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Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 AND Psalm 124:1-8 OR Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 AND Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

We human beings are often quick to make judgments. Who’s in and who’s out? Who’s playing by the rules, i.e., who’s playing according to our rules? Sometimes some of us go so far as to determine who lives or dies, if not deliberately and consciously, then by default and inaction.

We’re back into football season. I got to watching the officials in some of the recent games. There are all these striped shirts out there each with a different specialty. Their combined jobs is to see that the players stay within the lines, play by the rules, start and end each play with the ball placed in the proper location, and on and on. Applied to religion, it may seem like some churches see themselves as the officials charged with making judgments about who’s following the rule and who’s not.

This week’s lectionary readings provide an occasion for reflecting on the judgments we make. There are many scriptures that seem to be fairly rigid. God is on our side. (See Psalm 124) We have a perfect set of rules called “the law of the Lord.” (See Psalm 19) There is a strain of perfectionism in the Bible and some churches have taken it to the extreme. I don’t happen to believe that that’s the only theme to be drawn from scripture. There’s also much emphasis upon love and grace and humility and confession. Even Psalm 19 includes an element of humility in that the writer recognizes “hidden faults,” praying that he will not be “insolent,” ending with the petition, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and redeemer.” (vss. 12-14)

Although not in today’s readings, the theme for today’s blog might be Jesus’ words found is Matthew 7:1-2---“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged . . .” My father used to put it this way: “If you point at somebody, three fingers are pointing back at you.” Try it and take a good look at your hand and fingers.

More than once in scripture someone (usually thought to be the “good”guy) who looks in judgment upon another person ends up suffering the consequences he (or she) had in mind for the “bad” guy and that “bad” guy ends up replacing the “good’ guy. The whole book of Esther is such a story. In this case, it is the Jews, despised and ill-treated, living as aliens in Persia, who are unexpectedly saved. It is a story celebrated by Jews to this day in the festival of Purim, the entire book of Esther read aloud as part of that festival.

A quick summary of the story: King Ahasuerus becomes upset by the behavior of his wife and decides it’s time to move on. (There’s a lot to unpack in noting that this story doesn’t begin on high moral ground, but that’s for some other time.) He sponsors a Queen of Persia contest to find a new wife. Mordecai, a Jew, is Esther’s older cousin. Since she was an orphan, he adopted her as his own daughter. He arranges for her to be among the contestants for the position of queen, without revealing her Jewish identity. She wins and becomes a powerful voice in the court of King Ahasuerus. Haman is another powerful voice. He is out to get Mordecai, who gained the king’s favor by revealing an assassination plot. Haman manages to get the king to issue an edict which the king doesn’t fully realize will result in the death of all the Jews. Haman has a gallows built on which Mordecai will be the first to be hanged..

Esther is the only one who may be able to save the Jews. Mordecai sends her a message. “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14) The lectionary reading tells of a banquet at which Esther is granted a request. She reveals her Jewish heritage and exposes Haman’s plot. Haman is hung on his own gallows, and Mordecai becomes his replacement in the court of King Ahasuerus.

A long story to remind us that when we start judging others, that judgment may turn back on us and bite us. Do we really want to be held to the standards we are sometimes so ready to apply to others? Are the consequences we sometimes wish for others ones that we are willing to suffer ourselves?

The alternative reading from the Hebrew scriptures is from the book of Numbers. It is one of two stories about how Moses handles the overtaxing burden of leadership. In Exodus 18, at the suggestion of his father-in-law Jethro, he creates a bureaucratic structure so that most problems are handled at lower levels and only the most important work their way up to him. In the lectionary reading from Numbers, chapter 11, God suggests that Moses call 70 of the elders up to the Tent of Meeting (or Tabernacle) so that God can take some of the spirit that is on Moses and put it on the others. The Spirit becomes the vehicle of shared responsibility. (Numbers 11:16 & 24-25)

I’ve skipped over all the complaining Moses has been doing. “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ . . . Where am I to get meat to all this people . . . I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy to me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once . . .” (vss. 11-15) How often are leaders unable to share responsibility and then complain because they have too much to do? Another topic worth pursuing, but not now.

The punch line of this story that can be seen through the eyes of humor comes when two men who didn’t go up there with Moses seem to get the spirit back in the camp where ordinary life is lived. (vs. 26) Joshua, among others, is aghast, telling Moses to stop them. (vs. 28)

There are those football officials trying to be sure that everyone stays in the lines where they belong. There’s some churches, so sure they are right, drawing lines that define where God’s Spirit can work and where it can’t, drawing lines that exclude. Moses sees something much bigger. He sees a vision in which all God’s people are filled with the spirit. (vs. 29) He sees the work of God’s Spirit ranging far beyond any boundaries we might draw. He sees God working in and with and through people we might easily judge. To change the metaphor, Moses is attuned to a God who colors outside the lines.

I pray that the inclusiveness of my vision may be influenced by this glimpse of God’s inclusiveness. There are several slogans that are part of the culture of our denomination, The United Church of Christ. Two of them seem apropos to today’s theme: “Whoever you are, where ever you are on life's journey, you are welcome here!” “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

I mention the reading from James as sort of an afterthought. It is primarily about healing which requires more attention that a paragraph in a blog with another theme. I would note that healing is placed in a larger relational context which includes confessing sins to one another, prayer for one another, etc. Healing is, in part, being in right relationship with one another. Drawing lines of separation and exclusion does not lead to healing. The reading from James ends, in fact, with an emphasis upon building lines of healing relationship rather than viewing people as wanderers out there in a land beyond the reach of God’s Spirit. Although the tone is still somewhat judgmental, the sentiment is one of reaching out rather than exclusion. (James 5:19-20)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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