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.