Proper 21: September 26, 2021
The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year B: Esther 7:1-6; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
More often than not, once I have spent some time reading through the texts of Sunday’s scriptures, I am left looking at a blank computer screen, at a loss for where to start a sermon. This week was not any different. So, when I’m at a loss, I usually take a few minutes and pull up past sermons I’ve given on a particular text in order to get a sense of where I’ve been and where I’m going (or at the very least where I SHOULDN’T go!).
This is my third pass through Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary since my ordination, and when I read the various scriptures, I was surprised that I was surprised. Somehow, I have not preached on the Book of Esther, which has its only appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary on this particular Sunday. After having missed the opportunity to preach about last week’s reading from Proverbs, “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels”, I was not missing the opportunity to talk about the reading from Esther.
As I said there is not much from the Book Esther, indeed there is no other reading from Esther in our three-year lectionary cycle.
A little background might be helpful. The Book of Esther didn’t make it into the Jewish canon of scripture until the third century of the Common Era, and it didn’t make it into the Christian canon of scripture until almost a century later at the Council of Carthage in 397. No other book of the Hebrew Bible has received such mixed reviews from Jews and Christians alike. It’s another one of those scriptures, like the Epistle of James, that Martin Luther wished “had never been written.” Some have criticized the book for what it contains; others, for what it lacks.
Here’s the quirk about the Book of Esther, which you would never necessarily know from the chopped-up lectionary reading we hear every three years. There’s no mention of God. There’s no mention of worship, Torah, food laws or distinctive dress. It’s an over-the-top drama, much like the Real Housewives series that some people like to watch or if you remember night-time dramas like Dallas or Dynasty, or even daytime soap operas. In the Book of Esther, the villains are awful, the good guys are cunning.
King Ahasuerus is capricious and an original #metoo offender. He had dismissed the previous Queen from the court because she wouldn’t show herself, presumably naked, to the King who was “merry with wine” and his guests.
Esther ascended to the throne by winning the equivalent of a teen beauty pageant. Esther walks into a dangerous place as the Queen of Persia; she is a Jew hiding her faith.
So, why focus a sermon on the Book of Esther?
Esther is a Bible story with a heroine and a woman who is actually named. Esther holds a position of prestige, thanks to her marriage to the king, but as her uncle, Mordecai, points out, perhaps she has become queen “for just such a time as this.”
Biblical commentary often posits that Esther has become queen so that she can step out of her comfort zone and act to save her people, God’s chosen people. Mordecai urges her to be true to who she is and what she believes. She ultimately acts to save her people as she risks her position and even more, her life, in order to be faithful to God and save her people.
Faithfulness to God – that is what all of today’s readings encompass. We hear it in Mark’s gospel.
Don’t get in the way of anyone who’s doing a deed of power in Jesus’ name.
How often we create obstacles for one another. How often we create obstacles to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Checking in on our own behaviors is important. Today’s reading from the Letter of James offers some guidance here – “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
Sometimes our lack of humility leads us to think we get to decide whose faith is stronger than another’s. As many others have suggested, I suspect that the disciples weren’t upset about demons being cast out. The disciples were upset because they were being cast out by some who wasn’t them. They thought they had a corner on the Jesus movement, and they weren’t part of it. Maybe it even goes back to who gets the credit, who is the greatest, who is first among the disciples.
Too often we try to control as the disciples did who is empowered to do God’s work. Remember that those who serve in Jesus’ name will be drawn into deeper friendship with him, and the standards are clear in Mark’s gospel: those who give the cup of water find their reward. Those who are not against Jesus are for him.
A lot of time and space separates us from Jesus’ disciples, and even more from Esther, and yet, we share, I believe, I hope, the longing to be faithful people of God, despite the pressures that surround us constantly. So how do we learn to live as Jesus would have us live? How do we cultivate and nurture a strong sense of who we are and what we believe, and then literally step out in faith, step outside our comfort zones, in this world? How do we remain faithful to God who has created us and given us life?
We can look to Esther, we can look to James to give up our fears, our pride, our arrogance, our prejudice. All these are stumbling blocks. Jesus’s exaggerated hyperbole of how to remove stumbling blocks is meant to get his disciples attention and to get us to realize that following Christ, carrying the cross, is really serious business.
No, we don’t need to cut off hands and feet and cut out eyes, but we do have to cast off whatever is keeping us from a deeper relationship with God. We do need to cut out that which keeps us from being the complete and whole person that God has created us to be.
We all have really good intentions of being better people, of being better Jesus followers. And together, we want to be a church that is loving, hospitable, humble, nurturing, and compassionate. The answer to what we have to do lies in doing things God’s way. To embrace the spirit of God in our lives. To be at peace with one another. To participate in the healing of this world by reaching out to one another in humility, love, and compassion. To take the welfare of others, their lives, their work, their needs, their faith, seriously.
We see Esther and Mordecai stand up to the powers of their day and time. We see a case where two people working together, true to their faith, change the course of history.
When you find yourself in a trying place, trust in a higher power. Like Esther, you may be more ready for the challenge than you realize. Sometimes God comes to our help through the kindness of others; sometimes through the bravery of others; sometimes through seemingly unrelated happenstance. Maybe we will be called on to be as brave as Esther; maybe we’ll be called on to help make someone else’ way less difficult. Be ready. Be alert. Be hopeful. Be kind. God will strengthen you to face what you have to face.
Let us leave here today in the love and faith of Jesus Christ, remembering in the words of the great prophet, Sister Monica Joan of “Call the Midwife” that love and faith is to be given and received, not judged or measured, but embraced and celebrated. Love is to be given and received, not judged or measured, but embraced and celebrated. And let us leave today and do a deed of power in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Proverbs 31:10, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)
 New Annotated Oxford Bible, p. 715HEBREW BIBLE, Fifth Edition Fully Revised and Expanded)
Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., “Proper 21, Pastoral Perspective, Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Press, 200], 98.
 Esther, 1:10, NRSV
 Esther 4:14, NRSV
 Mark 9:39, NRSV
 James 5:16, NRSV
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.