(based on Judges 4:1-10, the story of Deborah and Barak) Sunday, Nov 16th 2014
I’ve always been intrigued by this story from the book of Judges. Partly because it’s one of the few readings that talks of the women prophets or judges, and partly because the lectionary always stops short of the surprising and rather violent victory. Anyone remember what happens? Deborah says to Barak, ‘Your enemy will be delivered into the hands of a woman.’ She’s not talking primarily about herself here; she’s talking about Jael, the wife of a family who was on peaceful terms with the enemy army. When Sisera, the commander of the enemy army, escapes the fighting and seeks refuge in Jael’s tent, she politely invites him in, promising to hide him if Israel’s army should come looking. But this woman has mind of her own, and an allegiance to Israel. When Sisera falls asleep, after drinking a lovely glass of milk, she tiptoes up and drives a tent peg through his head! Quite gruesome, but effective!
A few years ago, I read Herbert O’Driscoll’s take on this story. Herbert is a still-going-strong wise elder, former bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, storyteller, teacher, and broadcaster. In his book `Living Scripture’, he shows that in our daily struggles with faith and wilderness, self-worth and failure, courage and guilt, power and weakness, we share much with our biblical ancestors and he believes that learning from their journeys with God can deeply enrich our own spiritual journey. I think he’s right.
I want to share with you, in mostly Herbert’s words, a way of looking at this story as a model for us as a church – for how we can honour and grow stronger with diversity.
Herbert writes, “Successful management in any field depends on making certain important choices. Perhaps the most important of such choices are about who will work with us as colleagues. There is a trap we can very easily fall into. Human nature makes us wish to have around us people like ourselves. This way we can relax and trust. We can be sure that things will be done the way we wish.
But this neat solution is fraught with danger. A group of people all sharing much the same pattern of strengths can be, of course, reassuringly comfortable. But it can also be surprisingly, even fatally, vulnerable. What leads to the prospering of any enterprise is not building successive layers of the same gifts, but building an organization of many different gifts. We may not be as comfortable with people whose very different gifts challenge and correct us, but we will be better served, and what we are trying to accomplish will have a much better chance of success.
We see this wisdom at work in the decisions and actions of an extraordinary woman who lived in northern Galilee in the twelfth century BCE. Her name was Deborah… She was recognized as a woman of immense insight, wisdom and integrity. This explains her influence and role among her people.
Her life changes one day when her community asks her to take on a role for which she has no obvious gifts. They implore her to lead an army to rescue them from a neighbouring bully, King Jabin, who has terrorized them for as long as some can remember. She does not immediately commit herself but she makes a preliminary and all-important decision. Although she has the very antitheses of a military mind, she knows exactly where to find one. She turns to Barak, a man with a proven military track record. When the two meet, Barak’s response is in itself a magnificent tribute to the respect in which Deborah is held.
He accepts the challenge but only on one condition. “If you will go with me,” says this tough soldier, “I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Here is a man who puts his ego aside, and recognises the gifts of leadership that Deborah exudes.
*It’s a nice coincidence that the other Barak most of us know, as in `Obama,’ has appointed a record number of women judges to the federal court in the USA.
Now back to Herbert O’Driscoll. He writes, ”That Deborah is sensitive to his regard for her is shown by an interesting warning she gives to Barak. She tells him that Jabin’s general, Sisera, will die not directly by his campaign, but by the hand of a woman. Barak accepts this arrangement without question.
So Deborah and Barak go to war, a battle they have no guarantee of winning, other than Deborah’s deep conviction that the Lord in whom she trusts will not betray them… During the battle it is Barak who plans tactics and strategy while Deborah builds morale. Their partnership will be celebrated down the years in the song attributed to both of them.
In their victory we see wise planning going hand in hand with courageous action. But the really wise insight we see in Deborah’s strategy is her recognition that she needs someone utterly unlike herself with an utterly different set of strengths.’
As we live and work together as a community of faith, we are blessed with the sometimes frustrating gift of diversity; different visions of how to live faithfully, different needs in terms of worship, in terms of energy and outreach. We will be challenged by the fact that we don’t all see things the same way. We all come with our own life experience and our own strengths and weaknesses and a whole hidden iceberg of subconscious thought that affects our opinions and decisions.
But like the prophet Deborah and the military commander Barak, we can use our very diverse gifts to create a vital ministry. As we continue to integrate aspects of the Presbytery meeting into our worship, I am going to invite you to partake in an exercise we did at Presbytery. This requires a bit of movement… so I’m going to invite you to get into groups of 4 – 6, and gather around a piece of paper. In the middle of the paper, have someone write the word VITALITY.
Now just brainstorm some words that illustrate vitality. You each have a life-time of insight and experience to draw from. Remember in brainstorming, no idea is wrong. Just put out there what comes to mind for you when you think of congregational vitality… Can you go through the paper again, and pick your top 5 words? We’ll work with these papers next Sunday.
(It was wonderful to see the congregation gathered in little groups, coming up with a list of words and then refining them to the `top 5.’ Next week, we’ll take the next step!)
We need to respect the diversity of community without losing ourselves – each of us. At the end of lives, as we “stand before the Lord of song with nothing on our lips but Hallelujah,” (to quote Leonard Cohen), we will not be asked why we were not more like… (Insert the name of your greatest hero, or the person you’ve been told you should be more like.)
God will not ask us that. From what I see in the story of Deborah and Barak, and from whom I see Jesus calling as disciples, we will be asked if we were truly ourselves and if we offered the gift of that for the good of the world, and did we encourage others to offer the gifts unique to them. I hope we can say yes to both of those questions. Amen.