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The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sermon preached on September 30, 2018 – Proper 21, Year B: Mark 9:38-50

Esther 4:1-17; 7:1-10; 9:20-22

James 5:16, 19-20    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… 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.

Mark 9:42-50  Jesus said, “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.”

This morning I’m going to dive into a hard story.  I’m asking that you hold this with me and that we wrestle with it and seek meaning in it together.  If we keep talking to each other, together, over time we’ll get somewhere new.  And we need to get somewhere new.  As a people, we need to get somewhere new.  Let’s start now.

This is a story about a woman who was invited into the highest courts of a land and while there, she took a stand for her people. Because of injustices that had been done to others, and political games that had been played along the way, the process by which this woman gained fame was not a perfect one.  But she was given a position of access to leaders, and therefore, she had power and used it well. The “saving” in this story was messy and it was achieved by a process that nobody would endorse as good, or even just, or “the way it should be.” Lives were lost along the way and at the end of this story, there was peace granted to a people, but the citizens of the land were left wondering what had happened, how it had happened, and if they could even begin to trust the promise of peace that had been given them.

In case you’re wondering, this is the story of Esther, Queen Esther, from the Old Testament lesson we heard read a few minutes ago.  Here’s a little background and some more detail now that you know who I’m talking about:

Before there was Esther, there was Vishta, and she matters too.  Vishta was the first queen to King Ahasuerus. One night the King got so drunk at his feast that he asked Queen Vishta to come and dance in a room full of the King’s colleagues and friends.  And Queen Vishta, for good reason, refused the request.  And she was, therefore, banished from the kingdom.  It was an extremely high price for her to pay, an unfair and unjust price for her “No.”  But she held it.  And so Vishta is one of those people in Scripture whose name we should know.

Then Esther was brought in to be queen, because the King had declared Esther to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom.  What King Ahasuerus didn’t know (because he was overly focused on other things,) was that Esther was not only beautiful, she also happened to be a Jew.  And the Jews were living in King Ahasuerus’ land as exiles with little power and few protections. And because of the tensions among the peoples of this land, some of the leaders were plotting to literally have the Jews massacred.

And so through a very complex series of events that involved Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, a plot by Ahasuerus’ right hand man, Haman, and Esther risking her life by appearing in the court and asking the King for mercy, Ahasuerus decreed peace rather than death for the Jews. And Esther was given credit for saving her people.  She is a hero in this Biblical tradition.  And the Jewish feast of Purim is in remembrance of this story.

Now there is a very high “ick” factor involved when you read all of the verses of the many chapters of the book of Esther. It is not pretty.  In the end, an entire people who were in the process of being completely wiped out were saved.  But the process of getting there was at times a pretty ugly one. And this wasn’t the last time these people would face the challenge of annihilation. But they got through that moment in time, and were able to give thanks.

So this week I went to Scripture to read this story while being full our stories too, which is how I always go the Scriptures.  I am present to them and present to now, as much as possible anyway. And from that place I listen. And this week like most of us, the stories I brought with me to this task involved the process of confirmation for Judge Kavanaugh.  I carried the testimony and presence of Dr Ford.  I was full of the images and voices of many of our leaders, and Judge Kavanagh too.

And here was the story of Esther.  And Vishta.  And King Ahasuerus.  And Haman.  And his family.  And the people.  All the different kinds of people – of different backgrounds, and different faiths, and different experiences and privileges and hurts and fears. And so as I listened to them and to now, it was like we were all in one huge ugly yet ultimately redeemable mess together. Mess? Obviously.  Nobody would argue that. Redeemable? I believe it is. Because I believe we are, we always are.  That’s why we’re here, wherever here is. It’s why God is here too. Trying to help redemption happen.

Now I want to be very clear that I’m not making direct correlations between the people in the story of Esther and the specific people involved in the process we are currently watching play out as a nation, the story of which we are all part.  I also want to be very clear that the themes involved in both stories are remarkably, and in some ways devastatingly, similar.  And we have to look at those. Because redemption involves looking into and talk about the very, very hard themes we know and live, those that Esther did too.

And if we keep talking to each other, together, over time we’ll get somewhere new.  And we need to get somewhere new.  We might as well start now.

We need to talk about how political games are being played while the stories of real human beings are tossed around not for the healing or freedom of a people, but for gain of one side or another.  We have to consider the abuse of alcohol and how too often, related to the abuse of people. We need to talk about the very hard choices women have to make, and the vulnerabilities, unfair consequences, and inequalities woven into our many systems.  And the very hard choices men have to make. And the vulnerabilities, unfair consequences, and inequalities woven into our many systems.  Truth is, we don’t have this set up well for anyone, for some better than others to be sure.  But it’s not set up well for anyone.  Even those for whom it seems to be set up well, aren’t well.  We can do so much better than this.

Like in the Book of Esther, we have to make room for the occasional voice, the occasional voice whose risk in speaking helps us at the very least to see something we need to see about our collective selves, even if the means of that voice coming forth are far less than ideal. We need to listen and we need to engage, even if more hurt occurs before we establish a collective means of causing less pain.

And so, this is a very hard story.  It’s two very hard stories.  Actually, it’s a bunch of very hard stories. Esther’s and ours, all of ours.  James suggests in the Epistle we heard read today that the way forward into the healing and redemption for which we long, he suggests that the way forward begins with a confession of sin and a commitment to prayer.  Not because such an approach is magic. Not because it removes accountability or action from the process of healing, but because such an approach will frame the conversations we need to have within a frame of humility, honesty, and hope. Because that’s what confession and prayer do. James then says an amazing thing.  He says that we actually have the power, “brothers and sisters,” to bring one another back to the truth.

And this week I realized what a powerful and difficult grace that is. We have the power to bring one another back to the truth.

To bring one another back takes time.  It takes the commitment of many and it requires that we hold a communal desire to acknowledges our sins as a people and a communal desire to heal as a people. This begins, as James said, with confession, a willingness to say that something is very wrong and if this week didn’t reveal that or the past many months didn’t reveal that, I’m not sure what will and I’m even more afraid for what it will take.  Today let us hear that the story of Esther is not that far off, which in itself should be revealing to us all.

In the gospel, Mark says that our work is to remove stumbling blocks from getting in the way of the little ones. And perhaps that’s is a good place to start; it’s related to what the Epistle told us too. We have stumbling blocks all over the place, and perhaps our first confession can be that we’ve made causing each other to stumble into a fine art.  It’s like we’re actually trying to trip each other up, rather than build each other up.  It shouldn’t be this hard to be good, to be caring, to not hurt each other as much as we do. We’ve gotten too good at banishing from the kingdom, rather than building the kingdom to which we have all been called.

And so our work is to make time, to make space and to foster desire for healing to come.  It’s to remember in the words of Brene Brown (whom we listened to in Forum this morning) that “We are inextricably bound to each other.”  And in the words of our Baptismal Covenant that we are “to respect the dignity of every human being.”

We have the power to bring one another back to the truth, and that is a powerful and a difficult grace.  But it is a grace given us, over and over again. Because we need it given to us over and over again.  And so, as church, let’s remove whatever stumbling blocks we’ve put in the way, so that the little ones which are all of us and those who differ from us can be present with the truth we carry.  And if we keep talking to each other, with stories and confessions and prayers, we’ll get somewhere new.  And we need to get somewhere new.  Let’s start now.