the king’s response

Scripture:

Esther 7:1-10; 9:20-22

James 5:13-20

Will you pray with me?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

I’ve studied quite a bit of Old Testament in the past few years: Intro to OT, a class on the Psalms, one about the book of Jeremiah, and this semester I’m taking a class that studies creation stories in Biblical-era cultures. None of these classes touched on the book of Esther, though, so it was really fun to learn more about the story and how it won a place in the Bible.

Esther was written in the 4th or 3rd century BCE, and is one of the last books to be added to the Old Testament. Depending on the religious tradition, Esther’s name is Hadassah, Esther, or Hester. There are some versions of Esther with drastic differences: for example, the Septuagint, which is the Greek version, is 100 verses shorter than in the Tanakh, or Hebrew scriptures. In Christian bibles, the extra verses are included in the Apocrypha.

It’s important to note that historians and biblical scholars can find no historical record of any of the characters in this story. There was no King Ahasuerus, no Queen Vashti, no Jewish queen of Persia, but people do speculate that King Ahasuerus represents King Xerxes I. The book of Esther, then, is effectively a fictional novella set in Persia.

There is another really interesting thing to note about Esther that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Old Testament: there is no mention of God. Most of the Old Testament focuses on the Lord’s covenant with the Israelites and then the Jews, and the many ways the Israelites failed to hold up their end of the bargain but eventually come around to right relationship with the Lord. The question I asked myself as I read the book of Esther was this: Where is God in this story?

Our scripture lesson today comes from the climax of Esther’s story. Any storyteller worth her salt knows that she simply can’t start a tale at this point — it would be as silly as telling the punchline without sharing the joke part. So. The average person speaks 130 words a minute, so I offer you a 130 word, 60 second recap of the book of Esther up to the point where we will pick up the story.

King Ahasuerus loved him a good party. Queen Vashti declined to perform her wifely duties, so she was fired and the kin’s people held the first ever Miss Persia contest to find him a new queen. Esther was a nice Jewish orphan, raised by her uncle Mordecai. She was forced to be a Miss Persia contestant, and of course she won, because the book is named after her. Nobody even knew she was a Jew! Some bad eunuchs tried to assassinate the King, but their plan was foiled by Mordecai and Esther. Bad, Bad Haman got a promotion and also really hated the Jews. Mordecai was a man of God, and didn’t respect Bad, Bad Haman, so Haman decided to make Mordecai and the Jews pay by bribing the king to enslave them and do a genocide. But Mordecai was on to Haman and told Esther that God made her queen for such a time as this and this is where we find ourselves.

For such a time as this.

I’ve noticed that when I read the Bible, or any book, really, I tend to look at the story from only one perspective. I focus on the experience of the main character without taking the time to recognize that each of these stories is full of moving parts and complicated characters with unique perspectives.

In verse 3, Esther presents her plea to the King. “Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me — that is my petition —- and the lives of my people — that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the  King.”

Esther puts herself out there. The King doesn’t know she’s a Jew. The King doesn’t allow random requests from people. Esther actually expects to be killed for asking the King to spare the lives of the Jews, but she makes the request anyway. Can you imagine the tension in that moment? Heart pounding in her chest nauseated with the thought that this was how her story was going to end, that she was going to end up a cautionary tale to Ahasuerus’ other wives.

Facing certain death, she asks anyway. And the king listens.

Not only that, the king BELIEVES HER, and takes action.

King Ahasuerus is shocked, SHOCKED I tell you. So shocked that he gets up from the meal and goes into the garden. This is a guy who, in chapter one, we are told loves to eat and drink and lives a truly hedonistic lifestyle. Esther interrupted him doing his favourite things, and to everyone’s surprise, he didn’t order Esther’s death, but instead got up and went for a walk in the garden to think.

When he comes back, he sees that Haman has literally thrown himself on the Queen for mercy, and takes even greater offense at Haman’s choices. King Ahasuerus orders Haman’s death.

So where is God in this story, where God is not named?

The way I’ve always heard this story told is that Esther is the hero of the story. After all, she uses her proximity to the king to help protect her people. But I want to suggest to you that within our context, as people who know and believe the Gospel of Christ, that perhaps the king is our hero.

In Matthew 5, we are told the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our hear, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as we love ourself. It’s unlikely that Ahasuerus loved the Lord, but in this moment, he loved his neighbor.

