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The Blessing Way : Study group

THE BLESSING WAY

Adult Bible Study and Discussion

Chilmark Community Church

Autumn 2016

BEGINNING ON SUNDAY NOVEMBER 27 FOR 3-4 WEEKS

In spiritual communities here and there around the country the idea of “blessing” is coming into the foreground. More and more books are appearing on the theme. Some writers simply lift up the possibility that we could live lives of blessing; others devise exercises to be used in small groups or between two people to practice blessing each other; still others create poetry and daily meditations to help seekers develop a sensibility for “blessing.”

The notion of “blessing” is a central theme in our scriptures. In the book of Genesis alone, the word is used more than 50 times as the earliest narratives of our beginnings unfolds. So, it seems we could be in a “blessed movement” as we explore the idea of blessing.

I’d like to propose 3-4 sessions, beginning on November 27 (Sunday after Thanksgiving).

Genesis seems to be a good place to start since the notion of blessing is so prevalent there. Across the narrative, blessing happens in many ways. God blesses creation. God blesses humans. Humans bless God. Humans bless each other. Sometimes blessings move the narrative along in a happy and generous way, but sometimes blessings backfire.

For the 1st session:

Read several selections from the following:

CREATION

Genesis 1:22 and 28

Genesis 2:3

Genesis 5:2

NOAH

Genesis 9: 1-10

ABRAHAM

Genesis 12:1-3

Genesis 14:19

Genesis 17: 15-16

These are the verse where a few blessings are named. You will need to read a bit on either side of these verses to get a feel for the context.

Keep in mind several questions: Who is blessing whom? How is the blessing received? What is the possible outcome of the blessing? Notice what effect the blessings have on you.

Would you want to be on the receiving end?

This will help us get started. Hope the topic and the timing will work for you.

As always, with abundant blessings, Vicky

“Where’s the Shepherd” Nov. 13,2016

Where’s The Shepherd?l”

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Mark 6:30-34

Chilmark Community Church

November 13, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

It has been a real challenge to know how and what to preach this morning. All through my seminary training, I was taught that when I was ordained, I would be ordained to the work of pastor, priest and prophet. I have been wrestling with knowing which “hat” I wear this morning. I identify most with the role of pastor, finding it very natural to care for others in a pastoral way. But this is a time for the voice of a prophet – one who speaks God’s irritable word of both challenge and warning – and God’s angry word of justice. I am not easily comfortable with that role. And somewhere in the process, the knowledge of how to be a priestly presence has to fit into the mix – how to orient myself and others toward God’s Holy Presence through order and ritual. Which hat do I wear and when? And, boy! Do I have a headache!

On three mornings a week, I walk for several miles at sunrise with my walking buddy, Rabbi Lori Shaller. On Wednesday morning, post election, the sunrise was glorious. Sengekentacket Pond was pristine. Its surface mirrored the ever changing colors of the grasses and almost imperceptible movement of the clouds overhead. Our practice is to stop on a small dock as we come around Farm Pond. We stand in the quiet as the day moves from darkness into light and we bless God – the One who separated light from darkness. Regardless of the weather on any given day, we have certainty that the day will move from darkness into light. Walking the ponds is a grounding exercise. It centers me in God – and God is a God who delights in order. The election has happened. Our sense of orderliness is disrupted. Many people around the country finally feel as though they have a voice and they are rejoicing. This is their right to do as their candidate has won. Many others woke up in shock and disbelief on Wednesday morning – knowing that life has undergone an irrevocable change – and feeling a sudden loss of stability – – feeling as though a massive death has happened.

Mercifully, the poison and vitriol has stopped for awhile. The sense of ambiguity and ambivalence that has pervaded our lives over these last months has abated somewhat. A decision has been made. But there is no avoiding the fact that the election has activated fear and anxiety and uncertainty about what the future will look like for our country. The results are reverberating around the world and we cannot yet begin to see what it will all mean. As I listen to people’s reactions I hear profound grief, unbelief, fear, anger, dread and a sense of hopelessness. These are the emotions triggered by sudden and dramatic change. Perhaps with a little more time, they will begin to soften. We will move through these initial days together. We will regain our balance.

One of the questions Lori and I often entertain as we ponder life and the events that we observe is: “Where is God?” How is the Eternal One manifesting in this or that situation or process?

Not being a strong prophetic voice in my own person, I gravitate to the strength of Jeremiah. He lived through a time of terrible political turbulence in ancient Israel. In Jeremiah’s time, the metaphor of ‘”shepherd” was applied to the ancient kings. Their role was to care for their people the way a shepherd cares for the flock. The mark of a good shepherd-king was that the people were safe, had food to eat, clothes to wear, and adequate shelter for their bodies, and were protected against foreign invasion. Jeremiah had sharp words for two self serving kings of Israel who disregarded their role as protectors of their people. Their failures resulted in invasion by foreign governments and a terrible, destabilizing and debilitating exile for Israel. The people were deported from their homeland and scattered. Israel was broken. They were without a shepherd.

As a nation, over the last year and a half at least, we have all – regardless of political affiliation – – been sinned against by the very people who would be our shepherds. We have been verbally and emotionally and psychologically abused, subjected to the sin of what the scriptures call l’shon hara – the evil tongue. The damage that has been done has had far reaching and as yet undetermined effects. The great sages teach that the evil tongue damages the one who speaks, the one spoken about – and the one who listens. It is the equivalent of murder because it kills the soul. It creates division and anger and hatred among the children of God – it sullies the image of God. Where is the shepherd?

While we were in Scotland, driving on one lane roads through the highlands, we saw flocks of sheep grazing everywhere on the hillsides. Quite often, they were grazing right at the roadside – – occasionally lying down to rest in the middle of the narrow, warm pavement – blocking traffic until they decided to get up and move. There were no fences in the vast, mountainous countryside – – not even any signs of human habitation for miles around – – no classic scenes of sheep dogs keeping an eye on things. The only sign that the sheep might belong to someone was the pink or blue or yellow splotch of spray paint on their rear ends. I couldn’t help wondering “Where is the shepherd?”

As we confront the reality of the brokenness and the divisions in our country, we might well hear Jeremiah’s strident voice railing: Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” In the ancient diatribe, God does not condemn the Assyrians or the Egyptians or the Babylonians who conquer Israel – – God condemns the failed shepherds – – the leadership of Israel itself.

The voice of the prophet resounds

But God also witnesses the trauma and confusion, the painful wounding, the disruptive forces of division and separation, the degradation of God’s people at the hands of leaders who are supposed to serve as shepherds. And after promising to attend to the evil of the shepherd-kings, God says: Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock – – I will bring them back to the fold – – and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them – they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed – – nor shall any be missing. God intends to shepherd the people where human leadership has failed and promises to provide shepherds who will, indeed, care for the people. Words of hope, spoken to a fractured and broken people. Words of promise – – words intended to let the people know they were not alone -words of healing and reconciliation and wholeness. The voice of a pastoral God echoes in the text.

We find similar witnessing in Mark. In one of the more grisly episodes in the gospels, John the Baptist has just been beheaded. In the immediate aftermath of the trauma, the disciples gather around Jesus to tell him what has happened. Recall, for a moment, that Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins. The very political death of the Baptizer was also very personal and traumatic for Jesus. It affected all those who followed the Baptizer as well as those who followed Jesus. Their feelings of shock and grief and confusion and disbelief mirror our own. In the midst of the personal suffering of Jesus and the disciples the crowds gather again around Jesus. He witnesses them in their hunger, their fear, their pain and their confusion. Mark tells us: “as he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…”

So – “Where is God ?” Our sacred texts tell us. God witnesses the confusion and anxiety and fractured-ness of our human condition. God is affected by it. God is not separated from it. God takes action. God does not abandon. God stands in the midst of the gathered multitude.

