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Serving an Unnamed God

Thomas J Parlette

“Serving an unnamed God”

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

Mark 9: 38-50

9/27/15

 

A number of years ago, I was involved in a production of “The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.” It’s a fast-paced, hilarious romp through all of Shakespeare’s plays. It was great fun to do – still one of my favorites.

During the run of the show, we did a special performance for the local high school. Juliet was one of the English teachers there and so they prepared their students by having them read some of the plays – Macbeth and Hamlet in particular. I remember one night, Juliet came home aghast and told me what one of her students had said. She had asked the class how they liked Macbeth and one particularly sullen young man answered, “Well, nothing much happens. They just talk, talk, talk.”

Now for anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with either of those plays from the Bard, it’s hard to believe that anyone could come away thinking that “nothing much happened.” Both Macbeth and Hamlet are filled with ghosts and sword fights, murder and betrayal, spooky dinner parties, magic spells and poisonous potions. Still, to the chagrin of English teachers everywhere, there are students who come away thinking nothing much happened. Hard to believe.

That sort of reminds me how the church has looked on the story of Esther over the years. We don’t do much with Esther. Some of you may be quite familiar with the story – especially from our study last year about the Uppity Women of the Bible. But for others, maybe you don’t know the story very well. Maybe you wonder, “What’s the big deal. Nothing much really happens.”

And yet, if you go back and read the story, it is filled with action and intrigue, heroes and villains, humor, pathos, and plot twists. Let me give you a quick recap. The story begins at a lavish, seven day banquet in the palace of the King of Persia. However, all is not well. Queen Vashti refuses to come to the banquet and the King is furious. He decides that perhaps it is time for a new Queen, so he arranges for a royal beauty contest. The King summons all the beautiful young maidens in the Kingdom, and the plot thickens. No one realizes that among the contestants is a young lady named Hadassah – a foreigner, a captive, one of the Jews now living in Persia after they had been carried off into slavery by the Babylonians. Hadassah was an orphan who was raised by her cousin, Mordecai – a good and god-fearing man. To keep Hadassah from harm, Mordecai had given her a new name – Esther.

Esther is taken away with all the other young ladies, and for a year they are taught how to be beautiful – how to dress, how to walk, how to apply make-up… the works. And eventually, Esther wins the King’s heart and becomes Queen of Persia.

Meanwhile, sometime later in another part of the palace, two of the King’s eunuch’s are plotting to assassinate him. Mordecai learns of the plot and tells Esther to warn the King. The King is saved and Mordecai becomes a national hero.

But then, into the mix steps the villain Haman. Haman has so impressed the King that he has been made a prince, and because he is a proud and arrogant man, he asks the King to write an edict that others must bow before him. So it becomes law that you must bow whenever Haman shows up.

But Mordecai, a pious Jew, refuses to bow to a human being. Haman is furious and keeps his ears open for dirt on Mordecai. He soon learns that Mordecai is a Jew, and he plots his revenge. Haman convinces the King that the Jews are a threat and he formulates a plan to have all the Jews killed and slips it past the King. The decree goes out on official palace letterhead – on the 13th day of the month of Adar, the Jews are to be put to death.

Mordecai pleads with Esther to intervene and save her people. After a lot of hemming and hawing and dragging her feet – Esther finally goes to the King and invites him to a special private luncheon – prepared by the Queen herself – with only two invited guests, the King and Haman.

Haman, of course, is thrilled to have some private face-time with the King. He rushes out of the palace to go get ready and he confronts Mordecai, who once again refuses to bow. Believing that he has the King in his back pocket, Haman decides to have a gallows built and plans to have Mordecai killed before his little private banquet with the King.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, the King has insomnia, and without giving away too many details, there is a reversal of fortune and the King has Haman hanged on the very gallows meant for Mordecai. The Jews take revenge on their enemies and two days of partying commence in celebration. And the Festival of Purim is born.(1)

A great story to be sure. But how did Esther become scripture. How did this story find it’s way into the Bible, because there are some significant problems. There are no historical records to prove that any of these people actually existed, no corroborating evidence to suggest that things were done this way in ancient Persia. Critic’s have pointed out that although Esther acts to save her people, she does so rather reluctantly and never is she shown in prayer, as we might expect. In fact, the name of God is not mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther. So how did this book get into the Hebrew scriptures? And why do Christians continue to include it as one of the books of the Bible?

One possible answer is that Esther gives the history of the Festival of Purim. That would certainly be the best and most obvious reason to include it in the Hebrew scriptures – but why the Christian canon? We don’t celebrate Purim, so why do we need this story in the Bible?

