Monthly Archives: February 2013

Living a Godly Life: Prayer

jesus praying

I listen to a lot of different types of music, and each type of music has its own set of emotions that they play to. For example, one of the emotions that rock and metal wrestle with is despair and depression, , rap tends to play towards defiance, popular music towards desire, and country, one of its many emotions is regret. It isn’t hard to come up with song after song in country that deals with regret, in fact there is a long standing joke about what happens when you play a country song backwards, that you get your wife back, your family back, your home back, etc…and often the regret is due to putting efforts into the wrong things, for a brief sampling this is one of George Strait’s older songs King of the Mountain:

I gave her that diamond she dreamed of

And I bought her a home with a view

I took her to the end of the rainbow

But all I left her was blue

Seems I never had time to love her

And now it seems time just stands still

I thought I was king of the mountain

But I was only a fool on a hill

Now I start out this way because one of the reasons we struggle with prayer is we tend to treat God like the fool in the song, if our prayers are mainly asking for things we are setting ourselves up for a relationship of regret. Sometimes I think we treat God in our prayers like Santa Claus, and Santa Claus is great for a lot of things: Dear Santa for Christmas I would like: a new computer, a PS4, Gift Cards to my favorite restaurants and shops so I can get something for me, these books, these CDs, these movies, an even bigger flatscreen TV…OK you get the picture, but let me let you in on a little secret, we don’t love Santa. Oh he’s cool, but we don’t love him and we’re never satisfied with what he brings, there’s no real relationship there-he grants my wishes and as soon as I am done opening gifts I may find myself thinking “what’s next?” George Schwanenburg was the pastor of the church I grew up in, and he used to call the prayers that many people would say, “Gimme” prayers, and by extension the people who prayed them were “Gimme pigs.” God gimme this, God gimme that-and while there is nothing wrong with asking God for what we want and need, prayer is much more than that. Other times the only prayers people send up are the “Help” prayers. God, OK I’ve really made a mess of this and if you bail me out now, well….”

So what is this prayer thing all about, and how does it really help be draw closer to God? How does it help me love God? You see God doesn’t seek a relationship with us that is just based on giving and receiving, but on being present and spending time listening. In the midst of a noisy and busy world, prayer is the time we set aside to listen. There is a story told of Mother Teresa, who would spend hours in prayer each day, when she was interviewed once by a reporter, who asked her, “What do you say to God in all the time you spend in prayer?” and she replied, “Mostly I just listen.” Perplexed the journalist went on to ask her, “So what does God say in all that time” to which she replied, “Mostly God just listens too.”

I love the image from Psalm 141, which I would sing several times a week in seminary:
let my prayers rise up as incense before you, the lifting up of my hands as an offering to you.

It is my offering from my busyness back to God some of my time to be there and listen. It’s not about me, certainly I benefit from the time probably far more than God does, but it is one of the gifts I try to give to the relationship. It’s not that we have to worry too much as Lutherans of people being impressed or dazzled by our prayers, but ultimately it is not about us. And yet I do have to admit I am often skeptical of overtly public forms of prayer that call more attention to the individual than God, particularly with athletes it is pretty easy to wonder are they doing this to call attention to themselves or God. Prayer doesn’t have to be poetic or artistic or beautiful, and yet I sometimes thing we place that expectations on ourselves. For example when I ask in a group for someone to pray, often the response I get is everyone looking down at their toes, thinking, “if I just don’t make eye contact he won’t pick me.”Or the often unspoken feeling that somehow Erik and I are somehow closer to God and God pays more attention to our prayers than the prayers of anyone else.

Maybe from the Lord’s prayer we can learn something of what prayer is all about, and we begin with the relationship, Our Father…to which Luther states, God wants us to come to him boldly and in complete confidence as loving children come to a loving father.  Prayer and all communication takes place in the context of a relationship and God desires to have that close relationship with us. The prayer begins and ends with the desire that God may be praised and honored, and the prayer is offered in a sense of gratitude. One of my practices I have begun is the practice of writing thank you notes, now there are many reasons for me not to write a thank you note: I have horrible penmanship, there will always be things trying to fill my time and well they may even be important things, but I’ve learned that learning to say thank you is important to both my own well being (it puts me in a far better emotional state) and to the valuation of the relationship.

