I like the tradition of sharing that which are thankful for around the Thanksgiving table. I like the way the tradition is adapted for children in school as they fill in turkey feathers with people and things they are thankful for. I always read these with great interest. You can expect to see thanks given for Mom and Dad, sometimes sisters and brothers. You can expect to see someone give thanks for a house or a car, a toy or a favorite pastime. But I always read on for the unexpectant thanksgiving. One of the children who is going to fall outside the mold of expectation and give thanks for something that surprises us, that doesn’t fit into the expected categories. This is the child who shares that they are thankful for the hamster or for trick or treating. This is the child who shares they are thankful bees or when they can reach the snack basket by themselves. I love these glimpses of gratitude because both they surprise us and they are deeply authentic.
It is like giving thanks for the person at work who gives you the most trouble. Not giving thanks through clenched teeth and fists, but earnestly reflecting on the importance of their role in your work. I wonder if this is where Barak thought he might find himself after Deborah proclaimed God’s call for him to defeat Sisera. I can imagine him settled into camp, not expecting or planning to go into battle anytime soon. I can imagine that he was holding his own, when Deborah proclaimed his movement, his battle, and presumed success. But to his credit, he did not dismiss her out of hand. He did not laugh at her suggestion or ignore her words from God. Instead, he asked for her help.
Deborah was not just any Israelite listening for the voice of God; she held the office of judge. That office had two aspects, and Deborah fits the criteria for both. First, people came to her to solve legal disputes. It is not clear whether it was her own good sense that gave her the ability to solve legal squabbles or whether, since she was a prophet, she also could seek a direct decision from Yahweh to deal with difficult cases. Secondly, “judges” in this book are military heroes through whom Yahweh delivered his people. Deborah is identified as a solely positive judge, in reaction to our conversation about Samson two weeks ago, who was a questionable character. Deborah’s only challenge is that she is a woman and Barak has to decide whether to share the glory with a woman.
This passage about Deborah fits into the same pattern we saw when we looked at Samson and Gideon. This cycle in the book of Judges is described this way: the Israelites do evil and abandon God, so God delivers them into the hand of foreign leaders who oppress them. Then, the Israelites cry out to God, who hears their cry and raises up a judge to deliver them. The judge — also a military leader — is successful, and the Israelites enjoy peace, but when the judge dies the people forget about following God, and the cycle begins again. This cycle can also be traced as a downward spiral in the book, with the final chapters describing a situation of complete moral chaos and civil war. Throughout this cycle, God often acts in partnership with humans.
This passage surprises us not only because of the details of the adventure, read on in chapter 4 and then again in chapter 5, but not in the prose, blow by blow that we heard read. Instead, it is poetry told and retold to children and the community as a way to remember the ways in which God surprises us. This story would rival any adventure movie or Marvel, DC superhero comic book. This passage surprises us because of the heroes involved and the seemingly quick decisions they make to work together and to work with God. Without hesitation, Deborah shares God’s command with Barak. Barak counters with his adaptation; Deborah accepts with her caveat. This all appears to be done in a blink – partnership with God and one another in a blink of an eye. Hold that thought.
As a culture, we are a little skeptical of quick decisions and snap judgments, we see them go awry more than go well. Since this is the last in our biblical reality show series, I want to bring up the television shows about the bachelorette, although it could as easily be the bachelor. In running for about 11 years, the Bachelorette gives a quick glimpse into courting rituals and speed dating. With the time frame, it is necessary that quick judgments are made about the potential mate quality of males and females. There are scripted dates and social interactions. Quick sharings of hopes and dreams for the future as well as romantic episodes played out before the viewers’ eyes. The goal of these shows is to marry off the woman or man in question. However, only two of the nine Bachelorette seasons have ended in marriage and five of the eighteen seasons of the Bachelor. But it raises the question of can there be success in snap judgments and scripted encounters in marital bliss? Our instinctive answer is no, but after a recent read I wonder.
I have recently been reading one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, Blink: the power of Thinking without Thinking. Gladwell’s books deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences. Gladwell tells of a psychologist who has learned to predict whether a marriage will last, based on a few minutes of observing a couple; a tennis coach who knows when a player will double-fault before the racket even makes contact with the ball; the antiquities experts who recognize a fake at a glance. For the more cautious among us, there are great failures of “blink”: the election of Warren Harding; “New Coke”; and the shooting of Amadou Diallo by police. But the book suggests that great decision makers aren’t those who process the most, but those or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of “thin-slicing”-filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.
Gladwell does not lead us down this road, but I will. One of the ways we thin-slice is by finding the side of God and getting on board with the ways in which God is working, even when it surprises or shocks us. In the story of Deborah and Barak, Every convention in this story has been subverted. The women are heroines, and the men are cowards. The great battles do not occur, but a devious feminine deed wins the day. We do not, of course, celebrate the monstrous cleverness of Jael. We celebrate the surprising way of our God, who does not always use the expected rules of society and culture but often goes another way to perform the divine work. That God is indeed the God of surprise!
Sometimes, we like the readers of Judges find ourselves surprise by those in leadership. We have made assumptions that they can’t or won’t lead. Deborah is given pause, not by God, but by humanity because of her sex. She is the only female judge recorded in the book of Judges, but given high praise and stature for her faithfulness. But it is not only sex that shapes our limitations of leadership. We find ourselves surprised by age, we expect our leaders to have decades of experience capped with salt and pepper crowns of wisdom. We find ourselves surprised by race and ethnicity. We expect our leaders to look a certain way. Sometimes we find ourselves surprised by our willingness to say yes, our gratitude, our openness to God’s ways. This, to me, is the most exciting of all.
On this Thanksgiving week, I give thanks to God that God’s ways often surprise us. We find ourselves working with folks in ways that we did not anticipate. Perhaps, it is collaborative like Deborah and Barak. And perhaps, it is startling like judgment from Matthew – when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked? If your family is anything like mine, you will probably find yourself on Thursday gathered near food with copious amounts of family favorites and traditional dishes. But you will also find yourself rubbing elbows with those who while you share a last name or a common relation or mutual relationship, might not choose them out of a crowd. Consider where God is calling you to cultivate gratitude and give thanks in new ways this year. Of course, giving thanks for your family and friends, and for good food and warm homes. But where is God calling you to give thanks for the difficult sister-in-law who always rubs you the wrong way or the grandparent who pinches your cheeks too hard or the one who finds themselves sharing your meal who you wouldn’t have necessarily invited? God is always surprising God’s people. God might just be preparing a surprise collaboration, opportunity for growth, or way to serve God’s people for you. Lean in and give thanks!
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.