Year B — Proper 21 (The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for September 30, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
I have always been partial to the phrase, “Hoist with his own petard.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv)

I never knew until recently that a petard was actually an explosive device used in medieval warfare for blowing up tunnels and gates and such. If an explosives engineer didn’t construct said petard correctly — and it went off unexpectedly while still in his possession — well, you get the idea. The poor gentleman was “hoist” (the older English past participle form of the verb for “to lift”) with his own device.

Certainly, Haman qualifies here in the story of Esther. His best-laid plans for the destruction of the Jews came back to haunt him in a bad, bad way. Famously, without ever mentioning the name of God directly, Esther’s story points us to the truth expounded by Joseph hundreds of years earlier: “You meant [your actions] for harm, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is coming to pass — the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)

Psalm 124
“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side….”

How many times can we as people of faith look back and feel the truth of the psalmist played out in our experience? If God hadn’t been present through some of the darkest days of our lives, how would we have made it? 

Life grinds us down, chews us up, spits us out. But, God is with us and we are saved. This is the proclamation that we are privileged to share. We remember it every time we speak in worship: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” 

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
“Manna? We don’t need no stinking manna!”

Okay, so it’s a bit of stretch to place the words from Treasure of the Sierra Madre*  in the mouths of the Hebrew children. But, they do appear to have been pretty tired of the miraculous “bread from heaven” that had become their nutritional mainstay in the wilderness.

Are we, as children who often exhibit a “restless discontent” with the provision of God, guilty of wanting meat when what we have is manna? Do we ever implicitly carry the attitude with us before the Lord, “Is this really the best that you can do, God?”

Perhaps the intended function of this passage is to support the idea that, when God places the Spirit on the lives of others who may “preach” or “proclaim” differently than we do — we may need to back off a bit and trust God’s working. There are, after all, different gifts but the same Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:4)

Jesus will have a word for his disciples on this matter in the gospel reading (below.)

* The “famous” line from the 1927 novel and its film adaptation in 1948 passed into the popular consciousness by means of comedic master Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974.) It has been widely misquoted and maladapted ever since, so we feel that we are on solid ground here at the Lab!

Psalm 19:7-14
Sometimes, you just have to sit back and realize about some passages in scripture: “It don’t get no better than this!”

Psalm 19’s description of the power of the law of the Lord is intended simply to wash over us, cleanse us, renew us. As I read vv. 7-10, I find myself responding over and over again, “Yes, Lord; make it so in me.”

James 5:13-20
Prayer is a mighty powerful thing!

How do we handle this in our own lives? How are we challenging our congregations to grasp the power of prayer? Are we ever afraid of “letting go” to the point that we might have to actually believe that “prayer changes things?”

Mark 9:38-50
What we do for Christ matters. And so, evidently, do the deeds of others — even if they aren’t “like us!” 

We can be a tad prone to territorialism in our churches and denominations. Those “other” Christians don’t do things like we do them. Are we sure we can trust them?

Heck, we even get suspicious of folks who DO do things the way we do them! There are few fights more bitter than those that pit Baptists against Baptists, Lutherans against Lutherans, Episcopalians against Episcopalians, etc. Even nuns are fighting the pope (or vice versa, I suppose, depending on your perspective) these days!

Verse 40 is what I would call a “chillax” verse; Jesus assures us that he is keeping an eye on things and that those other folk — the ones who don’t do things the same we do — they’re not really against us, after all. 

And, if they are…well, God’s going to take care of them. Worms not dying, fire going unquenched and all that. God is the Righteous Judge who will dole out any consequences that are needed. That’s not our job; we are to “be at peace with one another.” 

‘Nuff said, don’t you reckon?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I went to seminary, back when students used electric typewriters and libraries instead of laptops and the internet, we had courses in Practical Theology.  Now I think they call it Contextual Education or something like that.

I always liked the term “practical theology.”  It reminded me that our theology, our talk about God, really comes alive when we put it into practice. Our three scripture readings for today contain lessons in doing what we say we believe about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit; about loving God and loving each other.  In particular, these readings teach us about inviting divine healing into our bodies, souls and communities.

In the first lesson in Numbers we read about a time when, in the midst of community dysfunction, the Israelites turned on their leader, Moses, who then proceeded to blame everything on God.

God responded with a plan that moved the community from an authoritarian, charismatic leader model to a “spirit dispersed on the people” style of decision making by bestowing the Spirit upon the seventy who had been selected by the people.  The community was able to bring a halt to the “blame the leader” syndrome and move into a healthier “share the responsibility” model of life together.

One of the interesting sidelights of this story is the bestowal of the Spirit on Eldad and Medad, who were not in the seventy picked by the people.  This seems to be a reminder that the wind of the Spirit still blows where it wills and, though structures are good for us, God’s activity in the world is not limited by them.

While the reading from James is about physical and spiritual healing, it is less about the charismatic gift of healing (which I have witnessed and do not deny) than it is about our call to take care of each other.

This passage is about community and compassion, especially as it moves into language about the reconciliation of sinners.  James is reminding us that healing is both physical and emotional; it’s not only about our bodies, it’s also about our souls and our relationships.

The first part of the reading from Mark brings to mind the Numbers episode about Eldad and Medad, and the bestowal of the Spirit on those outside the camp.  Then it moves quickly into  really scary language about drowning one’s self and cutting off body parts and tearing eyes out of their sockets.

Of course, this is all hyperbole, exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, designed to bring us up short and get us to pay attention to the fact that this cross-bearing, following Jesus, stuff is serious business.

The question we need to ask ourselves is, “What do I need to cut out of my life?  What am I doing that is keeping me from being the complete and whole person God made me to be and means for me to be?”

My late mother-in-law was always on a diet.  And she was always cheating on it, eating things she knew she shouldn’t.  When daughter or her husband would find a wrapper from a drive-thru breakfast hidden in her purse, she would sigh and say, in her soft, sweet, eastern North Carolina accent, “Ah, biscuits, them’s my downfall.”

An empty package of cookies in the trash?   “Ah Oreos, them’s my downfall!”

A takeout plate from Wilber’s Barbecue under the car seat?  “Ah ribs, them’s my downfall!”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, what’s your downfall?

We all have good intentions of living a life close to God.  We all want to be better people than we are.  We all want our churches to be communities that are full of love and compassion, capable of healing and transforming one another and the world.

What’s stopping us?  What is our downfall?

Again, all three of these lessons turn on questions of practice: “What does it take to heal us, to make us whole, to turn us into the people God made us to be, wants us to be, calls us to be?”

And the answers all have to do with doing things God’s way in the holy community instead of stubbornly clinging to our own individual way.

In community we are called to let go of power and embrace the spirit of God speaking in the community; even sometimes speaking to us through voices outside the community. (Numbers)

In community, we are called to heal and be healed by reaching out to one another in humility and compassion, loving the community and trusting the community to love us back. (James)

In community we are called to take the welfare of others, their faith and their life, so seriously that we are willing to sacrifice things that are good for us rather than injure or harm them. (Mark)

In the Christian faith, the way forward is always through the cross, putting aside our yearnings for power and control to follow Jesus along the way of sacrifice, death to self and rebirth in the image of Christ.

Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “Year B — Proper 21 (The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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