Where do I start?
This sermon had so much I was excited about even before delivering:
- A literary reference to John Irving that I don’t think came across as highbrow but instead helped people understand the book of Judges;
- A couple of shout-outs to United Methodism . . . neither of them all that complimentary;
- A concluding moment where I strapped on a guitar and led the people in singing Give Me That Old Time Religion. For reals.
Here it is: week one of Crash Test Dummies and a sermon called “Last Things First.”
It landed at this bottom line: What you invent will let you down. What you inherit will free you up.
Some of you may have heard of the major American novelist named John Irving (AV). Others of you have absolutely no idea who he is. Wherever you are on that, he has written several really good, multi-layered, frequently hilarious novels that actually got turned into movies: The World According To Garp (AV), Cider House Rules (AV), and A Prayer For Owen Meany(AV) (the movie of which was called Simon Birch.) So there are probably some of you who even if you haven’t read those books, you have seen the movies or at least heard of them, so you’re tracking a little bit better now.
But here’s why I’m telling you about John Irving. He writes his books by writing the final sentence first. He figures that if knows the final words, that will help him arrange and craft all the words and characters and plot twists that come before it. Like here’s the last line of Owen Meany:
“O God — please give him back! I shall keep asking You.”
And so right now, I know that many of you are thankful for this, you are feeling better prepared for the AP English exam than you’ve ever been before, you even now want to major in English lit in college, yet you’re still wondering: “what in the world does that have to do with things like the bible, Jesus, God, the Virgin Mary, and YOUR SERMON?!” Glad you asked because the answer is: everything.
Because the book of Judges, one of the most obscure books in the OT, a book of patterned history, told with a novelist’s flair & skill, fittingly functions JUST LIKE a John Irving novel in which only when you get to the LAST SENTENCE does it make sense. In fact, I can so imagine this author – and we don’t name his name, rank, or serial number – as he is operating under the inspiration of Holy Spirit and laying out his material he’s going to compile into the book, realizing in a flash of inspiration: Ah! Let me write the last sentence first! Everything else in the book is to lead UP TO (or down to?) THAT. And so what is it? What is this final sentence that is the lens through which everything else makes sense? This: READ 21:25.
In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. Other translations say “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
So everything in the entire book of Judges has been arranged in such a way that you arrive at the end: chaos, anarchy, everybody inventing their own individual version of morality, and bedlam is the result. It’s the un-happiest ending in the entire library of Scripture. Crash Test Dummies who for 21 chapters have been doing the same dumb things over & over now arrive at a place where they are the dummeriest. Aren’t you glad you came to church today?
And just what were these dumb things? Well, we won’t survey the whole book today – and we DO have a few more weeks in the series! – but here’s the story behind the story. It’s a period of ancient Jewish history between 1400 and 1100 BC and it’s an era that resembles the Wild Wild West of the USA: a lawless frontier, no strong central government, and shootouts in saloons & the OK Corral. That’s the kind of world God’s people the Jews have created for themselves after both Moses and Joshua die. What results is this cycle of sin, oppression by foreigners, crying out for a deliverer (that what a Judge is), getting a deliverer, getting delivered from oppression, and then fall right back into sin. Over and over and over. Even the few characters in this book we’ve sort of been conditioned to think are heroes – like Gideon & Samson – aren’t. Throughout the 21 chapters, the cycles get worse, the dummies get dummy-er, and it reaches its apex (or nadir) in Judges 21.
That’s when in this bizarre sequence of events – you’re welcome to read it on your own; I don’t recommend you read it to your 4 year old for family devotions – the children of Israel find themselves with PTSD, Civil War style. They are victims and villains. Sinners and saints. Liars & misfits. Warriors & warred upon. And in that aftermath of that “no one’s a winner CW,” they ask this in 21:3-4:
3 “Lord, God of Israel,” they cried, “why has this happened to Israel? Why should one tribe be missing from Israel today?”
4 Early the next day the people built an altar and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings.
Ha! Do you see the logic? It’s like the parents who were teaching their five year old about God: Who made the sun? God. Who made the rain? God. Who made you? God. A few days later, mom walks into the lil boy’s room and it’s a disaster. So she asks, Who made this mess? And w/o missing a beat, the boy says, “God.” Yes! That’s what we do! Lord, why have you done this to me? when we know good & well we did it to ourselves. And in Judges 21 – told you it’s written with a novelist’s flair – God’s silence in the wake of 21:3-4 is deafening. It’s his way of thundering: “You got into this mess all by yourselves.”
My Gosh, it’s like the guy who told me that he kept praying for the Lord to get him out of the affair that he was having. Just kept praying that, he said. And he lamented no answer. And I thought to myself, “well, did you pray that he would get you IN TO IT in the first place?” Something tells me the guy found his way there all by his lonesome. But is that you? Blaming God for a mess you’ve made. Lord, why did you allow this? His answer? From the beginning you all have wanted to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good AND evil. Now you know what it tastes like. Do you blame God – or even Satan – for the messes you’ve made with your money, in your family, or even of your church? Then I suspect the same silence will greet your laments today as greeted that of the Jews in Judges 21.
