St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Pentecost 18 2012 Sermon
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Jim Campbell

Queen Esther Tomb Pictures        Queen Esther Tomb Narrative

In the midst of these tough economic times and polarized politics, Americans have agreed on one REALLY important thing this week—that the REAL football officials need to return to referee in the NFL!  Now that’s getting our priorities right!  Hey, I’m a huge sports fan, and I think this is ridiculous.  How about getting back to working together on our real issues as a country and improving the lives of all people, regarding of their stature, race, creed, sex, sexual orientation, and so on?
 
Our readings today actually give us a way to think about this focus--as Christians, how to be responsible not just for ourselves, but also to help others.
 
 
Esther is a very unusual book to be in the Bible, either Jewish or Christian.  It has no mention of Jerusalem, the Law, prophets, the Promised Land or exile, or even God.  It includes no formal prayers or miracles.  It’s only tie to the rest of the Hebrew Bible is that it involves the survival of the Jewish people.  It is a short ten chapters, easy to read, thrilling novel about the escape of Jews from annihilation in Persia during the exile. The story takes place in the royal court of Ahasuerus (Xerxes), who ruled from 486 to 465 BC.  It is Esther, his young Jewish queen, who risks her status (and perhaps her life) to reverse the royal edict to kill all Jews.  Written perhaps 150 years after it possibly happened, it also gives us the origin of the Jewish festival of Purim, one of only two feasts not prescribed by Mosaic law.
 
Esther, a Jewish orphan, had been brought up by her cousin, Mordecai.  The king needed a new queen, as his previous Queen Vashti has been sent away for refusing to dance and show off herself for the king and his guests at a banquet.  When the king sought a new queen, Mordecai offered young Esther as a candidate, without revealing that she was Jewish, and she was chosen.  Mordecai then discovered a plot to assassinate the king; he told Esther, who tipped off the king. 
 
At some point, the despicable Haman was made his prime minister.  Custom required all to bow to the prime minister, but Mordecai refused, so Haman plotted to destroy Mordecai, who had also now revealed that he was a Jew.  Haman decided to destroy all of the Jews, not just Mordecai.  A date for the slaughter was set by lot (called “pur” in their language).  Haman gained the king’s consent for his plan: he argued that “their laws were different from those of every other people”, really saying— the Jews, they’re not like us!  Hamen even offered bribes to those who would kill Jews.  A royal decree was sent out by courier to all the land.  
 
Through a servant, Esther learned of the decree.  At Mordecai’s urging, she risked her life by going into the presence of the king uninvited, to make a request of him.  The king agreed that she may ask him at a banquet.  Meanwhile, Haman prepared a gallows on which to hang Mordecai – on the date set by lot.  The king recalled that Mordecai had saved his life, and said that he intended to honor someone (but didn’t say whom); Haman thought he was the one to be honored.
 
At the banquet, the king decided to grant Esther almost anything.  She asked that she and her people be spared (admitting that she was Jewish).  Esther named Haman as their “enemy”.  Haman, now begging for his life, threw himself on to Esther’s couch, violating harem law; and the king took this as sexual assault.  Haman’s face was “covered”, in preparation for his execution.  Justice is served, as Haman was hanged in place of Mordecai.
 
I’m not claiming they are memorable, but a couple of films have been made about this story. The 1960 Hollywood film version of the story, Esther and the King, starred Joan Collins and Richard Egan.  The 2006 film, One Night with the King, is a reenactment of the biblical story of Esther.  Even Veggie Tales made an animated version entitled, Esther… The Girl Who Became Queen.
 
The Jews celebrate the feast of Purim each year to honor the heroism of Esther, and the deliverance of the Jews.  It is celebrated in late February/early March by feasting and merriment, almsgiving, sending food to neighbors and friends, and chanting the text of Esther.  It is perhaps the most joyous day of the Jewish year, with masquerades, plays, and drinking of wine even in the synagogue. 
 
Even though she could have remained silent about her Jewish identity and been safe and wealthy and well taken care of in her role as queen, Esther uses her proximity to power in order to deliver her enslaved people from annihilation.  In America we don’t have to deal with the possible destruction of our lives as Christians (anywhere near like what actually does occur in some places around the world).  But we can learn from Esther how to be upfront with our faith, and be responsible for others around us, ensuring their well-being, safety, and civil rights that everyone should have.
 
 
Our second reading from James, the ultimate Biblical book on how to act as a Christian, tells us more about personal Christian responsibility, and more especially, as part of a Christian community.  
 
The reading focuses on two different actions: ritual acts of healing and confession and hands-on, even intervening, community acts of restoration.  James provides a very early description of how Christians offered ministries of healing within their communities.  Acts mentions itinerant healers, persons with gifts of healing that would go from place to place.  I Corinthians makes it clear that some individual Christians were exercising such gifts there, as well.
 
But James was the first to describe how communities normally offered ministries of healing.  He was also the first to connect healing, confession of sin, and anointing with oil and prayer.  This week's reading from James provides the template for healing ministries in connection with worship that would develop in the succeeding church over the centuries.
 
Many of us pray for one another, and others we know to be cured quite regularly.  I hear it in the prayers in our worship service each week.  Especially, we offer and exercise this ritual during our healing service each 3rd Sunday of the month.  It is not just our clergy who provide this act—others from our community can and do lay hands on those who receive healing prayers and anointing, for themselves and others.  All the while, others in our service pray silently or aloud during this time in their pews for these needs.  This is our individual and community Christian responsibility—to be there for each other in their needs, and also for those who have needs to share with others to receive their help and support.
 
 
The Gospel reading from Mark continues his teaching to his disciples about how they should act responsibly with what tools Jesus has given them.  I’m only going to talk about the first thing Jesus taught in this reading, because it fits with what seems to happening today in Christian circles.  Jesus is told by John that he saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and the disciples had tried to stop him because he was not following them.  Jesus’ response--"Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us!”  Jesus' point here is that God's kingdom happens everywhere, all the time, and God's saving power is potentially available to and through all.  Our roles as Christians is not to fight with one another over who has got it the most correct, but make sure that we all are working to Jesus’ teachings, not our own version based on some other agenda.  This issue is very hard for me, based on some written discussions I have had with high school classmates on Facebook back in Indiana who think differently politically and seemingly faith-wise, too.  But if we get past the top level rhetoric we each throw out saying one is wrong and the other is right, we can explore and find areas of agreement in how we together as Christians can responsibly live and help others.
 
 
Last, I’d like to relate this responsibility theme to something written by our Canon for Stewardship, Rev. Lance Ousley this week for our readings. 
 
He says: “Cultural temptations based on a scarcity worldview are pervasive in our lives and even in the church.  These worldly "virtues" can be and are stumbling blocks to our receiving the liberating truth of God's love, grace and providence that gives life.  Our [Christian] faith is counter-cultural and we shouldn't pretend it is not.  This is what Jesus means when he urges us not to lose our saltiness.  Western prosperity clouds what is essential to living abundant life, distorting what is truly valuable.  The temptations of scarcity cause us to question or even be suspicious of our sisters and brothers who also are trying to proclaim the Gospel, as if there were not enough of Jesus' love to go around. …The truth is good stewardship is the result of transformation.  This is transformation from faith in the things of this world, to faith and life lived in the abundance of God's loving providence.”

Friends, this Christian faith we have in so many ways is not complicated.  Love God and love your neighbor!   AMEN.



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