Zacchaeus – You Need a Reject but we’re ALL Rejects

Today, we’re talking about Zacchaeus and this particular chapter of Len Sweet’s 11 indispensable relationships you can’t be without, our sermon series this Fall, asks the question – “Who’s Your Zacchaeus?  You Need a Reject.”

Did you ever climb trees as a kid?  We had a magnolia tree in a neighbor’s backyard that was perfect for climbing.  If you know anything about magnolia trees, their branches are close together, which makes it an easy tree to climb. We spent many afternoon of my childhood climbing trees.  That’s why the story of Zacchaeus has always fascinated me.

Not to mention the song we learned in Sunday school, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.  He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.   Jesus said, “You come down for I’m coming to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.”    I can’t believe after all these years I still remember that.  Which leads us to our scripture reading for today…

Luke 19:1-10

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus and Zacchaeus

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Sweet says, “One of the oddest people Jesus ever befriended was a short, wealthy, self-made entrepreneur named Zacchaeus.  He was the chief tax collector which made him one of the most hated people.  Have you ever heard people say nice things about the IRS?  And Biblical tax collectors were even worse.  If there were pictures with definitions of words, he would be the one with the caption “ostracized.”    Are you surprised that Jesus decided to go over to his place for lunch?  Not at all.  Jesus was at home with social outcasts, lepers, women of ill repute, AND the chief tax collector.  Jesus didn’t care much for the hyper religious or the wealthy.  So this was not out of the norm for Jesus.  But have you noticed that it always disturbs/upsets the crowd.  They are surprised every time.  What company do we keep?  Would the crowd be surprised with whom we hang out?

Most of the characters within the series have something to give us – Jethro – the butt kicker, Jonathan – the true friend, Deborah – the back coverer.  But Zacchaeus is different than these.  It all begins with fully seeing Zacchaeus for what he is, and inviting him down from the tree.  If we let them, the Zacchaeus’ of our lives help to illuminate our own need for grace.  Because we’re all in fact a little bit messed up.  Not one of us is perfect.  Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  All of us are walking and talking “steaming cauldrons of moral failures and ambiguities.”

Zacchaeus doesn’t need to be told he’s a sinner.  Society’s already made that clear.  He doesn’t need people to tell him he’s an outcast.  He already feels it.  Most people know that the Inuit have a hundred words for snow.  The English word sin is used to translate at least six Hebrew and seven Greek words.  Soren Kierkegaard defined sin this way.  “Sin is the steadfast refusal to be your one true self.”  That is a very different understanding than the typical definition of sin.  Evigras of Pontus’ understanding of sin is that sin is a “forgetfulness of God’s goodness.”  Hmmm…Jesus actively sought out sinners and made room at the table for them, maybe he was searching them out reminding them of God’s love specifically for them.

Jesus didn’t seem to mind that he was getting a “reputation” for hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes.  Everyone that he encountered, he saw as a person in need of God’s love.

There are no outsiders because no one is out of the reach of the love of God.  Nothing can separate us from it, actually.  Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus taught us to see others not as “others” but as “one of us” as “oneanothers.”  So y’all don’t know about my LOST obsession.  Scores of students were subjected to this madness as sermon illustrations poured forth each week for years and years.  They had the ability to weave their way into my sermons.  Josh alluded to it on our Fall Retreat but you’re about to see a clip of Jack’s live together, die alone speech.

I imagine Jesus would have given a similar speech and he would be befriending con man Sawyer and criminal Kate.  What made LOST special was that it delved into the messy-ness of the survivors lives.  It showed in real and tangible ways the flaws of each one.  Characters were never pure evil or purely good.  But they were REAL.  And you pulled for their redemption.

This episode ended the first season.  And it was here that a motley crew of people triumphed.  A community.  Michael and his son Walt, and their complicated relationship of abandonment and reunion.  Jin and his wife Sun – their evolution as characters from Jin working for Sun’s father to their estrangement and to their eventual homecoming.  The reason that LOST worked so well for those who watched it and dare I say were obsessed with it, was because you bought into the characters’ stories, and you saw a little bit of yourself in each of them.  It helped to have a full orchestra that performed each score – conveying emotions!

We have quite a few “characters” in our lives.  People that are either larger than life or a bit peculiar or a bit “off” or those that march to the beat of a different drummer.  What “characters” do we have at Gator Wesley?

