Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
What Does it Mean to Be Of the World? John 18:33-37
Today's Gospel text is usually a text that we would read during Lent. It can be surprising to come upon this description of Jesus' trial on the last Sunday before the new year starts. What does it mean for us to hold up this story right next the stories of Advent, stories that build up expectation and hope for the coming Savior? What is the message that we need to hear today in this story of conflict, betrayal, and local politics? Jesus said that he came to testify to the truth. What truth can we learn from his trial?
In John, we have a vision of Jesus as one totally in control of every situation, even when others technically have more power and authority than he does. In this Gospel, Jesus is rarely, if ever caught off guard. The description of his trial is one of the best examples of how confident and competent he is, especially if you compare him to the community leaders around him. First he is interrogated by the most powerful leaders in his own religious community. They question and question him about his teachings. He is never once shaken in his resolve, and simply responds to them that he has never tried to hide what he teachers. He has always taught in the open. He told them to ask the people what they heard. They will confirm his teaching.
Because these leaders wanted Jesus dead, but had no authority to put someone to death, they give Jesus over the Roman officials. While the Jews were permitted to follow their own religious law, in the end, Roman law was the ultimate law of the land. Even their so-called Jewish king was really a puppet of the Roman Empire. If they wanted Jesus to die, only Rome could kill him. Pilate, as Roman governor, was the one who could make that decision. As Roman governor, Pilate was likely the most powerful person in Judea. And, yet, even he seems unable to successfully complete an interrogation of an impoverished itinerant preacher.
We see Pilate going back and forth between Jesus and the community leaders. First, he asks Jesus a question that seems to have come right out of the blue: "Are you the King of the Jews?" Now, at this point, the word king hadn't been used very much to describe Jesus. The only people who have claimed that Jesus was king seemed to be the 6,000 hungry people he fed way back in chapter 6. The things is, though, he never claimed that he was their king, even though he did seem to call himself Son of Man on occasion. Could Pilate have heard that some people had wanted to make Jesus king? Or, was he just being brutal, trying to find the quickest way to dispatch this problematic peasant? He knew that there were few quicker ways to end up dead in the Roman Empire than to threaten the emperor. If we need this man dead, let's see if he's willing to claim to be the emperor. That will get him killed quickly.
Jesus quickly flips the whole line of questioning around, shifting into the role of interrogator. He asked the governor if he came up with that question on his own or if someone else had told him that Jesus had claimed to be the king. Pilate quickly goes on the defensive, a surprise given that, as I have mentioned before, he is the most powerful man in Judea. He says, "I'm not a Jew, am I? Your own people turned you over. What did you do?" What kind of judge doesn't know what the accused is actually accused of? Admittedly, the people who turned Jesus over didn't actually have any accusations, they just said that he was a criminal and needed to die. But, still, Pilate, it's not much of a power play to admit that you really don't know what is going on. Then, Jesus goes on the offensive again, without directly answering Pilate's question. He said, "My kingdom is not from this world." Comparing his own followers to soldiers from an embattled kingdom, Jesus pointed out that if he had a kingdom like everyone else, he would have soldiers fighting for him. And, yet, here he was alone. When he did have one follower stand up and try to physically defend him from the authorities, Jesus told him to put his sword away. No, this isn't any regular kingdom. We can see that Jesus' reign is not like any kingdom that Pilate knows.
Pilate thought he caught Jesus when Jesus began to talk about his Kingdom. He said, "So you are a king!" Once again, Jesus shifts the conversation. He said, "You say that I'm a king. That's what you're interested in talking about. I am here to tell the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." At this point, completely rhetorically out-maneuvered, all Pilate can ask is, "What is the truth?" Had he just been paying attention, he would have seen the truth in Jesus' actions. But, he couldn't listen. He couldn't understand. He was trapped in the world that he knew. And, Jesus said that his power doesn't come from this world.
Pilate was looking for a king who wielded power the way Rome wielded power: that is, with little mercy and great bloodshed. The violence of the Roman Empire pervaded every part of the average Jew's life, from the taxes they were forced to pay to the presence of Roman soldiers in Jerusalem during Passover, the most holy time of their religious year. This is how Pilate understood the role of the king. And, Jesus did not live that way. Jesus didn't even function that way in their short conversation. Perhaps it comes from Jesus' Jewish roots where the king was assumed to be installed by God as a public servant to help his people. Perhaps Jesus' quest for the truth had simply shown him another way, a way that resisted violence and brought peace even in the midst of terrible times. We can see this better way throughout the book of John. For example, when Jesus described his mission to his followers, he told them, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:27)."
What else is evident throughout the Gospel is that to be a disciple means that you are able to listen to Jesus when he shares the truth. While some in Jesus' religious community are able to hear the truth, most of the people aren't. It is these people, people who are trapped in the violence of the empire that they are threatened by his ministry, who turn him over to be killed. It is these people who will cry out for his crucifixion in the verses that follow today's reading. Pilate will also latch on to their fear and use it against them. Sure, he'll be willing to turn Jesus over for execution, but he does so only after the religious leaders admit that they have no king aside from Caesar. That's right. These people who have such a proud history as the people of God, have forgotten that God will bring them a leader. They are so wrapped up in their fear and anger that when faced with two choices, Pilate who is a tool of the empire and can only bring death and Jesus who is the word of God made flesh, that they chose death. They chose to align themselves with the empire rather than the one who could show them the truth.
I think this is a powerful way to end our liturgical year, with Christ's mission of peace and truth firmly in mind. Right now, many of us feel the weight of violence and death bearing down on us. We are regularly hearing the evidence Christ presents and the evidence Pilate presents about how we can live in this world. We are being asked to choose where our faith truly lies, with the coercive powers of the world or in Christ who can bring us peace. My prayer is that we will choose peace, even if we don't know what that really looks like yet. My prayer is that we can listen to Christ, the one who is poised and confident in his mission to be the actual, creative presence of the Divine in his broken world. I prayer that we can remember his power, power that not even death can erase. Our confidence cannot be in Pilate and all the earthly power he possesses. It must be in Christ, who has come to tell us the Truth and shows us peace.
