25th Pentecost / Judges 4:1-7 / Heroes in a time like this
Of course this month had to play out this way. First the US elections. A complete nail biter. But the better man won, I think. Then Scotland Football. Of course it had to end the way it ended. Penalty shootout. 5-4. First time to qualify for finals in over 20 years. We needed to hear something like this in a year that has been 2020. We needed to hear it.
USA, the Wee County, indeed the whole of Scotland was in stride, glowing, elated. These were the sort of stories we needed right now.
Then on Friday, something quite unbelievable happened. A 52 year old woman was struck dead by a bin lorry on High Street. For those of who know the area between Drysdale and High Street you know that the very narrow dimensions of the roads and the density of pedestrians naturally slows down the traffic. How could this have happened? And yet and still, this tragedy happened. It happened…with shoppers and shop keepers and High School students having witnessed this tragedy. It sucked the air out of things.
Life is strange.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens)
How these words ring true today.
We are nearly at the end of our journey through Ordinary Time. Next Sunday we celebrate Christ the King Sunday once more and then the liturgical year begins again with Advent. This first Lectionary reading for today is at once discouraging and encouraging, depending on where we focus our attention. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Israel has come to the end of their journey. We have followed them from the olden days of the patriarchs when God called Abraham from Modern day Iraq with the promise of a new land where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived as resident aliens. We spent a lot of time with Jacob’s children in Egypt and in the wilderness. Recently, we have watched them enter the Promised Land and conquer it with God’s help. God has kept all his promises to them and they are home at last.
But they are NOT at peace. Israel was home, but not at peace. They were still surrounded by enemies outside their borders and within their borders. In the midst of this appears Deborah, a woman no less, in the male dominated world of Israel. Deborah was a prophetess who spoke directly for God. Deborah was one tough woman. And she proved to be an unexpected hero for Israel in a time such as theirs.
For reasons incomprehensible to me, the Lectionary stops our reading even before Barak begs Deborah to accompany him into battle, so we have no idea how it all turns out. Do you want to know how it ends? Come back next week. But if we finish this episode in the later chapters, we learn not only that Sisera’s army of chariots has been routed, but also that Sisera himself has been assassinated in gruesome fashion by (are you ready?) a woman named Jael. Deborah and Jael. Two ordinary women who becomes heroes. This is the sort of story we need right now.
Life is precarious. Perhaps that is why we long for heroes. Life changes fast, Life changes in an instant. You are celebrating Scotland’s victory one moment and then a life ends right in front of our eyes. Because life is so precarious may be why we have an instinctive need for a judge like Deborah. A hero like Deborah.
Perhaps this is why Hollywood does not even make real films any more as pointed out by the director Martin Scorsese. Instead the majority of movies are about superheroes like Iron Man, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman…The list goes on. We even had a TV series simply called: HEROES.
But what is a hero anyway? Hemingway defined the Hero as “a person who lives correctly, following the ideals of honour, courage and endurance in a world that is sometimes chaotic, often stressful, and always painful.” A hero measures herself by how well she handle the difficult situations that life throws at her. I think we know heroes like these in our own lives. They do not have to wear capes of wear their pants on the outside of their trousers, but we know heroes likes these.
As many of you know, I am the second son of a Valkyrie. And so I am fiery just like my mother. I have fire in my belly and because my mother and I are too much alike. I remember having this perfect row with her when I was 17. I was screaming and my father who is a very patient and gracious man asked me to come to the kitchen for a chat. I knew it was serious. Dad listened very patiently and he said, “Sang, I knew your mother before I knew you. If your mother leaves, we don’t eat her clean healthy food and this house will not be run like clockwork, everything will be out of order. Now, if you leave. I will have more money.”
This is the same mother who would drive me an hour each way to my saxophone lessons during high school and wait inside the car for an hour in the freezing winter. I have not forgotten.
If you think about it there are ordinary heroes all around us. Only if we would stop and see. Don’t think but look. Who are the heroes in your life? Some are no longer with us. Let’s take 10 seconds remember the heroes who made a difference in our world. I’ll keep time….How pleased they must be to have been remembered by you this morning.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that Israel is home but not at peace. Ironically, because of COVID, we have been confined to our homes but have found little peace. We want to go home even when we are home. In many ways, we too have been keeping time in this COVID-struck year by last year’s calendar. What we were doing at this time last year. Where we had holidayed. The plans we had made. The airplane tickets we had bought. Somehow we have endured this human condition.
The story of Judges tells the unflinching story of human existence. It is the overcoming of tragedy by comedy, darkness by light, foolishness by wisdom, incredulity by belief, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as a tale too good NOT to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it this seemingly impossible POSSIBILITY of the love wrought in this outlandish God. Perhaps God throws us into some tough situations so that we too may work out the inner hero in all of us. It may be as simple as not being surly and waiting our turn when we shop at Tesco Extra.
To understand what the Good Book is all about, you have to understand its unblinking reflection of everyday reality. There is no place here for either saccharine, happy endings, or soft boiled hope. Rather, the Good Book records the tragedy of human failure, the comedy of being loved overwhelmingly by God despite that failure and the fairy tale of transformation through that love.
As one theologian wrote, “if we understand this, we begin to understand much more. We see that the stories of God’s people are divine jokes about the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people.”
So the tragedy and reversal of fortune of Israel, being home but not at peace, speaks to the fullness of who we are and to the emptiness too, the emptiness where grace and peace belong but mostly are NOT, because terrible as well as wonderful things have happened to us all even in this year.
But the gospel must be bad news before it can be good news.
Which makes today even more poignant- that we mere mortals would enact a sacred ritual that binds us to all of eternity.
The clergy sometimes suffer from being too close things holy, living with them as their calling requires, from handling the sacraments and preaching the Word under the duress of time, and we sometimes forget the transcendental mystery that holds it all together.
To baptise a child in a world like ours, is an act of courage. It is an act of hope. It is an act that says that life should go on. Ewan’s presence here with us says that we should go on for the possibility of future heroes like Deborah and Jael. As Frost once said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.” That is the Good News. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. All together they are the truth.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.
15 November 2020