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She Says Lent – Week 2: Torches of Hope, by Debbie Holloway

This sermon was preached at St Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday Feb. 25 and Monday Feb. 26, 2018

JUDGES 4:1-9    After Ehud died, The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3 Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for [Sisera] had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly [for] twenty years.

4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. 6 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, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7 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.’”

8 Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” 9 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.

 

Before we get into the meat of the message, let me set the scene for this passage a little more clearly.

 

After the Israelites emerged triumphant from the land of Egypt (what is known as the Exodus) they were commanded to wander in the desert for a generation, to temper their rebellion and strengthen their faith in the Lord who had rescued them. Then when Moses died, Joshua led Israel into the conquest of Canaan – the land the Lord had promised to their children. But the conquest was messy and riddled with compromise and disobedience. In the end, Israelites were living with the people they were supposed to drive out, displacing their own daughters by marrying their sons to Canaanites, worshipping foreign gods, and even slipping back under the rule of pagan leaders. They were no longer set apart. They were no longer seen as the Lord’s people.

 

During this period, 6 Israelite leaders arose – called Judges – who made a name for themselves (both in good and bad ways) amongst both the people of Canaan and the people of the Lord. The first two, Othniel and Ehud, were like knights from a storybook. They defeated enemies, won the hand of clever maidens, and used their smarts to play crafty tricks resulting in Israelite liberation. But a few decades after each noble judge died, the people of Israel would return to a common refrain:

 

Again, they would do evil in the eyes of the Lord. Read the passage again, you’ll see.

 

 

Political, social, and religious “movements” are a little nerve-wracking to me. I never quite know where to put myself, or how loudly to assert myself, during “movements.” I have never changed the filter of my facebook profile picture to any symbol or any flag. I don’t copy and paste statuses. I’ve somehow never ended up at a march or a protest. This hesitancy isn’t because I lack strong convictions. Only that I find myself a little lost, sometimes, in knowing how Who I Am relates to What I Think and How I Express That to Others. Or perhaps it’s that I need more time to watch, wait, and wonder, before I can piece together how my experiences fit in with the larger human story going on around me.

 

I remember the sorrow, and disappointment, and quietness I felt the week that the women on my facebook and twitter feeds began changing their statuses to read “me, too.” Sometimes those posts came with stories, or exhortations. Often, it was just those two small words: “me, too.”

 

Isn’t it wild that two words can somehow carry so much weight? The weight of being pushed aside, of not being listened to, of not being treated with humanity. The weight of being hurt. Maybe most dangerously, the weight of losing confidence in our own voices, losing community, losing hope, and losing direction. Reading “me, too” meant knowing that someone I love had been caught inside the teeth of the destructive power systems which rule our world, and acknowledging that, of course, I have been too. When we face uphill battles like sexism, workplace harassment, and abuse, it’s easy to feel crushed. It’s easy to lose sight of our identity…to lose hope that things can ever be better.

 

Followers of Christ choose to emulate Christ – to lift up where others tear down. To value and honor where others debase. But it’s hard to do that. Choosing courage and joy is actually a rough road to walk. Sometimes it feels impossible for us to light the path for others, when our own paths feel so dark and difficult.

 

That’s why I’m grateful for Deborah. And tonight I want to share more about that gratitude with all of you. Because I think sometimes, in the midst of the darkness and quietness in a season like Lent, we have to take time for stories like hers.

 

For those of you who haven’t spent as much time with the Hebrew Bible, the book of Judges is largely a story about the suffering of women. It’s about the downward spiral of a nation that is lawless, that is forgetting its God, and neglecting the oppressed and powerless. Our beloved coordinator Hannah is tackling some of these “texts of terror” in a few weeks, so I won’t trod on her stories. Suffice it to say, for now, that Deborah is a shining beacon of light that pierces the darkness of this book.

 

This character, Deborah, lived in a very different-looking world. The only god she served was the warrior God YHWH, so holy and mighty that he could supercede the powers of every Egyptian god, part seas for his followers, and drop food from the heavens every morning to sustain his children in the desert. This was a land of burnt offerings and blood; a land where the command from a man could mean the instant death of his wife, daughter, or slave. A world where, in the stories told around the fires at night, many female characters went nameless, or were entirely defined by their fathers and brothers.