Pastor Chrissy consulted these works when writing this sermon:
Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year B, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Karoline Lewis, John, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Susan Hylen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2604
Jaime Clark-Soles: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1490
Paul S. Berge: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=420
Laurel Koepf Taylor's description of the role of king a public servant can be found in the liturgy for Reign of Christ Sunday: http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christhad offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God’, and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’ For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
‘This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds’,
he also adds,
‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Provoked for Good: Hebrews 10:11-25
This week, I read a pretty great story by an artist named Matthew Inman. It is true a story that Inman illustrated about a co-pilot on a flight from Calcutta to New York that took place in 1947. Initially, the flight seemed to be going just fine. Then, less than half-way to New York, something terrible happened. One engine stopped working. Then, the second engine overheated and caught on fire. As you can imagine, the people on the plane were terrified. While the senior pilot worked to land the plane, the co-pilot, a 25 year-old World War II veteran, went back to help with the passengers. He saw a woman who was alone and he sat down beside her. As the plane's wing burned and the pilot worked to save them, the co-pilot sat with this one woman and said, "It's going to be ok." According to Inman, all around him was great evidence to the contrary.
The burning wing fell off the plan. Leaking fuel lines helped to spread the fire further beyond the wing. The plane itself steeply pitched forward. According to Inman, this co-pilot, while assuring this woman that everything was going to be ok, was actually certain that every person on that plane was going to die. The plane crashed very hard into the desert somewhere in Syria. Fourteen people died on impact. Two crew members were among the survivors... one of them the co-pilot. With broken ribs, he ran in and out of the plane, pulling out other survivors. Eventually, the plane was completely destroyed by fire.
As Inman described the scene, morning arrived but rescue did not. The co-pilot formed two search parties who went in two different directions. The co-pilot's party eventually found a village out there in the desert and used the village's radio to call for help. Help came, and 22 people were able to go home to their families. After this event, the co-pilot realized that he no longer wanted to be a pilot. He resigned from his company and completely changed careers. He became a writer. He would eventually go on to create one of the most influential shows in television history. His name is Gene Roddenberry and that show was Star Trek. Star Trek, a show that valued diversity and demonstrated hope for the future, was a stark contrast to the tumultuous and deeply divided culture of the United States in the 1960's, the decade in which the show began. Astronaut Mae C. Jemison, the first black woman to travel to space, would even cite this television show as an inspiration in her life.
Until this week, I had never heard about Gene Roddenberry's plane crash. Now, having heard it, I think it would be safe to call Gene Roddenberry a hero. It is interesting though, that Matthew Inman, the artist who initially shared this story, didn't write about this plane crash to inspire us heap more praise onto an already beloved author. No, Inman had another goal in mind. He said, "This story is intended to remind you that our journeys are short. Roddenberry saw life's ephemeral nature lit up against a backdrop of stars. He saw that we are all passengers pitching downward into the night. He saw that we are all helpless. So, get up, and help someone." We are all helpless. Get up, and help someone. Now, that is quite a powerful message.
As I read this beautifully rendered comic, I could not help but think of this week's reading from the book of Hebrews. While we don't know exactly which church this was written to, as best we can tell, this particular community had faced great hardship and persecution and some may have renounced their faith. This author of Hebrews wanted to inspire them and give them hope to sustain their faith in the midst of their trials. The author did this in two ways. First, the author reminded them of their basic faith confession: Christ had offered all people forgiveness and wholeness through his own great sacrifice. It is this healing and wholeness that will allow humanity to more fully live into the life that God has called us to, a life of loving God and loving neighbor. The author knows, though, that it can be easy to lose confidence in God's goodness in the midst of trials and tribulations. This writer knows that people need help holding to their faith. In order to help the people keep their faith, the author reminds them of the help they can find in Christian community.
After encouraging these struggling Christians to hold fast to their hope, the writer of this letter tells them that one way that they can do so more easily is by actually spending time with one another and inspiring each other to do good things. The letter reads: "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." You see, this writer tells the people that we need each other. We remind one another of our hope and God's grace. It is very hard to be of this faith alone. We need one another so that we will remember our hope. I think that it might even be fair to summarize this scripture similarly to how Inman summarized his: "We are all helpless. God has helped us. Now, get up, and help someone." This may not quite be what Matthew Inman said about Gene Roddenberry, but it's close enough so that you can see why I would think of one story when I read the other.
I think this ancient letter to the Hebrews is actually a letter we need to hear today, too. Because life has been hard lately. Our present times can seem very scary and hopeless. In fact, just this week, we have seen what happens when religious communities have lost their hope. Just following the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a night when German Christians coordinated a massive attack on German Jews, another hate-fueled group, this time a group that identifies itself as Muslim, coordinated several attacks on people whom they see as enemies. They attacked people in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris, killing 177 people in three different countries. Like the Nazis before them, this group uses their faith as a tool for hate and not for hope. They do not provoke one another to love but to do harm. Like the Nazis before them, when faced with war and hardship, this group turned to destruction and blames people who are not like them for the problems they have. Now, because they have lashed out in the fear and rage, many people are suffering. When seeing all of this suffering, especially suffering caused by people who say that they act on God's behalf, it is easy to fall into despair like the Hebrews did. When the world seems to be in such upheaval, it is easy to feel hopeless. It is easy to forget the wholeness and help that God has given us. We may feel like we are in a plane, pitching forward into oblivion. Who will come and tell us that it will all be ok?
