Thursday, August 28, 2014


Commemoration of Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle, priests

I wonder what a world of silence is like. As I have a constant tinnitus, even when things are very, very quiet, it's never total silence. I used to sit in a very quiet church back home but even when I was totally alone there was always a ringing in my ears that I thought was a church-y sound. Normally my world was so filled with sound that I didn't hear the ringing until I was in that quiet place. Now that I'm older the tinnitus is a thing I can't total forget about, something not really pleasant but something I can ignore for the most part. But I still wonder what complete silence is like. I wonder, if I lose my hearing, will the tinnitus still be there? Or would I finally know what it is like to be profoundly deaf?

I often wondered what would be worse, losing my eyesight or my hearing. The older I get, the closer I get to finding out about one or the other, not as a certainty but as a possibility. I think I would hate to lose my hearing most because there is so much music I want to hear and so many sounds I cherish  like the chirp of birds or the cooing of doves, the lap of waves on a beach or the sound of a friend's voice. Of course, I would have the memory of the sounds and the music, but it isn't quite the same as hearing it, is it?

The two men commemorated today had one thing in common - working with the deaf who have been an under-served group in church life. Gallaudet had a deaf mother and a father who was involved in education for the deaf, a calling Gallaudet himself undertook when he founded the university that bears his name in Washington DC. Syle lost his hearing at a young age but studied with Gallaudet and, like Gallaudet, became a priest. Syle was the first deaf American to be ordained to the priesthood and founded a church dedicated to serving the deaf community and whose services were conducted primarily in sign language.

In the Bible, deafness was seen as a punishment from God for something done by either the person themselves or perhaps their parents. It was a curse from God and, without doubt, a curse to those who were deaf. Often the deafness was accompanied by an inability to speak or to speak clearly, a double dis-ability. That was the case of the man in the gospel reading today. Fortunately for that man, he had friends who took him to Jesus.

Gallaudet and Syle weren't Jesus but they worked for Jesus to help the children of God that others might have ignored. Even though deafness is a rather invisible dis-ability, it still can be a barrier. Gallaudet and Syle were, in a sense, ground-breakers. Today it isn't uncommon to have churches who, along with the traditional music, prayers and sermons, have interpreters using American Sign Language to bring the deaf into the worshipping community.

Watching the interpreter is for me like watching a dance, a graceful (and grace-full) dance. It is like seeing a foreign language spoken since ASL has its own syntax and vocabulary that usually is incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with it. Still, it brings congregations together and doesn't marginalize those who don't or can't participate because of hearing issues.

Part of the mission Jesus set for us was to reach out to those in need of any kind, including those who might need to feel a part of a faith community but who aren't proficient lip-readers or for whom reading written words or symbols are the only way of doing so. In a way, I think it fits perfectly with Episcopal worship. We stand, sit, kneel, make the sign of the cross, reverence the processional cross and the altar, and move to the altar rail for the Eucharist. We involve our whole bodies into the service through these actions. Adding the element of people signing the hymns and prayers are another way of bringing the whole body to worship. It's another way of glorifying God not just through the physical act of the signs but as a reminder that people are differently-abled but still children of God and equal in God's sight. That means they should be equal in ours as well, right along with all the others who are somehow different, whether through gender, race, religious belief (or no religious belief), orientation, economic status, mental status, or any other thing that we can come up with that conceivably might separate "us" from "them."  We are all "them" and we are all "us.".

Through witnesses like Gallaudet and Syle we learn that different doesn't mean less, it just means different. It would be good to focus on what people CAN do instead of what they can't. Maybe that's a lesson to learn today or at least try to do. How can I, or we, see others as fellow children of God instead of someone dis-abled, strange, or even suspicious? Like ASL, lip reading,  speaking Spanish or obeying the teachings of Jesus, it requires the same thing that gets a person to Carnegie Hall -- practice, practice, practice.

