God, When you brought back the captives from exile, they were like those who dream. Their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with joyful shouting;
They said to all the surrounding nations, “The Lord has done great things for us.” Just like them, O God, we know that you have also done great things for us; we are joyful.
Lord, this year we have experienced a different type of devastation, while it has not destroyed our walls, our reservoirs, or even our temples, it has decimated all that we called normal.
O, Lord, the attacks on us have left us with different scars, different trauma. The attacks have not come from uniformed clad warriors but our attackers have been unseen, but the destruction is still read and present.
God, they have devastated our economy, our civility, our students, our leaders, they have inflicted illness, unrest, in the midst we have experienced fires and floods. They have spread death to every seen and unseen place.
Father, we have been been forced to take unknown paths and uncomfortable steps. We have been faced with a choice of holding to an undoable past or allowing your Sprit to take us down unfamiliar roads preparing us to release our grip on the attitudes, traditions and practices of the past.
Lord, we know that you use seasons such as this for your work of redemption which allows us to look forward to your gift of restoration. God, we pray that you would continue to open our minds to see bigger than our past narrow paths and ways, and instead to the vast and wide open fields to which you call us.
Father, we hold to your promise that those who sow in tears shall harvest with joyful shouting. We know that as we go here and there weeping, we shall soon be carrying your bag of seed and we will, indeed, come again with a shout of joy, bringing your sheaves with us.
Audrey Hepburn note to composer Henry Mancini, 1961
I have just seen our picture – BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S – this time with your score. A movie without music is a little bit like an aeroplane without fuel. However beautifully the job is done, we are still on the ground and in a world of reality. Your music has lifted us all up and sent us soaring. Everything we cannot say with words or show with action you have expressed for us. You have done this with so much imagination, fun and beauty. You are the hippest of cats – and the most sensitive of composers!
Thank you, dear Hank. Lots of love, Audrey
We seldom forget the impact of a well said word of encouragement, a well written note of affirmation, or even the simplest nod of approval – such moments can lift us up, they can carry us through, they spur us on – they lift our spirits and send us sailing through the good times and the horrible times, in our times of doubt and in our times of greatest confidence.
I frequently think of the apostle Paul’s opening words to the church at Philippi – ‘Every time I think of you I am filled with Joy!’ I cannot imagine the thoughts that must have gone through the minds of those who heard these words.
Or, in Paul’s opening affirmation to the church at Thessalonica as he wrote, ‘We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering your faith, labor of love, and steadfastness hope. We know that God has chosen you. You received God’s truth with joy in the midst of persecution and bad times, and you became an example to all the believers in your community and beyond. God’s truth has been seen and heard in every place your faith has become known – I have people telling me they already know what I have to say because they have heard it from you, and even more, they have seen it in your life – I am so inspired by you!’
Even more encouraging is Paul’s final words to the Thessalonianhs, ‘We don’t really need to write anything else to you, you know what I will say – the day of the Lord will arrive without warning and you need to always be ready. So, we leave you with this (again you already know this) – encourage and build up each other, – which you are already doing. Respect and esteem the attitude, spirit, and work of those who are working hard. Be at peace among yourselves. Guide the lazy, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil, but always do good to one another and, for that matter, to everyone. Rejoice always, pray constantly, and, now in your situation I know this is tough, always give thanks in whatever is happening. Don’t ignore or dismiss what the Spirit is doing. Remember truth and test everything to make sure it is not lies or darkness; hang on to what is good and turn away from what is evil.’
To encourage and build each other up is a necessity, not just in our faith, but in life. We need each other, in bad but also in the good times. It is in its absence that the sufferings of Jesus on the cross were so abominable – He was all alone, going through the most horrific moment that has ever been experienced by any human, the physical pain, the emotional humiliation of the false accusations that put him there, the spiritual unbearable weight of the sins of all mankind, and the loneliness, separation, and isolation in that moment.
That is why it had to be God’s son on the cross, not just because he was the only pure and spotless one, nor was it just because he alone was righteous and holy, it was because only he could take our journey of separation and isolation, our journey that could only be done alone.
There were only 2 times when our earthly human element of time impacted our timeless God, the first was the creation and the second was giving Jesus from his birth to the empty grave. An agonizing wait and an unimaginably sacrificial act. For Jesus was a part of a community, a community that built him up, encouraged him through, and loved him fully – this community was first the Godhead and then an earthly community, an extended family, of humans. He too, in the same way as us, suffered greatly without the encouragement of those communities.