So in the wake of that silence-from-God, the Israelites invent their way into a whole new kind of morality. They make up the rules as they go. They realize that one of their tribes – Benjamin – is lacking in women & wives because of the Civil War. In the ancient mind that is even more of a crisis than today because if there were not enough women for the men, there would not be enough for child-bearing and so the tribe literally could not continue. This is one of those places where understanding how ancient people thought is vital to understanding what the bible is about. Weird to us; makes perfect sense to them. So in the wake of this not-enough-barefoot-and-pregnan-women crisis, they come up with a plan. There is a big religious festival coming up – think of, in our day, “Woodstock For Jesus” – and they know there will be a lot of females from all 12 tribes. So here’s the plan in 21:17-23:
17 The Benjamite survivors must have heirs,” they said, “so that a tribe of Israel will not be wiped out. 18 We can’t give them our daughters as wives, since we Israelites have taken this oath: ‘Cursed be anyone who gives a wife to a Benjamite.’ 19 But look, there is the annual festival of the Lord in Shiloh, which lies north of Bethel, east of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.”
20 So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, “Go and hide in the vineyards 21 and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife. Then return to the land of Benjamin. 22 When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Do us the favor of helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war. You will not be guilty of breaking your oath because you did not give your daughters to them.’”
23 So that is what the Benjamites did. While the young women were dancing, each man caught one and carried her off to be his wife. Then they returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and settled in them.
Wait wait wait. WAIT WAIT WAIT!! You know what that is? Kidnapping! Rape! Human trafficking! The very kind of abducting women for pleasure and profit that GSUMC has taken such incredible, generous stands against for the last decade or so. They twist and mold and make up the Scriptures & even their own tradition to justify/endorse doing this incredible act of wickedness! That’s what CTDs do with Scripture! They invent new meanings for it to justify what they are already doing or what they desperately want to do. You saw that in the slavery & Jim Crow era as people absurdly used the “curse of Ham” part of Genesis to justify racism & lynching; and you see it now as ppl invent all new kinds of Scriptural understanding to justify what they want to do in the realm of their own sexual practices.
So they disregard law, undermine tradition, dishonor & violate women, and in perversity of all perversities . . . Call. This. Good. No wonder the author of Judges has to follow this with “I got NOTHING. I’m spent. I’m done. When you’re in charge, you’re out of control. I’m just gonna end it here with that sentence I wrote first anyway: Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” What the ppl invent is perverted, sick, and predatory they have the nerve to call it good. To say it’s God’s will. Bet ya didn’t know this stuff was in the bible! They abandoned what they had inherited in favor of what they invented and disaster is the result. CTDs indeed.
And oh Lord, not much has changed. What we invent is immediate & easy & serves our self-interest. And what we invent is why throughout your life you believe your own lies. Did you know that? When you’re in charge of your life, you are so out of control that you will believe your own lives. “I love her.” “It felt right.” “I deserve it.” “It’s my money.” “But THEY deserved it (gossip or revenge).” My gosh, even our own Methodist movement is caught up in it. People are given freedom to invent their own truths – we even for a couple of generation peddled the claim “it doesn’t really matter WHAT you believe, just love people well & you can be UMC” – and the result is like this:
You see how that’s the opposite of GSUMC, I hope? Where all our energy is focused in one direction of inviting all people? Yeah, in your life, in my life, in the life of a denomination, in the life even of a nation . . . when you abandon what you’ve inherited in favor of what you invent (make up the rules as you go!) then there is no cohesion and only chaos.
Which is why, when it comes to morality, faith, what we teach, and maybe more than anything, how you make decisions, here’s is the truth: What you INVENT will let you down. What you INHERIT will free you up. Don’t do right in your own eyes. In most cases, you have already been told what is right and good and true. His revelation surpasses your intuition. Every time! The reason you feel like a CTD, the reason you keep beating your head against a wall, is that subconsciously you believe you are smarter than God. You know better. We never learn. So, today: learn the truth. Every time I get in trouble it’s because of what I invented. Every time I’m blessed it’s because I line up with what I’ve inherited.
It was so interesting. A few months ago, I was at a UM meeting and this young whipper snapper said w/ confidence, “we need to move beyond atonement theory.” Which is a way of saying, “we need to admit we’re a little TOO SMART to need the cross anymore.” Such. Baloney. (I could use another phrase starting with B and including an S & you’d know what I mean.) Anyway, three days later I attended a Charlotte event involving churches from all over the city. A few UMS (well, 2) & all kinds of independent & emerging churches. You know what we started with? “Nothing But The Blood” I was like YES! THIS IS WHAT WE INHERIT, THIS IS TRUE, GOD FORBID WE EVER BECOME TOO SOPHISTICATED TO TRUST IN THAT!!! And which gathering do you think had more spirit & spunk? The one of characterized by invention & doubt or the one with inheritance & faith. REFRAIN
The blood still works. The cross still applies. The library still has authority. Really, at this modern church we are all about Old Time Religion. How’d you like me to sing this on the guitar for you?