Mark’s gospel affirms this in such a succinct and subtle way : Jesus encounters a confused, fearful, suffering humanity – – caught in a storm of power and passion over which they have no control. He has compassion on them – – and – – “He began to teach them many things.” And then he feeds them.

We are in the throes of change. Anxiety and uncertainty are always a part of transition. This is heightened for us largely because of the destructive and negative nature of this election campaign. For months, we have been relentlessly exposed to language and attitudes that are an affront to our sense of respect and civility and accountability to and for one another. Trust has broken down. We are like scattered sheep. The divisiveness -the fracturing – the brokenness – – is not unlike the exile of Israel. Regardless of where we come down politically, we have all been affected by this. And now we dwell in these moments of exile and transition together.

As we traveled those sheep populated roads in Scotland, I realized that the presence of those pink and blue and yellow splotches meant that the sheep were of valued and did, indeed, belong to someone. Someone bought those sheep. Someone paid attention to careful breeding. Someone made sure that they were grazing in pastures that would sustain them. The sheep are valuable. It simply did not make sense that they would be left totally unattended. Someone, by means not visible to us as we traveled, was attending to those sheep.

Jeremiah reminds us that we dwell in the line of vision of God – that we are of inestimable value in God’s sight – – and that God notices.

Jesus noticed the disarray of the people – – like sheep without a shepherd. He had compassion on them. And then he taught them many things. My own faith tells me that we are in a teachable moment. In both scriptures, we are taught that God and Jesus respond to the suffering of their people with compassion and with action. That’s the “God model.”

For a time, we will be suffering together as we begin to find our way to some kind of stability as this massive transition occurs. We can be thankful that we have in this country a peaceful transfer of power when an administration changes. But we are not to be passive in the face of such tremendous change.

We are created in the image and likeness of God. God’s characteristics are lovingkindness, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, patience. We bear the image of God. We are empowered to offer gentleness, patience, forbearance, compassion and lovingkindness to one another and to all whom we meet.

The voice of the classical prophet calls for repentance – – for tshuva – – for a return to what is highest and truest – – It calls all of us – -both shepherds and sheep to reclaim our holiness as bearers of the image of God. True repentance requires that those who would be shepherds apologize for what they have done to the flock – – to vow that the sin against the flock will not ever happen again. This has never been more critical. It is the beginning of the path to healing.

As the sheep who have been scattered, we have a significant role in repairing our world too. Civility – – simple good manners – – thoughtfulness – – kindness – – patience – -all the things that we learned in 1st grade. We can make the choice to extend loving compassion under any circumstances. And, perhaps, as important as anything else, we can maintain a heightened vigilance in one another’s behalf, in behalf of the stranger, in behalf of the immigrant, in behalf of the most vulnerable populations in our midst.

Where’s God? – – God is present when suffering and confusion are witnessed, when compassion and understanding are offered. This is the antidote to a toxic environment. We can do this. We have the power. By listening to the Compassionate Teacher who sees us like sheep without a shepherd – – we can recognize the Shepherd in our midst – – in each other – – in ourselves. This our responsibility. We have an incredible opportunity to make the Presence of God known wherever we find ourselves these days – – plainly visible. I would like to close with a few lines from Nikos Kazantzakis, Greek author and poet who lived and wrote through two world Wars. He wrote this:

And I strive to discover how to signal my

companions…to say in time a simple word, a

password, like conspirators: Let us unite, let us hold

each other tightly, let us merge our hearts, let us

create for earth a brain and a heart, let us give a

human meaning to the superhuman struggle.”

God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Letter from the Bishop November 12,2016

A message from Bishop Devadhar

 

Image

Nov. 12, 2016

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Greetings in the precious name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Just last Monday, I wrote you a letter in which I quoted John Wesley’s words from Oct. 6, 1774:

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1) To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy; 2) to speak no evil of the person they voted against; and, 3) to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

Wesley’s words are no less pertinent after the voting is done. The results of this election have brought a wide range of responses and emotions. We, United Methodists, were divided before the election, and we continue to be divided now. I have heard from many people this week expressing fear, distrust, disappointment, and anger as well as joy and hope. I have been in prayer for all of us during this emotional week.

In the midst of our differences and feelings, let us remember the words of Paul who said, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)

May we hold our elected officials and leaders across the nation and each other in prayer as we strive to uphold the principles Jesus shared with us. As builders of community, peace makers and seekers of justice for all, let us continue our work and be beacons of light across New England and beyond.

Tomorrow as we gather together for worship, may we reflect on the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.
In Christ’s love,


Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar


 

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Bishop’s Office

Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar

Erica Robinson-Johnson Assistant to the Bishop/DCM Phone: (978) 682-7555 ext. 251
erica@neumc.org

Brenda Borchers
Administrative Assistant
Phone: (978) 682-7555 ext. 250
Fax: (978) 682-9555
BishopsOffice@neumc.org

Transformed by the Holy Spirit, united in trust,
we will boldly proclaim Christ to the world.

“Why Noah?” Nov. 6,2016

Why Noah?”

Genesis 5:28-6:8

John 21: 1-7

Chilmark Community Church

November 6, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

This morning we are in one of our most beloved and intriguing stories in the early biblical narratives about how the human community came into being – – the story of Noah. Noah appears in the narrative 10 generations after the story of Adam and Eve. Much has happened in those 10 generations. When we pick up the story here we find that the great experiment that had caused God to stand back and look at all of creation and call it good has now run amuck. Part of the problem begins with an odd note that “the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were fair and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.” (6:2) The verse is reminiscent of the ancient Greek mythologies wherein the gods mated with human beings and a class of great heroes, neither divine nor human, were born. Genesis says that the Nephilim were on the earth in those days…these were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (6:4).

Biblical scholar, Aviva Zornberg, suggests that the function of God creating human beings has been usurped. Human beings now replicate themselves – and in so doing they replicate the divine image. But the image gets distorted. In the Garden of Eden, the two humans had desired to gain knowledge of Good and evil – – but by the time of Noah, humans seem to be unaware of the evil they have generated – -unaware of the self imposed evil under which they suffer. Evil overshadows all of life.1 The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. (6:5)

Zornberg cites Martin Buber: “man no longer knows or can discriminate between those radical opposites, fortune and misfortune, order and disorder that are experienced by a person – as well as that which he causes.”2

God is deeply grieved. What had begun in great beauty has deteriorated and God is painfully sorry. And so, like the occasional artist, frustrated and dissatisfied with the outcome of her efforts, God decides to destroy what God has created. “…and the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

And then, in a dramatic shift in tone, the narrative says: “But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” (6:8) And, if we were reading this to our children as a bedtime story, we might pause here and ask the kids “Why do you suppose, out of all the wickedness that makes God’s heart sad – why do you suppose Noah finds favor with God?” The story teller does not keep us in suspense.

“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (6:9)

Now – this verse has caused a lot of discussion among biblical scholars. They want to know what it means that Noah was righteous and blameless “in his generation.” There is much speculation. Was Noah truly sinless and righteous?

