Esther and Mark 9:38-50
St. Michael and All Angels
September 27, 2009
The Revd Sue Joiner
One of the gifts of the lectionary is that it places texts in our hands that we would ordinarily ignore and says, “do something with this.” While I don’t like to admit it, I know how easy it is to be a pick-and-choose Christian. We take to heart the texts we like: Jesus blessing the children, feeding the 5,000, healing a young girl, and comparing the kingdom to a mustard seed… We hear those stories and we are comforted, satisfied, and at times, relieved to be part of a tradition rich with hope and promise.
At the same time, it is easy to ignore the ones that we find threatening or offensive. Today’s gospel lesson fits the “threatening” category. It is certainly not the text we would use to tell others about the joy of the Christian faith. Even the folks who take the Bible literally have found a way around Jesus telling us to cut off the body parts that cause us to stumble. Really, how many of us would have tongues if we had to cut them out every time our words hurt someone? If this passage were taken literally, our sanctuaries would be full of people without arms, legs, feet, eyes, and tongues.
Rather than avoid this embarrassing text, Barbara Brown Taylor digs in to these harsh words: “Jesus is trying to impress upon [the disciples] the importance of their actions. Following him is no casual thing. It is life or death that is about to get very dangerous for everyone involved—not only because of what others may do to them, but because of what they may do to themselves by failing to take themselves seriously enough. As disciples, they have no time off…everything they do has consequences… They have power they do not even know about. This passage is both a threat and a promise. The disciples are full of unrealized power and Jesus is begging them to wake up and use it wisely.” (Bread of Angels, p. 116)
The disciples aren’t the only ones with unrealized power. Esther is a young girl who suddenly finds herself risking her own life to save her people. Few of us will ever find our faith calling us to risk our life, but whether we are married to a king or living a simple, quiet life in Albuquerque, our actions impact others in ways well beyond our ability to imagine.
Frankly, I read these two texts and I want to spiritualize them, to soften them. But these are not feel-good stories. They are asking us to confront our own capacity to help or harm others. There is a clear message that “All day long we are doing eternally important things without knowing it. All through the day we inadvertently speak words that enter people’s lives and change them in minor or major ways, and we never know it.” (Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder)
There is the question about how our words and actions impact the world, but underneath that is the invitation to look inward and draw on the depths of our own hearts. Before Esther risked her life, she fasted for three days and invited the entire Jewish community to fast with her. Our lives as people of faith are grounded in our relationship with God and the fruits of that relationship are seen in our care for others. I really believe that Esther’s courage grew out of that inner preparation. Rather than be overwhelmed by the needs in the world and ask “why me? Isn’t there someone else?” we can stop and listen to what we hear God saying. We can invite others to listen with us. Jesus chose twelve disciples and when he sent them out, he sent them in pairs. Christian community is more than something we do through weekly worship – it is the essence of who we are and it sustains us to do the hard work of faith. Together as a community of faith we listen for God’s call to serve and together we are nourished to feed those who are hungry, create housing for those who have no place to go, and make sure that health care is available to all.
The apostle Paul was very clear in his language, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (I Corinthians 12:26) That is the gift of the Christian faith. We are all in this together. It is what makes us who we are. It is through us that God’s kingdom is realized. It is through our actions that lives are healed and people are made whole.
Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, was awarded the Turquoise Chalice award by the New Mexico Conference of Churches Friday evening. She is an unfailing advocate for children. She publicly challenges the systems and structures in this country that perpetuate the suffering of children. The statistics about how America ranks among industrialized countries are staggering:
• 1st in gross domestic product
• 1st in number of billionaires in the world
• 1st in number of persons incarcerated
• 1st in defense expenditures
• Last in protecting children against gun violence
• In NM, we spend 4.7 times more on each prisoner than we do on each public school student.
I came home and opened her book The Sea is So Wide and My Boat is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation. Some months ago I read the chapter “A Letter to Faith Leaders”. I returned to the chapter and guess how it begins? “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones… it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6) When I read that chapter months ago, I skimmed right over that part. I wonder how often we avoid the hard words of faith.
Marian Wright Edelman asks “What’s wrong with our children?” Her answer is “Adults are what’s wrong with our children.”
Yesterday’s paper included the front page headline: “State, APS Feud Over Graduation Rates: Each blames the other for numbers mix-up.” The entire article was State Education Secretary and APS Superintended expressing their righteous indignation that the other messed up. It is full of “it’s not my fault” and nowhere in their comments was there mention of the people who make up that percentage of drop outs – whatever it may be. I think Edelman is right… adults are what’s wrong with our children. Young people are not completing school and they need our help.
Jesus is clear in his call to care for the “little ones” in our world. The little ones are not someone else’s responsibility, they are ours. We are invited into a life of great freedom when we choose to follow Jesus, but along with that freedom comes great responsibility. Marian Wright Edelman boldly speaks out for children. Her life mission is to alleviate children’s suffering. Two things strike me about this powerful woman: she has not tried to do this alone – she has created organizations that include many in her mission. She travels around the country and calls everyone (not just a few select people) to join her. The second thing is that she is a woman of faith. Her books are filled with alarming statistics of children’s suffering and they are also filled with prayers as she calls on our faith to make the world a safe, healthy place for children.
Marian is an ordinary woman who has done extraordinary things. She offers us a powerful example of discipleship as she engages in community and opens herself to hear God’s voice. Then she puts her prayers into action by living out God’s word in the world, and ministering to the smallest and most powerless.
We have power we cannot imagine. We may not be married to a king, we may not have national name recognition, and we may not be asked to put our life on the line, but we are asked to live our faith every day. We are called to be disciples wherever we are, whether it is convenient or not, whether we feel like it or not. This life of discipleship is sustained by a life of prayer lived out in community.
We are called to be disciples all the time and to trust that our words, our actions, our lives – all of who we are – matters.
Barbara Brown Taylor. Bread of Angels. Cowley Publications, Boston, 1997.
Eugene H. Peterson. Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination. Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988.
Marian Wright Edelman. The Sea is So Wide and My Boat is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation. Hyperion. New York, 2008.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
– Marianne Williamson