Sermon: Remembering Our Way To Who We Are by Kevin Jagoe

2018 April 8
by Kevin

Throughout the year, Ana and then Meagan, and now I have been exploring the stories of Women in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Next month will be our final sermon in this series so I wanted to begin by reminding us why we are doing this thing and the lenses I am bringing to this particular sermon.


Part of the impetus for this series is to show that there are many stories of women in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. And the stories are complex, there are layers to these stories. When we read them from our particular perspectives there are pieces we disagree with. There are pieces we might interpret very differently than originally intended. These stories and scripture more broadly are often used by religious conservatives to tell a particular story of religion, of women, of God, and of who WE in fact are or should be.


When we read, and share, and discuss these stories we ADD to them as well. We bring who we are to the text and the telling. The way I read and preach about this story is different than if Ana or Meagan or any other person did so. That is the challenge and the power of scripture, of holy texts. They do not in fact mean just one thing for all time. No story does.


With all of this in mind, we look this week to Deborah’s story in the Book of Judges. This section of the Hebrew scriptures is a series of stories involving unlikely leaders.


We find the Israelites struggling to maintain their cultural and religious identity among many other groups of people. They are trying to establish themselves in a new land and losing touch with that core of who they are, a people chosen and liberated by a singular God and in relationship, or covenant, with only that deity and no other.


The people who were alive for the events at Mount Sinai have died. Each tale of the Judges goes something like this:


The tribes of Israel are ruled by another people, under harsh conditions.


The people of Israel cry out to God for help.


God responds with a leader, a deliverer, a Judge to help the people know the way forward and to become free again from oppression. To govern themselves and live in peace for a time. Mostly, this leader, this Judge reminds the people of who they are, of their values and commitments to a particular history before they are lost in a sea of narratives of surrounding people.


Then the Israelites forget again, and the cycle repeats.



Deborah is just such a leader. She is a prophet, someone with a direct line to the divine. She is able to send forth armies and direct the fate of an entire people. None of that is up for debate in this story. That is a powerful statement of the role of Deborah and the potential role of women in Jewish society. Here in scripture is an example, a possibility, that women have just as much authority as anyone else. They too can be Judges.


Deborah summons the military commander to her, just as the King of their oppressors summons his commander. In this they are the same. Both leaders have the role of general taken up by someone else and are not expected to go into battle themselves.


But then something curious happens. Deborah’s commander responds with a demand of his own. We will only go into battle if Deborah goes too. The stakes have been raised and Deborah doesn’t blink. She agrees with these words, “Very well, I will go with you. However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”


And so they go, Deborah and her commander off into battle. She is in fact putting more on the line than her opponent. The King is not putting himself in battle. But God is with the Israelites and in fact God is a force that goes ahead of their smaller army to disrupt the larger army. All goes according to Prophecy, as Deborah has said it would.


The Israelites are victorious, except the enemy commander, Sisera, escapes on foot. He finds his way to the tent of woman named [Ya-El]. Yael is alone and invites him in to safety, gives him water and milk, and lets him sleep.


Here is where things take a gruesome turn, having given him a place of safety and sleep. Yael kills him with a tent stake. Deborah’s commander catches up and when he approaches the tent of Yael, she shows him the body of Sisera. Thus completing the prophecy. God has delivered the enemy commander into the hands of a woman and therefore the glory goes to Deborah and Yael for delivering the people of Israel from their oppressors.


From this victory, the Israelites go on to defeat the King’s forces, and a victory hymn is sung for the leadership of Deborah and the final blow struck by Yael.


The land was tranquil for forty years.


And so the Israelites are pulled back together as a single people with a story of who they are going back in time beyond any living memories and with a purpose and relationship to the ultimate, their God. Usually after a generation of peace, after those forty years, the people forget again. They break their promises to God and begin to lose their way.


Then the next judge comes forward to remind them, again.


They continue to remind the people over the course of generations about who they are. These stories also ADD to who the Jewish people are over time.


Story creates as much as it reminds us of our heritage. That cycle of remembrance and retelling and adding new pieces has built us up over time.