Often we have to find the Zacchaeus’ of our lives.  Sweet writes, “We have tried to “live in” rather than “live out” the gospel.  It is time for Christians to “Get out more,” to try alfresco forms of faith and community.  The Christian church is too “in here” and not enough “out there.”  Late fourth century philosopher Caius Marius Victorinus was afraid to show up in church with his pagan friends and said this about the church, “Do walls make Christians?”  That’s the reason for Wesley lunches on Tuesday and Friday, Love Campaign, and leadership team discussing whether to do Evensong on the Plaza of the Americas once a month – TO GET OUT OF THE BUILDING!  This outward focus is a natural part of the Christian faith.  We are to be the church in the world.  SO WHY ARE WE NOT OUT THERE?

In essence, moving from inward to outward is central to the revelation of Christ by the church to the world.  John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, called the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion an “outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”

Thus leading us to an obvious segue to Communion that we celebrate each week.  But I want to make sure you get something.  It bears repeating.  Zacchaeus’ are obviously “out there” – the social misfits, the anarchists, the people on the fringes or outside society’s norms, BUT there’s a bit of Zacchaeus in all of us.  We’re all Zacchaeus.  Jesus would have come into the world for any one of us.  Like the parable of the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the one lost sheep.  All for one.  So this scene from the Rise of the Guardians is a turning point.  You see Pitch, the villain in the movie, has wiped out the whole world’s belief in the Guardians (Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Sand Man, and a new guardian Jack Frost) and only one boy is left that believes.

All for one.

I’m not saying all of those things are real, even though Enoch and Evy believe them to be, and I find it problematic that as parents were supposed to enlighten our children one day that they’re not real, however saying at the same time that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit also that they can’t tangibly see – are real?  I’ll let you know how that conversation goes down.  However, I know what I will say, that God will give you the evidence you need to help you believe.  Like in Luke 9:24, when the man of the child that Jesus is healing says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  Just ask.  Jesus desires a personal relationship with each one of us.  That’s why before we even have understanding of it, God searches us out and draws us to God’s self in God’s prevenient grace.  We recognize we’re in need of God’s grace – that that grace is for us – in justifying grace.  God doesn’t leave us where we are in the mire and the muck.  In God’s sanctifying grace, God helps us to grow and mature as Christians.  Growing in grace and growing the depth of our faith that the world may see and know that our God reigns and God’s grace is available to them.  Tax Collectors.  Prostitutes.  You and Me.  Amen.

Spark and Mountaintop

One of the Gator Wesley bands is going to be playing both of the songs that I’ve included in this post. They’re both by a band called The City Harmonic and they are called “Spark” and ‘Mountaintop” respectively and Gator Wesley hopes to book them in late January. I share these songs because I shared them both in a closing worship that I did at Duke’s Foundation of Christian Leadership, a week before my surgery. I have no clue what I said at the time. But, reflecting now, these things jump out at me so I share them with you, in no particular order.

1. Breathe – There’s nothing a few deep breaths won’t solve. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Have you heard people encouraging you to take deep breaths if they have just said something that they think will make you mad? The lines of “Spark” that say “When I breathe in hope/And breathe in grace and breathe in God/Then I’ll breathe out peace/And breathe out justice, breathe out love” make sense don’t they? So take a couple of deep breaths. I’m not talking about shallow breaths. I’m talking about using your diaphragm. Visualize you’re breathing in God and breathing out peace.

2. Have you heard that John Wesley said, “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.” Well, he didn’t actually say that. It makes for a great quote though, doesn’t it? If we all come together and share our “sparks” we CAN set the whole church on fire. Are you with me?

3. Our spark sometimes gets snuffed out. By life, by stress, by midterms, by tragedy, by doubt, by what we say as the very nature of God. It’s never too late to ask like the lyrics say, “Light a fire here in my heart.” If you ask God surely will answer. Matthew 7:7-8 says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

4. Have you ever had a “mountaintop” experience? I like that the song talks about “The valley low, that’s where we make our homes” and God is present in that valley low. I love the line, “He’s here, I feel it in my bones, our God.” So God is WALKING WITH US EACH STEP OF THE WAY.

5. I like the image of no matter what walls or temples we can build, we can’t hold God in. That’s so powerful. So many times we try to put God in boxes of our own making, but God leaks out and CANNOT be CONTAINED. No matter what. God cannot be contained, no matter how the world defines God (“they”) or how we define God (“we”).

What jumps out at you in regard to the two songs? You may have noticed that music plays a significant role in my faith walk. What are the songs that have shaped your faith?

