Homily One: Deborah – Don’t discount the unexpected.
The Book of Judges is heavy going. It reads like a Jo Nesbo novel: R rated, with lots of blood and horror.
It is deliberately constructed like this. The editors of this pseudo-history want their readership to believe that Israel is incapable of governing itself, incapable of adhering to a moral code, and incapable of societal stability without the intervention of kings. And kings come in the next two books.
One of the overarching narratives in many of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures is the conflict between those who want a dynamic, God-on-the-move faith, with leadership arising from the ranks of populace and those who want a solid, centrally-located faith in Jerusalem with the Temple, God-as-omnipotent-ruler, with leadership in the form of a monarch and supporting hierarchy/bureaucracy. The prophetic tradition by-and-large support the former; and the priestly tradition [think Temple] support the latter.
So the Book of Judges is trying to discredit the prophetic tradition, and the role of these judges.
Throughout the Book of Judges there is this constant refrain about Israel doing evil, their God [Yahweh] giving them into the hands of oppressors, Israel crying out to Yahweh, and Yahweh raising a deliverer who then deals with the oppressor. Until the next time. And each time, and next time, it gets a little worse. So for example in our reading today in chapter 4 the judge/prophetess is Deborah, ‘woman of fire’[i], motivated by regard for her people, whereas Samson who comes along in chapter 13 [and gets memorialized in a Leonard Cohen song[ii]] is motivated by jealousy and vengeance arising from his infatuation with Philistine women.
The lesson in our reading today is simply ‘don’t discount the unexpected’. When Deborah calls Barak to raise an army to get rid of the oppressing Canaanites, Barak is a little hesitant [4:8]. This is the first ‘word of Yahwheh’ spoken after 20 years of persecution. And it’s spoken to a woman! A woman who though may be fiery has no military experience, and has Yahweh order a strategically naïve attack that hardly takes into account the Canaanites 900 iron chariots!
So a woman, rather than a man raises the rallying cry, a hesitant hero replaces an eager one, and a woman not a man will win the glory.
In our context we can maybe hear a critique of fixed gender roles.
Homily Two: Faith involves re-thinking what is ‘strange’.
The reading from Matthew’s Gospel today is frequently used to say, like Mother Teresa did, that when we help someone in need that needy person is Jesus-in-disguise. She would say, ‘Think of those who are suffering as being literally Jesus’.
Of course that’s not quite what Matthew had in mind. He wanted to divide Christ followers into two camps – the ‘sheep’ camp who helped the needy, and the ‘goat’ camp who didn’t. And the ‘goats’, because they didn’t help, get fried in Matthew’s hell.
Personally I prefer Mother Teresa’s compassionate literalism rather than Matthew’s judgemental literalism. I’ve always like goats, and I don’t believe in a literal hell.
I think Matthew 25:31-46 tells us two important things about our faith:
Firstly, it describes behaviours that are normative for Christ followers: extending hospitality and care to the hungry and thirsty; welcoming strangers; providing for and helping the impoverished [the naked] and the sick; and visiting and supporting prisoners. Although Matthew restricts the scope of helping to fellow Christ followers, I’m with Teresa and others in understanding the scope extends to every suffering human being on this planet.
Note, that some of these behaviours are risky. Strangers and prisoners could be violent, or unstable. Similarly the sick could be contagious. Strangers, prisoners and the sick were people on the margins, the edge. And they still are.
Secondly, these hospitable and generous behaviours are not ‘add-ons’. It’s not like you pray and come together with others to worship God, and then arising for that do these good works. It’s not like you have a personal relationship with God, and then arising from that do these good works. Indeed the phrase ‘good works’ is misleading.
Rather these behaviours are part of Christian DNA. To provide for and help the impoverished and sick is to pray and worship and meet God. To visit and support prisoners is not exceptional, it is normative for a Christ follower. To welcome a stranger, or feed hungry people, is not an ‘add-on’ to faith. It is faith. Faith is fundamentally something we do, rather than something we believe.
Put very simply: Risking engaging with those on the edge is to have faith. To be kind is to pray.
Today is the closest Sunday to Transgender Remembrance Day when we remember trans people who have been killed and murdered. The founder of the day, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, says “[it] seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people -- sometimes in the most brutal ways possible -- it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice.”[iii]
I think the challenge to us is to not only try to address violence and prejudice meted out to those who are perceived as different, but to think about the social construction of our society and how that pushes some people to the edge. There are a series of questions need to ask about what is normal, how normal comes to exist, and who is excluded or oppressed by this notions of normal. The ideas we have in our head about what constitutes male-ness, female-ness, and what constitutes “normal” are all socially constructed.
As both individuals and societies we create categories – male/female, thin/fat, bright/slow, healthy/sick, etc. We order our personal world to make it manageable, predictable, and safe. And then those with the power in a society order our public world with categories – and, particularly in the past, use the Bible as a kind of divine sanction for the ordering of that world. So, example, proponents of a one man one woman marriage use the Bible as support; whereas there are a variety of God-blessed marriages in the Bible outside of that one man one woman pattern.
Even with that short list of categories - male/female, thin/fat, bright/slow, healthy/sick – the problem of categorization begins to emerge. Ideal body weight is culturally and politically fashioned; and can be very destructive to one’s self-image. Similarly ideal intelligence and health are culturally and politically fashioned. Those deemed to be outside of the ideal and are often pushed toward the margins.
Similarly with male and female categorization. There is a lovely picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, as a child wearing a dress.[iv] At that time, up until the age of six, to don a dress was a totally acceptable gender-neutral practice. Other cultures – particularly indigenous cultures – had a number of gender identities, and some fluidity between them.
The issues connected with gender identity and fluidity, and cultural and political categorization, are familiar to many people today, especially younger people. They are talked about in academia in what is titled ‘Queer theory’.
I think one of the primary learnings for those of us raised in a more binary world is simply ‘don’t presume’. What we think is normative might not be so. Don’t judge. Welcome the strange stranger, or the one who disguises their ‘strangeness’ worried that they might not be acceptable. Allow compassion and hospitality to create in our hearts and minds room for those who are different. Prejudice often arises out of ignorance, anxiety or fear. Let us shelve those impulses to really meet, know and love our neighbours.
Of course in the Church there have always been people who didn’t fit the available gender categories of heterosexual male and female. Indeed the Church was sometimes seen as a safe space for those who were non-binary. Monasteries and nunneries, for example, provided a place away from the pressure of making a heterosexual family. Of course, too, the Church often failed those who were deemed to be different; stigmatizing and being violent towards those who were different.
Jeff Durham in Accepting Difference offers some good advice. He writes: “There are many things we can do to move towards accepting other people… and respecting our differences. At a very basic level, we should treat others with the same degree of respect as we would like to be treated ourselves. We should embrace our differences, not be afraid of them and we should never judge a person on our first impression which is often about how he or she looks. Taking the time to get to know the person within is a far better indicator than pre-judging them on appearances alone.”
Let us this day, reaffirm our faith, by pledging to work with others in making our church and society a place where transgender children and adults – and indeed all children and adults – can feel safe, special, and loved; and that we need each other to build an accepting, radically inclusive, and caring world.
[i] Wife of Lappidoth’ can be translated as ‘woman of fire’.
[iii]This is a link to an international list of those transgender people known to have died in recent years from violence. https://tdor.info/