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Sermon for 18th Sunday after Pentecost 2021

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 Psalms 124

James 5:13-20 Mark 9:38-50

“Poor old fool,” thought the well-dressed gentleman as he watched the old man fish in a puddle outside a pub. So, he invited the old man inside for a drink. As they sipped their whiskeys, the gentleman thought he’d humor the old man and asked, “So how many have you caught today?” The old man replied, “You’re my eighth.” We can all be caught!

Following Jerusalem’s last stand against Nebuchadnezzar, Mordecai’s family was deported to the Babylonian empire. He was probably born in Susa, a city that became one of Persia’s capital after Cyrus conquered Babylon. Mordecai then inherited the official position among the Jewish captives that kept him around the palace even after the Babylonians were driven out. At one time, when Mordecai overheard plans to assassinate King Xerxes (Zerk-zees), also known as Ahasuerus, he reported the plot and saved the king’s life.

Mordecai’s life was filled with challenges that he turned into opportunities. When his aunt and uncle died, he adopted Esther, their daughter and his young cousin, probably because his own parents had died and he felt responsible for Esther. Later, when she was drafted into Xerxes’ harem and chosen to be queen, Mordecai continued to advise her. Shortly after this, he found himself in conflict with Xerxes’ recently appointed second-on-command, Haman. Although willing to serve the king, Mordecai refused to worship the king’s representative. Haman was furious with Mordecai. So, he planned to have Mordecai and all the Jews killed. His plan became a law of the Medes and Persians, and it looked as though the Jews were doomed.

Mordecai, willing to be God’s servant wherever he was, responded by contacting Esther, and telling her that one reason God allowed her to be queen might well be to save her people from this threat. But God had also placed Mordecai in the right place years earlier. God had woven an effective counterstrategy against which Haman’s plan could not stand. We will hear more in Esther’s story.

Later, Mordecai instituted the Jewish feast of Purim, as a celebration of God’s people being saved through Esther’s bravery. He had a lengthy career of service to the king on behalf of the Jews. In Mordecai’s life, God blended both character and circumstances to accomplish great things. God has not changed the way he works. God is using the situations we face each day to weave a pattern of Godliness into our character.

Esther had the opportunity to intercede for her people. Her beauty and character won Xerxes’ heart, and he made her his queen. Even in her favored position, she would risk her life by attempting to see the king when he had not requested her presence. There were no guarantees that the king would even see her. Although she was queen, she was still not secure. Cautiously and courageously, Esther decided to risk her life by approaching the king on behalf of her people.

We treasure security, even though we know that security in this life carries no guarantees – possessions can be destroyed, beauty fades, relationships can be broken, death is inevitable. Real security, then, must be found beyond this life. Only when our security rests on God, and God’s unchanging nature can we face the challenges that life is sure to bring our way.

Esther carefully made her plans. The Jews were asked to fast and pray with her before she went to the king. On the chosen day, she went before him, and he did ask her to come forward and speak. But instead of issuing her request directly, she invited him and Haman to a banquet. The king was astute enough to realize she was up to something, yet she conveyed the importance of the matter by insisting on a second banquet.

In the meantime, God was working behind the scenes. He caused Xerxes to read the historical documents of the kingdom late one night. That is when the king discovered that Mordecai had once saved his life. Xerxes lost no time in honoring Mordecai for that act. During the second banquet, Esther told the king of Haman’s plot against the Jews. Haman was doomed. There is grim justice in Haman’s death on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. It seems fitting that on the day on which the Jews were to be slaughtered became the day their enemies died. Esther’s risk confirmed that God was the source of her security.

How much of our security lies in our possessions, position, or reputation? God has not placed us here, in our present position for our own benefit. God has put us here to serve him. As in Esther’s and Mordecai’s case, this may involve our taking some risks. Are we willing to step up, to step out, to risk something to help further God’s kingdom her on earth?

I love Esther’s story! Surely, it could be our story too. The courage of Esther shapes the destiny of two other main characters, Haman and Mordecai. Haman is motivated by evil and plans to have Mordecai hanged. Esther’s word brings about a great reversal – Mordecai is saved and Haman is killed. The proud are humbled and the humble are exalted. The Jewish people are saved. We can sense God’s presence behind the scenes and in the details of Esther’s story. God’s faithfulness preserves those who trust in Him. In Esther’s story, we experience the opportunity to nurture the embers of hope. Now, in this time in our history, we need to grab hold of Esther’s hope and respond with her courage and determination.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus talks about the salt of the disciples, the qualities that would preserve and enhance their community. From all that Jesus said as he journeyed the way to Jerusalem with his disciples, it becomes clear that their saltiness involves being humble in their relationships with each other, giving of themselves to others, reaching out and accepting all people around them. They are to “be at peace with one another.”

How do we maintain that peace in a community of faith? How do we live out our God-given gifts in a community of faith when we feel wronged or have wronged others? The rocks you have selected are like the burdens, the distractions in our life in the community of faith, which we carry with us. The stones can also be something that you are seeking, praying about, wanting answers, wanting direction about a job or a relationship or what God wants of you. Remember the importance of others praying for Esther as she discerned God’s plan. The same is true for us. The burdens, the obstacles, the distractions can be a number of things like inadequacy, impatience, pride, unforgiveness, bitterness, hatred, gossip, envy, jealousy….the list is endless. Feel the weight of the stone in your hand…is it equal to the burden on your heart? Does your indecision weigh heavily on your heart, occupy too much of your mind?

In living in relationship with others, there are times that you have offended somebody and you know it, but we don’t know what to do about it.

People do the same thing with God, when we think we’ve offended beyond repair. We stop praying when we know we’ve done something wrong. We no longer feel worthy to approach the goodness of God. It is not about our goodness, but about God’s grace.

God has a plan for all of our lives and we must be open to finding out what that plan entails. That’s when we remember the prayers of Esther and her friends. It is for this reason that Christ is among us: because we continually make a mess of things, whether through mistake or negligence or being strong-willed or just plain stubborn, and we need help. God does not demand our perfection as a condition to be in relationship with us. God engages us first, and perfects us in time. We are all works in progress.

What is stopping us from calling out to God? It is painful to remember that he already knows it all. What we did, and also why we did it. Or what we failed to do. However foolish, it is not beyond the power of God to forgive and heal. But you can’t regain the relationship with God or with anyone else, if we won’t talk, if we won’t open up, if we turn a deaf ear, if we harden our hearts.

Continue to cradle the stone in your hand. It is a solid presence, just like what is troubling you. What does it represent in your life? Jesus said if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. What is the obstacle, the distraction, the burden that is weighing you down, that is preventing you from being all that you can be at Grace? God’s desire for all of us is healing and wholeness. Here is your opportunity to lay down that troubling questions that doesn’t yet have an answer. As I move around to bring communion to you, the Lay Eucharist Ministers will collect them and place them on the altar. After all of us have had communion, we will prayerfully lay all of our burdens on God’s altar, and say a prayer for God to receive our stones and all that they represent to us. Let the releasing of our obstacles, the unanswered questions, the doubt, the uncertainty, that cause us to stumble make us better…not bitter. Releasing your burdens can be a fresh start, a discovering, and uncovering of God’s hand in our lives and our hearts. God’s desire for all of us is that we use our God-given gifts in the community of faith and for the glory of God. When we come before God with willing hands and open hearts, God honors our efforts. Amen.

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