Saturday, September 15, 2018

"Work for Justice"

             Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at the four principles of Christian discipleship, which will guide my church, Christ United Methodist, as we move into the future. Jesus calls each of us to love and follow him as his disciples.  Following Christ involves an ongoing process of learning, experiencing, and growing.  When we first become Christians we are beginners in the faith.  But, over time, God intends for us to grow deeper in our faith and in our relationship with Christ.   I believe that Christian disciples grow best through a process that combines “learning” and “doing.” 

In this series, we have already examined the core discipleship principles of (1) seeking God; (2) acting inclusively; and (3) serving others—both human and nonhuman.  This Sunday, September 16th, we will conclude by looking at the fourth and final discipleship principle:  working for justice. 

What is justice?  The meaning of justice may vary, depending upon the context in which it is used.  For instance, retributive justice concerns consequences and punishments when someone has injured another person or caused them harm.  Frequently, we think of retributive justice in terms of the court system.  However, our focus this Sunday is on a different form of justice:  distributive justice.  That is, the just distribution of the goods and services of society.  So, with these refinements, the question becomes, “As Christians, how do we define “distributive justice?”

For Christians, the starting point for defining justice must begin with the human relationship with God.  As we saw several weeks ago in our examination of the principle of “acting inclusively,” each person is created in the image of God.  In Genesis 1:27 it is written, So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  Every single person bears the divine image of God in their very essence. This divine spark, or image, indicates how deeply God loves each one of us.  In response to God’s personal love for us, God requires that we love one another.  As the writer of 1 John observed:

“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  1 John 4:19-21

When we truly love someone, then we want the very best for that person.  We want that beloved person to be happy and to flourish in life.  Thus, from the Christian perspective of love, distributive justice occurs when every person in society has the opportunities to flourish in their own particular way.  A flourishing human person needs the freedom to choose and develop their own vision of the good and happy life.  In order to flourish, a person needs the resources, such as education, to develop to the best of their abilities and to strive towards realizing their life plan.  Persons also require freedom, sufficient leisure, and the opportunities to participate in the civic and political life of the community to the degree that they choose.  Finally, in order to flourish, persons need the opportunity to become self-sufficient and provide for themselves, rather than being dependent upon a paternalistic handout.  This enables a person to live with dignity, which is essential for human flourishing. 

            Unfortunately, these minimal conditions are not met, either around the world or even in the United States—the most affluent society in human history.  Consider these facts:

  • In the United States, 1 in 8 Americans lives with food insecurity
  • Approximately 13 million children live with food insecurity. 
  • At Christ UMC in Lincoln, we have witnessed the extent of food insecurity firsthand with our food pantry.  Over the past two years, the number of hungry whom we help each month has increased from 50 people a month to over 1,000 persons a month.
  • Globally, there are approximately 815 million people suffering from hunger.

Christian disciples are challenged by this huge injustice in our world.  Many persons do not have the resources to live happy and flourishing lives of self-sufficiency and dignity, as God intended.

            Here, an important distinction needs to be made between the discipleship principles of serving others and working for justice.  While serving others by caring for their physical needs is a critical ministry, frequently it does not address the structural causes of poverty.  Those whom we wish to help are caught in a recurring cycle of poverty and dependency.  At Christ UMC, we see this pernicious cycle of poverty all the time at our food pantry as some people come to us in need of food, again and again, each month. 

            Many Christian congregations are great at serving others and they think that is all that they are required to do as disciples of Christ.  However, Christ calls us to do more.  Our responsibility is not some easy minimum.  No.  In his Letter in the New Testament, James writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14-16)

            If we truly love and care for those who do not have the resources to flourish, then we cannot be content with simply feeding someone for a day—or, a month.  Instead, to genuinely love and care for those in need, we must help them become fully self-sufficient and able to flourish.  This is what working for justice is all about.