There are worse things than complete silence. God can speak and, very possibly, do so even more clearly through silence than through all the words, sounds, and symbols the world can offer. Maybe it is those of us who have our hearing who have the harder time hearing God.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, August 27, 2014.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Peruvian Saints

Commemoration of  Martin de Porres, Rosa de Lima and Toribio de Mogrovejo

Stretch out your hand to the poor,
   so that your blessing may be complete.
Give graciously to all the living;
   do not withhold kindness even from the dead.
Do not avoid those who weep,
   but mourn with those who mourn.
Do not hesitate to visit the sick,
   because for such deeds you will be loved.
In all you do, remember the end of your life,
   and then you will never sin
. - Sirach 7:32-36

Today's commemorees are all linked with Peru, Martin and Rosa were Peruvian born, Martin of a very poor family and Rosa from one with more wealth and status. Each became affiliated with the Dominicans and spent their lives caring for and fighting for the poor in a society where the Spanish influence created a great gulf between the haves and the have-nots along with all the prejudices that come with that stratification. There is much to be admired about their lives, even without miracles ascribed to them. They exemplified what the word "Saint" has come to mean -- someone who comes into the world and works to make it a better place for all, including those who would be left behind if equality, safety and freedom were based solely on power and prestige.
I had some trouble with Toribio de Mogrovejo, though,  when I read the first few lines of his hagiography. He had been trained as a lawyer and was a brilliant one. The king of Spain rewarded that brilliance by making him the chief judge over the court of the Inquisition even though he was a lay person. There's where I got stuck. How could I honor someone associated so closely with such a thing?  I have read that the Inquisition was not as severe or as wide-spread as maybe my Protestant religious education might have intimated (or come right out and said) but still, say the word "Inquisition" and I cringe. The more I read about the time following that period, the more I realized that his was a path like Martin and Rosa's, just on a different level. He was ordained a priest and then sent to Peru to be the new archbishop, this despite the fact that he had not been appointed and consecrated a bishop much less elevated and consecrated as an archbishop before reaching Lima. When he got there, he didn't just sit around the ecclesiastical palace. He actually walked through his entire archbishopric, tending the sick, teaching, baptizing and confirming thousands of people as well as establishing the first seminary in all of the Americas. Now how could I dislike a guy like that?
One thing the hagiographies of all three recorded was that they were chastised and sometimes punished for their following the gospel mandate to care for the poor and unfortunate. Martin himself had a tough time because of his mixed heritage and the fact that his father had abandoned the family when he was a small child, leaving his mother to care for two children without any assistance. Rosa's family was the opposite, very much opposed to her desire for chastity and to join a religious order instead of marrying as she was expected to do. Opposition seemed to make the two stronger and more dedicated to doing what they felt they had to do to obey the teachings of Jesus.
In this age of "I've got mine, too bad about you," the same problems of poverty, sickness, despair and inequality still exist. We don't have to look far; just checking the morning newspaper or the evening news on TV, not to mention the social media tweets and Facebook commentary keep the fact that there is really a world full of life-and-death stories, each involving real people and, most often, those people are seen by another group as somehow less deserving or less faithful or some other qualifier.
Jesus said that the poor would be always with us as opposed to his being on earth but a short time. I don't think he really intended for us to take that first part as a given and accept that that is how it is supposed to be or even mandated by God.
People like Martin, Rosa and Toribio did what they could to improve the lives of those around them who were suffering. They showed that one person could and did make a difference, even if it wasn't on the scale of millions or even thousands. To each person they helped, it probably felt like they changed the world. We have people who are like today's honorees-missionaries and doctors who go to Africa to try to fight Ebola. negotiators and relief workers in Gaza trying to bring peace and needed medical supplies, food and water to the suffering, Kurds trying to help rescue Yazidis seeking refuge from a group that seeks to annihilate them if they do not convert to Islam, and others both known and unknown who try to make the world a better, safer, more equal place. Each person is an individual but they believe that one person can make a difference. How much of a difference did it make to Ferguson, Missouri, to have a Highway Patrol captain leading a peaceful march to protest the murder of an African-American, an event that has sparked reactions reminiscent of the violence and mayhem following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr  as well as similar actions after the Rodney King verdict in LA. Peace seems very far away when injustice, oppression and poverty abound.
So what are we doing to end the cycle of perpetual poverty and all that comes with it? What are we doing to end injustice that feeds on separation and stratification on the basis of something that a person or group has no control over such as skin color, gender or orientation? Whose tears are we wiping as they mingle with our own? Whose burden do we share because we are all human beings and children of God, whether we share a religious faith, race, gender or any other difference?
Maybe one person can't change the whole world, but looking at Martin, Rosa and Toribio, it's easier to see that one person can make a difference to people who were suffering and in need. Like the little boy on the beach full of stranded starfish, maybe throwing one starfish back into the water doesn't accomplish much but it makes a world of difference to that one.
Where can I make a difference today? I don't have to join a religious order to do it, I don't even have to go to church to do it either. There's a world of starfish out there -- all I have to do is toss one back into the ocean that is its home, its refuge, its world. Now to find that starfish...
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 23, 2014, under the title, "True Saints, making life better for all."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Delivery Is Everything

