Thursday, December 07, 2006


That's how I'm feeling today - very, very blessed. Last night we had our (first) Taize service and it was beyond my expectations. The music was breathtaking and the silence wonderful prayer. It makes my soul glad that something so meaningful to me was meaningful to others. Thank you to all you helped with the service, all who attended, and all who had us in your prayers.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Promises, Promises

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Even though we’re only a few hours into the Advent season, you can already tell it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Lights and wreaths are appearing around town. Plastered on the storefronts downtown are advertisements for different choir as well as announcements about different worship services including our own Taize service. Many of our own homes are filled with advent wreathes made out of fresh greenery, pine cones and holly – or some made of the less shedding plastic; we also have advent calendars that offer chocolate or toys to mark the countdown; there are even Jesse trees or Nativity scenes that will be added to as we get closer and closer to Christmas Day. Our own church was decorated just yesterday for the season – and this morning our wreath is in place and our first candle lit.

Evidence of the Advent season is everywhere. Yet amid all the sparkle and the greenery, there’s something I haven’t seen. Nowhere around town, in my own home, or even in this church, have I seen images of Jesus descending in clouds, a group of saints – any of the various imagery that is associated with the Second Coming.

When we celebrate Advent, we’re celebrating yes, the birth of Christ, as well as Christ’s presence amid us now, but we are also celebrating and looking forward to the Second Coming – when the baby who was born in a manger comes again in full glory and power.

The Second Coming – even though we proclaim belief in it every time we say the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed - is not something we talk about. At least not in great detail. Even though it’s certainly present in our sacred texts, it’s just not part of our daily faith life, not part of the active living of our faith. Last Monday I was at the Christmas parade downtown, and after the umpteen Corvettes and Mustangs that went past, a float went by with a manager scene, a Christmas tree, and a guy in white surrounded by two females in white with horns. It wasn’t until I saw the signs “past, present, future” that I got it. Or right. Rather embarrassing lack of awareness from a minister. The Second Coming is not something that’s part of my consciousness nor is it in the forefront of the minds of most people I know.

The early church was completely different. The Second Coming was a huge part of early Christians’ conversations – was part of their daily faith life. The first generations of Christians believed that Christ would be coming back in their lifetime. Paul writes to the Thessalonians that he wishes God would strengthen their hearts in holiness that they may be blameless before God at the coming of Christ not because it’s just something you say. It’s not as though he’s saying “hope you have fun ‘til Christ comes back.” Paul means and believes what he’s says. He believes that Christ is coming back – and soon.

The belief in Christ’s coming was one that was talked about and celebrated and looked forward to for centuries after Paul. Advent stems from the Latin word adventus meaning coming and when Advent was first officially established around the 6th century, the season was understood as one for preparing for the final coming of Christ even as the church celebrated the first coming. One of our favorite hymns we sang this morning –O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – comes from the traditional antiphons written during the 8th century which, using different names for Christ, call to Christ to come again.

The second coming stayed at the forefront of the Advent season truly until the time of World War II when Christmas became more of focused as a kid’s holiday. The focus of the season leading up to Christmas shifted from looking toward to the second coming to looking back at the first.[1]

Generations, not to mention religious and social changes, remove us from the community that first believed Christ would be coming any day now. We talk about grace, love, Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. But his coming again? I’d guess that for many of us, the only time we really talk about his coming again is when we here people proclaiming Christ is coming at 5:15AM next Tuesday or that he’s already here. When people like Jerry Falwell proclaim Christ is coming within 10 years – a proclamation made he made in 1999 by the way so keep your eyes peeled for the next few years – the second Advent may become part of our conversation. It shouldn’t take such proclamations for the Second Coming to grab our attention but it often does.

Confession: prior to my recent conversations about Advent, the last time I remember even thinking about the Second Coming was when I learned that Rastafarians believed that Haile Selassie – the Emperor of Ethiopia for which a great souvenir shop we went to in Addis Ababa was named after – was the Messiah. He never claimed to be such but it is said that Bob Marley’s wife Rita become a Rastafarian only after she met the Emperor when he took a trip to Jamaica. Although he died three decades ago, many Rastafarians refuse to believe in his death – the Messiah can’t die again, you see.

You don’t have to be a Rastafarian to have experienced the disappointment of mistaken identity or timing. I think we don’t really talk about the Second Coming in part because of false alerts throughout our history. The first Christians believed the Christ was coming back during their lifetime – understood that he had made that promise to them. When Jesus did not come back, the family of believers came to believe that they misunderstood Christ’s promise – that he would come back, yes, but not as soon as first thought. So they waited and waited and… well, it was worse than Waiting for Godot or Guffman.

Every now and again, someone would claim that Christ would come back in that lifetime or even to be Christ returned himself. But it never was true. Generations of waiting, centuries of people believing that Christ would return in their lifetime only to be disappointed, has translated into a current generation where we aren’t expecting Christ any time soon, where if we do think about the Second Coming we probably think it’s far off in the future. Nothing we have to address here and now.

Our laissez-faire attitude about Christ’s return isn’t the only reason we don’t talk about the Second Coming all that much. We don’t talk about it not only because we can’t predict when, but we really don’t understand how or what or any of those basic journalistic questions. Christ’s first coming – the one we readily and easily celebrate year to year – we understand that. True, Jesus’ birth was a little different than most, but the basic idea of a baby being born – we GET that.

But God descending in the clouds, with angels and saints… that gets more confusing – we don’t have a point of reference for such an event. Just after Paul speaks with great affection to the Thessalonians, telling them to stay strong for the coming, he speaks to them in more detail of that coming. He writes of an archangel’s trumpet blaring, and Christ descending, and the dead rising. No, Paul isn’t writing the first Christian zombie story,[2] at least I don’t imagine he is. Paul’s words, which echo Christ’s speaking of the Son of Man coming, draw upon language and imagery of his time – from the Roman imperial cult and Jewish apocalyptic expectations.

We could read the descriptions of Christ’s coming and think we know how all will happen. But even if we can envision what Paul describes, we must remember that Paul also says the Lord will come like a “thief in the night” and Christ tells us no one will know the hour of his coming. Though we may read about the promise of the Second Coming, we have no guarantee that we “get it.” Throughout the history of God’s relationship with humanity, God has made promises we do not understand until those promises are fulfilled before our eyes – and even then we may still scratch our heads in wonder.

The words of Jeremiah we read this morning, the prophet bearing the word of God to a people in the midst of the fall of their nation, are words of hope in a time filled with despair. As the Israelites are being exiled from their own country, Jeremiah proclaims the promises of God, promises of a Branch to spring up for David – the most beloved of Kings – promises of safety. The people heard these promises and understood them to be about an earthly king like David, a king who would bring back the great nation they once where, make Jerusalem strong again, with power and might make them safe again.

We look at these promises of a Branch and see something else. We include this text in our Advent celebration because for us, it points to the king of kings, Jesus Christ. The Israelites never got their great king like David, never got an earthly nation like the one they knew under him. Instead, another kind of king came bringing with him heavenly justice and righteousness. When he did come, many of the people who had been waiting didn’t recognize him – he wasn’t what they had been waiting for.

God’s promises are true but as they are from God, we may never fully understand those promises until them have been fulfilled AND God points that fulfillment out to us over and over. God’s promises will be fulfilled – in those days and in that time – in God’s days and God’s time and in God’s ways, ways which are unknown to us.

The unknown of God can be intimidating and has been one reason we don’t talk about or focus on the final coming of Christ. We could continue to let the unknown about Christ’s second coming keep us from looking forward to that coming, preparing for that coming, talking about that coming. Or we could do as Paul suggests. We can abound in love for one another and for all, find ourselves strengthened in holiness. We can trust in Christ’s coming, await it, join together in the community of faith so that we may be blameless when Christ comes again – whenever that might be.

There are many ways we may live out Paul’s words. One of those ways is before us today. If you grew up Episcopalian, Catholic or Methodist (I happened to grow up two of those three) you probably heard the Mystery of Faith spoken during communion liturgy: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Even though we may not usually say it as part of our liturgy, at this table we do celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection AND look forward to his coming again. At this table we believe we are gathered in the presence of Christ, and the Saints – those believers in all time and place – and strengthened in our faith. At this table we experience the Advent of Christ here and now even as we await the final coming of our Lord.

As you celebrate this Advent season, do not forget the final Advent for which we wait. And when you come to this table, when you partake in this meal, this day and all days to follow, remember Christ’s promise to return, be renewed in your waiting by the power of the Spirit. At this table, may God strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may indeed be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen.

[1] Ace Collins. Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. p22.
[2] Interesting note, there actual is a Christmas tide zombie story by Christopher Moore. Haven’t read it but it’s got an catchy title: The Stupidest Angel – A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Advent Worship Service

On December 6th we will celebrate the Advent season in a style of worship new to Covenant. In the spirit of Taize—an international ecumenical community in France—this service is contemplative in nature, prayer, simple songs, scripture, and silence filling the worship space. The first time I attended a Taize-style service I’ll admit, I was a little nervous. I was used to the standard Presbyterian service: a few hymns, confess via prayer, listen to a few scriptures and a sermon. Though this service was rooted in scripture, the silence and simplicity was a something of a shock to me. I was used to spending worship time processing – processing what I heard in a sermon, how the prayers and hymns enhanced the sermon. Sitting amid in the quiet I realized how much time I spent processing—thinking—and how little time I spent listening. So I gave into the silence—definitely a challenge for this energetic woman—and found myself deeply moved.

Worshiping in the contemplative style has become a staple in my journey with God. It’s a wonder what can happen when you quiet everything inside and open yourself up to the Spirit of God. For those of you who have not experienced contemplative worship, I encourage you to try something new. As we celebrate the coming of Christ open yourself up to new ways Christ’s Spirit can move you. I look forward to worshiping with you on Wednesday night at 7:30pm.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


If you ever happen to find yourself at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, there’s a tale you might hear about two young women and their first preaching course. They were given an assignment – to read the story about the hemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus’ cloak and was healed. They weren’t to read this story in their rooms, or on campus, or anywhere they knew well. They were told to get out of their comfort zones, to go somewhere that would open up this story and make them see it in a new light.