Or was his generation just so bad that it made Noah look good in comparison?

This is a truly contemporary question in a time when we are so often faced with trying to find the best choices and none of them feel really good. In a world that is filled with irony and shadows and hidden secrets – – how do we perceive who is truly “righteous and blameless” in our generation? Is it the person who is simply a little less murky than society in general? In a very real way, the question of how “righteous and blameless is Noah in his generation” presents a pretty contemporary challenge.

So – Aviva Zornberg identifies this as the over-arching question in the narrative: “Why Noah?”

God says: “You alone have I found righteous in this generation.” Zornberg suggests the “rational is apparently simple and ethically reassuring – Noah is different from his generation. They are full of evil. He is righteous.”3

Again from Martin Buber: “[Noah] is the first human being [in the biblical narrative] to be described by any epithet – -and [he] is the only human being in the entire narrative to be described as “righteous” both in direct encounter with God AND in the authoritative voice that begins the story in verse 9: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.’ The emphasis on Noah’s difference serves a moral purpose – – his difference justifies his exemption from the universal disaster.” 4

BUT – – and this is a big BUT – – as we continue to let Zornberg suggest a direction for our thinking: there is another reading beneath the surface of the text: Noah is chosen by God not because he is different – – he is chosen because he has found favor with God. In verse 8, before there is any mention of Noah’s righteousness, the narrative states that “Noah found favor in the sight of God.”

Now – we fast forward to the post resurrection narrative of Jesus and his disciples on the lakeshore. We have already experienced the devastation of the crucifixion which was preceded by, among other things, Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. Three times in a fire-lit courtyard, Peter refused to own his friendship and relationship with Jesus. We don’t have any descriptions of Peter being righteous in his generation. We do know that he was a human being who made both rich and poor choices in his lifetime. The choice to deny Jesus was devastating for him. Like all his ancestors before him, in a moment of fear he lost his sensibility of good and evil and was not even aware in the moment of how he was contributing to the creating of his own suffering. Crucifixion happened.

And then there was sunrise on the lakeshore and a chilly, soggy encounter with the Risen One – – the thrice repeated question – – “Do you love me?” The thrice repeated answer: “Lord, you know that I love you.” The thrice repeated command: “Feed my lambs – – tend my sheep – – feed my sheep.”

Why Noah? Why Peter?

There is a midrash – a kind of parable- that give us something to ponder. To refresh your memory, the parable mentions Joseph (of the coat of many colors) and Potiphar, the Pharoah’s right hand man under whom Joseph gradually rose to power in Pharoah’s court. Joseph eventually marries Potiphar’s daughter. The midrash may move us toward the answer to “Why Noah? Why Peter?”:

This is like one(ehad) who was traveling along and saw another traveler (ehad) and sought his company. To what extent? Till he formed bonds of love with him. That is why it says here, “Noah found favor.” Compare this with “Joseph found favor in [Potiphar’s] eyes” (39:4). It is like one who was traveling along and saw another traveler and sought his company. To what extent? Till he gave him power….to what extent? till he gave him his daughter….To what extent? Till he could tell which animal is to be fed at the second hour of the day, and which at the third hour of the night.”

Zornberg explains: “The traveler’s choice of companion as narrated in the midrash is almost arbitrary. It is because The Traveler is One – – God – -Alone–Matchless – – that He seeks another – any one – so that He may love and empower and educate him. The anonymous hero, undeserving, finds himself married to the King’s daughter. In many midrashic parables, the King’s daughter is symbolizes as wisdom. The commoner marries the King’s daughter. But what is the intention of the end of the midrash? The acme of wisdom that Noah attains is a knowledge of the feeding schedules of the animal on the ark! …is this a satirical comment on Noah’s limitations, or a serious insight into the nature of the wisdom God has to teach Noah?5

God chooses Noah, not because he has achieved significant virtue or wisdom, not because Noah is righteous and blameless – – but because God seeks to convey to some one the knowledge of God’s Self.

Jesus chooses Peter, not because he is perfect , not because he is dependable, not because he is blameless and righteous. Jesus chooses Peter so that he can impart love and wisdom to him, so that he can empower and teach him – – Jesus chooses Peter so that he can convey to Peter some of his own self knowledge as the Son of God.

Why Noah? Why Peter? Both are flawed. Peter buckles at the knees at a most critical moment in the Passion narrative. It is hard to imagine any individual like Noah being totally blameless when the society of which he is a part is so utterly corrupt and evil.

Back to the Genesis narrative: God says: “…I am sorry I have made them.” But – – Noah found favor in the sight of God.”

This is a snapshot of what pure, radical, unmerited grace looks like. Grace – – it could be God’s middle name. The two stories affirm the central, life giving message of our sacred texts from start to finish: the Holy One, the Giver and Sustainer of Life, the Spacious One who gives us room to live and move and have our being – – enough room even to reject God – – to be sinful – – this God is a graceful God who desires to be in relationship with us – – at any cost. This God is a God who wants to love us – to empower us – – to teach us. This God is a God who trusts us so much that the Divine Life itself is entrusted to us – so we can participate fully in the life of God. This God entrusted the less than perfect Noah with the responsibility for saving and regenerating and repopulating the earth. This God, in the person of Jesus, entrusts the entire future of his ministry to the flawed disciple, Peter. That is GRACE writ large. And it will sustain us through anything. The stories both convey to us that God WANTS to accompany us – to love us – to impart wisdom to us – to educate us; and that God will continue to find the way to do that – – no matter how flawed we are – – no matter what. Beyond everything else today, especially today, as we live with the uncertainty and anxiety about what the coming election will mean, we can and we need to depend on this.

This is what we affirm when we come together at the communion table – that we are, indeed, loved. We are and we will be empowered to be God’s people in the world and we will be taught – -we will be given the wisdom we need as we depart from the table.

Blameless and righteous or not, we are assured of the gift of grace. Like Peter and Noah, may we rise to the occasion to receive it as fully as it is given.

1 Aviva Zornberg The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis Doubleday, New York 1995. P.38

2 Zornberg p.38

3 Zornberg P. 40

4 Zornberg P.40

5 Zornberg P. 41

St. Francis of Assisi October 30, 2016

ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI

MATTHEW 10:7-10

CHILMARK COMUNITY CHURCH

OCTOBER 30, 2016

REV. ARMEN HANJIAN

Mon. is Halloween. All- Hallows Eve is Tues., Nov. 1 – All Saints Day. I would like to introduce you to a saint. St. Francis was born in 1182 and died at age 44, on Oct.3,1226. This month is the 790th anniversary of his death.

The 13th century was noted by the supremacy of the Church, gothic cathedrals, universities, monks and mystics. The Church of Rome was supreme. There was a strong feudal system, many superstitions and masses of people killed in wars and other masses who were sick and hungry.

What makes this saint so important to us is that in his writings we can see the real struggles of a man, yet a man wholly dedicated to God. We see a sinner saved by God’s grace. Continually sensing his human frailties, he would all the more depend on Divine power.

Born in Italy. His father was a wealthy clothing merchant. He called him not by his baptized name – John, but by Francis (this the first known us of the name). As a boy of means, he got himself into a good deal of pranks and extravagances, yet he always remained courteous and charitable.

Francis had little formal education. He wrote with simplicity with a talent of weaving scripture into his writings. He says nothing drastically new. The greatness of the man is that he took Christ at his word; for him the sermon on the mount was a clear and concise directive. He got caught with a handful of Jesus’ sayings, and they never let him go. (e.g. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” Matt.16:24).

