Thursday, March 25, 2010

Preaching from the book of Judges (part 1)

In January 2010, Professor Diane Jacobson from Luther Seminary challenged a group of ELCA pastors in Southwestern Washington to engage "tough" texts of the Old Testament. I took the challenge seriously.

Most of my favorite professors (Throntveit, Fretheim, Jacobson) from seminary and my favorite theologians (Von Rad, Brueggemann) happen to be Old Testament scholars. I enjoyed the interpretive debate in Hebrew more than Greek during school and in my own personal reading. However, I have been so tied to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) over 11 years of ministry, that I missed out on some of the wealth of scripture, even though I preach an equal amount of Old and New Testament sermons.

Jacobson primarily addressed texts of violence in her talk, something the RCL mostly ignores. Out of respect to the insights of my teacher and the revelation of God in scripture, I thought I needed to join the congregation in engaging some challenging texts in Lent. This challenging engagement can take on many levels: an academic exercise for pastors, a Bible study for hearty students in the congregation, or using these texts as part of a sermon series. The sermon series produced more reflection upon the relationship between the Bible and a congregation than any group of sermons I ever preached.

Topics we have covered during the series include:

1. Job
2. The sacrifice of Isaac
3. Jephtha's sacrifice of his daughter in Judges

Though I do not believe in the dogma biblical inerrancy, I still have a relatively high view of the Bible. Though I believe the Bible needs to be considered in context, that doesn't excuse Christians from engaging biblical texts just because certain concepts or ideas seem antiquated. The Old Testament book of Judges provides a great opportunity for Christians to address an important critique about the Bible--the graphic depiction of violence. Tracy Fitzgerald gave a great introduction to the book of Judges for our consideration in his sermon at First Lutheran Community Church on March 14th (to be posted on my blog at a later date). He and I share conversation about concepts in Judges regarding J. Clinton McCann's Judges commentary and our other readings. McCann makes an argument that Judges is relevant for the community of faith because it addresses contemporary themes:

1. Disputes over land and territory
2. Uncertainty over the roles of men and women
3. Child abuse
4. Spouse abuse
5. Senseless and excessive violence
6. Moral confusion
7. Power-hungry political leaders
8. Male political leaders who chase women
9. Social chaos

McCann argues that Christians are quick to make sociological, economic or psychological examinations regarding the aforementioned social conditions. Judges presents a case to consider these themes theologically. Theological thought related to the texts in Judges presents a challenge because many of the texts produce emotional and visceral reactions. Violent revenge, child abuse and rape all occur in Judges, and each person sitting in the congregation knows something related to these tragedies in life. Revisiting these thoughts or experiences produces pain, anger and despair. Though people come to worship for hope, healing and peace--these texts fail to provide a quick path to wholeness. Preachers and congregations tread lightly or outright avoid these texts. I tread lightly as well. I choose not to address the graphic depiction of rape and murder in the last chapters of Judges, but it is important to name their occurrence, because silence about these topics blocks the path to healing.

These topics addressed in Judges hit home for me this week as I examined the stories surrounding the murder at Calvary Lutheran Church in Federal Way, Washington last week (Susan Hogan compiled a list of links for this story). Calvary is the congregation my family and I attended while I awaited an opportunity for interim ministry. This story leaves me shaken, yet juxtaposed with reading Judges I move away from pure indignation or despair, and think about the world of violence in which we live theologically.

Violence in the Bible challenges ideals of what God's word is supposed to reveal. I think people ultimately want to experience assurances of God's love when reading or hearing the Bible. I think people hope that the Bible will take us to a better place, but sometimes the stories reveal something about sins and baser instincts and actions. Violence was not worse in Biblical times compared to now. The acts of violence differ today from Biblical times, but the violence remains today, magnified by a hypermedia culture that perpetuates a violent life experience. The stories of Judges provide a path for victims of violence to tell their own stories about violence--so they do not have to suffer in silence. Personal stories of violent suffering are often buried, and the stories in Judges do not go around the consequences of violence--the consequences are named. The stories in Judges also reveal an insidious human complicity in violence; temptation abounds for a reader of Judges to separate oneself or community from complicity to violence. A deeper reading beyond the emotional and visceral offers the judgment of God: we are a violent people, and there are consequences for our violence. Palm/Passion Sunday and Holy Week highlight human complicity in violence on many levels and the depths to which God must go to meet us in our violent lives.

Though Judges may not provide a clear path to redemption in the face of violence, God is at work in the midst of the violence that humans inflict on one another, and God will not be silent.

Please pray for the families affected by the murder at Calvary Lutheran Church in Federal Way, Washington and the congregation.

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