Scripture: Joshua 9:1-21
Right now, if you are a fan of some kind of sport, it’s one of the best times of the year.
- The Washington Nationals are poised to host their first ever World Series. Go Nats!
- There is playoff soccer.
- And there are all kinds of football, whatever flavor you might want.
What I love about sports is the competitiveness, human beings striving to win in intense games where every play counts. But not only are strength and speed and stamina vital, the great athletes and coaches use their minds to outwit and outmaneuver their opponents.
We call them trick plays, moments of misdirection and manipulation designed to catch your opponent off guard, to create an advantage for your team, or turn a losing situation into a winning one.
This morning, I want you to think about this image of the trick play as we examine our scripture together.
And more deeply, I want us to think about the trick plays that God might be calling us to run in our lives, in our churches, and even in our world to turn death-dealing situations into life-giving ones.
In our scripture, the Gibeonites are destined to be defeated and destroyed - until they run their own trick play.
You see, the Gibeonites are Canaanites, and as Canaanites, the Israelite’s mission is to wipe them out. Remember - I’m not mincing words during this series on Joshua. God is clear, and the Israelites are in the midst of military campaign to do just that. At the beginning of the chapter, as word spreads about their victorious battle over Jericho and the King of Ai, other Canaanite rulers get scared and start to gather together to battle the Israelites. There is power in numbers, right?
The Gibeonites, however, realize that they are in trouble. Archaeologists believe the Gibeonites occupied about four small villages in between Jericho and Jerusalem. They were too small in number to have their own king and too small in number to have an army, so they were in deep trouble. And they had heard enough stories about the Israelites and about the God of the Israelites to know that they needed another way to deal with this situation.
Gathering their best scientists, minds, and sages, the Gibeonites quickly concoct an elaborate plan. They literally get in the Halloween spirit and throw on tattered old clothes and scuffed up shoes that were gonna be given to Goodwill. They cover their faces with dirt and shoulder their heaviest worn packs. Finally, they climb on their donkeys and go “trick or treating” over at the Israelite camp.
In verse 4, it says “they on their part acted with cunning”. We sometimes think of cunning as deceptive, like what a scammer or fraudster would do, but the root Hebrew word for cunning is close to “prudence”. The Gibeonites were being wise in the midst of a desperate situation. If they failed, they would die. But if they can succeed, they might just live. They were willing to do anything to give their people that chance.
The Gibeonites ring the doorbell of these Israelites, and at first, they are met with suspicion. Who are you? Where did you come from? But the Gibeonites, along with their masterful costume, tell a masterful story - a story that tugs on the heart strings of those Israelites - a story about being a people from far away, a wandering people, a people who have seen hard times, a people who have come to be blessed, to find peace in this hard world.
Can’t you just imagine the Israelites feeling so much compassion for these people who had suffered as much as they have?
So, the Israelites make an oath with the Gibeonites and pledge to let them live in peace.
As I mentioned before, this story and others in this book stand in contrast to the narrative of Joshua which claims God asks the Israelites to completely cleanse the land of all Canaanites. But suddenly, because of a bit of misdirection and cunning, the Israelites find themselves in trouble. Their oath to the Gibeonites has seemingly put them at odds with their order from God. And yet - there is more to the story. Maybe because of this act of kindness and mercy from the Israelites, the Gibeonites reveal to Joshua himself a reverence for God.
And in a remarkable turnaround, from being sworn enemies to the Israelites, Joshua gives them a role - they become “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the people and for the temple of the Lord. They are more than economic laborers but included in the life of worship and reverence of the people, supporting the whole “congregation” of God’s people in their devotion and pursuit of God.
Just think - one day, they were destined to be killed. A few days later and a cunning trick play, they become part of God’s larger community.
This story, like others through Joshua, set a sharp contrast from the image this book gives us of a cold, cruel, bloodthirsty God who commands the Israelites to kill and slaughter. All of a sudden, we are invited to ask questions. How many more people in Canaan, if given the chance, would have shown reverence to God? How many would have been willing to co-exist? If God really wanted the Israelites to wipe everyone out, why did God seem to honor this oath and not punish Joshua and the people?
