Tag Archives: religion

Church in a Risky Environment

Unstable environment

I had the privilege to be a part of a pair of lectures by Diana Butler Bass last weekend at my synod convention which really helped me get a better view of the spiritual climate change going on within the country. There has been a lot of press given to the decline of the mainline denominations, which includes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which I am a pastor within, and there have been a number of ‘self-help’ approaches to the problem trying to create better programming, better worship experiences, better outreach, better stewardship and the list can go on and on. It is not that the people doing ministry today are less skilled than people doing ministry in the 1950s and 1960s when many congregations were experiencing their peaks, but the reality is that they are trying to be church in a risky and changing environment. This first post will deal with some of the more depressing information, but be patient-I actually found a lot of hope in the midst of what I learned.

Over the past five decades the percentage of the population that identifies itself as Christian has gone from 97% to 73% with the largest drop being among white Protestant Christians, which have dropped from 66% of the population to 48% between 1960 and 2012. Most people would assume that when you split the Protestants into Mainline Protestants (typically more moderate to liberal including the United Methodist Church (UMC), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), Episcopal Church, American Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), Disciples of Christ and the Reformed Church USA) and into Evangelical Protestants (which are too numerous to mention but for the purposes of study included groups that identified as Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Charismatic) were declining at the same rate. This seems counterintuitive since there are most mega-churches are evangelical in their leaning, but the reality is that they are predominantly absorbing members from other congregations. Another surprise was the fastest declining denomination was the Southern Baptists, which in the current culture should not be surprising, but nobody has been talking about the Evangelical decline until fairly recently. Catholics are holding steady, primarily because of immigration and black or Hispanic communities of faith are either holding their own or growing as a percentage of the population. This has also been the time where the ‘nones’ which include atheists, agnostics, nothing in particular and spiritual but not religious went from registering as roughly 1% of the population to 20%, 1 in 5.

One of the most common reactions to changes in the environment around any person or group is fear, and fear has definitely been a driving force for many Christian groups in the recent years. There is almost a militant reaction against the current culture by some of the more conservative religious organizations and individuals. Especially after the last Presidential Election Campaign was complete there was a lot of evidence (which I will share in the next presentation) that they no longer were the decisive block that could determine who would remain in power, and as they look at the manner in which their cohort is aging the news gets worse. Sometimes this has even turned to rhetoric claiming that they are being oppressed for their religious viewpoints because not everyone will concede that their viewpoint is correct, when the reality is that they are now one within a much more varied religious landscape where there is no clear majority and no one group has a monopoly on defining religion and spirituality within the current culture. For some people what I have shared today is incredibly bad news, as will be some of the information I share in some upcoming posts, but it also represents an incredible possibility to re-imagine the way we are church in a changing culture and how we have a dialogue about issues of faith in our culture.

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Catching Fire- A Poem for Pentecost


We stayed locked behind closed doors
Safe from the rest of the world
Wondering what the future held
Would things ever be the way they were?
Should we just give up? Return home
And pretend like our worlds had not changed
Get on the with the business of our normal lives
Or do we dare to dream of God’s kingdom?

Our Lord came down to the water
And fished us out, calling us from our lives
To journeys we hadn’t imagined
The kingdom was near, the blind saw, the deaf heard
The demons were cast out and the religious were afraid
We had no wealth, no security, but we had him
This man who pulsated with the presence of the living God
Who dared to dream, speak and enact God’s kingdom

Our Lord took us outside the world we knew
To the other side of the lake, to Samaria, and into the city
He touched the unclean, welcomed the sinners
Ate with the tax collectors, and called us all to follow
Building this kingdom of outcasts and unholy into something divine
He opened our eyes, our ears and our hearts
Sometimes we heard, sometimes we were still deaf
Sometimes we trusted, sometimes we failed
But we relied on his faithfulness, his trust
His vision of the kingdom of God drawn near

