Sunday, September 27, 2009


Esther 7: 1-10, page 357
So the king and Haman went to dine with Queen Esther, and as they were drinking wine on that second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”
The Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life – this is my petition. And spare my people – this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.
King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
Esther said, “The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman.”
Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen. The king got up in a rage, left his wine and went out into the palace garden. But Haman, realizing that the king had already decided his fate, stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life.
Just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining.
The king exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?”
As soon as the word left the kings mouth, they covered Haman’s face. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A gallows seventy-five feet high stands by Haman’s house. He had it made for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.”
The king said, “Hang him on it!” so they hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided.
Esther 9: 20-22
Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
Correctly, my daughter Lily thinks that I am absolutely the coolest, most interesting and talented person alive. She is amazed, completely amazed by my dexterity, and will stare in awe as I open and close my hand like this.
I think she must think that I am a genius, and I imagine that she would enjoy nothing better than to sit in my lap as I teach her everything she needs to know.
But I know, because a lot of people have let me know, that I should enjoy these days while they last because one day, before I know it, my little girl will not be so little anymore, and her interest in the wisdom that I have to offer her will reach its end.
My little girl’s face – what today is a sweet, fat little face with kissable little cheeks often colored with sweet potatoes – will some unfortunate day be a face with cheeks that I’m not allowed to kiss because they’re colored by blush or something.
And to become the person she wants to become, to impress the people who she wants to impress, she’ll need a different kind of wisdom than what I posses.
That day came for Mordecai, the closest thing to a father Esther ever had. When she first left his house for the palace he never strayed far from the king’s gates even though he had already said everything she wanted to hear. The eunuchs took over, gave her lessons and beauty treatments to prepare her to meet the king, 6 months with oil and myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.
She had to learn new lessons – rules on how to look, how to walk, how to approach the king because she wasn’t one of a million poor little girls living life in the vast Persian Empire stretching from India to Egypt and she caught the break of a lifetime and became Queen in the most powerful man in the world’s court.
The wisdom she needed there was a wisdom that Mordecai could not have taught her, because Mordecai didn’t understand. He didn’t understand a world of feasts and excess as his was a world of famine and poverty. He didn’t understand a world of makeup and perfume as his was a world of dust and stench. He didn’t understand the world of a god-king whose will decided the fate of millions because Mordecai’s world was governed by the God of the Exodus, a God who would deliver the people from oppression in a foreign land, if not now than soon.
So when Mordecai ran into Haman, he didn’t know he was supposed to bow down, but his ignorance did not forgive his indiscretion – in fact, it sealed his fate and that of his people.
Based on his faith in his God, though, Mordecai believed that Esther must have been placed as Queen in this Persian Empire to deliver her people from the evil Haman’s plot.
But Esther is not so sure. She knows that there are rules to be followed and that it’s no simple thing to ask for a favor. At best his response will be a simple “no” –as just the act of asking will surely cost her life.
Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s love, but whatever it is Esther agrees to go to ask Xerxes to spare her people saying, “When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
She goes to him and she asks, even though, according to the rules of the empire, she knows the answer already.
She approaches Xerxes, knowing full well that this man cannot set the precedent of granting requests to anyone who asks, knowing full well that what she is doing breaks the law and ensures that she will forever lose her favored place in the court, she goes and asks knowing that the answer will be no and that she will surely die because of it, and she says to the King even though he won’t listen, “If I have found favor with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life – this is my petition. And spare my people – this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.”
I wonder what thoughts passed through her head during the silence that followed. Did she watch his face, or look at the ground; maybe she stared out a window knowing that her father would be hanged but she would not have to live to see it happen.
I wonder if she remembered days of sitting on his lap, his fingers wiping away sweet potatoes, and hearing stories of a God whose will shaped the history of the world, whose will had liberated the people from slavery and Egypt, and the promise that this God would save the people again.
The lessons Mordecai taught her about this God must have seemed like fairy tales - if only the world really worked that way. If only Mordecai’s stories were true, if only the powers of life and death didn’t rest in the hands of a fickle king.
I’ll just imagine it’s true, until my fate is sealed with the word “no.” But that word never came.
King Xerxes demanded, “Who is he? Where is the vile Haman who has dared to exterminate your father and the Jews?”
