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
A week ago yesterday, I led the first in a series of four classes at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Kettering. Taken together, they serve as an introduction to the New Testament and are part of the Southern Ohio Synod’s Lay School of Theology. This initiative is designed to provide quality religious education for the ordinary “person in the pews,” whether Lutheran or Episcopalian.
We spent the morning setting the stage: examining the historical, cultural, and religious context of the New Testament and the various kinds of literature that comprise its 27 books. In doing so, we were trying to get into the heads of those who wrote these books and of those who first heard them, so that we can hear what they heard and understand what they meant to say. These considerations are absolutely essential for anybody today who really wants to understand the gospels, letters, and other works that we claim to be part of the Word of God.
We then spent the afternoon studying the gospel according to Mark: the earliest of the gospels and the one from which our Sunday readings are taken throughout most of this year. Among its key characteristics is Mark’s and Jesus’ unflagging focus on the kingdom of God or dominion of God. That kingdom is the heart of Jesus’ message, and it is the one to which he devoted his life. That kingdom is what Jesus was all about.
Exactly what that kingdom is is hard to pin down. That is the reason that Jesus provides a wide variety of images: “the kingdom of God is like…” he says over and over again.
The most important place to begin in understanding Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God is the realization that he is not talking about some other world, about a place where believers hope to live after death. Instead, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he talks about this world, only about this world as God intends it to be, as God wants it to be. And he calls on his followers to envision that world, to endeavor to live in that world here and now, and to devote their lives to remaking this world to be what God wants it to be: to make the kingdom of God a reality.
If bringing about that kingdom of God is Jesus’ central message, if it is the central focus of his life, it seems to me that it needs to be the central focus of our lives as well, if we really want to be his followers in more than name only. As N.T. Wright has put it, in the resurrection of Jesus, the kingdom of God has broken into the world, and God has sent us out to make it happen.
But so often, we get side-tracked from that core mission, from the life for which God has called us. And I suppose that it is some comfort that we are not alone. Today’s gospel reading starts with John, seemingly on behalf of all the Twelve, informing Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Notice, the problem that John and the others had with this unnamed healer was not that he was not following God, not that he was not following Jesus, but that “he was not following us”: as though we, not the kingdom of God, were the central concern. This unnamed man was apparently doing the work of God, doing the work of the kingdom, but he wasn’t doing it the way that the Twelve wanted him to.
But Jesus insisted that they let him alone. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whether he was a follower or not, he was doing the work of the kingdom, and that was all that mattered. God’s kingdom was being built up through him. Praise God that he was doing it, and let’s get on with doing it ourselves.
Recently, I was at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati and gave a presentation to the bishop and the members of our diocesan Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relationships Council on the work that St. Mark’s is doing and has done for decades with other churches. That, in turn, is a subset of our work that includes non-church organizations as well.
For 76 years, this parish has been at work doing the work that Jesus describes in the gospel, changing the lives of individuals and of the community, building the kingdom of God. We have been feeding the hungry, caring for the children, serving the elderly, welcoming those suffering from various addictions, and comforting those who need our welcome, our love, and our support. When we have been most faithful to our calling, we have not aligned ourselves with those in today’s gospel reading who worried about other people who were doing the work of the kingdom but who were “not following us.” Instead, we have tried to keep our eyes focused on the big picture, on the ultimate big picture: on the kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter who does the work, and it certainly doesn’t matter who gets the credit. All that matters is that the work of God is being done, that the kingdom of God is being built in the world.
In the gospels according to Matthew (11:3) and Luke (7:19), John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In neither gospel does Jesus respond by sending John a report on how many disciples he now has or how many people are now following him or them. He replies only, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” His sole criterion is whether or not the kingdom of God is coming to life in the world.
I suggest that that needs to be our sole criterion as well. Certainly we would like our church to grow and do well, in many different ways, but not just so that we can have more people in church with us and working with us. Instead, we would like our church to grow and do well in order that we might more effectively do the work of the kingdom, the work that God has given us to do. And, more to the point, we need to continue to expand the breadth of those with whom we work in our greater-Dayton community – to include members of other churches, adherents of other religions, and non-religious organizations as well – to include all people of good-will, all those who, no matter what they believe or don’t believe, are willing to give of themselves to remake the world to resemble more closely the image of the kingdom of God that Jesus lays out before us.
In what is probably the best known prayer in the entire world, Jesus prays, and calls on us to pray, not that we gain more followers. That was the concern of John and the other eleven, but it wasn’t Jesus’ central concern, and it shouldn’t be our central concern either. Instead Jesus’ central concern, the purpose for which he lived his life and for which he gave his life, was that God’s kingdom might come and God’s will might be done. And we are the ones whom God has charged to go out and make it happen, working together with all those who are dedicated to remaking this community and this world reflect more closely the kingdom of God.