PM: Psalm 33

Today's readings are, in effect, the stories of three men, each of whom had a job to perform and who, in the course of that performance were discredited or plotted against. Each had a mission and more than enough obstacles in the way of that mission, yet each, in his own way, did what needed to be done.

Samson was, in a way, like Isaac, Samuel, even John the Baptist, in that he was born to a childless couple who had pretty much given up hope of any child at all. From birth he was dedicated as a Nazirite, a dedication to God involving several specific actions: no contact with corpses, refraining from eating or drinking anything that came from a vine (specifically grapes and wine), and the hair must not be cut. That last one played an important part in Samson's story. Samson's weakness seemed to be his love of (or lust for) women. Delilah the Philistine was able to worm the secret of Samson's great strength out of him but she wasn't the first to use that tactic on him, merely the last one. Once she had the secret she merely waited for Samson to fall asleep and then beckoned in a barber to perform his tonsorial duties. Samson lost his strength, was captured and blinded by the Philistines and put on display like a chained bear. His revenge was to use the strength gained from the regrowth of his hair to pull down the temple in which they were exhibiting him, killing himself but also a huge number of Philistines in the process. It was a deliverance for the Israelites

In the epistle, the deacon Stephen was giving a lengthy oration in front of the council trying him for blasphemy. The speech covered salvation history from Moses to Jesus and, in the reading for today, he is discussing the difficulty Moses had with people who didn't really accept his leadership or his mission. While Moses was on the mountain conferring with God, the people took things into their own hands and had Aaron make them an idol they could see and worship like the Egyptians. Moses returned to resume leadership over the recalcitrant Israelites although many of them died as a direct result of their disobedience and, many of their descendants would be sent into exile in Babylon for repeating the errors of their ancestors in the desert. Moses survived to bring the Israelites to the borders of the Promised Land but was forbidden to enter it. He died alone but undoubtedly peacefully with God watching over him. Stephen did not die quietly but rather was stoned for his faith. Both accomplished their tasks during their lifetimes which is not a bad epitaph.

Jesus, like Stephen, was killed for doing his job although the Jewish hierarchy and the Romans thought of him as a blasphemer and a troublemaker. Funny how people who do their jobs conscientiously often are seen that way. At any rate, Jesus was doing the things he was supposed to: teaching, preaching, healing, exemplifying what a life lived in God and totally with God was supposed to look and be like. He gained followers during his all-too-brief career as an itinerant preacher and healer but after his death his message spread like wildfire. It is still spreading, but the full import of those teachings has not been realized as there are still poor, hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, oppressed, damaged and dying people who haven't yet benefitted from the kind of help Jesus offered and instructed his followers to continue to offer.

Samson had a career as a strong man, able to defeat enemies like a superhero yet he had feet of clay when it came to women. Did Moses have a weakness? Perhaps impatience was his biggest flaw. Stephen probably had weaknesses but they were not part of his story, only the strength of his commitment to the Christ in whom he believed so fervently. Jesus didn't have a weakness unless it was a heart wide open to the disadvantaged. Yes, there was the Syrophoenician woman who begged for his help but who Jesus tried to rebuff. She didn't take no for an answer and in her persistence, Jesus changed his mind. Was that a weakness or was it a teaching moment, when he showed his disciples yet again that all should be heard and helped, even if they weren't people whom the disciples would normally have expected to tend. 

