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Better Than What?

Children's sermon
For September 30, 2018:
  • Better Than What? by Chris Keating -- Jesus’ words call the disciples to a life of reflection, service, and humility. Today that includes setting aside notions that "boys will be boys" in favor of doing deeds of power in the name of Christ.
  • Second Thoughts: For Such a Time as This by Tom Willadsen -- In the texts for this Sunday and throughout Esther's story there are indicators that stepping up to speak truth requires courage and faithfulness.
  • Sermon illustrations by Mary Austin, Dean Feldmeyer and Ron Love.
  • Worship resources by George Reed that focus on self-reflection and the courage to step forward.
  • Trusting Prayer Children’s sermon by Bethany Peerbolte -- The story of Esther can show praying also means trusting that God will answer in the best way.

Better than what?
Chris Keating
Mark 9:38-50

Few things are more illustrative than a juicy, tightly phrased nugget of hyperbole or literary exaggeration. From Monty Python to Cicero, literature is filled with these leg-pulling and eye rolling tidbits. To wit:

You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down at the mill for 14 hours a day and when we got home, our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!​” (Monty Python).

“Busier than a pig on ice.”
“Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”
“Sweeter than iced tea in Georgia.”
“More uncomfortable than a Presbyterian right before the offering.”

Or even, “It’s better to have a millstone hung around your neck and tossed into the sea than to cause a little one to sin.” Jesus’ words are easy to visualize, but difficult to understand.

Jesus’ next words are more vivid. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, for it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.” Innumerable generations of religious teenaged boys have lost sleep over this figure of speech. As one writer quipped, reading this passage as a teenager caused him to live out his young faith “with a Bible in one hand an axe in the other.”

Sometimes, hyperbole inadvertently shadows unforeseen plot twists, such as the off-the-cuff remarks Judge Brett Kavanaugh made in 2015. Speaking at a law school about his teenage years at a prestigious District of Columbia prep school, Kavanaugh said he was glad that “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.” He’d probably choose different words today.

The allegations that Kavanaugh assaulted a woman when they were both in high school, as well as the evolving #TimesUp and #MeToo era, prompt fresh consideration of Jesus’ instructions to the disciples in this week’s gospel lesson. On the one hand (pardon me) Jesus says discipleship is as simple as offering a cup of cold water to a child. On the other it is as strict as keeping our eyes from sinning.

In the news
Used wisely, hyperbole catches a reader’s eye, drawing them into a story. But the trick is to remember less is more. “The crafty reporter,” writes Roy Peter Clark is not dancing in front of the camera. Instead, the writing…is like a window pane: a frame upon which to view the world.” The trick is to know when to take hyperbole seriously.

Take the thread-bare phrase “boys will be boys.” It’s adequate in ascribing the frustration of parents over scuffed dressed shoes, worn-knees on dress pants and piles of boxer shorts on bathroom floors. But it has no place excusing lewd and illegal behavior.

As accusations surrounding Judge Kavanaugh careened across the news last week, however, some tried cloaking them with a veil of adolescent innocence while simultaneously shaming the accuser as the dupe of liberal politicians.

It’s a smokescreen, however. Though Kavanaugh has steadfastly denied the allegation made by Christine Blasey Ford last week, as well as other allegations reported by New Yorker on Monday, other sources describe a prep school culture rippling with debauchery and drunken impropriety. And that’s the accounting from Kavanaugh’s close friend Mark Judge, who is accused by Ford of participating in her assault. Judge’s published works make it clear that the culture of Georgetown Prep was far from monastic in the 1980s.

Over the weekend, one of Mark Judge’s former girlfriends reported that he had “told her ashamedly” about an incident where he and several others took turns having sex with a drunk woman. His essays and autobiography are chock full of rapacious escapades.

This is not boys being boys. This is about a culture of privileged young men acting in predatory ways. This is about boundaries left unchecked.

Kavanaugh dismisses the allegations that he pinned Ford down at a party when they were teenagers in the 1980s as a smear campaign. Ford alleges that Kavanaugh and Judge were both “stumbling drunk” when they corralled her into a bedroom in a house in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland. She recalls the terror she felt when she said he placed his hand over her mouth.

