September 30, 2018 The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) Creation 5: St. Francis of Assisi

Esther 7:1–6, 9–10; 9:20–22, Psalm 124, James 5:13–20, Mark 9:38–50

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+ 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

He holds a position high in the government for which he was groomed from the day he was born. In his world he commands much admiration and respect. His opinion and voice hold much weight in society, so much so, in fact, that when he speaks, people listen and must obey, for he interprets the laws of the land. But all of it—his position, his voice and opinion, the peoples’ respect, indeed, their compliance and deference to his place in the culture—was placed in jeopardy when one person, a woman in fact, challenged him publicly. So, in response, he met with his advisors and handlers to inquire about how to handle this situation from the point of view of the laws and customs of the land. His advisers and handlers counselled him to defend himself against this woman by publicly denying her and casting blame on her for defying his position and honor by her actions against him. Indeed, his advisors and handlers worried that if she were to get away with her defiance, there would be unending contempt and wrath not only for him, but for other men in positions of power and authority. No man would be safe from other women who might be emboldened to rise-up, speak out, and assert themselves inappropriately. So, that’s precisely what this man did, declaring publicly that all women were to defer to the men in their culture, giving due honor and respect. For the sake of his own honor and dignity, this man had to preserve the status quo at all costs declaring that this is the way it has always been and this is the way it always must be.

The man I am referring to is, of course, King Ahasuerus of Persia, the husband of Queen Esther, the protagonist of the story from our reading from the Hebrew scriptures for this morning; and the defiant woman was Queen Vashti. And what precisely was her crime? She refused to appear before the king as she was bidden to do. It seems that the king got drunk during a banquet that lasted seven days, and in his drunken merriment (as the text puts it) he wanted to bring Queen Vashti out “wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold.” But she “refused to come at the king’s command,” which enraged the king so much that “his anger burned within him.” (Esther 1:10–12) In other words, she refused to be an object of the king’s pleasure, and for that, at the urging of his advisers and handlers, the king essentially divorced her, declaring publicly that “Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus,” and that her royal position was to be given to another. This is how Esther, a Jewish woman in exile in Persia, became queen.

In our Gospel reading for this morning, John boasts to Jesus that he and the other disciples tried to stop another from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, “because he was not following us.” Two points need to be made here. First, John’s response and that of the other disciples is not unlike that of King Ahasuerus and his advisers and handlers. All these men in their way and in their environments are trying desperately to preserve the status quo—to maintain control of who’s in and who’s out, who has privilege and who does not, who has access and who does not—and are doing so in such a way as to hold onto their own positions of power and authority. As a result, those that violate the status quo with its codes of conduct must be dealt with swiftly and decisively to achieve the necessary balance and control. So, the disciples seek Jesus’ blessing for their ordered world, but Jesus will have none of it, and this is the second point. Our Gospel reading comes directly behind the reading from last week in which Jesus tells them that if they really want to understand God and understand what God calls them to do and be, then they must spend time with children, for, as the bishop reminded us so eloquently last week, when we are attentive to children, somehow in that attention we meet and come to know God. It is an upside-down way of looking at and understanding in a world in which children are to be seen and not heard, women are the objects of desire for the pleasure of men, the strong come out on top and the weak are to be hidden away and even scorned.

But Jesus makes clear that God will not be bound by the rules of the status quo. “Do not stop him,” Jesus tells the disciples of the outlier, “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Then Jesus goes a step further, telling the disciples that if they so much as get in the way of the “little ones” who believe in him and act in Jesus’ name, even if their action is not officially sanctioned, it would not go well for them. In this Jesus is telling his disciples that God’s ways are wild and unpredictable, and that if one truly wants to be attuned to who God is and what God is up to, one best pay attention not to the status quo, but to those who work outside the status quo, for it is precisely there that God is to be found—alive in the ministry of the outlier, embodied in the energy and unpredictability of a child, active in the willingness of the weak, the marginalized, and the dispossessed to step forward and challenge the powerful so that the status quo might be changed to more faithfully embrace God’s just and equitable vision for the whole creation.

In the reading from the Hebrew scriptures for this morning, Queen Esther defied the laws, customs, and conventions of the Persian empire, ironically just as Queen Vashti did, refusing to stay in the place assigned her by the status quo to advocate to the powerful on behalf of her people. Unlike Queen Vashti, though, the king heeded Esther’s voice and thus a dangerous injustice against her people was averted; and even more importantly, the status quo was forever changed. The outlier in the Gospel story refused to gain the blessing of Jesus’ inner circle before acting on behalf of Jesus, and so the kingdom of God and its message of love, grace, and compassion was advanced in ways that could not be predicted had the Gospel message been tightly controlled. The question with which we must wrestle today is, “Who are the Queen Esthers and outliers in our midst to whom we should listen—in both church and society—so that the status quo can be defied and the wild and unpredictable person and ways of God may be known?” Amen.

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