 

And then in Judges 4, sitting beneath her palm tree, we meet Deborah. She is the one holding court and settling disputes. She is the one Israel looks to as its leader. She is the one receiving words from YHWH and commanding soldiers. If this isn’t already music to your ears, the best is yet to come.

 

Her military general, Barak, won’t go into battle without her. Why? we are left to wonder. Is he testing her authority? Disbelieving her because she is a woman? Is he simply scared, one member in the parade of cowardly men scattered throughout the book of Judges? The text isn’t explicit. But Deborah makes it clear that because of his reluctance, the world will know that this battle – at least this one Israelite victory – is credited to a woman.

 

But it gets even better than that. The victory goes to two women. First, there was Deborah, who made the call and led the charge. Bringing up the rear was Jael, another woman whose story has become quite famous. After offering food and shelter to the oppressive general Sisera, enemy of Israel, Jael drives a tent peg through his face, securing a resounding defeat over the now-scattered Canaanite army.

 

I’ll be the first to admit, war is an ugly way to talk about hope. But we have to step back into the world of the Ancient Near East and let go of our modern sensibilities for a just few minutes. For the Israelites, military losses and victories helped to define their early relationship to the power they knew as YHWH. They had no Bible; they had no creeds. They had experiences with this powerful, holy, Spirit. Losses forced them to examine their own faithlessness, disobedience, and cruelty. Victories reminded them that they were not alone in the universe. That their God was looking out for them. And usually, when YHWH was involved, the circumstances were so unusual that they had no choice but to step back and give ALL credit to the Lord.

 

When the battle was over, Deborah sang a joyful song.

 

“Hear, O ye kings;

give ear, O ye princes;

I, even I, will sing unto the Lord;

I will sing praise to the Lord God of Israel.”

 

She sang like Miriam sang, after Israel escaped Pharaoh through the red sea:

 

“I will sing to the Lord!

   He has done great things.

He threw horse and rider

   into the sea.”

 

Like Christ’s mother Mary sang, after God’s Angel honored her as the vessel of the coming Messiah:

 

“God brought down rulers from their thrones

   and raised up the humble people.

He filled the hungry with good things,

   but he sent the rich away with nothing.”

 

Even though some of my faith traditions seem as old as stone, and sometimes shrouded in much violence and, yes, patriarchy, I am so grateful to have the songs and victories of these women to light the way for me in times that seem so dark. The songs of Miriam and Deborah are thought by many scholars to be the oldest Hebrew poems – some of the first parts of what we now call The Bible to be written down. That’s cool, right?

 

If you look at your reading again, you’ll notice one detail I haven’t mention yet. Deborah is described as the “wife of Lappidoth.” And while that is probably a correct translation of the Hebrew, another valid reading of that phrase could be “woman of fire.” There is no distinction between the words “woman” and “wife” in Hebrew; “lappidoth” is a plural of the word for “flame” or “fire.” Names are incredibly meaningful in the Hebrew Bible, and Deborah here is no exception. Her given name means “honey bee” – evoking images of sweet nourishment, sustenance. Remember the Promised Land was called “the land of milk and honey”? But she is also a woman of fire – a torch that Israel was able to follow into the darkness, which eventually culminated in a celebration of victorious light.

 

The gospel is at work here. Not only in Mary’s song, and the life of her son, our Christ. The gospel is at work in Miriam’s song. The gospel is at work here with Deborah. The gospel is at work in Rosemarie Aquilina, a modern day judge who recently allowed more than 100 young female athletes to give testimony before sentencing their sexual abuser to prison. The gospel is at work in the 98% of black female voters who stood up, and showed up, to keep a child molester out of office in Alabama.

 

YHWH gave the Israelites a miraculous pillar of fire to light their way by night as they fled Pharaoh’s army. And these stories, old and new, are the torches that God is giving us to warm ourselves when the world freezes; to light our way in dark times. We must still walk the path ourselves, make no mistake. But we need light to see by! Light won’t make our feet move. Light won’t sustain us, or make us take that next step. But the light gives us bravery to know where we are going. To know who goes before us. To know that we are not alone.

 

Who am I in this world of movements and arguments and resistance? Who am I when I’m not sure if I can make a difference? When I’m tempted to just keep to the status quo or remain silent or back down from a challenge?

 

I am Deborah.

 

It’s not just something on my driver’s license or what I sign on the back of checks. This name has been a part of me for twenty-eight years, the most visible part of my identity. The strange power of names to shape and guide has led me to study and fall so deeply in love with the story of this first Deborah, which so many others miss or forget about even if they grow up in church.