In Micah 6, we are told that what the Lord requires of us is to love mercy, seek justice, and walk humbly with God. King Ahasuerus was merciful to the Jews, enacted retributive justice on their behalf, and humbly walked back his previous orders to bring the Jews to harm.

King Ahasuerus uses his power for good, and protects and preserves the historically oppressed Jews. These people have been enslaved to the Egyptians, to the Babylonians, and were about to be enslaved by the Persians. He reaches out to the far edges of his sphere of influence, and prevents the destruction of the Jews because a woman spoke truth.

Historically, women in Western culture are not often believed. We are doubted, called, “too emotional,” and dismissed. Women in the Bible were not always believed, either. Luke 24:10-11 says, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The fear of not being believed didn’t stop these brave women from speaking the truth.

How often do we listen only to the people in power? How often do we get caught up in the he said-she said, or its twin sister, Partisan Politics? How often do we give the benefit of the doubt to the powerful, and cast blame or aspersion on the weak, simply for being weak?

The Gospel of Christ calls us to a higher standard. It’s in our rule book that we extend compassion and mercy to people who are suffering. It’s written right there in our rule book that we extend compassion and mercy to people who are suffering. It’s right there in black and white that we are called to pursue justice. It’s in our syllabus that we need to be clothed in humility — and that means sometimes we have to stop talking, and stop defending our positions, and simply listen to another perspective.

Let’s follow the example of King Ahasuerus in today’s scripture, and really begin to practice listening and loving the people around us.

we have blood on our hands

a meditation for 09/11/2018

scripture

Old Testament Reading: Lamentations 3:22-51

Reading from the Psalms: Psalm 51: 1-6, 10-12, 15-19

New Testament Reading: Romans 12:9-21

prayer

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, oh God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

on that day

I had just finished teaching my first class of the day — eighth grade math — and wandered next door to say good morning to Laurie, my colleague and the history and 7th grade homeroom teacher at the tiny Catholic school where we worked. She was on the phone, which was unusual for that time of day, and suddenly clambered around desks and over a table to turn the television on. A skyscraper was on fire. Before either of us could process what was going on, an airplane crashed into an adjacent building. You’ve all probably seen the footage by now: smoke, flames, mangled steel; and perhaps the muscle memory in your abdomen can summon the clench and the nausea and the horrified disbelief that clawed on our spirits when the towers collapsed on themselves, burying thousands of victims.

It wasn’t just New York, of course, there was a plane that crashed through a wall of the Pentagon, and another headed that way which was diverted by its brave passengers, and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. My brother had been scheduled to work in the Pentagon that day, but like so many others, something prevented him from arriving at his destination in a timely fashion. It was a very long day waiting to hear the news that, no, he wasn’t there, and yes, he was safe.

Our Romans scripture says “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.”

What happened on September 11, 2001, was tragic, but let us create space for the thought that the events that led up to the terrorist response and and things that happened as a result of September 11 are equally as tragic and painful to God.

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One of the questions that was voiced frequently in the time following the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon was, “Why would anyone do this to us?” I admit that back in 2001, I didn’t know the answer to that question. It was about five years ago that I began to learn about the way United States foreign policy, and overt actions from our government impacted the Middle East and surrounding areas, and realized that the bed we have made for ourselves as a nation is a dangerous one with blood-stained sheets.

And it’s not just the United States that has been violent and othering. Christianity itself adopted the sword as its venerated symbol when Constantine had his miraculous vision the night before the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Slash and burn doesn’t sound much like “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”

Pastor Brian McClaren was quoted in a book we read for Kairos class. He said,

“Instead of a gold-plated, bejeweled spear-cross with the words “Threaten and kill by this,” imagine that Constantine had seen a vision of a basin and a towel with the words, “Serve by this,” or a vision of a simple table of bread and wine with “Reconcile by this,” or a vision of Christ’s outstretched arms with “Embrace by this,” or a vision of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field with “Trust like this,” or a vision of a mother hen gathering her chicks with “Love like this,” or a vision of a dove descending from heaven with the words, “Be as kind as this.” But it was not so.”

It was not so.

blood on our hands

In this country, it has always been more important to own land than it has been to give to the least of these. It was more important to be capitalist than it was to free the enslaved.   It was more important for white women to get the vote than it was to get the Civil Rights Act passed. It is more important to be a patriot than it is to closely read history and think critically about how the United States has engaged the world.

It was more important to hang our flag on the oil rigs out in the Iraqi desert than it was to take the time to learn that the country the West named Iraq was really composed of three distinct people groups who did not all reside within the border we drew due to their nomadic culture.

