Sunday, November 20, 2005

Oh Jepthah...

This is the text of the sermon that Jim the Father and I preached this morning (a remix of a sermon initially preached at Manchester CoB lo those many years ago). I wish I had the guts to call it what I think it's real title should be..."Oh Jephthah, you Slimy Bastard." Somehow, I don't think the Brethren would like that so much. But it would make me feel better...The text is based on Judges 11:34-40, one of those scary texts which make me glad I'm not an ancient Israelite woman. We preached it together, side by side, sort of like the dueling banjoes.

Here 'tis...

CHRISTEN the daughter:
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah;and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her.
--Judges 11:34
I know something of what it means to meet a parent with timbrels and dancing, for I, too, am a daughter. I too know what it means to have a father away on a journey, perhaps even a
dangerous journey, and to await his homecoming.
When I was young, my father took a trip to Israel. He was gone only for a few weeks but it felt like decades through my eight-year-old eyes. When his plane returned several weeks later on a cold winter evening, I was at the airport to greet him. It was a long wait. The night was windy, and the runway was covered with a slippery sheet of ice, and each time the plane would try to move, it would slide and twirl precariously. I waited expectantly in the darkness, squinting out at the inky black.
It was a couple of hours before they finally pulled that plane to safety. I watched my father disembark, looking haggard and worn--his suit wrinkled, his tie askew, his beard having grown in more fully than when I had last seen him. I remember the euphoria of having a parent return home, the absolute euphoria of knowing everyone in my little world
was safe and accounted for. It’s easy for me to imagine Jephthah’s daughter, watching for her father to come over the hill. It’s easy for me to imagine her relief in knowing her own small family was reunited at long last.

JIM the father:
She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her.
--Judges 11:34
The writer of this story wants to make sure we get the point. “She was his only child,” the writer states, and then goes back and says it all over again: “Except for her,
he had no son or daughter." It was just Jephthah and her. The book of Judges gives his daughter no name. Tradition, however, has named her—Sheila—and that’s the name we’ll use for today. Jephthah and Sheila, Sheila and Jephthah. I can imagine the relationship they might have had because I also have only one natural-born child, and that child is a daughter. I can imagine what it might have been like for Jephthah when Sheila was born, because I remember when Christen was born. It happened one Wednesday, about noon. There had been difficulties during labor and she was finally delivered by Ceaserean section. Everything turned out
well—both mother and daughter were fine.
But 34 years ago hospitals had a rule that any child delivered by C-section was immediately placed in the intensive care nursery and kept there for several days. The first time I laid eyes on Christen was through double plate glass windows.
I stood there that evening, stretching forward as far as I could, trying to see all of her I could see. I became aware of someone standing beside me. I turned to see that it was a nurse.
She said, “She’s a real cutie, isn’t she?”
I said, “She sure is.”

She said, “You’d like to hold her, wouldn’t you?”

I said, “I sure would.”
She said, “You know it’s against regulations, don’t you?”
I said, “Yes, I know.”
She looked me full in the face for a few moments before she spoke her next words.
“When visiting hours are over tonight, and you’re about to turn right and head down the stairs, don’t turn right. Turn left. You’ll find a laundry closet, and the door will be ajar. Step inside.”
At 8:30 I did as I was told. After fifteen minutes of standing in the darkness of that closet, there came the sound of approaching footsteps and the door was nudged open and this saint of a nurse deposited into my arms my newborn daughter. With a finger to her lips which reminded me to be very quiet, she said, “You’ve got fifteen minutes.”
It would take several hours to adequately describe those fifteen minutes. I held my daughter in my arms and I told her for the first time her name: “Christen.” I introduced myself to her, I said, “I’m Jim. I’m your father.” I touched her soft cheeks, her tiny wisps of hair, her perfectly formed little toes. And I marveled at the utter miracle of her. She had come from nothing, and now she was this: a living, breathing soul. Her soul and mine were linked, and the thought of it took my breath away, and we were bonded for all time. I can imagine Jephthah had his moment as well. I imagine all of us have our moments. Maybe it was when we as parents bonded with a child, or when we as a child grew especially close to a parent, whatever our age.
Maybe it was when we connected with another person as we had never connected before and they became our mate or our spouse, our matching half that made us feel more whole. Maybe this joy of our life was one who joined our family by choice rather than by birth. The story of Jephthah and Sheila is the story of love, and inasmuch as the story of love is a universal story,
than their story is our story—your story and my story and Christen’s story.

CHRISTEN the daughter:
When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter!” You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me.
--Judges 11:35
What bewilderment, what confusion must have crossed Sheila’s mind. Her father was acting very strange, tearing his clothes, yelling loudly. I imagine her looking around nervously at the servants who must have followed her out of the house, the sound of timbrels still echoing in the air. Here stood a blameless young woman, an innocent girl, who had no idea what her father had done.