 

I have been told many untruths. I have been told that women were never meant to occupy traditionally male spaces, like the courtroom, the battlefield, or the white house. I have been told that God only places women in leadership as a backup plan – when there are no men around to do anything. But I know that I don’t have to listen to those words. Because I have Deborah. Here, in the most patriarchal part of my holy book, is Deborah, woman of the flames, who lights the way into battle and claims victory in YHWH’s name – and her own name. My name.

 

What do you have to cling to when the world seems broken beyond repair, and when you have been discouraged for so many years, and it seems like justice and equality are so far off? You have Mary and Martha, as Kirstin reminded us last week. You have Miriam. You have Deborah. You have Mother Teresa and Annie Lee Cooper. Saint Joan of Arc and Sojourner Truth. Harriet Tubman and Corrie Ten Boom. We each fight our different battles, but in looking to our sisters in faith, all of us can learn to be confident in our own individual destiny, mission, identity, and worth. We can be reminded that we are beloved, capable, godly leaders. These torches help us grasp on again to who we are – they help us become better and stronger and braver. We are not without hope. We are not without light.

At St. Lydia’s this season we will take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. We’ll write our confessions and hang them from the branches above.

 

What do you feel moved to confess?

 

Who are some torches you can pay attention to, to help light your way in times of darkness? How can you go on to light the way for others? What stands in your way of finding hope and light in Christ?


Debbie Holloway makes her home in Brooklyn, New York. She loves film critique, creativity, advocating for kindness, Mexican food, yoga, GIFs, getting rush tickets for Broadway shows, and reading on the subway. You can find her songleading at cooking at St. Lydia’s, writing at Narrative Muse, and occasionally making pictures here.


Sermon sources:

Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol Ann Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe

Posted in: Sermons

Songs for the Season of Epiphany

Squeezebox is a place for our Song Leaders, as well as congregants, to learn the songs we sing at St. Lydia’s. 

Epiphany is a season that gives us a little time to bask in the glow of Christmas before Lent sets in.  It means “to reveal,” and focuses on all the way God is revealed to us through Christ.  It’s usually associated with light.  This season we’ll be singing some songs that reflect the darkness of the winter, but also bring a  bit of light in to shine in that darkness.

The season takes us through about eight weeks this year, so we’ll sing one set of songs for the first half of the season, then switch to a new set for the second.

January 2-February 3

Gathering Song

Arise, Shine,” by Ruth Cunningham.  A lively, two-part setting of Isaiah 60:1, a text commonly associated with Epiphany.

Lamp Lighting Song

The Light of Christ Has Come into the World,” by Donald Fishel.  It’s a sweet piece with two parts, one to teach to the congregation, and then one you can sing yourself over the top.  Note that the second part is not a pure echo of the first, but changes a little at the end!

Table Acclamation

During Epiphany, we’ll use the Ordinary Time Table Acclamation.

Prayer Song

Song Leader’s choice!  A selection of prayer songs may be found here.

Final Hymn

We’ll sing “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise!”  Sheet music is here!

February 9-March 3

Gathering Song

“Come All, Draw Near and Eat,” by Mark Howe.  This is a very difficult piece.  It’s a great challenge for those who feel they’d like to take one one.  But if not, feel free to stick with “Arise, Shine,” above.  Here is a recording, and sheet music is found here.

Lamp Lighting Song

We’ll sing a new piece entitled “God Give me Light in My Heart,” adapted from a song of the same title by Anne Krentz Organ.  It’s a simple melody — teach it and let folks harmonize.  Here’s the recording.

Table Acclamation

During Epiphany, we’ll use the Ordinary Time Table Acclamation.

Prayer Song

Song Leader’s choice!  A selection of prayer songs may be found here.

Final Hymn

We’ll sing an old traditional shapenote piece called “All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly.”  You can listen to a recording with all the part here — and let me tell you, they’re trickier than they look!  The sheet music is here.

Posted in: Songs We Sing

Letter From Emily: Welcome and Safety

Dear Lydians,

I wanted to write and tell you a little bit about our first Community Conversation, which took place this past Wednesday at French Roast Cafe.  There were eight of of there, and I was struck by the thoughtfulness, care, and wisdom with which each person participated in a conversation about the balance of hospitality and safety in our community.  How do we keep our doors wide open, welcoming all, and make our worship space as safe as possible, physically and spiritually?