Imagine the joy Mordecai felt then as he recorded these events, as he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate…to celebrate the time when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration, because his daughter knew the answer to the question, but she asked it anyway.
If only we could be so bold – but what we have learned about the world and how it works almost always prevents us from asking such questions.
We’ve learned that we live in a world disinterested with religion.
We’ve learned that people would rather sleep in on Sunday morning.
We’ve learned that it’s better to get ahead ourselves, that when we catch a lucky break we should take it, and that we can’t worry about everybody else because we need to be worried about ourselves.
So we put away those Bible stories to make our way in the world as Esther made her way in the Persian court. We don’t talk about what we believe, we don’t invite people to church, and we don’t dare hope for a world where there is enough for everyone. If we did we’d stick out, people would stare – think of all we’d stand to lose.
This afternoon in the Town Hall meeting following the 11:00 service you will be presented with some numbers that may incite worry, anger, maybe even panic. I think that the lessons we’ve been taught by the world, like the lessons Esther learned at court lead us to react one way, but our faith, like the faith Mordecai taught Esther will lead us to another.
Our church faces a great trial, but we’ve got to remember that there is a power beyond what meets the eye at work in our world – a power that the world never takes into account.
So let us remember Esther – whose common sense told her one thing, but who nonetheless asked for the impossible, only to find that the God who liberated the people from Egypt was still at work – putting heroes in place, shaping the mind of a king, to save the people again.
Her common sense told her that she should think rationally.
Her common sense told her that all was lost.
And her common sense told her that coincidence, luck, and the will of the king governed the world.
But Mordecai told her that she had been placed here for a reason – for just such a time as this. And today I am bold enough to believe the same thing – that we are all here today for a reason, that we are here today because this is a day when the future of this church needs you the most.
May we be bold – trusting that the God who turns sorrow to joy and mourning into a day of celebration is still at work in the world calling the ways of the world into question – proving once again that the final word does not come from the king, from the bank, from the economy, but from the God who liberated the people from Egypt, set the people free from the vile Haman, and who will work through you to make what seems impossible possible.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Sermon for Jim

1 Peter 5: 10 and 11, page 859
And the God of all grace, who called you to eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To God be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Jimmy Frank Hodges, by his own description grew up in a very, very rich family… who didn’t have any money.
You might say he was a surprise to his middle age parents – the only child of Edna Mae and Benjamin Franklin Hodges, both who had children in previous marriages.
Jimmy Frank, or Jim, was his mother’s treasure, and Edna Mae Hodges was not the treasuring type necessarily. In fact, according to Jim, she was the shoot a shot-gun from the hip type. Even the shoot a shot-gun from the hip killing a dog if it meant protecting her son type.
And she had to learn to shoot, as Jim’s father, Benjamin Franklin Hodges, only had one hand, having lost his left to a circular saw as a boy shoveling saw-dust in a mill.
Jim told stories about this hand, stories, that according to Carol Hodges, Jim’s beautiful wife and friend since the 3rd grade are not exaggerations or made up stories, but are, as they say in Texas, so-tales.
One tale goes that not long after the accident, Jim’s father got a horrible itch in the place his left hand would have been. We non-Texans call these things phantom pains, but back home a wise woman in the general store told Jim’s father that to get the itching to stop he would have to dig up that hand where he buried it, and put it some where safe.
Benjamin Franklin Hodges dug up that hand where he had buried it, to find it covered in ants. He swatted the ants away, brushed it off, and put it in a mason jar of preservatives for safe keeping.
He then took the hand back to that wise woman of the general store who put it up on a shelf for the whole town to see it.
I love this story. Not only because someone I love told it, apparently over and over again, but it hints at a temptation Jim’s father surely fought, but triumphed over, as not only did this young man lose his hand, but he then had to see it over and over again. He was continually reminded of what he lost not only by the stub at the end of his wrist, but by a perfectly preserved left hand. I think I would have been tempted to spend days looking into that Mason jar, thinking of how it appeared as though it could just be attached right back on, but instead it was left to do nothing but sit there on the shelf of the general store.
At the very least it must have been a constant sign, making Benjamin Franklin Hodges one who looked forward to the time our scripture passage alludes to – a day when Christ himself will restore you, make you whole again once the hardship is over.