From Samson I think I should learn that when someone consistently tries to worm something out of you, even if that someone is a person you’re crazy about, perhaps that’s a sign that maybe that person isn’t the right one to establish any kind of long-term relationship with. Another thing is to not have secrets that anybody would want to know, especially if it could make things dangerous or even deadly.

From Stephen I think I should learn that sometimes service can get you in real trouble but that standing for your beliefs and doing your job, even when the cloud of potential harm or death hangs over your head is the right and honorable thing. If, when threatened, you can calmly give a good speech that directly bears on why you were doing what you were doing, you might win some converts to your position but it might still end up badly. You have to try anyway, though.

From Moses I think the lesson is to keep going forward, even when those surrounding you are busy trying to go in another direction.
From Jesus there are so many lessons to learn that I don’t know that anyone could literally learn them all much less practice them. I’m supposed to try my best, however, and trust that God will look after me. Thinking about it, the trusting part may be the easiest.

From Jesus there are so many lessons to learn that I don’t know that anyone could literally learn them all much less practice them. I’m supposed to try my best, however, and trust that God will look out for me. Thinking about it, the trusting part may be the easiest.

Whether it is holding off people who want to have some leverage, standing up to enemies, herding cats, or getting the message of the gospel across in a way that makes others want to pass it on, I can look to the four men in today’s reading, all of whom faced the challenge of delivering their message.

As every good performer knows, whether it is a great punchline or a message of hope, delivery is everything.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 16, 2014.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Samaritan Woman

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’ - John 4:1-26

The sun was high in the sky when she came to the well. The cool of the morning would have been long gone and evening was still hours away. She came to the well for the same reason anyone would, to get water for the household for drinking, for washing, for cooking. It was a necessity and the well was the closest place to find the water she needed. She didn't just run out; women knew how to gauge water use so that they only had to go once a day to get it, usually early in the morning when the air was cool and other women would be there to chat with and share the neighborhood news. Yet this woman came at noon, alone and almost furtively, to get water for her household and this visit to Jacob's well changed her life.

There was a man sitting there by the well, feet dusty from the road, thirsty but with no bucket or waterskin to lower into the water. She was the first person he encountered who might be able to help him.  This was a precarious cultural moment. He did not know her, was not related to her, and she had no male escort to whom he could address his request for a drink. She, being a woman and, as we learn, one with a "past," would have been taken aback that he should even speak to her, especially since it helped to establish that he was a Jew and Jews just did not associate with Samaritans who, in their view, were outcasts and sinners, yet here was a Jew asking her, a Samaritan, for a drink of water as if he lived just down the block or she were a sister. I wonder what was going through her mind as all this was taking place. Should she run away? Custom said that if he were thirsty he should be given something to drink yet he was offering living water to her, not merely the well water she could give him. What was this about? 

Jesus spoke of her past and it opened her eyes a bit. “I see you are a prophet, sir,” she said.  A prophet is someone who sees things other people don’t and who also isn’t afraid to speak of what other people would generally ignore or excuse away. As he was a stranger and not a local, his knowledge of her past was something he could not have known any other way other than by divine revelation. The fact that he spoke of this in a way that was not condemning or shaming but as a matter-of-fact recital of fact undoubtedly made a change in her that was almost instantaneous.

He definitely made an impression on her. She ran back to the village, proclaiming loudly to whoever could and would hear that there was a prophet among them who had told her everything that she had done, and who is offering living water. For once people listened to her, the outcast, and they too came to hear Jesus. Suddenly, almost in the blink of an eye, she went from an outcast to what we might consider the first evangelist or, at least, the first woman evangelist. 

