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Pentecost 27, 11/16/2008

Sermon on Judges 4:1-7, by David Hoster


The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

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.'" (NRSV)

Today we find the Israelites a few generations into their occupation of the Promised Land.  It turns out that things haven't quite been the irresistible, permanent victory they might have expected with God on their side.       

What we see instead is a pattern that will repeat throughout the book of Judges. During their first two hundred years in the Promised Land, some Israelite generations were very conscious of their relationship with God, aware of God's inspiration and direction, faithful to the spirit of the Decalogue, and loyal to their community.  Other generations, however, were shaped by people who lived for themselves, focused not on their ideals but on their prosperity, and largely ignored God's call and purposes.         

The book of Judges describes a back-and-forth process that emerged from these contrasting types of community.  People in a generation that lived for themselves inevitably ceased working together and, in their lack of cohesion, became easy pickings for more aggressive tribal neighbors.  Then, in danger or even defeat, Israel pulled together, remembered their ideals, called out to God and recovered the spiritual cohesiveness and power that had saved them in the good old days back in the desert with Moses and God.  Moving in spiritual lockstep with God, led by a charismatic leader (somewhat misleadingly called a "Judge"), they found the power to defeat their enemies and reestablish the community of the Chosen People.  Then, a generation later, their forgetful children slipped back into selfishness and the whole cycle began all over again.

The book of Judges, therefore, is a remarkable, if underappreciated, document in human history.  In 1,200 BC, this book described the first time a civilization understood that ethical and moral integrity was the key to strength.  When people were moral, they were strong.  When people were self-directed, lacking a moral compass, they were fat targets, easily defeated. 

You and I take that perspective for granted, but prior to the time of the Judges in Israel-and in other cultures for many centuries after-people saw their success or failure tied to the whim of the gods.  Humans could sacrifice to the gods in an attempt to curry favor, but ultimately such people proved weak and subject to the whimsy of gods who were neither manageable nor predictable. 

What a moment of empowerment it was, therefore, when a nation found that its own moral integrity-choices that were within their power-made the critical difference between strength and weakness.

The rise and decline of a nation's power-or the power of any community, church or even family, for that matter-is still charted by the same principles first laid out in the book of Judges.  The principal is as valid in 2008 AD as it was in 1200 BC.  We are playing it out in the United States at this very moment.

Who would argue, whether Republican or Democrat, that the last presidential administration, if not the last twenty years, have seen a steady decline in American moral purpose, social cohesion and national power? 

In 2001, following the attacks of 911, our nation and the world stood ready to join in high moral purpose to bring down the authors of that horrible attack.  Yet the Bush administration squandered that moral capital, fought a discretionary war in Iraq with questionable motives, alienated our allies, and asked no sacrifice from our citizenry.  Instead, in as morally offensive a call as I can imagine, George W. Bush told us that it was our duty to stick it to Osama bin Laden by going out shopping.

Following the lead of our president, we dialed back our moral energy in favor of consumerism and confirmed that accumulation of wealth remains our guiding light.  We have indulged in a spending spree only to discover since September just how heavily dependent on smoke and mirrors our over-mortgaged economy has become.  Cushioned by our newfound luxury, we have tolerated an assault the integrity of our very Constitution brazenly conducted by this administration in plain sight.

It is painful to compare the moral priorities of this generation with those of the "greatest generation" that defeated totalitarianism.  How different do our economic priorities look in comparison to that generation's commitment to rebuild the world economy after the Second World War.  How much less wise and determined do we seem in confronting resurgent nations like Iran, Russia and China than that generation was in facing up to the challenges of the Cold War.

I submit that we are looking at the difference between the strong and weak generations described in the book of Judges.  We see one generation that was clear in its moral purpose and reliant on its integrity.  We see a very different generation asleep at the wheel because we believe our irresistible military, our unassailable political tradition, and our unstoppable economy have made our participation as citizens unnecessary.  The first generation built a world, while the second watches passively as things fall apart. 

The crucial question, then (and the point of this sermon), is whether the rest of the pattern of Judges will hold true in our future.  When the nation is down and desperate, will it turn away from its foolishness and call on its historic moral wellsprings?  Will we respond to an energetic new leader in Barack Obama who, at least to appearances, looks more like a Lincoln or Roosevelt than a George W. Bush or Bill Clinton?

We cannot say yet whether Obama will be the real deal or just a teasing and disappointing imitation of a leader.  What is the real deal, however, is the desire of the nation to renounce its foolish trust in unworthy political and financial leaders and turn instead toward somebody who at least appears to speak of the audacity of hope and call us to sacrifice for genuine ideals.  The fact that Rush Limbaugh ridicules Obama as some sort of self-proclaimed messiah tells me that even he has spotted the hope that this nation's electorate has invested in its new leader.

The cruelest outcome at this critical point in our history would be to discover that Barack Obama is just one more self-promoting phony, though there is plenty of evidence from his personal trials that he has earned his integrity the old fashioned way.  An even more critical question, however, lurks within the book of Judges.  Will we, the nation, turn out to be yet another generation of self-promoting phonies, or will we respond to our anointed leadership, sacrifice rather than indulge, take responsibility rather than look for somebody to blame, dedicate ourselves to the integrity that has always been vibrant when our nation has been strong, and rebuild the American vision in our time?

Ultimately, the question is not what our leaders are made of, but what we are made of.  Democracy has never been about simply voting and picking some new guy to hand the keys to while we go back to sleep.  Democracy has been about committing ourselves to engage with our new leadership in forging a future for our ideals.  Think of Lincoln and the Civil War, Roosevelt and the Depression and Second World War, even Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy and the Cold War.  The nation was vitally alive to its irreplaceable leaders.  We made them great, not the other way around.

Will our generation make Barack Obama into another of the truly great American presidents by rising and restoring the trust our ancestors have placed in us?  It's too early to say. 

What I do know is this.

The full dimension of the previous generation's disaster has not yet fallen on us with full force.  The economy is going to get worse.  Just how much worse is, at this moment, only a matter of fearful speculation.  Our global political position is also likely to get worse before it gets better.  Winding down Iraq is going to be a political, military and diplomatic dance that our leadership might manage well or poorly, but either way, we are likely to find that the foolishness of previous policies has compromised our effectiveness in the oil-rich Middle East even for a president whose name is "Hussein."  Enemies like Russia, Iran, China, al Qaeda and others are encouraged because they believe, like the Germans and Japanese at the outbreak of World War II, that the American people are fat and lazy, lacking in integrity and commitment, and unwilling to put their own lives and prosperity on the line to resist a determined foe.

Are they right?  The book of Judges asks exactly the same question:  are our enemies right?  Are we a weak and selfish people who will back away and surrender?  Can we stand up to genuinely hard times when economic or military success is no longer something we take for granted?  Will we stay the course?  When we face up to the profound challenges to our national integrity, will we awaken what Admiral Yamamoto, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, called the "sleeping giant of America." 

I pray that we will.  I pray that the time for us is now.  I pray that Barack Obama is our leader of biblical proportions, that we are the people to make him a national hero, and that history will remember us as another of the great generations.  

And the God who stands behind our principles of freedom, compassion and generosity stands ready to be called on for all the moral strength we need. 



The Rev. David Hoster
Rector, St. George?s Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas
E-Mail: david.w.hoster@gmail.com