The author of Hebrews would remind us that while we may feel helpless, God has, in fact, helped us. Now, it is our calling to go help someone else... to provoke someone else to love and good deeds. We desperately need one another, this church, to help us remember our hope so that we do not get lost in our own despair. On our own, we may feel helpless, but, when we are together, we can remember that Christ has empowered us... provoked us through his own sacrifice to continue his good work in the world. Our love and our good deeds are signs of our hope. They are our continuing confession of faith in the wholeness that Christ brought to us through his incarnation. This is why we have church. So that we can remember our hope and be a storehouse of Christly provocation during times of trial. Anything less, and we are missing out on our greatest calling.
Standing together in Christ means that we will not allow ourselves to be infected by someone else's hatred. It means that we do not let terrorists convince us that we must be suspicious of all people of a different religion in order to survive. It means that we will not allow our own faith to be warped into a tool to deny others a right to live and worship in peace. It means that when we see people fleeing wars and terror, we will not build a wall and accuse them of treachery. Instead, we will offer them sanctuary and safety. If we truly live into the love that Christ calls us to, we will stand by their side, because we know what it means to be without hope, and we know that we can only remember our hope when we stand together in love. We will continue to come together, buoyed by one another's prayers, sharing our strength with one another so that we can continue provoking the good and not living in hate.
The world is scary right now. There is no denying it. We are not promised a world without fear or danger. But, we are promised help. We have God. We have one another. Now, it's time to get up and help someone else.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
I was primarily inspired by the artist Matthew Inman's comic "It's Going to be Ok." You can access the comic at: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/plane. It must be noted that, aside from this piece, much of Inman's other work on his site is PG-13, primarily due language that not everyone appreciates and a preponderance of bathroom humor.
Israel Kamudzandu's commentary on Hebrews: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2681
Amy LB Peeler's commentary on Hebrews:
Susan Eastman's commentary on Hebrews:
Devon Maloney's description of the cultural importance of Star Trek:
The History Place's description of Kristallnacht:
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets!They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
All In: Mark 12:38-44
Oh, Church, I heard something this week that has messed me up. Twice, colleagues whom I deeply respect, but who don't know each other, shared a biblical interpretation that I had never heard before. I was shocked when I heard it, not because I found it to be a flawed argument, but because it completely changed how I understand today's Gospel reading. I was shocked and convicted enough by it, that is seems worthwhile to share this interpretation with you. You may have heard today's Gospel story before. It is often called the Widow's Mite or A Widow's Offering. We preachers often trot it out around Stewardship time. It can seem like the perfect story about generosity.
Tell me if you have heard this sermon before: Jesus is with his disciples and has called out the hypocrisy of the scribes who wear fancy robes, demand the best seats, and show off by praying for a long time out loud. He said that they devour widows' houses. We learn quickly that we should not be like them. Then, suddenly an actual widow comes into the scene. She walks up with the wealthy people who donated big amounts of money. She slips in two copper coins, a pittance, but it was all she had to her name. Jesus points out that she has actually given much more than the rich people because she gave all that she had. With this woman as our example, we preachers will then say, "Surely we, who have so much more than this woman had, can afford to give more to our church than she was able to give to the temple. Surely, we can up our pledge. She gave all that she had. We can manage a measly 10% pledge. So, sign your cards and pass them to the front."
I don't say this just to shame my colleagues. To be honest, the only reason I haven't preached a similar sermon is because I used to be a hospice chaplain who didn't preach very often. I would have totally used this woman as an example of generosity even in the face of desperate circumstances. I mean, who among us doesn’t know someone like that... someone who hardly has a thing and is always the first one to share or support missions close to their heart. I could have easily been a preacher who saw this widow as an example of extravagant, even foolish, generosity that I should try to emulate. Well, here's what's been messing me up this week. At least a couple different biblical scholars have suggested a better interpretation of this scripture has a lot more to do with the actions of the religious leaders than it does the actions of the widow. What they mean is that in order to interpret this one widow's story, we need to pay attention to what Jesus is doing in the rest of the Gospel. And, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was keen on calling out hypocrites.
What exactly makes one a hypocrite? If we pay attention to the first part of today's reading, Jesus' gives a pretty succinct run-down. You spend a lot of money on fancy clothes. You use your education and privileged position for shallow gains. You make a show of your faith without actually living out the core tenets of that faith. And, you take advantage of the poor. Remember, Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you missed either one of these things, you missed out on living the life God called you to. As we learned from Rev. Joe last week, God and neighbor are a package deal. Some of the neighbors in greatest need were the widows: women who had not simply lost their husbands, but who likely had no family at all to call upon for help. The people of God understood that they had a particular call from God to care for people in such a situation. That call was embedded in scripture and in the the practice of the law. When the Psalmist wanted to describe God's capacity for grace, they called God the parent to the orphans and the protector of widows. The law even made allowances for poor people to avoid giving to the temple if they could not afford it, a fact that the scribes in this story seem to have forgotten.
The scholars that I have read this week argue that what Jesus is really doing in this text is calling out his religious community for forgetting God's priorities. He is not using a poor woman to guilt people to giving more. He is calling out a temple system that consumed every last dime of the poor but does not seem to be offering the support for them that was demanded by the law. It is an actual shame that she has so little. Her faith leaders should be bound by their faith to help her. It seems as though she has been forgotten as they concern themselves with fancy clothes and fancy dinners. Jesus is clear. We should not be like these religious leaders. We should not forget people in need while we make sure our own life is comfortable. We should do everything in our power... through God's power... to avoid creating a religious institution that relies on the money and commitment of people in need but does nothing to seek justice with and for them. We are called to love God and love our neighbor. We are called to turn our skills and our money into to action on behalf of our neighbors. Every pledge that we turn into this church this morning should be made with this goal in mind. Every hour that you spend in service with this church should be spent with this goal in mind.
