Sunday, September 27, 2015

For or against Him?

A Sermon preached on September 27th (Proper 21) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

As I said in my weekly email, we have an interesting mix of readings this week and I’m glad I’m not teaching Sunday school, some of the images sound a little difficult to explain. So what’s behind them, is there some common theme? One thing I found and that I want to talk about is how our ideas of who God can work through, or who actually works for God, differ from God’s ideas about who can act in God’s name. 

Sometimes it is us as individuals who do not feel up to the task. Esther certainly does not feel up to the task she has been given. You know if it wasn’t for the gruesome end – with the gallows – the Book of Esther would actually be a good one for children, it contains a lot of fairy tale elements. Kings and queens, a promise of half of a kingdom, a happy ending, and of course an evil villain, the wicked Haman, the grand vizier. He has plotted to have all the Jews in Persia killed. Our heroine, Esther, is a Jew, though the king doesn’t know that yet. When her uncle Mordecai first tells her about the plot to kill the Jews and that she must “go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people,” (Esther 4:8) she is afraid and refuses because she knows that if she tries to see the king without being called first she can be put to death. But when her uncle Mordecai points out that “perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (4:14) Esther changes her mind and promises after a period of fasting that “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (4:16) And you heard the rest of the story– instead of Esther and her people dying, it is Haman who gets his just reward and the Jewish version of carnival – Purim – is initiated to celebrate this dramatic deliverance, a festival celebrated with much joy and gladness to this day.

At first, Esther does not feel up to the task she has been given, what helps change her mind is the realization – with Mordecai’s help – that if God has put her in this position and given her this task, then God will surely give her the strength and ability she needs to complete it – whatever the result. And before going to see the king she seeks guidance and reassurance in prayer and meditation – in a time of fasting.

In the final paragraphs of his letter, James is also trying to encourage the members of his Christian community to act in Christ’s name, as at least some of them felt inadequate and not up to the task. His specific examples are praying for one another and forgiving one another. Neither - he writes – are restricted to a few or to the particularly devout or saintly. Look at what Elijah managed to do through prayer, is his example, he caused a three year drought and then made it rain again and he “was a human being like us.” All it takes is a prayer of faith because the “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16) and as we know from Paul’s teaching, everyone who believes in Jesus Christ, who follows him, has been made righteous. We – I also know from experience, that praying for healing does not always work physically. No one I have anointed and prayed over at our weekly healing service has suddenly been relieved of their pain or had their injury healed – though that won’t stop me praying for it to happen. But I still trust that in some way I am doing God’s will at that moment and that in some way – at least spiritually – healing and wholeness will result. 

You have probably all heard about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent initiative to “save” the Anglican Communion by inviting the Primates - that is the senior bishops in each national Church or Province, to a gathering in Canterbury where he wants them to reflect and pray together concerning the future of the Anglican Communion. This is a very positive step as we have been spending far too much time on ourselves and on our internal disagreements instead of witnessing to a God of love and peace, or as the Archbishop is supposed to have said, we have been “spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere.”[1]
Unfortunately the initial reaction of the GAFCON Primates was not encouraging. These are the conservative Anglican Church leaders many from Africa and Asia, but including break-away churches in the US and Canada, who define themselves mainly by their opposition to the full inclusion of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Christians in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada. In their first communiqué they emphasized their mission “to restore the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion with a strength and unity that comes from our common confession of the Lord Jesus Christ,” before going on to say that in their opinion the crisis in the Communion is a problem of “false teaching which continues without repentance or discipline.” That doesn’t sound very open to dialogue and it certainly doesn’t sound as if they believe that God also works through the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada or that these churches act in God’s name. 

It would seem that the passage from today’s Gospel is not one the GAFCON Primates read very often. Their reaction and behavior sound suspiciously like the reaction of the disciples to the person who dares to act in Jesus’ name: “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (Mark 9:38) Not how they say following “us” – the disciples - not “you” – Jesus. Jesus quickly corrects them: "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.” To be a Christian means following Jesus Christ, and not a particular group of followers. That is behind the whole ecumenical movement. We accept that people who worship differently, who have different church structures, and who will also interpret the Bible differently, but who express a clear faith in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit and who try and model their lives on Jesus’ life and teaching as received – through human mediation -  in the Bible that they are fully Christian. And we rejoice in our common mission of “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”[2]
If someone heals or feeds another in Jesus’ name then we have no reason to stop them, nor to “put a stumbling block before those who believe in Jesus Christ.” (9:42) On the contrary, we rejoice in their deeds and their witness and we hope for fellowship, communion, and cooperation in Jesus’ name. I do not need GAFCON to restore the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion, or for that matter to the heart of the Episcopal Church, or of this particular church. It is already there. Yes, we do have a problem of differing interpretations about what is, to be honest, a relatively peripheral issue in Scripture. But I am prepared to accept and work with other churches and Christians even when they do not agree with me in every detail of what it means to be Christian. I accept that I may be wrong, I’ve changed my mind over the years on many things and I hope I will continue to do so if I am convinced that the new interpretation is more true and closer to God’s will. But basic humility and the Lord’s own words in Mark’s Gospel remind me that I am not God and that I must leave the final decision about who acts in God’s name to God – though I think it will be a very loving and generous decision.

The salt that Jesus speaks of in the final verses of the extract from Mark’s Gospel that we heard today is the salt of faith. Without faith we cannot season the world. And it is faith that allows us as individuals to act even when we do need feel up to the task at hand, and it is the same common faith that in Jesus’ words should lead us to be at peace with ourselves and with one another as we follow him as best we can.  So my brothers and sisters, “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." (9:50)  

[2] The Book of Common Prayer, 855

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