Weekly Preaching: September 30, 2018

September 25th, 2018

A flawed weakness of the lectionary is on exhibit with the snippets from Esther 7 and 9 prescribed for this week. We don’t see the most famous moments (Mordecai’s “for such a time as this,” and Esther’s courageous “if I perish, I perish” in chapter 4). The preacher will need to narrate, in condensed form yet with telling details, the whole story — which can profitably be done. The lectionary sliver, when Esther springs her trap on Haman, intrigues, as he winds up hung on his own gallows intended for the Jews, suggesting the way evil eventually impales itself on its own devices. And the paradox of Jewish readings of Esther is rich: the sorrow and mourning is turned into a festive holiday — Purim, a Halloween-like party with costumes and fun, celebrating sheer survival in a hostile world.

Most interestingly, the book of Esther does not mention God (which seems like the sort of thing a biblical book ought to do). Mind you, the reader is drawn into noticing an unlikely series of chance occurrences (Vashti disses her husband, the king cannot sleep, he chances upon the moment that matters out of the vast royal annals, etc.). Is David Clines right in describing what he calls “deliverance by coincidence?"

"The chance occurrences have a cumulative effect. Each incident, regarded by itself, might well appear the result of chance — but taken together, they all converge upon one point, the guiding hand of the Great Unnamed... The holes in the story are God-shaped.”

I’m fond of this... and not. We experience God, generally, as hidden, unseen, not obvious. Learning to discern God where God isn’t explicitly named is the life of faith, and yet it’s too fatalistic if taken to the extreme. Clines offers a corrective:

“Without Esther’s and Mordecai’s courage and craft the coincidences would have fallen to the ground; and without the coincidences, all the wit in the world would not have saved the Jewish people.”

This reminds me of Sam Wells’s reading. He points out that the story happens just a few weeks before Passover. “Here is the bitter irony. If the Jews were to wait for Passover for their deliverance, it would be too late. If they were to survive, the Jews had to make their own story.” Pluck, improvision, guts, planning... Get busy, and maybe the luck falls into place and you survive.

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Our Epistle, James 5:13-20, reminds me of a marvelous moment when I was awoken to a more biblical ministry. One of my members asked me to lunch at McDonald’s. He read this text to me, and asked “Shouldn’t we be going to the sick and anointing them with oil?” After a few days, when I’d gotten my anointing oil organized, we went to a man in severe pain with bone cancer. We prayed, and anointed him. The church being the church.

"Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us about Powerful Leadership" (Abingdon Press, 2017). Order here: http://bit.ly/2rYxHac

This Sunday, we will have an anointing service. We've done it a couple of other times. It's way out of the box in a stodgy place like ours, but people usually respond enthusiastically. We set up four stations at the front and invite people to come (so not a compulsory line, as with Communion). We keep it pretty vague, what it's about... but imply there is some healing, some special presence of God in the mystery.

How moving it is to envision Jesus’ brother, James, providing this very simple counsel to the fledgling churches! His wording matters: while fully believing in the power of the prayer to heal, he speaks of the sick being “saved” and “raised up.” Had James witnessed Jesus raising up the little girl with his Aramaic talitha cum? Had he learned too well what we pastors know too well — that our prayers matter, but people still die of their maladies, like the gentleman with bone cancer I’d anointed?

Notice James urges us to confess our sins — and to one another, not just silently and to God. I am sure I have oversimplified in my explanations, but I love to tell new Methodists about the way Wesley organized people into small groups, about how they would entertain hard questions with one another, like Have you sinned since we were last together?  You could say No… but better to go with Yes… and then report on your struggle and feel the love, support, and accountability.

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I’m not sure I’ll preach on the Gospel, Mark 9:38-50, but it poses interesting questions about divergent groups doing the Jesus thing. If we “see someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name,” we don’t “try to stop” them; but might we ignore, or judge, or snicker at them? Jesus is chill on it: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” And yet we have acrimonious divisions in the church…

Notice Jesus’ wording: “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ…” He doesn’t say “Give a cup of water!” You’re the recipient of kindness here. This “cup of water” is, of course, an image for mission. I recall making a presentation at a church in another state and asking the crowd about how to be holy. The answer a man gave, and everyone nodded, was “Give a cup of water.” It’s like we know mission, doing something for somebody, but personal/private holiness is elusive.

Jesus is fixated on personal holiness, and the way your body (which Paul calls a temple of the Holy Spirit in 1 Cor. 6) can offend and lead you into unholiness. Cut it off! We shudder over ancient Christianity’s habit of castration (Origen and others), but we can see the deadly serious nature of the ongoing struggle with the body, which we want to love and affirm and yet vaunts itself as an implacable foe of holiness.

I can never forget that riveting scene in “Little House on the Prairie” (episode 215, “A Matter of Faith”), when Caroline Ingalls is home alone, suffering from a virulent infection from a scratch on her leg. Desperate, burning with fever, she turns to her Bible and reads “If you leg offends you, cut it off.” She picks up a big knife… and winds up saving her life by lancing the infection, impressing Doc Baker.

It’s hard to miss the irony in Jesus' admonition not to put a stumbling block (the Greek is skandalizo) in the way of the little ones — for we know from Paul that Jesus himself is a stumbling block! We're talking different kinds of stumbling blocks, of course, but it's worth pairing these images. Maybe even show what a millstone from Bible times looked like (which you would not want hung around your neck!).

"What can we say September 30? 19th after Pentecost" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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