Today, we look at an example of this encouragement and building up each other spoken of by Paul to the church at Thessalonica. It is not an example from Jesus words to his followers or his moments with those closest to him, nor is it from the apostles letters and travels to lift up the believers. Instead, it comes from the book of Judges and ultimately culminates with a hammer, a tent peg, and a woman willing to do what needed to be done in order to build up those who were in the greatest need of encouragement, deliverance, and hope.
It is the story of two exceptionally strong women, who, in today’s vernacular would probably be referred to as beasts – not because of their appearance or presentation. Beast, because in a society that dismissed women, these women did all that needed to be done, in faith and action to listen and act on the words from God, to encourage and build up a leader to go to battle against an oppressive and warring neighbor, with a people against their fiercest enemy.
It is also a tale of a man who was not afraid to depend on his community to build him up and encourage him along in the times when he knew he could not succeed without his community.
Let’s begin with a little context, after the death of Joshua who lead the Israelites into the promised land, the leadership fell to individuals called Judges who would literally the judge of disputes among the people and they would lead the people when leadership was needed. The first three judges reigned for approximately 138 combined years after the death of Joshua – Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, all were men. By the time the fourth judge was in the position of authority, a woman named Deborah, the Israelites had turned from God who was in the process of correcting them through the brutal oppression and attacks from Canaan King Jabin and his sadistic military leader Sisera.
Then, the moment God was waiting for, it is the moment that God still waits for, the moment when we, as humans, realize that our hope and deliverance is not in our selves, it is not in our rulers, it is not in our institutions, it is not in our power, it is in God – it is in God alone. It was at that moment, as it is always in that moment, God set into motion the plan that was already in place – God heard and God acted.
God began with Deborah, the prophetess and judge. The wife of a man whose surname was Lappidoth; a name that meant lightning and a torch. Not only was Deborah’s surname defining her as power and light, she was also a faithful follower of God, a woman whose confidence was in God, a human who was chosen to speak for God, a beloved who was willing to be used by God.
‘Speak this to the leader Barak’, God instructs Deborah.
So, Deborah does as Deborah always does, she obeys God and speaks to Barak. ‘God, the God of Israel, commands you: Go to Mount Tabor and prepare for battle. Gather ten thousand fighters. I’ll take care of getting Sisera the commander of Jabin’s army, to the Kishon River with all his chariots and troops. I WILL make sure you win the battle.’
Barak said to Deborah, ‘If you go with me, I’ll go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
Deborah said, ‘Of course I’ll go with you. But you need to know now that there’ll be no glory, nor public acclaim for you. Instead, God will use a woman to take get rid of the commander Sisera.”
Sometimes we can see more in what is not said than in what is actually said.
I have never heard this passage preached, and quite honestly I have never preached this passage without labeling Barak as a coward. Usually, our own biases, insecurities, and prejudices keep us from seeing truth that is right in front of us. Most of the time we let our own closed minds keep us from opening up amazing gems that are right in front of our nose. Instead of this story depicting a slam on gender, it is not really a story of gender at all, nor is it really about the manly action of going to war. It is in fact a story of the need of all of us to be ready to permit someone else to be the light that God leads us with, a directional sign that leads us to the path and keeps us on course.
This is a story of encouragement and building another up, it is an unique visual of what it looks like to be the encourager and the builder, however, it also reveals the need to permit God to strengthen us through all that he sends our direction.
When Paul spoke to the church at Thesslonica, to the Hebrews, and at Corinth, he applauded them for the fact that they been ‘imitators of Paul and his companions’, he encouraged the Hebrews to ‘imitate those who were following Jesus.’ He was not telling them to follow humans instead of Jesus, but, he was pointing them to those who could build them up and encourage them to actually follow Christ. It was and is a first step of many steps for a believer.
When John the Baptizer pointed to Jesus and told his disciples ‘that is who I have been telling you about, that is the one I have been building you up to follow, that is the one I am encouraging you to trust.’ Then, as the John’s disciples left to follow Jesus, John was not offended, he may have been lonely but he knew this was the whole reason they had been ‘imitating’ him, so that they could then imitate and follow Jesus.
Barak was not a coward, he was a man who knew his limitations, his weakness, in light of what he saw in Deborah. He saw her presence before God, her ability to listen and hear God – he knew that for Deborah, God was truly God. This was new to him as his generation had turned their backs on God.