            I want to propose that there are two distinct categories of working for justice:

  1.  Micro-justice, empowering and resourcing individuals.  Micro-justice focuses on helping the poor develop the skills and vision to become fully self-sufficient and to flourish.  It could mean providing training or a program which empowers the poor and marginalized to take responsibility for helping themselves and becoming self-sufficient.  An example of this type of micro-justice is the “Bridges out of Poverty” program, which Christ UMC provides through our ministry at ConnectioN Point.  “Bridges out of Poverty” helps impoverished persons and families develop skills to apply for and keep a job, develop a household budget, and other abilities needed in order to rise out of poverty and become self-sufficient.  There’s an old Chinese proverb, which says:  “Give a poor man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime.”  We can think of micro-justice as teaching someone to fish.                                                                                                                                                     
  2.  Macro-justice.  Macro-justice focuses on the social, political, and economic structures which disempower the poor and keep them in poverty.  Macro-justice involves working to change unjust laws or public policies that marginalize and disempower people.  Other examples would include organizing a boycott of certain companies because of their business practices.  If we think of micro-justice as teaching someone to fish, then macro-justice involves tearing down the fence, which restricts access to the fish in the community fishpond. 

 The discipleship principle of working for justice includes working as hard as we can for both micro-justice for individual persons and macro-justice for our society—and the world.  This is especially true for American Christians.

As American Christians, we live in a society that has historically valued our Christian convictions and perspectives.  Although our Founding Fathers rightly separated “Church and State,” the reason for this separation was to insure that no particular religion or denomination was privileged and promoted in a dominant role over other faiths; that is, there would be no “state religion.”  The Founding Fathers’ intent was not to prevent citizens from speaking about public policies from their religious convictions.  On the contrary, they also recognized the importance of religious perspectives in the public discourse, which grounds our democracy.  Therefore, as American Christians, we have a special opportunity and responsibility to be good stewards of our American citizenship, by speaking up and participating in the public discourse.  We have a responsibility to work for justice.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 16th, as we conclude our examination of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship with a focus on “working for justice.”  Before and after the Worship Services, there will be an opportunity to participate in Bread for the World’s “offering of letters” by writing your federal legislators and asking them to protect highly effective anti-hunger programs from spending cuts in the 2019 Federal Budget.

   Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 each Sunday morning in our Sanctuary.  This Sunday, we will offer a third, alternative and contemporary worship service at 9:45 am in our Family Life Center.  This additional service will be a “preview worship service” as we prepare to launch a regular, third service in the near future.

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

"Seek God"

            “Pilgrimage” is not a familiar concept for most Protestant Christians.  However, it seems to me that the concept of “pilgrimage” is central to fully grasping what it means to seek God.  Usually, pilgrimage refers to a geographical journey of great spiritual significance.  For instance, many Christians have taken a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, while many Muslims go on Hajj, a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca.  A pilgrimage does not always have to be a physical journey, however.  One can take an interior pilgrimage within one’s mind, without leaving home.

            At the very least, the concept of spiritual pilgrimage serves as an excellent metaphor for what it means to Seek God.  Over the past two weeks, we have been exploring the four “Essentials of Discipleship.”  They are:  (1)  Seek God; (2) Act Inclusively; (3) Serve others—both human and nonhuman; and (4)  Work for Justice.  We began by examining what it means to “act inclusively” and then to “serve others.”  This Sunday, September 9th, I will focus on seeking God, and next Sunday we will conclude by exploring what it means to work for justice.  Together, these four principles form the essentials of Christian discipleship.

            To fully appreciate the significance of Christian discipleship, it is important to recognize that Christianity is not a “spectator sport.”  Some people misunderstand this fundamental point about Christianity.  They mistakenly believe that all they need to do is become a member of a church and they are automatically and permanently a Christian disciple.  But, this is a colossal misunderstanding and indicates an infantile faith.  Instead, the scriptures assert that Christian discipleship is a lifelong process in which we grow and mature in our faith.  Through this process, our relationship with the Divine is enriched and deepened. 

            This misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian was widely shared by the Corinthians addressed by the Apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

"And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?"  
(1 Corinthians 3: 1-3)

In this passage, Paul adopts the metaphor of human growth from infancy to adulthood to describe the process of growing in our relationship with the divine.  In what must have been a stunning and brutal statement for the Corinthians to hear, Paul calls them spiritual infants; that is, spiritually immature Christians.  Their spiritual immaturity is indicated by the incessant jealousy and quarreling among them.  Given their spiritual immaturity, Paul can only feed them milk and not solid food.  In other words, Paul can only give them basic, introductory teaching in the faith because of their spiritual immaturity.  They are not yet ready for more advanced teaching.

