Sunday, September 27, 2009

For Such a Time As This: Sermon on the Book of Esther

It is so simple, yet it can be so difficult: telling the truth. For a long time, I hid the truth about myself. For a long time, I lived in fear that the truth would bring with it only danger, only sorrow. But in the end, the truth brought freedom, for me and for my people.

My Hebrew name is Hadassah, meaning myrtle. But I have a Babylonian name as well: Esther, Ishtar, like the goddess worshipped by those who kidnapped my people and took them into exile, the people who brought us here, long before I was born. I have two names, and I claim them both. I am a woman of two worlds. And that is why I began to keep my secret.

My story begins as another woman’s story ends. It was all the talk of the women at the well: beautiful Queen Vashti had been commanded to appear at a royal banquet by her husband, King Xerxes. The king was merry with wine, they chuckled to one another, and he ordered Vashti to appear before his banquet guests in her royal crown—and everyone knew that the king meant, only in her royal crown. At this, eyebrows were raised, and the women clucked their tongues in disapproval as they hoisted their buckets from the well. Proud Vashti refused, and so Xerxes deposed her and began his search for another Queen. The general consensus was that any woman who agreed to be the queen of Xerxes ought to be prepared for a life of such indignities.

My uncle Mordecai approached me for a dipper of water as I returned from the well, and he listened as I shared the gossip. My dear uncle had raised me from a child, ever since my parents had died. I saw a twinkle in his eye, and I knew him so well, I knew what it meant: despite the warnings of the women, this was an opportunity, not just for me, and not just for my family, but for my people. We were Jews. We were the outsiders, one of the tiniest ethnic minorities of the vast Persian Empire. We were strangers in a strange land, and we were looked upon with suspicion, even hate. Long ago we had been taken into captivity and exile… so long ago that many of us had been reared without the prayers and traditions and history of our people being taught to us. What would happen, we wondered, if a woman who was a Jew could find her way into royal favor? With my uncle’s encouragement I went and joined the throng, one of hundreds of girls to present themselves to the king for his consideration. But heeding my uncle’s warning, I kept the truth about my heritage a secret. No one would know that I was a Jew, not even those who would become my closest friends. No one would know, not even the man who was to be my husband.

What followed was a lengthy time of preparation. I do not know whether it was the legacy of having come after Queen Vashti, but we women of the harem were clearly intended to put our appearance before all else. We were schooled in beauty and deportment, we were treated with oil of myrrh and we were clothed with rich fabrics. At the end of our time of preparation, we were taken, one at a time, before the king. I never dreamed he would actually choose me, but he did. He gave a banquet in my honor and introduced me to the court.

Now, just as I took my place as the king’s bride my uncle performed an extraordinary service to him. Two of the king’s servants were talking carelessly at the gate to the palace, and my uncle was able to overhear that a plot was underway to kill the king. They spoke openly… perhaps the sight of an elderly Jew didn’t concern them… my people are often made invisible by the contempt of others. But my uncle’s ears were sharp, and before long King Xerxes was made to know that a good subject named Mordecai had interfered with a plot to kill him, and saved his life.

What shall I say about the king? He is devoted to me… that I can tell you with certainty. And I like to hope there is more to that than the blush of my cheek. I like to hope it is as much the conversation we make as my more, shall we say, decorative aspects. Is the king a good man? The Vashti incident notwithstanding, there is a kind of goodness about him, I suppose. But it is like the seeds that cling around the blossom of the dandelion. A strong wind can carry his goodness away, never to be seen again. In the case of the king, his continuing goodness depends very much on the company he keeps. And for a time, this king kept the company of Haman.

There are those, like the servants at the gate, who see my people and simply look right through us: we do not count, we are almost invisible. Then there are those, like Haman, who harbor a hatred for us that chills the blood. Haman was the king’s prime minister. He was trusted. He was respected. But he also had that dangerous kind of ego one finds in the world of politics. Haman wished, above all else, to be feared.

My dear uncle had an encounter with him that changed the fate of every one of us. Mordecai had taken his place at the king’s gate. I do not know why he favored this location, except that, perhaps, he liked to be near me, and to see whether he could hear about my comings and goings. As he came and went to and from the castle, Haman enjoyed seeing the way all the people bowed down to him… all, that is, except one: my uncle Mordecai. I do not know why he refused… our people usually show respect to rulers in this way. Could my uncle see through to Haman’s evil and murderous soul? I do not know. But for some reason my uncle would not bow, and Haman grew to hate him. As his hatred grew, he learned that Mordecai was a Jew… for my uncle did not hide his heritage, and no one in the palace knew he was my uncle. Haman thought it beneath him to vent his rage on one man alone. So he planned to kill all the Jews, throughout Xerxes’ vast kingdom. He proposed his plan to the king, all built upon a lie—that the Jews were not obeying the king’s laws. Upon hearing this, Xerxes did not hesitate to agree with his trusted advisor. The edict went out. All the Jews were to be killed.

