Sorry, I’ve been absent from the blog for too long. It is finals week at the college and I’m predictably overwhelmed. Here is the sermon I preached last Sunday at Coldwater Presbyterian Church. Enjoy!
Starting with Harvey Weinstein a few weeks ago, our news media has been filled with endless stories of sexual harassment and assault. Women are, finally I think, speaking about the things that have been done to them by men in positions of power. What a risk, even today, for a woman to stand up and tell the story of her most awful day. How brave all these women must be to be willing to make their stories public. It takes a risk, sometimes, to bring the truth to light. Someone needs to be the first one to stand up and tell the truth no matter what the ramifications. I’m convinced that taking the risk is necessary, dangerous though it may be, if we want to make our world into a better place.
Our first scripture reading this morning, tell us the story of the risk-taker Deborah. In the time between when the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan and before the first king, God gave Israel judges. Judges were in part religious figures, part military leader, part politician. All the Judges were men expect for Deborah. She lived publicly, in a way that violated a whole variety of the laws by which good Israelite women lived. She worked outside the family. She had political power and her husband was subordinate to her. She was wrong, she lived outside of religious and social laws, but she was also doing the will of God. Her prominence, her role, it was all a risk.
Deborah came to power in a time when Israel was being punished; suffering under the rule of the Canaanite King Jabin. The commander of Jabin’s army was a man named Sisera. Sisera brought the great military innovation of iron axeled chariots. The Israelites had never seen anything as powerful as that before. Into this political instability comes the female Deborah, at a time when many would have counseled her to lay low. Sure, you can have a woman judge someday, but not today. Not when we are already suffering. It is too risky.
But somehow, Deborah got around all that. It doesn’t say how in the bible and I’m sorry for that. I want to know how she did it. But all we know is that one day, Deborah sends for Barak, the Israelite battle commander. She tells Barak to get ten thousand men and go to Mt. Tabor because she has a plan. She will draw out Sisera and trap him so that Barak can finish off his troops. Barak says, if you’re in, I’m in too. Before they leave though, Deborah offers one final message. “This battle will not end in glory for you, Barak. God will give this victory into the hand of a woman.” They march off to a battle that they probably should lose.
You can imagine the rest of the story. Of course they win. God is on their side, they fight and Sisera’s army is scattered. Sisera does in fact flee to a woman’s house and she kills him by putting a tent stake into his head. A very gross story. But the point of it all is that what must have felt incredibly risky to those involved: following a woman, believing in her military prowess, trusting that she could channel the word of God—it is the way that God does business. It feels risky for humans, but God doesn’t seem to care much about that. And let’s be honest, it is risky to do things differently. To give up potential comfort for a new way, for a way that is untested or perhaps, even a way that is scandalous. But as Deborah witnesses to us from so long ago, God takes risks. God is not scared of the scandalous or the risky. God calls us to do things, to be things that feel dangerous and risky to us.
Our second scripture reading this morning is from the gospel of Matthew. It isn’t one of those comforting parables. This is one of those parables that calls us to attention. Jesus tells us the story of a man who entrusts his servants with money before he leaves for a long trip. To one he gives five talents, to one he gives two talents and to the last he gives only one. The servants understand that their master is a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed. This is archaic language and I think that leads to the severity with which so many of us read this parable. If taken at surface value, God just seems like a jerk. Demanding huge things of his subordinates and punishing them horribly when they do not produce. God seems like the worst boss ever.
But I invite you to read it differently. God has given his servants responsibility, talents, by which to bring about the kingdom of God. They are coworkers in the coming of a just kingdom. This place where they live, they are responsible for it and what it becomes. God isn’t going to swoop in and make it a just place, a good place for all people to live. God has left it up to his servants, has given them the responsibility of making their world livable. He asks them to reap what they sow, to gather what they scatter, all on behalf of their joint commonwealth. The servants are responsible to God and to one another. When the master comes back, he isn’t just asking what have you done for me, he is asking, what have you done for us?
One servant takes huge risks and the kingdom is brought a little closer into being. The second takes a smaller risk, but still produces significant reward. The third, who also lives here, who also has a stake in the kingdom, decides it isn’t work the risk. He decides to let others take the risks of making their neighborhood better. He will play it safe and just lay low. But of course, that isn’t how the Kingdom of God works. The Kingdom of God is a place of mutuality. Where I give so that you can live and you give so that I can live. It requires all the workers to be in 100%. It requires us all to take risks and live our lives in public ways that feel risky.
Modern day saint Fred Craddock, preaching on this text notes, “Take account of the high risk activity of the first two servants. They doubled the money entrusted to them, hardly a possibility without running the risk of losing the original investment…The major themes of the Christian faith—caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving hoping—cannot be understood or lived without risk.” The gospel cannot be understood or lived without risk.
If Deborah had not taken the risk, her people would have perished under Jabin’s military regime. If the servants hadn’t taken the risk, their master would have returned to find nothing changed. If we don’t take the risk, we may find that we have let our world lapse into the outer darkness. The kingdom of God calls us to take that risk, not just for ourselves, but for all of us. Even when it violates our cultural rules. Our risks create the world we live in. Women who speak out, create a world in which sexual assault is less permissible. Men who speak out, create social norms which forbids that sort of abuse of power. When Deborah takes a risk, she shows her people that God isn’t confined by gender norms. When we take risks, we show one another that God is more powerful than our fears. We show one another than caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving and hoping are all worth the risk. May we all take the risk of living a life generous enough to grow larger the Kingdom of God.