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Pentecost 19 Proper 21B RCL   September 30, 2018

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Our first reading is from the Book of Esther. It is set during the reign of King Ahasuerus, better known to us as Xerxes I (485-404 B.C.) It was actually written around 150 B.C.

The story is in our Revised Common Lectionary because the RSV was created to let us read and learn about stories of women and other marginalized people in the Bible, texts which had not appeared in our earlier lectionaries.

All of our readings today give us good food for meditation, but I want to focus on the entire story of Esther, a courageous woman who saved her people from genocide.

Esther is a Jew. Several generations earlier, her ancestors had been taken from Jerusalem to Babylon during the Babylonian Captivity. Esther had been adopted by her cousin, Mordecai, when her parents died. They are now living in Susa, a city two hundred miles northeast of Babylon.

Mordecai is a minor official in the king’s court. He tells Esther never to tell anyone that she is Jewish. Esther is also part of the king’s court. She lives in the castle as a member of the king’s harem.

The story begins with the king throwing a party for all the leaders of the kingdom from India to Ethiopia. The party lasts for a week, and on the last day the king, who has had more than enough to drink, wants his wife, Vashti, to come in and dazzle the guests with her beauty. Vashti refuses. The king’s sages tell him that he has to take decisive action to discipline her, or all the women will stop obeying their husbands. King Xerxes dismisses her from her job as queen and holds what is essentially a beauty contest to choose a new wife.  Esther becomes the new queen.

Soon after, Mordecai uncovers a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther. Esther tells the king and saves the king’s life. The plotters are hanged on the gallows.

Then Haman, another of the king’s minor officials who is extremely anti-semitic,  and also has a huge ego and a very thin skin, receives a promotion. He becomes the king’s right hand man. The king orders all the other officials to prostrate themselves on the ground whenever Haman approaches. Mordecai refuses to do this. Some of the other officials ask why, and he tells them he is Jewish. The news reaches Haman. In revenge, Haman plans to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed. He convinces the king to issue a proclamation for this genocide, sealing the deal with a huge bribe of ten thousand silver talents.

Mordecai finds out about the decree, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and goes about the streets wailing. Soon all the Jews are in mourning. Esther’s maids and eunuchs hear about this and tell Esther, who sends a trusted servant to ask Mordecai what is going on.

Mordecai gives the servant a copy of the proclamation and tells him about Haman’s bribe. He asks the servant to convince Esther to appeal to the king and save her people.

Esther is terrified. She knows that the king has a law that you do not go to see him unless you are called. If you approach the king without permission, you can be killed. She asks Mordecai to tell all the Jewish people to fast for three days and pray for her.

With this prayer support, Esther does the unthinkable. She goes to the inner court opposite the king’s hall. She could lose her life for this. The king sees her, calls her into the hall, and asks what she wants. She says she wants to invite the king and Haman to a feast the next day, and at the feast she will have a special request of the king. Shortly thereafter, Haman sees Mordecai at the king’s gate, and Mordecai fails to honor  Haman. By the end of the evening, Haman has decided to build a gallows to hang Mordecai for his insolence.

That night, the king has trouble sleeping, so he asks for the book of records. He reads about how Mordecai warned him about the assassination plot. The king is reminded that Mordecai has saved his life. He asks what has been done to honor Mordecai and finds out that nothing has been done.

The next morning, the king asks Haman, “What should be done for the man the king wishes to honor?” Haman of course thinks the king wants to honor him, so he tells the king that the man should be given royal robes that the king has worn and a horse that the king has ridden, and a crown should be placed on the horse’s head, and an official should lead the horse carrying the honoree through the square of the city proclaiming that this is the man the king wishes to honor. The king tells Haman to go and do all of this for Mordecai.

Then comes our reading. We are at the feast Esther has arranged for Haman and the king. Esther bravely tells the king about the planned genocide. The tables are turned. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai and the king gives Mordecai Haman’s job as his right hand man.

Mordecai sends out a decree that the feast of Purim should be celebrated to honor the Jews’ escape from death.

Esther shows great courage in carrying out her plan. She risks her life and saves her people. She also shows deep faith. What a wise thing—to ask all of her people to fast and pray for her. Those prayers gave her the faith to approach the king.

