Aug. 21 sermon: The Finale

Esther Rembrandt
“Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther” by Rembrandt, 1660

Text used – Esther 6:13-7:10

  • It’s been quite a while since we journeyed through the story of Esther together.
    • Recap the basics (just in case you forgot or you missed a week here or there!)
      • Persian King Ahasuerus banished his queen, Vashti, on the suggestion of one of his advisors
      • Chose Esther as new queen
      • Esther’s cousin and guardian, Mordecai, ended up crossing one of the king’s most powerful advisors, Haman → Haman’s revenge = get the king to endorse a decree to eliminate all the Jews in the Persian kingdom
        • All at once: specific time on a certain day
      • Mordecai got wind of plot and enlisted Esther to help him save their people
      • Esther invited King Ahasuerus and Haman to special feast
    • And that’s where we left Esther’s story about a month ago! We’ve also explored a lot about our faith through the story of Esther along the way.
      • Talked about strength of God’s all-encompassing compassion
      • Talked about the importance of living a life of love
      • Reminded ourselves that ultimate power lies not with us as humans but with that compassionate God
      • Reminded ourselves that in the midst of struggles and pain, God is there with us, sharing our pain and grief
      • Encouraged to seek out creative ways to oppose injustice in the world
      • Heard a warning to not let pride take control of our hearts, our lives, or our faith
  • And today, we come to the climax of Esther’s story … the final showdown between the persecutor and the persecuted … the dramatic finale of what has been a long, crazy, gripping narrative. And as with the rest of Esther’s story, today’s portion of the tale is just as theatrical.
    • Foreshadowing again in the very beginning of today’s text: Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him. Both his friends and his wife said to him, “You’ve already begun to lose out to Mordecai. If he is of Jewish birth, you’ll not be able to win against him. You are surely going to lose out to him.”[1]
      • “Everything that had happened to him” refers to Haman having to so lavishly and publicly honor Mordecai in last portion of Esther’s story that we read back in July
        • King learned that Mordecai saved his life
        • King asked Haman how to honor someone whom he greatly values
        • Haman mistakenly assumed the king was talking about himself, so he concocts elaborate display involving one of the king’s own robes, one of the king’s own horses, and the honored one being paraded through the streets while his praises were shouted for all to hear
        • King loved this idea … but Haman ends up having to do all of that for Mordecai (enemy) → goes home utterly humiliated and begins grumbling and complaining to his friends and his wife
      • So in the midst of Haman trying to build himself back up after such a terrific blow to his pride, his wife and his friends basically said to him, “Give up. This isn’t going to end well for you. You can’t beat Mordecai.” And even while they were all in the midst of discussing this, the palace eunuchs arrived once again to collect Haman and bring him to a feast at Queen Esther’s palace. And as readers, we are left with Haman’s wife’s words of warning hanging in the air. [PAUSE] Remember that.
    • When they got to feast, King Ahasuerus once again asked Esther what he could possibly give to her: “This is the second day we’ve met for wine. What is your wish, Queen Esther? I’ll give it to you. And what do you want? I’ll do anything—even give you half the kingdom.”[2] → Here, friends, is the opening that Esther needed. Here is the exact opportunity that we can only imagine Esther had been praying for. The king – the most powerful man, perhaps in all the world but certainly in her world – has pledged to give her whatever she wants. She needs only to ask.
      • Imagine how her heart must have been racing
      • Imagine how her pulse must have been thundering in her ears
      • Imagine how her nerves must have set loose a thousand butterflies fluttering about in her stomach
      • Think about it for a minute. Do you remember how truly powerful King Ahasuerus was? He banished Vashti with a single decree. He condemned an entire people with yet another decree. He had the power to put a person to death simply for appearing in his presence without first being properly summoned and invited. And Esther was about to ask him for a massive
    • Esther: “If I please the king, and if the king wishes, give me my life—that’s my wish—and the lives of my people too. That’s my desire. We have been sold—I and my people—to be wiped out, killed, and destroyed. If we simply had been sold as male and female slaves, I would have said nothing. But no enemy can compensate the king for this kind of damage.”[3] → Short … sweet … and powerfully to-the-point. Esther doesn’t mince words. She simply and compellingly asks King Ahasuerus for her life and the lives of her people.
