Time as This: The Book of Esther

Delivered at Ames UCC on December 2, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

DEFINING HOPE
What is hope? Did you experience it today as we sang for it to rise up in our lives? When we welcomed a new member through baptism into this family of faith? When we laughed during the play? How would you define hope?

I’ve spoken of hope many times in worship, on these first Sundays in Advent when it is our theme, and on many more occasions, but I don’t know that I have ever defined it or ever could.

Hope, like faith and love, defies the rules of language, existing instead somewhere between language and heart and the holy.

In my experience, hope is unpredictable, never arriving on demand. It is unstable in the sense that it is not locked in form, but takes the form needed in a given moment.

Like in the story of Esther.

ESTHER
Esther is nobody.

She’s a young Jewish woman, making her a member of a minority culture and religion. She is being raised by an uncle, Mordecai. Esther has no parents, nor siblings that are mentioned.

As with so many other women in the Bible, and our world today, Esther is vulnerable to the whims and laws of men. When the king demands she come to court as part of his beauty pageant of a bridal search, which is pretty clearly includes a night of sex in the Biblical account, she has no choice.

The Bible does make the scene a little more palatable through many elements of farce and hyperbole: Esther and all of the other contestants spend a year grooming in preparation, for example. Thank you to Amanda for picking up on those comedic elements so well in today’s version.

Esther is chosen to be the new queen, replacing Vashti, who had refused to dance naked for her husband and his buddies. The king does not know that Esther is Jewish because her uncle told her not to reveal it to anyone. Mordecai’s care of Esther extends well beyond food and shelter. As a result, Esther is able to protect her people when an evil man, Haman, gains permission to commit genocide against them for being, in his words, “intolerable.” Esther leverages the king’s affection, and Haman’s ego, to depose Haman and lift up Mordecai in his stead. In doing so, the orders to kill all Jewish people can be reversed.

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Borderless God: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

2018.11.25 loverDelivered at Ames UCC on November 25, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

REED
Last week Steve read a long series of passages from the book of Isaiah, and quite well, too. But he had to skip over one of the best lines in that section due to time constraints (and because the Bible is hard to aurally track over such lengths):

On whom do you (Judah) now rely, that you have rebelled against me (Assyria)? 6See, you are relying on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. (36.5b–6)

 What a great image: Egypt, the broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Ouch! You can feel that, right? You can imagine how it feels to rest your hand on something that you think is stable only to find out that it is wobbly and sharp. You stumble as it injures and collapses.

Biblically, we have a long and complicated history with that broken reed, with Egypt. Practically, we continue to have complicated relationships with any number of Egypts.

JOSEPH AND MOSES AND ISAIAH
Egypt is the land where Joseph, son of Jacob, rises to great power and is subsequently able to rescue his family and his people from terrible famine. Generations later, though, the Hebrew descendants of Joseph are slaves. As such, they pose a threat to their Pharaoh master, who orders a mass assassination of Hebrew children.

The mother of one newborn, Moses, seeks to save him through adoption by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses rebels against that false identity and unearned advantage. He kills an overseer, flees to Midian, only returning later to set his people free at the behest of God. Then Moses and the freed slaves spend forty years going in circles before finding a home.

Years later, we hear the critique in Isaiah. It is directed at the descendants of the slaves, the inheritors of that homeland, from the emissary of the king of Assyrian: What are you thinking, trying to ally with Egypt against us? Egypt will cut you in the end—come with me instead.

Apparently in the years between fleeing Egypt and founding of a nation of their own, the Hebrews established political relations with Egypt. The former captor is now an ally and for the prophet we are studying today, it will be a refuge as it once was for Joseph’s starving family.

2018.11.25 weakJEREMIAH
Today’s prophet, Jeremiah, follows Isaiah of Jerusalem in historical time and in the Bible. Remember that the book of Isaiah spans nearly a century, with three different Isaiahs speaking. Jeremiah’s book is focused exclusively on him and his forty years as a prophet.

Over the course of those decades, Jeremiah witnesses the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire and the forced exile of many people. It is a grievous experience, made more so by what Jeremiah is required to do by God: chastise his own people.

For example, in chapter 44, God says through Jeremiah, “I beg you not to do this abominable thing which I hate” (v. 4). Today we heard Jeremiah today offering God’s reminder not to oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow. There is a direct correlation between their treatment of the vulnerable and their own vulnerability to conquest.

Which the powers that be don’t want to hear.

Jeremiah is many times arrested for subversion and disloyalty, so, in the end, he flees to Egypt, where neither his own leaders nor Babylon can touch him, but where he is always a stranger.

JESUS
I’ll lift up one more story about Egypt, this time as it relates to Jesus, our primary prophet as Christians.

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Wishes and God: 2 Kings 5.1–15a

2018.11.4 god is thereDelivered at Ames UCC on November 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

WISH
I wish this story was true. I wish that with seven sincere baths in a sacred river, terrible ailments could be healed. I wish that I could walk with each of you who are living with cancer and depression and arthritis and heart failure to a place that keeps its own rules of germs and degeneration and neurology.

I wish that the dead, the loved ones that we will name here in worship and then see in photos in our parlor after worship, could have received such treatment so that they would be with us, bodily, right now.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the tears of joy and relief? As much water as would flow from of our eyes as in the river.