We all have situations in our lives where we would rather be somewhere else, places and situations where we definitely try to avoid being s because we’re embarrassed or shy or perhaps just hesitant, not being sure of how we would be received for some reason or other. It can be very uncomfortable. It’s easy to understand the woman at the well because, on some level, I think everyone has been in those shoes or sandals at least once in their lives. Luckily for the Samaritan woman, the man there was Jesus. Thinking of her situation, it makes me wonder if sometimes, when I have walked into a strange situation and not been totally sure of how it was to work out, maybe there wasn’t a bit of Jesus present and asking for my attention, asking me for water, offering me something over and above anything that I had ever had.

 I have walked in the Samaritan woman’s shoes. I have been in some strained situations due to my own bad choices, misstatements and misunderstandings. I was grateful when someone offered me a hand of friendship or some expression that told me that they saw me as a human being who has value even though I had made some pretty rotten mistakes in my life. Maybe I didn’t meet Jesus in those times, but I think I met people who reflected who Jesus was and what Jesus was about. They may not have offered me living water but they did offer a cooling draft to my parched soul. I think that was the Jesus in them, whether they knew it or not.

Sometimes when you give you get back something far more and far better than you offered. There are plenty of people around who are thirsty for more than water but who don't have a bucket or even know where the well might be found. Sometimes even Google doesn't have a clue as to where to find it and how to tap into it. It takes a human heart and human hands to do that, and those are what Jesus expects us to use to help the thirsty of the world.

It's our turn to go out and draw water for the world. There are a lot of thirsty people out there waiting. One of them just might be Jesus.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, August 13, 2014.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Welcome the Little Children

An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’
- Luke 9:46-48
There's something arresting about the sight of a young animal, a puppy, a kitten, a piglet, even a rhinoceros, that makes even cynical people stop and go "Awwwww."  The innocence in their eyes, the exuberance coupled with a slight clumsiness makes us smile in spite of ourselves and, for a brief moment, we pause our thinking and whatever we are doing and just enjoy the sight. It works with babies too, because there's something endearing about an infant or small child whose eyes still see the world as big and scary and yet full of wonderful things to explore and to learn about.
Puppies and kittens grow up, as do babies. They learn as they grow, and they become more aware of things outside themselves. Still, there’s still that trust and wonderment in their eyes that is there for anyone to see, at least until they begin to learn that there really aren’t bogeymen under the bed but there are bad people in the world who do bad things, and that sometimes they do bad things themselves.
What makes today’s passage so gut-wrenching for me, particularly at this time is the very illustration that Jesus used to settle a bunch of adults having a schoolyard quarrel about who was the greatest. What’s gut-wrenching about it is that there are pictures in the news every day and all over the internet of young children, children who, in our community, would be in school or at soccer practice or even in the cherub choir in our church, but who stand looking up at Border Patrol agents, asking to be let in to this country or who are shown sleeping on pallets in large rooms containing dozens of children. That second thing is probably not much of a problem for them; many slept in the same room or even the same bed with their siblings. Here, at least, they have a pallet of their own for probably the first time in their lives and maybe a night of sleep without worry that someone with a gun will break in t0 hurt or kill them. But imagine walking up to a stranger in a uniform and asking for help? Most of us wouldn’t even ask our nearest and dearest friends for that kind of help.
They are refugees, although many adults refuse to call them that, who were sent away by parents who love them every bit as much as any parent in this country loves their own, but who were afraid for their safety if they remained in their homeland. They are fleeing poverty, sickness, human trafficking, armed conflict and roving bands of brigands who take what they want and despoil the rest, even little children. Many have relatives already in the US who would care for them and provide for them because they are family members and that’s what families do for each other – in most places, anyway.
While politicians argue about who is the greatest, these little children are being warehoused while their families are found or their processing is complete before they are shipped unceremoniously to the nearest bus station or, worse yet, back to the very danger, poverty and hopelessness they tried to escape. It is sad that we have a recognized symbol of welcome to strangers and immigrants that has a poem on it that reads in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,…”* yet these children who may never have heard the poem or recognize the symbol are asking for precisely what Lady Liberty represents. They are being treated as almost like criminals because they “broke the law” by trying to enter the country without permission. When a child is 8, or 9, or 10, he or she doesn’t know all the rules, much less how to follow protocols from some far-off place that seems to offer safety and security. You do what your parents tell you, even if you don’t always understand.
What would Jesus say to these politicians and people who want to deny these children the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  To my mind, the passage today is precisely the answer to that question. Many question how we could afford to take care of such a flood, yet there always seems to be enough money for intervention in armed conflicts, even when they really do not impact us directly. He would probably go to the halls of Congress and start lobbying for the protection of the children. What I wonder is whether those in Congress and other positions of authority who profess to follow him would recognize him or be persuaded by his words?
We’ve got children at risk here in our own country as well. What is being done to curb the violence they see and suffer? What are we doing to give them the kind of childhood we all want for our own kids? Where are we serving Jesus in them?
Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” That statement falls right into the same category as the one where Jesus reminds his disciples that whoever clothed the naked, fed the hungry, healed the sick, visited the prisoners did it to and for him. So who is going to look at the children and remember Jesus’ words? Or is it going to be business as usual, arguing over who is the greatest while the least go hungry, barefoot, homeless and hopeless?
Jesus has given us clear instructions. Are we brave and wise enough to follow them? If we don’t the world will suffer more in the long run. We may not live to see it but we will be leaving it as a legacy for our own children. We have a choice – are we the greatest or are we the servants of the least?
What would Jesus do? He’s already done it. It’s our turn now.
* excerpted from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 9, 2014.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Opportunists