The Story of Esther

So we’re sticking with our theme of stories – those of Biblical characters and stories from our community.  I would like to tell you the story of Esther.  It begins with a party lasting for seven days.  In Esther chapter 1: 8-9 it reads, “Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired.  Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.”  Can you imagine a party lasting for seven days?  It would be like Mardi Gras to the extreme.  Or if you saw the movie version of The Great Gatsby or even previews, it would be like morning never comes.  The party never ends.  On the seventh day, the King, who was in “high spirits” from wine orders Queen Vashti  to make an appearance so they can behold her beauty, she’s his centerpiece after all.  But Queen Vashti refuses to come.  The text doesn’t say why she didn’t come.  Maybe she didn’t feel like it, maybe she was sleeping and she didn’t want to be rudely woken up by a summons from the king, maybe she thought ‘I’m the Queen,’ how dare the King request me.  We’re not sure.  As the eunuchs give the Queen’s response to the King,  he was furious.  Angry at her refusal to obey, the King asked his wise men what should be done.  One of them said it would set a bad precedent.  Esther 1:16-17, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the provinces.  For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands.”  So Queen Vashti got deposed and at the end of chapter 1 the King sent letters to all the royal provinces, in their own language, “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”  It begs the question, was he that threatened?  That’s neither here nor there.

Okay so how did Esther arrive on the scene?  While the king was having second thoughts for having Vashti banned, his servants encouraged him to gather “beautiful young virgins” from every province in the kingdom and let “cosmetic treatments be given them.  And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.”  The king thought this was a very good idea.

I feel like at some points I’m telling a fairy tale here.   Esther was the most beautiful, fairest in the land.   There was a Jewish man named Mordecai, and he had brought up Esther as his own daughter because she was an orphan.  And so of course, she ended up with the king.  I’m skipping several plot points here – the twelve month beautification in the king’s harem Esther underwent and the king actually choosing her.  I feel like I’m telling the plot of Pretty Woman at this point.   Anyway, the king made her queen instead of Vashti and gave a banquet in Esther’s honor.

And they lived happily ever after?

They may not if Evy had had her way.  The fam had all piled on top of the bed before the kids had to go to swimming and Evy was playing Barbies.  Apparently Ariel was married to Prince Charming, but he was dancing with Cinderella.  She had Prince Charming and Cinderella and I was Ariel, and I was to break them up from dancing.  Random.  The girl has an extensive imagination.

Back to the story, what happens after happily after?  Things get real.

Shortly thereafter, when Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gates, he overheard two of the king’s officers plotting to assassinate the king.  Mordecai let Esther know, and she warned the king about it.  Mordecai was given credit for unfurling the plot and the two treasonous guards were hung on the gallows. 

Now you should be hearing villainous music and lots of bass and minor notes because I’m about to introduce the character of Haman.  It says the king “advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him.  All the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down.”  But Mordecai refused, because he was a Jew, who would bow to no one except God.  This made Haman very angry and he along with his wife and his advisors plotted against the Jews making a plan to exterminate the Jews from the Persian empire.  Haman uses his influence on the king and makes the king a pawn in his chess game against Mordecai, saying the Jews don’t keep the same laws.  So the king agrees.  Esther 3:13, “Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day,  the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.”

When Mordecai learns this he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth.  When Esther finds about this she is obviously distressed because she is a Jew and from the beginning Mordecai told her to be silent about her heritage in the palace.  Mordecai sends this reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish.  Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”   

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzVR09ujdDc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxNrhJJlnk4

What ensues is some palace intrigue. 

Esther was not permitted to see the king unless he had asked for her otherwise she could be put to death.  And she had not been called in to see the king in 30 days, so she, her maid-servants, and all of the Jews of Persia fasted earnestly for three days before she built up enough courage to enter the king’s presence. When the king saw Esther, he was pleased and held out his scepter to her.  He then asked Esther what she wished of him, promising to grant even up to half his kingdom should she ask. Esther requested a banquet with the king and Haman. During the banquet, she requested another banquet with the king and Haman the following day.

Cue villainous laughter, Haman was already ordering gallows to be constructed to hang Mordecai.  At the same time, Esther 6:1 says, “On that night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king” and he remembers that Mordecai had saved him from the previous assassination attempt and the king realizes he had not rewarded Mordecai.

Early the next morning, Haman came to the king to ask permission to hang Mordecai, but before he could, the king asked him “What should be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?” Haman thought the king meant himself, so he said that the man should wear a royal robe and be led on one of the king’s horses through the city streets proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” The king thought this was appropriate, and asked Haman to lead Mordecai through the streets in this way, to honor him for previously uncovering the plot against the king.  After doing this, Haman rushed home, full of grief.  His wife said to him, “You will surely come to ruin!”

