The Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “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. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Prayer: Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that have you inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation and that you will empower our application. Amen
The Message: In a former life, while I was going to Seminary, I worked on the maintenance staff at one of the Jewish Temples in Toledo. I spent several years at the Temple Shomer Emunim and it was a great education opportunity. I learned so much about the traditions and the life of that community.
I have to say though that September was not my favorite time of the year. The High Holy Days - Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur - fall in September.
It was a very busy time for us on the maintenance crew. Setting up and changing the furniture, we had to be sure that all was prepared for the community so that the members of the temple could celebrate these significant events in the history and current life of the Jewish community.
Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the Jewish new year. The Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah, Elul, is designated as a month of introspection and repentance. In preparation for the Jewish New Year, special prayers are recited and the shofar, a ram's horn, is blown at the end of morning services on weekdays.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a day-long fast, confession, and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services.
Another big celebration moment for the Jewish community is Purim. This celebration is very different in its form and its presentation from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Purim is a celebration of the preservation of the Jewish people as it is recounted in the Book of Esther. The highlight of this event is generally a Purim play, or irreverent sketch, similar to a vaudeville act. People dress up in costumes and take the opportunity to make fun of the arch-villain Haman. They revel in his ultimate execution as the illustration of the demise of evil and the restitution of the people of Israel even when they are living under foreign oppression.
That is the story that we heard in our Old Testament reading for this morning. Esther is able to plead for the people of Israel to her husband, the king, and the destruction Haman had planned for Esther's uncle Mordecai falls on him instead.
Of course to fully understand this incident we need to read the whole Book of Esther. It is a short book, perhaps you could plan to do that sometime this week.
A condensed version of the story goes something like this: Esther finds herself, Queen, after winning a beauty contest among all the young women of the royal court. This happens because the original queen has displeased the King and he has put her aside. In the meantime, Esther's uncle Mordecai has come into a political dispute with Haman. Haman has planned to eliminate Mordecai in what he plans to be a pogrom to eliminate all the people of Israel in the kingdom. Mordecai comes to Esther and asks her to plead with the king for her people. Esther is reluctant to do it because she knows what happened to her predecessor.
We don't learn a lot about Esther. But since she was chosen by the King there must have been some other qualities about her that brings her to prominence. She certainly would have been trained to serve in the royal court. I believe that we can trust that although she may have seen herself as one among many that in the Lord's eyes she was someone with gifts, abilities, and capacities that would enable her to fulfill her role and purpose.
That the Lord had prepared and placed her in the position she was in. It is interesting that even though her uncle Mordecai was a very prominent figure in the Jewish religion and faith community, Esther actually keeps her faith and faith practices to herself. She quietly goes about her life and doesn't draw attention to herself.
All of that changes in Esther chapter 4 when Mordecai sends messengers to Esther. "Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” The key phrase from this recounting of the story is the one so often associated with Esther: "for such a time as this." Here is a young woman who faces the possibility of death or exile if she upsets the king. Her uncle pleads with her to take the unique opportunity that is available to her to petition the king.
This story has something of the aura of a fairy story about it, doesn't it? The heroine finds herself in a special place because of a set of very unusual circumstances and she has the opportunity to save the day.
I don't know about you but I am actually a little surprised by Esther's response to her Uncle. Rather than taking on her role, with a heroic statement of faith and confidence in her God, it almost sounds to me that Esther turns into a whiny teenager. "But why me? Why do I have to do this? They don't even know I am Jewish at the moment, I might get away without them finding out. Look what happened to the last queen when she upset the king!"
Unfortunately for me, there is something very familiar about Esther's response. It took me some time to figure it out but I realized that the reason it sounds familiar is that, more often than not, that is how I respond. When I find myself in circumstances that I have not expected I have to admit I do have a tendency to whine. Especially when I have done something, let's say a little risky, and I thought I would get rewarded for it.
"Why me? Why now? Why did this thing have to happen to me? Why do I find myself in this situation? I was quite happy, going along with my life and my affairs - cruising under the radar, so to speak."
When we respond this way we need "a wake-up call," we need to be reminded of how we have been trained and prepared for this situation. Like Esther, we need to have a Mordecai send messengers to us to remind us that we need to step up.
Esther does step up and puts herself on the line, with the possibility that her time of being the queen, being in a position of privilege will come to an end.
Now I suspect that Esther expected that after she was selected to be queen, that her future would be comfortable. She did the right thing, she made the right choices and she is expecting that she will have the opportunity to enjoy the comforts of the position. When all of a sudden her whole world is threatened and people are expecting her to step out of the comfort of the sidelines and put herself center stage.
I can certainly identify with Esther. I may not respond like a whiny teenager, but you can be sure I spend some time mumbling and grumbling to myself about how unfair it is for the rules to have been changed. Especially when someone says to me: "hey you might be in this place at this time for just this moment. It is your opportunity to let your light shine in this situation."
In the coming weeks at our Sundays@Five Services, which start tonight, we will gather every 2nd and 4th Sunday evening to spend some time reflecting on the theme of: "For such a time as this." To consider how we have been trained and prepared for this time. To reflect on what the Lord might be expecting of us, or from us, in response to the circumstances of our world?
I would also suggest that our Stewardship Focus for this year has this theme at its heart. "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father." James 1:17
Have we stopped to think about what gifts abilities or talents we might have to deal with the world in which we find ourselves? Could it be that God has placed us here, and now, because we are the people he is depending on to do what is necessary to meet the needs of the circumstances we find ourselves in?
Now if you find that you are more likely to be like me and want to grumble and question God's timing and God's good intentions for you don't worry you are in good company.
In the Gospel of Mark this morning the disciples come to Jesus and they are hot under the collar. We might know that it is John, you know those sons of Zebedee, James, and John, better known as the sons of thunder, who comes to Jesus and wants his position to be recognized. He wants to know that he, and the other disciples, have the inside track. They want to know that Jesus recognizes them and their ministry the way they should be recognized and how their ministry should be recognized. John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
I can almost hear John's chagrin at the fact that others outside Jesus' inner circle were doing the things that they had taken so much time and effort to learn as followers of Jesus. Jesus takes the time to explain what the priorities should be. He focuses the disciples on a life of service.
As I close this morning I want to encourage us all to consider: "what is our response to the circumstances we find ourselves in? Are we ready to respond and step up? Or do we want to mumble and grumble to ourselves about how unfair this situation is?