Proper 21, Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 30, 2012
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:||Alternate Reading 1:||Alternate Reading 2:|
|Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22||Psalm 124||James 5:13-20||Mark 9:38-50||Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29||Psalm 19:7-14|
By David Grant Smith
Esther 7, 9 with Psalm 124
There is in the story of Esther a great deal of creative transformation. A plot by Haman to kill all the Jews living in the land was found out, and Esther mustered up the bravery needed to confront the king with the treachery of the scheme. As a result, all the hundreds or thousands of Jews who were at risk in the story had their lives preserved. However, the story doesn’t end without Haman being killed as a punishment for having wanted to commit genocide. The question which haunts any who read the story in toto is this: Is it right to kill someone to show that individual (and/or the society as a whole) that it is wrong to kill? To answer “no” seems to call into question the authority of the biblical witness which shows king, queen, and nation rejoicing over the death of Haman; to answer “yes” is to uphold a double-standard.
Because of the double-standard being offered in the narrative, if this story (or the excerpts of it used in this week’s lectionary) is read in Christian worship it certainly must be dealt with in the homily or sermon! To simply have it be read without anyone publicly engaging the text or challenging the apparent double-standard in it is to offer complicity to the unspoken ideal buried within the text that implies that it’s alright to do away with “wicked” people, but it’s not alright to kill (or even plot to kill) “righteous” people. To not offer some rhetorical challenges to a text like this is to miss an opportunity for creative transformation within the context of worship. Inviting a congregation to grapple with a challenging biblical narrative in this way can help them – individually and corporately – to see the overarching entirety of the biblical witness (call it a Canon if you will) as an archetype of the human struggle to understand God’s lure toward creative transformation, rather than a literal word-for-word instruction manual.
If this excerpt from Esther is used in Sunday worship, it may be worthwhile for worship planners to consider whether Psalm 124 is a worthy companion for it! The initial assertion of the psalm is “If the Lord had not been on our side…” To claim that God takes side with the victorious in every struggle flies in the face of so many biblical, spiritual, and faithful values! The primal claim that “Might makes right” is something beyond which the human social order is trying to evolve.
By and large, as part of our social contract with one another, we have come to collectively abhor murder, war, rape, abuse, and exploitation (just to name a few). True, many of these things still exist within various levels of our common life – family, community, state/nation, globe – but there are widespread efforts trying to eradicate these things from the human experience because we have come to view them as primitive and barbaric. And if we are to compare the present level of these social evils with the levels to which they were found in ages past, we would easily see that the human race is working to evolve beyond these behaviors and conditions.
To engage Psalm 124 as a response to the Esther story would imply that God was present with Esther, Mordecai, and the other Jews in the land, and that God was not with Haman. When in truth, as process-relational theology would have us think, God was equally present with all the characters of the story, always luring them toward the most creative transformation of each moment, and always toward a common good. To simply use Psalm 124 in worship (without it being a companion to Esther), would provide an implicit voice of complicity to the “might makes right” sound-bytes we find so readily in the public square and in interpersonal debate. To assert that those who persevere and emerge from any struggle as victors are obviously winners because God wills it is to imply that God is behind every kind of triumphal assault – be it an international war, a rape, or any other conflict.
Of course, there are those times when individuals and societies (like the community of Jews in the book of Esther) do manage to persevere against assaults that are overtly evil. And when humans, or humanity itself, perseveres against such attempts to degrade, compromise, and destroy human life, it is not inappropriate for there to be a great level of rejoicing. However, the rejoicing can carry with it an agenda of creative transformation.
To institute a two-day festival to commemorate the perseverance and creativity which delivered so many from death is certainly in order, and to send “gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor” is to add to the rejoicing a level of justice-making that is worthy of the creative transformation to which God lures all of humanity. To mark the preservation of life as a festival and an opportunity to enrich the lives of others is certainly a more creative response than to simply gloat over the destruction of one’s enemies. And from this part of the story of Esther, perhaps we find an empowering example of how the biblical narrative can also lure us toward creative justice-making in our own day.
Numbers 11 with Psalm 19
Anyone who has been in the position of feeding children the same meal more than two days in a row can certainly relate to this story of Moses and the complaining Israelites! Of all the things that these people could have complained about, it’s hard to believe that they would actually complain about their diet lacking in variety. They had been traveling in harsh conditions, carrying with them their tents and possessions, moving from place to place, and not getting anywhere in any hurry. From what we know of the region, the climate is harsh and offers extreme conditions to be endured. And the complaint is about food? The very idea that they might want to go back to Egypt – where they were slaves treated cruelly – is preposterous. The story is, of course, about more than dietary variety. It’s about building up community and communal leadership in the midst of high levels of community dysfunction.