As I said, it is often what we do not see, what he do not hear in scripture that teaches us the most. We do not see any further doubt or hesitancy, Barak obeyed, he just needed to be built up, he knew he was going to need the encouragement in the dark times to come. To Barak it was not about himself, it was not about acclaim, fame, or position. It was about God’s plan in response to the cries from the people, the people that included Barak.
While our own biases interpret Deborah’s words as a belittling of Barak because of a negative mindset towards her own gender, we, through our filters, read it as a challenge to his manhood. However, we do not see this in his reaction, it is just information regarding the plan, information that will guide him in trusting Jael as she tells him to come into her house to see what she has accomplished.
Barak needed the same thing that Paul told the Thessalonians they needed – building up and encouragement. They were to be that and to accept that.
Even if it was from those culturally considered to be ‘less than’ himself.
So, it was a woman named Jael, a woman that we only know as a ‘wife’, a woman who was considered an ally of Sisera, a woman who was not part of the oppressed people, a woman who was not even an Isrealites nor a Jew. A woman who did what had to be done, a woman who, somehow, knew what God was calling her to do. A woman who knew how to swing a hammer, a talent that sustained her at the right time and in the right place.
So, as we close, we return to the apostle Paul’s words to the believers at Thessalonica, we return to the words of Paul to us.
‘I don’t really need to write anything else to you, you know what I will say – the day of the Lord will arrive without warning and you need to always be ready. So, we leave you with this (again you already know this) – encourage and build up each other, – which you are already doing. Respect and esteem the attitude, spirit, and work of those who are working hard. Be at peace among yourselves. Guide the lazy, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil, but always do good to one another and, for that matter, to everyone. Rejoice always, pray constantly, and, now in your situation I know this is tough, always give thanks in whatever is happening. Don’t ignore or dismiss what the Spirit is doing. Remember truth and test everything to make sure it is not lies or darkness; hang on to what is good and turn away from what is evil.’
Have you ever been around someone that you never have to guess what they were thinking or feeling? What they were thinking, their thoughts, dreams, hopes, excitement, emotions, always on display? It is a character trait that is both annoying and endearing? You can bask in who they are, or you dismiss them and try to avoid them. I think Joseph was one of those people.
Joseph is one of the most illuminating figures of the bible. We are given not only the historical accounts of his life, which are horrifying, but we also get to see the emotions, the fears, the disappointments, and the joy.
Joesph has multiple meetings with his brothers, were did the unthinkable to him, and are oblivious to his identity. Joesph comes to a point where he cannot hide his joy and excitement anymore. He has all this joy and happiness inside of him that he can only keep pushed down for so long until he pops.
For Joseph, faith was faith, and faith was life. He didn’t have to force it. His faith was what came forth from his life. The first time we see God even referenced by Joseph is in jail when he explains to other prisoners that dream interpretations come from God then, a second God reference is of the same substance, but for Pharaoh. While there is not much dialogue from Joesph proclaiming God, his life serves as a megaphone abut God. God comes forth in the life of Joseph.
‘God coming forth’, is exactly what Jesus is talking about in the first part of our gospel reading Jesus says.…
As I mentioned in our passage primer this week, there are several aspects of Matthew 15 with which I struggle. This statement from Jesus, ‘to eat with unwashed hands does not defile,’ is one of them, especially during our current pandemic. However, what is seen and/or heard immediately from this statement is not what Jesus is saying. He is not mounting an anti-hygiene protest, nor is he revealing that he has bought into an extremest conspiracy theory.
The earliest findings of any types of hygiene guidelines and laws date back to the Exodus when God, through Moses, gave the Israelites instructions on everything from washing their hands, to the disposal of human waste. These hygienic practices were a religious responsibility. About half a century later, under King David, these practices were expanded from being religious to being a societal practice.
More than any other people, personal hygiene was a founding principle of the Israelites, and Jesus was not contradicting this. Jesus was talking about something much deeper, he was addressing what we allow to exist inside of us, that which influences and changes what we put into ourselves.
A couple of weeks ago, I referenced our experience a decade ago with our daughter Grace spending 11 days in the hospital with Steven Johnson’s Syndrome, a severe, often fatal, reaction to medication. What I did not mention was that she, along with our son Caleb, had been taking the same medicine for the same sickness, for the same amount of time. Caleb had no problem with the medication and within a very short time was feeling better and back to normal. However, something in Grace’s system influenced the otherwise ‘okay’ medicine rending it toxic.
