Esther, Jesus and believing women

Sermon for September 30, 2018

Esther 7:1-10 and Mark 9:38-40

A Well Seasoned Faith

First Presbyterian Church Norman

8:30 and 11:00 am

Today in the lectionary we are given two stories that are violent. One, from the book of Esther, of the pivot points of its story, and we have strong words of both encouragement and admonition from Jesus in the book of Mark. As has happened a lot in the years I have been your pastor (since June of 2016) I come before you humbled by the role of preacher, saddened and angered by the events of this week in our nation, and hopeful for a future when the people of God and the people of our nation and world might find justice and peace. Today is no different, in fact I spent much of my week hearing stories from women and some men of their experiences of abuse and pain they felt led to share because of the non-stop news cycle that told the story again and again, whether the news people and the American people believed her or not, of Christine Blasey Ford being assaulted as a high school student by Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. This accusation and the lead up to the hearing on Thursday and the emotional hearing from both Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh brought up emotions and stories for many people and women especially of their own violent and painful instances of abuse and often the accompanying silence they felt they needed to keep for fear of the very backlash Dr. Ford faced in the form of ridicule at best and death threats to her family and other threats of violence at worst, instead of support and help and arrests.

In this week, with these stories swirling in my head I worked with our teens and children and found myself hoping they will grow, through our support as a church, and of our community, to be people of integrity and truth who can tell their stories even while we live in a world full of voices of power who would want to silence them because their words are uncomfortable, are too real, or are a threat to their power.

It was in the midst of this ongoing onslaught of pain and truth, of hope for those who come next, of disillusionment with our government and culture, that I found myself reading these two stories from scripture, one from the satirizing theatre of the book of Esther, and the other honest and powerful words from Jesus.

Esther takes us into the story of a young woman, a Jewish member of the people of Israel, who has become, by the time we join the story, a queen of Persia. She finds herself from the beginning in a place of vulnerability both because her people did not encourage or want their daughters to marry outside their community, and because, up to this point, King Ahasuerus did not know she was Jewish and it was unclear how he might react to this news. Up to this point he has already proven himself both to be a drunken buffoon and one who makes quick decisions without considering the consequences, namely taking the advice of his aid Haman to murder the whole of the Jewish people with little rational, which Haman asks the king to do because while Haman is being petty and grabbing for power and status Mordecai, Esther’s Uncle, won’t bow to him because Mordecai’s faith tells him not to bow before men only for God and this lack of respectability, and of being overpowered, angers Haman. Next, once the decision to kill the Jews comes, Mordecai tells Esther it is her job to speak for her people, the people of God, She was born “for such a time as this”  and she should go before this volatile and emotional man who has the power to kill them all, and save her people. Even then, Esther technically doesn’t have the right even to ask to speak to the king, let alone ask for this huge thing. So, given Mordecai’s words, she figures out how to get an audience, she throws two dinner parties, one to soften up the king and get him in a good mood, and the second to tell her story.

This is where we enter the story today, at that second dinner party, she cuts to the chase and tells him he has made a decree that will mean her death, and the death of her people. She tells him it is Haman who has convinced him to do it. In his anger the king leaves the room to walk in the garden and when he returns he finds Haman in close proximity to Esther, possibly even touching her, assaulting her, which further enrages him, and so he has Haman killed on the very stake Haman had worked hard to erect so that he might enjoy the public murder of Mordecai, the one who slighted him.

It is a brutal story, one in which Esther, the one for whom the story is named, is both powerful and at the mercy of a government on one side and her faith community on the other, a community on one hand that values her only for her beauty, and on the other a faith community that values her for what it can do for the community. Neither community particularly values Esther for who she is other than as beautiful or politically well situated. In the end she is one of the only women of faith we have in scripture, she is important, and her story is all too familiar to the stories women have to tell even today of how we are beholden to a world run by men. Even in our days of women’s empowerment, legal equality, and leadership in our faith communities, I am sure if you ask around this story with Esther’s need to figure out how to make the king happy before she can ask for what she wants, gaining station based on how she looks instead of what she has to offer, and relying on the men she loves to help protect her in the world are not unfamiliar to the lives of the women you know and love. And this was unacceptable truth 2500 years ago, and is unacceptable today.