His vision of the kingdom of love met the hatred
Of men who had lost their dreams, of rulers trapped by fear
So they hung him on a tree, cursed before the world
And laid him in a tomb, killing the dream
Scattering his followers to the four winds
As we ran away in our fear and disillusionment
Hiding away behind locked doors
Fasting where once we feasted
Mourning the loss of the kingdom of God incarnate

But the dream didn’t die
Love overcame hatred; the bars of death were shattered
And with this one, this Jesus, resurrection became reality
We saw him, touched him, ate with him, were taught by him
Yet still we didn’t understand how dead could be not dead
How to overcome the scandal of the crucifixion
How to move beyond our fears and beyond the walls
Our fear keeps the insiders in and the outsiders as strangers
As we argue, debate and question the future of God’s kingdom

We stayed locked behind closed doors
Safe from the rest of the world
Wondering what the future held
Would things ever be the way they were?
Should we just give up? Return home
And pretend like our worlds had not changed
Get on the with the business of our normal lives
Or do we dare to dream of God’s kingdom?

Light and life, wind and fire, tongues and messages
The same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness
The same Spirit that went forth from him to heal the sick
Cast out the demons, open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf
Comes down and casts us outside
No longer behind closed doors, no longer trapped in fear
No longer caught in the illusion of our own control
No longer fearing death or persecution
But caught up in the moment, catching fire
Not knowing what the future holds
But captured by the pulsating power of God’s presence
That we are not alone, that we go forth in love
Witnesses to the kingdom of God

Our problems are not gone, they are new
As we are cast out by the Spirit into God’s world
We meet the outsiders, the gentiles, the strangers
The sinners, the broken, the hurt and the healing
We see the way God’s kingdom is at work in them
And it changes us, it rekindles our own flames
Stoking the fire of the Spirit that breaks down the walls of our fear
Proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God

In an age of fear we are captured by the creating Spirit
In the face of hatred and prejudice we are called to love
In insecurity we bring a dream of a world renewed
Yet at times our own fires grow dim
We find ourselves locked behind our own doors
Trapped within our cathedrals
Fearing the outsiders, the strangers and even our neighbors
Then may that same Spirit that moved the frightened few
Into the marketplace, the workplace and to the ends of the earth
Open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to the work of God in our midst
Pushing us towards the kingdom of God

Neil White, 2013

In part this was sparked by David Lose’s video “it’s Pentecost” 

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The World is About to Turn: Esther 6: 1-14

Pieter Lastman, The Triumph of Mordecai (1624)

Pieter Lastman, The Triumph of Mordecai (1624)

Esther 6: 1-14

On that night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king. 2 It was found written how Mordecai had told about Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, and who had conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. 3 Then the king said, “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” The king’s servants who attended him said, “Nothing has been done for him.” 4 The king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the king’s palace to speak to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for him. 5 So the king’s servants told him, “Haman is there, standing in the court.” The king said, “Let him come in.” 6 So Haman came in, and the king said to him, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” 7 So Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king wishes to honor, 8 let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. 9 Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.'” 10 Then the king said to Haman, “Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.” 11 So Haman took the robes and the horse and robed Mordecai and led him riding through the open square of the city, proclaiming, “Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.”

 12 Then Mordecai returned to the king’s gate, but Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered. 13 When Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him, his advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom your downfall has begun, is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him, but will surely fall before him.”

 14 While they were still talking with him, the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried Haman off to the banquet that Esther had prepared.

One of the consistent themes throughout the bible, and particularly the New Testament is the theme of reversals, surprising reversals of the mighty being brought low and the lowly being raised high. Perhaps the most well known is Mary’s song (the Magnificat for those familiar with the Latin) in Luke 1: 46-55:

He (God) has shown the strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things; and sent the rich away empty Luke 1: 51-53

God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, and although the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Old Testament), Josephus (a Jewish historian who lived shortly after the time of Jesus) as well as the Rabbis all explicitely point to God’s involvement in the king’s insomnia, the Hebrew texts at best silently infer God’s participation. Yet, here is the outworking of the salvation of the people being played out in what seem like a series of well timed coincidences but may indeed be providence.