The exaggerated lament that Moses makes to God – “put me to death at once” – in response to his heavy burden of solitary leadership provides a “creation myth” of sorts for the formation of what appears to be a governing body of ruling elders. Although Moses doesn’t lose any of his authority of leadership, in the new social contract that the Israelites are forging for themselves (at God’s behest) they collectively empower 70 people to assist him in leading the community of the whole.
The fact that two of the 70 appointed elders were still “in the camp” when the “swearing in” took place, and they began to live into the duties of their newly appointed office, is a delight to anyone who reads this story. They began to perform their “duties” right where they were, empowered by God’s Spirit to prophesy – that is, to speak to the truth in powerful terms. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets” exclaims Moses, when he learns that these two men had done so, despite their absence from the “swearing in” ceremony! Would that we would all be empowered to speak truth, to speak truth to power, and to do so in truly powerful ways.
In addition to the dynamism of all the varying layers of human relationships in this story (and even more in the verses omitted from this passage in the Lectionary), we process folk will also be quick to notice that this story is also about the ongoing, never-ending presence of God in/with all things/creatures. A process preacher might be able to explore the dynamic relationships that exists between the various characters in the story (including God!), and how the various parties all shape each other along the way.
Another process perspective would be to explore in the story how the Israelites have been carrying their past with them into their present and (presumably) future situations. This is a core understanding of process-relational thinking – that past events shape present events. The foods that were on the Egyptian menu plan for slavery was, perhaps, more attractive than the regular course of daily mana. However, this one positive memory is managing to upstage the community’s collective memory of the realities of slavery and bondage in Egypt. How often do we tend to remember what we want to remember, for the sake of justifying how we want to respond to any given present-tense situation, without giving any thought as to how the other circumstances of our lives (especially those which taught us important lessons) continue to inform and shape us in the present?
The use of Psalm 19 as a response to this story could be used to point out how God, God’s purposes, and God’s ongoing lure toward creative transformation (which are all present in this little gem of Wisdom literature) all work to draw us toward our own best future possibilities. When we allow ourselves the clarity of vision to see that God and God’s purposes (and not cucumbers, leeks, and onions) are what sustain us in any given moment, and that they all work toward a more creative future, we will have done ourselves (and those around us) a great favor.
As the author of James continues to offer practical advice for applying Wisdom to faith, today’s passage offers some guidelines for liturgical practices which help to undergird the principle of communal accountability. The author is saying that whenever one of the members of the community has a particular circumstance or condition (suffering, joy, illness, sin, etc.), there is an appropriate way for the community to interact with that individual. A further implication of this level of accountability is that surrounding individual members of the faith community in this way (prayer, singing, anointing, intervention, etc.) works to build up the strength of the community, as well as the individual members of it.
As process-relational people, we affirm that we are all in relationship with one another. Here the author of James is telling the Church to be intentional in recognizing this fact, and intentional in building up these relationships – especially in terms of forging relationships with those who have some very specific needs within the context of the faith community. As process-relational people, we also affirm that all things (and all life) are dynamic; that they are in a constant state of flux, always being shaped by all others.
This, of course, includes God who is shaped by all that we may or may not do at any moment in time. So the admonition of the author of James to be in prayer, and to sing praises, etc., could be interpreted through a process lens as an invitation to be intentional in our relationship with God, too. To pray for someone is to hold them before God in a rather intentional way; in fact, in some of our Christian traditions, prayers are sometimes called “intentions.”
The last paragraph of this passage (v. 19-20) is actually the end of the Letter of James. And in this final piece of Wisdom, the author of the Letter is saying that there is a very positive outcome whenever someone “brings back a sinner from wandering.” As noted in the reading from Numbers (above), in process-relational thinking we are keenly (and sometimes painfully) aware of how our past can work to shape our present (and ultimately our future as well). If members of the community of faith notice that one of their flock has strayed “from the truth” and they actively work to help that person regain their course, the community will have worked together to shorten the amount of time this person will have spent in “wandering” – thereby bracketing and shortening the accumulative impact that the “wandering” will have on how that person carries that past into the future.
Every moment becomes a future moment’s past which might shape it; therefore, the fewer moments spent in “wandering” will result in the “wandering” having a smaller impact on the way future events are shaped. And as a result, the community of faith by reaching out in love this way will, in essence, “cover a multitude of sins.” Such caring communal accountability for its members fosters significantly high levels of intentional interrelatedness.
There are three distinct parts to this week’s Gospel reading. First, the disciples tell Jesus about an “outsider” working in Jesus’ name. Next, Jesus teaches about the horrors of putting a stumbling-block (or “scandal”) into someone else’s life. And then Jesus offers some mysterious sayings about salt (and fire). To try and tackle all of these in one sermon would be difficult, to say the least – especially given how each one poses its own challenge to a preacher, process or otherwise!
In the first section, where Jesus and the disciples discuss “outsiders” working in Jesus’ name, we find yet another opportunity for a rich exploration of interrelatedness. To affirm a so-called “outsider” as being part and parcel of the mission of the Jesus movement (and then later the Church) is to affirm our interrelatedness with those who approach the Gospel (religion/mission/church/life/etc.) differently than we do.
