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Bargaining With God

By Charles Rush

March 21, 2004

Judges 11: 30-40


T h
is is a sermon we all should have heard a dozen times and I dare say none of us ever has. We all bargain with God. Despite frugal results and a whole lot of whining about unanswered prayer, we all bargain with God. Often, bargaining is the very first serious conversation we have with the Almighty. Up 'til that point, our Mother's have usually been covering the prayer front for us. All of a sudden, there we are in third grade. We have not studied the multiplication tables at all and Mrs. Anderson throws a pop quiz at us. A quick and futile glance at the dense list that tabulates all the way to 12 ´ 12… "God, who can ever remember 12 ´ 12?"

Then we start, "God, if Marcy Fogelman’s paper can come into view during this test, I promise I'll will not curse for a whole week… make that a business week… 5 days… I have a baseball game on Saturday and Paul McSorely…" Who has not done that? Every one of us has… more than once.

A few years ago, I was in Washington. There was a bill before Congress on prayer in school. My friend James Dunn was testifying about the bill. He said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we don't need new legislation mandating prayer in school, we already have prayer in school. Trust me, as long as we have tests, we will have prayer in school."

From there, it just escalates… "Dear God, if I can just get Robin Hittman alone at this party… 5 minutes is all I need… let's make that 15 minutes… Lord, I will be nice to my sisters for a whole… for a while… except when they won't give up the phone, you know that doesn't count."

"O God, just let this pitch land in there for strike 3… I won't get drunk the whole weekend… just a couple beers… but controlled."

"O God, let those guys emerge from behind the conference room doors with a job offer, I'll go to Church for a month straight… and I'll actually give some money this time… No really, I was just short before… just give me a break, I really need this job. You know I do."

The requests get bigger, more is at stake. If we are concerned about it, then God ought to be concerned about it right? I mean we are talking about our lives here! The logic of this reaches it's fullest logical irony in sports, particularly in the South and the Midwest, where every Saturday both football teams meet in the dressing room or out on the field, asking the Almighty to bless their effort to pummel the crap out of their opponents… In the name of Jesus, who died rather than raise a finger to inflict violence… Amen." Go kick some butt boys…

One of my colleagues was the pastor of the 1st Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. His name was, no kidding, Buckner Fanning. Big name, big pulpit, big town in big Texas where they play big football. Every year, the president of the University of Texas would ask Buckner to say the prayer before the beginning of the Texas-Oklahoma football game, every year Buckner politely declined, until the year of his retirement when he said 'yes'. Just before the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, Buckner was out on the 50 yard line, everyone bowed their heads, Buckner leaned into the microphone and said, "God we know that you could care less who wins this football game, so keep everyone safe, and let's have a good time. Amen." Buckner made his way back across the field where he had to sit in the President's box. He said it was the longest two halves of football in his life.

Our story this morning is tragic… This is a story you just don't hear this story from the pulpit anymore. It comes from a period in Israel's history when there was anarchy in the land. It reads like the lyrics in a 'hip hop' rap song. Jephthah was an outcast in his birth family. His father had several children and then there was Jephthah. Jephthah was born to a prostitute that his father had visited once. We don't know why, but the father took the child into his own home with his other children. What we do know is that the other children teased Jephthah mercilessly about his mother and that eventually he ran away from home when he was a teenager. He formed a gang, his posse, his spiritual family of a sort. They made their money, we may suppose, providing protection, then as now.

But the era has no stability, much like being in Ethiopia or Afghanistan today. There are only clan factions that control a certain area but roving gangs with guns shake down everyone from time to time and you just learn to live with it. A decent sized army comes into the land. They look organized and appear to be threatening to rape, rob, and pillage the place. The people begin seriously banding together and cobbling together some kind of defense.

They come to Jephthah and his posse. "Can you help us?" they want to know. Some of his half-brothers are on this committee. Jephthah spends a little time strolling back down memory lane with them, back into the past of their dysfunctional family and all the hurt that he absorbed as a kid, all the time upping the ante for his participation. He senses that they are weak, that, in fact, they are somewhat desperate, so he closes the deal by saying, "If I take down this Army, you guys agree to make me ruler of the whole region." They look at each other, in no position to be quibbling over the details of a contract, and say 'sure boss, you can be regent over all of us.'

At this point in the story, in creeps a note of pathos. It is funny the way that low self-esteem works itself out in our adult lives. It makes us want the right things in the wrong intensity and it makes us want the wrong things too. You see these adults all around you that are quite capable, quite gifted in their fields. In some cases, and you can hardly see if from a distance, is how they compensate for something that is lacking in their lives. They have inordinate needs and wants, all etched into their souls over a long period of time from childhood. And it is this lack that they compensate for that gives them that extraordinary drive to accomplish, to over accomplish in their careers.

Admittedly, this is not in our text, but it is not a stretch to suppose it should be. I've met too many of these guys. Jephthah became tough, independent, made his own way. He never felt accepted at some fundamental level. He didn’t get the love in the right way. Now he wants to be recognized and he is quietly doing quite a lot to get it. That is his interior tape. "If I can't get the love, people will at least recognize me. Then they'll see. Then they'll say… " He is compensating for that lack in his life and using it to strive for accomplishment and ego strength. We are surrounded by this phenomenon.