Esther 7:1-10

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”[a] Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”

Haman then pleaded with Esther to save his life. Seeing Haman on Esther’s couch begging, the king became further enraged and had him hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. The king then appointed Mordecai as his prime minister, and gave the Jews the right to defend themselves against any enemy.  This precipitated a series of reprisals by the Jews against their enemies. This fight began on the 13th of Adar, the date the Jews were originally slated to be exterminated.

So it was a happy ending for God’s people.  Jewish people still today celebrate Purim in remembrance of their deliverance.

So how do we relate to the story of Esther?  Did God place us exactly where we are now, in this time, and in this place “for such a time as this?”  How can we stand up on behalf of the marginalized in our own lives speaking truth to power?  In what ways are we challenged by the story?  How is Esther’s story intersecting with your life right now?

Survival Mode

I had coffee with a friend last Thursday night, and we both intentionally want the friendship to go deeper than just our kids play together, so that’s why we made it a no kid time coffee date. Two-thirds of the way through the conversation she asked me, and I’m paraphrasing here, if I had processed the surgery? I stopped before answering because I want to be honest in our burgeoning friendship, and I said no. Not entirely. That stayed with me throughout the entire weekend. I was shocked at the strong, protective feelings her initial question evoked and there was a definite shift in the conversation.

Mike and I celebrated a long overdue date night. We had received a gift card for Mark’s Prime, a fancy place in Gainesville (thanks Brittany and Brian!) and we splurged ordering appetizers, steak, and dessert. (See Mom I do make an effort to eat red meat the week before chemo!) Then we watched a movie just right for us. Saturday was spent in typical fashion, Evy talking to Mr. Sun on our way to Krispy Kreme, Enoch threatening to put Mommy and Daddy in time out if we yelled any louder at the football game. Then Sunday it was a full day at Gator Wesley.

I didn’t consciously think about my friend’s question until they started my IV for the contrast in the MRI this morning.

Then left with no phone or book or students or laundry or things that need cleaning or ways to procrastinate, I was left alone and perfectly still with my thoughts for a whole 45 minutes. I’ve had longer MRI’s, but this FELT longer. I was trying to pray. To be present. To make this time somehow “productive.” To fight off the occasional panic attack. But the question remained.

And then fast forward to the doctor’s appointment. The oncologist’s resident came in first to ask me a few questions. I was struck by two things. The first the only person to have cancer in my family was my paternal grandfather (prostate cancer). After my grandmother died of a heart attack, the results came back the next day that she had leukemia. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we don’t have our fair share of health problems, diabetes to the extreme on Dad’s side and cholesterol and extreme heart disease on my mom’s. But growing up, cancer was never something we worried about. My grandfather was given 6 months to live when Dad was a little boy and then he lived until I was a junior in college.

The second was how different this recovery was to my first surgery. They were DRAMATICALLY different. In 2010, I came out of surgery completely normal (or as normal as I could be…). The surgery in 2010 I had no deficits, except recalling some names. I woke up in ICU talking and thinking clearly, and I went back to work a week later, ready to be back. I experienced the same pre-op that I had before, but waking up in the recovery room unable to speak but fully understanding all that was happening around me and to me….(what I was experiencing was apraxia, which I define below)…and the nurse(s) wondering aloud what was wrong with me, they had never seen someone come out of brain surgery like this…and my people pleasing nature coming out for sure…me wondering how to communicate to them about my pain needs…wondering all the time if this was permanent…the doctor checking in because the nurses apparently called him…me trying to communicate with my eyes the helplessness I felt…and sobbing when I couldn’t communicate with the doctor. That’s the last time I cried in the hospital. I guess I flipped a switch. Moving into survival mode.

I was reading back through my “notes” before the MRI. Iphones have these things called “notes” that are an app where you can type directly into it. At the end of May/beginning of June this was my preferred method of conversing because it was still hard for me to speak at that time. Somehow it was easier for me to order the words if I typed them. In the midst of “notes” of song lyrics, movies to watch, quotes from speakers at the UMCMA conference, benedictions/prayers that I had to type up to say them, notes from our staff retreat in NYC, was this hidden gem. May 24, 2013, exactly two weeks after the surgery, I typed, “The quickness with which I speak comes back?” I imagine this was thrust in the face of Mike at some point, as I gathered the courage for days to ask that question.