            In his analysis of this text, the Biblical scholar J. Paul Sampley observes, “Other letters allow us to see that Paul does, indeed, think of believers as moving from their starting point as babies in Christ toward greater and greater maturity.  The life of faith is a life of growth, of maturing, of growing up.”[i]  Even Paul himself does not claim to be a fully mature Christian.  Instead, he continues to grow and mature in his faith, as well.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12)

            Christian disciples are always “works in progress.”  We never reach that final destination, where we can say that we are completely mature in our faith and can grow no deeper in our relationship with the Divine.  No.  Instead, as with the Apostle Paul, we can always mature further in our faith—and our loving relationship with God can always grow deeper.

            Another perspective is the metaphor of spiritual pilgrimage, which I suggested at the beginning of this blog post.  When we become disciples of Christ we embark upon a spiritual pilgrimage.  Step by step, we grow in our faith and our relationship with Christ.  With each step, we mature, moving from the milk of infancy to the solid food of a fully grown adult in Christ.  Yet, this pilgrimage never reaches a final destination.  We can always grow deeper and deeper in love with God.  We can always deepen our vision of what it means to be a true follower of Christ.

            This spiritual growth is always intentional.  And, the growth occurs through both “learning” and “doing.” 

1.      Learning. Spiritual learning includes prayer, study of scripture and other spiritual writings, and worship.  We have Christ himself as a model of this process of intentional learning.  For instance, the Gospel of Mark records that early in his ministry, Jesus got up “in the morning, while it was still very dark, … and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35; see also Mark 6:46).  Jesus was intentional about setting aside time for prayer and meditation with God.

2.      Doing. Complementing learning is doing.  We grow and mature in our faith through serving God.  This action-oriented spiritual growth certainly includes serving others and working for justice –two of the four core principles of Christian discipleship.  But, it also includes working and serving our community of faith.  Through our service to our church, we open up and experience new avenues to grow.  We mature in our faith and grow deeper in our relationship with God.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 9th, as we continue our exploration of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] J. Paul Sampley, Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 10, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

"Serve Others"

            Last Sunday, we began a new sermon series at Christ United Methodist Church entitled, “The Essentials of Discipleship.”  I understand Christian discipleship to be an inter-related  process of following Christ by learning, experiencing, serving and growing in our faith and deepening our relationship with the Divine.  When we first become Christians, we are beginners in the faith.  But, over time, Christ intends for us to grow deeper in our faith.  Christian disciples grow best through a process that combines “education” and “experience”—that is, learning and serving. 

In this sermon series, we will explore the four core principles for growth and service; that is, “the essentials of discipleship.”  They are:  (1)  Seek God; (2) Act Inclusively; (3) Serve others—both human and nonhuman; and (4)  Work for Justice.  Last week, we looked at the principle of acting inclusively.  This Sunday, September 2nd, we will focus on serving others—both human and nonhuman. 

           The principle of serving other persons runs like a red thread throughout the entire Bible.  Again and again the scriptures proclaim the importance of caring for the physical necessities of other persons.  See, for instance, Leviticus 23:22, Proverbs 14:31, 17:5, 19:17, Isaiah 58:7-10, Deuteronomy 15:10-11, Ezekiel 16:49, 1 John 3:17-18, Luke 12:33, Matthew 19:21, Galatians 2:10, and 6:2   Philippians 2:4, James 2:5, 16-17, and Romans 12:13. 

            Perhaps the most important scriptural passage on caring for others is Jesus’ apocalyptic description of God’s final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46.  In the first verses, Jesus sets the scene for the final judgment:  “‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.’” (verses 31-33).  The sheep represent righteous people whom will receive salvation, while the goats represent sinners to be condemned.

           In Jesus’ explanation, those who will be redeemed are those who have served and cared for others who needed resources in order to live and flourish, while the condemned are those have ignored the needs of their fellows.  Jesus explicitly mentions 6 needs which people have:  (1) those who hunger; (2) those who thirst; (3) those who were strangers; (4) those who were naked; (5) those who were sick; and (6) those in prison. However, it seems clear that Christ intends for this list to be suggestive and not comprehensive.  For instance, it seems certain that Jesus would also include the homeless, even though he does not explicitly mention them.  The general thrust of these apocalyptic verses is that we are all responsible for one another’s flourishing and wellbeing.

            In these verses, Jesus places himself in the position of those with needs.  For instance, he says:  “I was hungry…I was thirsty…” etc.  Both the “sheep” and the “goats” are surprised that they helped, or did not help, Jesus himself.  They say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…thirsty…?” etc.  Jesus responds by saying, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it [or, did not do it, in the case of the goats] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”  The consensus among Bible scholars is that Jesus is making a universal claim, when he refers to “members of my family.”  That is, any person, regardless of nationality, creed, race, etc. is entitled to receive the basic necessities required in order to live a life that is happy, flourishing, and with dignity. 

