Sermon September 27, 2015
Esther 4 and Mark 9:38-50
“It’s Time to Come Out”
Garrison Keillor begins his weekly monologues on A Prairie Home Companion with the words “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, my home town, out there on the edge of the prairie.” I have no idea why those words came to mind as I started to work on my sermon this week. I was actually thinking just the opposite, “It hasn’t been a quiet week in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my hometown in the desert.” On Tuesday, we had a HUGE rainstorm. Water seemed to come out of nowhere and for a few minutes, some began drawing up plans to build an ark, just in case. On Wednesday evening as I left the church, there were at least a dozen police cars surrounding the Mental Health Center across the street. On Thursday, the Pope addressed congress and all news suddenly turned to the Pope.
Francis is shaking things up and leaving the status quo behind. This Pope is choosing to be very open about his understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. His stance on many issues generates passionate responses that range from relief and hope for many who have felt alienated by the Church to anger from those who believe he is too political.
Pope Francis spoke freely about the need to care for the poor and for creation. He recently issued an encyclical on climate change and reminded us that this is an issue for all of us. We should not forget that we share a common home. His address to congress called us to be part of the solution to the refugee crisis. He said,
“Millions came to this land to pursue their dream of freedom. The people of this continent are not fearful of foreigners because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants knowing that so many of you are also descendants of immigrants. When the stranger appears to us we must not repeat the sins and errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and justly as possible as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our neighbors and everything around us. Our world is facing a refugee crisis that presents us with great challenges and hard decisions. We must not be taken aback by numbers, but view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories trying to respond in a way which is only human.
Let us remember the golden rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same opportunities we seek for ourselves. If we want security, let us give security. If we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunity, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time used for us.”
I hear some of those themes in our scriptures today. If you have not read Esther, I encourage you to read the whole book. It’s a good story. Some scholars are puzzled by its inclusion in the Bible because God is never mentioned. There is no worship or ritual in this book. Yet I don’t think God is absent from the book. It begins with King Ahasuerus who is in the middle of a big party with his buddies. They have had too much to drink and the King wants to show off his beautiful queen. He sends for her, but she refuses to come out and be seen as an object. The king is embarrassed and issues a decree that men are head of households and women are to obey their husbands. Vashti is removed as queen. In a kind of beauty contest, Esther becomes the next queen. She doesn’t tell anyone she is Jewish. In the reading today, we learn that Haman, the King’s advisor feels threatened by the Jews who refuse to bow down and acknowledge his importance so he talks the King into having all Jews killed. Esther had no plans to come out as a Jew. She hoped to escape notice and quietly continue her life, but now it is up to her to save her people. She could lose her life in the process, but after much prayer, she realizes she must take the risk that could save her people. She is successful (read the book to find out how she does it). Today, the Jewish people celebrate the festival of Purim to remember how their lives were spared.
Esther had to choose to come out. She realized that she could not live a lie and she had to risk everything in order to save her people and be true to who she was.
This week in text study, we talked about how difficult it can be to come out as a Christian today. There are so many terrible things done in the name of Christianity and some just don’t want to be associated with that. In our book study, we read that
“Christians have killed more people for religious reasons than anyone else.” (The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus by Robin Meyers, p. 101) When we see horrible things happening in the name of Christianity, it is enough to send us into the closet and lock the door.
The reading from Mark doesn’t make us want to come out as Christians. There is talk of casting out demons, cutting off body parts, hell and being salted with fire. What in the world is happening in this passage? One commentary said that the community that heard this understood that Jesus meant it metaphorically. How strange that we would take it literally today. Do we really believe that Jesus wants us to cut off our hand or tear out our eye? Remember, they are moving closer to the crucifixion. Jesus is clear that it will cost them to be disciples and he seems to be asking them to consider what stands in the way of following him. As they take stock of their lives, they are given an opportunity to change their behavior and remove obstacles so that they are free to choose the way of love and peace.
The whole thing begins with the disciples trying to stop others who are trying to do good deeds because they weren’t part of the in-group. Why do we want to diminish the good others are doing because they may be different from us? “After 9/11, an outdoor prayer service took place at a baseball stadium in New York. Religious leaders from many different traditions offered prayers. A group in the diocese of a bishop who participated in the service started a movement to depose him because by participating in the service he had recognized the legitimacy of the prayers of others.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Proper 21, p. 118) Really???? Where do we get the idea that only our prayers count? Why would we want believe that only our actions are legitimate?
The Pope called the faith community to step up and honor the sacred worth of every human being. That is what Jesus asks us to do over and over again. But it will require our coming out of the closet. We stand at a beautiful and important place in our history as a congregation. It is time for us to be very clear about who we are as followers of Jesus. We must name that truth about ourselves and decide to live an authentic life by going public about our faith. When we do that, we will risk criticism and rejection, but we must own our call to be true followers and we must step out and offer cold water, hospitality, hope, and healing to our world.
This week we were contacted by Sharon Littrell of St. Paul’s UCC in Rio Rancho about coming together with the other UCC Churches and sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. We are being invited to come out of the closet and claim our identity as followers of Jesus.
Today I want you to hear another voice. What was it the Pope said? “We must not be taken aback by numbers, but view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories trying to respond in a way which is only human.” Mary Stuart came to this country as a refugee. It was a church that sponsored her family and made it possible for them to start over in this country.
As you listen to Mary’s story, remember the words that Mordecai asked his cousin Esther “Who knows if you have not been brought to royal dignity for such a time as this?” What does this question mean for us? We may not be royalty, but we are Christ’s followers. The world is calling out to us. Perhaps it is time for us to come out.