I ended the work day with a meeting of a newly formed clergywomen’s covenant group. I could barely articulate to them the events of the day. They had seen the facebook post so they knew the results of the MRI. A fellow clergywoman, I had not met before today, at the end of our conversation, called me a beautiful person and I answered honestly that I don’t feel that way now. I repeated my answer, but I was unable to add or articulate the words that would disguise my bruised soul. So it was left hanging out there.

So on my way I called Mike debating if I should go home or back to Wesley before freshman small group. And he said that he had been feeling the same way. He didn’t understand it either. He said he had walked around the neighborhood with the kids and that made him feel better, to get out the excess energy. And he encouraged me to do a blog, because that’s the way I process. Why are we not feeling relief/excitement/joy at the good news of the MRI results? I don’t know. Maybe we never turned off survival mode. Maybe during “recovery” we never quite recovered. Maybe it takes time. My mom texted me tonight, “Ask Jesus to show you where he was” in the post-op. And that may lead to an entirely different blog post.

I’m glad for the friend who asked the question. Because she, without her knowing, set me off on a journey towards healing….

*** Apraxia (from Greek praxis, an act, work, or deed[1]) is characterized by loss of the ability to execute or carry out learned purposeful movements,[2] despite having the desire and the physical ability to perform the movements. It is a disorder of motor planning, which may be acquired or developmental, but is not caused by incoordination, sensory loss, or failure to comprehend simple commands (which can be tested by asking the person to recognize the correct movement from a series). It is caused by damage to specific areas of the cerebrum.

Hurricane

I have my first MRI post-surgery tomorrow at 9 am. The doctor is going to read it at our appointment at 1 pm. I’m not expecting that the tumor will grow back overnight. Not by any means. And I’m sure the doctor’s visit will be anticlimactic – but only in a GREAT, AWESOME, GOD way.

This song “Hurricane” by Natalie Grant has really struck me lately.

Deborah – Who’s got your back?

Who’s got your back?  That’s your Deborah.   Urban dictionary defines the words “got your back” these two ways.  The first way, is an expression assuring someone that you are watching out for them. It comes from making sure you are safe by watching what’s behind you, when you’re busy looking ahead. Example:  I don’t know about this.  Don’t trip, son.  I GOT YOUR BACK. The second way is when your friend, colleague, cheerleader, or someone of a close affinity is by your side (either figuratively or literally) making sure that you make it through the troublesome, difficult, or tedious times or predicaments you are currently in.  Urban dictionary used Craig and Arianna of Saturday Night Live fame, in their example.  Craig says, “Oh, Arianna, are you ok?”  Arianna answers back, “I just can’t get this cheer down. I don’t think I’ll be able to do the perfect cheer.”  Craig responds, “You can do it! I know you can! I got your back.” 

Urban dictionary is quick to note that it can be converted to a threat, “Watch your back,” from the possibility someone might injure or kill you from behind when you aren’t looking.  They protect you from getting stabbed in the back.

Have you ever called someone your guardian angel?  They seem to protect you from outside forces – like a friend’s betrayal.  Or missing that student loan payment.  Or if you don’t know when you will get your next meal, and you’ve eaten your last left-over and everything else in the cabinet, a Deborah’s already got you covered.  Or if it’s something internally you’re struggling with, for example, who you are after x, y, z situation (break up, loss of job, change of major, maybe you’re struggling with even staying in school, a death in the family, grief at life).  Maybe you’re questioning your faith, how much of a difference you’re making, or you’re experiencing a dry season in your relationship with God.  Maybe you need to get back on track spiritually and you need someone to ask you the hard questions and not let you off the hook until you answer them.  That’s your Deborah.

Author of the book we’re studying this semester, 11 indispensable relationships you can’t be without, Len Sweet says, “Everyone who has made a dent or a difference for God in history has had ‘protectors’ – people who have said to them, “I’ve got your back!” 

I would take it a step further.  Everyone – all people – need protectors.  You need someone to have your back if you are going to realize your dreams and push forward when those that seek to tear you down are increasing in number.  Likewise you need someone to protect you when the doubts pile up inside your head. 

So who was Deborah and what did she do that was so special?

Judges 4:4-10

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.

So what do we know about Deborah?  She was a prophetess our text says.  She was the fourth Judge of pre-monarchic Israel and she was the only female judge.  The Bible tells us nothing of her family except who her husband was. In the history of Israel, only three people combined the offices of prophet, judge and military leader:  Moses, Samuel, and Deborah.  Deborah was one of the early judges of Israel.  The judges were charismatic leaders who by their wisdom oversaw the simple and rather disorganized government of Israel during the first couple of centuries of its existence.  One of the greatest contributions of the early judges was their ability to stir up a sense of national unity and great loyalty to the rule of Yahweh among a fiercely independent and generally ignorant people, who had not long before been Egyptian slaves.

