me laugh.

I wonder if people will let me get away with saying poop from the pulpit on Sunday morning. I quickly make a note to pray about it during the week, before deciding whether or not to put “poop” in the sermon.

This has got to be one of the funniest and strangest stories in the bible, but before I dive into sermon writing, I decide to leave the word document open on my computer, and get to some of my other daily tasks before returning.

Tuesday.

The screen stares back at me empty. So I decide to get the mental juices flowing and rewrite the story in my own words:

The Israelites messed up again. Whether they were grumbling for more food, or worshipping false idols, they messed up, and the Lord decided to raise up King Eglon of Moab against God’s people, because they were continually messing up. King Eglon, with the help of God, went and defeated Israel and ruled over God’s people for 18 years.

But then, of course, the Israelites started to cry out to the Lord for delivery, perhaps they had seen the error of their ways, so God decided to provide their savior, Ehud, a left-handed man.

The Israelites, at the time, were in the habit of sending their taxes to King Eglon, and Ehud used this delivery to make his attack. He fashioned himself a double-edged sword, and attached it to his thigh under his clothes.

King Eglon was a very fat man.

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When Ehud finished delivering the money, he sent his compatriots away, and teased the King with the promise of a secret message from God. Eglon sent away all of the people from his inner court and invited Ehud to share this secret. But as Ehud leaned in to deliver the precious secret, he removed the hidden dagger and thrust it into Eglon’s belly.

Strangely enough, the further Ehud pushed, more of Eglon fat rolled over the blade until it disappeared from view, and Eglon’s poop came out. Then Ehud snuck out of the chamber and locked the doors behind him.

I rewrite the story, looking for sermonic inspiration that would drop down from heaven like manna in the wilderness, but I just sit in my office wondering what in the world God is trying to say through the text. Throughout the day the phone and doorbell continue to ring at church, and I welcome the distractions.

Wednesday.

I pull out some commentaries on the text, and decide to see what other people think God was saying. A few of them go into remarkable detail about the significance of Ehud being left-handed, while others address how detailed the descriptions were, and a few even propose a sexually metaphorical interpretation.

The more I read, the less the story makes me laugh. Instead of looking at the story like a cartoon with poop on the floor, I see human beings driven by enough anger and fear to conquer a nation, and murder a king.

Reluctantly, I start searching online for other sermons about Ehud and Eglon. Do people preach about this? What in the world do they say?

One of the sermons is titled, “Lefty vs. Hefty” and it is all about the differences between the two central characters. The writer emphasizes Ehud’s cunning against Eglon’s girth.

One of the sermons is titled, “Salvation” and it goes into profound detail regarding how, supposedly, God ordains the killing of people even today who get what they deserve. The preacher calls for the people to commit themselves to a radical system of justice, where they take matters into their own hands, just like Ehud did.

One of the sermons is titled, “The Power of Praise” and it focuses on how Ehud was able to trick Eglon into giving him the opportunity to strike. It ends with a reminder for the listeners to be careful about the promises they hear and the compliments offered their way, because a dagger might be lurking in the corner.

The more I read from God’s Word and from other sermons the more I regret picking the scripture for the series:

Eglon, the fat king, is now less a caricature, and more like the punishment God ordained for the people for messing up.

Ehud, the people’s deliverer, is now less a righteous judge, and more like a murderer.

Months ago I thought it would be perfect and hilarious to use this text during a series on Strange Stories, but now I worry about what I will actually say about it when the time comes.

Thursday.

Sitting in a coffee shop in attempts to begin crafting a sermon, I continue to stare at a blank screen. I have started at least three different sermons but before I am able to start really crafting a deep response to the Word, I highlight the text and pressed “delete.” Nothing feels good enough, all of the attempts feel flat.

How is this story speaking anything into our world today? What does the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud have anything to do with the life of St. John’s and the community of disciples?

I close the computer and grab a nearby newspaper in hopes to distract myself from the seemingly endless flicker of the cursor on my computer. The top article says “US drops Atomic Bomb on Japan 70 years ago today.