In this country it was more important to one-up the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by enlisting the help of a Saudi businessman than it was to embrace or reconcile. It was more important to cast aside the Afghani people, Afghanistan, the mujahideen, and the businessman and pursue better opportunities than it was to make a legitimate effort to stabilize the area. It was more important to fuel the war machines than it was to cultivate peace.

Allan Aubrey Boesak tagged a thought to McClaren’s:

Indeed, I would add just one thing. Imagine that Constantine, having seen all of the above, had a vision of Jesus on the cross, overcoming the power of violence and domination and death with the power and of love and servanthood and sacrifice, with the words, ‘Resist by this.’

The United States of America has blood on its hands. We most certainly have the blood of our own people on our own hands. This blood is the blood of Native people, of the enslaved. It is the blood of the British, the French, the Germans, the Dutch, the Russians, the Lebanese, the Saudis, the Iraqis, the citizens of Iran, the Armenians, the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Yemeni, the Yazidis. And that is not a complete list. According to the Googles, there are 195 countries in the world today, and I think we would be hard pressed to name one that we haven’t soiled, directly or indirectly.

 Resist by this.Image result for picture of a person standing with arms extended out to the side

wounded christ

In his book Exclusion and Embrace, scholar Miroslav Volf talks about the way Paul died to his own self, and centered his life on Christ. Volf says, “the self is never without a center; it is always engaged in the production of its own center.” Volf suggests that the self becomes de-centered and re-centered by becoming nailed to the cross in an act of becoming united with Christ. The pain of the nail drives out the attentions, desires, and relationships of the flesh while simultaneously tethering us to Christ. When our lives are constantly being re-centered on Christ, we are making a conscious decision to step back from the world and into unity with Christ.

There is a remarkable essay by Frederick Bauerschmidt called “The Wounds of Christ.” Bauerschmidt says that there is a wound at the very center of creation. The wound of God was created when God renounced being everything in order to create light and dark and land and sea and space out of Godself. Creation is defined by presence, and the wound is the place from which life flows out. He calls this wound “the free place of possibility” because nothing is present in the wound, but anything and everything can happen because of it. The presence of creation tries hard to bandage the wound, to heal it, but applying presence to absence is not a strategy that works. We are creation, and because we flow out of the wound of possibility, we are indeed co-creators in this present world. In our presentness and with our presence, we create other wounds.

Crucifixion was the worst possible death for the worst possible criminal. It was so degrading and horror-filled, that some did not dare to speak of it. But it is critically important to remember that the suffering of the powerless and the enslaved in the moment of that violent death is “a sacrament which bears witness to that form and makes it present.”

Bauerschmidt asks, “What, then, was this wound of Jesus?” How do we understand and respond if the particular wounds of Jesus are so violent, so unthinkable, and so unspeakable?  Mother Julian answers:

With a kindly countenance our good Lord looked into his side, and he gazed with joy, and with his sweet regard he drew his creature’s understanding into his side by the same wound; and there he revealed a fair and delectable place, large enough for all humankind that will be saved and will rest in peace and love. And with that he brought to mind the dear and precious blood and water which he suffered to be shed for love. And in this sweet sight he showed his blessed heart split in two, and as he rejoiced he showed my understanding a part of his blessed divinity, as much as was his will at that time, strengthening my poor soul to understand what can be said, that is the endless love which was without beginning and is and always shall be.

The wound is the blessed, sacred heart of Jesus, split in two, out of which endless love flows. And it is by this wound, and with this sacred, cleansing blood that we are able to once and for all remove these damn spots from our hands and our souls.

It is only by re-centering ourselves by being nailed to the Cross like Jesus that we will be able to begin to transform the world in which justice and injustice, goodness and evil, innocence and guilt, purity and corruption, truth and deception crisscross and intersect. It is only by re-centering ourselves that we can begin to be guided by the recognition that the economy of underserved grace has primacy of the economy of moral deserts. 

When we resist like this *ARMS OUT*, the work of reconciliation should proceed under the assumption that, though the behavior of a person may be judged as deplorable, or even demonic, no one should ever be excluded from the will to embrace, because at the deepest level, the relationship to others does not rest on their moral performance and therefore cannot be undone by the lack of it.

When we become crucified with Christ and re-centered, and when we place our hands in the wounds of Christ, and truly begin to live to God and with God and by God and through God, we create space to lament what has come before, and to plot a new course in history where we actively live the Gospel of Christ: loving our neighbors, standing with the oppressed, and becoming the living embodiment of God’s justice and mercy.