‘The kings came, they fought;
   then fought the kings of Canaan,
at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo;
   they got no spoils of silver.
The stars fought from heaven,
   from their courses they fought against Sisera.
The torrent Kishon swept them away,
   the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon.
   March on, my soul, with might!

‘Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs
   with the galloping, galloping of his steeds.

‘Curse Meroz, says the angel of the Lord,
   curse bitterly its inhabitants,
because they did not come to the help of the Lord,
   to the help of the Lord against the mighty.

‘Most blessed of women be Jael,
   the wife of Heber the Kenite,
   of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
   she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent-peg
   and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
   she crushed his head,
   she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
   he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
   where he sank, there he fell dead.

‘Out of the window she peered,
   the mother of Sisera gazed
through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
   Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?”
Her wisest ladies make answer,
   indeed, she answers the question herself:
“Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?—
   A girl or two for every man;
spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera,
   spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered,
   two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?”

‘So perish all your enemies, O Lord!
   But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.’

And the land had rest for forty years.   - Judges 5:19-31

I came down with a lot of various childhood illnesses the year I was in the third grade so I learned to like reading as a way of passing the time. I had my brother's Hardy Boys mysteries as well as some Nancy Drew of my own. I even read biographies of famous people. One that I remember reading was a biography of St. Joan of Arc. I'd never really heard of her until a new girl came to our school from a Roman Catholic school and she attended the RC church named for that saint. Southern Baptists aren't much known for saint stuff other than the four gospel writers and Peter, maybe, so it was all fairly strange to me. This was an adventure story with a girl as the heroine. That was something I didn't hear too much in church either, other than about Mary at Christmastime. To read of women who did exciting and extraordinary things like Joan or Florence Nightingale or our local heroine, Pocahontas, really gave me more of a charge than the biographies I read of George Washington (another fairly local hero), Abraham Lincoln or Daniel Boone.
As for Bible stories, there was always Adam (and Eve, who brought down the whole thing at Eden), Sarah the wife of Abraham who laughed and then had Isaac, another important man. Once in a while we'd hear about Ruth and at Easter we'd hear about the women at the tomb, including that reformed prostitute, Mary Magdalene (who has since been redeemed and is no longer considered a woman of ill repute except by some). Mostly what we learned about was the story of men and, of course, God the Father who occasionally displayed some feminine characteristics which were usually glossed over as a nice touch before moving on to more important attributes like kingly, strong, vengeful, and ready for battle when necessary.