Reading this story and carrying the burdens of this week, I turned to the story of the Gospel of Mark. The disciples come to Jesus and complain that others are casting out demons in his name, people who are not in their community. They say they have tried to stop them. Jesus reacts very strongly to this. He tells them not to stop these people from casting out the demons, that if they are able to do this in his name they must be one of his, belonging to God, and therefore part of the community even if they are not known yet to the disciples.

He then goes on to admonish the disciples about what happens, on the other hand, to those who lead people, and children in particular, into sin. This seems like a non-sequitur in the way the lectionary gives us the story, restricting it to verses 38-50, but the story that came before this one was the story of the man bringing his demon possessed son to Jesus to be healed and the disciples are unable to heal him, and the legal experts show up and fight with them before Jesus comes and heals the boy. Then in response to their inability to heal, the disciples, instead of being chastened by Jesus, fight over who is the greatest among them.

I would say by the time we get to Jesus’ strident words today in the Gospel he is tired, frustrated with their distractibility and the ways they seem to miss the message at every turn. So he lays it out with no ambiguity. Anyone who causes a child to sin might as well tie a big rock around their neck and drown in a lake, if your hand makes you sin cut it off, the same with a foot or an eye. It’s better to go into heaven missing these parts than to sin. Then he concludes this shocking speech with (from the Common English Bible) “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.””

“We will be salted by fire?” I can hear the disciples saying

“What does that mean?”

“That’s a scary thing to say.”

“Don’t we have it right by follow Jesus? What is the fire for?”

“This salt is good?”

“How do we lose our saltiness? How can we maintain the salt?”

...lots of questions we ask of Jesus too.

As Jesus’ people how do we maintain our salty faith? When the fire comes, and it seems to come often in these days, how do we remain salty? Can we be salty, even upset, and remain the salty community of God? Does anger, as the current colloquialism ‘salty’ expresses, and disagreement have a place in this salted community of faith?

I would say Jesus’ manner here answers some of these questions- To be salted by fire means we will face difficulty, we will know pain and fear, but these things are not an indication of sin or of separation from God or the community, on the contrary, sometimes they help us keep our faith focused. Life is hard, Jesus does not deny this, he does not say “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, he doesn’t say “when God closes a door he opens a window” he doesn’t tell them to be respectable.

No Jesus tells them to be fierce, to tell the truth, to cut off the lies and the distraction, to stop fighting about who is best, who gets to do the healing when their feelings are hurt that someone else can do what they couldn’t in his name. He tells them to focus, get rid of all those excuses, all the exclusion, and to be the community he has told them to be, he knows they can be, but that they can only be if they focus on the truth that in prayer and practice they can do miracles. They can save children, they can believe women, they can welcome strangers and foreigners, feed the hungry, and accompany the lonely, they can bring justice and joy to the world.

But they, and we, can only do these miracles if we are not distracted by the things that do not lead to God’s kin-dom, anything that distracts them from doing God’s work- even if that distraction is someone else also doing God’s work, even if that distraction is our own ‘thoughts and prayers’, our egos, our fears, our jealousies, and our comfort. Just as the disciples are distracted by who among them is the best, by why they can’t heal and Jesus can, why they can’t heal and strangers who are not yet friends of Jesus can, by what they know the rules of the world are when Jesus changes them.

We face all these distractions too. Every day. And Jesus is asking us, as he asked them, to step up. To make the truth clear, to clear away our distractions and be salty. To be seasoned by our own struggles, by the pain and fear and anger we know those around us face that we can alleviate with the truth and God’s peace that comes paired with justice. With a love that sometimes is brutal, that asks us to cut off our hand when it sins, but that is always, in every situation, bigger than the struggle we face.

Friends, it has been a hard week for me, and I imagine for many of you. If it has, please take care of yourself. If you need to tell your story, I am here, and others are here to hear you and believe you. If you Need the story of Esther and the story Jesus today like I have needed it, lets read some together. If you need something to do in the face of these days and these words lets find something to do together, so that we might be salt for one another and for the world. If you didn’t live or hear stories that made you struggle this week would you please share your hope and love with those who are hurting, listen with believing ears, and loving hearts?

Let us be salt for one another, let us be the people sent “for such a time as this”, let us make a world where the truth is told, power is shared, and people are loved for exactly who God made them. Be salt friends. Be light. Today and every day. For I know that the God who created it all, created you and loves you. Offers you grace and peace. And gives us a path to make “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”. May we help the world know it is true, while we find the way to believe it ourselves. Amen.