This is what Jesus is saying. Everything in our life is influenced by what is already at our core, what is inside of us. We put relationships into our life – they can mix with our insides and come out as a healthy lasting relationship, or they can come out as adultery and fornication. We put communication in, it mixes with our inside, comes out of our mouth as unifying and encouraging words, or it comes out as false witness, gossip, and slander. Our heart, our core, takes the non defiling things we put into our life and determines if they come out beneficial or harmful.
It all depends on what we allow to be inside of us.
Jesus is challenging the standard religious thought, especially as established by the institutional leaders. He is telling them that transformation does not take place by our practices alone, or anything that we think we must, or must not, do to be right with God. It is much deeper, it is that which comes forth from us that identifies that our heart, our core, what is our center.
Let’s get into this a bit deeper by looking at one word, the word that provides the true challenge of Jesus’ message – the word ‘DEFILE.’ The greek, in this context is κοινοῖwhich means ‘to defile’. The root word, which gives us clarity of the meaning of ‘defile’ is koinoó , which, in certain context can mean ‘to make unclean, pollute, desecrate’. Now, if we go deeper to the literal meaning of the root word, the word from which these all use in their particular context, ‘to make common.’
As we have witnessed in Matthew’s gospel, when it moves to another story or teaching, as we ‘move on’, ‘moving on’ is never ‘moving away’.
Jesus now travels to the major Roman port cities of Tyre and Sidon, home to countless pagan temples, populated largely by gentiles but sizable Israelite population resides there as well.
Remember, there is an intentionality of the chronological order in Matthew’s gospel, teaching moments are often followed by an experiential lesson as well.
As Jesus, and his disciples, enter the area, they are immediately confronted by a Canaanite woman who is shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ Jesus’ response is odd, it is very suspect, it is very ‘un-Jesus’ like. He dismissively ignores the woman, then, as she continues to make a spectacle of herself by screaming, the disciples join in suggesting that Jesus send ‘that shouting woman’ away. Jesus responds to the suggestion by pointing out that ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ She then gets in front of Jesus, kneels, and begs, ‘Lord, help me.’ Jesus responds with the seemingly racist and callous response of ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ The woman replies to Jesus with, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Now, she has Jesus attention as indicated by his response, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ After this, we are informed that, at that moment, her daughter was healed instantly.
The change in Jesus posture with the woman, as well as a positive and affirming response, signals that something significant has just taken place. I wouldn’t be surprised if the disciples share a look of confusion with each other.
This interaction just seems to increase in the odd and bizarre factor as this conversation progresses.
Let’s dive in and break this engagement down.
We begin by looking at Jesus’ initial response to the woman – he ignores and dismisses her, while the disciples, thinking they have picked up on a subtle cue meant for them, join in by urging him to get rid of her. This opening action, or inaction, on the part of Jesus was intentional, it was targeted, it is was a signal that this is going to be a teaching moment aimed at, not the woman, but the followers of Christ. He is using the moment to teach his followers, particularly his disciples, what he had just verbally taught about in the earlier verses. As the woman shouted, what was inside of the disciples, and probably inside the crowd as well, began to take hold, they thought the gate had been open to let their own attitudes come forward, it could no longer be held back, it all came pouring out out of their mouths, ‘Just send her away, Jesus!’
In these brief four words, the disciples revealed a bigotry and a prejudice against the woman, as ‘all her kind.’ They, unconsciously formed a hostile attitude toward the woman because of her nationality, her color, her ancestors, basically ‘who she was.’ In the most blunt of terms, they were revealed that they were racists. We know that because her requests, and methods, were nothing new, thousands had come to Jesus doing the same thing for the same reason, probably, many who were also shouting – the disciples didn’t suggest sending them home, well except for when there were too hungry, when they became a burden. This time was different, this time it was a pushy Canannite, woman, a gentile. Sure, the gentile centurion had come to Jesus on behalf of his servant for healing, maybe, the servant was even a gentile. The difference, though, in that gentile situation and this gentile situation was all about presentation (or so they would have claimed), that man, the Centurion, knew how to act, he was respectful, he knew the words to say, it knew how to act right. He was following the unspoken rules that you follow as a gential and addresses a Israelite. This Canannite gentile Woman either didn’t know how to act correctly, normally, or she did but just refused to do so.