When we look at Esther with the eyes of faith, we see a woman who showed her dedication to God through her actions. Esther acts with courage to save her people and stand up to the villainous Haman. Sure, God’s name is not mentioned, no prayers are offered – but God’s influence is felt in every corner of this story. For what are we to do but show mercy, love and kindness and to walk humbly with our God. We hold on to the story of Esther because in her we see an example of a person who serves the unnamed God of this story not with her words, but with her actions. Esther is a story of tenacious courage and a willingness to hope against all odds that God will find a way. Her willingness to sacrifice herself to save her people is the ultimate act of piety and faithfulness(2) In the story of Esther, we are reminded that those who speak boldly about God and those who act boldly for God are not always one and the same(3)

Jesus might have been thinking along those same lines when his disciples came to him with a problem. John says to him, “Jesus, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Apparently, the problem in the disciples eyes was not that the mysterious exorcist was casting out demons and healing people, but simply that he was not one of the group – he was, to them, an outsider(4) But Jesus responds, “Don’t stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. For whoever is not against us, is for us.”

B.A. Gerrish writes in his book “The Pilgrim Road”, of the time he was a student in Seminary and he was assigned this verse for a  sermon in his preaching class. He thought it a bad choice, and marched right over to the professor’s office to tell him so. The brash young student reminded the professor that it is also written in Matthew 12:30, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” And the professor looked up with a cheerful smile and said, “You’re right – you may preach on both texts.”

Upon reflection, Gerrish realized that he had committed himself to preaching on two, seemingly contradictory, texts – one tailor made for the elastic liberal, and one perfect for the guardians of exclusive orthodoxy. “Whoever is not against us is for us” and “Whoever is not for me, with me, is against me.” But the two texts plainly contradict each other, don’t they?

They would seem to. Scholars have wrestled with these verses and the ones that follow about cutting off your hands and feet and poking out your eyes if they cause you to sin. But I like what Gerrish says next about this particular verse…

“Some tell you that these sayings are contradictory; others, more cautiously, say that they appear to be contradictory. But this is to overlook an important difference between them, which finally dawned on me many years ago as I spent an anxious week struggling with my assigned texts…

The difference, to put it in our own situation, is this: the first saying tells us how to think of the other person, while the second tells us how to think of ourselves.

The first, “Whoever is not against us is for us”, calls for generosity in our estimation of others.

The second, “Whoever is not with me is against me”, calls for honesty in testing ourselves. By the one, we accept the profession of others; by the other, we try our own profession. One says, “Judge not”; the other says, “Examine yourself.”(5)

Last week, we looked at our Christian call to humble service. Today, right on the heels of Jesus’ object lesson about welcoming the most vulnerable, we look at another aspect of our servanthood – our call to tolerance and inclusivity. As Jana Childers has written, “Jesus invites us to imagine something completely different. Jesus means for relationships in the community of faith to be utterly different than those of the surrounding world. Imagine, what if the first aren’t first, and the last aren’t really last? What if there are no thrones in the Kingdom of God, no stripes on our sleeves, no merit badges to display? What if the dividing lines aren’t carved in stone? What if the Kingdom of God is not so much about doors and walls and gates, but is organized by altogether different principles. The ones who are followers, the ones who are part of the group, are the ones who welcome others, who give a cup of water and offer healing. What if the Kingdom of God is more like a family dinner table than a cafeteria line, more like red rover, come on over, instead of musical chairs, more like a congo line than a scrimmage line(6) What if the Kingdom of God is defined by the people who act boldly for God rather than talk boldly about God.

As we learned from Esther as she served an unnamed, but ever present God, it is better to act boldly for God than speak boldly about God. Perhaps Jesus had that in mind as he gave his disciples this lesson on the inclusivity of God’s Kingdom. The ones who are the true followers are the ones who bring healing in my name, the ones who welcome the most vulnerable and serve with humility and tolerance. “Whoever is not against us, is for us.”

Above the doorway of a church in London, there is a prayer carved into the stone. It reads: “O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship and narrow enough to shut out all envy pride and strife.”(7)

That is Christ’s prayer for the church – that we may be a humble, servant church, welcoming, tolerant and inclusive. So as we make our way back into our community, back to our homes, our schools, our places of employment, let us seek to wrap our arms around all God’s children, welcoming them as Jesus did – instead of looking for ways to hold them at arm’s length.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Rev. Dr. Janice Hearn, “Tell Us the Story of Esther”, The Sermon Mall, retrieved 9/21/15.

2.    Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, p.523.

3.    Ibid… p.523.

4.    Ibid… p. 523.

5.    Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year B, Westminster John Knox Press, p.229.

6.    Jana Childers, “Preaching Mark 9: 38-50, Part 2”, The Sermon Mall, retrieved 9/21/15.

7.    George Appleton ed., The Oxford Book of Prayer, Oxford University Press, p.73.