Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Two Sermons -- Nov. 12 & 19

I was lazy and forgetful last week -- so here are two sermons at once -- a two-part series from the Book of Esther. Your feedback is usually appreciated.

When God is Silent
Esther 1:9-2:18
November 12, 2006

I hear the same questions in my office all the time. “Where was God?” “How could any God let this happen?” I look into eyes that are overflowing with pain and confusion and grief and rage - and they demand an answer. Why a holocaust, God? Why cancer? Why do few get fed while many more go hungry? Why do you allow people to suffer, God? Why September 11? Why were thousands of innocent men, women, and children were destroyed in senseless acts of violence. And for everyone who died in that attack, why do dozens more die throughout the world because of the terrorist whims of evil people?

Then there are the events that hit us in the gut–the personal events that cause us to questions God. People come to me and want to know WHY God didn’t protect them from the assaultive father, the molesting uncle, the bullying mother, the merciless teacher. They want to know WHY God would allow such things to go on. The woman who was beaten as a child for such senseless things as spilling her milk; the little boy who was scared to death of his violent father, the family who lost a loved one to suicide or a fatal accident. Have you ever been through a time in your life when you needed a sign from God, and you got nothing? You yearned for one moment when God would show up, change life around, bring some comfort and justice, and all you heard was silence?

I wonder if the characters from the Book of Esther struggled with the silence of God. The book of Esther has a problem. God is never mentioned. We read the Bible to learn about God’s relationship with creation, and there is not one mention of God in the entire book. Martin Luther did not Esther included in the canon of Scripture. He said, “I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.” The whole book could be taken as nothing more than chance and luck. A literary tale of how a young Jewish orphan just happens to become queen and save her people because she’s in the right place at the right time to.

The book begins on a whim of a king. King Ahasuerus gives a great banquet for all the leading officials and dignitaries of his kingdom. After much revelry, the king orders for his queen, Vashti, so he can show her off. Vashti refuses. In a fit of drunken rage, Ahasuerus, divorces her to set an example that wives are to obey their husbands. After he sobers up and cools down, he realizes that he had no queen. The divorce cannot be reversed, so the search begins for a new queen. All the beautiful young virgins in the provinces are brought into the harem so that the next queen can be found. One of the virgins is Esther, a Jewish orphan who’s being raised by her cousin Mordecai.

Esther is probably a teenager, no older than 16. Ripped out of the only life she knew by the whim of an impulsive king, Esther begins a year of preparation for her one night with the king. She is one harem girl in the middle of harem that likely numbered in the 1000s. She would probably spend one night with the king then be sent to the house of the concubines where she would live out the rest of her life alone and with no purpose, unless the king called her again. When her night came Esther went to the king. In the first coincidence of the book she found favor with Ahasuerus who made her queen. Shortly after this, coincidence number two happened: Cousin Mordecai finds out about an assassination plot and warns Esther who tells the king. The royal servants who planned the assassination are put to death. Later, a man named Haman rises to power and becomes the prime minister of the empire -- second only to the king. All of the king’s servants bow when Haman enters the court – all except Mordecai. Infuriated that Mordecai will not worship him, Haman plots to kill not only Mordecai, but also his whole race, the Jews.

A decree is sent to all the provinces and the Jews immediately begin to mourn. Mordecai mourns in front of the king’s gate in sackcloth and ashes. When Esther finds Mordecai, she has no idea what’s going on. Mordecai tells her about the decree and urges her to go to the king and intercede for her people. Esther won’t do it. She is afraid of the king. Anyone who goes to the king without being called can be killed. This is the king who got rid of his first queen on a whim. This king commanded that the engineers of a bridge he was building be thrown off the end of the bridge when they fell behind due to a horrible storm. When a father requested this king not to send his last son off to war, Ahasuerus commanded the last son be killed in front of the father, then had the father blinded so that the last thing he saw was his dead son. This was the king Esther was going to, without an invitation.

Mordecai reminds her that her position as queen will not protect her from the edict. Then he prods her: “Who knows? May be that is why you are here.” Who knows? maybe all of these coincidences happened for such a time as this. Esther agrees. She will go to the king–even if it cost her life. She will appeal for the life of her people.

I’ll tell the rest of the story next week. Let’s stop here and think for a moment. What stands out most about Esther is the fact God is never mentioned. It is truly a book of coincidences. That is why we need Esther. To often we think that just because there is no obvious working of God in the world that God is not working. Maybe that’s why we need the book of Esther in the Bible.

We need reminders that God’s presence in our world is not always obvious—even to those in the church. There are times in life when we wonder where God is. The book of Esther reminds me that we don’t have to be passive victims of the world’s evil. We don’t have to be scared into stunned silence as we wait for God to show up and save us.