We pray for God’s kingdom to come, and as Luther says, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” It is taking the time to ask God, what are your hopes and dreams for the world, what do you desire of me, what do you love? It goes back to learning more and more about the beloved and we ask that God’s will may be done on earth, which is a dangerous prayer for we may find ourselves being drawn into doing God’s will as we are drawn closer to God. Yes, we do ask for what we need, we do ask for forgiveness and we desire to become more like God an become forgiving people

There is no one right way to pray, nor is there one right way to be in love-but it takes time to get to know the beloved and no amount of presents can make up for absence. Without setting aside the time to talk and listen with God we may look back on regret on the relationship we longed for being reduced to wish lists and panic moments when it can be so much more.

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A Game of Thrones: Esther 5:1-8


Esther 5: 1-8

On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace. 2 As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor and he held out to her the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. 3 The king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.” 4 Then Esther said, “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet that I have prepared for the king.” 5 Then the king said, “Bring Haman quickly, so that we may do as Esther desires.” So the king and Haman came to the banquet that Esther had prepared. 6 While they were drinking wine, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 7 Then Esther said, “This is my petition and request: 8 If I have won the king’s favor, and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet that I will prepare for them, and then I will do as the king has said.”

In George R.R. Martin’s book, The Game of Thrones,  there is a scene where Ned Stark reveals the knowledge that will eventually get him killed to Cercei who simply replies back to him, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die” which proved true for Ned and many others throughout the series of books. In Esther, Esther and Haman (unknowingly) are playing a game of thrones and while I don’t want to draw to close of a line between Esther and Cercei (who is a character despised by most readers of The Game of Thrones), she does understand the game she is playing and she plays her part very well here.

Much is at risk for her and her people here, and so she prepares carefully and plays cautiously. Unlike Vashti who refused to go to the wear the royal crown before the king, Esther adorns herself in royalty before approaching the king. It is not a fair world in which she must make her appearance and the image of the golden scepter would probably be rich territory for someone wanting to interpret this from either a feminist or Freudian position, but suffice to say the king’s authority compared to the queen’s is significantly different and the game she must play is real and dangerous (especially in a world where rulers have good reason to be paranoid, even of family). The king gives her leave to approach, let’s her know figuratively (no one really expects him to give up half his kingdom, and this also occurs in Mark 6:23 and parallels with Herod Antipas) but as a reassurance to make her request. The king realizes that Esther would not have risked approaching this way without a reason and so he attempt to reassure her.

In our world we would ask as soon as the possibility came, we are impatient for games-and we would not survive long with our impatience in the ancient Near East (and I would hazard a guess that this continues to be a problem with the interaction between Western and Middle Eastern societies where the rules of interaction are much different-in even modern Middle Eastern societies one never makes one’s major request right away). Esther invites the king and Haman to a banquet, and the king gladly attends giving indication that he is disposed to concede to Esther’s request. Once again, when he is once again drinking wine the king asks again what her request is, and Esther’s reply is indeed shrewd. If I have won your favor, fulfill this request (coming to a banquet with Haman tomorrow) and I will indeed know that I can safely lay my petition before you because you have truly shown me your favor. She has played her hand well in the game of thrones, in a matter of life and death for her people, and Haman is unaware (again the sign of a well played hand) that the game is being played in this way, indeed he views his presence as a sign of his increased honor, but he has just been played.

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The Puzzle Master: A Poem

Apophysis by Sheri Lynn Meyer (1footonthedawn in

Apophysis by Sheri Lynn Meyer (1footonthedawn in

Hawkish eyes darting quickly through the layers of color and shapes

Making sense of each riddle in turn, seeing the pattern in the parts

Problems become joined into solutions and chaos begins to be shaped into order

Heart and hand, eye and mind, vision and patience all work in concert

At the joining of things once pulled apart

And upon the workbench of possibility shapes begin to emerge

What will the message in the medium be?

The puzzle master sees the picture in his mind

Only he knows how one piece might fit within the whole of the body

But with one piece missing the puzzle is not complete

Each piece is precious, sacred, worth holding onto

And so the puzzle master sits at the workbench, the creation unfinished

A labor of love out of the broken pieces of life

A puzzle, a challenge, a riddle

Out of brokenness, wholeness

Out of pieces the picture

Out of diversity some mystical unity

Without the puzzle master’s perspective it is merely jagged edges

A cacophony of color

More problems than solutions

More questions than answers

More pieces than places

And yet in the patience and vision of the puzzle master

It is the beloved masterpiece that he has poured his life into

And until all are again one

Until all the jagged edges form a smooth surface

Until the wounds of time are healed

The labor of love continues

Composed by Neil White, 2013

For my son’s 14th Birthday

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The Weight of the World on Her Shoulders: Esther 4: 9-17