When we look to this text, it is messy. Deborah is one judge among a long line that keep course-correcting the Israelites over time. This is the challenge of being people together. We get things wrong, we forget, and sometimes we are called to remember or help others remember. That is not usually a fun process.


It is something like meditation or spiritual practice. We stray off course and then return to our breath, we are pulled back into awareness about who we are and why we do what we do.


And then there are Yael’s actions. She murders someone after offering him safety. She kills one person to perhaps save many more from oppression or death.


Within these passages, impossible things happen, violent things happen that allow the Israelites to survive. A message I find within this story is that individual choices can turn the course of whole groups of people. Deborah’s actions guide the lives of all of Israel. Her commander’s decision to question means that he is not remembered for this battle and yet, he plays a role in delivering the Israelites from oppression too. And Yael, who brings the actions of battle into a more personal sphere, into her home. War and hearth merge in Yael’s story.


From my vantage point as an American today. I see Yael as us. She represents the reality of war. That though most of the fighting may take place far from our homes, the ultimate glory, or the ultimate responsibility for that fighting winds up at our own tents. We are responsible for the actions of our armies. We are part of a whole people, a whole culture and while we might not individually harm others, the systems we are a part of do.


We benefit from them and are harmed by them. It is both-and. Are we the Israelites in this story? Are we the oppressors? Are we Deborah? Are we Yael? I believe the answer is that we are all of the actors in these stories.


When we read of a man killed in Brooklyn by police. Among witnesses, family members, neighbors, and protesters. Who are we in the story? Are we only one person or many?


And where are the leaders that are calling us back to remember who we are? Who is our prophet today? Who is Deborah?


We are who we are through the stories we are taught, and the experiences that add our own lines to the next chapter.

The ancient stories and the modern ones we hear from others and the ones we write ourselves. That is where I see something happening that goes beyond the everyday and touches the divine. The stories we let in make us who we are and help us to become what we can only imagine.


Sometimes they are not the stories we would like. Sometimes we have God on our side, sometimes we do what is right, and sometimes we don’t. And more often, we can’t be certain of where the truth lies. We are always at risk of forgetting. Of passing by the painful stories.


So where in all the confusion do stories guide us? Why does Deborah being the prophet and leader matter? Because the stories we choose to tell matter.


We CREATE a certain amount of our reality. We make things Real through relationship and layering experience over meaning on top of memory.


We share and pass on this Reality through the power of Story. Of all the things we’ve done as a species, becoming storytellers may be our most amazing gift.


The stories we lift up and pass on gain power through every retelling. We gather them together over the course of our lives and they form the core of who we are. Our identities are stories, part truth and part myth. When I say I am gay, that has meanings, real meaning in this world and… without the context we live in now… could be completely meaningless to people of the past or the future.


When we say we are Unitarian Universalists, we are entering into a narrative that began long ago and has been retold over time in many places by many people. Whether we were born UU or became UU later in life, our religious identity is one of accepting a heritage we didn’t make ourselves. One that exists outside of normal time and is bigger than any single person.


The news is a series of stories. Curated and created by people. Based in this world. In the here and now, and instantly part fiction. A partial truth, not a capital T truth. What isn’t told is as important as what is. What made it into the Scriptures and what did not? Whose stories are told?


Our very lives are stories. Our relationships are the exchange of chapters, of parables between us. Most are mundane but every now and then a story takes on the light of prophecy or perhaps a surprise twist and we are no longer who we were a moment ago. We may have a sense of when our decisions begin a new path and sometimes we only learn the depth of meaning later.


And here is where humanity and divinity intersect. In the mystery and complexity of who we are and how we are remembered. We have choices about whose stories to listen to, about which stories to tell. We also have a great deal to surrender to, the vastness of those intersecting stories we cannot control or predict.


Deborah is Called to be a leader, Yael’s actions have many interpretations. Both have power and lessons for us today. Neither are solely good or bad, no story worth retelling is that clear. But both have the power to change how you think and change who you are, after all these centuries.


Our small amount of agency is where our stories get told. Where we connect to what came before and begin to write what will happen next. How do you want to be remembered? And who will tell your story next?



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