But Francis did not grow up in a steady Christian nurture. He was not always the stainless saint of his celebrity. After his schooling he went into the clothing business with his father. Though he walked with the nobility, he continually stood up for the commoners, even to the extent of being imprisoned for fighting with the nobility – the government of his day. Upon his return to the business, he fell deathly ill. For the first time in his life he began to realize a dissatisfaction with his former life. He had lived a life of pleasure and it left a bitter taste in his mouth.

To forget these disturbing memories, Francis turned to other pleasures; he sought meaningfulness in the life of a soldier. He got a fever in an early battle and was left behind by the rest of his company – thus his military fame was purged away. Having nowhere else to turn, he looked to religion for hope and direction. After telling his friends of his wedding to “Lady Poverty”, he retired to a near-by cave for meditation; he asked for forgiveness and sought the light of truth.

Most biographers, as well as St. Francis himself, emphasize the importance of his visit one day to the St. Damian Chapel near Assisi. In his deep meditation on the crucifix, he could hear Christ say, “I have accepted thy sacrifice, thy desires, thy offering, thy work, thy life, thy self.”1 He considered this personal confrontation with Christ a call of God, he spent the remainder of his life in quest of Jesus’ will for his actions. With the same wholeness he had thrown himself into a life of pleasure, he now immersed himself into religious dedication. In this, his single-mindedness, lies his claim to sainthood.

What followed was not an existence of seclusion; the zeal of the living Christ demanded expression in his puny life. Arising from his knees, he looked around for the nearest need. He found a chapel in need of repair. Immediately, he sold all that he had, and began the work himself. The youth of nobility was thus forced to become a beggar for crumbs.

Truly, he had the mind of Christ. He loved the simplicity, gratitude and kindness to one another of the poor in contrast to the proud and selfish rich. In every person he saw someone for whom Christ died. His imitation of Christ was spontaneous. Love was the absolute standard for him – love of God, of people, of flower, of animal, of all creation. We usually think of Francis only from this viewpoint, but he also had a strong voice in condemning injustice.

He took an excursion to Rome where he downed a good deal of pride by begging; he won an even bigger battle upon his return in his learning to live with lepers, even learning to love them. Leprosy had run wild in the filth of Europe. Francis, like his Master, provided for their many physical and spiritual needs, healing them with trust and love. Not many would wash a leper’s feet, dress his wounds and eat with him. Later, becoming a part of the Order of St. Francis, the care of lepers not only help clean up Italy, but made a living witness to the love of Christ.

Because of his “uncommon” behavior, Francis’ father saw fit to separate family ties and brought him to court. Actually it was Francis who made the separation claiming first allegiance to his Heavenly Father. Francis stripped naked and gave back to his father all that he had gotten from him. The bishop at the trail was touched by his sincerity let Francis go on his own with only a rag to cover himself. Even this was taken by thieves, and he was left with nothing but his faith in God.

Friends had pity on him and gave him help. He immediately returned to the chapel to finish the work he had begun. Then he repaired two nearby chapels. The amazing thing about this saint is he was a Christian in his own community.

At 27, three years after his conversion, he heard a priest in mass read a gospel passage; the words came to him as if directly from Christ: “As you go proclaim the good news, saying, the kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; freely you have received, freely give. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two coats or sandals or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. (Matt. 10:7-10)

Wonder of wonders, he took the Lord’s words seriously. He preached with power, and those who heard were amazed at the simplicity and sincerity of his message – a message of a God of love and a Christ of forgiveness. He became poor neither to show off nor to make a down payment on eternal life, but to be better tied to Christ. His one aim was to see life from Christ’s point of view. This meant a complete self denial so Christ could live in him. In denying his own will to do God’s will, he found his true self and intended will. He saw shame and dislike of blame both as a praise of self, not God.

St. Francis had no intention of beginning an order, but this became almost inevitable when those who once scorned him, now coveted his Christlikeness. At first there were four men who traveled two by two. They worked for their daily rations and found shelter anywhere from a church porch to a leper’s camp. Soon there were twelve. Some thought they were mad (even among the clergy), yet their sanity and hope was seen even through their hungry faces.

The Bishop of Assisi once said to them their way of living was harsh and difficult. Francis responded, “If we possessed property, we should have need of weapons to defend it, for it is a source of quarrels and lawsuits, an obstacle to the love of God and neighbor.”1 He knew the whole feudal system, with its endless warfare and oppression, rested on the possessions of land and property. For this everything else was sacrificed. It took the shock of Franciscan poverty to shake the complacency of the times.

Francis took his group of twelve to Rome to receive papal approval. Pope Innocent, in his worldly splendor, and likely with a lump in his throat, authorized their activities. The saint continued to champion the cause of the down trodden, averting

small wars among the nobles. The men of the order worked at their previous trades and would receive no pay, thus there was no shame in their begging for food. The order was known by its fruits. Francis considered idleness an opponent to the soul.

A second Franciscan order had it’s birth when a women, Clara Sciffi, responded to his preaching. She became the head of the Poor Clares Order. A third order was the next natural step; married couples too wished to live a sacrificial life. Thus, the Tertiarians, could keep some property, remain in marriage and still live a life of charity. These orders became leaven in Italian society and resulted in the break down of its feudal system. Francis had an awareness of the divine imperative which yielded a monasticism of service to the world rather than flight from it.

He wanted to share his Christ even beyond Italy. He attempted to go to Syria, but was shipwrecked. He went to Barcelona , Spain and established a few groups there. In Egypt, he preached, was captured and imprisoned; fortunately, he was released by the Sultan. Though he had little success with the Saracens, the Christians were greatly encouraged by his courage.

1 Rev. J.H. Mc Ilvaine, p.74.

Prayer was his life line. A life of contemplation was a real temptation to him; yet, in his meditation he was always thrown back to love of neighbor in some physical way. He was struck by an illness which blinded him. He would say even in sickness we ought to rejoice in the Lord, to be merry and full of joy, not pious like the hypocrites.

With great difficulty he returned to his home village. These last days were full of joy for him. He had never been ordained into the priesthood, but in his final hours, Francis took bread,, blest and broke it to those about him in remembrance of Christ’s death and passion.

The Franciscans in the years following his death made their greatest contributions as preachers and creators of religious literature for commoners. Their language was easily understood for they had intimate knowledge of the life of the people. They put aside formal theological questions and preached the love and mercy of God who frees us from our sins. To put off evil habits and take up a new life in Christ was their message; the Gospel was their authority.

Did you ever wonder what your biography would be like?

“What A Difference a Word Makes”

“What a Difference A Word Makes”
Luke 18:9-14
Chilmark Community Church
October 23, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

A young monk, fresh out of seminary was appointed to a monastery where for hundreds of years, the monks had worked faithfully at making beautiful copies of the ancient sacred texts and scriptures. As the aging Father Abbot was giving the young man an orientation to the work the monks were doing, the young monk noticed that the good brothers were painstakingly making new copies from earlier
copies from the previous generation of monks. He wondered about this for awhile and finally asked the Father Abbot about it. The Abbot patiently explained that the order has always done it this way – each new generation of monks faithfully copying the texts passed on by the previous generation. But the younger monk wasn’t quite comfortable with this system. “What if someone, somewhere along the line doesn’t copy accurately?” The Father Abbot answered patiently “My son, the copying of the Holy Texts is a sacred trust. For hundreds of years the brothers have been doing it just this way, with great care not to make mistakes.”

