January 29th, 2006

(hidden) wisdom

First Congregational Norwood (Esther 4:9-14)

"Labyrinths are like mazes with one important difference—there are no dead ends in labyrinths. In a labyrinth there is only one continuous path to the center. People can't get lost in a labyrinth as they might in a maze. People walk labyrinths as a way of meditation and prayer."
-from one of their webpages
It's spring that smells like this, right?  Hard not to love it, though it is way too early for this.  March at the earliest, and that's still at least a month away.

My mom commented that she's gotten so used to seeing me in work clothes that it was weird to see me in jeans, whereas it used to be the opposite.  I felt the same way.

With my Ecumenical Advent over, I'm back to having to make decisions/plans about where to go to church.  My Ecumenical Advent taught me that I felt most comfortable at Congregational, Baptist, and Lutheran, so I was thinking of rotating those three with occasional appearances at United.  So today I went to the Congregational church.

The cover of the bulletin said Fourth Sunday After Epiphany.  The pulpit drapes were brown with yellow lettering and fringe.  Dunno what the liturgical significance of that is.  I'm guessing it's Ordinary Time.  [This is not helpful.]  It's not particularly attractive, I think.

Pastor Hamilton opened with a comment about this "uneasonably warm day" and said something like, "How about that global warming?  Not so bad, huh?"  I would like to think that First Churches would never say that, all Environmentall Covenanted and such as they are.  Though of course I get twitchy around liberal talk about global warming, Kyoto, etc. and really am just selfish and love the cold weather and am sick of people bitching about seasonably cold weather (esp. since I get so little sympathy/understanding) when I bitch about the hot&humid summers.

Today was their Annual Meeting (United's, as well; it's that time of year), and when Pastor Hamilton mentioned it at the beginning of the service he talked about it as a time to think/talk about the direction of the church for the coming year.  Huzzah for intentionality.  I cheered internally.  And it made me almost wanna go to United's (except that why raise my blood pressure further?).

During the Prayer of Invocation he again mentioned the Annual Meeting, mentioning the 270 odd years of history this church has (it was founded in 1736) and what a "cloud of witnesses" it must have.

Unison Prayer of Confession (adapted from a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, author of The Serenity Prayer -- so said the pastor, see here for debate)
We give you thanks, O Lord, for life and the joy of existence.  But we confess that we are not worthy of the riches for which generations before us have labored -- so that we might enjoy this heritage.  We confess the sorry confusion of our common life, the greed which disfigures our collective life and sets nation against nation.  We confess the indifference and callousness with which we treat the sufferings and insecurity of the poor and the pettiness which mars the relations between us.  We ask with contrite hearts to seek once more to purify our spirits, renew our intentions, and seek the right path.
Per usual, talk of "worthiness" discomfits me.  And "We confess the sorry confusion of our common life, the greed which disfigures our collective life and sets nation against nation." reminded me of Richard Foster's Prayer book which I had the misfortune to thumb through at Jan's (unfortunate in that I happened to open it up the section on praying for forgiveness for the sins of our nations, which hi kinda bugged me) though thinking about it, it's talking more about how we contribute to global strife rather than "let me apologize for what other people have done," so I'm okay with it.

Apparently this is the beginning of a women in the Bible series.  Clearly I have to stick around for this.  Problematization, ahoy!  (They're also starting an every other Thursday evening Vespers service -- 6:30pm, "30-40 minute meditative, intimate combination of prayer, song, and silence.")

The woman who did the Children's Time [Linda Carlson] said that the story of Esther is like a fairy tale and so she had the children act it out.  The kid who played  Haman (Matthew) was such a ham (er, no pun intended).  And when the king dumped Vashti, she did a very nice haughty walk down the stairs.  Anyway, the woman did a good job of condensing the story for kids.  IIRC, it went like so: Esther is raised by her uncle Mordecai.  They're Jews, but nobody knows -- except Haman.  King has Queen Vashti, but he dumps her and sends servants to find a new queen.  He chooses Esther.  Haman wants to kill all the Jews.  Esther must decide whether to tell the king she's a Jew or not.  She tells the truth.  The king ditches Haman and the Jews are saved.  The end.

The three points to take away from the story:
*Trust God.
*When you think, "Why am I here doing this?" maybe God put you there for a reason.
*You can make a difference.

The Scripture reading was Esther 4:9-14 -- the turning point in the story.  "Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this" (Mordecai to Esther, 4:14, NRSV).