Amen.

But why the wilderness?

(There's a link at the bottom of the post to an mp3 of this sermon.)

Hear ye, hear ye! “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” What’s this about good news? The author of the Gospel of Mark sure did know how to grab his listener’s attention. Not all the other gospel authors penned such an auspicious beginning to their version of the story.  Matthew opens up with seventeen verses of genealogy. There are a whole bunch of people who are really into genealogy, but still — that’s almost a whole Bible page of begetting. Luke starts by saying, “Look.  I know everybody and their brother has written about the life of Jesus. But. You just gotta hear this one.” And John’s gospel begins by dissecting Trinitarian theology. It’s not light reading. But Mark draws you in… his gospel is the very first account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. Picture the listeners on the edge of their seats, leaning in with wide eyes. Tell me about this good news!

But does Mark talk about Jesus right away? Does he give the people what they want? He does not. The beginning of the good news of Jesus doesn’t start at Jesus’ conception, or  earlier when the angel came to Mary, or even earlier than that when Zechariah and Elizabeth heard the good news about their shocking pregnancy. It isn’t good storytelling to get to the good stuff straight away. No, Mark takes his listeners down memory lane and revisits the book of Isaiah, which says,  “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

Mark’s Jewish listeners would definitely recognize these verses. After all, they had been relying on verses like these that promised their Messiah was coming for thousands and thousands of years. It’s possible that some of the listeners were alive back when Jesus was doing ministry, and when he was crucified, and they might remember hearing the assertions that Jesus really was the Messiah, the Son of God.

A voice in the wilderness

So who was this voice in the wilderness? And what was he doing all the way out there? In the book of Isaiah, the voice belongs to a mystery prophet. He’s not identified, and it seems that the prophet’s purpose is to assure the people of Israel that God has plans to restore Zion, and to provide for them. But Mark is different. Mark knows the prophet is John the Baptist. Mark 1.4 says “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins.”  That’s a message of restoration for the people of God.

A message of restoration, delivered out in the wilderness. That is a pretty interesting juxtaposition of ideas there — restoration and wilderness. What do New Yorkers think of when we hear the word WILDERNESS? Maybe the Adirondack State Park? Rolling mountains, trees, lakes, wildlife, brushy undergrowth, beautiful colors in autumn. You can hike — or stroll — on trails, paddle a canoe, go horseback riding, and swim. There are places for rustic tent-camping, and even fancy “Adirondack camps” for those of us who require a door and a floor and indoor plumbing. Our wilderness is lush and beautiful and full of life. It’s a place to get away from the rush of real life, for quiet reflection, and relaxation.

But Mark’s Middle Eastern context of wilderness?  That wilderness is so different from our wilderness. This particular area in Mark’s narrative is thought to be between the Dead Sea and the Sinai Peninsula, which is what we know as the western Israel/eastern Egypt area. The Dead Sea is so salty nothing can survive in it, and the Sinai Peninsula and surrounding areas are basically a desert: hot, dry, sandy, prickly vegetation, that’s full of snakes, scorpions, bugs.  That’s a great big NO THANK YOU from me.

There are some of us who have experienced the wilderness of Mark’s Middle East firsthand, but even if we haven’t traveled abroad, there is something recognizable about the idea of wilderness. It’s empty. Uncomfortable. Challenging. Desolate. Alone.  So why does God use the wilderness?

We know that in the Old Testament, God used the wilderness the same way some of us have utilized “The Corner” — as a place for time out. Take the Israelites, marching to the Promised Land. They could not get their act together, and did everything from whining incessantly to building a golden calf. And finally, when they were so close to entering the Promised Land they could just about taste that milk and honey, they couldn’t get past their unbelief.  The wouldn’t trust God to continue to provide for them. God responded by giving them a forty year time out in the desert. What a merciful, kind God to be patient for such a long time before sending the Israelites to time out. I don’t know about you, but I’d have lasted for maybe five minutes with thousands of people whining before I turned that car around.

Not to spoil the end of Mark’s gospel, but Jesus fulfilled all of the prophetic scripture, and his death and resurrection restored the relationship between us and God, so God doesn’t really send people to time out any more. But. God doesn’t prevent us from going to the wilderness, either, because there are three really amazing things that can happen to us in the wilderness: revolution, revelation, and restoration.