And suddenly he finds himself way over his head… Ten minutes after the committee shakes hands with him, he realizes that he has just pledged himself to fight an actual army. No more, just him and his hoods beating up the locals, these guys actually train, drill, execute a plan of attack. This is serious. He doesn't have enough men, enough equipment, enough training. He has just pledged himself to die in all likelihood. Oops.

What do we do now? Swamped, over our heads, under resourced, Jephthah turns to prayer… actually it is a bargaining prayer. It is deal for the Almighty, "If you deliver this army into my hands… what… what… this has to be big…. If you deliver this army into my hands… big… big… whatever comes out of my house to greet me after the victory, I will offer to you in sacrifice." That is big Jephthah, real big. Also rash, also ill-considered, also conveniently not directly personal (it is not about you and the Lord but something you'll give, something else besides you). And what does he expect to come out of his house? The dog? (That would be the only one at my house that would come out to greet me).

In the story, we are told that Jephthah had only one daughter. From the way the narrative unfolds, it appears that his wife was dead or he was divorced, so that his only daughter was regularly living in the house with him. Apart from an errant sheep, wandering through the threshold, it would seem pretty likely that she would come through that door… and she did.

Jephthah is victorious in battle and he readily attributes that victory to the blessing of the Almighty, he returns home, his daughter comes out to meet him and soon dancing and joy turn to loud lamentation as her destiny is determined by his rash vow. The documentary film maker Michael Moore has a wonderful phrase to describe guys like Jephthah. He calls them 'stupid white men'. Jephthah could have said to himself, "Oh my God, what have I done? What kind of vow was that? What was I thinking? How can I make a vow promising someone else over whom I have no moral right? I'm an idiot. I take all that back." But he doesn't do that. He is probably incapable of looking at himself as the source of his own problems which is why it never really occurs to him that he could be wrong. He is, to use my Grandfather's descriptive phrase, a bone head.

Now I could say quite a lot about the daughter's unswerving submission and the volumes that speaks about patriarchal societies where women don't even think they have rights, where they don't think they deserve to be respected, where they can't even question unilateral, rash male authority- but that is another sermon, another day.

Throughout this episode, through the pledge, the victory in battle, the return home, and the follow through on the vow that leads to the death of his only daughter, the Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible says that from the Almighty, all we get is a deafening, damning divine silence. In the Bible, we are promised that God is faithful with us. But we are not promised that we can bind God. It doesn't work like that despite the fact that we keep trying to do it over and over and over again.

It is true, speaking theologically, that from the biblical point of view, God covenants with us. God made promises to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses, and in those promises there is a structure to God's relationship with us… That relationship is characterized by freedom, by love, by justice, by peace, by hope unto development and growth. There is a moral and spiritual direction to what God wants us to become and how we should live with each other.

But we cannot bind God. Our bargains are not effective. But I have enormous sympathy for people that strike bargains with God, deeply I do. Desperate times call for desperate measures. These situations are almost always full of human pathos. I remember talking to one father whose child was dying from a tragic illness. The family had done everything humanly possible, untold research, countless visits to different specialists, to no avail and this child was dying. One day just before the end, I asked this father what he was praying. He paused for a long moment and said 'honestly?' ' I asked God if we could trade and He could just take me rather than my child. That is what I'm praying.'

And I understand the anger and the frustration in these situations. "God what have you done for me lately?" I understand the response that some people have like a woman who once said for me, "I think after all this that I'm done with God. What good is God anyway?" There is a goodness to God, but I understand the depth of disappointment in a world where things break that you can't fix, where people you love fall apart. It hurts. It is completely fair to lash out at God in anger and I have to believe that God can take it.

By the way, Jephthah didn't make up the idea of sacrificing his children to appease the gods on his own. That was an ancient religious practice among the Canaanites that lived all around Israel at that time. I was standing in a cemetery in southern Sicily when I was on sabbatical that was dedicated to this practice… Same people, same time period, roughly 1000 B.C. We have unearthed there a cemetery that has urns filled with infants that were sacrificed religiously by the Carthaginians the same people as the Canaanites. I went there to see this for myself, walk the cemetery.

Religion is so powerful and sometimes tragically so, nowhere more than this. But it was an ancient religious practice among the Celts as well and probably among almost all religions in the neo-lithic period. If you can hold in brackets for a moment your initial moral revulsion, there is a human pathos to it too. You have to wonder what happened to them that was so grave that they thought they needed this level of sacrifice? And reflecting on the way that they viewed the world, it was so harsh that they just presumed that the gods were wrathful, angry and demanded human life? The fact that this made sense to them gives you just a brief glimpse of how hard their life really was. As Thomas Hobbes rightfully noted it was 'nasty, brutish, and short.'