Look, this really shouldn't be a new challenge for this church. I know that you know how to serve. This year, you have donated $1552 to our special offerings, all of which are service-oriented. You have also donated pounds and pounds of food to the food pantry and 30 stuffed animals to our ambulance service to bring comfort to kids in need. Eleven of you have signed up to help teach Sunday school alongside our three regular teachers. Anywhere between five and thirteen of you regularly volunteer to bring rich music into our worship services. Your call to serve is evident everyday. But, we also know that there are still so many needs in this community. I think our challenge over the next year is to look at this list of community needs that we have compiled, and find a new way that our congregation can help meet them. Maybe that means we work with the Cancer Center to help drive people to their appointments. Maybe that means that we have a game night where we invite all the kids in town to come teach us how to play that card game everyone likes so much. Or, maybe there's some way to invest in our town that we haven't even imagined yet. I have faith that the Holy Spirit will help us find it. This is where we will find the deepest faith that Jesus taught. This is how we can avoid the temptation of hypocrisy. Let's make every dime we spend and every moment we share be of service to the God who empowers us and our neighbors who teach us something new about the Divine. Let's go all in.... all in for God, and all in for the widows who trusts us with their well-being. This is our primary call as Christians. And we can't ignore it.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Debie Thomas: http://www.journeywithjesus.net/theeighthday/446-the-widowed-prophet
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2662
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3717
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way
Your Faith Has Made You Well
By this point in Mark, we've read a lot of miracle stories together. The Holy Spirit has spoken to crowds, sick and demon- possessed people have been healed, dead children have been raised, and thousands of people have been fed by just a few loaves and fish. We have also read many call stories, including Jesus’ own at his baptism, where he first began his journey towards resurrection, as well as the stories of the 12 disciples, the first ones who Jesus invited on this journey towards greater justice and compassion. One scholar, Mark Vitalis Hoffman pointed out that it is not often, however, that we have read an account that so clearly blends these two kinds of stories together, where the one being healed also very clearly becomes a follower of Christ. Bartimaeus is special. He has a great gift, and this gift allows him to come closer to Jesus than many people could have imagined. Thank goodness that he realized he had such a gift, or he might never have approached Jesus and he might never have been healed. And, what is Bartimaeus’ great gift? His faith. As you may remember, Jesus said that it was his faith that made him well. And, we can all learn an important lesson from Bartimaeus about how to use the gifts that we have to follow Jesus.
I think some people would have had a hard time imagining that Bartimaeus had many gifts. Given his blindness and the lack of services in the culture in which he lived, Bartimaeus would have likely been quite impoverished. Notice that he was begging for handouts when he encountered Jesus. His health would have likely been poor and, given that he has resorted to begging, it seems as though he is completely disconnected from his family, the people that we would naturally assume would be supporting him. If we were just to look at him and see only the challenges that he had, it could be easy to overlook the gifts he had. Shoot, it could be easy to overlook his very humanity, as some of Jesus’ followers did when they hear him cry out for Jesus. They told him to be quiet… to leave Jesus alone… he had more important things to do than deal with the likes of him.
Luckily, faith isn’t Bartimaeus’ only gift. He had gumption, too. He wouldn’t be shushed when salvation was so close. So, he kept yelling. He had insight, too. He knew that Jesus was Messiah, a statement he affirmed when he called Jesus the Son of David. Few others realized so quickly who Jesus was. When Jesus heard Bartimaeus cry out, he heard this gumption, insight, and faith. Jesus called him forward. Jesus' followers said to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”
Now, let's compare Bartimaeus to some others who have approached Jesus in recent weeks. Unlike the rich young man, Bartimaeus was willing to give up all he had to heed Jesus’ call. When Jesus called him, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, likely his only possession, and came quickly. Then, Jesus asked Bartimaeus the same question that he had asked his squabbling disciples last week. He said, “What do you want me to do for you?” Rather than ask for a place of honor, as James and John did, Bartimaeus, the one of great insight, ask to be able to see. While we’re not sure if he’s seeing for the first time or if he’s asking for his sight to be restored, that doesn’t seem to matter. Jesus simply says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately, Bartimaeus could see again. Rather than run off to go celebrate, he chose to follow Jesus, joining the ranks of the ones who would witness his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his humiliating execution at the hands of the state, and, hopefully, learn the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
You know, I think our church can be like Bartimaeus. I think that we can use the gifts we have to help us follow Jesus. Bartimaeus used his faith to ask Jesus for healing. What gifts do we have as a community that can bring Christ’s healing to our church and to the communities we serve? After last week’s exercise… well, before last week’s exercise, but confirmed by it, I think one of our gifts is a sense of empathy and compassion for our neighbors who struggle to have the basic necessities for life. I think we also have a gift of being flexible and being willing to try to new things. I’ve tried several different things in worship over the last year, and you all have been game for it. Now, like we did last week, I want you to turn towards your neighbors, and talk about the gifts you think this church has, the things that you think Jesus would say help us follow him better. Let’s take 8-10 minutes together…
(The slideshow above is pictures of the gift lists that each group created.)
See, these will be the gifts that allow us to serve God and serve our neighbors more fully. These are the gifts that continue to bring us to Jesus, over and over again, and allow us to follow him into Jerusalem. These are the gifts that Jesus will use to help build God’s reign of love and compassion through our faithful service. Like Bartimaeus, our faith will make us well, as will our compassion, our flexibility, our hard-working spirit, and our good humor. Each of these attributes is a tool that we can use to serve the Gospel. Let’s make sure to use our tools well.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman's commentary: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2642
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Are We Really Able? Mark 10:35-45
This isn't the first time that we've heard that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The last time that we heard about it was when Jesus as telling his disciples that it was important to welcome children and all marginalized people as followers of Christ. I don't know if you remember, but the last time that Jesus talked about being a servant was very similar to this time. It was also in response to two of his followers arguing about status. It is interesting to me that Jesus' first response to naval-gazing and self-aggrandizement in both cases was to remind his followers that their first concern was not to be themselves, but instead to be other people. He asserted, both times, that the true mark of being a Christian was being outward focused, not inward focused.