What better cure for insomnia that to read from the records of the proceedings, and yet in the midst of reading is the realization that an honor was not given for a great service. Honor is a big deal in the ancient world, and failing to honor someone who honor is due to is critical (hence the conflict between Mordecai and Haman). And yet it is Haman who is trapped here, whose ego believes that he is once again to be honored and gives what is an extremely high display of honor. Mordecai, by being publicly honored by the king, by becoming a benefactor of the king has become all but untouchable. Mordecai is publicly shamed (although unintentionally by the king who seems oblivious to what is going on just outside his court) among the officials who are watching to see how this conflict between Mordecai and Haman will play out. Haman’s friends and wife know that this is a bad omen and that the world is changing. Place have been reversed, Mordecai is lifted up as the one the king wishes to honor, and Haman covers his head and mourns. There is yet one more major pivot to the story but things are beginning to spiral out of control for Haman.

I’m going to close with Rory Cooney’s adaptation of Luke 1: 46-55, the Canticle of the Turning:

My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest. Could the world be about to turn?
 My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
 Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me,
 And your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be.
 Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn,
 You will show your might, put the strong to flight , for the world is about to turn.
 My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
 Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the kings beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne
The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed for the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound,
Till the spear and the rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 723)

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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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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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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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A Young Girl in an Unfair World: A Sermon on Esther

Esther Edwin Long

This is the written text, I kept hoping I would have time to bring in some of the spoken dialogue last week, and when I get the chance I will upload an audio version and attach it. Unfortunately the written text is not near as entertaining as what was spoken.

Martin Luther didn’t like the book of Esther, he wished it hadn’t been included in the Bible, which I find perplexing because even though the book of Esther never mentions God, or any specifically religious practice (even fasting when it is mentioned is a common practice across cultures of the ancient world) and yet for Luther it is the times where God seems most absent that God can indeed be most present. Now last week we heard about the remnant who returned home to Jerusalem, and even though they were a small people in a tiny province of the Persian empire, God desired to work through them and their gifts. God desired for them to build a temple and through the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people to get on with that work and the people and leader listened and responded and through their work God was glorified. But if you remember last week only a small portion of the faithful people returned, and the rest remained behind, scattered throughout the nations. And yet even scattered among the nations, they found that God was active and working through them. This is one of the stories of how God worked through unexpected people to sway the events of the nations to ensure that God’s story and the story of God’s people would continue.

We all know life isn’t fair, we all know that sometimes we get put into situations we never asked for or we have to pick up the responsibility while others seem to be still going out and living it up, but hopefully the fate of an entire people never rests on our shoulders, especially when we are young-but that is what happens to Esther. Her story starts out simply enough, she is a young woman, an orphan and a foreigner living in a foreign land-thankfully she has her uncle to care for her like his own child, but she starts out life with three strikes against her of being someone who God can use to change the world. She has but one thing going in her favor, she’s easy on the eyes, but just because she’s hit the jackpot in the genetic lottery for looks doesn’t mean she has any chance to really change things and yet the world around her spins out of control and puts her into a position she never dreamed she would be in. You see the queen refused to come and appear before the king one day during a party while the king was drunk and all his friends were drunk too, so the king and his officials throw the ancient world’s equivalent of the Bachelor, except none of these women have a choice to participate, they are brought together, trained and then they get their one night to make the king happy, and then from this he’s going to choose a new queen. Esther excels, pleasing first those preparing and training her and then the king, and so she goes from little orphan Esther to Queen Esther.

Now her uncle happened to overhear a plot to assassinate the king, and passes it on to Esther who passes it on to the king, and once it is investigated the plot is foiled and nothing more is thought of it, but it will be important to the story later.