      • Can imagine the uproar that follows
        • King demanding to know who has done such a horrible thing to his treasured new queen
        • Esther naming Haman
        • Terror and disbelief dawning on Haman’s face as he realizes what is happening
        • King storming out to pace the gardens (presumably to let a little of his anger burn off) only to come back to find Haman perched on Esther’s own divan (big “no no” … huge!) begging for mercy → throws king into an even greater rage: The king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room just as Haman was kneeling on the couch where Esther was reclining. “Will you even molest the queen while I am in the house?” the king said. The words had barely left the king’s mouth before covering Haman’s face with dread.[4]
    • And once again, King Ahasuerus falls prey to his own suggestibility: Harbona, one of the eunuchs serving the king, said, “Sir, look! There’s the stake that Haman made for Mordecai, the man who spoke up and did something good for the king. It’s standing at Haman’s house—seventy-five feet high.” “Impale him on it!” the king ordered. So they impaled Haman on the very pole that he had set up for Mordecai, and the king’s anger went away.[5]
      • Foreshadowing from first verse in today’s reading is fulfilled
  • Now, I want you to notice something here, because believe it or not, this is where I see God in this part of Esther’s story. Who has been so grievously wronged throughout this tale? Mordecai and Esther and the rest of the Jews. And yet, who is it that calls for such brutal and exacting retaliation against Haman? One of the eunuchs … not Not Esther. Not one of the Jews. The king has already promised Esther ANY.THING she wants. She can have it. It’s hers. All she has to do is ask. She could have asked for revenge as well – for pain, for suffering, for some sort of payback that will make Haman wish he’d never even met a Jew. But she didn’t.
    • Friends, we know that there are lots of times in our lives when we want to “get back” at someone – when we want to take justice into our own hands.
      • Small scale: cut off in traffic, dealing with a rude customer/service person (depending on which side of the counter you’re on) → all those day-to-day slights that leave us feeling frustrated and rankled, those things that sort of fester and gnaw at us until we’re all worked up
      • Plenty of large scale e.g.s: wars and violence around the world (picture of Syrian boy who survived air strikes this week); men, women and children abducted or purchased from family members and forced into human trafficking every year, children taken from their homes and their families and forced to be child soldiers, corrupt government mismanaging and downright stealing aid relief that is mean for thousands of people reeling from natural disasters → We read about situations like these in the news, and they make our blood boil. We want to see something done. We want someone to pay – to be held accountable for the pain and suffering. We want to see justice … or, at least, what we think of as justice.
        • Particular e.g.: mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. just over a year ago – angry and hate-fueled white man named Dylann Roof attended a Bible study at the church, then shot and killed 9 people during the following prayer service before fleeing
          • Later arrested by police
          • During Roof’s bond hearing back in 2015, the family members of his 9 victims were invited to address the court – to shed some light on the lives that he’d so viciously cut short. Very often, these types of addresses (made either by the victims themselves or by family members) are pleas for the court to “exact justice” – pleas for guilty verdicts and harsh sentences before the trial itself has even begun. But not that day. The family members of the 9 victims spoke to the court about forgiveness and God’s grace.[6]
            • Sister of Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor: I acknowledge that I am very angry. But DePayne … taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.
            • Daughter of Ethel Lance: I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.
  • In today’s passage, Esther = champion for those hurting and desperate and in need without exacting revenge → She was the only one in that room that truly had the “right” to ask for revenge – the only one who’s life was actually being threatened by Haman’s evil and hateful plan – but instead, she asked for life. As Christians – as people who declare ourselves disciples of the Living Word, of Love Incarnate, of the One who conquered death to bring eternal life – we are called to follow Esther’s example: to seek life, not payback … to seek restoration, not retaliation … to spread light, not darkness.

[1] Est 6:13.

[2] Est 7:2.