Haman has great power, and he uses it to promote his anti-Semitic agenda. King Ahasuerus has even greater power, and this time he uses it to promote justice. This little story, only ten chapters in the Hebrew Scriptures, gives us a wonderful example of a courageous woman speaking truth to power and saving many lives. Thanks be to God for people of courage.  Amen.

Pentecost 18 Proper 20B RCL September 23, 2018

Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Our opening reading is the conclusion of the Book of Proverbs, written about twenty-five hundred years ago. Some scholars advise us to simply skip this passage because it was written in a patriarchal culture, but, if we take a moment and look a bit more deeply into it, this passage is quite interesting, even inspiring.

This woman is intelligent and gifted in many areas. She spins wool and flax and makes clothes for herself and her family. She also makes garments for sale. She buys a field and plants a vineyard. In other words, she is a businesswoman. She works hard and manages her household including servants, with care and efficiency. She has deep faith. She does not fear the future. She is a person of justice, generous with the poor and needy. Although this description was written over two thousand years ago, this woman is a holy example for all of us.

Our reading from the Letter of James is timeless in its relevance. If we want to be seen as wise, we are called to show our faith and wisdom in our actions. If we have “bitter envy and selfish ambition in [our] hearts,” and if we are “boastful and false to the truth,” we are not following our Lord. In fact, James says, “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” How true this is.

By contrast, James writes, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” That is what we are aiming for. We may never get there one hundred per cent of the time, but, with God’s grace, we try to get as close as we can to that goal.

Then James tells us, “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” If we have God’s peace within us and we share that peace with others in our actions, we help to make the world a better place.

Then James talks about conflicts. He says that, if we want something we do not have, and we let that govern all our actions, we can actually commit murder. We can actually see this happening on a international level. For example, Mr. Putin wanted to take over Crimea, so he sent troops in and killed people to accomplish that goal.

On a level slightly less harmful than murder, James points out that, if we “covet something and cannot obtain it,” we humans “engage in disputes and conflicts.” This was written about two thousand years ago, but it is as true today as it was all those centuries ago.

To move away from this human need for power and control, James calls us to “Draw near to God, and [God] will draw near to [us].” Good advice in any age.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is teaching the disciples about the horrible things that are going to happen to him. They are not understanding what he is saying, and they are afraid to ask him. This reminds us that no question is stupid. Asking questions is the way we learn.

Then our Lord finds out that, not only do the disciples not understand what he is telling them, they have also been arguing along the way about which of them is the greatest. This is a huge sign that they are missing the point. I think they still had vestiges of the idea that the messiah is a military leader who will overthrow the Romans, and they are concerned with what rank they will have in the new kingdom.

As James has pointed out, we humans are so concerned about our rank and status that we will get into conflicts about it, and that is what the disciples have done, arguing about who is the greatest.

They arrive at Capernaum, and Jesus asks them what they were discussing. They are silent, but obviously Jesus figures out what the topic was. He sits down, calls the twelve apostles, his closest followers, and tries to get the point across.

First, he expresses his message in words, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” What a shocking statement. He is turning everything upside down. If we want to be first with Jesus, we have to do what he did. We have to be servants of all. Jesus is throwing out all our human notions about power and prestige and privilege. In his eyes, a buck private is just as good as a five star general. A custodian is just as worthy of respect as the CEO. A little baby in a tiny parish in Vermont is as precious as our Presiding Bishop.

And then he takes a little child in his arms. We have to remember that in Jesus’ time, it was a patriarchal society. Men had all the power. Our woman in the Book of Proverbs is extraordinary. Women and children were considered chattel—possessions, belongings. They could be treated badly, even beaten and thrown out on the street, and no one batted an eye.

Jesus takes a little child in his arms. This little person is at the bottom of the social scale, like a cat or a dog or a chair—a possession, an object. But Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” This is a revolutionary, earth-shattering statement.

Our Lord is saying that every little child is Christ. The most vulnerable people among us are Christ. We are called to treat them as we would treat our Lord Jesus. The hungry, the thirsty, those who have no clothes, those who are homeless, those who are in prison—and little children—when we treat them with love and care, we are doing that to our Lord. He is calling us to see him in the most vulnerable among us.