In times of darkness, we are tempted to pull back from others, to move into self-chosen exile. When we pull away from one another, evil festers. Any time we are torn apart from each other, evil has an opportunity to abound. But there is another way. Facing evil can lead us to become peacemakers, like Esther. Peacemakers are people who heal by pulling close instead of tearing apart. Peacemakers are people who get in touch with their own pain and disappointment with God, and then reach out to others who suffer.

Let me tell you about some a peacemaker. A girl grew up in a troubled family and suffered through weariness and depression. At 16 years she was wed in an arranged marriage. The marriage was not a happy one. The husband was a faithless, violent spendthrift who made his wife miserable. She spent the first five years of her marriage in silent, melancholy submission to her husband. For ten years the woman alternated between withdrawal and social activity; there were no children, although her husband had at least one child by a mistress. Then the wife experienced a religious conversion. At about the same her husband became bankrupt. The woman began a life of humble of social work---going into the city’s slums to help the sick poor. Eventually her husband gave his life to God and helped his wife minister to the poor. They moved into the slums and worked there, without pay. Three years later, the plague came to the city, killing 80% of those who lived there. The wife supervised those who cared for the dying. In the year 1496 her husband died and the wife continued working full time until her health began to fail. She died in 1510, worn out with labors of body and soul, and consumed, even physically, by the fires of Divine love within her. The woman’s name was Catherine. She is known in the church today as Catherine of Genoa. This is a woman who faced evil. She knew suffering and pain. At one point in her life she asked the Lord, “Why, Jesus, is there so much pain on earth? Why do people have to suffer?” And Jesus said back to her, “Catherine, if there were any other way, I would have thought about it a long time ago.” It seems that there is no other way to learn how to let go and to learn compassion. There is no other way that we can learn our limits and rely on God and others. Peacemaking is born our of suffering.

The other day I was talking with a Muslim friend who told me that in Islam, silence means acceptance. I think he’s right. Maybe God is silent because we are silent. Maybe God sometimes stays behind the scenes because God’s waiting for you and me to step up to such a time as this. Perhaps God speaks when we are filled with boldness and courage and take a stand against evil. Perhaps God speaks through the peacemakers.

If you see hunger, don’t shrug your shoulders and think about how terrible it is. Silence is acceptance. Buy some food, or give some of your own, to our collection for St. Luke’s pantry. Educate yourself about public policy. Did you know that nutrition and welfare programs together amount to only 3% of the federal budget? Foreign aid is less than 1%. Join the One Campaign or Bread for the World.

If you don’t like the current war, don’t wallow in your frustration. Silence is acceptance. Contact your representatives and let them know how you feel. Send care packages to troops. Disarm yourself from that which divides and dominates. Experiment with putting on the armor of God. Wrap truth around your waist and put on just actions like a Kevlar vest. Lace up your boots that prepare you to do the work of peace. Carry the defense system of your faith to protect you from the missiles of sin. Put on the helmet of God’s wisdom. And carry no weapon but the word of God. And pray.

If you don’t like what we are doing to our earth, then do something. Silence is acceptance. Measure your ecological footprint – inventory your lifestyle. Recycle more. Coordinate a drive for unusual recyclable materials. Conserve natural resources. Fall back in love with nature, and tell others about what you experience. If everyone were to make an effort to make even small changes, the impact could be great.

Did you know that 600,000-800,000 were trafficked as human slaves last year? 80% were female and 70% were trafficked for human exploitation – it’s the international business of rape and profit. Doesn’t that make you mad? Silence is acceptance. Donate your services to an anti-trafficking agency. Pray for victims and perpetrators. Use your influence in your circle of family and friends to raise awareness. Provide advocacy and intervention for slaves.

How about something closer to home – like poverty. The cure for poverty is for people to do something. Silence is acceptance. Volunteer at a street ministry or homeless shelter. Go volunteer with someone like Sr. Theresa in Bridgeport. Help build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

You get the idea. God is not silent. When evil abounds, God compels peacemakers to step up and speak. Still yearning for that one moment when God will show up, change life around, bring some comfort and justice. Maybe all you hear is silence. We can’t expect God do perform a miraculous intervention while we sit back and wait. God chooses you for such a time as this.