Revolution

Wilderness is a place where people are tempted and tested. In the verses that follow today’s scripture, Mark introduces Jesus, and tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, and how a voice from heaven declared Jesus the Son, the Beloved. Right after that, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness for forty days of temptation and testing. Times of hardship are wilderness experiences, too. We face conflict, struggle, and sickness on a personal level, and on even larger levels. Just this week we have seen fighting over the tax code and legislation, lawsuits about wedding cakes and discrimination, the official recognition of a nation’s capitol that has inflamed a 100 year old conflict. All of those are tests and are rife with temptation.

Revolution begins with conflict. Whether we see the conflict approaching, or whether we wake up one morning and discover that we are embedded in a campaign of shock and awe, we know that revolution is part of life. Sometimes it is sudden, and sometimes it’s so slow it seems more like evolution, but ultimately this kind of test delivers change.

It’s probably a good thing that revolution happens in the wilderness, because the wilderness is big enough for both the revolution and for our response. We can stomp our feet all we want, there aren’t any doors to slam, and if we throw rocks nobody will get hurt. We can shout and carry on and tell God how we really feel about the big, dumb, painful test. Wilderness gives us space to ask, “But why?” and space to listen to the silence when the answer doesn’t come as quickly as we hope it would.

Revelation

Wilderness is a place of revelation. Wilderness is a space created by God for us to experience meditative solitude, growth, and one-on-one interaction with God. We don’t need to create space for growth when we are in the wilderness; wilderness is full of space. It is overflowing with space. Growth happens in the wilderness.

Christians began forming monastaries in the third century. By the fifth century, there was a movement in the monastic community, where monks would journey out into the desert in an effort to intentionally cultivate an awareness of God’s presence, and to experience God in each moment of the day. This group became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The Desert Fathers and Mothers lived plain and simple lives, away from the rush of the world. They intentionally stepped back and detached from worldly desires, clarified their minds, and reordered their priorities so they

were able to focus on God in every moment.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers created a desert of the spirit, in the actual desert, where they could be fully present in the face of silence, waiting, and temptation, where they could wait for revelation. A revelation demands a response, and to respond to it means some kind of inner revolution. Revelation involves being made over, made new, being born again. In the wilderness we wait, we weep, and we learn to live.”

Restoration

And finally, the result of revolution and revelation in the wilderness is restoration. As we journey through testing and temptation, through conflict and change, we arrive at a place of restoration. Restor

ation doesn’t look like a spit-shined version of ourselves before we went to the wilderness. God doesn’t spend all that time and effort with us in the wilderness to deposit us back where we were before the test or before the conflict. God’s restoration takes us beyond who and where we were. Restoration makes us better; in the vast space of the wilderness, we can draw close to God, and emerge from the wilderness at the next level.

But why wilderness? Why are we talking about wilderness in the middle of Advent? The wilderness is a place of deep spiritual encounter. Advent is a time for creating space for a deep spiritual encounter. We are making room for Jesus to be in our lives. We are waiting to hear about the good news of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the beloved Son of God. The good news is that when Jesus was born, all the promises God made in the Old Testament became reality. The good news is that Jesus taught us about love; he taught us about doing all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. We like to credit John Wesley for that, but I’m pretty sure he got it from Jesus. 

Friends, the good news is that even when we are deep in the wilderness, God is there, too, holding us while we storm through revolution.  God is with us, whispering truth while we wait for revelation. And God is there, arms open wide, to celebrate our restoration.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

I Will Seek Them Out

If you’ve been in class with me, or if I’ve taken one of your classes, you may have noticed that I am a knitter. Some people doodle, some people twiddle their thumbs… I make fabric by tying elaborate knots in fiber string with two sticks. This week, I’m knitting a yellow hat, but I usually work on socks. Socks are utilitarian objects, simply constructed, and crazy comfortable. You can make socks out of stuff called sock yarn, which is shockingly thin to people who don’t knit socks. You can use “regular” yarn, which is what sweaters are knit from, and you can even use really thick, bulky yarn if you want a big, cozy pair of slipper socks.  My favourite kind of yarn to knit socks is wool yarn that has a little bit of nylon twisted in for added strength and stretch.

Wool yarn itself has a pretty cool story — it starts out as fuzzy curls on sheep, and goes through a giant process of being clipped off the sheep, then cleaned, washed, brushed, brushed, brushed, and eventually spun into yarn.