Now, it is not an easy thing to be outward focused, especially if you are worrying about your own safety and well-being, or the safety and well-being of an institution that you love. Fear turns us inward. So, James and John, two disciples who had been through so much with Jesus and maybe felt the tension that was rising around them as they made their way to Jerusalem, began to think of their own, personal futures. They were willing to go to the very end with Jesus. That is evident from the fact that they are there are the road with him. And, yet, they were afraid. So, they distracted themselves with thoughts of their own welfare and perhaps their own personal legacies. Perhaps the danger they were in would be less scary if they knew that they had a place of honor at the end.
Jesus reminded them that honor looked different than they imagined in their fear. Honor looked outward, not inward. Honor looked like service, not self-protection. Honor looked much more like the work that the slaves did than the haughty tyranny of the rulers of his day. He said that the Son of Man came to serve and that his service would liberate the world. The disciples are not the only ones who can be tempted to turn inward out of fear. In this time when so many churches, including our own, are much smaller than they used to be, it can be easy for us to turn inwards... to worry about protecting ourselves first. But, Jesus reminds us that our first call is to be a servant, to help meet the needs of the world around us. In that spirit, today we're going to spend some time talking about what are some of the needs in the community beyond our walls. Maybe by turning our attention to the needs beyond our walls, we can find some new places where we can serve just as Jesus did.
*During worship, the people gathered broke up into small groups and talked about the needs of our community. The pictures below show the kinds of issues that our members think are affecting our communities.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
The people of the Church who came together to compile the list
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman:
Rolf Jacobson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1486
Matt Skinner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=435
The Sermon Brainwave Podcast:
The Pulpit Fiction Podcast: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/137-proper-24b-oct-18-2015
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
This is a Hard Lesson: Mark 10:17-31
One way that you know something interesting is getting ready to happen in a Bible story is that the story begins with a journey. And something really interesting is getting ready to happen as Jesus sets out on this journey to Jerusalem. Jesus is going to surprise a man who wants to follow him. He's going to surprise the disciples, too. First, he challenges the man who calls him good. When the man said to him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life," I expected that Jesus would tackle this whole eternal life thing first. That seems like a pretty big deal. But, Jesus had something else in mind as he decided how to respond to this man. He said, why do you call me good? Only God can be called Good.
Now, such a statement could start quite the theological argument. But, I don't think Jesus' primary interest at this moment is to start a discussion about what it would mean to call him good. I do think he is interested in drawing this man's attention away from the teacher right in front of him and back to God as the source of all things eternal. After all, it is God who showed us how to live together with God through the 10 Commandments. And, the first commandment is to remember that God is your God. In telling him that only God is good, Jesus reminded him of the first commandment. Then, Jesus wanted to remind the man that he had a responsibility to other people, too, so he asked him about the commandments that have something to do with how humans interact with each other. Jesus asked him if he had valued human life, if he had honored his neighbors' relationships, if he had stolen or lied about people, and if he had respected his own family. The man said he had been following these commandments his whole life. Jesus seems to have believed him. Jesus took him at his word, understanding that that commandments are not some list of impossible tasks, but actions that every day people can do in order to better follow God. Jesus believed
him, looked at him, and loved him.
And, yet, though he loved him, he still realized that this man could take one more step towards a life beyond what he knew. Here is the second great surprise of this story. Even though this man had followed the law, Jesus asked him for more. He told this man to sell everything that he owned and give the money to the poor. Then, Jesus invited the man to leave everything else behind and follow him. While the man had found God's commandments to be manageable, he found Jesus' invitation to be much more challenging. He looked at his life, a life that was, by all accounts, blessed and well-lived, and realized that the couldn't give it up. So, he went away grieving.
I don't think you have to be rich to understand that giving everything away is a very high price to pay before you follow Jesus. I probably have more stuff right now than I've ever had in my whole life and I would have a very hard time giving it all up. I think Jesus knew that this was hard even before he told the man to do it. I think that is why he looked at this man with love, because he could see that he was trying. He knew what he was asking was hard. But, it wasn't the first time that he had ask someone to give up all they knew and follow him. In the book of Mark, each of the 12 apostles is asked to follow him, with no explanation for how they will make a living or support themselves on the way. The difference is that the first 12 were probably pretty poor to begin with. They had much less to lose in giving it all up to follow Jesus. But, even though they were poor, Jesus acknowledged that they had given up a lot to follow him. They had given up familial ties and responsibilities, the core of their agrarian society. Jesus assured them that they would find new family in the life to come. This was enough assurance for the apostles. Assurance of treasure in heaven was not enough to comfort the man who had earnestly wanted to inherit eternal life.
Jesus says in this passage that it will be hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and this is shocking to his disciples, who may have been accustomed to thinking of wealthy people having been blessed by God, with their wealth as a sign of their blessing. He said it would be as difficult as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. Now, some have suggested that he's not talking about an actual eye of an actual need, but instead talking about a particularly narrow gate in Jerusalem, a gate that a heavily loaded camel would have difficulty squeezing through. Others have suggested that this may be an ancient typo, with the words for camel and cable being confused, and Jesus is actually talking about fitting a really big rope through a needle. I think it is likely that Jesus actually was talking about a camel and a needle because he wasn't just trying to come up with something that was hard to do, like fit a big camel through a little door or fit a big string in a little needle. He was trying to talk about something that was impossible to do, or at least impossible for a human to do. Just like he did with the man who called him good, he wanted to point the disciples back to God as the one who provides directions for one's spiritual life. He said that humans can't do something impossible, like squish a camel through a needle. But, we're not talking about human powers here. We're talking about God. And, God regularly deals with the impossible.