[3] Est 7:3-4.

[4] Est 7:8.

[5] Est 7:9-10.

[6] Elahe Izadi. “The powerful words of forgiveness delivered to Dylann Roof by victims’ relatives” on The Washington Post website, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/hate-wont-win-the-powerful-words-delivered-to-dylann-roof-by-victims-relatives/?utm_term=.78fd03369733. Posted June 15, 2015, accessed Aug. 21, 2016.

[7] tobyMac. “Speak Life” from Eye On It album, released Aug. 24, 2012, ForeFront Records.

Outdoor Service: Something a Little Bit Different

On Sun., Aug. 14, 2016, the OZ congregations gathered in Oronoco for their annual joint service. For the past 5 years, this service has been held at the Goodhue County Fair in Zumbrota. This year, the decision was made to return to hosting an outdoor service and picnic at one of the churches. 

And because we were outside, I thought, “Let’s do things totally differently.”

Okay … full disclosure: I also realized early in the week that we had no way to project sound. For our members who have trouble hearing, that’s a necessity, so that basically cut out any kind of conventional worship element like a sermon. 

So here’s what we did …

 

* Welcome: Brothers and sisters, this is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

* Opening prayer thanking God for the relationship between the two churches, the beautiful day, and the chance to worship together as well as asking God to speak to us in new and different ways as we worshiped.

* Scripture readings:
Psalm 100
Hebrews 10:23-25

* Explanation of Worship
Storybook walk/activities
Prayer Stations

* Re-gathering

* Prayer:
Pastoral Prayer
Lord’s Prayer

* Benediction: Go in peace to love and serve God TOGETHER. Amen!

* Passing the Peace of Christ (this led into our picnic together)

So you may be wondering what the heck a “storybook walk and activities” was or what our prayer stations were. Well … let me tell you! 

Storybook Walk/Activities
My mom is a librarian who does some incredibly fun stuff during her summer reading program including a storybook walk. My dad made 35 sign boards for her – basically a bunch of wooden boards (12″ x 18″) nailed to posts. I pounded the posts into the ground to create the path for our story.

And what story did we use? When God Was a Little Girl by David Weiss.
When God Was a Little Girl
This is an amazing story with beautiful illustrations that tells the story of creation from a totally new and different angle. If you aren’t familiar with this book – if it isn’t already on your bookshelf – trust me … GO BUY IT! It’s fun. It’s creative. It’s the kind of story that will pull in children and adults alike and give you plenty to talk about afterwards. Go buy it … right now!

Okay, so here’s how we used the book. I made color photocopies of all the pages of my copy of the book and mounted them onto the wooden boards with double stick carpet tape (indoor/outdoor is super strong, so that’s what I used). The idea was for people to walk the path, read the story, and enjoying the illustrations as they went along. I actually did this with my 3-yr-old twin boys, and it was incredibly fun, especially since we were reading about beauty and creation out in nature on a gorgeous summer morning!

At most of the pages (not all), there was some sort of activity for people to do as well. Here’s how that went:

  • Pg. 3: Guess the mileage from Madison, WI to Decorah, IA (smartphones not allowed!). The winner got a fancy cupcake purchased from a local bakery. YUM!
  • Pg. 5: I purchased a bunch of 8″ x 10″ foam core boards (because they were a lot cheaper than canvases for 25 people!), and asked everyone to take a board for themselves.
  • Pg. 6: On the boards – Draw a giggle!
  • Pg. 9: On the boards – Draw a song.
  • Pg. 10: On the boards – Draw love.
  • Pg. 13: On the boards – Draw light. *With this board, I included glue and glitter. Since we were outside, clean-up was immediate!*
  • Pg. 14: There was a small pile of river rocks (purchased from local craft store) with hearts on them (using a Sharpie Oil Paint marker). I encouraged everyone to take a rock as a remind of the steadfast and foundational nature of God’s love for them. Also, on the boards – Add water.
  • Pg. 17: We had a card table covered with butcher paper. I asked people to draw flowers on the paper – to create a beautiful garden together as a community of faith.
  • Pg. 18: I put out Play Doh (yes … I borrowed my 3-yr-olds’ Play Doh!) and asked people to use it to create a person.
  • Pg. 25: On the boards – Add a rainbow.
  • Pg. 27: Tip toe to the next sign (because the little girl in the story has almost fallen asleep).
  • Pg. 29: I used Microsoft Publisher (one of the label templates) and basic cardstock to create little cards that said, “GOD LOVES YOU. You are God’s beautiful and unique echo.” Everyone was encouraged to take a card.