The two women came up with a plan. They decided they would dress in the schlubbiest of clothing, sweats, ratty t-shirts, and go to the Ritz Carleton in downtown Atlanta for high tea. There they would sit amid the luxury, the elite, and read their story of the outcast woman who dared so much because of her faith. So they went, they sat, and they read. What happened next has been embellished on over the years. At first people said they were just asked to leave. Then people started saying they were escorted out of the building by large bellhops. In the last version I heard the two women were arrested – on what charges I don’t know – and their preaching professor had to come bail them out.

Given the way stories grow, it shouldn’t surprise any of you to learn that none of what is said around the seminary campus is true. What really happened was a lot less exciting. My friend Teri and I sat in the Ritz for an hour, felt uncomfortable, and while we got the occasional odd look, no one called the cops. Along with a story that has been retold and embellished upon many times over, we came away from that experience with a firm belief that to truly understand scripture, you have to live with it and let it take you to unknown and uncomfortable places.
Funny things happen when you live with a text. In my own home I can read this portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and nod my head, think “yes, yes,” thankful for so much – I have food on my table, warm clothes to wear, great doctors to help keep my body health, a favorite coffee shop that keeps me in good drink. With so much to be thankful for, I can get on board the “don’t worry, be happy” train so many who read this text endorse. Surely the Father does indeed know what I need and gives them to me. In our comfortable homes, surrounded by those who love us and bounty we can be thankful for, this scripture can be pleasant, even easy.

But if you take this scripture outside of your home, outside of the places you are comfortable, let it take YOU places, it may not be so pleasant or easy. Try reading this scripture amid the homeless and the hungry. Think of “don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” when you’re watching someone in a threadbare coat diving through trash to find something to eat.

Lilies of the field may be beautifully clothed, may not toil or spin, but they don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, lonely, cold. They don’t know what it’s like to be made to feel ashamed because your family Thanksgiving dinner is at a local soup kitchen because you can’t provide a meal at home.

Truly, it is one thing to read about the birds in the sky when your Thanksgiving table is covered with more mashed potatoes than would be humanly possible to eat, cranberry sauce that comes alive in your mouth, turkey and stuffing so rich and moist you can’t help but give thanks. I would imagine your glorias might sound a little different if what you’re giving thanks for is that you found enough food to keep you going, for at least another day.

When Jesus’ words are brought to a place where people have nothing, the “don’t worry, be happy” reading doesn’t hold. Too many times in our church’s – that is with a capital C – history, people of faith have been told and have told others not to worry about their state in life, but to strive for God’s righteousness. The here and now isn’t important – it is your salvation, or the kingdom, or heaven you need to focus on. Don’t worry that you have nothing in your belly, nothing to feed your children with – focus on this far-off kingdom.

Too often this way of thinking, of reading such scripture, has been used to promote complacency toward injustice. Too often scripture has been used to excuse turning a blind eye to the poor. We’re on a mission to save souls, not bodies! Let these poor strive for righteousness and they’ll get everything they need. They’ll find their eternal salvation. No need to worry about what they will eat, or drink, or wear.

I cannot imagine that the God who calls us to look out for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the Lord who promises that “you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God,” has no concern for whether or not God’s children have food and drink. That the Christ who tells us that those who offer food, drink, clothing, compassion will sit at his right hand would be a Christ who is telling us not to give a care to those needs.

Indeed, I understand that the Lord who tells the soil, the animals of the field, not to fear, the Lord who has promised God’s people abundant rains and grain DOES care about our existence in this world. Our Lord is one who longs for us all to be in plenty and be satisfied, to not be put to the shame of want or need. Indeed, our God is one who points to this world and says, if I can care so much for that which has no mouth to praise me, no hearts to serve me, for that which is here to today but gone tomorrow, don’t you know how much more I care for you?

At various times in our Church’s history, we have been taught and have taught “try to save your soul and don’t worry about the rest.” That’s not the kingdom Christ spoke of, not the only salvation he brought. The kingdom of God Christ commands us to put first, to strive for is a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of equality, a kingdom of righteousness. A kingdom where all people have food on their plate, where they have drink, clothing, joy aplenty. Where none fear, none worry, none feel shame.

We have been giving the astounding gift of being the body of Christ. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic, once said that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, ours are the only hands with which he can do his work, ours are the only feet with which he can go about the world, ours are the only eyes with which his compassion can shine forth upon a troubled world. We gather here tonight from various churches, traditions, to affirm that even with our differences, we ARE one, WE are the body of Christ. As this body, we are called to work for God in the world.

If God loves the birds of the air enough to feed them, then surely God loves each human being enough to keep in food, clothing, shelter. If Christ’s hands are our hands, Christ’s feet our feet, eyes our eyes, then surely we are called to feed, cloth, shelter. Surely we will strive for the kingdom on earth where all live in God’s righteousness, all will know justice and freedom.

I know that each church family represented here tonight works towards caring for the poor among us. We work in soup kitchens, we give money or cans to the food pantry, we build houses. Together as the body of Christ, we do even more. SACRA – the organization our offering is going to – finds many different churches joining together resources and time to help those in need in our area. In our own churches and together, we try to ease the burden of poverty for those in our midst. We may give thanks for that work, for servant hearts filled with love for those in need.

We may also give thanks that God has called us to even more. It is good to care for people, to make sure they have food and clothing, to meet their needs. But that is not all we have been called to. God has given us the opportunity to strive for the kingdom – this kingdom of God where none would go hungry, none would be naked, none thirst. We have been given a greater calling and vision than “what will we eat or drink or wear.” In striving for the kingdom of God, we have been given both the opportunity and the responsibility to strive for a world where such questions do not exist. To strive for a world where none would live in poverty, none go without. We must use our voices to speak for those in need, must work in our churches, our cities, our nation to fight for justice. We have been given an awesome opportunity and we must take it.

As we celebrate all the wonderful things we may be thankful for, let us remember this calling. For though it may seem an awesome task, and it is, how great is our God that we could have such a task. How thankful we may be that our God is a God who promises we will eat in plenty and be satisfied, that God’s people will never again be put to shame. How thankful we may be that not only are those promises for us, but as the body of Christ God may use us to fulfill those promises. Glory be to God. Amen.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

All Things Must Pass

Text: 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8

One of my dearest friends from college is in town this weekend which of course means I’ve spent a good portion of the last few days reminiscing about the good ole days. The first time Paula Jo and I met our first day freshman year, an event which involved accidentally breaking a bathroom door together; the time we were both in Romeo and Juliet and my dear friend decided to shake Shakespeare up by add-libing a few Texas colloquialisms; the time we drove a UHaul through the drive-through of a Taco Bell that was missing its clearance sign and caused (only minor) damage.

One of the other memories Paula and I share is of a morning in September our senior year. All of our friends got the news of planes crashing and buildings falling separately, from professors in class or listening to the radio while driving to campus or watching TV in the student center while wasting time before class. By that early afternoon, we had gathered together our friends at Paula’s, even calling those friends who had graduated and were in now Dallas, telling them to drive up to Sherman so we could all be together. The rest of the day we spent talking, watching only snippets of news, and consoling ourselves with mindless entertainment where you know good will win out over evil and all will be right with the world.

I can’t speak for all of you, but I can say that for me and my friends that day shook us in a way we had never experienced. When I was growing up I’d hear about wars and the threat of wars but never, ever actually believed anything would happen HERE. Look, teacher, at this mighty country! We’re the United States – we’re too mighty, too tall, too distant, too powerful for anything to happen to us, to happen here. I thought and spoke so highly of my country, this mighty nation which – though it certainly had made missteps – could not be brought down low.

That morning was a reminder of vulnerability long denied. No matter how high, no matter how strong, no matter how great, even the most amazing of buildings, nations, can fall. Last Sunday Rob Hill, our guest preacher for the 10:30 service, while expressing concern about where our nation is going, spoke of how all superpowers fall, the pattern they often do so in. That’s not something we really talk about - how this superpower we live in will one day fall. But, given all the superpowers of the world that have come before are no longer superpowers of today, it’s safe to say we will. Nothing in this world is forever – no matter what the diamond commercials say. Some things pass violently, quickly as we saw 5 years ago, some pass slowly, even peaceably. Even when we intellectually understand – to look at the great accomplishments of our time, our species, I doubt many of us think “this too will pass.”

It’s hard to admit in part because we have too much invested. We build up these great structures and great nations, we put to work the best of our ability, often the best of our hopes, ambitions, dreams. Buildings that rival any architecture seen before inspire us, nations which were built on the promises of possibility and freedom give us hope. To see these crumble, the stones thrown down, is heartbreaking and dream-crushing. Reverend Hill wouldn’t expressed concern about the state of the nation, he wouldn’t care, we wouldn’t care, if we didn’t believe there was something uniquely good about what we have been or at least could be.

Buildings and nations aren’t the only things we build up. We also have a tendency to build up our leaders – politicians, church leaders, general do-gooders. While we may be skeptical of people in power in general – politicians in particular – there is often at least one person who sneaks in, who surprises us with their integrity, with their passion for doing what we would call good. We lift these people up, put them on pedestals, look to them to guide us, even save us from whatever state we’re in. Not only do people come claiming to be our saviors, we place people in the high esteem and import we should save for only one without them evening saying “I am he.”

Just as buildings, nations fall, so do people. The news has been littered lately with high profile falls from grace. We have put much stock in the minister who’s moving people to righteousness, a congressperson who speaks of morality, the philanthropist who gives and gives of him or herself. And then we find out about those skeletons, find out that those who promote a certain standard of being don’t live up to it.

While it is good to put faith in people, to expect things from people, it is just as important to understand that people are… people. We are limited, faulted. That’s why we confess every Sunday. And so as faulted, fallen people, yes, our great leaders will disappoint us – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in shockingly great ways. Though we often like to paint them in broad, perfect brushstrokes, not even Mother Teresa or Ghandi were without their faults.

Even though all things must pass, even though no one can be perfect and righteous all the time, still we keep looking to buildings, nations, leaders – that which is of this world, of our hands, of our desires and ambitions, for our hope, for our guidance, for our salvation. While it is a good and even necessary thing to find those things in this world to an extent, we should not find – will not find – our ultimate hope, guidance, or salvation in this world. For this world is not the ultimate. It is not all that there is, all that will be.