I’d like to summarize the conversation as clearly and concisely as I can here.  If those who were present would like to add comments, please do so below.  If you have any thoughts or questions, don’t hesitate to bring them up with me in person or over e-mail.

Health of the Community/Care for Individuals

In any church, there is a balance that must be maintained between the health of the community (or the body) and the care of individuals in that body.  If the needs or presence of an individual begins to erode the health of the body,  we must respond.  This is a tough balance, and in speaking with other clergy, I’m learning that there are no easy answers.  One pastor told me that that, in fact, the process of setting boundaries is the most important part: we can set good boundaries in a way that either affirm or deny the humanity of individuals.

Risk and discomfort are important in a community: they create an environment of growth and learning.  But fear and threat are not acceptable, and endanger the health of the body.  As Erica said, “we’ll always be sitting around the table with people we are uncomfortalbe with.  The question is how do you distinguish between good and bad discomfort.”  It is impossible to create space that is truly safe, but there are things we can do to create a space that is “safe-enough” for us to thrive and grow.

Assumptions

One of the signs of the health of our body is that we’re beginning to draw people who have a high level of need to our community.  As we become a stable place, we will draw people who feel unstable.  It’s important to remember that these people may not fit our expectations.  People suffering from mental or emotional anguish who present a challenge to our community may come from any walk of life.

Particular to St. Lydia’s

St. Lydia’s faces many of the same challenges every other church faces.  However, there are some things that make our community different, and which move us to ask big questions about our identity.  St. Lydia’s is different from other churches in that we offer a full meal at worship, our service takes place at night, our service takes place in a gentrified neighborhood that also has a high level of need, Trinity Lower East Side runs a well known soup kitchen, and our worship creates an high level of intimacy as we gather around the table and share our stories.

These elements combine to create a delicate balance in our worship.  We reach a deep level of intimacy when we pray at the table after our meal.  If something unexpected or unnerving occurs during that time of intimacy, it has the possibility to be spiritually damaging to those who are vulnerable during that moment.  As we move further into our work together, we’ll be able to ask more questions about this dynamic as a community.  It’s important that we feel we’re able to offer pastoral follow up for all that’s unearthed during intimate moments, as well as provide a safe-enough space for the intimacy created.

What We’re Doing and What We Can Do

There are a number of good practices already in place to assist in creating a safe-enough space.  Currently, I stand at the door each week so I’m aware of each person who enters church.  If someone arrives who is drunk, high, or feels unsafe to me, I will explain to them that they may not worship with us.  If I have any concern about a congregant, I will ask our presider to keep an eye our for him or her.  Both Rachel and I carry cell phones on our person, and we lock the door when we have moved to the sanctuary.  We also always answer the door when it rings in pairs.  Finally, if it is necessary, we have the option of calling the police or an outreach team from a local agency.

At our meeting Wednesday, we discussed several additional practices we will put into place, beginning this Sunday.  First, we will have “table hosts.”  These are designated congregants who each sit at a different table in worship and can be attentive to the dynamics at the table.  Second, I’d like to organize a session with a psychologist and/or a clergy person who has a background in work with the mentally ill and the homeless community in January.  This will give the entire congregation some education and training to help us feel better equipped for this work.  We might discuss the possibility of creating a team of people who are particularly skilled in this work.  Third, I’m working on extending our network of resources in the East Village so that we have folks we can reach out to for support and guidance.

Finally, I would encourage each of you to feel free to speak up for yourselves and one another in situations that might feel “off” to you.  You might offer to switch seats with someone who seems ill-at-ease, or decide to tell me or the presider about behavior that worries you.  Sentences like “I’d rather not do that,” “We don’t do that here,” and “Please stop,” are ones we should have at the ready.  We should not have to use these sentences often, but it’s important to have them on hand for moments when we do.  Staying safe is more important than being polite.  Trust your gut.

Finally, a reminder that this process of wrestling, of struggling to find a way forward and working to value each person at our table, is a life-giving struggle.  It teaches us about who we are.  It’s part of our answer to God’s call on our lives — figuring out how to responsibly set a table of hospitality and welcome where all may worship freely and without fear, where we might see Christ in one another.

Love,

Emily

Posted in: News & Updates