“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” said Ford. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”

It’s been called a last-minute attempt by liberals to sideline Kavanaugh’s appointment, a dirty swipe at a distinguished jurist and devoted father. A writer for Fox News called it “drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven.” Donald Trump, Jr. likened it to a schoolyard crush. A group of Kavanaugh supporters even suggested it could be dismissed as innocent “horseplay.” (It’s worth remembering that “horseplay” is also how Jerry Sandusky described his sexual abuse of children.)

But evangelist Franklin Graham went a step further and called the accusations meaningless.

“It's just a shame,” Graham told Christian Broadcast News, “that a person like Judge Kavanaugh who has a stellar record -- that somebody can bring something up that he did as a teenager close to 40 years ago. That's not relevant.”

In other words, the judge may have done something wild and monstrous, but his youthful indiscretions may still better than appointing a person who might not pass a political litmus test.

Three fifteen-year old girls in Idaho see things differently. They’re taking the hyperbole “boys will be boys” seriously, and posted a letter on the Internet in support of Ford. They described how they could imagine themselves in the same situation:

Being fifteen should never be traumatic. Fun for boys should never include exploiting girls. When you are fifteen you should be worried about physics classes, not whether or not you are going to be sexually assaulted.  

Now is a courageous time and a brave time, too, to finally let your voice be heard. Telling your truth will get us one step closer to the world we want to live into; one where seventeen-year-old boys are taught that it is not ok to exploit girls and that fifteen-year-old girls know their bodies are their own.

The girls understand that hiding behind antiquated aphorisms are no longer relevant. Instead of normalizing abuse by deeming it developmentally appropriate, the girls are leading the way to a world shaped by kingdom ideals. But our failure to heed their concerns signals our retreat from listening faithfully to Jesus’ call to rigorous discipleship.

Two years ago, Anneke Elyse Jong reflected on the persistent retelling of the “boys will be boys” myth and how dismissive it has been to women:

But throughout my life, I’ve heard some version of “boys will be boys” used as our culture’s justification for everything from a little destruction of property to a presidential candidate describing the ease with which he can “grab a _____.”

Jong’s essay continues by pointing out other examples of hyperbole on steroids: Rush Limbaugh comparing the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to a “fraternity prank,” the comments of the father of the Stanford rapist describing his son’s actions as “20 minutes of action,” the president’s own descriptions of grabbing women as “locker room talk.”

Describing assault as horseplay and dismissing attempted rape as teenaged tomfoolery is misleading. Religious leaders like Graham and others might consider taking Jesus’ words less literally and a bit more seriously: it is indeed better to put a millstone around your neck than to simply say “boys will be boys.”

In the Scripture
With the mount of Transfiguration behind him and Jerusalem and the cross looming ahead, Jesus is focused on equipping the disciples for their mission. He may be despairing over their floundering attempts. He’s already scolded them for their inability to cast out demons (9:17). Next he encounters the disciples arguing over who is the greatest among them. After reminding them that service is the hallmark of the kingdom, Jesus is approached by John who seems to take pride in announcing that he’s squashed a would-be disciple.

Verses 38-41 reiterate the importance Jesus places on humble service. Jesus indicates that what is truly important to God is not signs of physical strength, or symbols of power. It’s humility, self-reflection and identifying with the weakest which matter.

Instead of stopping the unauthorized healer, Jesus praises the man’s ingenuity. He uses the situation to call the disciples attention to the difficulties of discipleship. He warns them that the true causes of sin are found in causing a little one to stumble. It’s an interesting literary contrast to the exaggerated, over the top hyperbole employed in verses 42-43. But it works as a way of reminding the reader that the vivid, harsh and extreme language is to be taken with seriousness -- if only by upholding the image that while sin is extreme, acts of humble service are relatively simple. Lamar Williamson’s advice still stands: “The surpassing value of entering the Kingdom of God makes every other good expendable.” (Williamson, Mark, p. 172.)

In other words, heeding God’s command is better than the most extreme signs of religious piety.

In the Sermon
Alyce McKenize wryly comments that it’s obvious no one is truly a biblical literalist. “Otherwise there would be a lot more people with one eye, one hand, or one foot.” She notes that the power of these verses lies in what scholar Robert Tannenhill called “focal instances.” The statements act like outlandish billboards on a highway, grabbing our attention by demanding that we take a second look.

By the time this Sunday rolls around, both Ford and Kavanaugh will have had their chance to testify before the Senate Judiciary committee. It’s possible that the Senate will have voted on his nomination. But there are issues of lasting importance raised both by these texts and the accusations against him. What grabs our attention in this Gospel lesson is not its judgment on any outlandish acts Kavanaugh may or may not have committed as a teenager. Instead, the text calls us to engage in thoughtful, consistent acts of discipleship.