Jesus knew of our tendency to find our meaning, our being in this world and continually challenged us to look beyond what we saw and knew. The words Jesus told the disciples don’t paint a happy picture – nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines, and this is just the beginning. They aren’t easy words and but they are words the disciples needed to hear.

We aren’t the ones who look to our own accomplishments in awe. The Temple the unnamed disciple was in awe of wasn’t just an impressive building. While the huge stones, gold, bronze, marble trimmings, beautiful gates, walls and cloisters and courts around it were worthy of a taking snapshots, maybe even buying a souvenir snowglobe to remember it buy - it was what the Temple meant that was truly impressive. The Temple – first built by Solomon and recently redecorated and expanded by Herod – was once where the Ark rested, where God lived. The Temple was where you sacrificed, where you found forgiveness for your sins, where you could petition God. The Temple is physical evidence of Israel’s chosen status, of their relationship with God, of God dwelling among them.
For the Temple to come down, for not one stone to be left on another, it wouldn’t just take a big wind, it would take a big change, would mean a big change. When the Temple fell during the Babylonian invasion and exile, the people of Israel had to completely rethink what it was to be God’s people; their lives were altered forever. It is understandable that for many a Jew person in Christ’s time, the fall of the Temple would be the end of the world. The disciples, having heard his foretelling of the fall of the Temple, want to know more – want to know when and how they could tell and…

And Jesus does not give them detailed answers. He warns them of being lead astray. The signs he mentions are horrible, but sadly not unusual. Before Christ, during Christ’s time, and after Christ, we have had wars and famines and many other frightening things. No matter how many times people have tried to claim it’s the end, so far it hasn’t been. For these are just the beginning of the birthpangs, so Christ says. What comes after, he doesn’t say.

The details of how this world will pass and God’s kingdom be brought in are not his concern rather that this world WILL pass, that there is more than what we see, that a new world, God’s kingdom will be birthed. He wants us to know that even the world we know will not always be with us. An end will occur, we just don’t know when.

The end, the end times, the apocalypse, the second coming – all of that can be a frightening thought. And yet Christ says, “do not be alarmed.”

“Do not be alarmed?” My taste of rumors of war my senior year of college terrified me, put my friends on alarm. That semester many of us didn’t make it to class all that much – would rather spend time with each other than learning about the subjects that had seemed so important only a few weeks.

When your way of life is threatened, even your life itself, it’s a hard to not be alarmed. When everything gets turned upside down, when those you thought were good and true prove false, it’s hard not to lose faith, lose hope. In her song of praise Hannah shouts with joy for the changing of fortunes. Such a thing is worthy of shouts of joy – when it is your fortunes are rising, when you are the once-barren who now has seven children. But when you are the once prosperous, the once proud, the once strong, the once mighty that has been brought low, it is frightening. If you are not the people with the Temple of God among you, if you are not the mighty superpower, if you are not the follower of a perfectly righteous human being, than what or who are you? What or who do you have?

All things must pass. Not one stone of the Temple will remain on top of another. Over enough time, not even one stone will remain. Not one stone except one – THE One, the Rock, the Everlasting, the one who will not be brought down low, the one who will not pass. The stones of the temple may be thrown down, may crumble under the weight of time or war – but God, that rock will not.

If your earthly leaders fall, your worldly kingdom comes to an end, your awe-inspiring buildings are demolished, you still have an ultimate leader, a kingdom, a reason for awe. When Christ tells the disciples to not be afraid because of war or threat of war, because of the end, that is because he knows that even this world which both sustains and houses our lives is not the source of our LIFE, and our end in this world is not the end of our life. Because even if the world we know no longer exists, if kingdom after kingdom falls, another world, another kingdom, God’s kingdom, will rise. Do not be alarmed because this – this is not the ultimate.

It is good to strive, to create the best nations we can have, beautiful buildings, look up to strong leaders and righteous people – as long as we do not pin all our hopes to these, as long as we understand that because they of this world, they too will pass away. Only God is the everlasting one, only God the rock which does not fade, there is none like God. We cannot put our ultimate hope in buildings or nations, in politicians or preachers, in anything or anyone of this world. We must place it with God. With the Great I Am – who was, and is and always shall be. Amen.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hola all. Still on vacation, having a wonderful and relaxing time. I've visited my grandparents and my sister Beth and am currently staying with a dear friend from seminary. This dear friend was ordained last night in a beautiful service at her home church. Much of her family was there, friends from our time together in Atlanta, friends from college and her home church - it was a wonderful celebration of God's call in her life and her response.

It probably will be no surprise to read that I cried. Not just a few dainty little tears. Snotty, possibly splotchy tears. Of course, I was in rather good company. Our Atlanta friends cried, her grandma and aunt cried, boyfriend's mom cried... I've been on the other side - been the one being ordained (a year ago this NOV 13!) and I cried a little then but nowhere as much as last night. To witness my dear friend acheive this dream of hers, to watch as God's call in her life was affirmed by so many, really hit home to me how our lives aren't about reaching goals or anything like that. It's about walking with God, enjoying the journey. My friend reached a "goal" but it's not like this is the end of anything (other than her having to deal with the various committees and exams she had to endure for ordination) but a scenic overlook stop on that journey. We took some pictures, enjoyed the moment, but it's not like now that she's ordained God's done walking with her. There's so much more ahead for her and I can't wait to see what she does, says, thinks... It's also a reminder to me that like my friend, I'm just walking (walking) walking in the light and enjoying the exercise.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ugly Side

Texts: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Mark 10:13-16

If you flip through the pictures from our trip to Ethiopia, you may notice a pattern – tree, tukel, church, Amy with some kids, tree, monkey, church, Amy and kids. It’s probably no secret – I love kids – and whenever we came across them in our travels, I just had to engage them - usually with bubbles. We had the foresight to bring little containers of bubbles, like the kind you would get for a wedding, and just about any time there were kids around, those bubbles came out. At the Bedele congregation, walking down the street, heck, even if our land cruiser was stopped only for a few moments to so we could buy some bananas from the side of the road, I was breaking out those bubbles. It was an easy way to communicate when your shared vocabulary didn’t go past “you, you, you” and “feringi” and the wonder that filled those kids’ eyes, one of those things that gets you right here.

One of the things that got me right here in a different way, that shocked and disturbed me, was that there were some children I wasn’t so eager to engage. Some children I actually unthinkingly took small steps away from. The first time I caught myself doing this was at the Gore hostel for children – a wonderful place our church has supported that gives a home and vocational training to children without living family or family that can support them. As we were walking up the steps to the girls dormitory, we meet several of the young girls who lived there. One of them was a beautiful little girl, about seven or eight, with dark, deep eyes, and, oh, and an infected growth about the size of half a tennis ball on one side of her face. Here’s where I took that step back. Such a beautiful child marred with such an unfortunate and treatable disfigurement. I was startled, and yes, even sickened by that sight. And I was shamed. I doubt I was the only one who had such a reaction. As we talked with the children I couldn’t help but notice how self-conscious this child was about her face, trying to keep the side with the growth, the ugly side, out of view. It broke my heart that she had been made to feel ashamed by the imperfection on her cheek – and that I was one of those who helped enforce such feelings.

The second time I caught myself taking a step back was when we meet a group of young boys who were playing in the streets near one a prison. We had stopped at the prison to purchase some basket weaving from the prisoners – part of how they support themselves – and three young boys with gorgeous big smiles and genuine curiosity about these foreigners who rolled up in a nice Land Cruiser came running our way. As I went to do my usual thing – shake hands, act silly, bring out some bubbles – I realized these children didn’t have any hair. Instead, on their heads, was a fungus of some kind. I shuddered. And then I felt shame once again.

And then… The Spirit has a clever and crafty way of sneaking up on you and giving you just what you need in the moment. And in that moment, our Mark text popped into my head as clear as anything else and some how I knew this story was speaking to this moment. That the children Jesus welcomed with open arms were the children standing before me. That when Jesus said “let the little children come to me, do not stop them” he just wasn’t refuting an age-based prejudice. For the longest time I thought the Mark text was about just that, it was an ageist thing. The disciples thought children weren’t worthy or worthy Jesus’ time because of their age. The young didn’t matter.
I still think an ageist reading of the text is valid but in that moment in Ethiopia I realized that there was more to this story, a something more that I never could appreciate being amid the wonderful – clean – children in our nice, pristine church. The children Jesus welcomed were just as susceptible to diseases and deformities as the children I meet in Ethiopia. In our 21st century world, 1.5 million children each year die from diseases relating just to lack of safe water and proper sanitation.[1] I can only imagine the number and percentage of the 1st century world. Both groups of children were/are exposed to diseases we in our developed world don’t run across on a regular basis and the good medical care we do have access to – not an option in either setting.
When Jesus opened his arms to the children the disciples would have shooed away, he was opening his arms to children with fungus for hair, growths on their faces, deformities that made them outcasts, diseases and health conditions that caused suffering and for many would prove fatal.

These children were being brought to Jesus not so they could learn about from a wise teacher – a special temple field trip – rather they were being brought to him that he might TOUCH them. The children I took steps back from are the children being brought to Jesus for his powerful touch for when Jesus touches someone, they are healed, body, mind, soul.

It may seem odd, then, that the disciples are trying to keep children who could use that healing touch away from Christ. They’ve known healing is what he does. He’s cured a blind man, a deaf man, a paraplegic, and all kinds of sick in villages, cities, farms – everywhere. Jesus heals – it’s a huge part of his ministry and who he is. Jesus also welcomes children which the disciples should know. They witnessed, after all, so long before this moment Jesus setting a child in front of them and saying “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Perhaps the disciples are worried about Jesus’ energy. While he’s God, he’s also human and that humanness needs a break every now and again. Perhaps they were concerned about the diseases those kids might be carrying. Sure Jesus can heal, but kids, everyone knows kids are the worst carriers of disease – ask any school teacher about cold and flu season.

Or perhaps there’s something more going on with the disciples. Maybe I just want to put myself in good company, but I feel a kinship of sorts with the disciples in this story – wonder if perhaps they too were recoiling at the sight of children – those who are often viewed as the personification of goodness and innocence – marred by physical imperfections.

