The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

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

Help us, Lord, to become masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lips and speak through them. And, take our hearts and set them on fire. For Christ’s sake, Amen.

Masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others: that’s where we’ll end up; it will take some time to get there.

The first reading is the Lectionary’s only selection from the Book of Esther, the story of God’s saving the Jews from Haman’s genocidal attack throughout the Persian Empire through a Jewess named Esther. It’s a gem of a short story, filled with sharp humor, and is the basis for the Jewish feast of Purim, or Lots, which next year [2022] will be celebrated on March 16.

It is also a subversive story. When Cyrus the Persian gave the Jews permission to return home from exile toward the end of the 6th Century bc, Jewish leadership was united in urging, exhorting, guilting the Jews to return. Isaiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: all agree that Good Jews belong on the road back to Jerusalem. Esther is one of the Bad Jews who didn’t make the trip, and whom we encounter in Susa, the Persian capital. Obviously, God will be attending to the Good Jews, and not to Jews like Esther. But when this threat of genocide comes, deliverance comes not from Jerusalem, but from Susa. If there were ever a tale warning us against writing some portion of the Body of Christ off, it’s this one.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” “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.” Jesus, one suspects, has been reading Esther.

Our second lesson is the last part of the Epistle of James, in which James speaks to us of patience and the tongue.

Patience.Ambrose Bierce, probably in The Devil’s Dictionary, says “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” So we exercise patience when we don’t have other options. James’ vision of patience is quite different. The future is assured because Jesus is coming. There will be a rich harvest, so we can settle into the farmer’s patience. And, James reminds us, Jesus is coming as judge, so judging is something we don’t need to do and are positively forbidden to do.

But some people require so much patience! Yes; us –and God is patient with us. If, by the way, we don’t think that God has to exercise extraordinary patience with us, we don’t know ourselves very well, and are either very young or in a very dangerous place spiritually. So, our exercises in patience with others become a matter of exercising the same patience that we know we need from God. And, notice, the last thing we want from God is any hint of condescension. Are we in the company of an obnoxious person? Well, we have an excellent opportunity to mirror the patience we need from God.

The tongue. A couple chapters ago James warned us of its dangers; here, in an unguarded display of hope, he turns to its positive uses. Three points to notice:

  • Echoing Jesus, he warns us against oaths. Our ordinary speech should be trustworthy, so that “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is quite unnecessary. And have you noticed how often our speech betrays this problem. “Speaking frankly…”: so the rest of the time you aren’t? “Honestly…”; and what was I hearing before? “To be perfectly truthful…”
  • We use the tongue to bring our illnesses before the community and before God. “Are any…sick? They should call for the elders of the church…” Illness is not a private matter; if one of us is sick, all are affected. As we pray for the sick, we’re saying “God, this is our problem, not simply their problem. “The Lord will raise them up.” ‘Raise up’ is used both for healing and for resurrection. We do not know how God will respond to any particular request for healing. We pray for healing both because we can do no other, and because, bringing the sick to Jesus, there is no better place we can bring them.
  • We properly use the tongue to bring back those who wander from the truth. This sounds quite foreign to us, because we’re used to thinking of each person as having a rather large sphere marked “private” and live in a culture that constantly tells us that one person’s truth is not another’s. Ironically, the same society that hungers for community encourages us to act as strangers to each other. I have no interest in bringing in judging through the back door. But not judging is not the same thing as remaining silent. When we see a brother or sister acting self-destructively, we need to risk saying something. If our society can manage “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” we Christians should be able to take the principle a bit further. There are, in other words, things worse than conflict, and one of them is watching someone taking a wrong turn and saying nothing.

Our Gospel comes from that part of Mark that is structured thematically by Jesus’ repeated warnings of the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands” says Jesus, and Mark follows this warning with stories of the disciples arguing over who’s greatest, trying to silence those who don’t follow them, etc. The human hands into which Jesus is most immediately betrayed are the disciples’!

Jesus follows his rebuke to the disciples regarding their treatment of others with exhortations regarding their treatment of themselves. The ruthlessness they’ve displayed towards others needs to be focused on themselves: If your hand, your foot, your eye, causes you to stumble, cut it off, tear it out.

One of society’s most seductive promises is “you can have it all.” It shows up in songs, as the goal of various self-help schemes. A women’s organization that should know better will even sell you a t-shirt for your daughter: “Girls can have it all.”

Nope. We have to choose, and the higher we aim, the more we have to give up. A relatively innocuous example of a literal enactment of Jesus words was provided by the NFL defensive back Ronnie Lott, who had the tip of his left pinky finger amputated during the offseason so he wouldn’t risk injuring it in the future and miss more football games. Any sort of excellence demands hours of practice and preparation, time that’s simply not available for other things. “OK, so I’ll aim low” –and the price of that is soul-destroying boredom.

More fundamentally, Jesus’ words are about paying attention to the choices we have. Rather than spending our energy on the faults of others; we might spend our energy on the choices we have regarding how we live before God. Here some ruthlessness isn’t a bad thing, being as attentive to our life before God as the new car owner is to the sound of the engine, or the photographer is to the cleanliness of her lenses.

Why? Because the stuff that destroys us and those around us often starts so innocently. There are so many good reasons to complain; it is so natural. But over time we can spend more and more time complaining, until there is no longer a person complaining, just an incessant complaint. Again, the disciples’ “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him…”: well, they don’t have much power and that “someone” is probably safe. But at the end of that line lie all the diabolical instruments of torture of the inquisition.

Bottom line: we have more power, more choices than we imagine. We may not appear center-stage to deliver our people as did Esther. All of us can pray, as did our brother Elijah, and thereby transformed the weather and the politics of Israel. And all of us daily make decisions: how much slack do I cut those around me; how much slack do I cut myself? Those around me: a lot, as God cuts us a lot of slack. Myself: very little, for little decisions add up, for good or ill, and at the last day I hope to be one who seeks, rather than avoids, God’s gaze.

Help us, Lord, to become masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lips and speak through them. And, take our hearts and set them on fire. For Christ’s sake, Amen.

[The prayer that bookends this sermon I learned from Fr. George F. Regas during our time at All Saints in Pasadena, California, who entered into glory on January 3 of this year.]

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