"Do not think that because you are in the king's house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish." (4:13-14, NIV)
Of course Pastor Hamilton read the Martin Niemöller classic (traditional version IIRC; Googling gets me this argument about the order of the lines; see also Wikipedia, which has further thoughts and linkage).

Pastor Hamilton talked about Apocryphal rewrites of the story.  He went on a bit about the Apocrypha, said they weren't part of the canonization of 370/380, which confused me because I know both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches use the Apocrypha and the Protestant Reformation didn't happen until millennia after, plus those dates are later than the Council of Nicea.  Googling gets me Athanasius in 367 and council at Carthage in 387.  And I clearly have no grounding in knowledge about the formation of any of the canons because I feel so at sea even just trying to skim the pages I find.  (Pages skimmed include anabaptists.org, straightdope.com, and bible-researcher.com.)

He read an excerpt from Chapter 14 of one of the apocryphal books in which Esther cries out to God and says she will take off her fine clothes and put on sackcloth and she will not wear fine ointments but put ash and dung in her hair and she repeatedly calls herself desolate, and I thought, "Okay, this modern audience thinks she is playing the victim and asking for rescue and possibly being melodramatic to boot, but --" and I thought about Joel's OT class and the Jewish tradition of calling for God's help, specifically of the Egypt story, of the Jews reminding God of his promise, of how crying out is necessary, and how Israel's concept of itself was as a nation/people younger smaller weaker than the powers around them -- hence their need for God -- and it has been too long since I took that class, but I was still bugged and felt like he was oversimplifying.  Oh, and we can't forget that wavering in the face of what God asks you do to is a grand Jewish tradition.  Later he talked about moments of truth and about the prophets stepping up to the plate, and sure there are people like Isaiah, but what about Jonah?  Heck, what about Moses? [Edit: Sermon title: "When Fate Calls"]

After he read that excerpt, he said: "As an aside, the Catholic Church still uses that version."  Cheap shot, much?  I was reminded of scrollgirl's recent post on Protestant vs. Catholic (riffing off of a West Wing episode; Spoilers for "Two Cathedrals" (2x22) and smaller spoilers for "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" (2x02) in the comments.) and her statement that: "Protestants make a lot of assumptions about Catholics: they don't have good doctrine; they don't read the Bible or, if they do read it, they don't read the right Bible; they're too ritualistic; they set up Mary as an idol; their Eucharist is kind of gross, etc."

He talked about the Apocryphal versions of Esther's story as "rewrites" and talked about how in these rewrites Esther's role is downplayed.
God is mentioned more than 50 times in the rewrites, which I don't see as particularly problematic in a theological text since of course we assume God is acting even when not explicitly named.
He said that Esther is unwavering in the account we have but that in the Apocryphal version "she gets the vapors, like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire -- 'I have always depended on the kindess of strangers.' "  [Reading the Apocryphal account, I imagine he is referring to Addition D.]

He said that Bill Martin in Annapolis says you just have to stand where God put you -- a saying that apparently has been passed down to Bill from his father, his father's father, etc.  [BBM has so permeated my flist that my immediate thought was "if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it."]

He talked a lot about moments of truth, said that religion could be defined as a collection of beliefs and stories that helps you know how to act at moments of truth.  He said moments of truth are a recurrent theme in the Bible -- Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (a moment of truth gone awry), Abraham called upon to sacrifice his son, and perhaps the biggest one: the Garden of Gethsemane.  When he elaborated on that last one I realized he was talking about Jesus, but I had totally thought of the disciples.  *cough*  He said moments of truth can be small, too, don't have to be huge ones like Esther's.

He said he had seen Munich this week, and of course I thought of oyceter's post on the film.  [Much much later I thought of this article which antheia linked to.]  He said he had forgotten until he saw the movie that Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel at the time, so it was she and she alone who decided to strike back at the terrorists.  Blah blah blah, Esther parallels.

In the Preparation for Prayer, Pastor Hamilton mentioned that there have been 30 thousand Iraqi civilians killed, and of course my immediate response was, "And how does that compare to comprable actions in past wars?  Would such engagements in the past have led to far more civilian casualties?" and then my brain actually registered the number and I thought, "That's the minimum for being considered a city -- rather than a town -- here.  So we have the equivalent of one city gone in a country the size of California."  And how many civilians were killed by Iraq's government?  I'm tired just thinking about all the discussions I had in the months following 9/11.

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