Saturday, July 30, 2011

Why Is It So Hard to Change?

Proverbs 26:11

Matthew 12:43-45

July 31, 2011

43“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. 44Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

“Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.”

Phil Connors is stuck. He has been stuck for a very long time. When we meet him in the movie “Groundhog Day,” Phil has become cynical and sour. He thinks he is God’s gift to television station WPBH Channel 9. A meteorologist with dreams of moving to a bigger market, Phil hurls insults at his co-workers, assuring them that he is a lot bigger than they are. He has nothing but scorn for the people around him and the places they inhabit.

If you remember the old 1993 film, you will remember what happens. He goes on assignment to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It’s February 2, and he has to cover the weather report outside of Gobbler’s Knob. Predictably he despises the people in that small town, and hustles back on the truck to return to Pittsburgh.

Then comes a snowstorm that he did not predict, and it puts him back in Punxsutawney for the night. When he wakes in the morning, it’s February 2 all over again. Same alarm clock, same people, same script, same everything. Just barely getting through it, he gets up the next morning to discover it’s February 2. He is stuck in a time loop. Phil is conscious of it, but everybody around him remains in place, repeating the same words, eating the same food, thinking the same thoughts.

The movie has gained in significant in the nearly twenty years since its release. Critics put it on the top of lists of classic American movies. The theme is a good one: what would you do if every day was the same? What if nothing ever moved forward, if you were stuck and you knew it? What if you kept doing the same mistakes in the same way around the same people? Or to merely ask the title of the sermon, “Why is it so hard to change?”

Is it too much to say that this is the same old human problem? Some three thousand years ago, a wise sage quipped the pungent little proverb that is our text. “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.” It’s a line attributed to wise King Solomon, and copied down by the King Hezekiah (25:1). It’s also one of the only Old Testament Proverbs that gets remembered and written down in the New Testament, in the letter of Second Peter. Wherever it comes from, no matter how it smells, it offers a stinky truth – that some people keep doing the same stupid things over and over again.

Now, I picked this passage months ago, long before Congress got stuck in debt ceiling negotiations. It made the cut for my summer series on “I Can’t Believe That’s In the Bible.” But certainly the folly of a dog who returns to gobble down its lost lunch is a pretty graphic description of what we’ve seen and heard in some corners of the nation’s capital. People get stuck saying the same things, seeing the same issues from the same perspective, strangely incapable of stepping outside of themselves and attempting something new.

The fact that this brief little proverb has been around for so many centuries suggests that personal change is a persistent difficulty. People do not change. Or if they do, they don’t change in any significant degree.

A few women got together for lunch recently. They were welcoming back Diana, who recently ran off to a Caribbean island to get married. It was her fourth wedding; the first three marriage happened in a Catholic church, the second in a Protestant church, the third in a non-denominational church, so she gave up on church weddings and got married on an island. She arrived to lunch a little late, deeply tanned, and her friends welcomed her.

One of them noticed, however, that their friend had her big diamond ring on the pinky of her right hand. “Diana,” she asked, “are you wearing your ring on the wrong finger?” “Of course,” she answered, “I keep marrying the wrong man.”

This may be our human predicament. The dieter tries again and cheats again. The man gets another speeding ticket five miles past the first one. The thief can’t help but steal again.

Or something worse. The drug rehabilitation counselor told some of us that few people get it right when they go through drug and alcohol rehab for the first time. If they are smart, they learn to say the right things, go through the right motions. But they do not always fill the hollowness in their souls that caused the problem in the first place.

Perhaps the flaw is woven into our genetic make-up. Imagine old King Solomon, looking out over his castle veranda, observing the neighborhood dog. After a dinner of garbage is turned into garbage once again, the dog returns for the second course. How can it do that? Is the dog that hungry? That desperate? That pathetic? Is it congenital trait? Solomon cannot say.