The visual evidence of disease is hard to stomach for many people, not just myself or the disciples. Look at Job’s wife. As her husband Job lost everything – his property, his children – which of course meant she lost everything too – she stood by, kept silent or at the very least said nothing of note. She stood by and watched as her once strong, proud husband went from the top of the world to a pile of ashes. It was only once her husband was stricken by sores which went from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head that she speaks up. Much has been made of her statement and Job’s response but. What I find particularly interesting today is her timing. When she and her husband lost their possessions, nothing. When they lost their children – their flesh and blood – nothing. It wasn’t until her husband was covered in physical evidence of misfortune, physical imperfections, that she said “why do you persist in your integrity? curse God and die.” Perhaps she was of the “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything” mentality. Or perhaps the sores which Job scraped with a piece of broken pottery served as the final proof – there was something wrong with Job.

Much of the ancient Israelite world operated under the assumption that if misfortune befell you, you must have done something to deserve it. Job’s children died: perhaps he or they did something to offend God. Job lost his property: maybe he’s not as righteous as they say. Job is covered with incriminating sores – well, it’s hard to deny his guilt now. It’s written all over him. For only could a sinner be inflicted with such horrible condition. Job’s wife looks upon the evidence of her husband’s unrighteousness and tells him to die. Nothing about this man who tries to cling to his integrity when the evidence of some secret immorality is so visible is worth holding onto. Just die already, Job. What’s the point of holding on?

This understanding of illness present in Job’s time is also present in Jesus’ time. In the Gospel according to John, the disciples – this group which would have kept the little children away from Jesus – see a blind man ask their teacher “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”[2] They assumed that since this man bore what they saw as a physical imperfection, he or his parents sinned. Somewhere someone sinned and this man’s blindness is evidence of that. Illness, deformity, blindness – all of these were understood by many – including, it would seem, the disciples – as physical marks of moral imperfection.

If the little children people were bringing to Jesus looked at all like some of the children I meet in Ethiopia, then the disciples saw young children who bore what some understood as marks of sin. No wonder they spoke sternly. There’s that old “saying” that what bothers you most about someone else is what you don’t like about yourself reflected in them. The disciples looked upon these children and whether they were consciously aware of it or not, were perhaps reacting to something inside themselves. Saw the marks of illness on children and thought of their own ugly side. The people were bringing to Jesus – bringing before the disciples – the embodiment of their own – our own – fallen state. Somehow children with such imperfections embody our ruined innocence better than anyone else. Because a child with a big grin, welcoming spirit, loving eyes, is the perfect illustration of innocence, of the grace and goodness God created us in. And the marks of disease which mar their little bodies are the reminders of our imperfect, our fallen, our sin-filled state.

Though they had seen Jesus welcome those whom others considered outcast, sinners, worthless, the disciples still struggled to believe. Jesus, why would you want to touch these who bear the marks of sin? Why would you hold them, bless them?
As he has before and he would again, Jesus explained that he came not for the righteous but for the sinners, for those who bore marks, external and internal. Jesus explained that it is to these little children – these imperfect children of God – to whom the kingdom of God belongs. Jesus looks upon these children, sees the growths on their faces, sees the imperfections which make others cringe, sees their “ugly side,” and says “let them come to me.” He opens his arms to those others would shun, he touches them, blesses them. He loves them imperfections and all.

Even in his presence, the disciples couldn’t fully appreciate who Jesus was, who Jesus loved. Even with our years of tradition, even with songs like Jesus Loves Me and Jesus Loves the Little Children – all the children of the world, we don’t fully believe that Jesus sees us as the sin-filled creatures we are, and touches us, heals us. When I saw those children in Ethiopia, I—like the disciples—backed away because I looked at them and saw sin. Not their sin or their parents sin, but my sin. I saw the sin of children in one part of the world being exposed to conditions and diseases no child should ever have to know while in my own part of the world most children do not. I saw the horribly unfair imbalance where the world I am a part of has so much more. I saw the injustice that as a citizen of the developed world I have a hand in. I saw that injustice, saw my sin, and I couldn’t face it and so I stepped away.

We don’t always fully believe that we don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of Jesus’ embrace. We listen to the voices of those like Job’s wife who would have us believe that we are hopeless in our fallen state. We listen to those voices instead of the one that says only those who come as little children, those who come as God’s good creation with imperfections, ugly sides, those who come with marks that make others cringe, only these will enter the kingdom of God. We don’t always listen to the voice which says “let them come to me,” “let yourself come to me,” to the voice which dares us to see ourselves as touched, healed, loved.

Children of God, you are loved, you are touched, you are healed. You come into this world as good and by God’s grace – no matter what you may find yourself covered with – you are still called beautiful children of God. Our own grace-filled state, this is a truth that many of us struggle with – I know I do. We have heard the voices of those who would deem as unworthy of love – even Jesus’ love – too long, too loud.

I’d like to invite you to listen to other voices. The voice of Jesus in this passage, the voice of your brothers and sisters – children of God all of you. I invite you to stand, as you are able, and join with me in the first 4 questions of the Belonging to God Catechism, a catechism for children that we can all appreciate and need to hear.

Who are you?
I am a child of God.

What does it mean to be a child of God?
That I belong to God, who loves me.

What makes you a child of God?
Grace – God’s free gift of love that I do not deserve and cannot earn.

Don’t you have to be good for God to love you?
No. God loves me in spite of all I do wrong.

[1] UNICEF Press Release, Sept 28, 2006
[2] John 9:2

Monday, October 02, 2006

do not go, my love

It's funny what gets into your head and refuses to leave.

Several years ago my sister Beth gave her high school senior recital and sang an early 20th century piece called "do not go, my love." It is a haunting vocal/piano piece that is based on this poem by Sir Rabindranath Tagore :

The Gardener XXXIV: Do Not Go, My Love

Do not go, my love, without asking my leave.
I have watched all night, and now my eyes are heavy with sleep.
I fear lest I lose you when I'm sleeping.
Do not go, my love, without asking my leave.
I start up and stretch my hands to touch you.
I ask myself, "Is it a dream?"
Could I but entangle your feet with my heart and hold them fast to my breast!
Do not go, my love, without asking my leave.

I've been searching for this song recorded but can't seem to find any recording I like. There are some nice ones with men singing it, but since I first heard it with a woman, that's what I'm partial to. There are some women singing but their voices are a little old school warbly.

I mention this current obsession of mine because it just reminds me how much a first impression really does matter! If it's a good experience, the first time you do or experience something often becomes your baseline. For example, even though I can say "forgive us our sins" and "debts," my own personal Lord's Prayer - when it's coming soley from me and not worship leader Amy - is "trespasses" because that's what I grew up with and enjoyed. Even though I haven't been Catholic for more than half my life.

Oh, so if anyone knows of a nice version of said song, let me know!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

well, isn't that special

I'm currently sitting at my favorite local coffee shop working on my sermon for next Sunday (note: not the one like 3 days away... I'm actually working in advance!). The text is Mark 10:13-16, the "let the little children come to me" passage. While you never can be sure until after you've preached the thing, I'm pretty sure the sermon is going to move away from the traditional intepretation of this passage - kids weren't worthy folk, too young to really matter, and so Jesus is proving that age is one of the many boundaries he will cross.

Good intepretation, but not where I'm going. Funny thing is, I opened up my sermon I preached the second Sunday last year, so exactly a year ago from this sermon, and I actually reference the Mark passage AND support the traditional interpretation.

Isn't it funny how the Spirit works?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A First, A First!

On the 17th of September, I was honored to participate in the baptism of two adorable baby girls. The one I'm holding is the one I actually baptized (John baptizing the other). She was my very first baptism. With almost a year into my ordained ministry, I felt... not "not a minister" but not quite complete. I had only presided over one half of our sacraments, after all!

I had been looking forward to this moment for some time. Baptisms are a huge deal to me - I remember very clearly my biological siblings (they were both baptized by our great-uncle and great-grandfather at our family reunion on a Minnesotan lake - yep those ministers got in the water and performed the sacrament!). Because both were done in the midst of all my extended family, I have always had a strong awareness that baptism is in large part about family. As I grew older, I came to appreciate that the family was much bigger than even my own large fam. The family we're baptized into is the Christian family, a family which trancends boundaries like race, age, political beliefs, gender, sexuality, class, geography, and even time.

So to be able to welcome a person into this family by offering them the waters of baptism... I'll admit it, I got a little choked up right before the service started. But once it did, and once this adorable girl was in my arms and I was saying the words which had come from our Savior himself, repeating them to her, welcoming her into this family, no threat of tears. Not because it wasn't moving - it was - but because it went beyond, the "aw' factor... it was the "awe" factor. I was in awe of the moment, awe that I could feel the Spirit working through me, awe that God had called me to do this.

I'm sure the baptisms which I will continue to preside over will move me, but I know this one will always be AWE-mazingly special.

Learn Your Lessons Well

Texts: Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12

The figure of Wisdom—personified as an elusive and demanding female in Hebrew tradition—has captured the attention and imagination of many a young Jewish boy. And that’s what she was intended to do: get those young boys who would rather be playing with their friends to be so intrigued by this woman called Wisdom that they would pay attention to the wisdom traditions she represented, would learn well the lessons their elders wanted to teach them. I’m sure the many teachers in our congregation – who I’m sure should all be teachers – can testify to the need and challenge of making the duller subjects more exciting. Wisdom is the ancient Israelite attempt at just that – she’s here to liven up a tradition of wise sayings and ethical teachings which otherwise might bore. She is here to make your head turn, eyes pop, and ears burn. And boy, does she.

At the entrance of the city gates—a place synonymous with judgment in Hebrew tradition—Wisdom leaves no doubt in her listeners: she is important. Pay attention to her, learn the lessons she has to teach, because if you do not, disaster awaits you. What’s more: Wisdom will pour out her thoughts to you, surrounding you with them like a peaceful river. But if you don’t dive in, she won’t be there to support you when the storm strikes. She will extend her hand but if you don’t take it – you’re on your own. As long as you treat her well, she’ll be there for you. Ignore her and it’s over.

We Christians have been taught—rightfully so—that no matter how much we mess up, no matter how low we fall, no matter how far we stray, that God will seek us out. Jesus himself tells parable after parable that confirm this image of God. The biblical image of Wisdom laughing at us, mocking us – is hard to swallow. For Wisdom of Proverbs fame isn’t representing popular sayings or ethics – she is not the World’s Wisdom, one we could perhaps ignore; she is God’s Wisdom. God who is steadfast, God who is constant, God who has unconditional love, created Wisdom whose affection appears very conditional.