           In his commentary on Matthew, the New Testament scholar Eugene Boring observes:  “This is the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the NT.  To the reader’s surprise (ancient and modern), the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ.  Nothing is said of grace, justification, or the forgiveness of sins.  What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people.  Such deeds are not a matter of ‘extra credit,’ but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment…”.[1]

            So, clearly, serving others is an essential principle of Christian discipleship.  Of course, we already knew that.  In the American context, Christ’s call to serve others is understood by nearly everyone—Christian and non-Christian, alike.  At Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, we are probably stronger at serving others than we are at any of the three other essential principles.  Although there is still room for growth, at Christ UMC, we are involved in many “ministries of mercy,” including feeding the hungry, clothing those without sufficient clothing—especially in the cold winter months; other ministries include mentoring children, welcoming and sponsoring refugees, and providing emergency financial assistance.  I suspect that Christ UMC is not unique in this regard.  Most American churches are involved in ministries of mercy to some degree.

             The challenge for the preacher—especially when the text is Matthew 25: 31-46, as it will be on September 2nd—is to identify new perspectives on this very, very familiar text.  To accomplish that this Sunday, I intend to develop two new insights into serving others:

1.      “Serving Others” is not restricted to just “human others,” it includes nonhumans, as well.  Humans have always shaped and modified their environment.  Over the course of history, these manipulations were temporary and more-or-less sustainable.  However, since the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, advances in our technology have given humans a previously unknown potential to transform entire eco-systems radically and permanently.  We have misused this awesome power.  Today, we suffer and struggle with ecological problems such as Global Climate Change and increased chemicals in our air and water.

Last week, in our exploration of acting inclusively, we saw that being created in the image of God carries with it the responsibility to be good stewards of the environment (see Genesis 1:26).  In our sacred scripture, there is another important insight concerning our relationship with the environment, as well. 

In the second Creation Story, in Genesis 2, God creates Adam, the first man.  God is so enamored with the new human that God creates a special garden—the Garden of Eden.  When the Garden is completed, Genesis says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)  The verb which we usually translate as “to till and keep” the Garden is the Hebrew word, “ābad.  This is an odd word choice here.  As with many English words, this Hebrew word has several different meanings.  Although it can mean “to till and keep,” that is a tertiary meaning.  The principal meaning of ābad is to “serve” as when a servant serves the King.  I believe that the writer of Genesis used ābad intentionally and that he intended for us to interpret it as to literally serve nature, in order to underscore our God-give responsibility to care for and serve God’s Creation.  So, we should include serving the environment as part of serving others, and thus it is an essential component of discipleship.

2.      “Serving Others” is a “two-way street”.  Of course, those whom we serve receive benefit.  Yet, when we serve voluntarily, enthusiastically, and faithfully, then we benefit, as well.  Serving others can be transformative.  When we serve others, we grow in our faith and our relationship with God.  Similarly, serving others creates good feeling in ourselves and is fundamental to genuine happiness.  In study after study after study, social scientists researching happiness have found that serving others is absolutely fundamental to living a life filled with genuine happiness and flourishing.  It’s ironic, the more we serve and give, the more we receive back.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 2nd, as we explore the second essential principle of Christian discipleship.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] M. Eugene Boring, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 8, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

"Act Inclusively"

            This Sunday, I begin a new sermon series at Christ United Methodist Church entitled, “The Essentials of Discipleship.”  Jesus calls each of us to love and follow him, as his disciples.  Following Christ involves an ongoing process of learning, experiencing, and growing.  When we first become Christians, we are beginners in the faith.  But, over time, Christ intends for us to grow deeper in our faith.   

I believe that Christian disciples grow best through a process that combines “education” and “experience”—that is, learning and serving.  In this series, we will explore the four core principles for growth and service.  They are:  (1)  Seek God; (2) Act Inclusively; (3) Serve others—both human and nonhuman; and (4)  Work for Justice. 

We begin this week with “Act Inclusively.”  To act inclusively means that as a community of faith, we welcome and include everyone, regardless of age, color, disability, ethnic origin, family status, gender, political beliefs, race, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.  To act inclusively means to welcome and include everyone, with no exceptions. 