JIM the father:
Jephthah said to her, “You have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.
--Judges 11:35
With these words we begin to get a handle on Jephthah’s anguish. To truly understand that anguish, we must first understand Jephthah himself. He’s introduced in the book of Judges just a few verses ahead of this one. He’s described in three ways, and in this order: first, he is from Gilead, just south of what would later come to be known as the Sea of Galilee. Second, he was a “mighty warrior”—he was aggressive, strong, scrappy. Third, he was the son of a prostitute.
His father later had three more sons by his wife. Once they had become adults, Jephthah’s brothers disowned him, all because of who his mother was. So with no family, no inheritance, no home, Jephthah struck out on his own and he ended up forming a gang of ruffians. Imagine Hell’s Angels on camelback—that was Jephthah. A man who found it hard now to trust; a man who needed to control in little ways, because he had lost so much control in large ways. Along the way he married and, of course, he had a child. One day his former kinsmen looked him up because they had a problem: their enemies, the Ammonites, were threatening war. And the Israelites needed a no-nonsense commander for their army, someone who could beat a few heads, someone like Jephthah. His response to them was this:“I’ll lead you into battle on one condition:if we win, I automatically become your leader in all other affairs.” His kinsmen thought a moment and they all high-fived. And Jephthah, nervous now about this upcoming battle that had so much at stake, decided he wanted to increase his odds for winning.
So he made a vow with God. He said, “If I can have just this one victory, I’ll promise this: when I return home, I will offer as a sacrifice whatever or whoever first comes out of my house to greet me.” Well, Jephthah led the Israelites into war, and they soundly defeated the Ammonites, and Jephthah was proclaimed a hero. And returning home, he rounded the bend to find someone running to greet him. Someone he didn’t want to see at that moment. And what did he do? He shouted, “My daughter, you have become the cause of great trouble to me.”

CHRISTEN the daughter:
She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites. And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander the mountains, and bewail my virginity,
my companions and I.”
--Judges 11:36,37
In light of this unimaginable horror, Sheila made a simple request. She asked to be surrounded in her final days by only those who could give her comfort and support, she sought out those sisters the ones who could most purely demonstrate God’s presence in her life. She chose to retreat to the mountains, which the scriptures regard as holy places. I can easily imagine the circle of women who journeyed with Sheila, the women who must have held her hands, and wrapped their arms around her, and wiped away her tears, and allowed her to rage, or to curl into a fetal position and not move if she needed. The women who offered her the comfort and stability that Sheila’s own father could not provide, safety that he may not have even been able to understand. All the while, I feel sure that it was these women, these sisters, who represented God’s presence to Sheila, God’s ability to journey with us when we feel the most alone. I understand Sheila’s request for I too have been sustained by my sisters. At various times in my life I have been cradled by the loving arms of a group of seven other women whose bonds of communion and sisterhood have run strong and deep since we were in college together.
Throughout the past twelve years, it is this circle of strong and compassionate spirits whose very presence reminds me: “You will not be alone. Not ever. Know that you will never be without our love.” I have seen in their eyes the depth of God’s love. It is a depth I’m sure Sheila could identify in the eyes of her sisters as well.

JIM the father:
“Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions,
and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made.
Judges 11:38
The father in me wants to understand the father in Jephthah. Why did he make such a foolish vow? Didn’t he know what could happen? And why—why in heaven’s name did he persist with that promise? Didn’t he realize that maybe God wouldn’t want that promise? Didn’t he see that God never spoke, that there was never a sign that God even recognized that promise?
The father in me wants to understand the father in a man who could say, “Go.” Did he wish her to run away and never return? Did he ever accept responsibility for blaming this on her, of all people? Did his heart break as she turned to go with her sisters? And did his heart break even more when she returned two months later? The father in me wants to understand the father in Jephthah, and the father in Jephthah is silent.

CHRISTEN the daughter:
That, our friends, is the story of a daughter and a father, Sheila and Jephthah, as seen through the eyes of another daughter and father. And now the question becomes, “So what?”
What do we do with this story? How do we bring it forward in time? Dad and I have struggled here. This is not an easy story to tell, or to hear. And, we have this problem: we just plain don’t like Jephthah. We don’t like what he did or why he did it. So how do we salvage this story? And how do we make sure this is a sermon? We’re going to suggest three ways, because every good sermon has three points (!), this story can speak to us today.

