Judges 4: 1-7
When I first started thinking about this sermon I was planning to talk about the only female judge mentioned in the Bible – Deborah. Deborah’s name means “bee” in Hebrew, hence the sting like bee title. I was intrigued by this story of a woman who was incredibly busy yet who found time to sit underneath a palm tree. In fact, she sat under the palm so often that the tree became known as Deborah’s palm.
When I say she was busy, I’m not kidding. She was working at least three jobs: Wife (and presumably mother because the Bible has a habit of pointing out when women are barren), prophet, and judge. You know this woman did not have one minute to spare in her day. Nevertheless, she understood how important it is to take time on a regular basis to sit under a tree and think, or rest, or just be. When we hurry and scurry from sunup until sundown it is easy to get exhausted before we even realize it.
We think that it’s virtuous to be busy as a bee, but the truth is when we are trying to keep track of many things at once, none of them get our full attention. When we are trying to decide whether to make ham or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, the answer doesn’t really matter all that much. But there are some decisions that need to be completely thought out before they are made, and that takes time and energy.
Deborah was wise enough to know that everything else in her day would work better if she took the time to sit, and think, and rest, and plan, and listen. I’m guessing that is why the Israelites came to her to settle their disputes and help them think through their problems.
If we would like to be wiser, we could take a lesson from Deborah. A lot of us are very busy, maybe even too busy. There are those of us who hear the phrase “the holidays” and instead of getting excited or fondly remembering the celebrations of years past we heave a heavy sigh and feel a sense of dread. [sigh] The holidays. Again? So soon? Didn’t we just have Christmas?
We start to think about all the things we have to do to get ready for the holidays – all the cooking and cleaning and baking and decorating and gift purchasing and gift wrapping and gift giving and functions we are obligated to attend in order to preserve good working or family relationships. When we add all these extra responsibilities and commitments to lives that are already chock full from morning until night, it can be overwhelming. It takes the joy and the fun out of the holidays. It takes the joy and the fun out of our lives.
What would Deborah do? Deborah would sit down for a while and think it over and make plans and let go of all the details just long enough to be able to focus on how to tackle one task at a time. We all know it’s not possible to find time to do that. There are no extra minutes in the day to sit and think and plan and rest. If we are going to do that, we have to make time to do it. That requires prioritizing what really needs to get done and what can wait and what doesn’t have to be done. We tell ourselves that we have to do all these things, but the truth we don’t HAVE to do them at all. If we think we are going to recreate down to the last detail some fantastic holiday season from the past, we are fooling ourselves. Every holiday season is different, so why not plan to do some things that are different?
Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about when I first read this passage and was trying to figure out where the sermon might go. But, as this past week progressed and I read this passage over and over I found I could not get past that first verse. The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.
We don’t read the book of Judges very much, at least not in worship. This story of Deborah is the only time this book comes up in the lectionary readings in the whole three year cycle, and this isn’t even the whole story of Deborah and there are twenty other chapters of rollicking good tales about what happened with the Israelites after they came out of the wilderness and into the promised land. After Moses and Joshua died the people had a hard time remaining the nation they had been called to be. It didn’t take very long before they started to get pretty lax about keeping the laws God had set down for them. The next thing you know, they had turned away from God altogether. Over and over the book of Judges tells us that after a judge died the people again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Because of that they suffered until they finally began to turn back to God who then called up another judge to lead them, but it was a vicious cycle in which the Israelites eventually did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Again.
The Israelites did what was evil. Not the Israelites sinned or broke the commandments, but they did what was evil. Evil is a harsh word. Evil means profoundly immoral, with intent to harm others, corrupt, perverted, vicious.
Sin, on the other hand, is not good but it doesn’t pack quite the punch that downright evil does. Sin means straying off course, crossing a boundary, not living up to a standard. If it comes between us and God it is sin. If it is not based in love it is sin. Rejecting God’s plans and purposes is sin.
