Sunday, September 27, 2009

Egrets, legs and God

The Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus, Jan Victors, Dutch, 1640s

Psalm 124; Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9: 20-22
******** United Church of Christ
September 27, 2009

A couple had two little boys who were always getting into trouble. Their parents knew that if any mischief occurred in their village, their sons were probably involved. The boys' mother heard that an elder in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her sons. The elder agreed, but asked to see them separately.

So, in the morning, the mother sent her youngest son first. The elder, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?” The boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response.

So the elder repeated the question in an even sterner tone, “Where is God?!!” Again the wide-eyed boy made no attempt to answer. The elder raised his voice and bellowed, “WHERE IS GOD?!” The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into a closet, slamming the door behind him.

When his older brother found him hiding, he asked, “What happened?” Gasping for breath, the younger brother replied, “We are in BIG trouble this time. God is missing, and they think WE did it!”

I like to use this story for two reasons: one, it’s funny, and funny is good, especially in a time of transition. And two, so we can begin thinking about where is God with a lighter heart so that we might actually find God. Or be found by God.

There are times on our journey of faith when we are always on the lookout for God to show up, wondering when and in what way. It seems that when we need God the most we do not get to see God coming but only recognize the Holy One after the fact. We see the wake in the water, the clouds moving off in the distance, the sun coming out after rain, and like a point on the map of our lives, we say, “There! God was there!”

The Book of Esther is a rarity in that not only is it named after its main character, a woman, but it is the only book in the Bible where God is not mentioned. Not only that, but there is also no real mention of the Law of God nor of its practices. There is only scant notice of it in Haman’s description of the Jews to the King when he says that they don’t fit in, that “their customs and ways are different from those of everybody else.”

But it’s important to know the whole story of Esther to make any sense of it. Scholars still question whether this story is historical or fictional, but it doesn't matter because the power is in the story itself. It all begins with a queen who won’t do the king’s bidding. In the middle of a huge party Queen Vashti is summoned by the king just so he can show off her beauty to his drunken guests and officials. Like any self-respecting queen she refuses. He consults with his advisors and counselors about to handle ‘the situation’, and they tell him that the queen has not only insulted the king but all leaders in the provinces. Imagine if word got out and women started treating their husbands this way! So in his anger, the king has Vashti deposed and he has a nationwide beauty pageant to find a new queen.

Enter Esther and Mordecai, her uncle, who are exiled Jews living in Persia. Mordecai tells Esther that she should enter the contest but tell no one of her Jewish heritage. Esther pleases the king; he falls in love with her and makes her queen. But the story isn’t over yet.

Mordecai overhears two guards plotting to overthrow the king. He tells Queen Esther who then tells the King, giving credit to Mordecai and the event is written in the king’s logbook. Sometime later the king promotes a man named Haman, making him the highest-ranking official in the government. Whenever Haman passed by the King’s Gate, all the king’s servants would bow down and kneel before Haman. That’s what being promoted is all about, after all. But Mordecai won’t do it, presumably because he is an observant Jew, and Haman becomes outraged.

Not long after that, the king is reading his logbook and comes across the entry that makes note of Mordecai saving the king. The king asks Haman how the king should honor a man of great importance. Haman thinks the king is talking about him, so Haman suggests that this person be dressed in elegant robes and led through the streets on the king’s horse, with a servant proclaiming this is how the king rewards great deeds. The king says, “Fine. Go ahead and do this for Mordecai.” Haman then must lead Mordecai on the king’s horse through the streets of the city, proclaiming the king’s reward. When Haman finds out that Mordecai is a Jew, Haman sets about to find a way to get rid of not only Mordecai but all Jews in Persia. Haman begins his evil plot by having gallows built seventy-five feet high upon which to hang his perceived enemy, Mordecai.

Now we get to the part when Haman tells the king about these strangers who live in his kingdom, these people who just don’t fit in. He gives the king 375 tons of silver, saying that he will pay for the destruction of these people. The king gives Haman his signet ring and tells him he can do whatever he wants with his money.

When Mordecai hears of the news of his people’s imminent destruction, he pleads with Esther to go to the king and tell him of this murderous plot. But no one can go to the king without an invitation; to do so would be fatal. Esther is risking her not only her pretty face like Vashti before her; she is putting her life on the line for her people. Mordecai tells her that perhaps she was made queen for such a time as this.

