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Sermon Illustrations for Proper 21 | Ordinary Time 26 (2018)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
The 14th Day of Adar, the feast of Purim, commemorates a time when the Jewish people were saved during the Persian Empire. Tribal genocide was proposed by Haman; his desire was to annihilate the whole nation of Israel. Esther, you will remember, was encouraged by Mordecai to stand up for her people with the king of Persia. Risking her life, Esther goes before the king and advocates for justice.

We, too, live in “such a time as this” (Esther 4:14), a time when we must stand and proclaim justice. I listened to a sermon recently that spoke of standing for the gospel. In the interpretation which I heard, we were to stand for the gospel in its most limiting and literal interpretation -- it was about standing against, rather than standing for. Esther stands for her people, against annihilation, against hate. So what are we standing for and against? Are we standing for exclusion and separation, or are we standing for inclusion and seeking justice for all those among us? It’s a choice Esther had to make. It’s a choice we are called to make as well.
Bonnie B.

* * *

Esther 7:1-6,9-10; 9:20-22
This portion of the story of Esther illustrates how God makes use of political maneuvering to accomplishing his will. He baptizes the world’s wisdom. Americans seem to need that with the midterm elections in view. In a Pew poll in late 2017 only 18% of Americans say they trust the government. Nearly half of Democrats are angry at the federal government.

A number of prominent Christian theologians have held such views about the need for common sense in government. Martin Luther advised that wise rulers (and so today the wise citizen) must be wise in the ways of politics, but realize that these worldly means can still serve God’s will (Luther’s Works, Vol.45, pp.119ff.). Luther also said that reason, not distinct Christian teachings, must be pursued in discerning government policies:

To be sure, God made the secular government subordinate and subject to reason... For this reason nothing is taught in the Gospel about how it is to be maintained and regulated except that the Gospel bids people honor it and not oppose it. (Luther’s Works, Vol.13, p.198)

Famed modern social ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr said something very similar: “If we contemplate the conflict between religious and political morality it may be well to recall that the religious ideal in its purest form has nothing to do with the problem of social justice.” (Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, p.72)              

It seems that the American church might have more impact, these great theologians suggest, if we did less pontificating about values and encouraged our members to use their minds and moral instincts in voting. We want to take heed from the African-American community on this matter, that we not become men [and women] who are “so holy that we are of no earthly use.” We don’t want to become so preoccupied with our own salvation and morality that we forget to vote or seek policies that will not work and/or only help ourselves or others like us.
Mark E.

* * *

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 and Psalm 124
Esther was led by the Lord to save herself and her people. God uses people for his purposes. It took courage on her part because the king was in charge and because of the power of the king’s man Haman, who had great influence on him. Evidently his queen had greater influence. It made the king wake up and find out what kind of a man Haman was. So he got what was coming to him.

Will the North Koreans find out what kind of a man Kim Un is? Who has the power and influence of an Esther on God’s side over there?

Part of Kim’s trouble is that he does not know the true King. The one who created him, the one who loves peace. Kim may want peace, but he wants it in his way, on his terms.

Do we listen to God in our life or to friends with different ideas?

Do we listen to God or to our government leaders about our problem on the boarder where children are separated from their family?
Bob O.

* * *

Psalm 124
In the early 1990s Angela Bofill had a hit song titled “I’m On Your Side.” This psalm is not an oldie like hers; it is still a hit. For it sings about how the Lord is on our side more effectively, more loyally, than any human lover can. John Calvin understands this psalm as pertaining to all Christians, as a reminder that “the Church cannot continue safe except insofar as she is protected by the hand of God.” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol.VI/2, p.88) Knowing that you have someone on your side helps with the loneliness and the fear that comes along with hard times.

Jonathan Edwards beautifully describes in one of his sermons the peace we feel knowing that our Lord delivers us:

In such a state as this, you will have a foundation of peace and rest through all changes and in times of the greatest uproar and outward calamity... Those things that are now most terrible to you, viz. death, judgment, and eternity, will then be most comfortable, the most sweet and pleasant objects of your contemplation, at least there will be reason that they should be so. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol.2, p.93)

Like the psalm itself implies, to be delivered by Christ is like how being in water is no longer so scary for the young child when he/she has her head above the water (vv.4-5). And so our help truly is in the name of the Lord (v.8)!
Mark E.

* * *

James 5:13-20
The James (really Jacob) who is assumed to be the author of this letter is the younger brother of Jesus. In this closing section of this letter he illustrates his central idea here about the power of prayer with an example from the Hebrew scriptures -- the story of Elijah shutting up the heavens through prayer so it did not rain and reopening it three and a half years later.

One assumes he would have heard this scripture story read aloud in the synagogue, but let’s remember one instance in particular. The Gospel of Luke records the time his older brother Jesus, in response to the disbelief of the home town folks in Nazareth, stated that a prophet is without honor in his own country. Jesus then brought up the story of Elijah and the drought, and added that “… yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon (Luke 4:26)” That went over like lead balloons.