Lord Jesus, you are alive among us and in us, and we are alive in you. Give us the grace to follow you, to love and serve others in your Name.  Amen.

Pentecost 18 Proper 21B RCL September 27, 2015

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Our opening reading, from the Book of Esther, is filled with drama. It tells us about the origins of the feast of Purim, which commemorates the saving of the Jews from Haman’s plot to kill them all. Here is some historical background to the story.

Along with many others,  Mordecai, a Jew, is taken captive when king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquers Jerusalem. Mordecai is taken to the city of Susa, where he becomes a respected member of the king’s court and a trusted advisor to the king. His cousin, Esther, becomes an orphan, and Mordecai takes her into his own home.

Through a series of events, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia. We are now in the reign of King Ahasuerus, which is his name in Hebrew. He is perhaps better known as King Xerxes I, who reigned from  486-465 B. C. Haman, a ruthless, arrogant, and anti-semitic member of the court, is plotting to kill Mordecai and all the Jews in the kingdom. With great courage, Esther appeals to the king to stop this genocide. Because of the antisemitism in the kingdom, she has hidden her Jewish identity, but now she ricks everything to save her people.

Her wish is granted, and Haman is hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. The point of the story is that Esther is a heroine. Like Moses, she has freed her people.

This reading can lead us to all kinds of themes to think about. Our Jewish brothers and sisters suffered the holocaust, one of the greatest horrors in history. Anti-Semitism has no place in the Christian faith. Even today, Jews, Muslims and others are being persecuted in many places. God is a God of love.

The Letter of James is so down to earth, so practical. Are we suffering? What should we do? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. In every circumstance, we should pray.

When we pray, we are asking God to come into the midst of our lives with love and grace.

James says that when we are sick, we should call for the elders of the church to come and anoint us with oil and lay hands on us. Many churches have the laying on of hands and anointing with oil at or after the Eucharist on Sundays. When we are sick or suffering, it is a wonderful thing to share that and ask others to pray for us. James goes on to say that we should confess our sins to one another. In the early Church, this actually happened. People confessed ad received absolution in front of the congregation.

Nowadays, we tend to be more private, but it certainly helps to share our burdens with each other and ask for prayer. We can also confess to each other or we can confess individually to a priest. All of these things lead to spiritual health.

This is one of the wonderful gifts of Grace Church. We do share our burdens with each other. We don’t try to carry them alone. We ask each other to pray for us and for our families. With genuine gratitude to God and the community of faith, we ask for help. We don’t pretend to be perfect. We don’t pretend to be self-sufficient. We ask for help and prayers. And the power of those prayers helps each of us to be more healthy spiritually, emotionally, and physically. And that means that our community of faith is also more healthy, because we are all sharing our burdens and counting on each other and God for help. This is one reason why we do not have strife and division the way James’ community did. Because we know each other as frail and fallible human beings who are trying, with God’s grace, to be faithful followers of Christ, and we are all working together.

Our gospel builds on these themes of God’s love, mercy. and healing. The disciples see someone healing people in Jesus’ name. They ask Jesus whether they should stop the person. Jesus says, absolutely not. If people are doing good things, give them encouragement. Don’t stop them.

He tells them and us not to put barriers in people’s way. If some of these little people are trying to believe in hm, we should help them. We should explain our faith and live our faith in a way that encourages them to believe in Jesus.

And then our Lord tells us that if anything is getting in the way of our following him, we need to get rid of it. Maybe we have an addiction to something. We need to get into recovery. Maybe, like some of his disciples  last Sunday, we are consumed with ambition and we want to be the greatest in his kingdom. We need to revise our thinking. If anything is getting between us and Jesus, we need to ask his help to remove it. Because we want to follow him with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength.

This week is an extraordinary week. Pope Francis has come among us. He is such an extraordinary person, such a holy example, an embodiment of God’s love, mercy, and healing. He has identified himself as someone from an immigrant family and has called us to work together to create an inclusive society in which all persons are treated with respect. He has called us to take climate change seriously and work to protect and preserve our beautiful planet. He has called us to protect the vulnerable people of our world and to work for “reconciliation, peace, and freedom.”