According to the Bible, King Solomon was addicted to women. One of the court historians wrote that he had seven hundred wives and three hundred extra girl friends (1 Kings 11). Maybe the best thing you could say about him was he was full of love, although others assume he was only bragging. If he ever sat down with an honest psychiatrist, the shrink would have a field day. Sounds like a relationship addiction. Or a relationship avoidance. Certainly it’s safe to say whatever the king was into, it wasn’t working.

The proverb for today is part of a larger section of proverbs. The central theme is foolishness. Over twenty-five times, the word “fool” is used in this chapter. It points to a repetitive stupidity that leads to an inept life. Folly of this magnitude has little to do with intelligence. As most of us know, there are a lot of A+ students who flunk common sense.

A fool is the person who cannot learn from a mistake. All of us make mistakes. Not all of us learn from them. The image is of a foolish man who has walked around the track so many times that he has worn a groove in the soil and cannot climb out of the furrow. So he concedes and says, “I guess that’s the path that I have to walk.”

Consider Phil Connors. His script on Groundhog Day goes from bad to worse. He snarls at the people around them, and then decides to do them in. He takes advantage of reliving the same day with no long-term consequences: he robs an armor car, learns secrets about the townspeople, seduces women, and gets thrown in jail.

Yet life keeps sinking lower. He grows despondent and tries more desperately to end the time loop. He gives abusive weather reports, punches an insurance agent. Then at the lowest point, he steals a truck, kidnaps the groundhog, and drives into a quarry to kill himself – only to wake at 6:00 the next morning to the recurring song of Sonny and Cher, “I Got You, Babe.”

In the wisdom of the Bible, this is a glimpse of the human condition. We live by patterns and routines. Somehow we get stuck within ourselves, and it seems nearly hopeless to change. This is a downward spiral of destructiveness. The Bible calls this “sin,” not merely sin as something wrong that we do, but as a condition that affects us all. Sin is the power that threatens to destroy us, always nipping at our heals, always pushing for an opening, often dragging us into the sewer and serving up a meal that we ate once before.

Sin is the habit of foolishness. It is insisting on our own way, even if the way is destructive. We know these people and we can describe them. They define insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Even if they know the choices are bad, they keep doing them.

Sometimes it is returning to the spouse who abused you. Sometimes it is sticking with the bad habit that is destroying you. Sometimes it is taking the same job that brings out the worst in you. Always it is a kind of foolishness. It threatens to do us in, as long as we lack the courage, the clarity, and the persistence to stand up and say “no.”

In the strange little parable that we heard from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a story about a person who had an unclean spirit expelled. He said, “The spirit wandered around without a home, and then decided to return to the very person from who it had been cast out. Finding seven other evil spirits to join it, the foul spirit returned to invade a clean, orderly, and empty life. All eight evil spirits took up residence, and the damage was worse than the first.” (Matt. 12:43-45)

This is what happens, he said, to an entire generation if it is not vigilant, strong, and resistant to destructiveness. What we have to say is, “Stop! Wait a minute. What I am doing is no good for me or anybody else. I have to cease right now.” This is a way for us to claim our God-given dignity as God’s sons and daughters.

Harold Ramis was the director of the movie “Groundhog Day,” and he finally shows us how Phil Connors breaks out of the endless pattern of emptiness. Somehow he decides to use the time on his hands to improve. He uses his experience of the same day as an opportunity to learn about his neighbors and improve their lives. He takes piano lessons and learns French. Most of all, he breaks free of his obsession with himself and starts helping the people of Punxsutawney, who themselves become a little less stuck in the process.

In his commentary on the film, here is what Harold says to us all:

Everyone feels to a certain extent that they are living the same day over and over again. I feel like I’m stuck with myself. I keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Every time there is the potential of disagreement with my wife, I say, “Don’t say that.” I know I shouldn’t say that. This is really going to tick her off. Don’t say it. And then I say it. How many times to you have to relive the same argument with someone, or make the same mistake with your life?