So, Jesus echoed the mind and heart bigotry of his disciples and followers, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ While this was true, the promise to Abraham and passed down to Jacob, did declar that all people would be blessed by the Israelites, Jesus coming to heal the Israelites would, conceptually, enable them, the Jews to go to the gentiles. While accurate, it was not true to ‘who’ Jesus was, and they should have known this by now. Sometimes, it is impossible to even realize what we have allowed to be hidden in the dark places of our heart and mind – especially racism and bigotry.
The disciples did not, and at this point could not, empathize with the woman, something in them did not want to. So they hated and despised her – Jesus let them see this as he opened the gate for these things to come forth from out of their lives. He echoed their thoughts, he mirrored their darkness.
While the disciples only saw a non-Jew, a non-Israelite, and a non-male; what they did not see was that this oppressed and desperate woman was a Canannite, she, like Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth, all shared ancestral connections with Jesus.
Next, we see the woman quickly move ahead of the still walking Jesus, and kneel in front of him, probably in deference bowing her head to the ground, blocking his way so that he has to stop. The response of Jesus to the woman’s repeated cry for help is to say, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ These words too, are not the mean spirited words they sound to be. The gentiles held a much different attitude towards animals. While the Israelites may have had animals around as a necessity, the gentiles endeared the animals they had as beloved family pets. So, the phrase ‘dogs’ would not have been taken as the insult it sounds to us – it was a description of the immense difference in the faith and religion of the Israelites and the scattered and dysfunction of the faith practices of the gentiles.
Her response is an unveiling of her unbridled faith, as well as of the expansiveness of God’s love and Jesus’ ministry. In saying, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,’ the woman exposed her understanding of God, God’s love, and of her own belovedness by God.
She was saying, ‘yes, I know you came for the Israelites, but, I also know that you are enough, and have enough grace, for me and all peoples.’
Jesus is blown away by the heart and core of this woman as he sees what comes forth from her, as evidenced by his response to her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ He sees a faith that empowered by what is inside this woman.
This woman, who didn’t look like one that Jesus had come for, she didn’t wash her hands as part of a religious ritual, she didn’t observe the dietary laws or think certain foods were unclean, she didn’t have the right ‘pure’ bloodline, her nationality did not hold the power her oppressors held, she may have not been the acceptable color, she didn’t live in Jerusalem nor was she allowed in the temple, in all honesty, there are countless ways that she did not fit the proper mold of a faithful follower of Jesus…..unless you were able to see her heart, or if you were to be there, like Jesus was, when what was inside came forth.
Let’s look at this in a practical way, from a historical event, to see how what is inside comes out, and what comes out positively or negatively impacts all that are in a part of our journey.
On November 14, 1960, a US Marshall’s vehicle pulled up in front of the New Orleans home of Abon and Lucille Bridges to escort their 6 year old daughter to William Franz Elementary School. Little Ruby was wearing new dresses, socks, and shoes and ready for her first day of school.
As Ruby, and the Marshalls, arrived at the school, they were met by an angry mob. John Steinbeck, who was there to witness the moment, later wrote about what he had observed, specifically, he wrote about a group of women at the protest whose picture had been seen nation wide, –
Ruby was one of three children that integrated the public school system in New Orleans in 1960, however, Ruby was by herself at William Franz Elementary School. She spent the year traveling to and from school in the vehicle with the Marshalls, who in between would go back to her street to protect her house and parents. Lucille and Abon, her parents, suffered that year as he lost his job as a gas station attendant because of Ruby; their grocery store would no longer her family shop there; her sharecropper grandparents in Mississippi were turned off their land. Most parents removed their children from the school the day that Ruby arrived. Ruby, walked in through the screaming mob every morning and every afternoon. In between, she was alone in a classroom, just her and Barbara Henry, her teacher, brought in from Boston.
Now, as an adult 60 years later, Ruby shares life lessons she learned from that year, and her subsequent life, how those who didn’t join the hateful mobs made a huge difference in her life, ‘many others in the community, both black and white, showed support in a variety of ways. Some white families continued to send their children to Frantz Elementary despite the protests and danger, a neighbor provided her father with a new job, and local people babysat, watched the house as protectors, and walked behind the federal marshals’ car on the trips to school.’ It was not until Bridges was an adult that she learned that the immaculate clothing she wore to school were donated to her family by a white relative of Dr. Coles, her volunteer psychiatrist.