Prayer Stations
We also had seven prayer stations set up that people could wander through them and spend as much (or as little) time at each station as they liked. For this, I created small prayer books that were simply 1/2 sheets of printer paper folded into a book with a cardstock cover. On the cover was a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is a daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Here are the prayer stations:

Labyrinth prayer station
Okay, so this is the one prayer station that I planned but didn’t end up having enough time to put together. I was going to chalk a simple labyrinth in one corner of our parking lot. However, there was just too much to put together before church to get this one done, too. That being said, I still think it’s a really great idea for an outdoor prayer station.

Words prayer station
For this prayer station, I used a website to generate a word search that had 50 different words describing faith in it. I used one of the leftover wooden boards from the storywalk and more of the double stick carpet tape to mount the word search in a place where lots of people could look at it at once. I also enlarged the word find to be kinder to less-than-20/20 eyes. 

Water prayer station
This one was easy. We took a few tables out and put them on the lawn. On one of the tables, I simply placed a large bowl of water.

Tags prayer station
I had a large box of basic luggage tags (the ones that look like they’re made out of tan file folders). I put that box along with some colored flair pens at the base of one of our trees and attached this sign to the tree (again … double stick carpet tape). People wrote their prayers on the tags and used the wire on the tags to hang the prayers in the tree.

Scents prayer station
Okay, this one was really fun! I had seven little bowls (custard bowls, my mom always called them), and each bowl had a different scent item in it: coffee beans, a rose, fresh-cut grass, cinnamon sticks, fresh mint leaves, dirt, and … hmmm … can’t remember the last one. (That’s what happens when you wait a month to post stuff. Sorry.) People had time to smell each of these in turn and reflect on what memories those scents brought up for them.

Nature weaving prayer station
This one took a little prep work beforehand. I took some sticks and created a rectangle-ish frame. (I used electrician’s tape in the corners, but however you can get them to stay together works.) Then I used yarn and colorful ribbon to create a loom within that frame. (This whole process took probably 1-1.5 hrs the night before … just FYI.) Before church, I asked a few different parishioners to walk around the church property and gather all sorts of nature bits – leaves, flowers, feathers, bark … anything. They were all lying on one of the tables with the loom for any and all to use. Here’s a close up of the corner (left) and the finished product (right):

prayer weaving collage

Mirrors prayer station
This one was super easy! I went to one of the local craft stores and bought 5 different mirrors – different sizes, different shapes. Then I laid them on the ground. Done! Two quick things about this, though: 1) I made sure that this station was a little way away from the other stations just to be sure no one stepped on the mirrors, and 2) I laid them out in a place that would reflect some interesting things. They were on the edge of a tree area, so some would reflect the tree, some would reflect sky, and some would even reflect the church building (depending on how you look in them).

Well … that’s it! We had a really wonderful time trying some new things and experiencing God in new ways together.

Catching Up …

time neverending

Okay … so I’m a little bit behind.

At the end of July, I took a week of continuing ed leave followed by a week of vacation. This covered Sun., July 24 – Sun., Aug. 7. The following Sunday (Aug. 14), the OZ churches had their annual joint service. We did an outdoor service that was completely and wonderfully unconventional.

And then I took another few days of vacation to head to the cabin with my family.

And then the rest of Aug. – between family obligations and church obligations – got a little crazy.

So now, I’m catching up. So here come:

  • a breakdown of the outdoor service
  • 3 sermons
  • 2 newsletter articles

Yup … bear with me. Thanks!