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Before I realize it, I am sucked into the article, and the sermon floats away from the forefront of my mind. The writer has reproduced the original texts used the Associated Press the day the Atomic Bomb was first reported:

“An atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and as the greatest achievement of organized science, has been loosed upon Japan… The atomic bomb destroyed more than 60 percent – 4.1 square miles – of Hiroshima, city of 343,000 and radio Tokyo reported “practically every living thing” there was annihilated… Secretary of War Henry Stimson said, “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” (From the original AP article http://bigstory.ap.org/urn:publicid:ap.org:3fd267ba7b3c40479382189c99172d61)

I read the article and tears begin to form and fall down my face. Normally I would hide my face from the other patrons, but I am so struck by the words that I forget where I am and what I’m doing. 70 years ago we dropped the most powerful weapon we had ever created on a nation and virtually wiped out an entire city in a matter of seconds.

I start to remember where I am, and the sermon that needs to be written. The connections between the article and the scripture start to form:

Did Ehud leave the sword in Eglon because he wanted the effects to be devastating? Did he want to leave his mark in such a way that death was not the only consequence? Was the Atomic Bomb our sword that we had hidden under our clothes? Did we attack Japan in such a way that death was only the beginning of what we wanted to accomplish?

I wonder what people will think if I try to draw a connection between the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb with the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud. Did Ehud do the right thing? Did we do the right thing? I have no idea where the sermon is heading.

Friday

I sigh deeply in front of my computer. Picking the Ehud and Eglon story was a bad idea. I explore an idea about dressing up like Ehud with a sword in church but it feels trite, impractical, and vaguely irreligious. I start writing a poem about how the Lord calls people to do extraordinary things during extraordinary times, but then it feels like I’m telling people its okay to murder and steal.

I sit in silence with my hands outstretched praying for the Lord’s will to be done, and for the sermon to be written. And I wait.

Saturday

The Community Cook-Out is going well; children are running around, adults are being fed, and conversations are flowing all over the place. I am thankful for the distraction the cook-out has provided, though I’m also worried about tomorrow morning. What will I say when the time comes? What is God’s Word speaking into our lives right now?

I watch the community in action. Not just the church, but all the people who make Staunton what it is and I think about Jesus. I remember the call to live radically transformed lives based on love and forgiveness, not on fear and retribution. I see people breaking bread for the first time, and I see Jesus in the midst of the people providing hope, the Holy Spirit giving life to our words and relationships, and God making new and lasting connections.

I think about Jesus and the new life he invites his disciples to experience. I think about the lengths God was willing to go to to respond to the cries of God’s people, raising up prophets and judges. I think about God finally offering the most precious gift he ever could, his Son, to die for all the people out on the front lawn of the church, and for the world.

I wonder if the story of Ehud and Eglon isn’t so much about how we react when the world pushes us into a corner, but about the trajectory of God’s gifts to the world. That at one time God would raise up a judge to save Israel, but that now God raised up his Son to save us from ourselves and from death.

Sunday

I stand in the sanctuary before disciples hungry for the Word of God and I say: I offer this to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Tent Peg of Doom – Sermon on Judges 4.4-9

Judges 4.4-9

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Behtel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, brining ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” Barak said to her, “If you 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 Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.

Jael and Sisera

Today marks the second part of our Sermon Series on Women of Faith. Throughout the last year or so I have been excited to hear questions in, and outside of, church regarding the role women play in both the Old and New Testaments. This series is focused on exploring some of the great women of faith from the Bible, particularly those who are not regularly mentioned from the pulpit. So, here we are, may God bless our time together as we explore two more women with dynamic and powerful faith.

Deborah was a judge over Israel. She had a wide range of responsibilities with her position; deciding controversies, announcing verdicts, and implementing judgments. For her to have been given, and honored with, this responsibility is exceptionally rare for a woman in the Old Testament. Moreover, she is remembered as one of the finest rulers: she is sought out for her counsel, she is referred to as a prophetess and mother of Israel, she boldly proclaims the Word of the Lord, and there are no controversies surrounding her rule.