Our beloved bother, Pope Frances lives what he preaches. He causes untold worries for those who are trying to protect him by leaving his Pope Mobile to go out into the crowd and touch people and pray for people who need God’s love and healing. This brings hope and new meaning to people’s lives. To all of our lives. Pope Francis is a living and inspiring example of the points of all our readings today.

May we follow his example.


Pentecost 17 Proper 20B RCL September 20, 2015

Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-17

Our opening reading, which is the concluding portion of the Book of Proverbs, begins with a question: “A capable wife who can find?” The passage then launches into a description. Biblical scholars have a range of views about this passage.  Some scholars advise that we should really skip this passage because it comes from a patriarchal culture. It is true that the excellence of the good woman enhances her husband’s status in the city’s gates, where all the important decisions are made, and, in a patriarchal society, women did not participate in those decisions.

But other scholars encourage us to take a deeper look. Some say that, yes, this text was written in the midst of a patriarchal culture, but that it describes a strong, gifted woman, and that she and her husband have a good relationship based on mutuality. Some say that  this woman is a personification of wisdom and that the word“husband” is actually describing the followers of wisdom. Some even say that the passage describes the qualities of God. If we keep in mind that Jesus is closely associated with wisdom, that is not a huge leap.

Let’s take this on the literal level first. This is a description of a “capable wife.” Kathleen O’Connor of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia says that, if we look carefully at the original Hebrew,  “The woman is more literally a ‘strong woman,’ a ‘woman of worth,’ a ‘warriorlike woman.’ She is a mysterious figure who greatly rewards anyone who settles down to live in her household.”

She is creative; she weaves and makes clothes for her family; she wakes up early and works hard; she manages and takes care of her household; she buys fields and plants vineyards. Commentator Neil Elliot translates, “She girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong,” into, “She works out.” In other words, she is strong. She dresses herself and her household well. They do not have to fear the snow. They will be warmly clothed. She is a person of justice. She helps the poor and needy. She cares about her community and the world. In addition to conducting real estate transactions and running a vineyard, she has a business making and selling linen garments.

She “laughs at the time to come,” Her faith is so deep that she is joyful in the face of the future. She is a teacher, and she teaches wisdom and kindness. Her family sees that she is happy, and they praise her. She has many wonderful qualities, and the most important one is her deep faith.

Even if we take this passage at the literal level, this woman is a wonderful holy example. If we take it as a description of wisdom, or living the life in Christ, it is still a fine example for us to follow.

Wisdom is strong; it is creative; it is industrious; wisdom enhances those who associate with it; it is competent in business transactions; wisdom takes care of the people in its household;  wisdom has deep faith.

Our passage from the letter of James says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits; without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

Apparently, the congregation he is addressing has been suffering from conflict and division, and he is trying to show them the way out of that.

In our gospel, Jesus has begun to talk about the cross. He is among us as one who serves, and he calls us to serve others in his Name. But the disciples are having a difficult time making the transition from a worldly military hero carrying out a revolution to our Lord, calling us to allow him to transform us.

On the way, they have been arguing and when they get to Capernaum, he asks them what they have been talking about. They are so ashamed that they fall into silence, because they have been fighting over who is going to be the greatest in his kingdom.

Of course, he knows this. They are in the house. He sits down and calls the twelve to him. We can imagine that he asks them to sit down with him. When we are trying to communicate things that are hard to grasp, it is good to get quiet, sit down together, ask God to be in our midst, calm ourselves, and put our full attention on the matter at hand.

And then Jesus says those great words of wisdom: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That dissolves any thoughts of who is going to be the greatest. That removes any possibility of competition or comparison. We are here to serve each other, and we are all called to put each other first. That’s how his kingdom works. That’s the basis for his shalom. That’s the blueprint for the reign of God.

Then he takes a little child in his arms. In that society and time, children had no status. They were considered chattel, property, possessions. And Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

He is turning everything upside down. If we welcome a little child, we are welcoming him. The quality of our faith and our discipleship is based on how we welcome and treat those who are the most vulnerable. The quality of our discipleship is based, not on how great we are but on how much we serve others.