JIM the father:
The first way is simply this: We can allow the story of Jephthah and Sheila to serve as a reminder for all time, and the reminder is, “Never again.” Never again should anyone be allowed to think that God wants a father, in any way, for any reason, to take the life of a daughter. Therefore, this is a story we dare not forget, and that means even us, especially us.
For we live in a country where every day an average of four women die at the hands of the men in their lives, men they know well. We live in a country where, if you totaled the number of all women who had been killed by their intimate partners, that number would be greater than all the soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. We live in a country where one in four married women has been or will be battered, where women are ten times more likely than men to be victimized
by someone they know well. I believe our story today can be a starting place to send a message,
and the message is, “This must stop!” For the sake of women, for the sake of men, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our children’s children, the hurting of women in all its various forms must come to an end.

CHRISTEN the daughter:
There is a second lesson which goes hand-in-hand with this first. It is essential that we be in touch with our own rage,and with our own propensity for violence. In a seminary course I took several years ago a professor who impressed me with his gentle and quiet manner spoke of the power of nonviolence and pacifism in his own life. He said, “I am frightened by people who talk of nonviolence as if it were an easy thing. It has not been for me. When I delve deeply into myself, I have found my own capacity for violence. And I now know the radical power of nonviolence in a new way.” Both you and I need to search out the violence in our own beings,
whether it comes from a deep anger or hurt, whether it manifests itself in striking something or someone, or in verbally lashing out, or in silently sulking and brooding. If Jephthah can teach us anything, it is that we must attend to this psychological violence demonstrated in his need to control, and his need to bargain. I often imagine God shaking a head and saying, “Oh Jephthah, you’ve misunderstood.” And the awareness has dawned on me that God has probably shaken a head at me as well. At all of us.

JIM the father:
There is a third message our story holds for us today. And that’s the message that’s carried by Sheila and her sisters as they lived their days to the full on that Near Eastern mountaintop,
as they cried and sang and hugged and danced and prayed. Across all these centuries, they send us an unequivocal word of hope. That when God’s face seems hidden to another, it is people like us, it is we that can help bring that face to the light. And when God’s embrace is most needed by another, then our arms can serve as God’s arms. And when God’s presence is what is yearned for more than anything else, by offering our companionship we can be a sure sign that God is there, and has been all along. Sheila and her sisters remind us that when we truly care for one another, we can look to our left and our right, and there is God. When we truly prize one another, we can reach before us and behind us, and there is God. When we truly want what is best for one another, we can link our arms in one giant daisy chain of life, and right in the center of it all, God is there.

CHRISTEN the daughter:
So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out and lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite
--Judges 11:39-40
Isn’t it interesting that, of the two people in this story, it’s the one who’s unnamed who’s best remembered and most loved?

JIM the father:
Isn’t it interesting that, of the two people in this story, the one who’s depicted as stronger is, in the end, not necessarily the one in whom the most strength resides?

CHRISTEN the daughter:
Isn’t it interesting that, of the two, father and daughter, it is the younger who has so much to teach the older?

JIM the father:
It is these realizations that lead us today to wonder: what if more of the daughter had rubbed off on the father?

CHRISTEN the daughter:
What if more of the feminine way could have mixed more readily with the masculine way?

JIM the father:
What if they could have lived their time on earth—especially their adult time—more together,
more side-by-side, more hand-in-hand?

CHRISTEN the daughter:
And even if they could not, could not we? How? By condemning violence powerfully, including any hints of violence in our own lives.

JIM the father:
How? By cherishing our children tenderly, both those near and those far, those who know by name and those we don’t.

CHRISTEN the daughter:
And by honoring the presence of the God who dwells in all of us, in all seasons of the year, and in all seasons of life. Amen.


Anonymous said...

A modest suggestion...
Since Jim is such a great photographer of flowers, I think you need a photo illustration here of that "great daisy chain of life," with God right there in the middle.

Contemplative Chaplain said...

Just because some of us like to believe daisy chains are nice little rings of poseys, doesn't mean others of us should assume there were sexual connotations implied, Mr. R.B. Annonymous. Some of us can't help it that we're innocent little lambs.

LutheranChik said...

I remember my undergrad "Introduction to the Old Testament" class, back at Moo U., when we read this story, and how outraged we all were. How the hell did this story get into the Bible? One of my classmates was moved to denounce it, very eloquently, as a prime example of everything wrong with religion -- brainless obedience to "da Rules," misogyny, a vision of God as an arbitrary Simon Says despot, general pious stupidity.

But your sermon, I think, points to why this story is in the Bible. (And basically reiterated our professor's response to his angry and perplexed class.) We need, as faith communities, to talk about enculturated customs and beliefs and attitudes that don't work, or don't work any longer, or that can be warped in ways that lead us away from God rather than forward.