The key for any of us is having the insight, the courage, and the energy to make those changes when you come to those moments when you could make the same mistake again. We face those choices every single day. The things we tell ourselves we are going to do, the things we tell ourselves we shouldn’t do. If you could change one little thing, then everything might change. And to that extent, I feel somewhat stuck… I’ve known people who are not afraid to walk to the edge to shake things up, to take big chances in life. I’ve come to appreciate in my own life what risk-taking can mean in a positive sense, how positively you can change you life if you’re just willing to act on it.

Here’s another way to say it: we were created better than fools, perhaps even better than the most foolish of dogs. And one of the gifts of Jesus Christ is the power to break us free from the habits that enslave us. It takes hard work and a good bit of encouragement. If there is some constructive change that you need to make in your life, I want to say, “Good for you!” Keep it going. Take small steps to build momentum and keep going. If you fail, return for a word of forgiveness, but try again. Ask for God’s help and keep going.

There’s a story that I like by Portia Nelson. Maybe you have heard it before. It goes like this:

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters – Portia Nelson

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in this same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in... it's a habit... but, my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

(c) William G. Carter, except for those portions that belong to somebody else.

All rights reserved

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Bible and Immigration

Leviticus 19:33-34

July 10, 2011

Series: “I Can’t Believe That’s in the Bible”

In the 19th chapter of Leviticus, God gives a code of conduct to the people of Israel. “You are to be holy, as I am holy,” says the Lord. In that context, the Lord our God declares these words:

33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

One of the bright lights of the church is Rodger Nishioka, professor of Christian education at a seminary near Atlanta. He is sharp and winsome, full of vitality and insight. Rodger is extremely well read, and can translate his learning into helpful and practical assistance. He is the kind of speaker who is frequently asked to keynote at conferences across the ecumenical church.

But there is one topic that brings tears to his eyes. Ask him what happened to his mother and his grandparents in 1942.

It was shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After some attempt to stay neutral, the United States entered World War 2. About three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This authorized the Secretary of War to designate certain areas as military zones. More to the point, it allowed the government to forcibly remove people of Japanese ancestry from the western third of the United States. They were sent to internment camps, temporary settlements of tar paper shacks surrounded by barbed wire.

Rodger Nishioka's mother was ten years old at the time. She was living with her younger brother and her mom and dad on a farm they owned in Bakersfield, California. All of them were legally born US citizens. In April, a notice was posted telling all Japanese Americans that they had three days to sell everything they had. Rodger’s grandparents lost their farm. His grandfather was “relocated” by the FBI to an internment camp, along with the local Buddhist priest, the principal of the Japanese-American school, and a United Methodist pastor of Japanese descent. The family did not know where they were taken or what would be done with them.

Rodger’s mother, uncle, and grandmother were left behind. They were soon summoned to downtown Bakersfield to the bus station. They had been sent away from their home, their livestock had been taken from them, and they were told to take only what they could carry on their backs. The three of them were loaded on buses along with over 100,000 other Japanese Americans, and taken to an undisclosed location. Their new home was one of ten different camps in the desert, where they were sorted on the basis of the color of their skin and the name of their parents.

It is one of the embarrassing moments in American history. Forty years later, a government panel determined that the relocation camps were a huge mistake. To quote the report, initiated by President Carter and signed by President Reagan, the incarceration was caused by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

I bring up this story as a way into our text. In the Jewish law code of Leviticus, in a section that gives instruction for a holy and moral life, God decrees, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Most of the chapter is a legal commentary on the Ten Commandments: don’t lie about one another in the courtroom, don’t steal or defraud your neighbor, and don’t hoard the wages of the people you employ.

Sprinkled through the chapter are further instructions on the same theme: do not curse the deaf person nor cause the blind to trip and fall, don’t plunder the servants who are designated for your neighbor, and don’t over-pick the produce from your fields so that your poor neighbors can also get something to eat. Don’t hate anybody. Don’t nurse a grudge or extract revenge, for the Lord is your God – and their God.