This principle of Christian discipleship is grounded in many places in scripture.  For instance, 1 John 4:16b says, “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  Since God = love, to live lives that are filled and directed by love means that we also abide in God.  And, when our lives are filled and directed by love, then we have established the conditions under which God chooses to abide in us.  That is, God cannot be an intimate part of our lives, unless our lives are filled and directed by love.  This is because God is love.  Since God is love, God does not abide in the hearts and lives of persons who are filled with hatred. 

The writer of 1 John considers love of others to be a process in which we continually grow in our capacity to love.  It is this scriptural understanding of love as an ongoing growth process which grounds the claim by John Wesley that one can become perfected in love. Although Wesley, who was the founder of Methodism, never believed that one would ever become completely perfect—never making another mistake—in this life.  He did believe that some people could nurture and grow God’s love in their hearts so much that they always spoke and acted out of a love for the other person—even if they made mistakes of judgment due to human sin and finitude.

The writer of John 1 concludes this chapter by observing:

“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

That is, we love others in response to God’s gracious, undeserved, and unmerited love for us.

            Another scriptural grounding for the discipleship principle to act inclusively comes from what the scripture says about each and every human person.  Each of us is created in the image of God:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”        (Genesis 1:26-28)

It is common for contemporary Christians to assume that the “image of God” must refer to a certain human characteristic, such as our rationality or our ability to vocalize.  However, most Biblical scholars caution against that interpretation.  Instead, they point out that in many of the kingdoms surrounding the ancient Israelites—such as Egypt and Mesopotamia—the ruler was seen as possessing the image of that culture’s god.  For the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the god-king was responsible for insuring the safety and security of the citizens and their land.  Further, the god-king was responsible for insuring that social justice was carried out, especially in regard to those who were weak, vulnerable, and exploited.

Scholars note that in Genesis this “royal image” is democratized.  It is not just an individual ruler who is responsible for caring for creation and working for justice.  Instead, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, all persons are responsible for being good stewards of nature and working for justice.  From this perspective, God chooses to share power with humans, even when we sin and fall short of God’s expectations. 

A careful study of the Hebrew words reveals that the Hebrew verb translated into English as “having dominion” must be understood in terms of “care-giving, even nurturing, not exploitation,” while the command to “subdue the earth” refers to agricultural cultivation.[1]  The most faithful interpretation of having dominion and subduing the earth is to realize that humans are to relate to nature in the same way that God relates to humans.  We are to love and care for nature, working to maintain a sustainable and clean environment.  When God blesses humans, “God gives power, strength, and potentiality”[2] for this responsibility of caring for Creation.

Taken together, these two scriptural passages—along with many others in the Bible—provide a strong mandate to act inclusively, welcoming and including everyone within our community of faith and our individual lives, regardless of the unique characteristics which make them different from us.  There is a profound strength in our diversity as a community of faith.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, August 26th, as we begin our examination of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

[1]Terence Fretheim, Commentary on the Book of Genesis in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[2] Ibid.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

“‘For Just Such a Time as This’”

            This Sunday, August 19th, is our second week focusing on the Hebrew Book of Esther.  As we observed last week, we should approach the Book of Esther as a written, fictionalized short story.  It would be a mistake to assume that Esther is intended to be read as a historical piece.  It is not.  Rather, the author of Esther intended that we read it as a short story, more of a parable, which contains important insights and encouragement for living faithfully during times of great difficulty.  That is, we should read Esther, asking how this parable can teach us to live faithfully as God’s people.

            The story of Esther is set during the time when many Jews were in exile from their homeland, living under Persian rule.  The Book of Esther is set in the city of Susa, one of four capitals for the vast Persian Empire, and it occurs during the reign of King Ahasuerus.  It tells the story of two Jewish immigrants: the young girl, Esther, and Mordecai, her uncle. 

            Last week, we explored the first two chapters of Esther, learning how Esther was chosen as the new queen of King Ahasuerus and how Mordecai uncovered and exposed a plot to assassinate the King.  The assassination plot was foiled, but Mordecai received no recognition or thanks for his central role in exposing the would-be assassins. 

As Chapter 3 opens, we are introduced to the fourth main character in this story, Haman, the Agagite.  Just as Mordecai, Haman is a foreign immigrant to Persia, who has risen up through the ranks in the palace to become a high court official.  Historians tell us that, at this point in history, the Persian Empire was very cosmopolitan, with many different peoples, and it was not uncommon for foreigners to obtain high positions in society.  Ultimately, Haman is promoted to the very top of the palace hierarchy, second only to King Ahasuerus, himself.