I am a tiny bit embarrassed to confess to you that I never really held together my affinity for all things knitting and wool with my affinity for Scripture until I spent some time with this week’s lectionary reading. I don’t know if this admission will get my either my Seminary or Pro Knitter Membership cards pulled. But I’ve learned some interesting things about sheep.

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The sheep metaphor is strong throughout the Old and New Testaments. Back in the day, this might have been a really useful tool for teaching about God considering that shepherds and sheep were known throughout the many cultures in the Bible. Using sheep to teach about God and the church is probably the equivalent of telling a sermon story about Facebook or the many orange barrels that dot the highways in New York State. But for us today? Sheep are not super relevant.

Sheep are social animals. They stick together in groups called flocks, because sheep are prey, and there is safety in numbers. If one sheep is threatened, its only reaction is to flee the situation, and when one sheep flees, the rest of the flock follows it. When one sheep is isolated from the flock, it becomes stressed immediately. This stress can be so intense and overwhelming that the sheep will quickly become sick if the stress levels continue at a high rate. Not only can an isolated sheep not protect itself, it also is at risk of death from stress.

The flocking instinct can be positive for the group of sheep, but it can also be dangerous. In Turkey in 2006, every single sheep in a 400-member flock plunged to their deaths when one of the flock fled off the edge of a ravine. Sheep cannot be guaranteed to lead themselves well; they require a shepherd.

Shepherds can prevent unmitigated fleeing. Shepherds can guide their sheep away from land that has been thoroughly grazed, away from piles of stool infested with mites and parasites. Shepherds can lead their sheep into the shade when it is hot — sheep will not relocate to escape the heat. They will lay down and die of heatstroke. Shepherds can ward off predators, and take steps to keep their flock peaceful and stress-free. Shepherds notice when the sheep arrive back at the pen out of order. They know that there’s a problem when the sheep who is usually toward the front of the flock is walking at the back of the flock.

*******

Can you see the parallels? Humans are social animals, even those of us who identify as introverts. We stick together in groups called friends, families, and co-journeyers. Humans are predators, yes, but we are just as often prey. We have a couple more reactions to danger than just fleeing — we also fight and freeze. When humans are isolated from other humans, we become stressed, sad, and lonely. Sometimes entire groups of humans become isolated from their regular habitat, or their communities, and I think we all know how horribly damaging that can be.

Humans need shepherds, too. We need shepherds to walk with us as we travel; we need a shepherd in times of stress. We need shepherds to make sure we have adequate food and water, and to lead us into shelter in times of storm. We need shepherds when we lose our footing, or step out of line, or when we find ourselves dangerously close to the precipice.

The shepherd is concerned with the well-being of the whole flock, it’s true. But which of the flock receives the bulk of the shepherd’s energies?

The answer is in our scripture from Ezekiel 34:16, then verses 20-22: 

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

The lost. The strayed. The injured. The weak. The ravaged.

I WILL SEEK THE LOST. I will feed them with justice.

Friends, this is the story of the Incarnation of Christ. We are here today, teetering on the edge of the season where we celebrate the Advent of our Saviour, where we fill our time with extraneous activities that we have been conditioned to believe are meaningful, so much that we often miss the entire point of why that baby was in that filthy manger.

The magic of Christmas is that Christ came to earth as the God-Man to seek the lost. The magic of Christmas is that Christ who always is God, and had always been the Logos became a man, and existed simultaneously and fully as God and Man for one reason: to go out into that far country (to quote Karl Barth), so that all the lost would be found.

The magic of Christmas didn’t happen in a barn. It didn’t happen in that little town of Bethlehem. It really happened somewhere inside a closed-up cave outside Jerusalem, sometime between Good Friday and the Resurrection. It happened because Christ joined our flock, and became a sheep like us, and gave himself over to the Predator to pay the price for that time we used our horns to push another sheep out of the way, or used our hooves to trample one another on the way to the top of the heap. He didn’t flee, or trip one of us up so that we could be the prey. He knew his role, our loving Shepherd-Sheep-God-Man, and not only did he fix it so that we don’t have to be the prey any more, but he also showed us how to see the lost, the strayed, and the weak. He modeled how we should love our flock.

*****

What does it mean to model how we ought to love our flock? First and foremost, it means we need to know how many are in our flock and who they are, and then we need to identify the ones who are lost or lagging behind. Where are they: the lost, strayed, injured, weak, and ravaged? Not at the center of the flock. And they are definitely not the ones at the head of the flock.