As love would have it, King Ahasuerus is in love with his new queen and would give anything for her, even half his kingdom. Esther desires that Haman and the king dine with her, not once but twice. As we hear in this morning’s lesson, after the second dinner, Haman’s true colors are revealed to the king, he is hung on his own gallows, and Esther effectively saves her people.

God’s name and presence are strangely absent in a story where God’s people are far from home and in the clutches of apparent disaster. Yet even though this story ends with violence and bloodshed and the survival of God’s people, even so we witness an awkward grace displayed in the very human characters of Queen Esther, Mordecai, King Ahasuerus, and the deposed Queen Vashti.

In this world where God can sometimes seem as though God’s presence is strangely absent, I have also been seeking words for God’s presence and awkward grace in a poem I am writing, about two other queenly figures. One is a snowy white egret that I saw at a lake near my home. This is what I have so far:

As the egret stretched out
her neck, throat of
a bendy straw pulled
to its full extension,
I realized her kinship
to the giraffe.
Same disproportionate
neck, body, whose legs
fold like an elbow.

Snowy white egret

Queen Esther too stretched out her neck, and though some might call her timid, she worked within the system to save her people. The other queenly figure is a young woman I saw in a crosswalk in Ridgefield:

Then there was
another strange bird,
a young woman
who passed twenty feet
in front of my car,
her awkward grace I thought
had to do with a tattoo
beside her knee,
or was it a decorative pair of hose,
slight limp of her left leg
stretching out from underneath
a brief sundress on a golden September day.

No, it was a prosthesis,
best of its kind,
reaching all the way to her hip,
gamely walking in the same sandal
gripping her other foot
in warm embrace.

Though Queen Esther might not have been used to wearing royal robes and living like a queen, she was regal from the inside out, like this woman and her courageous sundress and sandals.

Kelsey Retich, Hartland, MI

God is always a character in the narrative of life, even if not always visible or apparent. God is seen in the actions of others, in their quiet bravery, in knowing who they are, or in a bird whose body makes no logical sense but speaks volumes about beauty and grace.

One reason that the author of Esther may not have had God as a character in the story is that the people of God were living in exile, away from the temple in Jerusalem, away from home and all that was familiar. They were strangers in a strange land. Of course they were asking "Where is God?" It was all too appropriate then for the characters themselves to rise up in God’s place and act as God would have acted. Queen Vashti in her stubborn refusal to be anything other than a royal queen; Mordecai in his steadfast loyalty to Esther and to himself as a Jew; King Ahasuerus, when we hear him say that he will give anything Esther asks, even half of his kingdom; and Queen Esther, who gathers her courage about her like a royal robe, remembering that her uncle believes in her and that she is more than just one person—she is one of her people.

Queen Esther, Fr. Jim Hasse, S.J.
It can seem as though in time of transition that God has left the building, that God is not as easily perceived and seen and heard when the future appears to be uncertain. But that is precisely the time when we are called to rise up and we become the main characters in our own story, as God works through us. You, the congregation, are the main characters in the story of ******** United Church of Christ, right now, for you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

Indeed, it is a time when it may feel like you are being asked to stretch out your necks, to walk with confidence when you may not be sure of yourselves. But that is also when God is most alive in you, when God is shining brightest through you, when you are the most alive, when you are shining brightest. Amen.

[1] Peterson, Eugene. The Message (NavPress: Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2002)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fearless Losers

Psalm 116: 1-9; Mark 8: 27-38
******** United Church of Christ
Sept. 13, 2009

“Who Is Jesus?

“And Jesus said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

“They replied, ‘You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the ground of all possibilities. You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming roughness in the midst of our fraught condition of separation and brokenness, in the contiguity and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships. You are my Oppressed One, my soul’s shalom, the One who was, who is and who shall be, who has never left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom.’

“And Jesus replied, ‘Huh?’”[1]

Listen to all those expectations. Over the centuries we have heaped upon Jesus all our hopes, our desires, our deepest needs and all our fears. We have simultaneously made him into Superman, Savior and the Suffering Servant, our greatest hope and the hope of the world; thus, he also has the potential to become the world’s biggest disappointment and ours.