Altas Sculpture on a building on Collins Street, Melbourne

Altas Sculpture on a building on Collins Street, Melbourne

Esther 4: 9-17

 9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law– all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”

 12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

A young person is thrust into a life or death situation, and while I may disagree with Mordecai (and perhaps Esther might too) that she personally might have been able to avoid the ordered purge, the personal and emotional consequences of not speaking, of not acting would be high indeed. The risks are great and now the young person in a life or death situation has to muster their courage to act. Esther apparently is trying to let Mordecai know the reasons she shouldn’t go: she hasn’t been summoned for 30 days (her influence is small), the boundaries between even the king and the queen are great, and the consequences could involve death. The story revolves on the irony that one queen refuses to come when summoned and then for her act of rebellion is exiled and now the new queen must come when not summoned and risk death. Mordecai pushes her, through Hathach the messenger, that she must act but we see a transformation taking place: the once pliant Esther now gives orders, she will go but all the Jews are to fast for three days first. Mordecai goes and obeys, the one who raised her now must rely on her for action.

In contrast to the King and Hamath who feast while the city is confused around them, Mordecai and Esther fast. The King may end up being the one who provides a way for the salvation of the people, but ultimately it will depend upon who the king will listen to. Even though God is not mentioned there is an element of providence or fate in the story, and most readers know how the story will end, but one of Jesus’ proverbs plays itself out in this story: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (in Luke’s gospel this occurs in Luke 14: 11 and 18:14, it also has a Matthean parallel)

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Waiting on the World to Change: Esther 4:1-8

Job by Leon Bonnat (1880)

Job by Leon Bonnat (1880)

Esther 4: 1-8

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2 he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. 3 In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

 4 When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. 5 Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. 6 Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, 7 and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. 8 Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.


John Mayer’s song ‘Waiting on the World to Change’ tells the story of a person who may see what is going on but feels powerless to change it (Mayer’s song is set in the context of post 9-11 America and a critique of American foreign policy that the artist feels powerless to change). Here is a part of the lyrics:

Now if we had the power to bring our neighbors home from war
They would have never missed a Christmas, no more ribbons on their door
And when you trust your television what you get is what you got
Cause when they own the information,oh, they can bend it all they want
That’s why we’re waiting, waiting on the world to change
We keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change
It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair
So we keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change.

Mordecai is powerless to change what Haman has done, he finds himself with few options other than mourning and waiting on the world to change. God’s action is never mentioned in the book of Esther, nor is the word God or prayer ever mentioned, but to the Hebrew mind God is at work behind and through the nations as well as the Jewish people and God can be swayed by mourning and repentance, for example the people of Ninevah in the book of Jonah who put on sackcloth and ashes and God changes God’s mind about the disaster God planned to bring on them. Here God is not the instigator of the coming disaster, and yet perhaps in the wailing, rending of clothes and wearing sack cloth and ashes God might hear the distress of his people and respond (although the action is focused on Mordecai, we also learn that many of the Jews are also mourning publicly).

We also get a window into boundaries that are set around people in society, no one can enter the king’s gate in sack cloth. Esther, though she is literally writhing inside (the word translated deeply distressed) can not or will not risk going out to Mordecai who was like a father to her, but rather tries to alleviate his pain and bring him (properly clothed and cleaned up) inside the palace. The entire conversation is strained because it is not direct, messages are relayed back and forth by Hathach. One of the interesting notes is that both Esther and Mordecai are apparently literate (which would not be the norm ) because Mordecai is able to pass on the written decree for her to read (or perhaps some scribe would read it for her-but she has been a queen for five years, perhaps she has been taught).
Esther has been the obedient one throughout the story, obedient to Mordecai, obedient to Hegai the king’s eunuch, obedient to the king and now she as a young woman is at a point where she will have to make choices that will impact both her and potentially her entire people.

Since the book of Esther is the book that is read during the book of Purim, it is helpful to know what Purim is all about. It began at sundown yesterday and so there have been a number of helpful articles in the past week.  I have linked to Eitan Press’ helpful article in the Huffington Post ‘Purim: How to Get Drunk on God’. Here is another from Deborah Rosenbloom also in the Huffington Post ‘Purim: A Tale of Women’s Empowerment’

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La Magdalena

Guido Reni (1575-1642)-The Penitent Magdalene

Guido Reni (1575-1642)-The Penitent Magdalene

A poem inspired by Michael Parkes’ picture La Magdalena and by extension Mary Magdalene. La Magdalena is a copyrighted image but click the link at the name to see the image that inspired the poem.