Later in Proverbs Wisdom tells of her origins, saying she was God’s first creation and as such, she was there at the beginning and participated in the formation of the foundations of the earth—was God’s help-mate and daily delight. Wisdom—God’s Wisdom—is such a pervasive and prominent figure that it is understandable that many people see Jesus as not only the Word Incarnate but Wisdom Incarnate – the fulfillment of all ethical teachings that came before him. No wonder that the early Christian community put their own spin on the tradition she represents.

The selection of James, with its exhortation on the tongue and sinful speech, echoes the ethics of a community with such proverbs as “rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (I’d like to see that in a fortune cookie.) Rather than taking a broad approach to issues of justice, faith, or morality, James is getting very particular and very earthy. Spiritual issues of old and new covenants, the resurrection and the afterlife, take the back burner while we hear about how our tongue is the only beast which cannot be tamed. In this text we are not called to think about the greatness of God, rather the power of a small part of our own body.

And our tongue – with the words we choose to say and—I would add—those we choose not to – is quite powerful. Words can crush, they can delight, they can shock or comfort. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those words have pretty high price tag themselves. That John or I stand up here every week and use words to convey God’s message for us today is just one example of how highly we hold words. We hear sound-bit after sound-bit in political elections because words shape opinions. We have cases taken to the higher courts because words like “one nation under God” can both alienate and inspire. We live in a highly verbal society where words truly matter.

Not only are words powerful, but the tongue on which they rest truly is an untamable beast. I know I am not the only one who can recall moments where the tongue spoke words that surprised the speaker. Where something came out and – oh, if you could spin back time and keep those words from slipping out, you’d give just about anything. Where that good ole lower appendage called the foot finds a home in your mouth. Even for the most careful of speakers, the tongue can escape control. Truly all of us do make mistakes – some more perhaps than others – but none are perfect in speech.

This our reality and this is the reality James is writing about with such conviction. This wisdom teaching – much like Wisdom herself – does not mince, well, words. World of iniquity, restless evil, deadly poison. (Come on James, have an opinion already.) These powerful phrases may seem just as harsh as Wisdom’s speech. Both do not baby the listeners and both take a stand and let you know what it is. But both are so assertive in what they have to say for a reason.

Wisdom and wisdom teachings like the one we find in James must come on strong because they guide our relationships here, guide our life together. Though Wisdom is from God, wisdom teachings are not about God directly. They are about how to live and exist in God’s world, among God’s people. And while God may be endlessly forgiving, while God may seek you out no matter how many times you turn away, God’s people are not always so understanding. We MUST listen to Wisdom when she speaks, take her hand when she reaches out, because if we do not and we find ourselves in the panic she warns against, turning then to her teachings will not help us in that moment. We may avoid future storms, but we will still have to weather the one we are in.

When our tongue goes wild and speaks words that cut someone down, even if we then turn to this teaching of James, remember how wicked the tongue can be, we can never take back what we have said. That calamity will still be upon us. Even though God may forgive us, the one or ones we have hurt are not always so grace-filled.

Wisdom and wisdom’s teachings must be so strongly phrased because we need to learn our lessons well – hopefully not the hard way. And when I say “we” I don’t mean the human family necessarily (though that would be nice) – I mean the Christian family. God has this funny tendency of gifting people with purpose. Abraham and Sarah’s family was made God’s chosen people – but not so their lives would be easy, far from it. They were gifted with as many descendants as the stars and a special relationship with God in order that they would be a light to the nations.

As the body of Christ, we have been given gifts – gifts like faith, laughter, vision, kindness, love – in order that we might continue Christ’s work here on earth. Wisdom is such a purposeful gift as these. God has given us many lessons to learn, passed down teaching after teaching, not just for our betterment, so that our relationships with our friends and our family run smoother. No, Wisdom is meant for greater things. We have been given Wisdom and wisdom teachings in order that we might live well with one another, show Christ’s love not just through our pious thought, but through our daily lives, through ALL of who we are.

James said that those who teach will be judged with greater strictness. The same is true for those who proclaim their faith. As Christians, we are Christ’s representatives here on earth and people know that. People both inside and outside the faith look at how we live and – right or no – judge our faith and THE Faith by those lives. By living well, living faithful, living in wisdom, we represent our faith well to the world. When there is disconnect between the faith we claim and the lives we live, we do a disservice to the one we worship.

I believe this is part of the lesson James would have us learn about the tongue. If with the same mouth we both bless and curse – bless God and curse those made in God’s image – we are not serving the God we bless well. It’s a sad thing, but I have heard many a non-church-going folk – here in Staunton and elsewhere too – say that they are skeptical about church – about organized religion in general – because of the people who make up that church. It’s not that they are just so consumed with passion for justice or morality issues non-church people don’t get them. It’s not that people who don’t go to church can’t understand dedicating one’s life to a higher power. No, it breaks my heart, but many people I have spoken with have experienced what James is speaking of, have experienced people of faith with tongues that bring a hellish fire, who bless and then curse with the same mouth. That—that is what they say makes them wary of God’s community, of becoming a part of that community.

It’s so tragic because as Wisdom has told us – once we have ignored the teachings, once we have cursed those made in the image of God – all our good speech, well-tamed tongues, may fall on deaf ears. Once a person sees incongruence between our praise and our praxis, it may be quite the challenge to overcome that impression. We may not ever be able to fully tame our tongue, but with God’s help we can surely find better uses for it than cursing.

We have been given this beast which cannot be tamed because just as it can be a fire of hell, it can be a fire that blazes across this land, burning to the ground systems of oppression and injustice. Where would movements like the civil rights movement be without speeches like “I Have A Dream” engulfing the nation? The tongue can also spark fires of faith within us, use words to create a great light which reflects the light of Christ to the world. But if this tongue is busy cursing others, if we use this powerful fire for our own purposes and NOT God’s, then we have not learned our lessons, we have not give heed to Wisdom. We have not lived as God’s people ought and not proclaimed God’s glory well.

Oscar Romero, a man who lived his faith so thoroughly he was martyred for the righteous fires he set with his tongue, continually spoke of the power of words used well. “God’s best microphone is Christ,” he said, “and Christ’s best microphone is the church, and the church is all of you.” As the church, we are truly are Christ’s voice as well as body. God has given us a wild tongue but also given us the wisdom to appreciate the power of the tongue. If we learn well the lessons God has to teach us, we will radiate the love of God in ways that will make people take notice – good notice. If we give heed to Wisdom, listen to her voice, we will know how best to use ours.

At the entrance of the city gates, Wisdom speaks. Will you listen?

Monday, August 28, 2006

I'm A Believer!

Text: Jonah 1:17-2:10
Ephesians 5:15-20

Let us all pause for a moment of gratitude, gratitude that lately God doesn’t seem to send storms and gigantic sea creatures to swallow us whole whenever we don’t listen. Because if God did, I would imagine that many of us wouldn’t be here right now, rather we’d be swimming around in the ocean, somewhere in the belly of a fish, perhaps trying to remember how Finding Nemo’s Dori spoke whale so we could converse with our new home.

I sincerely doubt that if we were truly honest with ourselves that any of us could say we never refused to do, go, or be what God called us to. Sometimes we feel that tug on our heart that tells us we should say something to that person speaking unkindly of another – even if we’d then be looked down on by that same person. Sometimes we feel pulled to offer our gifts in ways that make us nervous – perhaps to speak in front of a crowd when God has given us something to say but not extreme confidence to go with it. Sometimes we are called by God to give up our dreams of what our life will be and take on God’s dreams for us. And sometimes we don’t respond to the Spirit moving so within us. I would imagine that each of us could think of at least one time we chose to stay with what was known, what was comfortable and safe rather than risk the unknown with God.

To be honest – minus the fish, Jonah’s story really isn’t all that out of the ordinary. He was a man who was happy to be God’s servant – as long as God asked him to do things he approved of. Jonah had no trouble speaking to the people Israel the word of the Lord when it was a positive proclamation. 2 Kings attributes Jonah as the one who prophesied that God would restore Israel’s borders which had been overtaken by her enemies. He doesn’t seem to take much issue proclaiming good news to people he knows. But pronouncing God’s judgment upon a bunch of heathen strangers? No thank you, I’ll go to Tarshish instead. Jonah will trust and follow God, but only so far, and Nineveh, well, Nineveh goes beyond the boundaries of what Jonah is comfortable with.

And so even though God has called him to go somewhere, to speak the word of the Lord, Jonah refuses and tries to flee from the presence of God. Jonah has trouble seeing beyond himself and into God’s will and vision for the world. He’s comfortable with what and who he knows – this strange land with strange people – he doesn’t understand how they could be part of God’s vision.

As I said, other than what happens while he’s in the midst of fleeing from God’s call, Jonah’s story isn’t very unique. Many of us can probably identify with not fully trusting in God’s vision for us. Not fully believing that God’s will and not ours is what we should spend our energies understanding. I know I can. I also wonder if perhaps many of us can identify with Jonah’s fish experience. Not a literal fish, of course, but that moment, that experience, that encounter that makes you take notice, that causes you to say in awe and wonder “I remembered the Lord.” Sometimes our fish comes to us in tragedy, sometimes in a joyful moment. Sometimes we know that we’ve been swallowed right away, sometimes it takes us a few days, or weeks, or even longer to notice that where we are. This morning I’d like to tell you about my encounter with a big fish.

Like Jonah, I’ve had some interesting encounters while I’m in the midst of traveling. My mom worked for Continental Airlines for several years and so – thanks to her benefits – I got to fly more than the average bear. That means I got to have more than the average number of plane conversations – you know, those hour long conversations where you reveal your inner most soul but may not exchange names. Of course, given my answer to the “so, what do you do” question, I also have other than average kinds of conversations. When people find out you’re in seminary or a minister – a visible change comes over them. Sometimes they shut down completely, sometimes they feel the need to confess, sometimes they want to engage me in deep theological conversation – which gets really interesting because when I fly thanks to Dramamine, I’m very drowsy and perhaps more than just a little loopy.