I remember where I was when I heard the news. I was in my chamber, with my serving women, embroidering myrtle flowers on a gown of rich fabric for myself. As the women shared the gossip my needle froze just as the tip was about to pierce the fabric, to create the fifth petal of the star-like blossom. Suddenly my hands were cold, and I knew I could sew no more that day. I rushed from the palace to the gate and fell on my knees beside my uncle.

I had never seen him like this. As I have said, I was raised without the rituals and prayers of my people. Mordecai had assumed what I have since learned to be the garments of one who is mourning, and begging God to intercede with rescue. Gone were his fine clothes, and he wore sackcloth in their place. His face and head were covered with soot, with ashes, and he wailed and prayed aloud.

Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
2From you let my vindication come; let your eyes see the right. ~ Psalm 17:1-2

Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit… my uncle could pray these words, but I could not. I was the queen. I had been chosen by the king, and he did not know this basic fact about me… he did not know the truth. He did not know that I was a Jew. He did not know that, by agreeing to Haman’s plan to kill every Jew, he had signed his queen’s death warrant.

I looked into my uncle’s eyes and I could see that in his prayers he was not only asking God to intervene: he was also asking me. I explained to him what I had learned from my long months in the palace: that one did not seek an audience with the king. One waited on his royal pleasure. Anyone who approached the king without his express invitation could be killed.

My uncle narrowed his eyes. I could see that he was not convinced by my protests. He spoke to me in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, hoarse from his hours of wailing and lamenting.

“My child, you believe that you can stay in the king’s house and remain silent. But I tell you, you cannot. You believe that your silence will keep you safe, but I tell you, it will not. The Lord Almighty will never forsake his people. But that help may not arise in time to keep your neck from being broken on the gallows. Who knows the ways of the Lord? Perhaps you have been placed in the royal palace for just such a time as this. Perhaps your presence there, a Jew in the king’s own chambers, is part of God’s plan of salvation for us.”

It is so simple, but it can be so difficult. And yet, once I had made the decision, the weight of fear was lifted. I returned to my chambers and once again picked up my needle. I finished the spray of white myrtle flowers on the purple cloth of my royal gown, and I dressed myself in it. Then I went to the king. It was time to speak the truth.

You know the rest of my story—how I invited the king to a banquet, at which Haman was also present. How I told the king that Haman was planning my death, and the deaths of my people. How the king’s rage at Haman led, not to those deaths, but to Haman’s own death. And then, taking his place at the king’s side was a Jew named Mordecai, my uncle, a good man who had saved the king’s life. Now I know that the king will continue as a good man; there is a good man at his side, advising him, counseling him, and seeing that he treats all his subjects well.

Every year after the harvest my people hold a festival in which we celebrate the fruits of all God’s gifts to us. There are four sacred plants we use at that time, to symbolize the four kinds of people who make up our community. One of these plants is Hadassah, the myrtle plant. Because it has a lovely fragrance, but it does not have a pleasing taste, myrtle represents those Jews who have good deeds to their credit, despite the fact that they have never studied Torah, God’s holy law. I am Esther, Hadassah, a woman of two worlds, a woman of the exile, who never learned the holy rites or words of my people. But I learned the hard and simple discipline of telling the truth. For a long time, I hid the truth. For a long time, I lived in fear that the truth would bring with it only danger, only sorrow. But in the end, the truth was all I had to save myself and my people. In the end, it was the truth that set us free. And thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: "Esther" by Minerva Teichert (1888-1976)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

One Such Child: Sermon on Mark 9:30-37

A number of years ago, when I was in seminary, my family planned a weekend visit to New York City. We had purchased tickets to “A Little Night Music,” probably my all-time favorite musical, with an all-star cast, and we were very excited. On the afternoon of the performance we went to a restaurant in the neighborhood of the theater. We went nice and early, so that we would be sure to have time to make the curtain. We walked in, and though it was busy, there were only one or two parties ahead of us. We spoke to a staff person, and settled in to wait for a table.