And I wish that Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, could have been taken from the blood-drenched floors of the Tree of Life Synagogue, not to a mortuary but to a life-filled tree fed by the river Jordan. I wish that that there the gunman’s bullets would have been washed away, their sinews reknit, and their lives restored.

I wish that illness could be no more and sorrow a curious aberration from the past.

But those are not wishes destined for fulfillment.

UNFULFILLED
All of our bodies will fail of their own accord if we are not first killed by an accident or another person. There is no river or stream or spring with magical properties that can make them do otherwise.

And it is an abuse of God’s name, and each others’ souls, to say that sufficient faith will bring bodily healing. God is not so egotistical or fickle as to respond to an abracadabra of prayers.

Disease and damage and death are part of creation and creation is part of God, so even the worst of pains and poisonous acts are part of God, too.

I believe the ancients knew this. I believe that the communities that authored our scripture, understood that God’s relationship with us is not capricious or mechanistic.

Yes, they have given us many stories that describe a quid pro quo of giving obedience and receiving blessing, but I think they had just as much capacity for subtlety and metaphor as us. They were not ignorant of inevitable bodily outcomes, they just were just more willing to live into mystery, into the imaginal realm, than we are. So even though some of us may have been taught that stories like this reflect “an age when miracles still happened,” it does not.

This story of Namaan and Elisha, and those like it, is about the miracle of holy presence within the wholly ordinary. Let’s look at the story.

ELISHA’S MIRACLES
Elisha is a disciple of Elijah.

Elijah was a powerful and, toward the end of his career, a horribly bloodthirsty prophet. You may remember him from his retreat to the desert where he was fed by ravens. Later he helped a starving widow and her son with jars of flour and oil that perpetually refilled. He even brought that son back to life.

Elisha proves to be a powerful prophet in his own right.

For example, immediately before today’s story, Elisha also helps a widow secure enough food for her family. He invites her to borrow her neighbor’s empty oil jars and then pour what little oil she has left into each one. She finds that her meager supply can fill all the jars in the neighborhood.

Later, the child of another woman dies. When Elisha arrives, he presses his mouth to that of the boy, his eyes to those of the boy, his hands to those of the boy, an offering of warmth and humanity, which brings the child back to life.

Elisha even feeds a multitude of people with only a few loaves of bread.

Then today he relieves Naaman of a skin ailment by directing him to bathe in the river Jordan.

Notice how these miracles occur: through common earthenware, gentle and well-intentioned human touch, bread, and river water. No thunder, or potions, or shazam.

Notice what these miracles achieve: some relief from hunger, some relief from grief, some relief from discomfort. None of these miracles grant power or prestige. None of them grant a permanent lease on life.

Our miracle stories are not about extra faith granting the extra ordinary. In the commonplaceness of their means, and the impossibility of their ends, these miracles do not suggest a 1-2-3 formula for healing.

Our faith ancestors knew how poverty, illness, and grief distract and consume, so they used these radical reversals to startle and inspire us to recognize the simple, ubiquitous, and reassuring presence of God.

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Favorite Words: Isaiah 36.1–3, 13–20; 37.1–7; then 2.1–4

Delivered at Ames UCC on November 18, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

WORDY
Human beings are a wordy kind of creature. Maybe other mammals and molecules are, too, I don’t know. But we certainly are. We love to use words, to talk, to communicate. We are hungry to have our words heard, read, understood. That’s a chunk of the appeal of social media, right? Having an audience and people to read our words is a thrill.

So let me ask you this: What is your favorite word? What is your absolute favorite word? Is it a funny word, like supercalifragalisticexpialidotious, or a word unique to your profession like praxis or bouillabaisse, or a word that makes your heart strings thrum like love? What is your favorite word?

Now, what is your favorite word from the Bible? I can’t get my list down to one, so here are four of mine: hineni, hesed, surely, and shall.

2018.11.8 worthyHINENI
Hineni means “here I am.” Not “here I am washing dishes” or “here I am, on vacation.” It is the “here I am” Abraham gives to God.

Abraham wandered with his family for decades. For decades they had no permanent home and he and his wife Sarah had no legacy, for they were infertile. After an arduous old age, though, Abraham saw his way through the veil that he kept between himself and God. So when God calls to him after he has a home, after he has two children, Abraham can reply, “hineni,” here I am.

God, of course, knows where Abraham is, so what Abraham is really saying is, “Here I am in all that I am, fully available to you, fully aware that I cannot know all that you are, yet here I am without reservation for your will.” Hineni is a responsive presence, it is a posture of devotion. If it wouldn’t be so out of character for worship in our church, I would invite you to stand, to feel in your legs, arms, torso, and head that kind of receptivity.

Hineni: one word that expresses the outcome of a lifetime spent walking toward God.

HESED
Hesed is also the result of walking toward God, but this time in relationship to other people.

You’ll remember that just over the summer we spent three weeks on the book of Ruth, with a shadow puppet version thanks to the Petefish-Schrag family and friends.

God never appeared in the puppet version or in the book of Ruth. But Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, in the choices that they make to care for each other, despite desperate and tricky social circumstances, exude and enact hesed, the lovingkindness of God. Hesed is a love shown in “loyalty and commitment that go beyond the bounds of law or duty”1 it is to manifest God in the world between people. In hesed, we choose others, their physical safety and their good health, over and above what our communities may provide or our laws even allow.

Hesed: one word that expresses our innate, though often inert, capacity to be the good neighbors God invites us to be.

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