Soon, a conflict begins to brew between Haman and Mordecai.  Mordecai refuses to bow down when Haman passes by the king’s gate.  It is not clear why Mordecai refused to bow before Haman.  There is nothing in Jewish law which prohibits bowing before a superior.  Over the centuries, various biblical scholars have speculated on the reason for Mordecai’s refusal to bow and show respect.  While these are interesting hypotheses, there is nothing in the scripture itself, which explains Mordecai’s actions. 

At first Haman does not even notice Mordecai’s disrespect, but soon his servants called this daily affront to his attention.  Once Haman learns that Mordecai is not bowing when he passes, Haman becomes furious and he begins to plot his vengeance.  Here’s how the Book of Esther describes what happens next:

“When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.” Esther 3:5-6

Obviously, Haman’s reaction is completely disproportionate to the offense.  He magnifies a silly, personal provocation from Mordecai into a vendetta of genocide against an entire ethnic group.  Haman’s exaggerated reaction would be comical, if it were not for the fact that he actually has enough power to make his threat of genocide a reality.

            Haman marches into the King’s court and lays out his complaint.  Without identifying the Jews, Haman tells King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). 

            Then Haman offers a bribe to King Ahasuerus.  He promises to donate 10,000 talents of silver, if the King will grant him permission to exterminate all of the Jews throughout the vast Persian Empire.  Sidnie White Crawford, a biblical scholar, notes that this was an absurdly large amount of money:  approximately the equivalent of 375 tons of silver.  As a point of comparison, historians estimate that the annual income of a Persian king in this era would be around 14,560 talents per year.  Essentially, Haman offered King Ahasuerus a bribe worth nearly 7 times his annual income!![1]

            Without even bothering to determine the identity of the race which Haman wishes to destroy, King Ahasuerus quickly accepts the bribe.  The appropriate political decrees are drafted and sent throughout the vast Empire.  All Jews—men, women, children—are to be executed and their property is to be plundered by their enemies and executioners.  A date is set for this sentence to be carried out; approximately 12 months from the time in which the death degrees were first pronounced.

            Haman will carry out vengeance upon all of the Jews because of the minor slights of a single Jew, Mordecai.  King Ahasuerus has received a humongous bribe and, yet, he is so indifferent he does not even know which group of people is to be slaughtered.  Reflecting on this scene, the scholar Sidnie White Crawford writes, “Because the Jews are perceived as different from the Gentile (whether Christian or not) culture in which they live, they often have become the target of bigotry from the majority population.  This bigotry can take the form of active hostility, like that of Haman, or passive indifference, like that of Ahasuerus.  Most people choose the path of indifference, but the result is the same:  the destruction of innocent human beings.”[2] 

            After learning about the edict authorizing the destruction of the Jews, Mordecai contacts Queen Esther and urges her to intercede with King Ahasuerus on behalf of her people, the Jews.  At first, Esther refuses.  There is a law in the Persian Court that only those invited by the King may enter the inner royal court.  The penalty for approaching the King without a summons is death.  The only exception to this penalty occurs if King Ahasuerus were to raise his golden scepter to the individual entering without an invitation.  Esther has not been summoned by the King for 30 days.  Therefore, Esther is afraid that approaching the King is too risky for her.

            Mordecai does not accept Queen Esther’s excuse for not speaking with King Ahasuerus.  Instead, implying that perhaps the Divine had a role in elevating Esther to the throne, Mordecai replies, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14c).  Esther resolutely agrees to petition the King, saying:  “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16b).

            After preparing herself, Queen Esther approaches King Ahasuerus’ inner court.  Here is how the Book of Esther describes the scene:  As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor and he held out to her the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. The king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom” (Esther 5: 2-3).

            At this point, Esther has been Queen for around 5 years.  She is no longer the shy, young girl whom King Ahasuerus originally married.  She has grown and matured over the years.  She now understands how the royal court operates and, more importantly, she knows how to influence and persuade King Ahasuerus.  So, Esther does not immediately tell King Ahasuerus that she has come to seek a reprieve for the Jews.  (At this point, King Ahasuerus does not even know that Queen Esther, herself, is a Jew.)  Instead, Queen Esther manipulates the situation for a few days before inviting King Ahasuerus and Haman to a special banquet in her chambers in the palace.

