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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rejoicing in the Communion of Saints

November 1 is All Saints’ Day. In anticipation and celebration of this feast day, young, old and in-between will gather in the Community Hall on Saturday morning, October 31, from 10:30 a.m. to noon to make cross collages for those we love who have died. Pastor Carri will be on hand with foam-core crosses, glue sticks, scissors and magazines. Feel free to bring your own photographs or other materials to create a cross collage in honor of the deceased. At our All Saints’ celebration on Sunday morning, we’ll process our crosses and display them at the front of the church as a reminder of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding and supporting us.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Community Service Announcement: Local Burglaries

There has been a rise in burglaries in the Altadena area in recent months, many of which have some common characteristics. Read this summary from the sheriffs in Altadena to learn what's happening and what you can do to help keep your neighborhood safer and prevent being a victim yourself.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Episco-ninjas?

Check out a different angle on who we are as Episcopalians on this YouTube video.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Because God is God...and we're not

Job 38

Pr. 24, Yr. B

10/18/09


My son Stephen refers to it as “The Rant of Death.” Maybe this never happens in any of your households, but here’s what periodically occurs in ours: I’m home at the end of a particularly challenging day of work. After walking in the door and setting down my purse, I put dishes in the dishwasher; pick up dirty clothes from the floor and toss them in the laundry, then fill up the load and start it; sort through the mail and pay a bill or fill out a form; scrub off the mess someone else left behind on the cutting board; change a light bulb that’s burned out; on and on, all while preparing dinner, and not having sat down since I entered the house. In the midst of this, I ask one of the boys to put away clean laundry, and he invariably responds with the complaint, “Right now? Why does it have to be this minute? Why do I have to do everything?”


And at that point, I completely lose it. “Just what is it that you do so much of? Who picked up the dirty laundry and put it in the washer and moved it over to the dryer and cleaned out the lint filter and let you know when it was done? Who went to work to earn the money to buy the clothes? Who pays the gas and water bills so we can do laundry? Who signed the mortgage that gives us a house in which to have a washer and dryer? And did you pay for the bureau and put it together? For that matter, you wouldn’t even be able to wear these clothes if we didn’t feed you, which means Daddy and I planned meals and bought food and cooked it and will probably be the ones to clean it up. So don’t tell me that you do everything around here!” There is a longer version if I’m really on a roll, and with practice I’ve developed a shortcut in which I glare at the child before me and simply say, “You do not want to go there.” And yes, I’ll admit that when I was a kid and the center of my own world, I was fully capable of eliciting a similar reaction from my mother!


Now maybe I’m putting my personal experience into the text, but the minute I started reading today’s lesson from Job, I detected a trace of my own tone of voice. Job is having an awful time with life; his 7 sons, 3 daughters, very many servants, and 11,000 oxen, sheep, donkeys, and camels have all died, he’s broken out in painful, oozing sores, and all his terrified friends can say is “You must’ve done something to bring this on yourself.” He’s justifiably furious and is taking his anger out on God.


Finally God has had it with Job and his friends, and out of a whirlwind speaks back: “Job, you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about…put on your big boy britches and listen up,” and then proceeds with a 4 chapter, 125 verse litany of questions and declarations about God’s own labors in creating the world, and wisdom and knowledge in watching over it in its greatest expanses and smallest details. My “rant of death” can’t hold a candle to the scope, eloquence, and intensity of God’s tirade about the source of life!


Make no mistake: Job has gotten a raw deal. The basis of his argument—that he’s been an honorable and upright man who deserves neither his suffering nor God’s apparent abandonment—sounds perfectly true. He hasn’t done anything to bring on these horrors; the way the story is set up in the beginning makes it absolutely clear that he doesn’t deserve them. He’s literary proof of the painful lesson we all have to learn along the way, that life isn’t fair.


Many people look to the Book of Job for explanations about suffering and evil, about how a loving and just God can allow awful things to happen to innocent people…in other words, why life really is fair. Those are troubling and universal questions, and well worth every bit of theological mind-power we can put to them…but they aren’t what this particular book of the Bible is about, any more than my rant to one of my children is an explanation for why he should put away his laundry.


In some ways, the first 37 chapters of Job—his tragedies, his friends’ justifications, and his arguments in reply—are a set-up for what I see as the real point, which comes in the last 4 chapters, the first of which was excerpted in today’s reading. “Where were you, Job, when I was doing all this? Do you know how the world works? You wouldn’t even be able to ask your questions if I hadn’t given you the ability to think!” In other words, like it or not, God is God, and we’re not. That’s what this book is about. The author of Job reminds us that when we try to bring God to our level and the limitations of our human mind and reason, we end up confused, angry, and frustrated. Just because Job can’t figure out how God is working in all this doesn’t mean God’s not there, only that human perception is so narrow in comparison to the vastness and power of God’s presence.