They are the ones on the edges, in the margins. The ones who are hungry and need food. They are thirsty and in need of water; naked and needing clothing. They are the ones who are sick, and imprisoned, and need to be visited. And whenever we come alongside the marginalized and buoy them with deeply needed resources, we are not only shepherding well, it’s as if we are shepherding Christ. And when we shepherd like Christ, we become the hands and feet of Christ, and we tell the story of the Incarnation with our very lives.

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Here’s the thing, though. Sometimes the margins seem really far away. It’s so much easier to go the same places you always go, and to leave the margins to someone else. It’s so much easier to blame the people who are on the margins, for being in the margins, than it is to help. 

Therefore, God, the Master, says: I myself am stepping in and making things right between the plump sheep and the skinny sheep.  Because you forced your way with shoulder and rump and butted at all the weaker animals with your horns till you scattered them all over the hills,  I’ll come in and save my dear flock, no longer let them be pushed around. I’ll step in and set things right between one sheep and another. Ezekiel 34:20-22 (The Message)

Just as Christ entered the wilderness alongside us, to bring us to himself, we need to go out from our comfortable places. We need to get up out of our pews, walk out the door, and meet the people who are lost, in the places where they are.  We need to come armed with food for the hungry, and drinks for the thirsty. We need to stand between the plump sheep who force their way with shoulders and rumps and horns, and the weaker ones who are getting pushed around. If we are to imitate the Shepherd, we need to get out of the barn.

This is the Gospel of Life. This is the euangelion. This is the legacy of the Jesus Way. And if we learned anything by studying the life of Jesus, we know that it is not an easy path. Jesus was on the road for the entirety of his ministry. Jesus walked that road even unto suffering, and into his death.

And he asked us to walk with him, and to live our lives as a gift, just as Christ lived and died.  I invite you to spend some time in the wilderness this Advent season, and to take on the mantle of the Shepherd. Let’s travel out across the hills to seek the lost and live like we really believe in the miracle of Christmas.

lesson of the week: in which i tell you that ginormous bugs are grotey

We caught an enormous insect at the Farmers’ Market on Friday. Seriously huge. The thing is about three inches long and has super humongo legs. I never knew we had such horrific things in New York, and I  honestly believe that things like that should live in the jungle where they belong.
The Googles tell me it’s a Giant Water Bug, and that it is CARNIVOROUS. The short people put it in a canning jar that was in the back of my minicoopervan, and I figured that we’d figure out what it was and then bring it home and feed it to the chickens because they are super grateful when we bring them tasty treats like bugs as big as their heads.
AND THIS IS WHY YOU SHOULD ALWAYS CONSULT THE GOOGLES, PEOPLE. Because if the Giant Water Bug were to bite one of my chickens before the chicken killed it, THE CHICKEN WOULD DIE. Pretty much instantly. I’m pretty sure the bug is a distant cousin to the honey badger. There was a story of a human adult who was bit on the hand by the Giant Water Bug and they couldn’t use their hand for two weeks. That is MESSED UP, y’all. New York bugs should not be that intense.
So. We decided to let the bug die, except it was taking a really LONG time to kick it, so Henry decided to put it in the freezer so that it would die more quickly. The people want to give it to their besties at homeschool group this week, and we promised to deliver it dead. The Besties are five brothers who are pretty excited about this bug.
The Mister inquired after the bug this morning, and was not impressed with the Death By Freezing Method, because he thinks the bug will only go dormant and hibernate in the freezer instead of dying properly, as any well-mannered carnivorous bug would do, or, as I like to call it FACILITATING THE SCIENCE PROJECT.
Either way, the bug is in the jar, and it will remain in my freezer until homeschool group day, at which time it will be removed from the freezer and given to The Besties, who have been forewarned of the bug’s carnivorous nature, and will not let it attack them, their dogs, or their mother. Or their chickens.

flush.