But there’s no reason to believe Jim ever suffered because of his father’s missing hand. In fact, it sounds as though what he lost made him all the more thankful for what life had given. So no appendage was ever taken from Jim in an accident – though I think everyone who he loved knew that he willingly gave of some part of himself every single day of his life.
He never lost a hand, but to his friends he dedicated himself, gave his time, his thoughts, and his prayers.
He never lost a hand, but to his God he gave his faith, put his trust, so much so that when I asked on his hospital bed not two weeks ago what worries he still had he only told me that he wasn’t sure whether or not Carol quite understood the car maintenance schedule. Thank goodness he has a mechanic son in-law, he said. He never lost a hand, but to his God he put his trust, and he looked forward to the day he would see Jesus face to face and his body would be whole again.
He never lost a hand, but to his family he gave his whole heart—dedicated himself, invested his time, and coordinated his life around them. He never lost a hand to preserve in a jar and put up on a shelf, but Jim Hodges gave his heart to his wife, never stopped thinking of his daughters or the men they married, and always lived with sunshine in his soul and a smile on his face because of his grandchildren.
He never lost a hand, but don’t we look to the space he used to fill and know that today we not only celebrate the life of an important man, but that today we mourn the passing of a man who gave us so much of himself that we will always be reminded of what we have lost.
And when will we be restored?
When will the missing pieces be put back in place?
We have some heavenly promise in our scripture lesson, ensuring us that Jim’s suffering is now over, but what about the suffering that we face in the wake of his death?
There are parts that will just never be the same again, always different, never quite right.
But to spend our days dwelling on what we’ve lost…that just wouldn’t be how Jim would have wanted it. No, Jim, was raised by a father who didn’t spend his time lamenting what he’d lost, he didn’t spend his days staring into a mason jar, wishing for some day before the accident or hoping to jump forward to heavenly restoration, but for whatever reason, was able to rejoice in what he’d been given.
We have lost something precious. Though some have lost more than others, we have all lost something in Jim Hodges.
What he would have us do, is not spend our time looking into a mason jar of loss, thinking only of how we wish it were, but Jim today would urge us to celebrate what we’ve gained by getting to the business of living according to this example.
Cameron Jones, Jim’s grand-daughter Britt’s husband, in letting friends and family know about Jim’s passing in an email ended his message with the words, “More than letting you know what’s going on in our family I hoped to inspire you the way Pappy (Jim) would like you to be – namely, to live life to its fullest.. and then some.”
I tell you that my personal temptation is simply to cry over the loss of the man who believed in me more than I believed in myself on more than one occasion - but focusing on what we’ve lost is simply not what he would have wanted. His example demands that we live, giving of ourselves, our very hearts, to the ones who we love, living life to its fullest… and then some.
The day of suffering has ended for our Jim, as it will for us all. But until that day, that day when restoration comes by the hand of Christ himself, I urge you to live as the one who we mourn lived – giving of yourself, living life to its fullest, and loving as though you were giving away your own heart.

The Invitation

Song of Songs 2: 8-13, page 480
Listen! My lover!
Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My love is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice.
My lover spoke and said to me, “Arise my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”
Every fall feels like something new is starting, and I think that’s because as a student, in high school, and then in college, the fall meant football games, which then meant Homecoming.
And Homecoming made me nervous because it always meant I had to ask someone on a date.
Now when women think of being asked on dates, they experience something totally different from what men feel. I don’t think that women quite understand what it’s like for us. One afternoon in High School my Mom was cooking in the kitchen and I was looking in the refrigerator and she casually said, “So who are you asking to the Homecoming dance Joe?”
“I don’t know Mom. It’s like two weeks away.”
“Well you better ask soon. Those girls have to buy dresses, corsages, shoes, get their hair done… Do you have anyone in mind?”
“I might Mom.”
“All you have to do is ask Joe.”
“I know Mom.”
“You know Joe, if I had any idea how afraid 14 year old boys were of girls I would have been a much more confident 14 year old girl.”
Even now I look back on asking Sara out on our first date and I know that what I was experiencing was not joy; I was no gazelle leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills. In fact, rather than leaping or bounding , my legs were jelly, my teeth were clenching, and my stomach was tightening with the true pain of being in love with someone knowing the risk involved in letting that person know how you feel.