And then, there are these words, addressed for the benefit of those who are not your kin: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you. You shall love the alien as yourself.” (19:33-34)

Now, the word “alien” does not mean somebody from Mars. It’s the Hebrew word “ger,” translated as “foreigner,” stranger,” “sojourner,” or “alien.” It is somebody who lives among you who does not come from around here. It’s a different word than “nekar,” which means “enemy.” The “ger” – the stranger – does not oppose you; he or she is somebody different from you who lives in the same town.

In ancient times, the borders of a nation were usually imprecise and full of holes. People from other places passed through regularly. They came and went. Any border that ran through a desert was no more than a line in the sand, and the first big wind storm redrew the boundary. But you could tell these people were different: Perhaps their skin was a different tone or they celebrated different holidays. They ate different foods and spoke in different languages.

Because the Middle East was in the middle of the traffic pattern, and people were always coming and going, there was great virtue given to hospitality. You welcomed the stranger as a matter of course, and you remembered when others first welcomed you.

The Bible comes to us from a mindset of welcome. Abram and Sarai, the grandparents of Israel, were immigrants from the land of Ur. Originally they were traveling to the land of Canaan, but decided to settle down in Haran. And when Abram was seventy-five years old, God spoke and said, “Pack up, I’m going to take you somewhere.” Abram said, “Where?” and God said, “I’ll tell you when we get there.” God led him to the land of Canaan, and then they just kept going.

The Jewish statement of faith begins with the words, “A wandering Aramean was my father . . .” It was a way of saying, “Our daddy was always on the move.” Some of us live that story. My mother told us she lived in sixteen houses by the time of her sixteenth birthday; my grandfather was a wandering salesman. A Scot, not an Aramean.

Much of the Bible is the story of a people on the move. After our first parents got the boot from the Garden of Eden, they kept traveling. There was a lot to see. There were boat trips to take, deserts to traverse, mountains to climb, and seas to pass through. The people of faith are a traveling people, led by a God who says, “I will show you when we get there.”

“Remember this,” says scripture. And after Jesus makes his appearance, the early church started welcoming the Italian and the Irish, long before the city of Scranton took them in. There were no national limits to church membership – even those smelly Samaritans were allowed in. “Remember this,” says the writer of Ephesians. “Remember how it was before Jesus, when you were aliens in Israel, when you were strangers to God’s covenant. Remember how Jesus in his death broke down the walls of hostility, and made all of you citizens with the saints, members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19).” There is one people - God’s people. There is one house – God’s house.

How else can we explain what happened in this room last week? Thirty people from the Republic of Cameroon were among us to testify to God’s healing power and to break into song. They were here, along with people originally from Taiwan and Peckville. Everybody is from somewhere, but in God’s house there are no strangers.

That is the great vision of Ephesians. That is the ethical imperative of Leviticus: “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”

So listen, I mention this under the heading of “The Bible and Immigration.” I bring this up because fifty-one percent of the children now born in America are born to families that do not have white skin. The census bureau projected that the majority of Americans would be persons of color by the year 2040. According to the most recent census, however, that date has been moved up to 2020. Our nation is growing, and 83% of the growth is driven by non-Anglo population groups. Those statistics are not going to change.

I bring this up because, in the eighteenth century, a few Scots Presbyterians imported an intimidating ritual of burning crosses and they never apologized for it. I bring this up because our national General Assembly just considered down a theological statement from South Africa that denounces racism, and our presbyteries voted it down.

I bring this up because some people want to pass laws like the new laws in Alabama. The police can stop anyone they have a “reasonable suspicion” may be here illegally, like if they speak Spanish. If you are arrested for illegally living in Alabama, you are denied bail. If you associate with someone who is here illegally, if you invite them to home or church or give them a ride, you are breaking the law.

Now, I know these are anxious times. Just like 1942. The economy is tough, and there are more people looking for jobs than finding them. Each municipality is stretched to pay for fire and police protection, health care, and education – especially for those who did not enter our country through the front door. The debates are going to continue for a while, and there is no evidence that immigration reform will happen through cool and reasonable thinking.