Two days before I left for Ethiopia, I had one of those interesting conversations while I was flying back from my sister’s graduation in Wisconsin. My row mate was a man named Tom – exceedingly cheerful and interested in discussing everything from our families to the hot topics of our time. Not surprisingly what I do and where I was going in two days came up. When Tom and I talked about my upcoming trip to Ethiopia, I expressed my fears about our group’s safety. I had been – I’ll admit – obsessing about that topic for a few days. A few weeks prior I had read about a bus about 80 km from one of the town’s we were going to drive through had been ambushed and 15 people were killed. While in Wisconsin I heard about some other turmoil ending in bloodshed. Tom’s response to this was: don’t worry, you’re going to God’s work and God will keep you safe. And, well, if your worst fears come to be, you’d still be with God and all would be alright.

There was something about his carefree, “it’ll be fine” attitude that just bothered me. It was as though he thought I’d have some sort of invincibility cloak because I was on, as Elwood Blues would say, a mission from God. But as we continued to talk, I realized that wasn’t what he was saying, not exactly. His attitude was more that whatever might happen to me, I would be doing God’s work and be with God and that was all anyone could ask for.

Talking with Tom, I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure if I believed that. It sounds like a great outlook on life, even possibly good solid theology, but I struggled with it. There’s this expression you may have heard, let go and let God. I have confession. The Let go and Let God always bothered me just like Tom’s perspective on life. Because letting go means YOU don’t have a plan and you’re just asking for trouble. Let go means YOU aren’t in control.

Let me make another confession – as a good eldest child, I like control. And when I’m out of it, when I can’t see what’s going to happen next, when I can’t develop plans or strategies, I, well, I panic just a bit. I’m a lot better about this control thing than I used to be but I really like to be able make sure I can foresee what’s going to happen and plan for it.

When it came to Ethiopia, I couldn’t exactly plan for what I was going to find, didn’t have much control over the next three weeks of my life. I couldn’t plan and I wasn’t willing to believe that whatever happened, it would work God’s kingdom, toward God’s purpose. Somewhere deep down inside, I’d like to believe God’s purposes can only be fulfilled if I live a great, long, happy life. That since I had gone along with God with this whole minister thing, since I let God make that decision for me, the rest of my life should go closely according to my plan. That, that would work out really well for me.

Jonah certainly seemed to along the same mindset. He was okay with being called to be a prophet but he didn’t want to be stretched to what he didn’t know, to what he couldn’t foresee. It wasn’t until he was riding around the inside of a big fish that he started to conceive that God was the one in control of his life, that he remembered God and lifted his voice in prayer. I know that three is a popular biblical number – it just sounds good, three days and three nights – but I find it intriguing that it took three days and three nights for Jonah to make this prayer.

If I had been swallowed by a giant fish, and found myself alive and not being digested, I would think one of my very first actions would be to get down on my knees and pray to the Lord who made me saying “you are awesome, please save me, I’ll do whatever you want” over and over again.

That it took three days just speaks to how dense we can be. Tom probably looked at me just the same way I’m looking at Jonah. Amy, you’re in the belly of a fish – don’t you see that God is in charge and in God you should trust. Don’t you believe in God’s vision for you?

I wanted to believe but it’s scary. God’s vision for us is scary because it’s not our vision, it may not fit in with what we had planned. But what’s more, because it’s God’s vision and not ours, we cannot see all of it, we cannot always see how it will work, cannot foretell the outcome of following this vision. God’s vision extends beyond this time and place and we as humans cannot hope to comprehend it all.

As I was preparing to go to this foreign land, I really wanted to believe that all would be okay – at least in God’s terms even if not my own. I wanted to believe and so God sent me a fish, a man named Tom. Tom put these thoughts into my head and as I finished packing, those thoughts just took root. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I just need to trust God to see me through, to catch me if I fell. I needed to believe that if I focused on the will of God, if I allowed myself to be filled with and guided by the Spirit, that God would always be with me. I needed to believe that even though I can’t see beyond the horizon, God can. Believe and trust no matter what, I would be with God. And that would be all I need.

A funny thing happened as our team was at the airport on our way to Ethiopia. As we stood in line preparing to go through security, I was trying very hard to focus on this trust thing and not obsess over the fears that kept rattling around in my head. As I was trying to put my fears aside, I heard a voice call my name. I turned to see who had called and there was Tom, standing in the same line a few people down, a huge smile on his face. I don’t know about signs – that’s another sermon – but I took this encounter as that final kick in the pants - notice it took me only two days and nights. Upon seeing Tom again, I gave into that desire to trust in God, to believe in God’s promises. I gave in and it felt great!

Now, not all my fears were gone, but I didn’t operate out of my fear, didn’t let it keep me from going where God called me. Because I was not absorbed by my fears, I could fully engage in all around me, could be who God wanted me to be while I was there. I crossed over from where I was comfortable – odd to say that fear was comforting but it was – into the unknown of just trusting God completely and found myself so much more comfortable.

We may be grateful that God doesn’t send literal storms and big fishes, but we should also be thankful that different kinds of storms and big fishes enter our lives and shake us up. Thankful that God doesn’t let us flee without putting up something of a fight. Thankful that even it takes three days and three nights – or longer – God is going to stick with us until we understand the will of the Lord. Until we give into it, give into God. Until we shout with greater excitement and joy thank Donkey did in Shrek, “I’m a believer!” And brothers and sisters, I am!


Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Love Letter

Dear Covenant,
Have I told you lately that I love you? Because I do! Last Tuesday, Aug 15, marked the 1 year anniversary of me being your Associate Pastor. It has been a year beyond expectations for me – I couldn’t have asked for a better first year as a minister. Whenever I speak with one of my peers from seminary, they always remark on just how happy I sound. And there’s a reason for that – you! Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing some reflecting on what about this community that I love so much. Here are just a few of those things.

I love how you warmly welcomed me and accepted me. With notes of encouragement and galas of welcome, with food and entertainment, with smiles and hugs, you have made me feel loved. You have also let me love you right back – which isn’t hard at all to do!

I love your giving nature. When there is a special offering, we always have such a wonderful response. When we need volunteers for anything, you are there. When I need another set of eyes and ears, you offer honest and reflective thoughts.

I love your differences. This church is not comprised of people who all think alike or act alike and thank God for that! We have a range of different ways of celebrating and worshiping God, have various ways of thinking about theology, and we don’t let any difference get in our way of loving each other and the God that has called us together.

I love your willingness to try new things. Over the last year I have had the opportunity to see and support new programs in throughout the life of the church, new ways of worshipping, new ways of (as we used to say in seminary) “being Church.” I have rarely heard the proverbial “but we’ve always done it this way” and that has been a blessing. You’re open to where God made lead you – both individually and communally.

I love so many more things. I love the hugs I get after worship, I love getting to be silly with the youth (and some of the adults!). I love running into you wherever I go, from the grocery store when I’m shopping to the coffee shop when I’m working on a sermon. I love that some of you tease me about my dancing during worship – and that some of you join in. I love getting to know you and I love that I have so much more of that in my future.

In case you didn’t get it the first 50 times, I love this church and I look forward to many more years of ministry together.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ethiopian Reflection - June 16

I got a decent night’s sleep last night – not perfect, though. I woke up with Muslim call to prayer at 5am and didn’t go back to sleep after that. This morning for breakfast we went to Motera Motel and I enjoyed my first macchiato and sadly my first “cooked in oil” food. The eggs I had tasted fine on the way down but left a filmy feeling in my mouth and a queasy feeling in my stomach. Cooking oil is actually rancid butter – didn’t know that until after we ordered. Liz found out the hard way – ordering French Toast just soaked in the stuff. Oh, my stomach churns just thinking about it.

On the drive over to the Hilton Hotel to exchange money, we had more people at our windows. That’s starting to make my stomach churn as well, though in a different way. We aren’t going to give them money – in part because we might get mauled (for more money) and because it’s hard to assess real need in a place so poor. The people at the window make my stomach churn because of the way I handle it. Jeff will just say “no, no” over and over – my strategy, ignore them altogether. The rough faces, deformed hands, children’s eyes – I ignore. Don’t look, don’t make eye contact, don’t acknowledge their existence in any way. That’s what bothers me so much. Here are the least and the lowly, and I turn my head. It’s not that I want to remain unaware of their plight, that I want to avoid seeing such poverty so close – that hasn’t been a problem for me so far. It is so much more that if I looked at them, told them “no,” I would have to see either the disappointment or a refusal to give up or–sometimes–anger. And so I don’t acknowledge those who stand at the car and I feel horrible.

On the way back from lunch we drove through a good deal of Addis – or at least it felt that way. So many buildings, all smushed together, many made of metal sheeting, many looking so much worse for the wear. During our drive around town, we also noticed needs of both sheep (and maybe goats – I can’t tell) and even Brahma cows. They seemed to know where to go, crossing the street as a group, guided by a shepherd. We also saw donkeys carrying large bags on their backs – I never knew that was really something people did.

When we got back to the compound, we headed over to the Bethel Makane Yesus School. There we met with Ato Teferra, the principle. He told us some interesting information – for example, the government does not allow religion taught in any schools, even private schools like Bethel. That floored me. Public I could understand, but private? Teferra took us on a tour of the school – we visited both kindergarten classes and grades 1-4. Oh, those kids were precious! They (almost all) sang “This is the Day” among other songs. The older kids we got to ask questions. I had the best time being silly with them (surprise, surprise) – asking them about their favorite and least favorite subjects. I have decided that a child’s giggle is a universal sound.

After our touring of the school and some time of rest – thank goodness for rest! – we went to an Abyssinian restaurant. There was lots of good national food and fun traditional dancing. Well, we enjoyed the dancing. Our hosts laughed hysterically at some of it. After dinner and dancing, it was time for bed!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Obade, Obada, Obadiah! Lalalala, Obadiah

Texts: Obadiah 1-15; Luke 6:27-31

Have you ever had a day where you just know you shouldn’t get out of bed? Not because you’re too tired or your bed is too comfortable, but because something is telling you, don’t do it, because somehow you know, you just know that this day isn’t going to be any good.

I don’t know if Edom got the message or not, but this nation should have definitely just stayed in bed. Because as soon as Edom got up, even before he had poured his first eye-opening cup of coffee, somebody is knocking on his door. Knocks like a prophet. Knocks like Obadiah. Obadiah doesn’t just gently tap, he pounds his heart into that door. Because Obadiah has been brought to Edom’s door by a vision searing his eyes, the word of God burning his tongue.

