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Friday, 25 September 2015

Umbridge is Zeresh: who'da guessed?

(September 20th) 2015
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50
Take a vibrant, sexy heroine (a sort of alpha female, a Katniss Everdeen or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer of the fifth century b.c.e.), add a dastardly, toxic and malicious schemer (Sauron, perhaps?), blend in a Dumbledore-figure, season with a political buffoon (in which context I am not going to mention the fearfully disturbing Donald Trump), and conclude with the triumph of good over evil and you’ve probably got a best seller. As it happens the Book of Esther was so hot to handle that the early compilers of the Jewish and of the later Christian bible wanted to leave it out (it also fails to mention God, and the hero is not a particularly good Jew, for she does not observe the appropriate rites and customs of Judaism). In the end, though, popular opinion held sway, and this vibrant tale became so important that it forced its way into the Canon of Jewish and Christian Scripture, and in Judaism a feast day is even based on Esther’s triumph.
The process is not unlike the slow process towards official celebration of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Merton’s integrity was so great that thousands today read his writings and flock to his grave, but his dalliance with broad world-views and perspectives led to his omission from the official US Roman Catholic calendar. It’s no accident that Pope Francis named him as a hero of faith, alongside the equally prickly Dorothy Day, in his address to Congress this past week. It’s not unlike, either, the manner by which popular opinion  is driving the conquest of bigotry and fear with regards to matters of race, gender and sexuality. Popular opinion has slowly driven new thinking, slowly by the grace of God and the winds of God’s irrepressible Spirit, infiltrated the deepest recesses of Christian discourse, even if the final ramifications of that journey will not be upon us for generations yet.
Religious practitioners (and not always the professionals) will often so sanitize the faith they once loved that they leave it shamed and castrated, wriggling on the floor of human awareness. James K Baxter had some very forthright things to say about society’s emasculation of the God of love (which I won’t repeat in a family-friendly liturgy), and Hone Tuwhare said similar things about the symbolic neutering by pakeha of Māoritanga. We become guilty of it when we treasure propriety and process above the mad manic winds of God’s zaniness; order, niceness, and constructions of decency have again and again tried to silence the witness of the Jewish and Christian traditions, not least in that fateful time leading up to World War One when nineteenth century forms of Christian liberalism reduced the gospel to being nice and loving your country.
Esther made her dubious way back into the Canon of Scripture, perhaps more Dorothy Day than Thomas Merton, and has inspired (particularly women) ever since. The actual factual happenstances of her story are long since lost to us, and do not matter. She has inspired others to greatness. That is why we need a doctrine of the saints: those who rise above the humdrum and set imaginations on fire with the flames of God.
The Jewish people found inspiration in the story of this prickly, rule-breaking, protocol-ignoring almost-outsider, inspiration during the times when their own slavish devotion to rules and protocols and insider-protections began to fail them. These were the times when they were as we are confronted with changing circumstances and threats to their existence and ours. Esther’s Sauron or Voldemort-type enemy met his come-uppance and was ultimately and literally hoist on his own petard, as we heard.
Much Christian energy is expounded on keeping things as they were. Esther utterly fails to demonstrate interest in things as they were. She was not a particularly devout or observant Jew prior to her development of a stubborn determination to stand up for herself and, accidentally, for the fellow underdogs of the Jewish community. Yet at great risk to herself she becomes the advocate and saviour of her people. Esther, not an outsider, but a pretty decadent insider, suddenly becomes the chosen one to serve the purposes of God. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Far too often we become the Dolores Umbridge of the Christian narrative, waving our ‎8 inch dragon heartstring and birch wands to ensure things remain safe, comfortable and as they always were. If you have been following the James readings in recent weeks you may be well aware that our actions of self-interest and self-preservation have often demonstrated the opposite of Esther’s risk of self-sacrifice (Esther 4:16b), turning people away from Jesus rather than towards him. We can become like Professor Umbridge: she is in Harry Potter as great a villain as Voldemort. Strangely she has her counterpart in Zeresh in Esther’s story (see Esther 5:10b-15). Like Professor Umbridge, we too often wring our hands in despair and wish things were as they once were, and work to ensure they are as they once were, while the Spirit of God blows on into God’s future.