Holy Disobedience
Esther 7:1-10; 9:20-22
November 19, 2006

Last week we learned about Esther, a Jewish teenager who becomes the queen of Persia. King Ahasuerus chose her his new queen during a beauty pageant. Esther was raised by her cousin. His name is Mordecai. And then there is the bad guy of the story. His name is Haman. Haman is the king’s right-hand man, and he has an ongoing feud with Mordecai. Haman convinced the King that Mordecai and all of the Jews were plotting to overthrow the King’s authority. Haman convinced the King to set a date for the extermination of the Jews. The King had no idea that his new queen, Esther, was also a Jew. He sent a decree to all the provinces of the empire and the Jews immediately began to mourn. Esther had no idea about the edict. Mordecai told her about the decree and urged her to go to the king and intervene for her people. Esther was afraid to do it. She was afraid of the king. Anyone who went to the king without a summons could be killed. Mordecai reminded her that her position as queen would not protect her from the edict. Then he prodded her: “Who knows? May be that is why you are here.” Esther agreed. She would go to the king–even if it cost her life. She would appeal for the life of her people.

This is where we left off last week. Let me tell you the rest of the story. There is a Greek version of the story that has some verses not found in the Hebrew. It says: “In making her state appearance, after invoking the all-seeing God and savior, she took with her two maids; on the one she leaned gently for support ...while the other followed her, bearing her train. She glowed with the perfection of her beauty and her face was as joyous as it was lovely, though her heart shrunk with fear. As the king looked up, his features ablaze with the height of majestic anger, the queen staggered, changed color, and leaned weakly against the head of the maid in front of her. But God changed the king's anger to gentleness. In great anxiety, he sprang from his throne, held her in his arms until she recovered, and comforted her with reassuring words. "What is it Esther?" he said, " Take courage! You shall not die because of this general decree of ours. Come near!" Raising the golden scepter, he touched her neck with it, embraced her, and said, "Speak to me"

Instead of punishing her, the king is pleased to see her. Approaching the king, invites the king and Haman to a dinner party. When Haman finds out about the special invitation, he is in high spirits – until he sees his enemy Mordecai. At the very sight of Mordecai, Haman fills with rage. When Haman gets home, he complains about Mordecai to his family and friends. They suggest that he build gallows and request Mordecai be hung on it the next day.

That night, the king has insomnia. He orders a servant to read the book of the record of his reign. The servant reads the account of Mordecai – about how Mordecai saved the king’s life from a death threat. The king realizes that Mordecai has not been rewarded. At that moment, Haman enters the court, ready to tell the king about his plan to hang Mordecai on the gallows. However, before Haman can open his mouth, the king says, “Haman, what do you think I should do for a man I wish to honor?” Haman is thrilled. He thinks the king wants to reward HIM for his service. Haman says, “King, you should have a parade. Put your clothes on the man, sit him on a horse that you have ridden. Set a crown on his head, and have a prince lead him through the streets proclaiming that this is what happens for the man whom the king wishes to honor.” The king loves the idea and orders Haman to do this for Mordecai. Haman does as commanded then runs home humiliated to prepare for Queen Esther’s dinner banquet.

At the banquet, Esther presents her case to the king. She pleas for the life of her people whom Haman would have executed. On finding out Haman’s plot, the king leaves the room. When he returns, he finds Haman on the queen’s couch pleading for his life. Ahashuerus accuses Haman of assaulting the queen, and in an ironic twist, Haman is taken away to hang on the gallows he built for Mordecai. Esther once again intercedes for her people, and a decree is issued that on the day of the intended massacre, the Jews can defend themselves.

The Book of Esther reaffirms one of by beliefs about human nature. Call me a pessimist, but I believe that humans are violent people who behave on their hidden impulses. While we have the capability to do great good, many human actions are prompted by our jealousies and our desire for retribution. When angry, people tend to blame their problems on their adversaries. When left unchecked, this kind of anger becomes violent, even murderous. Primitive societies provided religious sacrifice as a substitute for the violence in society. Sacrifice regulated the violence and restored order in times of crisis. Sometimes the sacrifice took on the form of a scapegoat – or a surrogate victim. The violence of the community was put onto one person or group who became the sacrificial victim. Here’s how scapegoating works: Those in power make up a story about how all of life’s problems are caused by the victim. The group unanimously assigns blame, and the victim is killed, or cast out of the group. Once the victim is eliminated, peace comes to the group. Harmony is restored. The community feels purified of all its tensions and division – at least for a time. We see this kind of thinking from Haman. He uses his hatred and jealousy to fund genocide against the Jews. Mordecai and his people are accused of a crime that can’t be proven, and are doomed to die to atone for the blood thirst of the Empire.

This happens in churches, too. In times of high stress, we become less tolerant of other’s differences. We only want people who believe what we believe, sing our songs, give their money, serve on the right committees, and not ask too many questions. Eventually, an individual or a small group is labeled as harmful to the community. Gossip starts about “those people.” Soon, the church purges the impure elements from among itself, and a new feeling of harmony comes.