The new young brother went on about his task of getting acquainted with the monastery. But the Father Abbot was a little disturbed by the novice’s question.
So he went down into the great vault in the basement of the monastery to look at the original ancient manuscripts that were stored there.

The time for evening prayer came and went and there was no sign of the Abbot. Finally, after missing him for about 6 hours, the monks decided to find out what was keeping him so long. They made their way down to the vault and as they approached the heavy door, they could hear the Father Abbot moaning and crying in the most anguished way. When they opened the door they saw that he had been pulling out his hair and tearing his garments. They ran to him shouting “Father Abbot, Father Abbot – – what is wrong?” – – expecting that some great damage had been done to the ancient, original sacred texts. And Father Abbot turned to them and in a voice hoarse from crying and moaning said to them “The original texts says CELEBRATE! – – not CELIBATE!”

Sometimes it is a good idea to revisit the texts that shape our beliefs and actions and understanding – – to see what is actually written there. We are in a teaching situation with Jesus and the disciples this morning. We are reminded of this back in the 22nd verse of chapter 17. Luke tends to move between public and private teachings and this is one of the private ones. Amy Jill Levine, Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament, notes that by the 18th chapter of Luke we have already “met numerous unlikeable Pharisees and a number of quite darling tax collectors. When we read the Gospel, our sympathies are with the tax collector, not at all with the Pharisee. This is exactly the opposite stance from which a 1st century Jewish audience would have heard the parable.” 1

Levine points out that in actuality, the presence of a tax collector in the temple would have been quite unexpected. He would have been viewed as an enemy of his people. He was not, as some commentators insist, living in the margins of society. His problem is not that he was without power, wealth or status…sinned against, oppressed, and marginalized; his problem is that he is a sinner, probably rich, an agent of Rome, and as a tax collector, has likely shown no mercy to others.2
“Our tax collector is in the temple, praying. Jesus has given his listeners an image that unsettles.”3

Levine notes that Luke’s portrayal of the Pharisees is often ambivalent and ultimately negative, but that there are some positive descriptions too. Some Pharisees invite Jesus to dinner, others ask Jesus searching questions that are not necessarily hostile. In Luke 13:31, it was Pharisees who warned Jesus to leave town because Herod wanted to kill him. She continues that for the majority of those who listened to Jesus, the Pharisees would have been viewed with respect as people who “walked the talk as well as talked the talk.” They were generally righteous people who tried to live faithful lives according to Jewish law.

So we have a truly righteous man praying in his corner of the temple, thanking God for the richness of life that he enjoys – – and a scoundrel hiding in the shadows – – abjectedly confessing that he is a sinner.

There are two problematic lines in the parable. The words that are used to translate them from the ancient, original Greek affect our understanding of the story. The first one is “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying to God thus….” and the second one is “I tell you, this man (referring to the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other…..” These lines invite us to wrestle with the parable.

Was the Pharisee standing off by himself because he wanted privacy for his prayers? Was he an elitist who needed a lot of space? Was he simply wanting to commune with God? Was he seeking to shame the tax collector?

The KJV translates the first problem from the Greek this way: The Pharisee, in a self absorbed way, “stood and prayed thus with himself”. The NAB makes the same line idolatrous translating it as: “he took up his position and prayed to himself….” Levine suggests that “how we assess the Pharisee may well tell us more about ourselves (and the translator) than about him”. The words of the translation we use make a difference.

Levine argues that “the Pharisee’s prayer does set up distinctions. However, it should be seen not as about self importance, but about gratitude. It is God who has provided the supplicant with the opportunity to study rather than to have to work to earn money. It is God who allows the supplicant to see what is truly important or perhaps to have his ‘pearl of great price.’” 4
The second problematic line in the story has to do with how God deals with the two men. In every translation I looked at – 7 at least, verse 18 is translated the same way: “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other.” There is something in Luke that wants us to identify with the sinner redeemed by God rather than with a Pharisee who seems to live a most righteous life. Throughout the full range of translations, our texts affirm that only one man, the tax collector, was justified – – in right relationship with God – -and the other one wasn’t. Virtually none of the translations varies from this interpretation.

But, Levine, being the scholar that she is, descends into the vault beneath the basement of our inherited texts. Uncomfortable with the questions this verse raises she digs around a little further and discovers a paradox. The original Greek word para ekeinon that is almost universally translated as “rather than”
also means “along side that one.” It can can also mean “because of.” Can you hear the Father Abbot moaning and groaning?

How might our understanding of the nature of God and what it means to have God’s law written in our hearts be changed if we read Jesus’ words this way: “To you I say, descending to his house, this (the tax collector) is justified alongside that Pharisee……” or even more challenging: “this tax collector is justified because of that Pharisee…..”

Read this way, the parable might suggest that the life and prayer of the righteous Pharisee play a role in the salvation of the sinful tax collector – – without there necessarily being a personal connection between the two men at all.

Reading Levine, I was reminded of project I had to complete in a previous life when I was attending nursing school. The class was divided into groups of four students. Each group was to study a particular disease, its symptoms, treatments, medications and so on. We were then to do a comprehensive case study of a patient with the particular disease. It was a massive, time consuming assignment As often happens with group projects, three of us worked seriously on the project. The 4th member rarely showed up prepared when we met and made little contribution to the project. The group started to fracture with resentment about the unfair division of labor and the possibility that our grade would not be good because of the slacker in the group. As the deadline drew near we realized that we were simply going to have to take up the slack if we wanted the grade. We did – – we got the much coveted “A” – – all of us – – even the slacker. As the workers, we were able to celebrate and be thankful that our work had paid off.

Our fellow student received a gift of grace along side of us because of our commitment to doing a good job. It was tempting to get caught in the swamp of resentment about the unfairness – – but that is how it all worked out.

Jesus’ parables are always designed to make us think. Is it true that one person’s merit can be applied to another person? Can people who live straight forward faithful lives make up for the shortcomings of others? How does the transfer of merit happen? What about the apparent unfairness?

Levine suggests that we can “see” ideas in the parable that we already know about but would rather not acknowledge. “We see that Divine grace cannot be limited, for this would be to limit the Divine. This unlimited generosity is something we may find problematic. We are quite happy to know our salvation is assured, but less happy when the same salvation is extended to other people we do not like, especially when our dislike is bolstered by seemingly very good reasons such as “He is a sinner.” 5

For some reason, over the centuries of translation, our tradition has chosen to pit the Pharisee and the tax collector against each other as though there were not enough room in God’s embrace for both to loved and accepted. The more ancient way indicates that there is great possibility for both/and thinking rather than either/or. The good that we do affects those around us who are less capable and engaged. In the realm of grace, like the rising tide that lifts all boats, goodness and faithfulness play a role in the saving of the entire world – not just the good parts. Both men, different as they are, walk into God’s presence and are both extravagantly loved.