Now the king’s new number two man was a guy named Haman, and Haman is a bad dude who thought everyone should bow down before him, and apparently everyone did-everyone except Mordecai-why? We don’t really know, and I can’t go back and ask him, but Mordecai decides to take out his rage not just on Mordecai, not just on his family, but on the whole Jewish people and so Haman goes to the king and offers him a huge sum of money to wipe out this people who don’t abide by the same laws and are a danger to the kingdom, and the king gives him his signet ring and the plan and date are set in motion so that on one day at the end of February or the beginning of March of the coming year anyone who wants to can kill any Jewish person and take over any wealth and property that it theirs. Mordecai and the Jews throughout the empire and the city of Susa itself are thrown into turmoil by the proclamation, but Esther, apparently shielded in the palace is unaware. Mordecai mourns publicly, he rips his clothes, puts on ashes and sackcloth and sits outside the king’s gate. Esther sends a messenger with new clothes but he won’t put them on and sends her a copy of the decree and charges her to do something to save their people. The fate of the people rests on the small shoulders of this young woman who was thrust into being the queen, to go and risk her life and intercede before the king.

Esther 4: 9-16

9 So Hathach returned to Esther with Mordecai’s message.

10 Then Esther told Hathach to go back and relay this message to Mordecai:

11 “All the king’s officials and even the people in the provinces know that anyone who appears before the king in his inner court without being invited is doomed to die unless the king holds out his gold scepter. And the king has not called for me to come to him for thirty days.”

12 So Hathach gave Esther’s message to Mordecai.

13 Mordecai sent this reply to Esther: “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed.

14 If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”

15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai:

16 “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I must die.”

After three days of fasting, and of the people fasting she risk the possibility of death by breaking the law and going to the king when she hasn’t been summoned, but the king is happy to see her, extends his scepter and asks her, “what is it Esther, name your appeal even up to half of the empire and it’s yours” and so she invites the king and Haman to dinner. Once again at dinner the king asks her for her appeal and once again she say, “if you will hear my request come once again to dinner tomorrow, you and Haman, and you will know my request.”

Haman starts home on top of the world, he was invited to not one but two dinners with the king and queen, and yet when he passes Mordecai and Mordecai doesn’t bow down he is furious, and after some advice from his wife and friend he builds a 75 foot tall gallows. But when he goes in to try to get the king’s approval to hang Mordecai, the king had a sleepless night so he went to the records and found out that Mordecai was never repaid for uncovering the assassination plot, and so instead of getting Mordecai’s head, instead he finds himself covering Mordecai in a royal robe and escorting him through the town square on the king’s horse while he has to shout, “thus will it be done to the one who the king is pleased with” then to make matters worse he can’t go home and mope because he is shortly summoned to the banquet with the queen.

At the banquet Esther pleads to the king for her life and the life of her people, the king, oblivious to what he allowed Haman to talk him into is now furious and storms out. Haman realizes his ship is sinking fast so he throws himself at Esther and when the king walks back in he has Haman hanged on the gallows he built, gives his position and property to Mordecai, and they all lived happily ever after (well except for Haman and his family, but they didn’t live beyond this point). With the king’s assistance what was to be a day of disaster for God’s people became a day of triumph. God had worked through a young woman, an orphan, an alien who thought she had nothing to offer and God can work through us. We may not be able to save an entire people, but maybe God has been preparing us for a moment such as this.

Over the last several weeks we’ve heard stories of people who had the courage to be faithful in the midst of challenges, whether is was Daniel, Shadrach,Mesach, and Abendigo or whether it was the remnant returning home and building the temple, or Esther going to the king to save her people…God was able to work through them to be a part of God’s story coming down to be a part of our story. We may not know what to say or do, we may feel like we have nothing to give, but can we learn to trust God in the midst of the things that may terrify us? When Jesus is talking to his disciples he tells them:

Matthew 10: 16-20

16 “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.

17 But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues.

18 You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me.

19 When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time.

20 For it is not you who will be speaking– it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

As we learn to trust God and let God work through us we can have the courage to be in the places God places us. We don’t get to run away from the rest of the world, and one of the gifts of the story of Esther is that she is a young person trying to make her way completely surrounded not by a Jewish but the Persian culture. She had to figure out how she could be faithful in the midst of a world that was probably much different than the household she grew up in, and yet remain who she was in the midst of it. And even though God is not mentioned throughout the book, God is at work behind the scenes and works not just in temples or churches, but even in the harem of the king’s palace or the throne room of the king. And God is there in both the big moments, but also the smaller ones as well.