The bearers of good news do not wring their hands (or put their hands to the plough) and look longingly backwards. Pope Francis’ friends Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were possessors of prickly volatility: so too were Hone Tuwhare and James K. Baxter. They were katiaki, custodians of taonga (treasure) from the past, but that served as their keel or rudder (or both), and not as the whole purpose of their boat.  It was as if something of the spirit of prickly but irrepressible Esther leaked into Day’s and Merton’s and Baxter’s and perhaps even Tuwhare’s DNA and they too became, whether they wanted to or not, whether they knew it or not, key players in God’s birthing of the future. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” “Us”? Another sermon dwells there, methinks.
Our Christian communities today are not exactly beacons of integrity on the horizons of the young. As the Pope speaks out with a commitment to justice and compassion highly reminiscent of his chosen namesake Francis of Assisi (both, it seems, possessors of the DNA of Esther), some Christian communities of the American and American-influenced religious right draw lines in the sand and depict the pope as some form of Marxist anti-Christ. His doctrine is in the end little more than commendably orthodox catholic, though perhaps we can save that conversation for another day, too. Other Christian communities make pronouncements on a grand scale, big picture depictions of gospel-responsibility, but ultimately forget to notice the small picture beggar at the door whose need may be no more than a cup of coffee and a piece of bread.
Pope Francis, we might note this week, left the echelons of niceness and had lunch as best he could with the urban poor of Washington, leaving the rich and the powerful theorists reeling in his wake; this of course is the same man who has kissed the disfigured faces of war vets and disease survivors, who has replaced papal limousines with Ford Fiestas, and opened up papal apartments for refugees. “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Or, as the Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted this week, “The more the Church cares for the poor, the more people recognise it for what it is: the Jesus movement.” To that, as we are possessors of both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the Beatitudes, we might add “The more the Church cares for the poor in spirit the more people recognise it for what it is: the Jesus movement.” In both cases we are called to check to see how wide open our doors really are.
It may be that it is the absent young who are stridently telling us how we might be bearers of Christ and his Resurrection-hope in our community today. The morality they have been finding for a decade and a half in Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Matrix, Avatar, in re-visioned Narnia and Lord of the Rings narratives may well put our often self-interested narratives to shame. Only some of those narratives, though, hint at the great and irreplaceable dimension that Jesus tells of at in his response to the self-interested disciples, and which we lose at great peril, the dimension of judgement.
For while Tolkien only hints, Rowling hints, Lewis hints at a dimension of otherness,  and hinting is their task, we lose sight of the judgement of God at great peril. The risk for us as liturgical Christians is that we can become so obsessed with the preservation of order and propriety that we forget that the Jesus who we proclaim with our liturgy was a divisive figure, was a discomforting divider of wrong from right, of self-interest from compassion, religious hypocrisy from self-sacrificial goodness. We can spend so much time having lunch on Capitol Hill (or wherever) that we forget to serve and eat with the poor, so much time keeping things as we remember them that we forget the God who is birthing things as they will be. “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”
It is up to us, then, to turn again and again to the God who in Christ will (as we will later sing) “land us safe on Canaan’s side.” We are challenged to turn to God to forgive us where we have been more Haman than Esther, more Umbridge than Harry, more closed fortress than madly, eccentrically open community of welcome and embrace. The good news? God hears us as we say we’re sorry and welcomes us back to the mad and glorious dance of resurrection-faith of which the silly things we do in church are a playful foretaste. “Have salt in yourselves” says Jesus – or maybe it was Mark but either way with a twinkling eye because it was a silly thing to say – and then adds the un-silly “and be at peace.”
The peace of Christ be always with you.
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