That may not be very comforting when our hearts are breaking from grief, when fear or depression overwhelm us, when our bodies betray us, when anger over personal or community injustices consumes us. We legitimately want explanations, and unfortunately, we very rarely get them. Oh, some people will try, like Job’s friends, for all sorts of reasons; they’ll tell us that it’s part of God’s plan or that it’s better this way or that we just need to be stronger or have more faith. I don’t buy those. I think there are a lot of bad things that happen and we have to live with them without understanding why.


There might be better books in the Bible to look to for comfort and strength when our world is collapsing or exploding around us, words that are more soothing or hopeful. But…but…when we’ve reached the end of the line, maybe this is the place to go. Not because the book of Job answers our questions, but because it doesn’t. These verses honor the pain and mystery of some of life’s hardest realities without sugar-coating them, offering any false sense of security, or trying to explain them away. God’s words in Job are the bedrock: God is God—that’s ultimately reassuring—and we’re not—which also might be something of a relief if we can accept it. If you go home and pick up Job from chapter 38 forward, you’ll read about the God who was there when the foundations of the earth were laid, when the morning stars sang together and the heavens shouted for joy, who shut the doors of the seas and numbers the clouds; the God who gives the hawk strength to soar, satisfies the appetite of the young lions, and knows when the mountain goat gives birth. When, like Job, my questions are unanswerable, that’s the God I want beneath me, beside me, before me, behind me…within me.

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Esther: For Such a Time as This

Pr. 21B, Book of Esther

9/27/09


Once you’ve watched a Bible story in a format that has cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and green onions playing the parts of the various characters—Veggie Tales, anyone?—it’s really hard to picture it any other way! I have to say, though, that the Book of Esther, from which today’s first reading comes, is perfectly suited to comic book/cartoon format. The personalities and action are bigger than life, with heroes and villains, dastardly deeds and breathtaking bravery, prejudice run amok and wholesale mayhem, assassination plots, secret alliances, and last minute rescues. Esther is the one book of the Bible that never mentions God, which perhaps explains why the Book of Common Prayer lectionary never included it; thanks to the more recently adopted Revised Common Lectionary, we’re now hearing it in church for the first time.


This story would be great with a flannel board, but today you’ll have to imagine the characters. Though their saga truly has a soap opera quality to it, in the end I think Esther herself might be a lot like us, or at least our best selves…an ordinary young woman who takes a leap of faith and finds her voice at a critical moment.


We begin with King Ahasuerus hosting half a year of parties for his nobles, culminating in a week of feasting for the entire city. On the last day, he sends an order to Queen Vashti to appear before all his guests for an impromptu beauty pageant. Alas, the queen publicly humiliates Ahasuerus by refusing to come. His noblemen warn him that if word gets around about the queen ignoring the king’s order, their wives will be impossible to live with as well, so Vashti ends up exiled, and the king begins the hunt for a new queen.


A call goes out for the most beautiful virgins in the land to be brought to Ahasuerus’s harem and given—this is honestly what it says—a year of beauty treatments. At the end of the year, each will be brought to the king for a night, and when one pleases him, she’ll be the new queen. Among these young women is Esther, an orphaned Jew raised by her cousin Mordecai. As she’s taken away, Mordecai cautions Esther not to breathe a word of her Jewish heritage.


Predictably, Esther delights Ahasuerus with her beauty and charm, and she’s brought into the royal household as the new queen, still keeping secret her Jewish faith. One day, Mordecai gets wind of a plot to assassinate the king and passes the information to Esther, who tells the king, giving credit to Mordecai. The would-be-killers are hung from the gallows or impaled on poles, depending on how you read it, and the whole affair is noted in the royal records.


Ahasuerus’s right hand man is Haman, a prideful, sneaky man. Because of his rank, Haman requires everyone to bow down when he passes by. Mordecai alone refuses, which enrages Haman. And rather than simply having Mordecai killed for the offense, Haman extends his wrath to all the Jews in the kingdom. He incites fear in the king, telling him that there are people in the land who are different, who hold to laws other than the king’s, and he convinces Ahasuerus to order their wholesale slaughter…the text, to avoid any possible misinterpretation, says the command is to “destroy, kill, and annihilate all the Jews.”


