The Eighthteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, 27 September 2015

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
Numbers 11;4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14

James 5:13-20
St. Mark 9:38-50

Background: Esther
In the Book of Esther we have an exercise in understanding the difficulties of the Diaspora, especially the disappearance of Jewish culture and faith due to assimilation, or the threat of genocide. Esther is a handbook devoted to these questions. In some sense it is also an etiology, explaining the customs of Purim, a festival that is not mandated in the Torah. The devices of exaggeration and an on-going narrative commend it to the reader. Similar themes can be found in the story of Joseph (Genesis 37, 39-50) and in the stories that surround the character of Daniel (Daniel 1-6). The stories of both Judith and Ruth also wrestle with these issues. In a detailed unfolding, the book reveals the characters, and then details their place in the story and their feelings. Finally, in the last chapters of the book, Esther acts, and the book describes the establishment of Purim.

Track One

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

The king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.

Here is one instance where track 1 is of value and the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) does a good job of acquainting people with material that might otherwise be overlooked. Unless your were raised with an Egermeier’s Bible Story Book, or a similar volume, or unless you are familiar with Jewish customs and holy days, this story might have escaped you. The pericope describes, after long chapters and verses describing the intrigue of Haman to destroy the Jews, how Esther realizes and then uses her political clout to arrest the evil plot of Haman. It’s important to recognize Esther as not only having power as a member of the royal household, but her power as a woman as well. This describes to us the new notions that flowed into Judaism from the Persia, or other locals of the Diaspora. It is a lesson of living in the system, but also knowing how to use it and manipulate it.

Breaking open Esther:
1.     What are other women of courage in the Bible?
2.     What kind of opponents do you experience in life?
3.     How do you deal with them?

Psalm 124 Nisi quia Dominus

If the LORD had not been on our side, *
let Israel now say;

If the LORD had not been on our side, *
when enemies rose up against us;

Then would they have swallowed us up alive *
in their fierce anger toward us;

Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *
and the torrent gone over us;

Then would the raging waters *
have gone right over us.

Blessed be the LORD! *
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.

We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; *
the snare is broken, and we have escaped.

Our help is in the Name of the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

The psalm is described to us as “a song of ascents for David.” We seem to be in the midst of a liturgical work, if we understand the second verset properly, “let Israel now say;” It is a thanksgiving psalm for the whole community, although some phrases can be seen as individual expressions of thanksgiving. It is matched to the Esther text by this phrase, “when enemies rose up against us.” Although it may be rooted in the conquest by Babylon, it is general enough to be applied to several instances in which Israel stood against those who were their opponents. What follows are striking images of destruction. Some use the notion of ingestion, while others use the powerful images of water and drowning. Some of these images come from a cultural fear of the sea, or perhaps the flash floods that course down the dry wadi in the desert. The theme of being devoured is picked up again in the sixth verse where the people are described as “prey for their teeth.” The conclusion is a summary of all the action above, where God, whose name we must invoke, not only makes heaven and earth, but saves the people. God is “our help.”

Breaking open Psalm 124:
1.     How do the images of the psalm strike you?
2.     Are there times when life is too much?
3.     How? Why?


Track Two

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."

Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the LORD became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!' I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once--if I have found favor in your sight--and do not let me see my misery."
So the LORD said to Moses, "Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you."

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them!" But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!"

The chief concern of the book of Numbers is the restoration and continuation of the culture of the priestly caste, and indeed the Priestly writer(s) are probably responsible for its being written. In some sense it continues both the content and themes of Leviticus, each enjoying the same themes and concerns. Its conceit is that the book was composed in the wilderness, the initial words of the book. In a sense, this text seems to show another aspect of what the first reading in the Track 1 series is attempting – the power of individuals. Here, after a lengthy introduction that recalls the incessant complaining of Israel about food in the wilderness, we have an account of the Spirit resting upon seventy elders (seven = perfection, and ten = a number of exaggeration and completeness). Two individuals, after the pouring out of the Spirit, and then the subsequent completion of that act, continue to speak as the Spirit has directed them. Like Esther, they act. This last part of the pericope is designed to match the scene in the Gospel reading for today, where a similar outbreak of individualism is discussed.

Breaking open the Numbers:
1.     Have you ever felt filled by the Spirit? When?
2.     What did you do with all that energy?
3.     What did you say?

Psalm 19:7-14 Caeli enarrant

The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.

Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

If we are wondering what was imparted to the seventy elders in the reading from Numbers, we have only to read the verses of this psalm to understand its probable content and effect. In our selection from this psalm, the theme is announced in the seventh verse (the first of our pericope), “The laws of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul.” In a way this is a reverie about the Law, its usefulness and its wisdom. The images are splendid – gold, honey, and my favorite phrase, “the quintessence of bees”, or in our translation, “sweeter than honey in the comb.” There are other physical reactions that accompany the recitation of the Law, “the words of my mouth” and an interior and personal “meditation” result from hearing God’s words and thoughts. The psalmist hopes that these responses become an acceptable sacrifice to God.

Breaking open Psalm 19:
1.     What does your faith taste like?
2.     Can you describe that to others?
3.     Again, what might you say?

James 5:13-20

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

With the verses of this pericope, the author invites us to consider “The Future of the Wise Community”, an appropriate following on to the themes of Quick Listening, Slow Speaking, and Slowing Anger. What the community does now is to wait patiently for God’s intents, and to look at the needs of the community, here, healing. Like the elders in the first reading, the elders of this community similarly anointed by the Spirit, now lay their hands (literally) to healing, with the anointing of oil and prayer. Such anointing signifies several things – being set aside, being treated for a medical condition, being made comfortable, and others. Here it is the medicinal and the spiritual that grabs our attention. There is another theme as well, that of forgiveness. It is well matched with the idea of healing. The closing verse summarizes the intent, “if anyone among wanders from the truth and is brought back by another…(their soul is) saved from death.” Physical death, and threats of it are joined with spiritual death as the concerns that the elders of the community must keep in mind.

Breaking open James:
1.     What is the relationship of forgiveness and healing?
2.     Do you ever heal yourself? How?
3.     How do you heal others?

St. 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."

We are still on our way to Jerusalem, and Jesus is still about the business of teaching his disciples what their calling truly is.

In these chapters of Mark we have a collection of sayings, all loosely gathered together to represent what it is that Jesus wants the disciples to understand. There is casuistry, “Teacher we saw…” if statements, “if your foot causes you to stumble.” and “whoever” statements. It’s all quite catholic including a variety of situations, and a variety of responses. The disciples are invited to be acting in all of life (Esther, and Eldad and Medad again). The first situation, about someone casting out demons mirrors the reading from Numbers, but also reminds us that Jesus is leading the disciples and us, by extension, into a new kingdom, a new reality. The radical nature of the Kingdom of Heaven is rehearsed in the statements that talk about loss or obstruction, and finally that the follower of Jesus must be salty, with a distinctive “taste.” If you haven’t read the Esther story yet – go back. It’s a good accompaniment to Jesus’ teachings here.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Who do you say that Jesus is?
2.     How do you talk about his crucifixion?
3.     What is your own cross?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller


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