Amy Jill Levine completes her exploration of this parable this way: We have seen that the Pharisee has more good deeds, a greater store of protection, than he could need. First century Jews might then conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee …….Just as one person’s sin can create a stain on the entire community, so one person’s righteousness can save it. It is precisely by this transfer of good deeds that, in one way of understanding Jesus’ death, the cross works for salvation: Jesus’ faithfulness is what allows others to be justified.”6

The parable set me to thinking about the “righteous Pharisees” in my life – the ones who by the way they have lived their lives actually make my life more whole; people like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin who founded the Catholic Worker Movement; Thich Nhat Han who lives his Buddhist commitment to compassion and nonviolence; Rev. Carl Kline who works tirelessly to bring about nonviolent social change; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose devotion to Torah and the mystical closeness of God brought him to walk side by side with Martin Luther King; Dr. Catherine Keller who continues to educate another generation of clergy in their closer walk with the Holy. It may surprise you to know that each of you slip into the role too as you inspire my faith. So there are just a few of my righteous Pharisees – people who pay close attention to faithful living under the commands of God. By their goodness, my own life is elevated. At times, I am the righteous Pharisee for others as well – – doing for others what has been done for me. I trust in the more ancient translation of Jesus words. Living in the Grace of the Holy One, there is no either/or. It is a both/and proposition. In God’s sight we go down to our respective homes justified, made right in our relationship with God alongside one another – – even because of one another. This is a description of the work of discipleship that Jesus puts in front of us.
Another enigmatic parable from a controversial rabbi! Jesus said, “Those who have hears to hear, let them hear.”

“If not Now–When” October 16, 2016

“If Not Now – – When?”
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 14
Isaiah 60: 1- 3
Luke 17:20-21
Chilmark Community Church
October 16, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

It is a powerful and liberating tradition in this country that we observe the separation of church and state. We do not preach from the pulpit in favor or against any particular candidate for election. The pulpit is not to be used to sway opinion one way or another. That being said, though, as people of faith, we do have the responsibility for allowing our sacred texts to inform and guide us as we seek to bring into balance what we hear and see. And if we read the Bible with attention to its historical context, we soon discover that it is one of the most political books ever compiled. It holds at its center the witness to an Unseen God who demands justice for the oppressed, mercy and compassion for the poor, kindness and hospitality to the stranger, and equal treatment under the law for all people and consummate respect for one another as persons created in the image of God. These principles are stated repeatedly in the first 5 books of the bible which form the blueprint for all that follows. The prophets, the Psalmist, and the Jesus of the gospels all keep repeating the same great themes. We belong to an ancient and much larger tradition than our current electoral process. So it is worth taking a closer look at how the ancient texts speak to our contemporary situation.

In our political forums today there are a couple of major and fundamental ways in which political promises differ. There is the politics of change and there is the politics of incremental, step by step, progress over time. While these ways of approaching the social and political changes that are needed are often seen as oppositional, both have their merits and their place in our political process. In the best of all possible worlds, these two ways of looking at how to bring about a transformed society would be complimentary and would work hand in hand – each informing the other.

In the verses we read from Deuteronomy, we find a description of how a desirable female captive, taken in war, is to be treated if the winning general decides to make her his wife. She is to be allowed a month’s time to mourn the family she has lost in the battle. She is to cut her hair and trim her nails as a sign, perhaps of that mourning. She is to remove her captive’s garments in favor of clean clothes. When these requirements have been met, then the general may take her as a wife. If the general decides at some point that he no longer wants her as a wife, he must set her free – he may not sell her and he may not enslave her.

To our minds, all of this is difficult to accept. The woman has no rights and no say in the matter. She is a captive of war, a piece of property. She ends up the wife of a stranger. She has no assurance that her life will be whole and happy.

A closer look, though, reveals that this is one of those places in scripture where incremental reforms have taken place. In other places in the scripture, in accordance with the laws concerning the victims of war, the woman could have been slaughtered outright with the rest of the captives or she could have been abused and enslaved by her captor. Over the course of passing generations, the laws and customs of earlier years were modified and gradually moved toward being more humane – – even though there was still little freedom for women to exercise the power of choice over their lives.

A little further on, we read about inheritance rights. There are two wives in a family sharing the same husband, one wife, beloved, and the other not so well loved. The not-so-well-loved wife gives birth to the first born son of the shared husband. A little later, the beloved wife also gives birth to a son who is her firstborn – but not the firstborn to the husband. The law in Deuteronomy states that due consideration must be given to the firstborn son of the unloved wife because he is the older son. The father cannot play favorites or ignore the birth order. There is no mention here of the pros and cons and injustices of polygamy as this was the accepted norm. If you will recall from the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Sarah gave her slave, Hagar, to Abraham so that Hagar could conceive a child with Abraham since Sarah seemed to be barren in her old age.

Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, making Ishmael Abraham’s first born and eldest son. But Sarah was the beloved wife and eventually she did become pregnant and gave birth to Isaac. In this story, the family inheritance and blessing went to Isaac – the son of the beloved wife – – leaving Ishmael, the first born son of Abraham and the unloved wife, Hagar, without the benefit of a blessing and inheritance from Abraham.

The law that we just read from Deuteronomy is part of the incremental changes that happened where family inheritance laws were at issue. They moved gradually toward a more just system.

The incremental changes that we see in the laws of inheritance in Deuteronomy move toward greater justice even though the bigger picture still seems fraught with problems to our modern eyes. Incremental change takes time and patience. It happens, sometimes over generations and we can’t always see a satisfying progress.

On the other hand, there is the kind of change that looks for dramatic transformation that is quickly measurable – – that satisfies the human yearning for something better – – something visible that assures a positive step ahead. Our political rhetoric is often filled with promises for rapid change that will satisfy the hopes of so many people for a better future.

There are voices in our ancestral lineage who give utterance to the politics of change. The great prophets were often the voice of transformative vision. They were able to stand outside their respective cultures and societies and notice what was wrong. They could see clearly where change needed to happen in order for the Divine vision of holiness for all of God’s people to become a reality. They gave voice to the Divine longing for God’s people to pay attention to issues of justice and compassion. Unlike our contemporary politics of change, however, the prophets stridently called for changed behavior on the part of the people. They called for repentance – – for the people to return to greater faithfulness to the Ultimate Concerns of God for God’s people. The biblical politics of change was not magical – – and social change did not come simply because someone decreed that it would. It required a change of heart of the people – first and foremost.

The overall witness of the Bible attests to the fact that both perspectives are required in order for humankind to continue to move toward a more just and humane and compassionate society.

Listen to a few verses of the transformative vision of the prophet Isaiah preached to a people yearning with hope for what life might be like after their exile ended:

Raise your eyes and look about:
They have all gathered and come to you.
Your sons shall be brought from afar,
Your daughters like babes on shoulders.
And behold, you shall glow;
Your heart will throb and thrill –
For the wealth of the sea shall pass on to you,
Dust clouds of camels shall cover you,
Dromedaries of Midian and Ephah.
They shall all come from Sheba;
They shall bear gold and frankincense,
and shall herald the glories of the Lord.
Bowing before you shall come
the children of those who tormented you;
prostrate at the soles of your feet
shall be those who reviled you;
I the mighty one of Jacob am your redeemer.
Instead of copper I will bring gold,
instead of iron, I will bring silver;
Instead of wood, copper;
instead of stone, iron,
and I will appoint Well-being as your government
Prosperity as your officials.
The cry “Violence” shall no more be heard in your land,
nor “wrack and ruin!” within your borders.
And you shall name your walls “Victory”
and your gates “Renown.”

This is a transformative vision for change. If Isaiah had been running for public office around 500 BCE, he would have won hands down. He preached God’s promise that Israel would be restored to greatness, that her wealth would be returned to her, that her scattered children would return home, that violence would no longer reign in the land – – that well-being and prosperity would reign. He brought the people great hope and vision.