This is a topic that deserves more than a twenty minute sermon. I hope we can dig in more deeply, and study the matter in a series of adult education classes. We are working on those dates this week, so watch for the announcements for the fall.

All I want to do today is remind us of a few things the Bible says on the matter. "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." This is what the Bible says, believe it or not. The obligation for us is to keep working through what this might mean.

I don't have any quick answers. But I do have a story. It's the rest of the story that Rodger Nishioka tells.

Remember, in 1942, how his grandfather was taken away? How his mother, uncle, and grandmother were sent to a internment camp in the desert? Rodger’s mother often told him how brave his grandmother was during the whole ordeal. She held it together – until a moment in the bus station. The three of them were waiting for the bus to take them to the camp, and the boy, Rodger’s uncle, asked if he could have something to eat. It was then that his grandmother realized she had not packed any food. In the pressure to pack and move, she had forgotten about packing food. She began to weep and said, “I am a terrible mother for not thinking ahead.”

Rodger’s mother saw this, and the ten-year-old tried to console her. “I will look for some food,” she said. She asked friends and others at the bus station, but there was nothing. At one point, the crowd parted, and a lovely white woman in a dress came forward with a tray of food and said, “Hello. Are you hungry?”

“Yes, I am.”

So the lady gave her a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a cup of juice. The little girl took this back to her family, and her mother asked where she found it. The girl said, “From a white woman.” Her mother frowned. “We don’t know any white people. Take it back.”

So she did. But the white woman insisted the little girl take the food. She gave her another sandwich and more fruit and juice. But upon returning, her mother insisted once more, “Take it back.”

The ten-year-old went back and forth a number of times. She even tried to pay the white lady, but payment was not accepted, and she gave the girl even more food. The mother finally asked her daughter, “Who is she?”

So she went back to the woman and asked, “Who are you?” The lady smiled and said, “I’m a Christian friend.” The girl went back to share this information. Her mother said, “Christian friend? We are Buddhist. We don’t know any Christians or white people. Tell her she is mistaken.”

The girl did as she was told but the lady said, “I am a Quaker. Here, let me talk with your mother.” And she brought even more food.

Rodger's grandmother remembered this. Grandpa was eventually reunited with his family and they went to an internment camp in the desert for three years. Afterward they were released to a town in Idaho, outside of the jurisdiction of the executive order. They lived among other Japanese Americans who had settled there. Rodger's mother grew up there, went to school, and became good friends with a white girl who happened to be a Christian.

One day her new friend asked if she could come for a sleepover and spend the night. So she asked her mother. "Sleep over? Why would you do that if you have a bed at home? No, I don't think so."

"But mom, I think white people do this." "No. You have family here. There is no need for this. Stay here."

"But mom, she's a Christian friend." “A what?"

"A Christian friend." "Oh, OK. Then you should go to her house."

Rodger's mother started attending her friend's church and became a Christian. Her brother did, too. After the war, the family moved back to California and started going to church. Rodger's grandparents also converted to Christianity and were baptized. His mother married a seminary student who would go on to preach for thirty-two years. They had four sons: an air traffic controller, an optometrist's assistant, a pastor in Seattle, and a professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary.

Rodger says his fondest memory of his grandmother was going to the grocery store. They would find the cereal aisle and walk down it. She would stop, point at a container of Quaker Oats, and say in broken English, "Rodger, Christian friends. Good people."

Can you remember what the Bible says about how to treat our neighbors?

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hooray for the Left-Handed Guerrilla!

Judges 3:12-25
July 3, 2011
Series: “Can You Believe That's in the Bible?”
William G. Carter

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the LORD. . .But when the Israelites cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man...Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly . . .

Oh, how we love a swashbuckling story! On the eve of a national birthday, it’s worth remembering a few.