            At the appropriate time during the banquet, Queen Esther springs her trap.  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” (Esther 7:3-4a).

            King Ahasuerus is flabbergasted.  He asks Esther who has threatened her in this manner.  Then, Esther, probably pointing a finger at Haman, says:  “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” (Esther 7:6)  King Ahasuerus is enraged.  A swift and deadly reversal occurs.  King Ahasuerus quickly strips Haman of all his power and then executes him, along with all of his sons.  Then, new royal decrees are written, essentially reversing the decrees which Haman had bribed King Ahasuerus to proclaim earlier.  Queen Esther has astutely played the political game and saved the Jewish people from a terrible genocide. 

            The story of Esther is a marvelous and compelling story.  Space requirements preclude me from describing some of the fascinating subplots within the story.  Yet, is the Book of Esther anything more than just a very captivating story of a woman who astutely plays the game, despite her lack of real political power?  Does it have anything to say to twenty-first century Christians?

            Sidnie White Crawford, who has focused much of her biblical research on this book of the Bible, writes:  “The book of Esther, with its theological underpinning of belief in the providence of God manifest in human events, also offers a message of hope to other minorities living in majority cultures, such as African Americans in the white-dominated United States.  To those who are oppressed the book gives a message of active faith and hope in the face of threat…Further, the book of Esther teaches that in every situation God is able to work through willing human agents (not by miraculous intervention) to ensure that justice is done.”[3]

            Certainly, the Book of Esther offers hope to all who suffer from racism, marginalization, and oppression.  But, what about contemporary Christians who are not victims of prejudice and violence. 

What does the Book of Esther say to those of us who are not victims?

In their book, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen identify four ways in which the Bible can serve as a resource for moral life.  The third avenue they identify is when the Bible provides theological perspectives which focus the church’s response to ethical issues.  As they develop this response, they observe:  In its diversity the Bible provides a complete range of theological viewpoints, no one of which can be called the biblical theology, but all of which might be made available as appropriate contexts for ethical response in a given set of circumstances.”[4]  Expanding on this observation, they note that sometimes Christians who are in dominant social positions need to interpret their Bibles as calling on them to help those, who suffer violence, by working for justice.

Many white Christians living in the United States do not suffer from prejudice, violence, racism, or marginalization.  This is certainly true for most of my congregation at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.  For us, the Book of Esther offers a challenge to actively oppose injustice and violence.  Further, Esther suggests that we may need to pay special attention to the rising threat of genocide in our country.

Genocide starts with language.  Over the past 100 years, we have seen over and over around the world how genocide grows out of a language which dehumanizes the other group.  The Nazi Holocaust; the 1994 Rwanda genocide; the 1992-1995 Bosnian genocide; Saddam Hussein’s genocide against Kurds, all provide just a few examples.  Using language, one group gradually comes to see the other group as sub-human.  Once the opposing group is characterized as less than human, then the permission is given to exterminate them because they “are just animals.”  When this happens, genocide can occur.

Currently, we do not have the conditions for genocide in the United States.  Yet, there are troubling developments which suggest genocide may be on the horizon, if we are not vigilant in our opposition to the marginalization, denigration, and violence perpetrated against certain groups. In our current political climate, we have a leader who routinely uses de-humanizing language to undermine and intimidate his opponents.  Others have followed his example.  In addition to the erosion of civil discourse, there is another troubling sign:  the rise of white supremacists and other groups who denigrate and attack persons of color as well as others—as happened in the Charlottesville tragedy a year ago.

For Christians who belong to the dominant groups within society, the Book of Esther teaches that we must actively oppose hate-speech which denigrates others and undermines their humanity.  We must actively oppose racism in the form of white supremacist groups and others.  We cannot be indifferent as King Ahasuerus was.  Words matter.

Of course, when we stand up in active opposition to racism and hate-speech, we also take risks.  We risk being expelled from our assumed, dominant position in society.  We risk losing our jobs, our friends, our status quo, maybe even our families.  Yet, just as Esther who took the risk in order to save her people, so also those faithful to God must take the risk in order to oppose and stop our country’s slow slide towards genocide.  As with Esther, perhaps God has called us “for just such a time as this.”

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, August 19th.  In the proclamation, we will reflect on the Book of Esther and ask how God calls us “for just such a time as this.”  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Sidnie White Crawford, Commentary on Esther in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 3, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, revised and expanded edition (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Press, 1989), 184.