So at some point we summon all the courage – we walk up or pick up the phone to offer the invitation.
Thank goodness you women don’t remember it this way – no – from your perspective the whole thing happens quite differently. There’s excitement, there’s confidence, and there’s that true joy of knowing that you are wanted and that you are in control.
“My lover spoke and said to me, arise my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.”
But I want you to know that’s not how it really happened. It was much more like, “Uh, Sara, I don’t know if you’re doing anything this Friday, but, I mean, if you don’t have anything going on, I understand if you do, but if you don’t, I would really like to take you to dinner and a movie this Friday night.”
Love looks like that; it’s only poetry in retrospect, because in the moment inviting someone into your heart isn’t pretty.
It’s risky, but you do it any way because you don’t have a choice, so you offer the invitation in the hope that your heart might be something desirable, that your companionship might be better than being alone, you take your feelings and you put them out there, and then you wait to see if those feelings will be returned.
And maybe you wait behind the wall, gazing through the windows and “peering through the lattice.” Too afraid to knock on the door, but you can’t go very far because once you’ve offered someone your heart even if you want to run away you can’t get very far without your heart.
Now waiting this way, trying to steal a peak at this person who you love in the hope that seeing them might reveal something about the way the feel about you is very different from what is described in today’s first scripture lesson. David rose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace, and from the roof he looked down to see a woman bathing.
The difference between the two young men, the one described by the Song of Songs and on the other hand, King David, is this: the young man who hides behind the lattice wants to give this young woman something – something very special, but very fragile. He wants to give this young woman his heart. David on the other hand looked down from his roof top and his eyes met something he wanted, and he used his power to take it.
On the one hand you have the beginnings of love, and on the other hand is something much less.
Love is initiated by an invitation, an offer that in the hands of the invitee is a choice – you say yes or you say no, you feel the same way or you don’t. There is a great risk taken in this situation, as if the answer is no then the young man walks away with a broken heart.
On the other hand, King David’s heart would not have been broken if Bathsheba had not been brought to him. For him there was no risk at all – he didn’t even have to talk to her. There was no invitation, there was no risk, and the power to initiate or end the relationship never left David’s hands.
That is not what love looks like, and so God’s love for us is not represented by King David, but by the young man who has offered this young woman his heart, invited her in the hopes that he has something to offer her, and she has the power to say yes or say no.
Just as Christ is referred to as the Bridegroom to the church in the book of Revelation, so here, God’s love is like that of a young boy in love – fragile and sacred.
The young man has something to offer us. Like a young man with a heart full of love God does not look down on us seeing something that God wants or needs, but seeing us and knowing that God might just be able to make us happy, God offers us God’s heart in the hopes that God’s love for us will be received and returned in kind.
While the invitation is something that can change our lives for the better it would not be love if we were required to accept the invitation.
Those of us who have offered our hearts to someone can feel some kinship with God, and can then look to the cross to see a love poured out for a people, and the savage marks of rejection.
But don’t be so bold as to pity God.
God doesn’t want your pity.
Just know this – that when your heart has been broken, God knows the temptation that you face. To hid your heart away and never love again.
God knows what that feels like. But three days later he came back and offered us his heart again.
The temptation is to hide our hearts away after the love we offer is rejected.
But this isn’t an alter call – it’s a call to action. To boldly offer the same invitation that God offers you.
We offer our children our hearts, and then one day that child lies to your face and breaks your heart. But a parent cannot be a parent by hiding a broken heart away, but only by putting your heart out there to be broken again and again can parents exhibit the love that parenthood requires.
To grow up means to weather relationships, some good, and some that make you stronger. But to think that you can avoid the risk by holding a part of your heart back behind a wall makes any thing real impossible. To love and to be loved demands risk, demands the kind of risk that our God is willing to take.
We are called to love each other as God has loved us, and so you must offer your heart – the risk is huge, but it is the risk you must take to inherit the joy true love offers.
See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Here this invitation, and if you have forgotten what it means to be desired know that you are desired. Here this invitation, and if you have forgotten what it means to be loved then know that you are loved. Here this invitation and know that the one who loves you, whose heart is on the line for you, offers a new life with this invitation and this call to go and do likewise: “Arise come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”