God calls us to something different. The Bible provides the first instance in history where God is on the side of the victim. Instead of being guilty, victims are innocent. Instead of being innocent, the persecutors are guilty. Instead of alienating outsiders, God goes to those on the margins of life and loves them. We believe in a God who is:
The God of the humble,
The Ally of the insignificant,
The Champion of the weak,
The Protector of the despairing,
The Savior of those without hope. (Judith 9:11)

God stands up for those with no power and no voice. God uses people like Esther – a teenage girl from nowhere who is willing to give up her life to save her people. People like Esther point us to Jesus Christ. People like Esther remind us that jealousy, hatred, and conflict do not get the last word. People like Esther direct us to Jesus who taught us to forgive as God forgives us – to love as God loves us – to serve others as Christ who became the servant of all.

We commit to standing with the powerless, and resisting the forces of injustice in our world. We don’t persecute the outsider. We embrace him. We welcome her. I don’t think we have to make grand gestures. We rarely get those opportunities. Most of life is filled with ordinary events and unspectacular choices. Our daily choices are still significant. Each day offers us the chance to creatively express our support for those living on the boundary. Each day gives us the opportunity to resist the powers cast them away as outsiders. Each day we are given the chance practice the alternatives to exclusion: love, forgiveness, and service.

Shortly after the turn of the century, Japan conquered and occupied Korea. Japan overwhelmed Korea with a brutality that would sicken the strongest of stomachs. One group singled out for concentrated oppression was the Christians. The Japanese refused to allow churches to meet and jailed many of the key Christian leaders. Anguish filled the hearts of the oppressed and kindled hatred deep in their souls. One pastor begged his local Japanese police chief for permission to meet for services. His nagging was finally accommodated, and the police chief offered to unlock his church for one meeting. It didn't take long for word to travel. Christians starving for worship quickly made their plans. Long before dawn on that promised Sunday, Korean families throughout a wide area made their way to the church. They passed the staring eyes of their Japanese captors, but nothing was going to steal their joy. As they closed the doors behind them they shut out the cares of oppression.

The Korean church has a reputation as a singing church. Their voices of praise could not be concealed inside the little wooden frame sanctuary. Song after song rang through the open windows into the bright Sunday morning. It was during a stanza of "Nearer My God to Thee" that the Japanese police chief waiting outside gave the orders. The people toward the back of the church could hear them when they barricaded the doors, but no one realized that they had doused the church with kerosene until they smelled the smoke. The dried wooden skin of the small church quickly ignited. Fumes filled the structure as tongues of flame began to lick the baseboard on the interior walls.

The pastor knew it was the end. With a calm that comes from confidence, he led his congregation in a hymn whose words served as a fitting farewell to earth and a loving salutation to heaven. With smoke burning their eyes, they instantly joined as one to sing their hope and leave their legacy. Their song became a serenade to the horrified and helpless witnesses outside.

In the decades that followed, the Korean’s bitterness passed on to a new generation. The Japanese, although conquered, remained a hated enemy. The monument the Koreans built at the location of the fire not only memorialized the people who died, but stood as a mute reminder of their pain. It wasn't until 1972 that any hope came. A group of Japanese pastors traveling through Korea came upon the memorial. When they read the details of the tragedy and the names of the spiritual brothers and sisters who had perished, they were overcome with shame. Their country had sinned. Even though none of them were personally involved (some were not even born at the time of the tragedy), they still felt a national guilt that could not be excused. They returned to Japan committed to right a wrong. They raised ten million yen ($25,000). The money was transferred through proper channels and a beautiful white church building was erected on the sight of the tragedy.

At the dedication of the new church, a delegation from Japan joined the relatives and special guests. Although their generosity was acknowledged and their attempts at making peace appreciated, the memories were still there. Hatred preserves pain. It keeps the wounds open and the hurts fresh. Christian brothers or not, these Japanese were descendants of a ruthless enemy.

The speeches were made, the details of the tragedy recalled, and the names of the dead honored. It was time to bring the service to a close. Someone in charge of the agenda thought it would be appropriate to conclude with the same songs that were sung the day the church was burned. The song leader began the words to "Nearer My God to Thee." But something remarkable happened as the voices mingled on the familiar melody. As the memories of the past mixed with the truth of the song, resistance started to melt. The normally stoic Japanese could not contain themselves. The tears that began to fill their eyes during the song suddenly gushed from deep inside. One Korean turned toward a Japanese brother. Then another. And then the floodgates holding back a wave of emotion let go. The Koreans met their new Japanese friends in the middle. They clung to each other and wept. Japanese tears of repentance and Korean tears of forgiveness.

Faith requires holy disobedience to the powers that want to keep us living in hatred. Faith requires resistance to those who want to claim their power and cleanse their souls by sacrificing victims. We are created for moments when we have to rely upon our deepest convictions to shape our decisions about what we will support and what we will resist. In fact, maybe it is in those daily choices that we discover the presence of God after all.

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