I recently heard the story of Ethan Allen, the real Ethan Allen. He was a hero of the American Revolution. Thanks to him, we won Fort Ticonderoga, on the border of New York and Vermont. Inspired by a series of legal disputes in southwestern Vermont, he formed a band of marauders called the Green Mountain Boys. They were mountain men, hard-scrabble farmed. They terrorized some ambitious surveyors and drove away a number of thieving settlers.

When the Revolution broke out in 1775, Ethan Allen was asked to lead an operation against Fort Ticonderoga. He rounded up a number of his country marauders, about a hundred sixty of them, and they put together an unconventional plan to cross Lake Champlain on fishing boats in the middle of the night. Just as the plan was to commence, a military officer named Benedict Arnold showed up. He was a bit of dandy. He showed up late, claimed to take charge, and was roundly sidelined by the Green Mountain Boys.

Ethan Allen’s plan went forward. The farmers moved in on the sleepy fort with their muskets. When the commander was summoned, he asked, “By what authority are you entering this fort? Allen said, “By the authority of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” The commander surrendered the fort without a shot, and the Green Mountain Boys raided the liquor cabinets.

We love these stories. They recall brave warriors who did courageous deeds. The Book of Judges is full of them. There are tales of Gideon with his trumpets, the mighty warrior Jephthah, and curly-headed Samson. Perhaps the wildest tale is the one we heard today, of Ehud, the swordsman who took out big, fat King Eglon.

The Bible says he was an answer to prayer – quite literally.

For eighteen years King Eglon had dominated the people of Israel. They had it coming, says the writer of Judges. Twice he insists the Israelites had ticked off the Lord Almighty, and that’s how King Eglon had come to oppress the people of Israel. He demanded a sizable annual payment, what the story calls a “tribute.”

Now, please try to understand this. This so-called “tribute” was so big that it took several strong men to carry it to the castle. King Eglon didn’t use this cash for the benefit of the people. It wasn’t tax money that he used for building roads, putting police officers on the street, or improving the general welfare of the people. That’s what taxes do, after all. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once quipped, “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization." If only Eglon of Moab had seen it the same way!

That was an unusual choice. Ehud was left-handed. I don’t know if we are supposed to take that literally or not. The Hebrew word here seems to mean “handicapped in the right hand.” Some Bible scholars wonder if he was disabled - perhaps maimed. Maybe so, but we don’t know. What we do know is that left-handed people have always been seen to be a little suspect. In a culture that shakes hands with the right hand, to prove there is no weapon, a left-handed person can shake your hand and stab you in the gizzard. It’s no wonder the word “sinister” comes from the Latin word for left-handed.

Maybe that’s why my Kindergarten teacher always forced me to pick up a pencil with my right-hand. My brain has always been wired in a different way. I am in my right mind; that’s why I am left-handed.

Here’s Ehud. This Bible story was the basis for my first-ever children’s sermon. We were assigned in seminary to cook up a children’s sermon and try it out on our childish classmates. So this is the story I told, the story of Ehud the southpaw swordsmen.

He was an oppressed minority, I said. He was a left-hander in a right-handed world. Whenever he picked up the telephone, Ehud had to switch hands to write something down. Whenever Ehud would write something down, he would smear ink on the back of his hand (unless he was writing in Hebrew backwards). And then, whenever he tried to use scissors, well, forget it. Ehud was left-handed. Yet he used his different brain to God’s advantage and the people’s benefit. Thus endeth the children’s sermon.

Of course, that wasn’t good enough for my seminary classmates. One of those future ministers asked, “Tell us again how King Eglon actually died,” and everybody giggled. It is, after all, the most graphic murder scene in the Bible, far more graphic than a crucifixion. The tubby king welcomed Ehud in his rooftop chamber, and Ehud stuck him with a blade that was swallowed up in blubber. The guerrilla slipped away unseen.

Meanwhile the bewildered servants wondered what was taking so long. They asked one another, “Do you suppose the king is still seated on his gold-plated royal toilet seat?” They waited a good long time, then decided to break down the door and find out. King Eglon was lying on the floor, as dead as Elvis Presley.