What exactly is happening in the scripture passage that I just read?  Deborah summons the general Barak to give him an oracle from God ie. a message from God.  She tells him to bring 10,ooo men from two tribes of Israel, and she will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army.  Barak answers her that he’ll only go if she goes with him – if she’ll cover his back.

Barak’s request of the presence of Deborah has given interpreters and commentators headaches for years.  Some see Barak here as cowardly, afraid, and distrusting of God.  Other interpreters see Barak’s request as a gracious and insistent invitation to Deborah as God’s prophet to join him so that she might bless the military expedition and share in the glory of the Lord’s victory over the Canaanites. It’s ambiguous.  Either way Deborah delivered.  Not a single man of Sisera’s army survived, except Sisera himself (and another strong, gutsy woman took care of Sisera, Jael drove a tent peg into his head, killing him).  The narrative of what happened is told in Judges chapter 4 and the “Song of Deborah” is told in Judges chapter 5, one of the earliest examples of Hebrew poetry.

Bottom line, Barak would NOT go without Deborah. 

It is certainly not true that “behind every good man is an even better woman.”  That’s sexist garbage.  It is true that behind anyone who has had any “success” whether personal or professional, you need someone who has your back.  Or a whole community of people.  That’s why in any Oscar speech people thank the one’s that got them there.  Who’s in your corner.  TV shows abound with this.  Scandal, the workers of Olivia Pope and Associates, willing to take a fall if any of the team get hit.  Once Upon a Time’s unlikely alliance busy finding Henry and begrudgingly covering each other’s backs along the way. Grey’s Anatomy – this season as the interns realized they didn’t know each other and if they were to “fall/collapse/die” they would be left alone to face it because they had not reached out and realized they didn’t know each other. If you watched it in the olden days with the original 5 – Alex, Meredith, Izzie, George, and Christina – they invented delving into drama and gossip with who was hooking up with who and they pushed people like my brother Josh away with their shenanigans but made me love them all the more because they cared about each other.  It may not have been from the moment they met, but they became each other’s family, each other’s “person” as seen in this clip. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9bFnrSp998

Your family can offer good protection.  Your adopted family can offer good protection.  Your friends that become like family offer good protection.  Who’s got your back, is not someone who in an argument or dispute automatically sides with you.  It’s much more than that.  Deborah was a judge.  She was fair.  Your Deborah can help you see things about yourself that no one else sees.  They can point out your blind spots.  The areas where you’re not exercising your best judgment.  They can handle your vulnerability.  Your laughter.  Your tears.  And they can give you a good kick in the pants.  And you’ll accept it, because you know they have your best interest at heart.  But be discerning, don’t let just anybody give you a kick in the pants.  Because people will line up for that job.  People offer criticism freely.  But guarding your heart and being a back coverer, it will be a shorter line. 

I posted this on the “Encouragement Board” a facebook group that seeks to offer encouragement, birthdays, and prayer requests of Gator Wesley.  William Arthur Ward writes, “A true friend knows your weaknesses but shows your strengths; feels your fears but fortifies your faith; sees your anxieties but frees your spirit; recognizes your disabilities but emphasizes your possibilities.”  Read those words again. 

Sweet writes, “The world is full of people who like nothing better than to kill—your reputation, your spirit, your mission.”  Have you ever heard of being attacked on all sides?  Have you ever felt like your world is falling down all around you?  If you are a right-handed quarterback – one of your most trusted allies is the left tackle on the offensive line.  This is your blind side, and the best defensive linemen are put here to intimidate you and make you mess up – your success depends on your left tackle. 

Deborah didn’t fight next to Barack – but she covered his back with the fire of her words, her spirit, and her courage – she was always close enough to catch Barak’s eye.  Some people have a holy spirit, and the presence of that Holy Spirit in your life is enough to be a Deborah.  Sometimes Deborahs fight alongside you on the front lines or they’re actively covering you in prayer from a distance.  My mom is a prayer warrior.  She’s on the front lines in battle over our lives every day.  Mom’s not a pansy or a shrinking violet.  She covers it well with her southern charm, manners, and proper etiquette – she writes thank you notes.  Which is a big deal to me who never writes thank you notes.  I would say she epitomizes a Deborah.  She would be a really good judge.  Always fair.  But with a deep and abiding strength about her.  Centuries ago it was the function of knights to be back-coverers for the weak and wounded.  Especially in the age of chivalry, knights were the protectors of the marginalized and unarmed – the priests, the peasants, the poor, and the child in a violent world.  My mom is a modern day knight of sorts.  In her work as an elementary school guidance counselor she comes into contact with all sorts of things and she’s a Deborah to each of her students.  And she’s a Deborah in each of her children’s lives.