Peter answered Jesus, “You are the Messiah—the Anointed One”, but he didn’t know that meant suffering, rejection and death. When we follow him we run the risk of becoming one of the world’s biggest losers.

(Here I revealed the front of the t-shirt I was wearing with my suit: it was brown with the word 'loser' boldly printed in white letters on the front.)

Sometimes when we heap hope and fear together, we often end up with more fear than hope. And then it’s the that fear winds our clock, plays the old negative tapes in our heads, holds our focus, and creates the stress we think is a result of living our lives.

Since I began this artist’s workshop earlier this summer, I have become more aware of how much my life is motivated by fear, that my creative potential is blocked by a huge wall of fear. I ask myself, “How can that be? I’m a pastor, I’m a person of faith, I strive to follow Jesus. How does fear influence my life?”

Fear can be the source of perfectionism, wanting to please others and gain their good opinion. Fear is the source of stress that tells us we have to have it done yesterday. Fear is the source of scarcity, of not enough, of withholding. Fear is the source of addiction, that bottomless void we try to fill with behaviors and substances that only leave us feeling even emptier. Fear has the power to take us out of the present and hold us captive. But fear also tells us that we have something worth losing.

Fear can be the worst prison. But sometimes I wonder what does fear get out of this deal? My creative potential is thwarted but I also get to not fail or succeed, to stay the same, to have reasons to complain and not change—lots of payoff but what does fear get? Me? Company? Life? The opportunity to be right? Power? Fear permeates dreams, thinking, emotions, moods, attitudes, motives. Being aware of it helps me realize that I’d rather live with peace and energy for living a real life, rather than following around my worry and panic and my desire for control.

What blocks our ability to be energized, loving, creative, trusting, forgiving is fear—pure and simple. We all have it in varying degrees and in a multitude of disguises. And our fears reveal what we value but in the inverse. We love people’s good opinion but we fear losing it. We love our family and friends but we fear losing them and our life as we now know it. We like to be secure and have enough to enjoy and to share but we fear losing that feeling of security. We want to move into the future but we fear losing the familiar comfort of the past.

At our most basic level we fear change. We haven’t quite figured out how to love change, how to embrace it, how to be pregnant with change, to choose it, adopt it, and care for it like a newborn child. When we are stressed we are feeling fear because a change is coming and we’re afraid we won’t get everything done, that something will fall apart because of it; that somehow our corner of the world is resting squarely on our shoulders or on the shoulders of our leader(s), like a cross.
In other gospel versions of this morning’s story from Mark, we get to hear Peter’s rebuke: “God forbid it, Lord! This (this death, this tragedy, this failure) must never happen to you.” We hear Peter’s fear of losing that which he loves most—this Messiah, this Anointed One, who made a community out of poor fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot and other outsiders.

My favorite quote about church is this: “The gift of community is that each one of us is absolved of the burden of completeness. In and of ourselves at every moment we can lean on one another for the elements we lack.” We have nothing to lose but our fear when we surrender to community, when we allow the community and God working through it to be what we aren’t capable of at the moment. Trouble is, we’re not very practiced in communicating our fears, our honest fears, to one another, because we’re afraid of how we might appear to others—weak, incapable, incomplete.

When thoughts start racing, when we begin the cycle of worry and dread, when we project into the future in a negative way—that is when we need to stop and realize that we are setting our minds not on divine things but on human things. Fear is the source of that horrid feeling in the pit of our stomachs and that source is not the Source of All That Is, that Ground of All Being in which all of us are found.

Anne Lamott wrote that it would be nice if when grace arrived, it would be announced by a ringing bell. I wish the same thing were true about fear, when it begins its crazymaking cycle, because often I don’t recognize it until I’m well into it. One way I distract the fear within me is to do something creative, like try a new recipe for dinner or sing a song. Or I go to my peaceful place in my mind. Or I remember something good that I’m looking forward to. Or I pray or meditate or simply pay attention to my breathing. Or call a friend. Or I remember to be thankful for whatever it is I’m stressed about or fearful of, because usually it’s connected to something I don’t want to lose, something that is of great value to me.