Suddenly, a virtual wall of people came rushing into the restaurant. There were people on top of people. I’d never seen quite so many people converge on a single location at once. And… needless to say, the restaurant staff was overwhelmed, and one thing led to another, and… our little party of four was lost in the shuffle. Almost before we realized what was happening, dozens of tables were being filled with people who had come in after us, and we could not convince anyone who worked there that we had arrived first.

I was furious. We were supposed to be first… well, third, anyway. But we were most definitely NOT supposed to be last. When I think back on my reaction to that experience—really, I find it embarrassing that I even remember it—I am struck by how powerful my emotions were. I was angry, but more than that, I was humiliated. I took it absolutely personally. I was supposed to be first, and instead I was last.

The questions of who will be first and who will be last are very much on the minds of Jesus’ disciples in this morning’s gospel story. We are on the road to Jerusalem with them, and with Jesus, of course. And to be on the road to Jerusalem means something very specific, and Jesus comes right out with it, first thing. He tells his friends, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him…” This is not the first time Jesus’ friends have been confronted with the brutal reality of his impending death, and it won’t be the last. Jesus is pretty consistent with his message. The path he is walking will lead to the cross.

It doesn’t matter how many times Jesus mentions this; the disciples never show any measure of acceptance or understanding. And, really, why should they? It’s not an acceptable, understandable reality. Jesus is their rabbi. He is their beloved, revered teacher, their Messiah, even: he is the one they believe God has anointed to save the people from all that ails them. Jesus is their leader, the alpha male of their pack. He is number one. And he is describing to them the most ignominious, the most shameful, the most humiliating end they can imagine. He is describing a death that is utterly inconsistent with everything they believe they know about him. He is not describing the death of a king, but of a criminal. Even Jesus’ assurance that he will rise again does not seem to matter. They are struck silent. They are afraid to even ask him what it all means.

And, so they walk on, back to their old familiar stomping grounds of Capernaum, where Jesus likes to relax at Simon Peter’s home. Once they are comfortably settled in, Jesus asks a pointed question. ‘“What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.’ [Mark 9:33b-34] On first glance, this feels odd and somewhat disconnected from what has just happened. It’s a non sequitur. It’s almost as if the disciples have played the child’s game of sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting “La la la la!” They don’t want to hear Jesus’ bad news (at least, according to them), and so they take an entirely different tack, a new topic, something that’s fun to talk about! Who among us is the greatest?

At least, that’s how I read this moment in the text until someone pointed out to me what probably should have been obvious: Jesus has predicted his own death. He is the leader. After his death, who will be the leader in his place? A discussion ensues, and then an argument, over who is “the greatest.”[i] No wonder they were struck silent.

Notice what Jesus does next. He sits down. This is a signal to his disciples—and to us—to pay very, very close attention to the word he is about to share with them. To sit down before speaking is, in the ancient world, to take the classic teaching position of the rabbi. Jesus is claiming his authority as he prepares to deliver a teaching—what may in fact be the central teaching of his ministry.

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” ~ Mark 9:35-37

This is a delicate moment in the gospel, because it’s a moment we can very easily misunderstand. There are two parts to the teaching, the part about the last being first and the part about welcoming children. Let’s start with the children.

A few weeks ago I was wishing the lectionary had appointed this text for the 13th instead of the 20th. What could be more perfect than this gospel for Rally Day, the day we welcome our children back to Sunday School? But in the end I’m glad it was not the reading for last Sunday, because that would play into a pretty common misunderstanding about what Jesus means when he speaks of welcoming children. The misunderstanding stems from the difference between how we—westerners, in a developed country, in the 21st century—view children and how people in the ancient world saw them. So let’s talk about what Jesus, most likely, did not mean when he spoke of welcoming children.

When Jesus spoke of welcoming children, he was not praising their innocence, or their sweetness, or their beauty. He was not talking about the way the sight of a newborn baby, swaddled in its mother’s arms, tugs at our heartstrings. He was not talking about the sometimes uncanny wisdom children display—the moments when they can cut to the heart of the matter, speak the truth in all its beauty and simplicity. He was not speaking of their playful spirit—the way they can spend happy hours in imaginary worlds of their own creation. He was not speaking of their trusting natures, or their inborn sense of fair play, or their eager willingness to believe, to have faith. All these things may be true about children, as we experience them. But these modern day notions of childhood were not the reason Jesus commanded his disciples to welcome children into their midst.