The fact that they are working for the same outcome – the wholeness of human beings (or casting out “demons” in this reading, but perhaps any other goal will do) – and doing so utilizing the power of creative transformation which can be found in a common source/understanding (in this case Jesus and all he stands for, literally and more-than-literally), means that we are already in relationship with this other person or persons. There may not even be two “degrees of separation” if any exist at all. “Whoever is for us is not against us” is truly the theme of all human ways of interbeing (to borrow a word from Buddhist monk, author, and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh). All who are willing to “bear the name of Christ” (i.e., all who work to affirm the messianic promise within all humanity) are all working together, whether they find themselves bound to the same community or not.
This lens of interrelatedness through common goals and purpose may be a lens through which ecumenical and interfaith understanding could be preached. Though others may invoke a different “name” by which they work to affirm and make whole all of humanity, the commonality of our intent and our deeds can certainly be affirmed and held up as a model for understanding across perceived divides between faithful peoples of differing faith traditions. The present state of tensions around the world created by an inflammatory YouTube video about Mohammed and Islam are due, in no small way, because there was a lack of willingness on some peoples’ part to affirm the sameness of purpose, and the common goals for which all faithful religious traditions are striving – the very goals which we as process theologians articulate to describe the primordial nature of God, as well as the attributes toward which we believe God is luring us: Beauty, Adventure, Truth, Peace, Zest, and Love.
In the next section of today’s passage from Mark, Jesus is speaking about the consequences that will come to those who put a stumbling-block (or scandal) in front of “one of these little ones.” It isn’t clear in the text whether the “little ones” are referring back to the one who is working in Jesus’ name without being part of the band of disciples, or some other person or persons. But what is clear is that to cause one of these “little ones” to fall, in Jesus’ eyes, is a horror. The exaggerated and extreme degrees of consequences seem to be more of a rhetorical device than an actual/literal set of outcomes; but they certainly bring home the message of “Don’t go there!”
It may be important to remind congregations that Jesus isn’t speaking in literal terms about maiming oneself when we cause offense to others. It needs to be clear that we don’t believe that this is Good News when taken literally. But we do see in this set of sayings the ultimate importance of being mindful of our many relationships with others – and of being mindful of the ways in which all we do has an impact on others (for good or ill). What we say (or not), what we do (or not), how we listen (or not), and how we are generous (or not), all has an impact on everyone with whom we come in contact. And the more we are mindful of that, the more sensitive we become to the needs of others. And the more sensitivity we are able to offer to one another in this world, the more readily the world becomes a wonderful and wonder-filled place for us all.
Jesus twice says that “it is better to enter life with…” and then once says that “it is better to enter the kingdom of God with…” – indicating that the kingdom of God (or the realm of God, perhaps) is to be understood as being one and the same thing as life itself. This further underscores the notion that our mindful attention to all relationships is what Jesus was all about, and that we should be, too. There are always those among us who are vulnerable (the “little ones”); and it is up to us to be mindful of how we behave toward them so that they are not ever exploited or compromised. To do so would be to their detriment and the detriment of the community, as well as to us as individuals.
The mysterious sayings about being “salted with fire” – as well as salt itself (in several ways) – may or may not be a tag ending to the discourse on preserving the “little ones” (above); or it may be a separate mini-grouping of some sayings not related to that discourse at all. But what is clear is that the text is talking about one’s usefulness. If salt loses its preserving/seasoning qualities, it ceases to be of any use to anyone. A process preaching opportunity for the use of creativity in one’s own life may be something which could be drawn out of this text. There are probably as many approaches to interpreting this small pericope as there are Bible scholars on the planet, in the same way that there are as many ways of living into creativity and usefulness to the common good as there are people on the planet!
Salt also could be used as a metaphor for that which draws the creativity out of us, in the same way that it draws the flavor out of food. What is it that sparks our creativity? What is it that drives us relentlessly toward some aspect of mission or ministry? What is it that inspires us beyond anything else? These things are the “salt” which bring about our “usefulness” in the world, and which help to make us the unique individuals that we are. If all people on the planet were given the opportunity to have their inner creative selves released, we would certainly be at least one step (if not many) closer to realizing Jesus’ goal for us to “be at peace with one another.”
It’s been often said that every day (and perhaps even in every day in every land) there is another Einstein, Beethoven, and Picasso born; but due to these brilliantly creative individuals being born and raised in contexts that won’t nurture and support that level of creativity, the potential for them to reach that level of creativity is never achieved. However, if we were to all work toward recognizing, affirming, nurturing, and mentoring all kinds of creativity in all kinds of people, we would live in a world that would be given over to magnificent levels of creative transformation on a daily basis, and humanity would all “be at peace with one another.” This, too, is part of Jesus’ vision of what the realm of God is all about.