The time between settled pastors can be a fearful one for some and for a congregation. For those of you who have not been worshipping here long, you’ve entered into a relationship in an interesting, adventuresome time. It is a time of the mysterious unknown; to all appearances, a dry spell on the journey of faith. We see our own story interwoven with the story of the community, and how the story is going to proceed is a mystery. How will it end, we wonder. Who is this Jesus and where is he leading us? And it can be tempting to attach our fears to this mysterious unknown, placing our focus on our anxiety and on the pain we can experience when we realize we are not in control of the outcome.

There are very few people on this planet who have mastered their fear and are solely focused on love. But that’s the transformation we’re headed for. That’s our salvation. And that’s why I need Jesus, the one whose deep love transforms my fear into a creative force. If I’m going to master my fear, I need a faithful, loyal Friend, especially one who has been through the fire. And remember, he did say he would rise again.

Denying ourselves and picking up our cross can mean different things to each one of us. For me, it is leaving behind fear and shouldering the weight of love and trust and compassion. The cross is the way of transformation, the way of becoming something altogether beautiful and new, the way of joy, the way of becoming something like Jesus.

And who is this Jesus? Who do we say that he is? That’s up to each of us to answer for ourselves. The key then is to follow that Jesus wherever he leads, even if it looks like we might lose the life we now have, that we might gain the life of the gospel, the life of the good news of transformation.

(Here I revealed the back of the t-shirt, on which was printed in white letters the following quote.)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What are your deepest fears about this interim time? Right now, in your heart and mind, transform them into your greatest hope and let that hope be your prayer. My greatest fear that has sometimes gotten in my way of leading you through this interim time is that somehow, in some way, I am going to let you down. And just by saying that, by admitting that, fear’s grip has been loosened and it has become a part of the past. And so my greatest hope is that, with God’s help and love and yours, I will do my best to lead you through this interim time to the launch pad where you will take off and fly with your new settled pastor. Amen.

[1] Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer at HomileticsOnline and Senior Minister of the Park City United Methodist Church in Park City, Utah.

from the Sunday bulletin


We are children of God.

God has made us and we belong to God.
We are disciples and truth-tellers,
Jesters and fools for one whose death set us free.

The Way of Jesus is a blessing we accept.
Our daring blesses others.
Christ is known in our love for each other
And for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.
By accepting hope, our fear is transformed.
By trusting each other, our faith is strengthened.
By loving when it is most difficult, we see the Christ.
By listening, we witness the Spirit’s unfolding in our lives.
We are the Church, the Body of Christ, that creative force
That dares to lose its life for the sake of finding the gospel.



“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”

— Herm Albright

“Taking a new step, uttering a new word is what people fear most.”

—Fyodor Dostoyevski

Also, one church member informed me that at 12-step groups, the word 'fear' is an acronym for "F**k Everything And Run"!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Evolution of God

I've just started reading the mighty tome The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. In the introduction I found this interesting quote:

"[In] this book I talk about the history of religion, and its future, from a materialist standpoint. I think the origin and development of religion can be explained by reference to concrete, observable things--human nature, political and economic factors, technological change, and so on.

"But I don't think a 'materialist' account of nature's origin, history, and future--like the one I'm giving here--precludes the validity of a religious worldview. In fact, I contend that the history of religion presented in this book, materialist though it is, actually affirms the validity of a religious worldview; not a traditionally religious worldview, but a worldview that is in some meaningful sense religious.

"It sounds paradoxical. On the one hand, I think gods arose as illusions, and that the subsequent history of the idea of god is, in some sense, the evolution of an illusion. On the other hand: (1) the story of this evolution itself points to the existence of
something you can meaningfully call divinity; and (2) the 'illusion', in the course of evolving, has gotten streamlined in a way that moved it closer to plausibility. In both of these senses, the illusion has gotten less and less illusory.

"Does that make sense? Probably not. ...For now I should just concede that the kind of god that remains plausible, after all this streamlining, is not the kind of god that most religious believers currently have in mind."

Though I would agree in part with his last statement, still, he is making a generalization about religious believers, something that happens with great frequency, that Mystical Seeker makes note of with justified consternation. Even so, this book looks like a refreshing take on a well-debated subject that to date has not satisfied every seeker, agnostic or dyed-in-the-wool believer.