The cards of destiny were stacked against me
No hearts or diamonds, only clubs and spades
The scars of my past and the demons of my present
Howl for my skull in the fish town of Magdala
Outcast. Harlot. Sinner. Prostitute. Pariah.
The names and titles I bear before the world
A lover, unloved.
A heart shattered under the weight of misdeeds, real and imagined
No longer whole, but made to be defiled
Invisible to all who might help, a face unseen and a voice unheard
In the dust-filled wilderness of my captivity
No sun or moon or stars to light my way underneath the brimstone skies
A future damned by the past which forced itself upon me and violated my soul
No way to master the rock of my shame
Liberated from the demonic debris of my desolation
From the top of the boulder of an identity I could not remove
I let the cards of destiny fly in the wind
The darkness of the night gives way to a new dawn
Death dies to make way for the fecundity of a new creation
The sinner becomes the saint. The outcast becomes the sister.
The harlot is drawn near by the friend of sinners and tax-collectors
The pariah becomes the disciple
The unloved one will see love itself die and be reborn
For no tomb can contain love
I will be the first, but not the last, to weep tears of joy for a tomb opened
The gates of Gehenna shattered and the prisoners of Hades set free
Freed from having to seek a better past I sit upon the rock of eternity
Watching the beginning of the life of the new eon
Leaving the wastelands behind, I journey towards the horizon

composed Neil White, 2013

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Bureaucracy and Collusion: Esther 3:12-15

Ring stone bearing the Aramaic name mirror-imaged Yishak bar Hanina, excavated from Zafar/al-Asabi/Yemen

Ring stone bearing the Aramaic name mirror-imaged Yishak bar Hanina, excavated from Zafar/al-Asabi/Yemen

Esther 3: 12-15

 12 Then the king’s secretaries were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the officials of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s ring. 13 Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. 14 A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation, calling on all the peoples to be ready for that day. 15 The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.

                 Genocide does not happen without collusion. The letters and orders can be given, but if nobody carries them out they are merely words on paper. The danger is that oftentimes people are all too willing to participate in the elimination of another people. A people may be scapegoated as the cause of every problem and demonized to be something less than human. People may hide behind the desire to ‘follow orders’ and yet without people following the order to kill and plunder, it does not happen. Haman and the king sit down to drink while the city that surrounds them is confused, “what’s going on, why the Jewish people?” The advisors may know, but most people appear to be caught off guard. Certainly some will pounce on the opportunity to destroy, kill and annihilate men, women and children and plunder their goods, others will merely stand aside, others may attempt to stand with the Jewish people, but the die is cast, the plan is set in motion, the danger is real. Genocide is set in motion by the hatred of one man, but will need the collusion (both of those who actively participate and who passively do not oppose)of many others to actually occur.

Somebody will need to do something to deliver the Jewish people, the exiles and wanderers in the midst of the empire of the day. Even in the midst of their assimilation they are singled out for extermination. The story is at its turning point, and the lives of the people will rely on the actions of a young queen and her uncle Mordecai.

This reminds me of Martin Niemőller’s quote from World War II Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

  This from a man who was an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, who would spend seven years in a concentration camps but would still feel years later in 1964:

“Thus, whenever I chance to meet a Jew known to me before, then, as a Christian, I cannot but tell him: ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself

The quotes come from the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:

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Living a Godly Life: Learning to Give


Matthew 6: 1-4

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I assume that most people who come to worship are looking to answer the question, “How can I grow closer to God? How can I understand God better?” I think we all know Jesus’ first and greatest commandment which he takes out of the book of Deuteronomy “ You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” In fact, this would be the heart of the Jewish understanding their responsibility to God. And yet, “How can I love God more?”Or “I want to love God, but I’m not sure I know how.” It seems like it is something we should know and it seems like it should be something we should be overjoyed to learn, but I think for many people it is a mystery. Well the good news is that over the next couple weeks we are going to be spending some time on some practices that can and do draw us closer to God. At times they may seem like sacrifices, like we are giving something up, and well to be honest we are but in many respects it is like being in love. When I have been in love in the past, I wanted nothing more than to please my beloved one and so I did things for her. Maybe I would take her to dinner, maybe I would buy her flowers, maybe I would write poetry or do things that I know she enjoyed…yes it meant sacrificing my time, my money, my resources, taking time to be in her presence to listen, yes it meant taking time away from other things-playing video games or watching TV, it also meant learning to do things together. Yet, none of this ever seemed like a sacrifice because I was in love and I wanted nothing more than to draw closer to this woman I loved.