“Edom, Edom, the day has come. It is time to hear your ruin pronounced.”

Edom might just shake his head and go ahead and pour that cup of coffee. Ruin? Who in the world would bring ruin upon his head? Who could? Edom had good reason to feel so confident, to say in his heart “who will bring me down to the ground?” Edom was better off than many nations. More than enough food and water, easily defendable. On this country’s land, there were highlands which rose southeast of the Dead Sea in 3 great steps of sandstone cliffs to a height of more than 5, 000 feet; there was a maze of mountains, cliffs, chasms. It would take a lot to bring Edom low. Someone, some nation, would surely think twice – if not more – about attacking Edom.

Many would not blame Edom ignoring Obadiah at his door. Edom is a great nation and Obadiah, who does he represent? Israel? Well, as Edom has seen first hand, Israel was just overtaken by another country called Babylon. The people were taken into exile or sold into slavery – only the stragglers remained behind, stragglers like this prophet Obadiah. Would he be the one to bring Edom down? He and what army? Israel was scattered, nothing was left of this once great nation.

Obadiah won’t be ignored, however. He keeps pounding away because he does not come representing Israel – he has come representing the God of Israel, Adonai. He has come as his name suggests, as a servant of the Lord, a Lord who has some words for Edom.

“Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down.” Maybe those words got Edom’s attention, made him put his cup of coffee down and actually listen to the words from the intent man knocking at his door. But if those words didn’t catch his attention, surely the next will. Obadiah paints an ugly picture for Edom. Everything Edom has will be lost – the wisdom traditions Edom is known for, all treasures, the holy sites, all understanding – everything will be lost, not to strangers but to those once called friends. Not even a remnant will be left behind.

Why does Edom receive such a proclamation? Because Edom three times wronged the Lord and the Lord’s people. As Obadiah reminds Edom, it is for the slaughter and violence done to Israel that shame will cover him. For Edom has taken treasures of Israel, captured the Israelites and sold them into slavery. This is the first wrong. But Edom did not attack Israel, make war against the nation for want of land or goods. Edom watched while the armies of Babylon moved in, watched as Babylon destroyed the temple, scattered the people, and then and only then, did he swoop down from his lofty perch, not like an eagle, but like a vulture. For Edom is a scavenger, picking Israel clean of any goods Babylon left behind, cutting off the fleeing Israelite’s path of escape, capturing them and handing them over to the highest bidder. Nothing but the bones of Israel remained after Edom came through. This is the second wrong.

The third wrong is perhaps the greatest wrong of all. Edom wasn’t just some well-to-do nation, a bully that kicked Israel when he was done. Edom was, is, Israel’s brother. For just as Israel was once called Jacob, Edom was once called Esau. Jacob and Esau, brothers, twins.

Instead of helping his brother, coming to his aid, Edom gloated, rejoiced even, in the day of Judah’s distress. And so Obadiah is here to tell him, that the day of the Lord is near. The day when the nations, Edom’s allies and confederates who have sat down at table and broken bread with him, the day when these nations turn on Edom and driving HIM from HIS home. That day is near.

For as Edom has done, so shall it be done to him. You reap what you sow, this is a familiar concept to us, familiar to people all around the world, people of all different faiths. “Your deeds shall return on your head,” Obadiah tells us. The Hindu tradition of karma tells us that “you do good things, good things will happen to you - if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you;” Wiccan tradition holds to the law of three – whatever you put out into the universe, good or bad, you will receive them three times as much.

I know I have been caught when I stubbed my toe right after I had perhaps not such a nice thought, saying “okay, God, you’re right, I’m sorry,” as though my negative energy was brought back down upon me in the form on an injured tow. Even though intellectually I believe God has better things to do than make me stub my toe, I have inherited trace elements of a belief in a cosmic reward and punishment system, as Proverbs says – “the righteousness of the blameless keeps their way straight but the wicked fall by their own wickedness.[1]

But I dismiss my injured appendage as God’s punishment, dismiss this worldview being so encompassing, because it is a worldview that does not always seem to hold true. This is the same observation made by the writer of Ecclesiastes. “There is a vanity,” Qoheleth says, “that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous[2].” Or in other, more popularized words, bad things happen to good people.

Having just witnessed a horrible thing, the destruction of Jerusalem, the utter desolation of his people, having just experienced immense loss himself, Obadiah, this servant of the Lord, perhaps can appreciate Qoheleth’s viewpoint better than most. Divine retribution cannot be the only statement Obadiah is making in his proclamation. When he says “as you have done, it shall be done to you,” he is pronouncing the reality of the world which God created. There is another Hebrew tradition, found in other prophets like Hosea, that says the punishment is in the thing itself. Edom’s punishment is found in, is a result of, Edom’s actions. In God’s created world, when you break covenant with your brother, those you consider friends will see no problem in turning on you. The truth is, once friends start turning on friends, family on family, then it’s all down hill. The cycle of destruction will continue, one country attacking another, one brother attacking the other. It will continue until somebody stops it, until someone breaks the circle of hatred.

This cycle of violence, of hatred and animosity, this is what Jesus is addressing when he says “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus tells his followers, tells us to love our enemies, not just love them with some sort of passive love – but an active love. One that has us pray for our those who have hurt us, bless them, do good for them. For it is only when we offer our other cheek when someone strikes us instead of striking back that we can break the cycle.

Someone has to be the first one to step back and offer the olive branch, offer their cheek, otherwise generation after generation will practice evil, will curse, will wish ill on those they consider enemies.

As followers of Christ, we have been given the daunting charge to be those someones. We are called to end the cycles of bitterness and animosity in our own lives, in all parts of our lives. When someone makes a snide comment to us at school, we are called to not offer one back, as witty as it may be. When someone at work takes advantage of us, we are called to not do the same if given the opportunity, no matter how far ahead we may get. When someone we love, we trust, causes us pain, we are called to not intentionally hurt them back, no matter how much it may make us feel better in the moment. We are called to forgive as we long to be forgiven.

We all know when we offer our other cheek, we risk getting slapped again. But if we do not risk it, we will find ourselves trapped in an endless cycle of ugliness that I can’t imagine anyone would want to be a part of.

We also know that when Christ calls for us to love our enemies, he isn’t calling us to love just for ourselves or even for OUR enemies. Christ calls for us to forgive, to love, to do good, for all. We are called to be an example, that those around us might see how we offer love in the face of hate, blessings in the midst of curses, good in the face of evil, that they might see the power of Christ’s love lived out through us and find themselves changed, moved toward this way of living. Instead of perpetuating a cycle of hatred and bitterness, we are called to strengthen and spread a cycle of love and grace.

For some of us, loving our enemies may seem particularly daunting. Many of us have been hurt by people in ways that seem unforgivable. Over the years I have heard more than one person comment on turning the other check, saying “but Jesus really didn’t mean in this situation.” I don’t know what Jesus really meant, but knowing his ministry and message, I would imagine that whatever situations we think Jesus wouldn’t want us to turn our other cheek, that those are the ones in which we need to the most. That those situations are where we might be surprised and moved by the power of love has.

Love can overcome hate, goodness can overcome evil and the players in Obadiah’s prophecy are proof of that. While the relationship between Edom and Israel in Obadiah’s time remind us of how hatred and violence can be cyclical, the relationship between their forebears remind us that even what seems unforgivable can be forgiven, that love not hate leads to prosperity.

For in Jacob and Esau, we have a relationship torn apart by animosity and bitterness AND a relationship renewed by forgiveness and love. When Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing, Esau wanted to kill him – this is why Jacob left his family’s land and went to his uncle Laban – where he would grow in wealth and wives. When turmoil at Laban’s brought Jacob back to his homeland, Esau brought four hundred men with him – men who certainly weren’t there as welcoming party – to meet is brother. Upon hearing this, Jacob does not raise up his own troops, arm his men, he sends gifts. When the brothers finally do met, Jacob brings only his family, he leaves himself vulnerable to Esau’s wrath, and bows before him seven times. And Esau, Esau who lost everything to his younger brother who was always mom’s favorite, Esau runs up to meet him, embraces him, kisses him, and the two brothers, reconciled, weep together. Their reconciliation strengthened their families – when they did go their separate ways again, it wasn’t because of hostility but because together the two families were so prosperous that the land could not sustain both.

While later in generations Edom forgets the covenant with Israel, here Esau and Jacob remember what it is to be brothers, what it is to be children of Abraham, the light to the nations. They both offered love to the one who caused them much pain, they both broke the cycle of bitterness and promoted one of forgiveness. Esau and Jacob remind us that rancor truly can turn to respect, animosity to affection, loathing to love. May we remember their story, may their story be our story as we are like Esau and not Edom, may we trust in the power of God’s grace and do unto others as we would have them do to us. Amen.

[1] Proverbs 11:5
[2] Ecclesiastes 8:14

Monday, July 24, 2006

A Snippet of a Story

Greetings from Ethiopia! No, wait, greetings from Montreat! No, that’s not right either. Greetings from Covenant? Yep, that’s the right one. My travels have brought across the Atlantic Ocean and back, across the Virginia/North Carolina border and back and I must say it is good to be back. I had an amazing time with our youth in Montreat - these kids have such joy and enthusiasm. I also had an almost inexpressibly meaningful and powerful time in Ethiopia. On August 20 for Mission Sunday you’ll hear quite a bit about our team’s travels and thoughts, but I’d like to share one story with you now.

The street children in Addis Ababa tended to come across to me as more hardened, embittered than their country counterparts. We would be asked for money frequently, whenever our car stopped at a stop sign or if and when we got out of the car. Though asked, we never gave – certainly not because we wouldn’t want to but because if we gave to one child or even all the children around us, it wouldn’t be enough. More would come and our safety could become an issue. So as hard as it was to say no (or ignore the requests altogether) this is what we did. In return we often received rude looks or gestures.

During one of our last days in Addis, I was walking from our car to a small shop only about 20 meters away when a young boy, one of the street children, put out his hand and asked me for money. I told him “no money, no money” followed by a “poof” complete with hand gestures (think ‘I’ve just made a rabbit disappear’). The boy looked at me rather strangely and so I repeated “poof” with my magician hands. Then he started to giggle. This was a sound I had heard many times before in the country but not from a city street kid. He repeated my gestures and word back to me and we laughed together until I got to the shop. I did my shopping and when I came out, I saw my little friend again. He had gone on to see if others might give him some change but came running up to me with another “poof” and a giggle. Though we had not exchanged money, we did exchange laughter and in that joy, we managed to make a connection – however brief – that warmed my heart a thousand times over.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Comes A Time

Now that I'm back and sort of settled in, I hope to soon give some more glimpses into my Ehtiopia experience. But until then, here's my first sermon since I've come back home.