Here is how one writer describes childhood in the ancient world:

Here’s the thing about kids in first-century Roman Palestine: Children were nobodies, the bottom of the social food chain. Children had no power whatsoever, they weren’t given choices or negotiated with, they weren’t allowed privileges or given allowances. Children could be and were left on garbage heaps to die of exposure. Some of them were collected from the garbage to be kept as slaves. Depending on the hierarchy of the household, any number of people could decide that it was no longer expedient to keep a child alive. And although Jewish parents did not engage in infant exposure, their children had no more position or social standing.[ii]

Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God. Other understandings of “the kingdom” come later. “This comes first: a kingdom of children is a kingdom of nobodies.” It’s hard for us to understand how shocking this was to Jesus’ friends and disciples. Children were expendable. Children were nobodies.

I’ve tried to think of a modern day parallel to help us understand, and the closest I can come to it are these statistics, from a recent story in the New York Times Magazine on the status of women around the world.

39,000 baby girls die annually in China in the first year of life because parents don’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys receive.

In India, a “bride burning” takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry.

Between 60 million and 107 million women are missing from around the globe because baby boys are considered more desirable offspring than baby girls.

In other words, in many parts of the world, women are the nobodies.

More girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.[iii]

I know that statistics like these, while they can shock us, can also numb us. The point is this: In Jesus’ day the nobodies, the expendable, those who could as easily die as they could live, were children. In our day, in some parts of the world, the nobodies are still children, and in some parts, they women and girls, while in other parts of the world they may be those who belong to the “wrong” religious or ethnic group. In this country we have a shameful history of the “nobodies” being the African Americans who were forcibly enslaved. And there are other nobodies, of course. Throughout our long history, we human beings have managed to find ways to marginalize one another, to make one another outcast, to point the finger and say, “They are not us. They are not even human. They are nobody.”

And Jesus is saying, No. No. No. The one you think you can’t welcome, or don’t have to welcome? That is the one you must welcome. You must welcome the nobodies, the ones without power, the ones without status. Not only must you welcome them, he says, even with his body language… you must embrace them. Not only must you welcome them, he says, you must be willing to be their servant. You must be willing to let them be first, and you must be willing to be last.

Oh my. Nobody wants to be last. Nobody wants to lose status. I certainly don’t. I don’t mind telling you… I care about whether I am first or last, I care about my status. I care what people think of me. Even my foolish and embarrassing little story about not being seated in order in a restaurant tells you… the ways I care about this run deep, they are visceral, they are instinctive, they are not entirely in my control. And what Jesus is telling his disciples, what he is telling you and me, is that we have to fight this urge to want to be first. We have to fight it with all that is in us, and we have to be willing to yield our status to those we consider the absolutely last and least. Our ability to bear witness to the enormous, overpowering love of God requires it.

There is a story of a little child who walked up to the preacher, and said, “If God is so big, and God is inside of us, why doesn’t God just… break out?” Why doesn’t God break out, in a glorious kind of contagion of love and mutual forgiveness and kindness and civility? Probably because every one of us—from Joe Wilson to Kanye West to you and to me—really, really has a hard time not being first, not being in charge, and so we keep all the potential of God’s love and goodness locked down, bottle up and hidden away. But it is time. It is time for us to let it loose. It is time for us to let go, and to let God do what God wants to do with our lives and our world. It is time for us to welcome one such child in our midst, whether we mean a child, or today’s nobodies: you know who they are. It is time for us to step back, to be willing to put our status and privilege aside so that the glorious contagion of God’s love can break free and renew the face of the earth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks, Mark 9:30-37, Proper 20- Year B.

[ii] Rev. Miller Jen Hoffman, after John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 269.

[iii] Nicholas D. Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn, “The Women’s Crusade,” New York Times Magazine August 23, 2009.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Child of Promise: Sermon on Mark 7:24-37

What won’t a good parent do for her child? It starts even before they’re born. You find out you’re pregnant, and suddenly… you understand that old saying, “The body is a temple.” Yes. Your body is a temple that houses a holy thing: this already-loved baby. So, gone is the glass of wine with dinner, and gone is the beer while you’re watching the game, and gone is the cup of coffee in the morning. And pretty soon, gone is any sense you have that your body is even yours… it’s not yours! Suddenly, unquestionably, it belongs to the baby.

It’s the same for adoptive parents, only different. My mom, who adopted two children, told me of an experience she had a couple of weeks after she and my dad brought my older brother home from the hospital. P. was down for a nap, and my mom had cleaned the kitchen and folded the laundry. Then she thought, I’d better run to the store for some bread. She picked up her purse and walked to the door… and stopped, dead in her tracks. She couldn’t go the store. Even asleep in his crib, all seven pounds of my brother exerted a control over my mother’s life that could only be described in terms normally reserved for forces of nature, like gravity. Her life was not her own any longer. She belonged to the baby.