I was talking about these things with the curator of the small museum on this site. He was nodding his head and he showed me one small funeral urn they had excavated, but it didn't have a child in it, it contained a cat. Despite the fact that the priests had told these parents that this is what they needed to do, they just couldn't sacrifice their own child and they put a cat inside instead. He told me that they found quite a few of them like that. There is a pathos these bargains that we can understand and empathize with.

We can't bargain… The spiritual reality is more like this. We can pray healing prayer but not all things can be cured. We can envision hope but not all outcomes can be determined. We can focus peace and justice but not all evil can be stopped. No matter how much we may want it.

Particularly, when it comes to suffering and death, we need to be spiritually realistic about this, Christians of all people ought to be realistic.. We cannot stop death. We can shape it, hold it back, but ultimately it comes for us and one of the important themes of Holy Week coming up, reflecting on the fact that Jesus suffered and died is the affirmation that we can develop spiritual resources to go through it and even ignominious suffering and death can be taken up by God and given meaning too.

But we Americans think we should be exempt from suffering. This not something that we ever voice but in the back of our minds, we think that, while it obviously happens to other people, somehow since we can control so much of our life, it just shouldn't happen to us personally. In the movie Leaving Rangoon, an American is in Burma, loses her passport, and has to stay behind while her friends head off to Thailand for two days til it can a new one can be issued. Meanwhile, a military coup takes place, she is place in prison, two days turns into two months. She has the same reaction that all of us would have… Remember the Warren Zevon song, "Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money… Dad get me out of this." At one point, she thinks she is going to die but she barely survives the ordeal. Later she is talking to a local peasant, unpacking all of her frustration and anger over what she has had to endure, the outrage of it all. Interestingly, the local guy she is talking to is a Buddhist. He listens to it all patiently and then he says, "our religion teaches us that above all things, life is suffering and we will endure it."

It is an important spiritual reminder. Buddhists are very realistic about this, so are Christians. We Americans are impatient with suffering. We want a pill. We want to call a lawyer. We presume that a U.S. passport and an American Express card can make it go away whatever it is. And it can, of course, much of the time. But not always. Ultimately, we must suffer and die. That is a spiritual journey we are not exempt from.

It is hard for us to get over the bargaining mentality spiritually, I understand that. It is ancient, very ancient. It appears to have been part of every culture and runs back in time to our earliest artifacts. We may never really be able to transcend it.

But we can shape even a terribly tragic situation. We need to stop thinking of prayer as something that we beam up to heaven and God beams back down to us a 'yes' or a 'no'. Unconsciously that is what too many of us think prayer is, which is why we feel vaguely uncomfortable engaging in it. Prayer is a resident spiritual capacity that we are endowed with, some with greater powers of concentration than others. But all of us can develop it. It works and it is very powerful.

What we are doing is less like bouncing our signal off a divine satellite and more like channeling and focusing our resident spiritual energy in conjunction with other people. It is healing. It is a blessing. One of our church members, Russ Ganner is in rehabilitation right now. He is trying to recover the ability to walk after being in an induced coma for a longer time than was planned. When he came out of the coma, he had lost all feeling below his neck. Gradually it returned to his arms and his legs. Every day, he has to focus on his leg, making his mind tell the leg to lift. It is physical work, but it is also fundamental spiritual work. We know that people who are defeated, who cannot concentrate on their regimine, who are depressed, heal more slowly. We know that people who can see themselves walking, who keep that focus before them, actually grow in strength. We know that if they get a team of people to pray for them, that if the team envisions healing, they heal faster, regardless of what religious tradition the people praying come from or the content of their prayers. What is happening is they are channeling their spiritual energy, concentrating it, shaping the world with it. That we can do, and we always ought to do. Prayer makes things better even if not all things can be cured.

We should be channeling spiritual energy in prayer, recognizing that we cannot stave off death, recognizing that we don't get any special exemption from tragedy and suffering just because we are Americans or because we are nice people, even virtuous people, a couple of us. We don't get any special exemptions. We cannot make god get us out of the jam, alter the odds, cut us a break, or make us a deal. Sometimes we actually defy the odds, sure. Sometimes our daring abandon actually makes a miraculous breakthrough, yep. But that does not validate binding God. On victories and tragedies, God is silent about binding.

One time someone asked Jesus about this subject generally and Jesus responded, "God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike". Likewise, the healing power of prayer is generally available to everyone regardless of virtue or vice. You can get stronger, not by making a deal with the Almighty, but by practicing it. And some people have serious concentration, awe inspiring prayerful concentration.

We bargain with God because we need a sense of control in a situation out of control. If we just do something, then…. We do it because it puts God into a framework that makes sense to us… If we eat only once a day for a month, we lose weight. If we agree with God to do x then God has to… On the other side of the bargains, and they are inevitable, for we are only human… On the other side of the bargains, let us pray, let us channel the spiritual healing energy of God, even when there is no cure, and let us ask God, not only to change the situation but also to strengthen us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, knowing that Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me (You bless me) even in the presence of my enemies… My cup runneth over. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Come what may. Amen.

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© 2004 Charles Rush. All rights reserved.