Your Deborahs should point you back to God.  My mom is certainly quick to ask, “Have you prayed about this?”  Because she knows God is our ULTIMATE back coverer.  God’s got your back 24:7:365. David wrote this Psalm after escaping from Saul. Psalm 18:1-3 “I love you, O Lord, my strength.The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies.”

Thank you God for ALWAYS having our backs.

***The Gator Wesley worship band picked these songs to do after the sermon during communion and as our closing song, “Not for a Moment” by Meredith Andrews and “Taste of Eternity” by Bellarive, and I thought they were both pretty powerful.

Not For A Moment – Meredith Andrews

Taste of Eternity – Bellarive

Yoda – Who’s Your Peter/Paul?

Maybe I built this up too much in my mind, but I really, really, really was looking forward to the Yoda chapter in Len Sweet’s book 11 indispensable relationships you can’t live without.  To say I was disappointed when Sweet only talked about Yoda for a paragraph is an understatement.  Yoda ihe says is a mentor, a guru, a coach, a spiritual teacher/director.  I was discussing this in the College Room and Carly mentioned she had no idea who Yoda is so I should not assume that everyone has watched Star Wars even once, forget watching it incessantly.  Enoch, my 6 year old, got both trilogies for Christmas, so I’ve watched them REPEATEDLY.  He even watches the offshoots from Lego Star Wars to the Yoda Chronicles. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_QcRPNfUuE

I love that clip.  Because Yoda doesn’t let Luke get away with anything.  And yet he clearly cares about him.  R2D2 is clearly the encourager from last week’s chapter.  The Master is showing the Apprentice how it’s done.  Seeing is believing.  Yoda says, “Always two there are, no less:  a master and an apprentice.”  A master pushes us to help us navigate the way that seems unattainable.  A master can help us move to new levels of perception and experience.  A master KNOWS us.  Our limits.  Our strengths.  A trusted master knows when to push or prod or ask the right question.

Disney movies have rich and meaningful mentor characters.  The emperor from Mulan, Phil from Hercules, Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas, Sebastian from The Little Mermaid, Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, Merida’s mom in Brave.  They clearly provide the morale compass of the story or the wise sage.  Their all over pop culture as well.  Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix, Mr. Miagi in the Karate Kid, Mother Superior in The Sound of Music….

Mentors often can give a reluctant protagonist a necessary push to get the plot rolling.  Mentors also often personify the moral of the story in the protagonist’s story.  They offer the inspiration to the protagonist to keep going when they would rather give up.  They’re often the voice inside your head urging you on.  Urging you forward.

Sweet actually titles this chapter, “Who’s Your Peter/Paul? You Need a Yoda.”  So I’m going to read to you snapshots of each.  Peter was the one that constantly stuck his foot in his mouth.  He was a fisherman.  He was with Jesus at the Transfiguration, the glow in the dark Jesus, where Jesus’ divinity is on full display.  He was the one that walked on water with Jesus (before sinking).  He was the one who denied Jesus three times.  He’s the one Jesus said he would build his church upon, because Peter means rock.  He was also the one who tore it up in Acts, proving that he was a changed man, preaching at Pentecost. 

Acts 3:1-10

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Peter Heals a Crippled Beggar

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Let that simmer for a second before we launch into Paul.

Paul was the one who persecuted Christians.  He was the chief persecutor of Christians.  And he had an experience on Damascus Road with the Living God.  He then presented himself to the early Christians and thinking he was going to violently persecute them, they fled.  14 of the 27 books of the New Testament are attributed to him so to say he was a prolific writer is an understatement. 

Acts 16:25-34

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer[a] called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord[b] to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Acts was nuts!  There were all sorts of things going on.  That’s why you hear people model their churches on Acts.  I don’t entirely agree with Sweet’s simplified explanation of the difference between Peter and Paul.  He says Peter was intellectually and culturally slow, but interpersonally was quick and rich, he was a hands on person when it came to relationships, it took him a while to realize the gospel was for everyone, he had a relational point of view.  In contrast he says Paul was intellectually and culturally quick but interpersonally slow, he was hands off, not relational, Paul understood early on that the gospel was for all, he argumentative point of view.