I have been sitting on the sofa all afternoon with a (shameless plug) hotsy-coldsy bag on my left eye.  You might think a lot of things about how this came to be, but I will just tell you straight away:  It was my own stupid fault.  
Really, it was.  
I put the contact in my left eye this morning, and it felt uncomfortable, and instead of just taking it right back out of my eye and giving it a good old rinse-off, I left it there.  Uncomfortable became more uncomfortable became sting-y became scratchy became white-knuckled pain.  And by that time?  I was not at home.  In fact, I was at an outdoor picnic in the bright! blazing! sunshine!   Completely useless tears were pouring down the left side of my face.  
A person with more sense and a less horrible prescription would have removed her contact before it got this far.  But NOT ME!  I am a stick-er-out-er.  That dead horse over there?  Yep, that was me, and I have the souvenir beater stick to prove it.
I do this sticking-it-out-keep-on-trying thing all of the time.  The Mister will verify this for you.  It’s not pretty, and it’s not rational.  But I persist.  I make mistakes and I try to fix and fix and fix and all I accomplish in the end is epic levels of awkward and ick.  I notice something heading south (no offense, Southerners) and I figure it will rectify itself as if things actually do that on their own.   It’s a whole other kind of awesome that leaves a spectacular pit in my stomach, or a spectacular pit in my eyeball, as is the case today.  Just keep blinking, just keep blinking, just keep blinking…
So I ask you:  how do you learn to stop, to put on the brakes and to lay down the beater stick?  And do any of you suffer from this same bout of nonsense as me?  

you will thank me for this one

I am not a fan of wearing shorts. They are fine for other people, except for excessive thongishness, visible coin slot, or epic brevity. They are not fine for me.
I prefer skirts. Long ones, knee-length, even (gasp!) a teensy bit above the knee. Skirts are cool, they are feminine, they are pretty… Everything that shorts are not.
However.
It’s hot. And in my area of the world, we have The Humidity. The Humidity causes a girl to have sticky skin. Everywhere. And this can make the wearing of the skirt a little bit uncomfortable. I have the body of a mama who has birthed four babies in a relatively short amount of time, and that is fine with me.
It’s fine with me EXCEPT FOR WHEN MY THIGHS STICK TOGETHER LIKE… WELL… ummm… They just stick together, okay? And it’s gross. I don’t like it, not one little bit.
But people, I am pleased to announce that despite the heat and humidity and the thigh bounty I possess, I am free of The Thigh Stickies. I can tell from the stunned silence and the slightly cringing looks you are wearing that you are hesitant to hear the solution. Never fear, my dear ones. It’s safe, easy to administer, and I’m positive that you already have this valuable item in your possession.
Deodorant.
It’s not really the no-odor ingredient you need, but the antiperspirant one. Just take your Dove or your Arm and Hammer or the homemade stuff your crunchy pal made you, and slather your thighs with it. (wondering if the pervs are going to arrive thanks to that last sentence.)
Don’t let your thigh chub get you down.  Slap some deodorant on your gams and head out the door.  Happy summer, and also?  You’re welcome.

power ballad.

This is a seriously powerful song.
The songwriter is gay, and wrote about her own experience.

But.

It could be about me.
I’m sure I do not measure up.
I’m confident that I fail to meet the expectations.
I am human.

It could be about you.

Try this:
Pray about people, things you don’t like…
things you don’t understand…
Not that God will change them, 
but that He will soften your heart.

But if this God to whom you pray
is the same God I was raised to believe in
you’d better take it up with Him

This is me, here we are
I know I may not be everything you wanted
but this is all I’ve got

This is me, talk to God,
He’s the one you really ought to ask these questions
because I am all his fault
This is me

( Thank you, Jen Foster.)

ask, and the bloggess will answer. honestly. she will.

I am guessing since it’s Sunday, that you probably have nothing else to do whilst waiting for the pot roast to finish cooking. Or whatever it is that you people eat on Sunday.

(Today, we’re eating grilled turkey tenderloin kabobs with sun gold tomatoes, peppers, onion, mushrooms and summer squash, with a healthy side of corn on the cob. Followed up with the most amazing chocolate cake EVAH, and you can take that to the bank, also homemade coffee ice cream. It’s a big old party ’round these parts. Of the birthday variety. And no, I don’t quite cook like this every single day, but all of those food items were requested by the birthday person. Who is not someone I actually blog about. So don’t ask.)
Anywhooooo…..
Jenny the Bloggess. She has this column called Ask The Bloggess, where (duh) people ask her questions and (double duh) she answers them. Well, way back when Ask The Bloggess kicked off, sometime in April, I sent her a question.
And don’t’cha know, The Bloggess came through and answered my question.
So unless you are a sibling of mine with XY going on in your DNA, you should totally click over and check it out. Unless you are easily offended by humorous wrongness, then maybe you should skip it. But if you *are* easily offended by humorous wrongness, maybe you SHOULD click over, you know, stretch your boundaries, grow as a person and whatnot.
Just a suggestion. Gosh, you’re easily offended. Back off already.