I think that Jesus knew that money roots us in exactly what is possible. Money is so tangible We look at the money we have and we can immediately know just exactly what we can do with it. Four hundred dollars gets us a new water pump for the camp. Two hundred dollars replaces the doors that got busted during the break-in. Several thousand dollars gets us a new roof and repairs the plaster. We can look at our budgets and look at our needs and say we need to raise money here and save money here. And, if we are lucky enough to have more money than we need, we might spend a lot of our energy protecting it. After all, this money is what allows us to live in the mode to which we have been accustomed. We can't lose it. On the other side, when we don't have enough money, we can despair, and worry that we'll never have the things that we need. We can worry that we will always struggle and never actually catch up. We can become trapped in a feeling of scarcity. Either way, whether we are worried about losing the wealth we have or living in fear that we won't have enough, we are spending our energy on what is possible, given the finances that we have. But, Jesus is interested in what is possible. Jesus is encouraging us to concentrate on what is impossible.
Jesus seems to be telling anyone who wants to follow him that real abundance does not rely on our ability to earn and keep money. Our wealth or lack thereof is not a sign of how much God wants to bless us. Real abundance is found in orienting our lives away from systems that tell us that more money and more things makes us happy, and orienting our lives towards God's system of love and justice. Abundance is not squirreling away all that we have to protect our supposed "blessings." Abundance is actually sharing what we have with people who don't have as much, and then following Jesus into a life of simplicity and service. This man seems to have been afraid because he could only think of abundance in terms of protecting the things that he owned. He could not imagine that abundance could come through a simpler life, with goods shared, and trust that the journey with Christ would bring a far different kind of riches. His wealth and his need to protect it prevented him from deepening his spiritual life. His concern for his abundant material wealth kept him from understanding God's abundance.
What would it mean for this church to look for God's abundance? Is there something that we feel like we need to protect to be safe? What would it mean for us to give that up in order to share with our neighbors and follow Jesus? Do we ever use our money to simply protect ourselves rather than tend to the needs of the people around us? As we plan for our future in ministry, how can this story inform our priorities in ministry? These are all hard questions that I don't think are easily answered. It does help that we're not starting from scratch. I think that we already have begun orienting ourselves towards God's abundance. We aren't afraid to share our space with community members who need it. This week, Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and the Lifeline Screening have all shared our the fellowship hall. Also, this year, you have already donated over a $1000 more for special offerings than you did last year. But, just like the man who had already done so much to follow the commandments, I think there are more steps we can take to orient ourselves to the needs of the people beyond our walls. The good thing is that we don't have to do it alone. We have each other and we are guided by the Holy Spirit, the one who specializes in impossible things. Together, I think we can make a different choice than this man did. We can rely on God's abundance, not our own, and we can choose to follow Jesus. But, we have to be willing to give up some things that we think it would be impossible to live without.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3699
Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year B, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’ Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
We Are Not Meant to Be Alone: Genesis 2:18-24
When I think back over my years of biblical study, I often remember two lessons that really blew my mind. The first one came when I was in college. Before going to college, I had attended church regularly from the sixth grade through high school. I thought I knew the Bible pretty well, or, at list knew the gist of things. Imagine my surprise when I got in an early Western Civilizations class and my professor told me that most scholars believe that the creation narrative in Genesis isn't actually one story. It's really two. Have you all ever heard that before? Chapter 1 and a few verses of chapter 2 is the first story, and the rest of chapter 2 is the beginning of the second story. The first story is the one that tells us how creation comes about step by step: first come the heavens and the earth, and a formless depth from which God's creative force emerged to sweep over the waters. Then there was light, and darkness, and day and night. There was water and sky and earth and plants and stars. There was fish and birds and all matter of creeping thing. And, at last, humans were made, together, equally in God's image. At each step of the way, God call creation good, sometimes even very good. And, then, God took a day off.
It is important to remember that the humans are both made at the same time in the first story. They are both called good and said to be in the image of God. I had always learned that the man was created first and then the woman. I had been raised in a branch of Christianity that called upon women to be subservient to men and declined to allow women in most leadership roles in the church, due, in part to how they understood women's place in creation. I was raised hearing that women were created second, as helpers to men, and that women had caused all of humanity to fall into sin because Eve did what the serpent told her to do, not what God told her to do. But, this order of creation did not come from the first story, but the second. I learned that some scholars had a different take on the second Genesis story, too. This interpretation is a little complicated. Stick with me for a minute. I promise that it is worth hearing about. It's the second lesson that blew my mind.
One of the ways that scholars realized that there may be two different creation stories is that things happen in a different order and through different processes in the two stories. They start off the same, with God creating the heavens and earth. The first story has all of the plants and animals being made first, with the humans as the last bits that God needed to call it complete. The second story is different. When the earth is still only mud, with no plants or animals, God takes up a pile of dust and roughs out a human shape. It is important to note that the word for dust or dirt in Hebrew is adamah. This new creature is called a-dam. Now, you might be more familiar with this word not as a thing, but as a name, Adam, given to the first man. Well, there's one school of thought that argues that this not the only way to read that word.
Some scholars say it is valid to read a-dam not as a human man named Adam but, instead as a the mud-creature or earthling. And, they argue the earthling isn't necessarily what many people would call a man. There is a Hebrew word for man, ish. But, the mud creature is not called an ish. For the majority of this creation account, this thing is just called a-dam. God and the a-dam hang out by themselves for a while. God then goes on to create a garden in a place called Eden. But, notice, still no animals. Just plants. It is only when God realized that the earthling might get lonely and need help do any creeping, feathered, or furry things show up.
Now, I had always learned that when God said that God would make a guy named Adam a helper, it meant that God would give Adam a subordinate. But, it turns out that, in the Hebrew Bible, this word "helper" doesn't usually mean something like an assistant to a master. In fact, it is often used to describe someone of great power who helps someone in need, like, in some of the Psalms when God is called a helper to God's people. The same scholars who argue that a-dam means mud-creature would also argue that God is trying to help the mud-creature find an equal co-worker. All of the animals are then formed in the process of finding a co-worker for the mud-creature. While the other animals seem to have a place in creation and a relationship to the earthling, none is truly suitable to be the earthling's partner. So, God puts the earthling to sleep, and removes part of it's side to fashion a second human.