I’m guessing that Jacob would have been there and seen the power of that story, and the reminder that it was a foreigner, the widow, who received blessings when God’s people were responding with disbelief.
Frank R.

* * *

James 5:13-20
Journalist Larry King once described three farmers who gathered daily in a field during a horrible drought. The men got down on their knees, looked upward, and prayed fervently that the skies would open, and they’d get a much-needed rain. Unfortunately, the heavens remained silent, and the petitioners became discouraged. They continued to meet, however, every day for prayer. One morning a stranger came up to them and asked them what they are doing. They responded, “We’re praying for rain.” The newcomer looked at each of them and shook his head, “No, I don’t think so.” The first farmer answered, “Of course we’re praying. We are down on our knees pleading for rain. Look around, see the drought. We haven’t had rain in more than a year!” The visitor, after glancing at all three once more, replied, “No. If you were really praying for rain, one of you would have brought an umbrella.”

The prayer of faith matters. James writes about it in the passage for today. What is that “prayer of faith?” There are a lot of in-depth answers to that question, but I think a simple way to explain it is what the story highlights. If you are praying for rain, you bring an umbrella.
Bill T.

* * *

James 5:13-20
Johannes Brahms, in 1833, was a German composer and pianist. His reputation and status as a composer is such that he is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs” of music. In his old age Brahms told his friends that he was going to retire from composing music and enjoy the time left to him. But, soon after that announcement a Brahms composition made its debut. When he was asked why he wrote a composition after saying he wasn’t going to write anymore music Brahms replied, “I wasn’t, but after a few days away from it, I was so happy at the thought of no more writing that the music came to me without effort.”

Application: We are instructed by James that we are not to wander from the truth. Part of that truth is knowing what we have been called to do in service to the Lord.
Ron L.

* * *

Mark 9:38-50
The disciples are confused. People are healing and doing acts of justice in Jesus’ name, but they are not the twelve. Is this okay? Is Jesus alright with that? Apparently Jesus is happy that others are doing acts on behalf of Jesus and in the name of Jesus. It is the acts themselves, done in God’s name, that are important. It is not which group of disciples is following Jesus’ instructions to act on behalf of the least among us. We are called to support, rather than to be stumbling blocks. These stumbling blocks to impede the work of disciples are not good things, not acceptable.

Recently I was in Berlin, Germany, and encountered another form of stumbling block. These stumbling blocks were imbedded into the street, the sidewalks. They are engraved with the names of the Jewish families who were torn from their homes and sent to the concentration camps, mostly for annihilation, during the regime of Hitler. These stumbling blocks are reminders of a time when people did not stand up for justice, for the protection of God’s people. You won’t stumble over them as they are level with the sidewalk but you will notice them and stop, because they are bright brass blocks engraved with names, dates and locations. These memorials are reminders of the need for us to stand with the least, the lost, those with the most need, and to do this on behalf of God, and for us Christians, through our following of Jesus.
Bonnie B.

* * *

Mark 9:38-50
Jesus wants us to maintain our saltiness. Salt is not just a preservative in ancient cultures. It is essential to life and good health. Body cells need it to live and work. Salt combats chronic fatigue. Lack of salt can lead to cancer or compromise the cardiac system. In this context the comments of a Bishop of the early Church Methodius make sense. He claimed that the salt to which Jesus referred is a spiritual disinfectant for the soul (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.6, p.311). Jesus wants our spiritual life to be healthy. And he will do what it takes, even through tests and suffering in everyday life, to prod us to keep our saltiness. If we don’t stay salted, like most food, we and the Gospel we embody will not be as tasty to those whom we meet and might try to bring to Jesus.

The lesson also refers to Jesus’ awareness that those who are not against him and his disciples are for them (v.40). The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church articulated the concept of “anonymous Christians” which may capture the intention of Jesus’ comments:

Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace try to do his Will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience -- those too may achieve salvation... Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel. (Documents of Vatican II, pp.367-368)

The salt in us Christians may be present in some who do not yet know Jesus.
Mark E.

* * *

Mark 9:38-50
In Nepal there were many Christians serving our Lord who were not in any denomination. They were still doing the will of Jesus. As long as they did it in Jesus’ name, we accepted them.

When Nepalis saw an American like me on the street they assumed he was Christian and greeted him “Jaimasi,” which means “Jesus is Lord.” So they were our brothers or sisters in Christ. We loved each other.

I taught in a Presbyterian seminary there and the other professors were Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodist and two Roman Catholic priests.

We were teaching the Bible and not denominationalism. I taught Jesus parables from the Gospels. What I taught is what I learned in a Lutheran seminary, but when the other pastors saw it, they said it was Christian for them. When I saw their material, it looked kosher to me also. We were all fellow Christians.

When I was sending much needed support to Nepal I had people in my churches here ask me, “Is it really Lutheran?” I felt good over there because I felt that we were all Christians if Jesus was our Lord.

Yes, you can find differences in denominations, but you can even find differences among Lutherans. Even I change my mind now and then! But the important thing is: Is our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ?
Bob O.
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