All evil things definitely come between us and God and are certainly sinful, but I don’t believe all sinful things are evil. Some things that come between us and God are bad choices and they are harmful to us, but they are not profoundly immoral, or corrupt, or perverted.
Maybe I’m putting too fine a point on this. Maybe sin and evil are equals. Reformed theology teaches us first to check and see what the Bible says about it. The Bible tell us that it’s evil when people worship idols (Exodus 32: 22-23) or worship other gods (Judges 2:11-12.) It is evil is when we deliberately lead someone away from God and toward something else Deut 13:5. Treating the poor contemptuously is evil. Deut 15:9. There are other examples, but all of them seem a little more serious cheating on a diet or bringing home a pen from the supply closet at work. I understand that sin is sin, and all of it comes between us and God, and none of it is good or good for us. It’s the repercussions that differ in severity and scope.
The Bible also doesn’t say that the Israelites were evil, but that they did what was evil. It is a difficult reality that all of us, all human beings, are capable of doing something that is evil
So what is evil? The rape of a child is evil. Witnessing the rape of a child and not even trying to stop it is evil. Knowing that someone has raped and molested several children and keeping it quiet for any reason is evil.
Edmond Burke’s famous quote “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” has been repeated often this past week. Frankly I don’t care who is the most guilty in thePennStatecase. All that I care about are the victims, eight of whom have come forward at my last count. Who knows how many more victims there are?
The lives of these children will never be the same. They will carry the burden of these vicious attacks for the rest of their days. I know several adults who were raped as children and we have talked about this a lot this week. The thing is you all know adults who have been raped, although you may not realize who they are. It’s just not something that most of them talk about. They don’t talk about it because even to hear someone else’s story, much less tell their own, causes them to relive every excruciating moment even after years of therapy and building a successful life for themselves. They don’t talk about it because we don’t want to hear it. We don’t know what to say or do in the face of this kind of abuse and so we choose to avoid it whenever possible. They don’t talk about it because they are afraid that we will judge them and that we will feel differently about them if we know their shame.
Some do find ways to talk about it. They write books and blogs. They speak to groups and try to raise awareness and teach us how to recognize abuse in children and, please God, how to stop it. Kelly Clarkson wrote the words to her song “Because of You” about her own childhood. This song was not written about child sexual abuse, but it was written out of her personal, painful experience as child and the effect it has had on the rest of her life. The chorus of this song says, “Because of you I never stray too far from the sidewalk. Because of you I learned to play on the safe side so I don’t get hurt. Because of you I find it hard to trust not only me, but everyone around me. Because of you I am afraid.”
I wouldn’t even try to make a judgment about who is the guiltiest person in this scenario, but I don’t believe that any of these people who knew and said nothing intended to participate in evil. I’ve seen them in the news and they look normal, like regular people. These are not people who worship Satan or who gather to plot the destruction of the world order. I do not know any of them personally, but I am told they are good men. And yet, they are good men who did nothing.
When we don’t step in and report when we see acts of violence and terror committed and keep reporting until someone pays attention; when we don’t ask questions if we see or hear something suspicious; that’s when we are good people who have done nothing. When we know that people have been or are being cheated; when we know that people in charge are corrupt and we ignore it, that’s when we are good people who have done nothing.
The book of Judges tells us over and over that the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of God and they suffered and were oppressed. But each time God heard their cries and raised up another judge to lead them and help them find their way back to God, back to doing what is right in the sight of the Lord, back to righteousness.
There were students on the campus ofPennStatethis week who were angry about some of the consequences already meted out in this scandal and they rioted. But there were other students on the campus who have held candlelight vigils for the victims and are raising money to help them. Then Saturday before the Penn State/Nebraska football game both teams came out on the field and they prayed.
I hope they were praying for these young victims and their families – that somehow they may heal and build new lives, but I also hope they were praying for everyone on the campus because they are all suffering in one way or another over this. Most of all I hope they were praying for all the people who did nothing, that these people may understand why they should have done something, and that they may know the peace of God’s forgiveness and ours.