Sometimes I think we’ve done a good job teaching you how to be a good church member, and have not done a good job of helping you become a God lover. But that is where we are going, that is what we are doing here. Ultimately we are setting aside time to be in a place where God promises to meet us and we are trying to learn how to love God. Some of the things I say over the next several weeks are not going to make sense rationally, in fact they may be downright crazy from an outside perspective-and that is how it looks on the outside when you watch two people in love. There is a lot of waste that goes on as money and time are spent on the relationship, but such is the nature of being drawn close in love.

So maybe the place to start is “what is getting in the way of letting yourself go and being in love?” What are we holding onto that we cannot let go of, what is so precious that it forms a part of who we are. Mark Allan Powell tells a story of when the early monks were going into Gaul (part of modern day France) to carry the gospel to the tribes that lived there, they noticed that when they baptized these Gallic warriors they would go into the water but they would all hold their right arm above their head, and they wondered what was going on until the next spring when the tribes went out to war against one another-then they found out. You see it was their sword arm, all of them had been baptized except that which they held out of the waters. I am baptized except with my sword arm which I can go forth and slay you with. So what are we holding out of the waters? What are we holding back from God?

Perhaps one of the things we hold out is the need for honor. It is like the person who is unwilling to dance because they fear they will make a fool of themselves while everyone else is watching and who misses out on the joy of the dance. When I went to college, there was always a major effort to have buildings name after people who were major contributors to the college, and this served to call attention to the generosity of people like H.B. Zachery, or Halbouty, or you can think of the great buildings named for a family, like the Rockerfeller center. There is prestige in showing that you have enough wealth to do things for the common person, but even among these people the amounts, although significant, probably don’t drastically affect the way that they live. Now I don’t want to diminish the giving that goes on to public works and charities, but normally it is done from our excess.

If you want to learn to love God more, be willing to give away your resources and time and not worry about what it is worth. In the Old Testament when people would bring an offering of grain or an animal, or oils or other things of value from their field they would be place on the altar and burned. What would happen if I were to take a match, strike it, bring it over to the offering plate and then drop it. I’m sure people would say, and I’m sure Erik would stop me, but people would say, “what a waste, it could be given to those in need, it can pay the light bills, it pays the pastor.” Well that’s what happened with the Old Testament too, they would provide for those in need, pay the priests, and do a lot of good-but I think there is something to the image of setting afire and putting it back into God’s hands. Later in this chapter we will hear, “where your treasures are, there your heart will be also” and it is not the other way around. We put our time and our resources and our money and our honor on the line to get our heart where it should be.

When you come here and spend time in worship, I hope you understand that you are giving God some of your time and you are putting the treasure of your time into the relationship where you want to learn to love God. You are learning to love by giving. When you take the money you earn and place it in the offering plate, or you give it to charity, or you sponsor a youth going on a trip or you give it to someone who is in need or you sponsor a child or any number of other things, I hope you begin to think, “I taking that which is precious to me and I’m giving it to God, I may not be sure how to love God yet, but I am putting my treasures where I want my heart to be.” When I go and I serve, maybe I feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, mourn with the sad, maybe when I visit someone who is sick or in prison, or do something to clothe the naked…I’m doing it because I trust that somehow in the midst of this serving it is a place where I can learn to love God and love my neighbor.  What am I getting out of it, maybe nothing on the front end, instead I’m seeking to live as a person in love and find ways to give what I can to the God who I love and who loves me.

Like the woman who comes and brings the perfume to pour on Jesus, it is out of love. Is it possible to love someone without spending time with them, doing things for them, giving them gifts, trying to make them happy…maybe in some abstract sense. But if I am going to be in a loving relationship I am going to try to be where my beloved is, I am going to try to be a part of the things my beloved does. I want to share their life, and I want them to share mine. And so I’m trying to live in to being the kind of person I want to be by placing my treasures, my time, my money, my resources where I want my heart to be.

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Rolling the Dice: Esther 3: 7-11

Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice, 6th Century BCE Greecian Pottery

Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice, 6th Century BCE Greecian Pottery

Esther 3: 7-11

 7 In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur– which means “the lot”– before Haman for the day and for the month, and the lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. 8 Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. 9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.” 10 So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. 11 The king said to Haman, “The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.”

