Monday, August 24, 2009

Proper 21 Year B

Proper 21 Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Esther 7:1-6,9-10,20-22; Psalm 124


Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; Psalm 19:7-14

James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

The Jewish orphan girl, Esther, who original name was Hadassah, lives in Persia under the protection of her cousin, Mordecai. The King of Persia is dazzled by her beauty and takes her as his Queen. In time, the King's prime minister, Haman, is offended by a perceived slight by Mordecai and attempts to convince the King that all Jews are a threat to society and should be eliminated. Risking her own position and even her life, Esther pleads for "the lives of my people." The King grants her request. He has Harman hanged on the gallows that Harman had prepared for Mordecai. Later Mordecai sends a letter to all the Jews in Persia instructing them to observe annually that date when "the Jews gained relief from their enemies," which is still observed as Purim.

Recalling one of the (many) times the Jews were at the mercy of an overpowering enemy, the psalmist blesses the Lord who spared them. "Our life is like a bird escaped/from the snare of the fowlers."

This alternative version of the famous incident when God's people rebelled in the wilderness (c.f. Exodus 16) says they got bored with manna and longed for meat they had eaten in Egypt. But in this version seventy elders who helped Moses lead the people are gathered when "the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses, 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 prophesied on just this one occasion. However, two others, Eldad and Meded, who had staid in the camp, continued to prophesy among the people. When reports got back to Moses his assistant, Joshua, insisted Moses stop them. But Moses questioned his jealousy. He then expresses his longing for a time when "all the Lord's people were prophets...."

This excerpt from psalm 19 extols the Lord's teaching/covenant/precepts/commandments/judgement as more pure than gold and sweeter then honey.

Consistent with the rest of this "letter" attributed to "James," this excerpt equates faith with action. He lists specific actions that unite the community of believers. In particular, he writes that the "elders of the church should go to the sick, pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord." He commends prayers and confession, too. Finally he encourages them to seek out members who have wandered away.

The flow of Mark's narrative seems to be interrupted by some issues that would be urgent in the early church, specifically, what to do about those functioning in the name of Jesus who do not have direct connections to the original disciples, [such as Paul?] . Mark writes that Jesus replied, "whoever gives a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward." Mark then supplies severe warnings against anyone who leads "these little ones" [new Christians?] astray. Other miscellaneous issues are taken up and conclude with an aphorism: "salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness how can you season [with] it?" Be salty and "be at peace with one another."

The story of Hadassah/Esther is a dramatic and inspiring reminder of the consequences of one person's singular act of valor. Similar stories might come to mind, such as that of Oskar Schindler who saved more than 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust, (which was, of course, made into a movie by Steven Spielberg and won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture in 1993).

In today's gospel Jesus is presented as dealing with a vexing problem: who is and who is not authorized to function in Christ's name? The response by Jesus that Mark provides is striking in at least three ways. First, the test is an action, not a teaching or theological precept. Secondly, it is a simple test. Thirdly, anyone can take the test and get it right. "Whoever gives a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ...." Earlier, Moses has expressed his longing for that day when "all the Lord's people" will be engaged in the Lord's work.

We finally conclude this Sunday with our sequential reading of the "Letter of James." And true to form, the writer concludes with a grab-bag of specific actions: pray, go to the sick, anoint, confess and bring back wanderers. Before we leave "James," we should return to Jean-Luc Nancy's essay, in which he expresses his appreciation for this "Epistle" and its "absence of theology"! "The epistle," he writes "is given over--... to an act of faith." (
Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, p. 48) He reads in "James" an emphasis on "praxis." And then he follows with this stimulating insight, praxis "exceeds the concept of it. This is not, as we commonly think, that which is lacking in concept, but rather that which, in exceeding it, thrusts the concept out of itself and gives itself more to conceive, or more to grasp and to think, more to touch, and to indicate than that which itself conceives. Faith would thus be here [in "James"] the praxical excess of and in action ...." (p. 52)

Today's readings, the striking response by Jesus in Mark's narrative, the whole "Letter of James" and Nancy's provocative essay in response serve as an antidote to that tendency towards abstraction, conceptualization, doctrine, complexity, and esoterica that can come between biblical directness and us. Mostly in narrative, but also in song and poetry the Bible relays the staggering message of God's love and the corollary commandment that we are to love God and others (in return). But it also insists that story, song and poetry at some point become action because it was due to certain origianry actions-- Abraham and Sarah abandoning their family and home to follow a God they only knew through promises; the stutterer Moses receiving and conveying God's covenant; Jesus leaving behind every one who mattered to him to show in his death the degree of God's love for anyone, literally, who will accept it-- that give the story, song and poetry their only reason to exist and to be repeated endlessly. Whether an act as bold and consequential as Esther's or as mundane as a glass of water given in Christ's name, the words do not exist for themselves. They originated in response to action and they find their culmination in like action.