I hope you catch the humor of that. It is a story designed to humiliate the big fat king. Never mind that the scripture is clear that God had placed him on the throne (the other throne, that is). Sure, King Eglon was a Moabite. Those Moabites loved to set up their stone-statue idols all over the place. Ehud had to pass by those “sculptured stones” down by the Jordan River when he delivered the tribute. That seems to be the very thing that gave him courage to return to the palace, request an audience with Eglon, and try out his shiny new sword. He tried it only once.

It’s a swashbuckling story. We enjoy these stories, as long as we are on the right side. Again, I think of some of our national stories. How about that Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion? They called him “the Swamp Fox” because he hid out in the kudzu of South Carolina. His other nickname was “the Father of Modern Guerilla Warfare.” Swamp Fox Marion would take his men and attack the British when they least expected it. Then they would race back into the swamps. The Redcoats, reluctant to get their boots dirty, could never track down Marion and his marauders.

Now, that’s the kind of story that gets made into a Mel Gibson movie. Mel made the movie and called it, “The Patriot.” It was curious that a British film critic did some further research into the life and times of the real Francis Marion. He writes that the Swamp Fox was “a thoroughly unpleasant dude who was, basically, a terrorist.”[1]

The meaning of a story like this depends on your point of view. How would King Eglon’s people have told the same story? What would his wife and children have to say about Ehud? It all depends on where you stand. If the story is told in your favor, for your side, it’s a very different story than what others would say about it.

In fact, I was most curious to hear about a Bible study led by John Bell of the Iona Community. John says he decided to read this story to a group of church folk in Wales. Then he asked, “Why do you suppose a story like this is in the Bible?” There were some predictable answers from the well-dressed crowd: “God has an aversion to unjust taxation,” “God judged a glutton in a time of Israel’s starvation,” and one person said, “God loves left-handed person, too.”

To everybody’s surprise, somebody said, “This story is here so that one day we will be able to talk about September 11.” Everybody got very quiet all of a sudden. For the truth of the story was this: “the wealth of the fat king and the troops round his palace did not protect him from being fatally wounded by the least likely of people – a man who was left-handed.”[2]

You know, I thought this was going to be a funny Bible story. I expected we might smirk at the details, cheer for the hero, and hiss for the enemy. But the more I chew on this story, the more it leaves a sour taste in my stomach. There is more than one way to understand a story, especially a story about a devious assassin. One nation’s hero is another nation’s terrorist. The more I reflect, the more I am haunted by the dangers of telling a story from one point of view.

Regardless of how we vote, we often call on the name of God to justify our politics. That happens in all the adventure stories of scripture, and it happens here in the book of Judges. The people of Israel tell the story of how Ehud was chosen by God to deliver them from the omnivorous King Eglon. He was their hero; three cheers for the Left-Handed Guerilla!

But the really amazing detail in the story is that Israel also dares to say that God put Eglon the Moabite on the throne for eighteen years because the people had broken God’s heart with their sin. Now that’s the other side of the story. And it gives me pause to wonder how God judges our lives, both personal and national. According to the Jewish scriptures, God is the original King-Maker – and God is the conclusive King-Breaker. It is God with whom we ultimately have to deal, and it is God who sees all our human politics clearly, completely, and truthfully.

Jesus was a Jew. He knew these stories for they came from his Bible. I think it matters that he never had the need to quote this story, draw upon it, or refute it. But one thing Jesus did: he came to deliver his people from their oppression. The Lord God raised him up. And just like the ancient story of Ehud, the Lord God chose a most unlikely way for deliverance. God used the “left-handed” surprise of putting Jesus on the cross. Then, after Jesus died, God lifted the divine left hand to raise him from the dead. And all of our days, Jesus is exalted as the Prince of Peace; he sits at the right hand of God.

It sounds to me like an Ambidextrous Salvation, intended for everybody.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved


[2] John L. Bell, Hard Words for Interesting Times: Biblical Texts in Contemporary Contexts (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2003) 110.