We never heard the stories of women like Jephtha's daughter or Esther the queen who saved her people. Mostly the stories of women that were told were cautionary tales featuring women as troublemakers or those of whom it would be said that they were no better than they should be. Bathsheba seduced David the voyeur by taking a bath on the roof of the house next to the palace. Rahab may have saved some spies but she was also an innkeeper and probably a harlot to boot (at least in the interpretation of some). Miriam was a prophetess but she got leprosy for trying to upstage Moses while her brother Aaron, who was in cahoots with her, got off without so much as a pimple. One character we never heard about was Jael, the woman who broke the rules. It's got all the twists of a Hollywood plot, but it's not one we we're as familiar with as we are with Abraham, Noah, Moses or Jesus.
The part of the story we read today is the poetic version and one that is very easy to visualize it being told and retold around a campfire by a bard who knew precisely the inflection and cadence to use to make the words come alive, like the sound of the hoofbeats. It must have been really stirring to his listeners.

Jael was the wife of a Kenite man named Heber. Kenites were metalworkers and craftsmen which made them valuable neighbors. This group was probably semi-nomadic as they lived in tents rather than villages or cities. The men did the metalwork, the women took care of the tents, including raising and collapsing them as they moved. Heber and his clan were at a particular place at probably the right time – or maybe the wrong time, depending on how you looked at it. There was a battle going on nearby, one where Barak, commander of the Israelite forces, and Deborah the prophetess and judge, were pitted against Sisera and the army of King Jabin of Hazor, a Canaanite. With God on their side, the Israelites had the Canaanites on the run, including Sisera who sought concealment and safety in the camp of the Kenites, a people who had a gentlemen’s agreement with the king at Hazor. So Sisera, in seeking his escape from certain capture and death, ran to the Kenite camp and saw a woman standing at the doorway of a tent.

Now hospitality to even total strangers or one’s worst enemy was a given in that time and place. Since the Kenites were friendly to his king, Sisera had every confidence he would be safe in their camp so he rushed into Jael’s tent, claiming sanctuary and asking for water. The good hostess that she was, she gave him some milk instead and then beaned him with a mallet (or perhaps waited until he was asleep and pounded a tent stake through his head, depending on whether you read the poetic or prose account). In any case, after the deed was done, Jael sought out Barak the Israelite to announce that the commander of the opposing army was in her tent and very dead. It made her a sort of hero although it did sort of put a question mark on her hostessing skills and undoubtedly her ethics as well.

 Jael did something unthinkable; she harmed a guest under her roof and a man at that. To top it off, the guest was an influential member of the staff of a king with whom the group had cordial relations, so why on earth did she do such a horrible thing as to murder a man in cold blood? One interpretation is that she knew about the battle and decided to throw her lot in with the Israelites rather than the Canaanites, treaty or no treaty. Perhaps she was doing what God told her to do. At any rate, it was an opportunity of a lifetime. Carpe diem could have been her motto that day.

 There are two opportunists in this story, and the question is, which one was the greater? Sisera certainly took advantage of the confusion on the battlefield to run for dear life to somewhere, anywhere where he could save his own neck. Jael took advantage of the situation presented to her but in the process managed to break a sacred tradition of hospitality.

Opportunity knocks, but it sometimes presents itself in strange ways. We don’t know what happened to Jael after she showed Sisera’s body to Barak. It is another one of those Bible stories where the character we’ve been following simply seems to vanish into the shadows.

So what is the lesson we’re supposed to gain from Jael’s story? Perhaps some would say it is okay to kill someone who makes their way into the house to hide from a perceived enemy and thus put innocent people at risk. Some would say to simply comply rather than face a confrontation that might prove deadly. Maybe it was God using a woman to do a man’s job because she had the strength and cunning to do it as well as the means, motive and opportunity. I’m not totally sure which one really is the right one, but I appreciate Jael as a woman who evidently did what she felt she needed to do at the time to protect herself and her clan. She killed one to perhaps save many or perhaps only a few. Of course, she could have been listening to God and doing what she was told.

Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 2, 2014.