Sermon: Esther Week 4: The Spiritual Practice of Celebrating

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Hallelujah! Blessed man, blessed woman, who fear God, who cherish and relish God’s commandments, their children robust on the earth, and the homes of the upright – how blessed! Their houses brim with wealth and a generosity that never runs dry. Sunrise breaks through the darkness for good people – God’s grace and mercy and justice! The good person is generous and lends lavishly; no shuffling or stumbling around for this one, but a sterling and solid and lasting reputation. Unfazed by rumor and gossip, heart ready, trusting in God, Spirit firm, unperturbed, ever blessed, relaxed among enemies, they lavish gifts on the poor – a generosity that goes on, and on, and on. An honored life! A beautiful life! Psalm 112: 1-8

Today is the first day of our Finance Campaign, One Thousand Gifts. This is the title of a book that started as a challenge to author Ann Voskamp, to keep a list of a thousand things she was grateful for, and that turned into a book. Ann is a Calvinist (which is the belief that everything happens for a reason and is caused by God) and I am not, but I recognize her as a soul-sister in her search to look for God in everything. In college I read a book on Calvinist theology that argued that because God causes all things to happen, Christians should be thankful for all things. (This was an interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s advice that followers of Jesus should give thanks in all circumstances.) I was young, and the theology appealed to me that God causes what happens and God is always in control. I remember earnestly explaining the book to my mother who said to me, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that it isn’t my theology that God causes all things to happen… but it is one of my spiritual practices to look for God in all things (if I’m able to… it’s a spiritual practice… not the final exam.) This where I connect with Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts… looking for God and being grateful for where I see God.

Today is the last day of a sermon series on the book of Esther, this little story in the Hebrew Scriptures that asks, “Where is God in all of this?” Michael and I have enjoyed reading excerpts from the story of Esther, and he got the best line on the first week: “Is that what we want, a country of angry women who don’t know their place?” The last few chapters of the book are too grisly to read, as the weak and ineffective king Ahasuerus killed the evil Haman, the enemy of Queen Esther and the Jews, and then gave his royal ring to Esther’s cousin Mordecai, who took the place of Haman as the king’s prime minister, and with the king’s authority, ordered all the enemies of the Jews to be killed. The story continues with the number of their enemies who were killed, which is why the book of Esther has been questioned by Jews and Christians, because no mercy or forgiveness or reconciliation was offered to enemies, but only revenge and murder. Esther ends, however, with a celebration, the festival of Purim, and this is from the last chapter. “Mordecai wrote all this down and sent copies to all the Jews in all King Ahasuerus’ provinces, regardless of distance, calling for an annual celebration on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar as the occasion when Jews got relief from their enemies, the month in which their sorrow turned to joy, mourning somersaulted into a holiday for parties and fun and laughter, the sending and receiving of presents and of giving gifts to the poor. Haman, the archenemy of all Jews, had schemed to destroy all Jews. He had cast the pur (the lot) to throw them into a panic and destroy them. But when Queen Esther intervened with the king, he gave written orders that the evil scheme that Haman had worked out should boomerang back on his own head. He and his sons were hanged on the gallows. That’s why these days are called ‘Purim,’ from the word pur or ‘lot.’ Therefore, because of everything written in this letter and because of all that they had been through, the Jews agreed to continue. It became a tradition for them, their children, and all future converts to remember these two days every year on the specified dates set down in the letter. These days are to be remembered and kept by every single generation, every last family, every province and city. These days of Purim must never be neglected among the Jews; the memory of them must never die out among their descendants.”

Tragically the Jewish people have not always triumphed over their enemies, and so the festival of Purim must be a bittersweet celebration. Yesterday morning eleven worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue were killed by a gunman, and others wounded, and our Jewish brothers and sisters were again reminded that there are still “Hamans” in the world. “Where is God in all of this?” the book of Esther asks, and life itself, asks this question. The book of Esther, echoing life, doesn’t offer any easy answers. It doesn’t mean they’re not there… it means we have to look hard. Looking for God, when it’s not evident that God is present, is a spiritual practice that sharpens our awareness of joy, and beauty, and wonder, and gratitude, and… of God.