2500 years later, we live in a world still waiting for that great transformative vision to come in all its fullness. We still wait, often in anguish, at the slowness of its coming.

While thousands of people continue to suffer and die, the UN has interminable discussions about how to re-settle refugees from Aleppo. Nations around the world struggle with developing policies that will lead to the resettlement of immigrants in a safe and just way. The lumbering slowness of response is maddening.

Our country continues to wrestle with the legacy of slavery and the resulting civil rights issues and racial inequality that continue to plague us.

Unimaginable wealth and unspeakable poverty exist side by side and we are slow to find ways to bring economic justice into reality.

Our young and sometimes not so young people suffer and die from opiate addiction in increasing numbers.
Our tradition has always embraced the paradoxical vision of the ” just about to happen” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God. One of Jesus’ most enigmatic sayings is in the gospel of Luke when he was asked by a Pharisee when the kingdom of God was coming? Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say “Look here it is!” or “There it is! For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20 – 21)
John the Baptist preached “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The literal translation is the kingdom “has come near.” He and Jesus both proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom.
Just consider for a moment what the response would have been like if Jesus and John had preached, “The kingdom of God is 2,000 years away.” This would not have been news, nor would it have been perceived as all that good. The message would have been almost irrelevant, and public response would have been disappointment.
However, John and Jesus preached a kingdom that was near in time to their audiences. The message said something about what people should do now; it had immediate relevance and urgency. It aroused interest. The message challenged the status quo and implied that changes were needed in civil government, in religious understanding, and in personal behavior – and they were needed now – -even though, in real time, a long, arduous process would be needed to bring about the social change that the Kingdom of God implies.
The fact that our scriptures seem to be able to hold together the great vision of a transformed society and the need for small incremental steps toward fulfilling the vision may help us to live with the ambiguity of the loud and strident arguments circling around us today.
The Bible helps us to understand that while the urgent vision – the promise of change and a sense of immediacy are necessary for us in order to sustain our hope and energy for the future – – we also have to be prepared for the long haul of working toward that envisioned future in sometimes agonizingly slow and laborious increments.
It is in the day by day working toward the vision that we, as people of God, are able to harmonize the paradox when Jesus says “The kingdom of God is coming and is now among you.” It is in the day by day work that we do together that the kingdom becomes real now.
So – as we move forward – as we listen and try to make sense of what we hear, perhaps we can let the scriptures guide us – – and even reassure us. Perhaps, we may find a bit of rest in knowing that for centuries the divine promise of a holy future is within our grasp – – if we are willing to patiently do our part to make it real now by how we create harmony and compassion and justice and well-being right where we are – -and to know that what we do NOW affects the future in ways that are not apparent to us as we labor on. May we be blessed with the urgency of the vision and with the patience we need for the long haul. AMEN

“A Certain Royal Dignity” 9/25/16

A Certain Royal Dignity”

Chilmark Community Church

September 25, 2016

Esther 4:11-14; 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Luke 14:25-34

We’re looking at a rather fun story from the Hebrew scriptures this morning. The Book of Esther reads like a short novel. It has all the elements of drama, intrigue, struggles with ethics and morality – – and of course, ultimately, a happy ending. Out of context, the verses we have read demand closer examination. I had an Old Testament professor in seminary who used to say that when we are using a text from the Hebrew scriptures for Christian preaching, we must continually ask “Where is the good news in this text?” So – with the story of Esther, a delightful treasure hunt begins. A lot of the Book of Esther is concerned with a royal court machine, power politics, the threat of ethnic cleansing, the oppression of women and the politics of revenge. Not a lot of good news there – – and, like so many parts of the Bible, the issues sound all too contemporary.

We work our way into the plot of the story as the Persian king, Ahasuerus, is planning a big bash to show off his magnificent palace to some of the other nobility in the region. As the party wears on, and the wine flows, and the men get more and more drunk, the king gets the idea that he not only wants to show off the building and grounds, he also wants to show off his beautiful queen, Vashti, as well. So he sends off a messenger to the harem to summon her so he can exhibit her to his guests. Vashti is as feisty as she is beautiful and she says “No way am I going to be paraded in front of all those drunken men!” Literally taking her life in her own hands, she refuses the kings command. It might be attributed to his lack of sobriety that the king, instead of sentencing her to death immediately, goes into a huddle with his advisors who tell him “King – you have to get a grip on your wife. If you don’t make her obey you, all the women in the kingdom will follow her example and there will be chaos. None of them will obey their husbands.”

The only solution is to get rid of Vashti. But killing off a popular queen is really tacky – so, instead, the king banishes her from court to spend the rest of her life secluded in a harem of women. Of course, this poses a problem for King Ahasuerus. Now he has no beautiful queen. How to find one to replace Vashti? Enter the advisors again. “How about a beauty contest – – Persian style!” So the search begins for the most beautiful women in the kingdom. Over a period of a year, the loveliest maidens of the land are prepared to come before the king, one at a time. Each one would spend the night with the king. If he liked her, she would become the next queen. If not – – back to the harem.

At about this time, Esther enters the drama – orphaned at an early age, raised by her uncle, Mordecai, very beautiful – – – and very Jewish – – something that was not widely known. Esther was of the second generation of Israel to live in Persian exile. Because of her great beauty she ended up in the king’s harem rather than suffering a fate of slavery or worse. Her Uncle Mordecai kept watch over her and saw to her well being. But the fact that she was a Jew had been kept a secret. Esther wins the beauty contest and becomes the queen – – which, as we have seen, is only fun if you do everything the kings says.

One day, quite by chance, Uncle Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther who passes the word along to Ahasuerus. The would be assassins are hung on the gallows. (A bit of political capital in the bank for Mordecai).

As the drama unfolds, it seems that Mordecai attracts the unwanted attention of Haman, the king’s right hand man. Haman has a bit of an ego problem and expects that people will bow down to him when he walks by. Mordecai, being a faithful Jew, bows to no one but God. This doesn’t set well with Haman so, of course, he plots to have Mordecai eliminated – – but Mordecai is not the only target of his wrath. Haman goes to the king and tells him that “certain people” (namely the Jews) do not keep all the king’s laws and therefore the king should not tolerate them. So the king issues the order that on a certain day, all the people in question (the Jews) are to be exterminated – young and old – men, women and children – – and the right to plunder the property of the Jews is given to those who will carry out the king’s command.

Mordecai gets the word of the order for his people to be annihilated. By a trusted third party, he passes the information along to Queen Esther. In his best authoritative uncle’s voice, he prevails upon Esther to speak to the king in her people’s behalf.

Now – -sticky wicket here – – it seems that there is a rule that no one gets to appear before the king unless the king calls a person to appear before the throne. AND, no one gets to actually speak to the king unless the king extends his golden scepter toward the person. Since there was no one lobbying for 1st amendment rights, i this was a very efficient way to silence any critical voices in the royal court. So – -of course, Esther is reluctant to follow her uncle’s bidding. She sends a message back to him saying she hasn’t been summoned before the king for a full 30 days. If she attempts to appear and speak to the king on her own, she is a candidate for the death sentence.

But old Mordecai will not be put off and he sends another message to Esther in these words: Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief will arise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish. And then he adds: Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

And so, Esther does indeed make an appearance before the king. She petitions the king on behalf of her people – – appealing to his sense of economics (more likely his royal greed!) She greets him with humility : If I have won your favor, O King, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given to me – that is my petition – – and the lives of my people – -that is my request. We have been sold to be annihilated. If we had been sold to be slaves, I would have held my peace. But no one can compensate for the economic damage that the death of my people would do to the king.