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Rumors of Assassination: Esther 2: 19-23

Two Persian Soldiers on the Persepolis

Two Persian Soldiers on the Persepolis

Esther 2: 19-23

 19 When the virgins were being gathered together, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. 20 Now Esther had not revealed her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him. 21 In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. 22 But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. 23 When the affair was investigated and found to be so, both the men were hanged on the gallows. It was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.

There are a lot of things that are unclear in this little passage: Esther is already queen, why are they gathering the virgins together. Does the competition go on? It doesn’t seem so, but there is no indication they are being sent home either. As confusing as it is we have our two protagonists, Esther and Mordecai, who have assimilated to the Persian culture and who are in the court of the king working together to expose a coup attempt. Mordecai comes into knowledge of the plots of Bigthan and Teresh and he informs Esther, and Ester tells the king. Mordecai doesn’t expect or receive any reward at this point and the two conspirators after an investigation are executed. This gets recorded, and it is critical to the story moving forward, but ultimately it is recorded and forgotten for now.

Plots were not uncommon in the Persian courts, nor were coup attempts. The act of saving the king at this point will prove important for Esther, Mordecai and the Jewish people going forward.

If you are going to plot an assassination, probably best not to do it at the king’s gate where many ears are listening. Eunuchs did have a fair amount of power but they would never lead themselves, and we will never know what they are upset about. Perhaps they believe the king is a fool, perhaps they think he parties too much, perhaps some policy worked against their people. We will never know the reasons, and ultimately they are a necessary side plot that will be important later, but once the investigation commences it is not a good day to be named Bigthan or Teresh.

Long Live the Queen: Esther 2:12-18

Esther Edwin Long

Esther 2: 12-18

12 The turn came for each girl to go in to King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their cosmetic treatment, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women. 13 When the girl went in to the king she was given whatever she asked for to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14 In the evening she went in; then in the morning she came back to the second harem in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines; she did not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.

 15 When the turn came for Esther daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised. Now Esther was admired by all who saw her. 16 When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, 17 the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 18 Then the king gave a great banquet to all his officials and ministers– “Esther’s banquet.” He also granted a holiday to the provinces, and gave gifts with royal liberality.


So we come to the ‘rose ceremony’ after the date where the king gets to choose the person who he has fallen for, what the woman thinks about the matter doesn’t matter. After a year of treatments, and we really don’t know exactly what all these treatments would entail and whether they would also include training to be more sexually proficient, but this is a story of excess and after a year of preparation, at least in Esther’s case, the girl is brought to the palace to spend the night with the king and then shipped off to be with the rest of the concubines to be summoned at the king’s will. The young girl is to try to win the heart of the king or be consigned to the house of the concubines never to be summoned again. Unlike the Bachelor, these girls are not sent home that they may find someone else who will love them, nope they are the kings women, and they have no say in this.

Esther plays the game well and the king loves her. She is his new queen and the throws a banquet, proclaims a holiday and there was much rejoicing. Again this is a story of excess and this is the celebration of the completion of the search for the new queen. Esther the powerless orphan and the Jew is now Queen Esther, bride of King Ahasuerus the ruler of the world (or at least the biggest empire of the day).

One final note, Esther apparently isn’t a devoutly practicing Jew. There is no mention of her requiring a special diet, like Daniel. Nobody realized that she is Jewish, it never seems to be a consideration. She assimilates to the culture of the people who she is in exile with. As the prophet Jeremiah states:

4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29: 4-7

There is no condemnation of this assimilation, Esther does what she has to do (just as Mordecai does) to survive. Yet, somehow through these two powerless ones God will work to make a place for his people in the midst of Babylon.

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