I would like the opportunity to be mentored by either one!  They were obviously men of God who had much to teach, and they had obviously experienced a conversion experience.  Neither Peter nor Paul was afraid of a fight – but a mentor can tell you which battles are worth fighting and which ones aren’t – a lesson that both Peter and Paul had to learn.

You will be mentored by lots and lots of people in your life.  I hope you will be.  I pray that you will be.  Because one having a mentor, means that we do not have it all figured out.  You remember when Luke says to Yoda “he can’t do it” and Yoda shows him he can if he just believes….You can’t be cynical or jaded for long around a Yoda.

Sir Isaac Newton said, “IF I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

  • Whose shoulders are you standing on? 
  • Who do you see and say, “I want to be like them someday!”
  • Who sets standards to which you aspire?
  • What person are you seeking out to help you find your voice and be true to your own voice?
  • From whom are you learning when to suppress and when to express yourself?
  • Whose blessing do you seek?

 

Those are all good questions as we find our Yodas.

 

We must choose our Yodas carefully.  Sweet writes, “There are as many kinds of ‘Yodas’ as there are heads, minds, and hearts! – don’t hitch your wagon to any single star or listen to any voice that seems to attract a following.”  So be discerning in who you choose.  Do you see Christ in him or her?  Mentors come in all different shapes and sizes, some for only a season and some for a lifetime.  We may not even know our spiritual mentors.  Do you have a favorite author who’s dramatically shaped your life?  Whose books you pick up at just the right time and they challenge you long after you finish reading them.  Rob Bell.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Teresa of Avila.  Brennan Manning.  Donald Miller.  Elisabeth Elliott.  Hannah Hurdard.  Bob Goff.  And countless others.  It’s like a continued conversation when you find an author that engages you.

 

Sweet says we must choose our Yodas based on these three things:  Humility, Honesty and Honor. 

 

Humility.  Peter objects to Jesus’ washing the disciples of feet.  In John 13:7 Jesus challenges Peter back, “You do not realize now what I’m doing, but later you will understand.”  The Great God of the universe humbled himself because he wanted to get in the disciples heads and make clear to his followers that you must serve.  The Master wants to study WITH you, not demand you to study UNDER them.  A true Yoda sees themselves as constantly learning.  As Sweet says “An ideal Yoda is a One-who-knows … but a One-who-knows he/she doesn’t know it all.”

 

Honesty.  The best Yodas will be honest enough to share their secrets with you.  But they will be honest enough to tell you the truth, even to rebuke you, especially when you settle for easy answers.  The best mentors let you see behind the curtain to the man underneath – a la the Wizard of Oz.  They let you see through to their vulnerability.  Their weakness.  It’s not a façade.  I appreciate people who are “real,” “authentic,” and don’t have it all figured out.  Even the Yodas second guess themselves.  But they push you out of that same second guessing….towards the light.  Because that’s innately who they are.

 

Honor.  To be blessed by and to bless a mentor are two of life’s richest blessings.  A Yoda wants to mentor people who will honor them by demonstrating both a love of originality and a love of conformity.  So you being you, is all the thanks they need.  That they had influence on your life is all the thanks they need.  That they see their legacy in YOU is all the thanks they need.  Yodas love questions.  I’m reminded of a seminary professor, Dr. Thomas Thangaraj, who asked all the right questions.  He was from India so he even sounded very much like Yoda.  I had the pleasure of being in his Contextual Education class and taking his Images of Christ class.  And I had the nerves-inducing opportunity to preach in front of him in Chapel upon several occasions because he attended University Worship at Emory.  He would find the one question we hadn’t thought of or engaged in.  He was not afraid to answer our questions either.  Like Yoda, he often answered a question by asking another question.  He modeled the give and take between Master and Apprentice unlike any other.

 

Throughout this chapter I was writing in the margins the names of my mentors.  My parents.  Bridgette.  Susan.  Risher.  Sara.  Ms. Rhodes.  A mentor’s function, according to Sweet, “is to guide and guard us into a living, dynamic relationship with God, to help us grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to help us live in a daily relationship with the divine.”  With that definition, who are your mentors, your Yodas, your guides? Have you thanked them for shaping you in big and small ways?  I encourage you during this week to thank your Yodas.  Also, to whom are you a yoda, mentor, or guide?  To whom are you going to pass the baton?  Or leave your legacy?