Understandably, Mordecai is overcome with despair, and he knows that Esther is their one hope. He sends her a message begging her to reveal to the king that she’s Jewish and plead with him for the life of her people. She responds that going into the king’s presence unbidden is a capital crime, and it won’t do anyone any good if she loses her head. Mordecai’s answer is simple: sooner or later the king will find out on his own that you’re Jewish too, and you’ll die anyway, so why not risk everything now? Maybe you are queen for such a time as this. Esther resigns herself to Mordecai’s logic and agrees to appeal to Ahasuerus.


When Esther dares to enter the court, she discovers Ahasuerus is delighted to see her, so much so that he offers her anything, up to half of his kingdom! All she wants, however, is for the king and Haman to come to dinner that night. At dinner, the king asks her what she really wants, and—probably overcome with fear—she simply suggests that they come back again the next night. As Haman leaves, full of himself for being invited to these exclusive dinner parties, he sees Mordecai, who once more refuses to bow down to him. Haman storms home, fuming over Mordecai’s insolence, and only feels better when his wife suggests that he build a towering gallows from which to have Mordecai hung.


Meantime, a sleepless king has the royal diaries read to him. The passage selected recounts Mordecai’s revelation of the assassination plot, and the king realizes he never properly thanked Mordecai. Just then Haman shows up to ask the king to order Mordecai’s hanging, but before he has a chance to make his request, Ahasuerus asks his advice on how to honor a man. Haman assumes it will be him, and comes up with a grand idea for a parade with the man on the king’s best horse and wearing royal robes and jewels. What a shock when he finds out that Mordecai is the one being honored, and he himself will have to lead the parade! The gallows have been built, but clearly Mordecai won’t be hanging from them.


The next night at dinner, Esther summons all her courage, tells the king she’s Jewish, and begs for the life of her people. She tells him that if they’d only been sold into slavery, she could live with that, but they’ve been condemned to—there it is again—“destruction and slaughter and annihilation.” Ahasuerus responds with fury over the order, demands to know who’s behind this evil, and storms out in a rage when Esther tells him it’s Haman. While the king is in the garden trying to calm down, Haman begs Esther for his life and then attempts to rape her. Ahasuerus walks back in to find Haman assaulting his queen, and he readily agrees to a suggestion that Haman should hang immediately from the gallows Haman had built for Mordecai.


There’s almost a happy ending. Queen Esther gets Haman’s estate, Mordecai gets Haman’s job as the king’s top advisor, and the king revokes the edict of destruction against the Jews. But this tale isn’t as pure as that; the king also turns the tables, allowing the Jews to destroy anyone who threatens them, which ends up being 75,000 people. Esther decides Haman’s 10 sons should hang from the gallows with dear old dad. And the Jews rejoice in their last-minute salvation with a huge celebration, continued to this day as the Jewish festival of Purim.


So why did I take all this time to recount the story of Esther? First of all, it’s in the Bible, and yet most of us probably don’t know it; you can ponder for yourself why it even shows up in scripture. Second, because every human response is in there; it’s like a catalog of the 7 deadly sins with a few fruits of the Spirit thrown in to balance it out. We do well to remember that whatever goes on within and around us today has been with humanity for a long, long time.


Most of all, I wanted to share the whole story because Esther was, I think, not so different from most of us. She was no Joan of Arc…she didn’t have visions of saints, nor did she burn with the desire to lead her people in time of crisis. Nor was Esther like Mary; no angels brought her a message straight from God. She had to figure out what to do on her own, with no guidance beyond her conscience and the pleas of Mordecai. Esther was a reluctant, hesitant risk-taker who finally found her voice on behalf of her community for such a time as this.


Honestly, most of us don’t get the special delivery angel treatment either. We pray, we listen, we wait, hoping for small clues that point us in the direction of God’s will and timing for us. Maybe we get them and maybe we don’t. More often we simply see that something needs to be done and needs to be done now, and that has to suffice as the basis for our call.


We may not save an entire people, but we can help a few; we may not quench the world’s thirst, but we can bring relief to one parched soul. If we wait for the exact right moment, when we’re absolutely sure, we might end up standing in safety forever. Better that we figure God has brought us to such a time as this for a reason, and dare to raise our hopes, our hands, our voices, and our hearts.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Not Your Usual Interview

YouTube has hundreds of thousands of videos, and the majority aren't of any great interest unless you're related to the creator or performer. This evening I came across a fabulous exception: a 2007 interview with Eugene Peterson, author of The Message translation of scripture as well as 30 other books. He is engaging, thought-provoking, and funny as he discusses storytelling, faith, church, and God. It's 30 minutes well-spent!

You can find the interview here.

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