The Israelites are once again in bondage in their own land, and they beg God to deliver them from oppression. For the past 20 years the people have suffered under the vicious hand of Jabin and his general Sisera. The Lord then moved Deborah to call upon Barak, an Israelite general, to go to war with 10,000 men against the mighty Sisera. Barak, however, is reluctant to do so, even with the promise of the Lord’s presence, he knows the kind of weaponry and army that Sisera has, and feels that this might be a suicide mission. Barak refuses to go to war unless Deborah goes with him. 

One of the great generals of God’s people is afraid to follow the Lord’s command unless a woman goes with him.

So Deborah agrees to travel with Barak but warns him that the battle will not bring him glory, because the Lord will deliver the evil Sisera into the hands of a woman.

Thats where out scripture reading ends for the day, but of course that is not the end of the story. If you keep reading Judges 4 you learn that Barak summoned the 10,000 warriors and traveled to Mount Tabor. When Sisera learned of Barak’s movement he called out all his chariots of iron and all of his troops to go to war. The battle ensues and the Lord threw Sisera and all his army into a panic before the Israelites. Sisera retreated from the battle, but the entirety of his army fell at the hand of Barak and the Israelites.

Sisera fled to a nearby village and was met by a woman named Jael outside of her tent. She implored him to come inside where she would hide him and take care of him. In the tent she covered him with a rug and offered him milk to drink. After he fell asleep she took a tent peg in one hand and a hammer in the other, went softly to Sisera, and drove the tent peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground and he died. Only later did Barak arrive in the village surprised to discover that Sisera had been killed, still stuck to the ground by the tent peg.

It would seem to me, therefore, that the message from our scripture today is to be very careful about accepting invitations into the tents of strange women, particularly if they have extra tent pegs lying around.

I offer this in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen…

 

Just kidding.

What a crazy and awesome story. It plays out like a movie; Barak is told that he will receive no glory but he heads into battle anyway. Deborah promises him that the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman, and we assume that means the Lord will hand the evil general over to Deborah.

The scene then shifts from the giant battlefield to the interior of a small tent with the candles burning in the corner. Perhaps still nursing his wounds from the battle Jael offers Sisera comfort and safety. Under the warmth of the carpet, filled with the cool milk from the caring woman, Sisera drifted off to sleep.

When suddenly Jael drives the tent peg through his skull leaving his lifeless body stuck to the ground like a tent in a wind storm.

So what are we to make of these dynamic women of faith, both Deborah and Jael? What do they teach us about our faith today?

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Women are powerful.

The story begins with Deborah and Barak, the female is obviously stronger than the male. As I mentioned before, the assumption of leadership by a woman is extraordinary during this time and something that we should not overlook. Deborah is a priestess and a judge over God’s people, she contained insight, perspective, and knowledge far beyond the average person, and held an awareness of the movements of God’s spirit. Though it is not written in scripture, she appears to be a woman of prayer, regularly in communion with the divine, someone who let her faith lead her, rather than the other way around.

Deborah was not the domestic type of woman that so many women are made out to be today. Yes she was married, but she committed herself to God’s people, to helping, guiding, leading, and shaping them. She was not relegated to a sphere of domicile power, but was intimately involved in the lives of others, respected for her wisdom, and sought after for judgment. It is no small thing that when she tells Barak to fight for God’s people, he was unwilling to do so without her. Women are powerful, and therefore deserve more respect than is often given. 

Without Deborah, Barak would never have had the confidence and courage to lead the army into battle. This is not the same thing as “behind every great man is an even greater woman.” Deborah was a great woman. Her role was not to make men look better, or stay hidden at home to take care of other responsibilities, she was a profound individual full of power and glory, one who stands as an example for how we should view women today.