It is only at this point, when we are three quarters of the way through the second creation account, that we finally read the Hebrew words for man and woman, ish and ishah. When there was only one creature, only one word was necessary- a-dam. Now that there are two, we need two new words, ish and ishah in order to differentiate one from another. The newer being would become known as a woman named Eve. The part of the creature who remembered what it was to be alone, the man who would be called Adam, cried out, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." Now, I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like any version of Adam and Eve that I had ever heard before. Here were scholars arguing that this is a legitimate reading of the second creation account. I think you can understand why this interpretation blew my mind.
It must be said that not everyone finds this interpretation convincing. And yet, even knowing that other scholars are not convinced that this is the best reading of these verses, I cannot help but be struck by the compassion and equality expressed in this interpretation. God created two humans so that one human would not be alone. God created two humans so that they could help one another and they could be partners. God created these two out of the same stuff, out of mud and breathe and love, though one seems to have the good fortune of having been recycled first. All of the rest of humankind is said to have been created through the relationship between these two. While the second creation story never explicitly uses this phrases, whenever I read these words, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," I can't help but here the echo of "This is good" from the first creation account. Far from simply being an obscure argument between academics, I believe that this interpretation shows us a God who recognizes that people are not meant to be alone and that we are, in fact, created by our very nature to be in relationship.
Now, when I say that we are created to be in relationship, I don't mean that everyone has to be married to feel complete. Instead, what I think this story can tell us is that our existence relies on our ability to nurture relationship with other people and with God. This reading of the Creation story demonstrates that communication, intimacy, and co-operation are just as much a part of God's creation as the Sun, Moon, and stars. It shows a compassionate God who wants to help humanity and acts on our behalf, providing us with mutuality, community, and partnerships for our journey. It show us that God intends for our lives to be richer than they can be if we try to live our lives on our own.
Now, this scripture seems particularly apt on a day when the connections between and among humanity and God are in the forefront as they are today. Today is World Communion Sunday, a day when we remember our ultimate hope for international Christian unity and celebrate the relationships among Christians on a global scale. It is also the same day as the meeting of the Kennebec Valley Association of the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ. This is the day that the churches in our regional body come together in worship and to discern how we can better serve Christ and our neighbor through our work together. And, it is also the first Sunday after our Board of Church and Community Concerns has sent out a letter asking you to prayerfully and hopefully discern how you can financially support this congregation in our mission to love God and serve our neighbor. While relationship is always part of worship, today especially, our relationship with one another and with God is central to our gathering. Today, especially, we are reminded that we are made for each other, and we are challenged to find ways to live that out every day.
In a culture that values individualism over mutual dependence, how can we recapture the joy of Adam's exclamation, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." How can we see that everyone we meet is made up of the same bits of dust and breath as we are? How can we take this deep, muddy memory from creation and allow it to shape the mission and vision of our church? For, we are not created to be alone. This church is one mechanism through which God provides us relationship, just as God once made a partner for the earthling. And, we have the chance to use this relationship for good. So, folks, how will you help your partner sitting next to you? How will you help your partner next door or down the street or the one that you haven't even met yet? Because, we are made for each other and it is time to start acting like it.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2537
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).
Sara Koenig: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1359
Dennis Olson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=400
Laurel Koepf Taylor: www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways
So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’ Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have won your favour, 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.’ Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’ Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?’ As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, ‘Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.’ And the king said, ‘Hang him on that.’ So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
For Such a Time as This: Esther 7:1-10
As many of you have heard me say before, when preparing my sermons each week, I follow a list of suggested readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. I like preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary for a couple reasons. For one thing, when I work from this set each week, I know that our churches is connect to thousands of other churches across the world who are also prayerfully considering the same set of scriptures on the same day. I also like to use this lectionary because, when I use it, I'm more likely to wrestle with scripture that I'm uncomfortable reading on my own. If left to my own devices, I'd probably read and preach on the same six things all the time. Now, there are a few things I don't care for about the Revised Common Lectionary. I can get frustrated that it doesn't include the whole Bible. There are some interesting and important stories that are hardly addressed, if they are addressed at all.
Today's reading from the Hebrew Bible is but one example of a story that is rarely told in some churches. In the whole three year reading cycle, only once do the lectionary readings include a story from the book of Esther. Today's reading... just a few verses... may be the only time that you hear about the book of Esther for three more years, which seems a pity. Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai are very interesting. Their story is pretty complicated, too. It is full of foolish kings and cruel courtiers, concubines and genocide. It's not exactly kid friendly. It gets pretty bloody at the end. And, God is never explicitly mentioned in the whole book. Maybe that's why it doesn't come up very often in the reading cycle. It is a complicated read. But, we are called to engage the complexity in life, not avoid it. So, if we're only going to get one chance in three years to talk about Esther, let's take it. Because I think her story has something important to tell us about courage and about working with the situation that you find yourself in, whether or not it actually the situation you want to be in.
This story is said to take place in the royal court in Persia during the time when Persia also controlled Judah. There is a king, Ahasuerus, who has a lot of territory and a lot of treasure and many concubines. He's pompous and wasteful, throwing a party that lasted six months. He's also a jerk to his wife, Vashti. He apparently thought of her as though she were a piece of his wealth that he could show off to impress his guests. He ordered her to come down and prance around in front of the people and officials. She rightly refused. This is where the story takes it's first real turn for the ridiculous. Rather than just go talk to his wife like a normal husband, he calls on his legal scholars to discuss whether or not she has broken the law. They, rather than just advise him to go talk to his wife, come up with some utterly silly response about how she had indeed broken the law and her behavior would encourage other women to do the same. What is initially a sitcom-esque squabble between two spouses is escalated through sheer foolish will to some big legal proclamation that all wives will give honor to their husbands. And, Vashti is disposed of. This story sets the stage for us to know that the king is a fool and his advisors are witless yes-men.
