A Reading from the Book of Esther (7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22)
The king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated. Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
1 If the Lord had not been on our side, *
let Israel now say;
2 If the Lord had not been on our side, *
when enemies rose up against us;
3 Then would they have swallowed us up alive *
in their fierce anger toward us;
4 Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *
and the torrent gone over us;
5 Then would the raging waters *
have gone right over us.
6 Blessed be the Lord! *
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; *
the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the Name of the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.
A Reading from the Letter of James (5:13-20)
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark (9:38-50)
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; 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. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
There is an old Peanuts comic strip in which Charlie Brown is explaining that he has a science test coming up the next day and that he has been hoping and praying that he does well. Linus listens patiently but then advises him, “Hoping and praying should never be confused with studying.” That is a good lesson for all of us in many different aspects of our lives.
The Letter of James, from which our second readings have been taken during the month of September, ends with teachings about prayer. It provides us with a good opportunity to remind ourselves what prayer is about, and what it is not.
At the end of last week’s passage, James told his hearers, who have apparently been complaining that their prayers have gone unanswered, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” He seems to be reminding them that prayers of petition, those asking for something, are supposed to be for our needs, not for our wants, our pleasures. Jesus’ model prayer for his followers was not, “Give us today extra-rich, double, hot-fudge sundaes, with whipped cream, chopped nuts and a cherry on top,” (as good as that sounds!) but simply, “Give us today our daily bread”: “Give us what we need in order to live through the day and to accomplish what you want us to accomplish today.”
It is amazing what immature and sometimes bizarre images of prayer we sometimes come to accept as normal. Just turn on your TV this afternoon to some football game where the competitors are well-matched and the score is close, and watch some of the spectators standing there, with intense looks on their faces and with their hands folded, asking the God of all creation, the God who loves all people, to help their team annihilate their rivals. What an absurd view of prayer.
We at least try to do better. Here each week, during the Prayers of the People, we pray for those in need and ask that God help us to accomplish God’s work in the world: accomplishing what God wants, not necessarily what we might want. I mentioned, in last week’s Adult Forum, a piece of advice about prayer from the Mishnah: an early collection of rabbinic writings; it suggests, “Make your will God’s will, that he might make his will your will.” We need to start with God and God’s will for us before we start putting together our shopping list and asking God to fill our order.
About 2 ½ years ago, NPR (National Public Radio) conducted a series of interviews with great world leaders who had now reached old age, and they asked them what they had learned in recent years that they had not known when they were younger. They called that series “The Long View.” In a segment with Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the interviewer asked him what he had learned during his more mature years about prayer. In his typical, self-deprecating way, Archbishop Tutu responded, “I am learning to shut up more in the presence of God,” Then he laughed. While he proceeded to acknowledge that he still, at times, has his own shopping list for God, he emphasized that he now simply tries to sit in the presence of God, “trying to grow,” trying “to just be there.” Pursuing that theme, he added: it is “like when you sit in front of a fire in winter — you are just there in front of the fire. You don’t have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you.” That is the way it is with prayer, with putting ourselves consciously in the presence of God. Prayer begins, not by us calling on God to come and do what we want God to do, but by putting ourselves in the presence of God, waiting and listening for God to warm us and to show what we really need and what the needs are of those to whom God sends us.
The portion of the Letter of James that we heard this morning begins by talking about the power of prayer, prayer offered by the church, for those who are sick and in need of healing. But it then goes on to insist that we need also to pray for one another so that we might be healed.
But healed from what? Certainly it could include healing in a physical sense, or healing from our worries and anxieties. But it could also include a healing from excessive concern about ourselves and our own interests: concerns that block us from focusing on serving the needs of others. That may not be the kind of healing for which we are searching, but it might just be the kind of healing which we need.
And that healing, along with a renewed focus on the needs of others, might just heal us by leading us from our self-focus and our isolation so that we might more clearly recognize the unity that we share with all God’s people and, beyond that, with all God’s creation. Those are things worth praying for.
But what about the other type of prayer? What about singing those “songs of praise” that James mentions? Why are they important? Another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, has asked that same question: “Why should God need our prayers? Why should God need our flattery? How come He is not repulsed by all that?” Elie Wiesel then answers, “God does not need our prayers. We need them.” We need them to recognize God’s presence in our lives; or maybe better, we need then to recognize our presence in God’s life. We need then to bring to our consciousness the abundant life and other blessings that God pours out upon us and upon all of God’s creation every day, but which we all too often take for granted or do not recognize at all.
As we prepare today to share once again in the Holy Eucharist, the great sacrament of God’s love, we will join once again in that model prayer that Jesus taught us. That prayer reminds us where to start. It begins not with us but with God. It prays first that God’s name might be glorified, that God’s kingdom might come in all its fullness, and that God’s will might be done here on earth and in our lives. Then within the context of that focus on God’s will, we ask, not for what we want, but for what we actually need: our daily bread, forgiveness, and God’s protection and guidance this day and always.
It is in that type of prayer that we enter more fully into the presence of God. And it is in the presence of God that we find true and lasting peace.