Blessed Lord, give us the grace to love and follow you and to love and serve others, especially those who are most vulnerable. In your Holy Name we pray.  Amen.

Last Sunday after Epiphany Year B RCL 2/15/15

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

Today is the last Sunday after Epiphany. This coming Wednesday, we will gather for our Ash Wednesday service and will begin the season of Lent.

Epiphany is the season of light. The wise men followed the star which led them through the dark nights to the place where the new king was. They worshipped because they knew that a new order, a new creation, had come into being. They went home by another way. They were wise enough to avoid Herod, who was willing to resort to murder to destroy this new kingdom.

Epiphany is also a time when we focus on the glory of God. God has sent God’s son. God has come to be with us. And today, we go up the mountain with Peter and James and John and we see his glory as we have never seen it before. And we will never forget it.

We see some foreshadowings in our opening reading. The great prophet Elijah is getting old, He is going to leave. He does not actually die, He is carried up into heaven in a most dramatic way. He and his faithful assistant, Elisha, journey to the Jordan. Elijah keeps telling Elisha to stay behind, but Elisha is not going to leave his mentor. The waters part, recalling the crossing of the Red Sea, the journey from slavery into freedom. Finally, Elijah, knowing that he is about to leave, asks Elisha what he can do for him. Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. If Elisha sees his mentor as he is carried up to heaven, the double portion will be his. Then the chariot of fire and horses of fire separate them and Elijah is carried up in a whirlwind. Elisha sees this glory. He cries out in grief and also describes the glory he is seeing. Then he tears his clothes in mourning.

Elijah is one of the great prophets of Israel, but Elisha follows faithfully and is a courageous prophet of God. This is one of the great stories about the passing of the torch from one leader to the next.

This story is a wonderful preparation for the Transfiguration of our Lord. He takes Peter and James and John and goes up the mountain. Mountains are where we meet God. Moses encounters God on Mount Sinai. Jesus becomes blazingly white and surrounded by light. Moses and Elijah are with him.

Peter tries to capture the moment, but, of course, we cannot hold on to those moments. But we have seen our Lord for who he truly is, and that vision will never leave us. That vision will carry us through Lent, to the foot of the cross. It carries us through the dark and lonely places of our lives. It gives us hope when there seems to be no reason to hope.

At the beginning of Epiphany, when Jesus was baptized, God spoke only to Jesus, saying, “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Now God speaks to Peter, James, and John—and us— and says, “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!”

We have this very short time with Jesus on the mountain, a time when we see him for who he truly is. And this is a moment we will carry with us forever. We cannot endure the intensity of those mountaintop moments for long. They are fleeting. But they change our lives. They alter our perspective. They transfigure us.

We see Jesus . We see the reality of who he is—and it does something to us. He is walking with us. He is talking with us and teaching us a new way to live. It is not an easy way to live. It is extraordinarily demanding. And it is quite different from the values of the world surrounding us.

There is a new creation breaking in on the old one. The transfiguration of our Lord lets us know that, as we follow him, we, too, are going to be transformed.

This is where our epistle comes into the picture. Some of the folks in Corinth are apparently having trouble understanding Paul’s message. Paul goes way back to the Book of Genesis, to the point when God was creating the world. God creates the light and lets the light shine out of the darkness. That light shines in our hearts “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Those of you who have attended the Easter Vigil will remember that, in the darkness, the new fire is kindled and the deacon comes down the aisle in the darkness with the lighted paschal candle, saying or singing, “The light of Christ,” and the people respond. “Thanks be to God.” As St. John tells us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

But before we reach Easter Even, we will walk the way of the cross in Lent. And as we walk that way, we will carry the memory of the Transfiguration. We will remember seeing our Lord radiating the glory of God. We will recall the warmth of that light entering into us and giving us power for the journey ahead.

We can’t stay on the mountaintop for long. The emotional high would give us all heart attacks. Life can be boring, and dull at times. It can be like the valley of the shadow of death. It can have times of great joy.

Through the times of boredom, dullness, trial and tribulation, and joy, we will carry those glimpses of the mountain. We will be with him. We will feel him with us, guiding us, leading us, shepherding us. And we will know who he truly is. And we will thank God for his presence and power among us. Amen.