And a good parent will do anything for that beloved child. He will relinquish sleep for it. She will give up smoking for it. They will move to the neighborhood with the good school, if they can possibly swing it. And if that child becomes ill, they will move heaven and earth to try to obtain them the best possible care.

Jesus encounters a parent who is clearly ready to move heaven and earth in our gospel lesson this morning. A Gentile woman in the city of Tyre… a place Jesus has gone, apparently, for that ever-elusive down-time. He entered a house, and did not want anyone to know he was there, like A-Rod and Madonna. But Jesus is a celebrity, and so once again his leisure is interrupted, this time by a woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit and is in need of healing. The woman engages Jesus and encounters, perhaps unexpectedly, resistance. I don’t know if the woman expected resistance. I have to admit that I did not expect it, not on Jesus’ part. The idea that he would hesitate, even a fraction of a second, is stunning to me, and upsetting. But fear not: Jesus has met, in this woman, a worthy opponent, one of those heaven-and-earth moving moms, and she is not to be dissuaded. She spars with him, (verbally, at least), and she achieves her heart’s desire. Her daughter is healed. After all, what won’t a good parent do for a beloved child?

And like a parent with more than one child, Jesus’ day isn’t over. He travels to another region where there are more people in need of healing… there are always more people in need of healing. There he encounters a deaf man, with a speech impediment. It says, “They brought him to him,” the deaf man to Jesus, but it doesn’t say who brought him. It is vague. Perhaps the deaf man’s parents brought him? In that era, a man with this kind of physical and social challenge would be highly unlikely to be able to live on his own; perhaps his parents are still responsible for him, ready to move heaven and earth for him.

The man is brought to Jesus, who takes him aside privately for some not-for-public-view healing, and no wonder. The work of healing isn’t necessarily pretty; in fact it can be pretty homely. Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears, like a toddler playing with his dad, and then he spits and touches his tongue. It’s almost… almost… as if Jesus is winging it this time. Perhaps his startling encounter with the Gentile woman has thrown him off his regular healing game. Jesus speaks a word, an Aramaic word, that’s Jesus’ native tongue. Ephphatha, he says to the man… or, to the man’s ears and tongue, which is to say, “Be opened.” And they obediently open, both ears and tongue, and this man who could not hear or speak can instantly do both. Whoever brought the man to Jesus… parents? Friends? They have brought him to the right place.

What won’t good parents do for their child? Today S. and J. have brought M. here, to this place, to be baptized. So many things happen to us when we are baptized. H., our organist, shared a moving music video with me this week, the Kyle Matthews song “Been Through the Water.” It is a testimony to the power of baptism, that action that washes you clean, gives you a fresh slate, removes sin.

I've been through the water and I've come out clean
Got new clothes to cover me
And you don't wear your old shoes on your brand new feet
When you've been through the water

And all of that is part of what we Christians claim in baptism. But there’s more. Baptism incorporates us into the body of Christ… it makes us a part of another family, or another kind of family, the church. Baptism gives us a place where, like home, we belong. It doesn’t necessarily replace our family of origin, though in the early church, when being a Christian wasn’t a universally popular or obvious choice, that happened a lot. It still happens, sometimes. At the very least, baptism expands our family, significantly.

But there’s still more. Baptism does for us pretty much the same thing it did for that deaf man. In baptism, Jesus speaks to us: Ephphatha, Be opened. He opens our ears so that we can hear the Word of God, and opens our mouths so that we can speak the Word of God. When we are baptized we are relocated to a place where we are more likely to hear the Word of God. I hate to point this out, but, after all, each of us made promises today, didn’t we, promises to look after Madison and to meddle and interfere with her upbringing so that she might have opportunities to hear that Word, and be that much more likely to share it wherever she goes. Like the formerly deaf man and his family and friends. They cannot get over what has happened to him. They cannot stop talking about it. The more Jesus tells them to keep it a private, family matter, the more they flag people down in the streets to share their good news with them. Each time a child is baptized, or an adult for that matter… there is a great opening, a wonderful and new opportunity for the Word of God to be heard and to be spoken. An opening. Each baptized person holds that promise, the promise of someone who has been permanently opened to the Word of God in their lives. They are never the same.

What won’t a good parent do for their children? Our good heavenly parent gives us this good and meddling family, the church, to look after us. Our good and loving Father ensures that P. and M. and you and I have scores of “godparents,” brothers and sisters in Christ who will keep pushing us to hear the Word of God and spread it abroad. Our good divine parent opens us, permanently, to that Word, because God’s life is not his own. He has given it to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.