Oct. 15, 2017 // Narrative Yr. 4.6 // First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “A Fiery Woman”; Judges 4:1-16, Judges 5:1-9, 24-31, “Brave” by Sara Bareilles [Buh-reyh-less]
[Era of the Judges, when the liberated Israelites begin to settle as tribes throughout Canaan, but no one monarch leads them.]
Leaves are changing their colors. Kids are scheming about costumes. And the candy gets discounted more each week. It’s nearly Halloween. A group of parents started reminiscing online a few weeks ago about their childhood alternatives to Ashland’s favorite holiday coming up later this month. The community is called “Raising Children Unfundamentalist,” and many of us in that Facebook group were raised in religious homes that objected to Halloween. I was surprised to learn that some Christian churches threw “Hallelujah!” parties. My own church offered a “Harvest Party,” where kids were welcome to dress up as Bible characters. The pickings always seemed pretty slim for girls. There were always at least 6 or 7 Queen Esthers, despite that story’s questionable sexual ethics and theological content. But one year, about 5th or 6th grade, I convinced my two girlfriends to join me in a group costume: I donned a man’s button-down oxford, tie, suit jacket, vest and fedora. My smaller, more stick-limbed friend wore her brother’s little league outfit, complete with stirrups, cleats and ball cap. Our third friend covered herself with a white bedsheet cut with holes for her eyes and a “friendly ghost” smile drawn on her face. We were the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Ghost. I thought we were hilarious. I couldn’t understand why the church elders weren’t equally amused. Imagine what they’d have done if I’d chosen De’vorah. I imagine her very Zena, Warrior Princess. Somehow I think the elders would have loved that even less than our cross-dressing Trinity. (Pause)
In this chaotic time between the Israelites desert wanderings and the beginnings of the religious monarchy, God’s people are led by judges. Judges are part prophet, part priest, part politician, all warriors, and all very human. The judges are a mixed bag, always charismatic and thoroughly fallible. But of all the judges, the only one the storytellers cast in a purely positive light is the woman… Deborah. Or, D’vorah.
At that time, D’vorah, a woman, a woman prophet, a fiery woman, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of D’vorah… and the Israelites came to her for judgement.
No other prophet or judge gets that kind of intro, Wil Gafney tells us. And though many translations choose to translate one of those clauses as a marital status, there’s no real compelling reason to do so. “Wife of Lappidoth” could just as easily be “woman fiery.” Already a seer and poet, in this story, it’s D’vorah’s military leadership that shines through. That Canaanite army is pushing hard. She summons Barak and proposes a battle plan. He’ll march out one way, and she’ll lead a second group of troops another, and they’ll draw Sisera out. Barak protests, saying he won’t march out unless D’vorah marches with him. She agrees, but she also predicts the glory he might have won in this battle will go to a woman. They execute this battle plan, and they succeed. Sisera flees to a homestead on the margins, the aforementioned outlier, Heber, of questionable allegiances, the guy who seems to be hedging his bets between the two armies. Sisera flees here, thinking he is in the tent of an ally, and the woman of the house, Ya’el, welcomes him. Ya’el is a “woman on the border land of mixed allegiances.” When the general asks for food and water, she gives him not just water, but milk and curds and a really nice blanket to rest under. When he is feeling all nice and relaxed, he falls into a deep sleep. That’s when Ya’el drives a tent peg through his skull. (See? This is a really good Halloween story. Imagine what my childhood church elders would have thought if I’d dressed up as Ya’el, for the church Harvest party, walking around with a bloody tent spike in her hand.)
Both of these women are navigating the powers of their time. What follows this story of D’vorah and Ya’el, is a song celebrating the military victory. The Song of D’vorah and Barak. I chose not to inflict that song on you. It’s a brutal world of which D’vorah sings. The songwriter paints a picture, sings of D’vorah rising as a Mother of Israel, sings about this battle, and then continues to sing about Ya’el. The poet goes on to paint a picture of Sisera’s mother watching by a window, waiting for him to return home with the spoils of victory: fine linens and textiles and beautiful things, and… “a womb or two for each man.” Fine embroidered cloth. And a womb or two for each soldier. Sisera’s army is slaughtered to a one, and the general meets a particularly bloody and gory end. There is also an implication that the wholesale rape and sexual enslavement of a people may have been averted. Maybe. D’vorah sings the truth about rape as a weapon of war. She speaks. She speaks out. She calls Barak out. (Pause)
Political chaos. Tribalism and violence. Alliances and allegiances and deceit. Some weeks I wish these ancient biblical stories felt more like ancient history. Some weeks it feels like we’re playing some bizarre 21st century version of the Game of Thrones. Conniving power, violence used to coerce people into obedience and allegiance. These past few weeks, “fiery women” have spoken out about this violence. And gotten flak for it. From Jemelle Hill, a sports commentator for ESPN to others who spoke out about harassment, women have been speaking out. With D’vorah’s story on my mind, I heard the cultural conversation in a new way. On Twitter Thursday night, a “gentleman honey farmer” from New Orleans really captured the state of things with one tweet: “What’s extra sad is that outspoken women are merely women speaking.” Women speaking out, as D’vorah was doing.