Esther 1:1, 10-22
John 4:18-19

Today we continue our Minor Book, Major Message series with the book of Esther. Some of you may have been surprised to find Esther in this series – how many of you think you know Esther’s story, at least a little bit? The young girl that becomes queen and with the help of a cousin, gets the king to save the people Israel, her people: that’s one we’ve heard before. After all, it’s a story and a book that’s celebrated by lots of folks. There’s a whole great festival in Jewish tradition, Purim, that celebrates her victory with days of eating and drinking. Her story has also inspired some more contemporary celebrations - there are several musicals, from which I shall refrain from singing, and there’s even a pretty stellar Veggie Tales movie starring a green onion Esther and a grape Mordecai. Even though her story only makes one appearance in our lectionary, we know something about Esther.

But what came before Esther, now there’s something to be explored. How many of you knew who Vashti was before this morning? It’s hard being the one that came before everybody’s favorite. Esther we know, but the woman who came before her, she often gets forgotten as we rush ahead to the story we know and love. But when we rush over this first chapter, rush to get to Esther and Mordecai, rush to the “good stuff,” we miss out on some of the best stuff.

Vashti’s story – well, I’ll be honest, it’s pretty racy and it’s pretty discomforting. The story we heard today is only part of the story. After the seventh day, we read, when the king was ahem, “merry” with wine, he sent his eunuchs to fetch Vashti. Well, it was on the seventh day of “merriment,” the seventh day of a party that followed another party. This wasn’t Ahesuerus’ first hootenanny, it was his second most recent feast. The first lasted a little bit longer than 7 days, it lasted 180 days. So, it was really on the 187th day of partying, the king sends his eunuchs to gather his wife, the queen.

He sent these eunuchs to fetch his wife, who in just these last 7 days had been feasting with women, not because he wants to share in festivities with her or because he wants to ask her a question or anything like that. He wanted her to come so he can show her off. Parading the Queen in front of his guests would be the culmination of all these days of feasting. For these feasts aren’t so much about having a good time as they are about showing off. All the grand parties are about displaying the great wealth of Ahasuerus’ kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his dynasty. He must be an amazing king – he’s got all these great linens and couches, and just look at the marble all around the palace. The food and wine flowed without restraint, and the king instructed that all the officials could do as each desired. It was the greatest party ever thrown to show that Ahasuerus’ was the greatest king ever known.

And into this party, this party with free flowing wine where every man could do whatever he pleased, whatever that might mean, the king instructs Vashti to come that he might show these drink-heavy, inhibition free officials, her beauty. He also instructed that she should appear wearing the royal crown, the ultimate symbol of Ahasuerus’ power. Now, traditional interpretation has held that he was telling her to appear in the crown and the crown alone. Like I said, this story gets pretty racy. Whether or not this demand went to that extreme, the king is asking something of Vashti that would seem inappropriate for our time, let alone in a time when a woman’s modesty was everything to her. By telling her to come the king was telling his queen to debase herself, was treating her as another possession and not a person.

And Vashti said no.

She said no and then she loses everything. Like I said, this story gets pretty discomforting. Her story isn’t familiar to us in part I think because it doesn’t have a happy ending. A just ending. She stands up for herself and she loses everything. She loses her crown, her status, her husband, even her voice. Though we know she refuses the king’s demand, we know this only because of the narrator. We never hear her say no, we never hear her. Vashti is silenced by the text and then forgotten by the story that quickly moves on to the next queen. And what kind of an ending is that? No riding off into the sunset, no fairy godmother waving her magicwand, no hope for happily ever after. We don’t know Vashti’s fate, but for a deposed queen, for a rejected wife, in her time, it can’t be too promising.

In Jewish midrash tradition, the rabbis recognized something wasn’t right with this scenario. Perhaps they didn’t like that a woman standing up for herself would be so discarded, don’t like how villainous this makes Esther’s future husband look. So what do they do? They make Vashti a villain. In the Talmund, she becomes the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the arch-villain who destroyed the temple and sent the Jews into exile. Some rabbis make her vain, changing the story so that it wasn’t that she didn’t want to display herself before the king and his intoxicated friends because of any concern of self-preservation or self-worth. Rather she had been stricken with leprosy, or my favorite, had been cursed with a tail and so she didn’t want anyone to see her in her less than gorgeous state.

In the Christian tradition we don’t have midrash to explain away Vashti’s fate. Instead we, like our text, have silence. Her story is not part of our lexicon, our lectionary, it gets skipped over, forgotten, made the unmemorable prologue to Esther’s tale, because it reeks of injustice. Vashti is saying no to oppression, yes to what she knows is right, yes the image of God within her… and her life is completely destroyed.

A story like this is hard to swallow – I like to think when people stand up for injustice, stand up for themselves, that even if it’s a hard battle, it’s one they eventually win. But that is not the truth of Vashti’s world and it’s not the world we live in. Vashti’s story reminds me of a piece of history that has always bothered me. I remember when learning about the different landmarks in the fight for emancipation of slaves, we heard about a man who like Vashti was treated like property, who fought for his freedom and lost in a big way. Dred Scott was a slave who sued for his freedom since he had been taken to a “free” state, and thus set free, and so he claimed he could not be enslaved again. He went through 11 years of fighting for his case, both he and his wife finally losing when the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

The court made the decision against Scott on the basis that slaves were not citizens of the United States, and could never be, and did not have the right to bring a case to court. The chief justice wrote that “blacks had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might JUSTLY and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

The decision certainly doesn’t sound like justice to me. Not justice for Dred Scott, nor justice for all the other slaves who were denied the legality of their citizenship with that court decision. It doesn’t sound like just but as I said before it does sound like what happened with Vashti. Treated as property, she stood up for herself and lost. And, as with Dred Scott, holding on to her own integrity created an immediate backlash for her fellow women. If you remember the story, after Vashti is banished, a decree goes out to all women everywhere saying that no matter how high or low, no matter how wise or slow, no matter how kind or mean, no matter what all women should give honor to their husbands and all men should be master of his own house. (Now, remember men, this is a story about injustice, so don’t be getting any ideas.)

Both Vashti’s and Scott’s stories can be disheartening because we want to believe if we should be treated unjustly or if we should see someone else being oppressed, if we stand up and speak, speak for righteousness, speak for God’s kingdom here on earth, then surely, with God on our side, our speech will be heard and wrongs will be righted. We want to believe that as followers of the one who came to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, that as followers of Christ we will be able to realize jubilee, see God’s kingdom come, a kingdom of righteousness and justice.

We want to believe these things because we have been taught to believe them. We have been taught that we are the only hands Christ has in this world, the only feet, only heart, only body. We have been taught that all things are possible in and through Christ.

We have also been taught that while we are Christ’s ambassadors in this world, we are NOT God. Meaning, that though we may work for God’s kingdom, we do not know how or when it will come. We live in an immediate satisfaction society. What do we want, justice, when do we want it, now! This isn’t a bad thing to want and I know I am guilty of this immediate want as much as anybody else. And so I also know it’s hard to think that when we do what is right, what we think God wants for us and for God’s world, that there might be a delay in achieving those wants. That when we stand up for what is right, when we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, we may not benefit from our work. I know it can be hard for us to see beyond ourselves into God’s greater kingdom.

As both Vashti’s and Scott’s stories spoke to the power of injustice, they also speak to God’s ability to work through us and beyond us. Scott fought for his freedom, and lost, but he did eventually find himself freed. His case made such an uproar among many northerners, even those who were not abolitionists or even necessarily anti-slavery, that his owners sold him to people who would set him free. And what’s more, the decision of the Supreme Court on his case made the issue of slavery too uncomfortable for those who had been able to ignore it before to continue to do so. This case is also is often attributed as one of the factors that lead to the nomination of Abraham Lincoln, the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation, to the Republican Party and subsequent election.

And Vashti – well, remember the book her story begins. The story of a queen deposed and women everywhere told to submit is the start of a tale of a woman who bends a king to her will and saves her entire people. Her story begins a tale that Jewish people celebrate every year to renew hope that all though they have suffered much, their final victory is assured.

Both Dred Scott and Queen Vashti remind us that when we are working toward God’s vision for us, when we take a stand, when we do what’s right and not what is safe, sometimes, we suffer for it. We, as individuals, may suffer and may not, I’m sorry to say, we may not see the righteousness we work for over come injustice in our lives. But their stories also remind us that we may have hope for our final victory, for God’s victory, for God’s kingdom breaking through in this world in our lives but also beyond our lives. We have hope that the seeds for justice may bloom in our lives and our lifetimes, but if they do not, they still will bloom within the full life and lifetime of God’s creation.

I wish Vashti’s story had a happy ending. I wish that once she was deposed, she found herself a nice little community, maybe even a nicer husband, and lived out the rest of her life well respected and well loved. And, who knows, maybe she did. But what’s more important than her fate, what we can learn from her story is that there is something more important than her fate. The story goes on and while it is sad we never hear of Vashti again, we do hear of Esther’s triumph and of the people Israel being saved. Each one of us here is an important part of God’s creation but we are not the beginning nor the end of that creation. When we work for what we believe God wants for us as individuals and as community, we cannot be working for ourselves. We must be working for God’s kingdom. For when we stand up for ourselves and for those around us, for what we know God wants for us, we agents of God’s kingdom, even if we cannot see it. We are working for God and trust that one day indeed that the blind will see and the oppressed will go free.

Dred Scott was just simple man who wanted to be free, as his epitaph says. And when Vashti stood up for herself, I doubt she could have ever imagined it would lead to the saving of a whole people. Neither likely understood those rippling affects their personal struggles would bring. Neither, I would imagine, do we. And so though we may be frustrated by any lack of success in righting wrongs in our own lives, we should be encouraged that God works in us and beyond us. We may and should take comfort that though the kingdom may not come fully here and now, we are still members of it and one day, even if not this day, God’s kingdom will come. Amen.