Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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To Be Entrusted: Judges 4:1-7 and Matthew 25:14-30
Every person that I’ve actually personally known who has hiked the Appalachian Trail has been in their mid-twenties. Most of them have been guys. All of them have been white. When I picture a thru-hiker (that's the phrase I've learned that you call someone who has hike the whole trail), I think of one of these guys' faces, skinnier than when they began the hike and usually covered in a scraggly beard that they’ve grown along the way. While many of the people who hike the Appalachian Trail fit this description, all of the thru-hikers don’t. If I only ever talk about or share pictures of people who look like these guys I know, I’m not capturing the reality of the trail or the people who hike. And, I’m not helping different kinds of people imagine themselves taking on a challenge like a through-hike. This week, I remembered the story of Emma Gatewood. Ms. Gatewood did not look like the hikers I know. But, she was a thru-hiker. And, she probably helped save the trail.
There are a couple books and movies about Emma Gatewood. I’ll put links to one particularly helpful article and a film below. I read about her in article written in 2015 in the Washington Post. Gatewood decided to hike the trail after reading about it in National Geographic. She was about 66 years old when she first attempted a thru-hike in 1954. She began here in Maine. She didn’t make it on that first attempt because she broke her glasses. She went home, prepared some more, and started out again in 1955. She was 67. She wore regular old sneakers to hike the trail. All she carried with her was a blanket and a plastic shower curtain, a far cry from the enormous and technically advanced gear many hikers use. While all thru-hikers rely on the kindness of the people they meet on the trail, this was especially true for Gatewood. While she ate many Vienna sausages, raisins, peanuts, and greens she gathered along the way, a good portion of her meals were supplied by strangers. As she traveled, she slept on porches, under picnic tables, and on beds of leaves. While the trail was much more difficult than she thought it would be, she said she would not and could not quit. She finished hiking the whole trail in 146 days.
Emma Gatewood, who many people would call Grandma Gatewood, would go on to hike the whole trail two more times. She was 74 years old during her third successful attempt. She was the first woman to hike the whole trail and the first person to hike it two and three times. She completed other long hikes, as well, including one from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. A part of the Buckeye Trail, a trail across her home state of Ohio, is named after her (which is fair… she helped get the whole trail made). When she was hiking, journalists were fascinated by her story and covered it widely. Stories about her hikes brought attention to poorly maintained parts of the trail. The article I read actually credited the attention she brought the Appalachian trail with helping keep the trail from falling into complete disrepair.
What seems clear from the article I read is that Gatewood, who had survived a 30 year marriage to an abusive husband and had secured a divorce in a time when that was rarely able to happen, was already strong before she hiked the Appalachian Trail. The press coverage just helped other people see it. In turn, she inspired generations of new hikers and also helped preserve natural areas that had seemed to mean a great deal to her. Telling stories like hers has helped generations of people see a world of greater possibility. Telling her story has helped people know that hiking is not just for young guys in their twenties. It is for everyone who is called to the challenge. Gatewood, just by existing and choosing to share her adventure with the world, has helped people imagine a world full of possibility.
I chose to share some of Emma Gatewood’s story because one of the scriptures today is about a woman in an unexpected place. You remember how I said I picture thru-hikers based on the patterns of people I know who have hiked the trail? Well, the judges in the book of Judges have a pattern, too. A scholar named Dennis Olsen describes the pattern as something like this…
Her story starts out similarly to the other judges. The people have turned away from the covenant with God following death of a previous judge. In this portion of the Bible, the authors express a belief that God is being willing to dole out punishment for lack of attention to covenant. They say that God allow a Canaanite king named Jabin to oppress the Israelites. Then the people cry out. Up to this point, this sounds just like the other five stories. In the other stories, it says specifically that God appoints a man, Ehud or Shamgar or Gideon or Tola, as prophet, judge, and military leader to save the people. It is different here with Deborah. She was already serving as prophet to God’s people. In fact, she had been doing it long enough, and with enough wisdom, that the place where she was based carried her name. They called in the Palm of Deborah.
One of my favorite things that I learned about Deborah is that we’re not actually sure if she’s married. In many English translations, she is called the Wife of Lappidoth, but the Hebrew is far from clear. According to the scholar Sarah Koenig, in Hebrew, the same word is used for both “wife” and “woman” and the word Lappidoth means “torch” or “lightning.” It is entirely possible that Deborah was being called a fiery woman as well as a prophet and judge. Given what she does next in the story, I could totally believe that someone would call her a woman of lightning. She calls up the Israelite general Barak and she tells him that God has given him a mission. She then gives him strategic military instruction on how to defeat the Canaanite general Sisera. Military leadership is rarely in the hands of a woman in the Bible. In this story, the confidence and the strategy are all Deborah’s. Barak mostly has to do what he’s told.
Now, this is where our reading for the day stopped. I think we should really hear what happens in the next couple chapters, too. When Deborah, a respected prophet and judge, tells Barak what to do, he has a very interesting response. He says, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Doesn’t that strike you as a strange response from a military leader? God tells him, through Deborah, what to do and how to defeat his enemy and he says no. Well, not exactly no, but insists that Deborah goes with him? Some scholars read this as Barak having such great respect for Deborah that he can’t imagine leading his army without her by his side. Some other scholars think he is afraid. Whatever the reason, Deborah, woman of lightning, immediately agrees to go. She then proceeds to tell Barak that God will defeat Sisera not by his hands, but at the hands of a woman. Now, you might think this is Deborah referencing her own leadership. This may actually be a reference to another woman, Jael. Sisera, who grows terrified on the battlefield while facing Barak, hides in Jael’s tent, where he assumes he will be safe. He wasn’t safe. Jael finishes the job Barak started. And, the Israelites are saved, at the hands of two fiery women and one reluctant man.
Our reading from Matthew reminds us that each one of us has been entrusted with great gifts that we can choose to use to serve God. In Jesus’ parable, not everyone understood how to use the gifts with which they were entrusted. Jesus’ harshest criticism is for the people who squander the gifts they’ve been given. His greatest invitation is to each of us to use all of our gifts to serve God and neighbor. I think one of our greatest gifts is these surprising stories: Stories about fiery women and bold leaders… stories about women of lightning who are not afraid to act. These stories show us how God can use any person for good, especially those whom the broader culture ignores or denigrates. The more we hear stories like this, the easier it becomes to imagine our own future with God. Maybe we are the ones who will be called up next to serve. If we are, I pray that we can use our gifts as boldly as Deborah and Emma did.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Stories/films about Emma Gatewood:
Dennis Olson: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3470
Sara Koenig: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2216
Talitha Arnold: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2002-10/sit-it
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_november_19_2017
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4998
David Schnasa Jacobsen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3469
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.