On Friday morning I went to Queen of the Valley hospital with Barbara Barrett and Kathryn Tolman to a faith leader’s brunch celebrating Spiritual Care Week. One of the speakers told us about their partnerships and community collaborations and said, “Together we’re stronger.” There was something sacred about her words, and it reminded me of Esther’s story. Mordecai warned Esther of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, and Esther reminded him that to approach the king without being summoned was punishable by death. Mordecai’s response to her was that Esther was a Jew and would die with her people if she didn’t act on their behalf. “Perhaps you were born for just such a time as this” he told her. So Esther asked Mordecai to join her and her maids, and all the Jews, in the spiritual practice of a fast. Esther needed her people to be in solidarity with her as she prepared to be recognized by the king… or die in the attempt. Somehow Esther knew, “Together we’re better.” Part of the Friday event at Queen of the Valley was information about Advance Directives, which as you may know, is about how you want to die. It’s information for the people who love you best, and for those who will care for you, about what you want at the end of your life. Rather than being sad or macabre this was presented as a way to fully live; a recognition that we will all die, and we should have some say in it, and prepare for it, and then continue to fully live. Esther risked her life to save her people, and when their enemies were overthrown, they had a party. Life is short and should be fully lived and celebrated. A Yiddish proverb says, “What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.” The story of Esther ends with celebrating, generation after generation… Jews continue to remember that they were saved by Esther’s courage, and they celebrate.

Did you know that celebrating is a spiritual discipline? My father spoke very little about his family of origin, but once he said to me, “When I was growing up, if we kids were having fun, we were doing something wrong.” My father had a hard time having fun, and when he told me this his childhood I realized that his family hadn’t known how to celebrate. To celebrate is to honor someone, or commemorate something, and even a little celebrating is a way of experiencing joy and gratitude and… God. Where is God in all of this? Sometimes God is found in celebration. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures the Lord commanded the Israelites to celebrate. One of my favorite hymns is “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come. And I hope by Thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.” Ebenezer means “stone of help”, a monument of stones erected by the Israelites to celebrate God’s help in desperate times. In the book of Numbers, God’s instructions for a celebration were, “Make two silver trumpets; you shall make them of hammered work; and you shall use them for summoning the congregation.” And in the book of Deuteronomy, God instructed, “Seven days you shall keep the festival to the Lord your God… and you shall surely celebrate.” One of the most vivid celebrations in the Hebrew Scriptures is King David wildly and joyfully dancing in gratitude to God before the Ark of the Covenant. The church has its own celebrations like Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and… Sunday. Every Sunday is meant to be a little Easter… a little-bitty taste of the glorious, resurrected life. Probably the best known and loved celebration story in the Gospels is the Prodigal Son, in which God (who is the father of the story) wholeheartedly welcomes back his wayward son… the one who’d squandered all of his inheritance and ruptured his relationships with his father and his brother; the son whom the father thought long dead. But in this story the father never gave up hope and never stopped watching at the gate for his son to come back. When the son appeared at the bottom of the driveway, the father forgot his dignity and his disappointment, and he ran to meet his son, hugging him, and kissing him, and commanding the servants to throw a party for the son who had come home. We are meant to see ourselves in this story of the Prodigal… that God never stops watching for us, and waiting for us, and longing for us… and that when we turn to God heaven hosts a wild celebration. In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster explains that how God [shows up] is by sanctifying the ordinary moments of life. So celebrating life is a way of believing and expecting that God is going to show up.

Throughout the book of Esther, we’ve asked, “Where is God in all of this?” Ann Voskamp began keeping a journal of every-little-thing she was thankful for. Sunsets, and clean clothes, and the way dish soap bubbles in the sink, and the sound of rain, and the color of fall leaves, and the list grew to a thousand things. This morning you’ve been given the gift of a small journal to begin your own list of 1,000 things you’re thankful for. Keep it on your kitchen counter or on the dashboard of your car or by your bedside, and number the things, count every little thing, you’re grateful for.

On Friday at the Queen of the Valley faith leader’s brunch, the presenter who said, “Together we’re better” was speaking to me, and to us. The things we do together – love and justice and service and praying and singing and looking for God – are better because we’re doing it together. And together we can do more than we could ever do alone. What are the thousand gifts you’ve received from being part of this spiritual home? Today you’ve received a journal to begin numbering the gifts… and in the numbering, and in the list of gifts, is the practice of looking for God.

Last week I said that what the world needs now is a spiritual home. One of the gifts of a spiritual home (also called a church or a congregation) is having a place to celebrate, to sing, to dance, and a place to go to say, “Wow, God.” and “Thank You, God, for more than a thousand gifts.” In the spiritual practice of celebrating we see God ~ we recognize and express gratitude and feel joy ~ at knowing God is with us. Celebrating helps answer the question: “Where is God in all of this?”

In One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp asks three questions: “How do we find joy in the midst of deadlines, debt, drama, and daily duties?” and “How can you live your life with a heart overflowing with delight?” and, “Will you take on the life-changing practice of journaling God’s gifts… that will allow you to really look at life and find the good in it?” We’ve been challenged in these next four weeks to make a list of 1,000 things we’re grateful for, and to respond with joy, and gratitude, and generosity, for all of them. Naming and counting God’s gifts is a way of celebrating. In this coming week, one of the ways to exercise the spiritual practice of celebrating is to share some of your list of blessings with someone else… and invite them to share what they’re grateful for… and thank God together – and celebrate God’s goodness. Amen.

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