In ministry women are still facing challenges to be taken seriously and respected in their vocation. In saddens me to hear stories from my female peers who are often neglected and ignored because they are women. Too often I hear about church attendance declining significantly on the Sundays that the female pastor is slated to preach, or funeral directors refusing to believe that a female pastor has been called to proclaim someone’s life, death, and resurrection, or men making inappropriate comments to women in the ministry.

In particular I can remember receiving a page from one of my female colleagues at Duke University Hospital that a patient wanted a different pastor to visit. The patient was an older woman who had recently arrived and when I entered her room I wanted to find out why she needed a different chaplain. Had my friend said something inappropriate? Did she offend the woman laying in the hospital bed? The patient’s response was simple and sweeping: “Women are not meant to be pastors!

Deborah stands in stark contrast to the negative perspectives of women in ministry, and outside of service in the church. Women can be, and are, just as powerful as men. They can live and lead like Deborah with power, respect, and wisdom. We just need to have our eyes opened to the ways that God would have us see one another, neither male nor female, but made one in Jesus Christ.

In addition to the call to see women in a new light, the stories of Deborah and Jael remind us that having faith is complicated. We cannot compress what we believe into a tweet or an announcement on the marquee in front of church. The Good News cannot be compartmentalized onto a bumper sticker or a tee-shirt logo. Our faith is dynamic, organic, and complicated.

Jael striking Sisera dead with a tent peg is a frightening end to an otherwise typical story in the Old Testament. It had astounded faithful people for centuries; even John Wesley expressed his ethical qualms about Jael’s murderous actions in Judges 4 and wondered if this was divinely inspired, or written by someone who was subject to mistake.

However, God’s ways are sometimes like that; they are beyond explanation and justification. Considering the calls to love our neighbor and turn the other cheek, this story from Judges 4 seems contradictory compared with Christ’s commands in the New Testament. Yet we affirm this as God’s Word, that even in this story we receive an element of God’s ways with God’s people.

God, in scripture and in life, works in ways that surprise us. God delivers the people from the murderous Sisera with a tent peg from a deceitful woman. God calls a young shepherd to defeat the mighty Goliath and lead his people, only to fall to the temptation of lust in Bathsheba. God saved the two spies who entered Jericho through a harlot named Rahab who hid them on her roof. And God chose to save all of us through a carpenter who was nailed to the cross.

We affirm many things about God through worship. But one of the things that we neglect to mention, is that God is strange. God’s ways are not our ways. We cannot, and should not, presume to know why God does what God does. 

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A year and a half ago, I thought I was supposed to be an associate pastor at one of the larger churches in the Virginia Conference. After going straight from college to seminary and then into the ministry I believed it might be a good thing for me to follow under the leadership of a seasoned senior pastor who could help me learn the most fruitful ways of doing church. Knowing that I was going to propose to Lindsey, and hoping she would say yes, I figured that working in a larger area would give her a greater opportunity for finding a job in social work. I had it all planned out in my head, exactly how I would follow God’s call on my life.

And then I received a phone call: “Taylor, we’re taking your name off the associate list. We believe that your gifts and graces fit best with serving as the pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Staunton, Virginia. The bishop has appointed you, and we are praying for your ministry.”

As a 25 year old coming straight out of seminary, I never imagined that this would be the church that I was serving. I thought that I had it all figured out.

But God’s ways are not my ways. Our God loves to surprise us and save us in ways that we cannot imagine. I’m still trying to work out why God chose to send me here, but every day that I serve as the pastor of this church is a constant reminder that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Because whether you know it or not, you have saved me in ways that I cannot even begin to describe.

Women are powerful and being faithful is complicated. Deborah and Jael remind us that the ways of the world are not the ways of God. That we are called to a new perspective on how to view one another: male-female, black-white, gay-straight, young-old, we are all God’s children full of value and worth. That God works in ways that are unexplainable and bizarre, calling people like you and me to serve our community side-by-side.

I’ll admit that its frightening and disconcerting, but sometimes God needs a tent peg to jolt, shock, and knock some sense into us.

Amen.