Living the ways of peace

Passage: Mark 9:38-50; Esther 7:1-10; 9:20-22
Date: October 01, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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The setting for today's reading from Mark's gospel: Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, to his confrontation with the authorities, and to his death. In this part Mark, Jesus' focus has shifted from ministry with crowds to teaching those closest to him. Primarily, Mark has Jesus instructing them in the meaning and consequences of discipleship. Today's section is a series of sayings and insights. Listen. Listen as if Jesus were speaking to you. How might what he says play out in your life and in our life together? (Read)

The designated Old Testament reading comes from the book of Esther. It is the only time in the three-year lectionary cycle that Esther appears. Esther is a novella, a short dramatic story. Instead of the little chunk we will hear, it begs to be read as a whole. With numerous twists and turns, its nearly stereotypical characters represent good and evil. It is one of two books in the Bible in which God is not named directly. Before we read, we need to catch up with the story.

The story takes place during the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus, somewhere between 486 and 465 BC. It opens at the king's winter palace in Susa, now a magnificent archaeological site. Remember, the king is a typical oriental despot, with ultimate powers. Women were possessions. So, when Vashti the queen refuses to appear at the king's royal banquet as ordered, she is deposed. A search is conducted throughout the land for the most beautiful women, from whom the king might select another queen. Esther, part of the Jewish groups which had been exiled to Persia previously, takes part in the contest. She is so lovely that she captures the king's affection. It is important to know that Esther, an orphan now under the guardianship of her uncle Mordecai, keeps her Jewish identity hidden. She pretends to be Persian, to fit in, to assimilate.

Uncle Mordecai, who sits outside the palace gate and talks with the royal eunuchs, overhears a plan to assassinate the king. He tells others, who then foil the plot. One of the reasons Mordecai stays there is to pass messages to Esther. Because of jealousy and a run in with Mordecai, Haman, the king's chief advisor, plots to have all Jews in Persia killed. He convinces the king to sign an irrevocable edict to that effect. Mordecai learns this through eunuchs, and tells Esther she needs to do something. Of course, if she just walks in on the king without being summoned, she would be killed. At first, she refuses. Remember, to do so would reveal her identity as a Jew and probably result in her death anyway. Mordecai persists. He says that perhaps she is queen for just such a time as this, to save her people. Esther dramatically asks all Jews in the land to fast for three days on her behalf. Then, she will go into the king. "If I perish, I perish," she says. By this time, Haman and Mordecai have become mortal enemies, to the point that Haman builds an 80 foot high structure upon which to execute Mordecai. And the tension mounts.

Meanwhile, Esther does her homework very thoroughly. The female pawn, the powerless beauty queen, becomes quietly powerful. Very carefully, she invites the king and Haman to a lavish banquet. They are honored and enjoy it very much. During the evening, the king, probably well-lubricated, asks Esther what she would like from him, anything, even half of his kingdom. She says she will tell him when they both come to a second banquet. Between the two banquets, the king remembers that Mordecai had saved him from assassination. So he decides to honor Mordecai, even while Haman is preparing to have him executed. Complicated yet? Got all of that? Now, we are ready for today's reading. Listen as we read it. (David, Laurie, Jim read parts.)

I invite you to go back to the beginning, and read to the end. Know that there are embellishments, as the story was retold through the centuries. By the way, after Haman is destroyed, Esther petitions the king to do something to stop the slaughter of her people. He does, and also appoints her uncle Mordecai as his chief advisor.

Perhaps the most Jewish of biblical books, Esther wrestles with what it means to be faithful in a culture which does not support your faith, which might even be threatened by it and oppose it. How much risk does a person, a community take, in order to remain faithful? Where do people of faith draw the line between being visibly different from their surroundings on the one hand and totally assimilating on the other extreme? Many of us have visited or seen pictures of small groups of Christians in Penn. who choose to remain very separate-no electricity, no machines, black clothing, farming with livestock pulling plows, making their own furniture. When I was at General Assembly in June, I had lunch with a wonderful Presbyterian pastor from Indonesia. He asked us to pray for them. There had been a series of church bombings, and in a few places, Christians were reluctant to worship together. Some sought to be more incognito about their faith in Christ. As a pastor, I wondered how I would respond in that kind of a situation, how you would respond. How many of us would be here today if there were any threat?

Last year on this Sunday, we celebrated communion live with our sister church in Bogota, Colombia. During the last twenty years, we have prayed with and for them, have sent two volunteers in mission to work with them, have hosted members and their pastor, have helped a pastor and his family to escape assassination by relocating in Canada, and have contributed funds for particular ministries, including Pan e Vida and JustaPaz. This week, we received the news that JustaPaz, the tiny Mennonite agency in Colombia which works for peace and justice, has received the 2006 Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation Award for its work in non-violence. Last summer, I visited the small JustaPaz office in Bogota. Dependent on gifts from abroad, there may be half a dozen people who work there. I marveled at their witness, ingenuity, and courage in the face of what looked like ridiculously overwhelming odds. Most of their work is quiet, long-term, and always puts employees and volunteers at serious personal risk. In part, here is what their award celebrated:

JustaPaz in Colombia is a source of inspiration for other nonviolent movements and individuals-of how an active nonviolence may be carried out despite the risks within a violent society. JustaPaz organizes workshops on nonviolence for pastors, leaders and youth in churches in areas where the armed conflict is very evident. It mobilizes people and makes the work for peace and justice visible as it is manifested , for example in demonstrations on the international day of peace. This year, JustaPaz along with other groups, took the initiative to call together churches and Christian organizations in Colombia for a national referendum for peace. It was in this initiative that for the first time these churches have adopted a proposal for peace and a framework for how it can work in the country.

What we do not realize is that just getting that group of churches and Christian organizations together has taken more than a decade of quiet, skilled relationship building and prayer. For them to agree on a proposal for peace and a framework for how it can work in Colombia is nothing short of miraculous. For me, it is a powerful sign of God's presence, willing peace and wholeness. Their witness, their perseverance for peace shames my timidity as a person committed to Christ.

Today, we gather at the Lord's table with those sisters and brothers, with the rapidly shrinking number of Palestinian Christians who live under excruciating pressures and injustice, with some in Indonesia and other lands who fear for their safety if they even attend worship, with Christians in China who cannot get into their buildings because there is not enough room, with spirit-filled Presbyterian family in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, who deeply desire continuing connection with us. I love this particular Sunday, this connection Sunday, this communion meal. On no other day are we so deliberate about our bondedness with others whom Christ has called. Regardless of political or economic differences, this day we are marked again as one in Christ, the Prince of Peace. There are no boundaries. To participate in this communion is to entertain and enact holy subversion to all those things which hurt and separate, which dehumanize and traumatize. It is to imagine another world, one of peace and justice, where people live together in harmony, without fear. To grasp hands with Christians around the world is to say yes to Christ, yes to his peace, yes to his rule in our lives. Especially on this Sunday: we are more than we seem, in Christ Jesus. We are other than we appear to be, for we belong to him and to each other around the world, regardless. He calls us to live the ways of peace, and then gives himself for us, regardless. That is deeply moving to me. Thanks be to God.