The Gibeonites’ trick play forced the Israelites to see them as humans. Not as enemies to be wiped out. Not as people who were outside of God’s love. The Israelites saw them as humans, worthy of respect and life and an opportunity to know the God of Abraham and Isaac.
That’s an upset.
This remarkable story gives us room to think about the trick plays we might need to run to save our lives or save someone else’s.
Friends, the challenge is that we live in a world that is beset by conflict. What the narrative of Joshua gets right is that sometimes we are going to face situations that seem dire and deadly. Sometimes, we are going to be up against people and forces that want to harm us and destroy us. Sometimes, justice is going to seem out of reach.
Too often, we have bought into the narrative, as Mark Charles challenged us last week, that a life of faith with God is supposed to be good. Happy. Prosperous. Smooth sailing.
But the way of Jesus is a way of suffering, conflict, and difficulty. It’s true for me as your pastor - I can only imagine it is hard for you too. The only way we will survive and thrive sometimes is when we face those situations that seek us harm and flip them around for our own good using every gift that God gave us.
In my email to you all on Friday of this week, I told you about a time in my life when I felt distant from the church because it seemed like just about every church I went to wanted me to leave my brain at the door. Wanted me to stop asking questions and believe. Wanted me to not go deeper in scripture. Wanted me to read only one particular kind of theology. Wanted me to stop thinking so hard about this faith.
But in this era when we have smartphones in our hands, when too many people have been hurt and abused by so-called Christians, when toxic behavior is tolerated less and less, when too many churches are comfortable with the status quo, that kind of faith and that kind of church isn’t good enough.
Jesus called his disciples to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your MIND.” (Matthew 22:37)
The gift of the Gibeonites is that they used their minds in a tense situation where life or death was at stake - and likewise, we are challenged to be the kind of church and kind of people who never leave our brains at the door.
Our Christian history and tradition are filled with creative, faithful, wise saints who navigated conflict through amazing trick plays.
In the 11th century, a young man nicknamed Francois was so captivated and convicted by his love of God and his dedication to the poor, that he began stealing or borrowing his wealthy father’s clothes and selling them so he could give to the poor. When his father found out, the young man was beaten and ridiculed and eventually brought before the Bishop to be reprimanded, but in a trick play for the ages, young Francis, rather than give in to the ways of injustice, stripped naked, renouncing his father and all of his father’s possessions, and claiming only one Father, his Creator. His father was so mad that he couldn’t speak, and the bishop so impressed that he blessed St. Francis for his call and devotion to the poor and justice.
In more recent history, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and other Civil Rights leaders stood upon their faith and principles of nonviolence to turn violent oppressive situations into justice-birthing reckonings. Nonviolent protest meant that black men and women were captured peacefully exercising their rights even as authorities turned loose dogs, water hoses, bully sticks, and even bullets to brutalize these children of God, and when TV cameras beamed the images of such mistreatment and evil around the world, those protestors were humanized and a movement for justice and life for the poor and people of color grew. Nonviolence was a kind of trick play against the powers of racism and injustice.
What does this look like for you? For us as a church? For our work for justice and wholeness?
Sometimes the trick play we are to run is not to give into evil. To not chose to hate. When the world goes in that direction, we go in the other.
The gospel story is one elaborate trick play that opens the door for people destined to be left out to be welcomed in, to be given space and home central in God’s community. When Jesus ran his trick play on Easter morning, it had seemed like evil had triumphed. Just three days before, he had been nailed to a cross, pierced in his side, laughed at and spit on, abandoned, and laid in a tomb. And then, on Easter morning, he rose. Jesus feigned like he was going one way and ended up somewhere else and claimed victory for all who love and follow him.
Ephesians 2:13 says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
The world needs those kinds of trick plays - the kinds of disciples who will humanize those destined for destruction and find victory in impossible circumstances. The kinds of disciples who use all their gifts and wits to seek God and seek the goodness of our community.