The dice are rolled, the lot is cast for the date that will come to be Purim. It will be a day of reversals, but at this point in the story it is foreshadowed as a date that will bring disaster to the Jewish people. The king once again receives bad advice from an advisor, advice that will have long lasting consequences and the king never once asks a question or attempts to probe Haman’s motives. The king trusts Haman and is willing for an enormous pile of money (a ridiculous sum, 375 tons of silver, this is roughly 2/3 of the annual Persian kings’ income) to put his authority behind it. Perhaps in both the ancient world and the modern world enough money seems to make something evil more appealing.

This last thought reminds me, in a way, of the plot of the movie the Box where a man and a woman are given a box with a button where if they push it they will receive one million dollars, but someone they don’t know will die and so they are entered into the ethical dilemma of whether their own very real monetary needs outweigh the life of a stranger. Now it is not the greatest movie, but the ethical question of the power of money to cause a horrible decision, especially when you don’t have to carry it out, more appealing. The king never carries out his decision, he is always insulated and while his ring may mark the life or death of many, he allows others to be the executioners.

The king not only takes the advice of Haman, he seems to compel it along even more so. The king’s authority is placed behind the plot of Haman. One man’s revenge now becomes imperial policy and the story’s crisis is set in motion. This is a strange story since the Persian empire was actually pretty benevolent as far as ancient empires go toward their subject people maintaining their own laws, religions and traditions so long as the empire is served (remember Cyrus, also a Persian emperor is lifted up as a ‘messiah’ in Isaiah 45 and the Jewish story is in general very favorable towards Persia). But this story turns on the conflict between Mordecai and Haman, and the plot is moving.

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From Insult to Genocide: Esther 3:1-6

Persian and Median Soldier, Apadana Palace,Persopolis (Iran)

Persian and Median Soldier, Apadana Palace,Persopolis (Iran)

Esther 3: 1-6

After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. 2 And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance. 3 Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” 4 When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew. 5 When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. 6 But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.

Our villain is introduced in the story, Haman the Agagite and in the reading that would occur on Purim I understand that his introduction and place throughout the story is accompanied by boos and hisses. What comes to mind for me is if you go to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight in a theater and people jeer and throw popcorn and the audience becomes a part of what makes the story go, in fact the audience becomes a part of the telling and enacting of the story. But Haman is the villain, and his actions will drive the story from this point forward.  We don’t have a reason why Haman is promoted to the position of second only to the king, he is not lifted up as doing anything great like Mordecai has, but ultimately why and how he got in his position is not important. What drives the story is that he does have the king’s ear and is able to act with the king’s authority on his desires.

The next perplexing part of the story is why doesn’t Mordecai bow-is he just stubborn? Is there some other reason? Is it an interpersonal conflict-or does it reflect a blood feud a long standing ethnic hatred. Haman’s identity as an Agagite points this direction going back to King Saul and King Agag of the Amelikites in 1 Samuel 15: 8-33, but how would a person tell a descendent of Benjamin from Agag apart. Apparently, unlike Esther, Mordecai’s Jewishness becomes known, but why offend in this way when you are an exiled people in a foreign land.

It reminds me of an incident in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which takes place on June 17, 1940. Dietrich, a Lutheran pastor who would later be executed for his part in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, was sitting with his friend Eberhard Bethge in the garden café in Memel. While they were in the café the announcement came that France had surrendered, and the people in the café stood on their chairs and began singing ‘Deutchland, Deutschland über alles.’ Bonhoeffer stood and extended his arm in the Hitler salute, while Eberhard stood there in shock. Bonhoeffer whispered, ‘Raise your arm! Are you crazy?’ saying later ‘we shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute.’  (Bethge 1970, 2000, 681)  (Wind 1991, 139)

The reaction does not fit the offense, to take on Mordecai is beneath Haman and so his thought is like the Emperor in the Star Wars series, “wipe them out, all of them.” A personal offense is met by genocide. Perhaps, like so many other genocides some long simmering hatred comes to the surface when it is favorable for one party, like in Bosnia. Perhaps this may also point to the danger that can come even in the most assimilated populations, as the German Jews were prior to World War II and the Holocaust. Genocide is a very distasteful topic, but it rears its head here, as in many times in both ancient and modern history. There perhaps is some drive to set up insiders and outsiders, to protect the insiders and to destroy the outsider and you could make an argument that this is payback for the Jewish wiping out of the Amalekite people but at some point we need to understand that the oppression of another people based on race or ethnic group is evil.

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