Speaking out. D’vorah’s story this week reminded me of one of the 20 suggestions Timothy Snyder offers for resisting tyranny. Snyder is an historian of tyrannical movements throughout the world these past 100 years. He’s written this small guide On Tyranny to share 20 things he’s learned from that history. I’ve been reading it and finding much encouragement. For example, #8:
Stand Out. Someone has to. It’s easy to follow along.
It can feel strange to do or say something different.
But without that unease, there is no freedom…
The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo
is broken, and others will follow.
It’s the wisdom of all the bystander intervention training, that even just speaking up helps change the dynamic of power in a situation. I was surprised Snyder gave an unexpectedly positive shout-out to Christians. “Christians might return to the foundational book, which as ever is very timely,” because in that book there is an alternative story about power preached. Hear Snyder, together with that powerful story about D’vorah. Do you remember, way back on Sept. 10, out there in the Green Space, where we let that beautiful poem of creation wash over us to remake us and the world, do you remember the word for “word”? It was “davar.” Deborah’s name comes from the same root. I’m with Wil Gafney in hearing in D’vorah’s name, “she speaks.”
It’s easy during a week like this, when we celebrate Pride in the Rogue Valley and National Coming Out Day this past Thursday… It’s easy for me to say, with Sara Bareilles, “I want to see you be brave.” But the truth is, not everyone has the same freedom to stand out, to come out, to be brave. For our LGBTQ folks, coming out is often a white privilege and an economic one. You can come out only if you’re not in danger of losing your financial stability, your livelihood, or the family relationships on which you depend for food and shelter. So this past week, on National Coming Out Day, I modified my declaration: “Your terms, your time, because your safety and security is paramount. What I promise is to be with you and to stand with you when you want to come out. We celebrate Pride as church, not only because so much damage has been done in the past in the name of religion, but also because in the future we want to ensure that no other child ever doubts that they are 100 percent worthy of safety and security and love. So, I was delighted that our church got some good press coverage for our participation in the parade yesterday. We were on the 6 o’clock news on Channel 10. But my initial delight over not saying anything too idiotic, dissipated as I realized the reporter, as great a job as he did, had made the story about us, as a church, and not about Lotus Rising, the organization that is working so hard to make safe spaces in the valley for our LGBTQ youth. Other news outlets covered different aspects of Pride, and some mentioned Lotus Rising, but in the broadcast featuring our church, those voices were missing.
The truth is, the Bible is full of characters who transgress the norms of human sexuality, whether that is their gender, their marital status, or their reproductive stories. Our faith story is full of transgressors. And one person who really gets it is Bible scholar and actor Peterson Toscano. He is screening a film around the country this year that plumbs the depths of these stories. In the film, Transfigurations, Toscano says that he was surprised to find, “Some of the most important people in some of the most important stories in the Bible are gender non-conforming.” Watch what he does with Joseph. He’s right. Why? Because that’s how God works. That’s how the source of that creative Word all the way back in Genesis 1, remakes the world: through the voices and perspectives and the vision of folks on the margins. The truth is, in our faith story, we have a long history of standing out, from the marginal people in the book of the Judges — the queer, the youngest, the women, the poor — all the way through to the marginal crowd Jesus invited around his table to share the feast and extend it into the world. All through out our faith story, the holy one speaks through the voices of the marginal and the unexpected, calling us to reconsider what power really is, telling an alternative story about the source of power and life and safety and well-being. All throughout our faith story, She speaks. He speaks. They speak. (Pause)
It’s our call to listen to this creative Word and respond, to stand out and speak out. More than that… to watch how we can make room for the voices that don’t usually get heard to be heard. I think I may be using my capacities this week to write a letter to the editor to name that the voices who really need to be heard are the voices of these young people working so hard to make sure young people in this valley have safe space. And I want to invite you, wherever you are, and whatever you are able to do from where you sit, stand or lead, to be brave. To be as brave as you can be. To stand out. Singing not D’vorah’s song, but the song of that other fiery woman prophet, I want to remind you that…
You can be amazing
You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
You can be the outcast
or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love
Or you can start speaking up
… I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
This week, let us be brave.