Ahasuerus' poor choice in advisors matters because, a little later in the story, he picks an even worse one, a man named Haman. Haman is about as pompous as his boss, and he's murderous to boot. When one man, one of the king's servants named Mordecai, refused to bow down to him, rather than just deal with Mordecai personally, he decided to take his frustrations out on Mordecai's whole ethnic group. You see, Mordecai is Jewish. And, Jews are a colonized minority in Persia. Powerful people can apparently do what they want to them with no repercussions. This is a very dangerous situation. This is the kind of situation that leads to lynching. This is the kind of situation that leads to genocide. And so Haman declares his intent to punish all Jews for Mordecai's perceived slight. He convinces his foolish and easily manipulated king to allow him to order the death of every single Jewish person in Persia.
This action is so outrageous that it is hard to believe that it could be true. And, yet, even if this genocide that is described in the book of Esther was never actually ordered, we know of plenty others that have been. We know about the Pequot Massacres in Connecticut Colony and Little Big Horn in South Dakota. We know about the more than 4,000 lynchings that were committed in the United States between the 1880's and the late 1960's. We know about the Armenians in Turkey and the Tutsi in Rwanda and the Shia Muslims, Yazidis, and Christians in Iraq and Syria, all of whom have been targeted because of their religious and ethnic identities. We know what genocide of the Jews looked like in Europe, where 6 million of Jews were killed, alongside millions of other people who were identified as minorities who could manipulated to feed the egos of the people in power. We know what the power of narcissistic, bigoted rage can look like. The book of Esther gives us an idea about what can stop it.
A young Jewish woman named Esther had been taken into Ahasuerus' harem. It is not clear that she had any choice about whether or not she wanted to be a concubine. My guess is that her wishes really didn't matter. But, the king took a liking to her and she ended up becoming the new queen. She had told no one that she was Jewish. Her cousin Mordecai, the one who raised her after her parents died, had warned her that it might not be safe to tell people. Mordecai also helped her save the king's life by telling her about an assassination plot that he had learned of. From that point on, the king knew that he owed his life to her. Esther, now most beloved by the king, was in a position to help people, even if she had never wanted to be a concubine. But, could she do it? Could she stand up to the king, knowing what happened to Vashti when she stood up to him? If she admitted she was Jewish, would she be killed, too?
Thankfully, Mordecai had faith in her even when she didn't have faith in herself. He knew that sometimes you have to have people help you be brave. He said to her, "If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this." When she heard these words from the person who she most respected in the world, she remembered her bravery and she knew what she had to do. She asked her cousin and other Jews to pray and fast for her, and she said she would speak to the king, knowing that addressing him without being invited was courting death. To not speak on behalf of her people would also mean death. She said, "If I perish; I perish." And, she went to speak to the king.
Fortunately, in a rare bit of wisdom, Ahasuerus had just realized that Mordecai had saved his life and had finally thanked him. He was primed to be generous at this point. Esther seized the moment and asked for her life and lives of her people to be spared. Ahasuerus agrees and quickly turns on Haman, having apparently forgotten that he gave Haman permission to destroy the Jews. Haman is hanged on the gallows that had been built for Mordecai. Esther goes back to the king and asks that the bounty on the heads of the Jews be removed and that the people be allowed to defend themselves. The king again agrees. The Jews defend themselves against their attackers and survive. Esther continues on as Queen and Mordecai as advisor to Ahasuerus. Esther bravery continues to be remembered by the Jewish community each year at the festival of Purim. She is celebrated as one who saved her people.
Now, I could probably end my sermon here. I could just tell you to be brave and do the right thing, even when it could cost you. I do believe that is one important way to respond to adversity. I do believe it is necessary to use the privilege that you do have to help people with less privilege be heard. I hope we all can be like Esther and listen to the Mordecais in our lives who know that we can use our privilege in such a time as this. But, even as I celebrate Esther's resolve and bravery, I cannot help but be troubled by the parts of the story that follow today's reading. They describe a response from that Jews that seems to be more than simply defending themselves from marauding soldiers. Many other people who had nothing to do with the war, the women and children of the warriors, could also be killed. The ensuing struggle is described as a blood bath, one that includes the killing of 10 of Haman's sons. While some scholars have pointed out that the scripture goes to great length to describe the violence as defensive, as only being directed towards those who would kill the Jews, I am uncomfortable with the inclusion of attacks on non-combatants in the original decree. I can't help but wonder why Esther only asked Ahasuerus to allow the Jews to defend themselves. I wonder why didn't she ask him to rescind the order to kill the Jews instead. Rescinding the original kill order would have stopped all the bloodshed. Nobody would have had to die.
At the end of this complicated story, I guess that I am left with a sense that we need to be brave in the face of danger but also a realization that we are called to not just save ourselves, but to do the most good. Esther was stuck in a destructive system that did not value her choices or her life. She was able to save her people because she figured out how to use the system to her advantage. I think our next step is not just to figure out how to use a broken system, but instead get to the point where we are able to re-orient the whole system. I want to get to a point where stopping calls for violence is a better option than arming the group that has been targeted. Systemic change is more powerful than reactionary change to one event.I think that this is the next place where we need to deploy our Esther-like bravery and cunning. Because Esther shows us that one action can make a change that matters. Now, let's work to make some bigger changes.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker:
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).
Amy Oden: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1378
Brent A. Strawn: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=389
The Sunni-Shia Divide: http://www.cfr.org/peace-conflict-and-human-rights/sunni-shia-divide/p33176#!/
Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).
A compilation of lynching statistics:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.