Long story short, Esther points her finger at Haman, the king’s right hand man, who has plotted the extermination of the Jews and the king orders that Haman be strung up on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai. Subsequently, the Jews rise up and take revenge. The 10 sons of Haman are hanged and thousands of the enemies of the Jews are slaughtered in the outlying provinces. To this day, the Feast of Purim is celebrated in February or March as an observance of the deliverance of the Jews from annihilation.

Well – – where is the good news? How are we to appropriate this story for our thinking as followers of Jesus more than 2500 years later? These are the kinds of questions that can make sermon writing a nightmare!

But – – another thing I learned from the same professor is that often, scripture interprets scripture. Enter the gospel reading for this morning. Jesus is talking with his friends about the conditions and the cost of discipleship. He asks “who goes about building a tower without first figuring out how much it will cost to complete it?” Or “who decides to go into battle without first figuring out if there are enough soldiers to win the battle against the enemy? If it seems that winning is out of the question with the resources at hand, the wise general sends a delegation to seek terms of peace.” And then , in a seemingly unrelated statement, Jesus says “therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” It is a strange juxtaposition of words, jumping from estimating building costs to developing military strategy to giving up all that one possesses in the service of becoming a disciple.

The clue resides in the last verse of this section: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its flavor, how can its saltiness be restored? It is neither fit for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!” Mark’s gospel renders the teaching this way: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (Mark 9:49) Have salt in yourselves and be at peace.

The substance that Jesus knew as salt was not the same as the kind of salt we use today. Our modern salt -made up of sodium and chloride -is a very stable substance. If you dissolve some in water, it still retains its saltiness. If the water evaporates, the salt that remains still tastes salty. The salt that Jesus talked about was much less stable. If it was exposed to sunlight or too much moisture, or stored in a damp place, it was apt to lose its taste and become useless. There was no way it could be made salty again.

So Jesus teaches that being a disciple of his definitely will cost us something. There may be a lot of things we need to let go of in the way of pride or uncertainty, of fear and anxiety about how to rise to the occasion of discipleship.

Jesus teaches that discipleship is not a hit or miss kind of thing. It requires thinking and not a little inward preparation for the task.

Discipleship – that is – being a disciplined follower of the teachings, requires that we be wise in the ways of the world. It sometimes requires that we stand back and look at how we are going to complete a task before we get going on it. Do we have the energy? Do we have the resources? Are we willing to make some sacrifices? Going out into the world unprepared is not a requirement of discipleship. We are to use our minds as well as our hearts and our spirits. But Jesus also reminds us that we have indeed been “salted” – we have been given gifts that can be used in God’s service – and if we choose not to use those gifts -we may, indeed, lose our saltiness and become rather lackluster in our daily lives.

I think we can build a bridge in both directions between the words of Jesus and the words of Mordecai to Esther – – and then maybe we can see how these words can have meaning for us today. Jesus spoke for his time. Mordecai spoke for his time. They both speak for our time.

Esther was in a position to act in a saving way for her people. She was scared. To follow through on Mordecai’s request might have meant her death. She was essentially powerless in a culture and a location where power was everything and it belonged to only a few who were strong enough or wealthy enough or deceitful enough to grasp it for themselves. Esther was a foreign born captive – an alien – an object of beauty to be used and displayed at the king’s pleasure. She had no political or financial or moral agency – – at least as far as she thought. But, as push came to shove – as it often does in life – she became the only hope for her people. Uncle Mordecai’s words resound in her ears: “If you keep silent – the Jews may find help elsewhere, but you will die.” Jesus might have said “ If you don’t act, you will lose your saltiness.” Mordecai in his wise question asks “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity – – maybe you came to be queen of this arbitrary and powerful man – for just such a time as this?”

Being a powerless queen in the court of a king who has absolute power over everything – – being a follower of Jesus in a world that seems just a godless as the world of the Persian court – – being a follower of Jesus in 2016 – the situations are different only in degree. I can almost hear Jesus reaching back over the centuries to Esther – “Esther – – everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good – but if you lose it, you will die -you will wither inside – you will lose everything that makes you beautiful and strong and courageous. Have salt in yourself. Be the active ingredient that works in behalf of the preservation of your people.

And perhaps we can hear the words of Mordecai reaching forward to the disciples over the centuries too – – “if you guys keep silent in times that call for clear thinking and truth speaking, the people around you may survive and go on, but you will perish. Think about it. Perhaps you are right here in this moment to

serve a particular purpose in the preservation of the world.

The trick is, of course, to hear the challenge of the story for us in our time. Heaven knows there is a fair amount of risk these days. Every bit of the political intrigue and anxiety and oppression that permeated the court of King Ahasuerus permeates the political scene today. People are imprisoned without just cause because they are aliens in a strange land. Their properties are plundered, their families left unprotected and un-provided for. Nations grasp for power and wield it irresponsibly without regard for what it means for the next generation. The health and education and wellbeing of the people is secondary to the need for ever more political and military and financial power. Sometimes our inner questions arise: “Where will it all end?” “Where is our hope?” “What can we depend on?”

It’s curious. The Book of Esther never once mentions the name of God. There is absolutely no reference to a greater power. None of the laws and rituals of Judaism are mentioned. The Book of Esther is not a religious book. It is thoroughly political from start to finish. And yet, the words of Mordecai evoke a subtle awareness that there is a power at work in the wings, so to speak. A power that calls human beings to something higher, something greater than the terrible, dangerous pettiness of the politics of Esther’s time.

We are in the countdown of one of the most difficult and demoralizing election campaigns of our lifetime. In the weeks ahead, we can only expect it to intensify. There will be innumerable opportunities for us to listen, to ponder and then to discern the truth. It is incumbent upon us as followers of The Way to sift and sort and interpret all the sound and fury in the light of the teachings of Jesus – – and then to speak the truth as the opportunities present themselves.

In Uncle Mordecai’s words, there is a call to life in the midst of horrendous danger. He calls forth in Esther the willingness to use what ever

whatever power she does have in behalf of her people. Jesus calls us to do the same thing. He pleads with us: Just be the salt you are called to be. Be your highest and best self, fully informed by the life and teaching of Jesus. Let the power of the Spirit that enlivens you empower you to see the truth and then speak the truth that needs to be spoken when you feel it pulsing its way forth.

Trust that you are called by that greater and often unnamed power that works always and in all things to being a disorderly and chaotic world around right.

Jesus uses salt figuratively to challenge his followers to be true disciples – -people who by their own lives raise the moral tone of the society in which they live. He asks us to believe that how we conduct our lives makes a difference, no matter how large or small our spheres of influence. Perhaps, as we go out from this time in the sanctuary, we might hear Jesus and Mordecai whispering in our ears: “Have salt in yourselves – – – who knows, perhaps you have come to a certain royal dignity for just such a time as this?”

Lia and Friends Sept.11,2016

2016-lkf-photoWhat a fabulous concert!  Pictured in front of the church, left to right, Armen Hanjian (musical saw), Lia Kahler (mezzo- soprano),  Phil Dietterich (organ) and Richard  Gordon  (piano).  Photo by Lynn Cristoffers

The concert and silent auction before it raised almost $10,000 for the Food Pantry and the All Island Clergy winter homeless shelter program.