The sermon arising out of this text could help us take these texts seriously. The standards Jesus proposes remind us of what is at stake. Our youth should hear that just as we don’t want them to hang millstones around their necks, neither do we accept degrading treatment of sexual partners as acceptable. Our young men need to know they are more than hormone-infused machines. Our young women need to know their stories and the truth they share will be honored. In a world of exaggerated over-statement, we need to hear and consider the understated, simple call of Christ to be better than that: “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose their reward.”

His words call the disciples to a life of reflection, service, and humility. Today that includes setting aside notions that “boys will be boys” in favor of doing deeds of power in the name of Christ.

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For Such a Time as This
by Tom Willadsen
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22 and Psalm 124

It is unfortunate that today’s Old Testament lesson is the only time an Esther reading appears in the three-year lectionary cycle. The verses selected from Esther do not begin to tell the story in all its richness and depth. Preachers may decide to use more of Esther, perhaps building a service around the Jewish festival of Purim, which falls in February or March.

Psalm 124 could have been written by Esther, or any people that had faced annihilation and survived, vv. 6-8:

Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the lord,
who made heaven and earth.

For those taking a deep dive into Esther, I offer the following:

In July of 2010 I attended the Presbyterian Youth Triennium at Purdue University. I went as part of a delegation of 16 from our Presbytery. More than 5,100 people attended. 

For a time I felt like I was vacationing in the 1980s. I turned 16 in 1980 and at Triennium I was surrounded by people aged 14 to 18 -- and they listen to the same music I listened to then! At one point I was walking across campus and heard a song that had been popular the year I graduated high school. I said to the teenager walking next to me, “I saw these guys live.” He said, “I totally wish I’d been alive in the ’80s.” and his friend pointed out, “Dude, they didn’t have ipods then!” I wanted to say, “Pass the Geritol.”

The theme for the week was “For Such a Time as This,” which comes from the Book of Esther. Esther is the answer to two Bible trivia questions: It’s one of two books named for women -- the other is Ruth; and it is the only book of the Bible that does not mention “God.” When I heard the theme I was curious as to how it would be used for a group of teenagers.

Esther is a good story for young people to know and study. Esther is a young woman who had been selected to be the queen of Persia by King Ahasuerus because of her great beauty. Esther is a Jew. Her uncle, Mordecai is an official with the government, who refuses to bow to King Ahasuerus, or the king’s right hand man, Haman. This enrages Haman, who persuades the king to issue an edict to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Mordecai is understandably scared by this and sends word to Esther for her to do something, but she is very afraid also. Approaching the king without being summoned is punishable by death. Mordecai says to Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.” It is a crisis point in the story, in Esther’s life and in the life of the Jewish people. And it’s a good story for young people to hear, and to recognize that it takes courage to stand up for what you believe in and sometimes people are called by faith to make great sacrifices.

Esther invites the king to a feast, and Haman comes with him. She cannot summon the courage to ask for the king to spare her people, but she does find the courage to invite him a second feast the next day.

Today’s reading starts at the second feast. At the second feast Esther exposes Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews in every province of the empire.

The story of Esther goes on to a very happy ending. The edict against the Jews is overturned and the gallows that Haman had constructed for Mordecai is used instead for Haman’s execution. (Later in the story, it adds that Haman’s sons were hanged with him.)

The modern Jewish festival of Purim is based on the Book of Esther. When the story is read every time “Haman” is mentioned the congregation hisses and boos, originally more than 700 years ago the custom started of writing “Haman” on two stones and smashing or rubbing them together until the words came off. Later people would write “Haman” on the soles of their shoes and stomp up and down whenever “Haman” was mentioned. Today, people have noisemakers that they use in response to hearing “Haman.”

Teenagers benefit from knowing the story of Esther. It takes courage to stand up for someone who is being picked on. It takes courage to walk away from your friends when you know they are doing something wrong. These are decisions that we are often called to make. And it is good to hear that admired characters from the Bible struggled to find courage. Jesus, the son of God, the one whom we call “Lord and Savior” prayed not to be crucified. It is hard and sometimes lonely to follow Jesus Christ. That is a message that young people need to hear, as do adults. And I believe it’s very, very good to help people see what choices they can make to live and express their faith in Christ. During the last worship service at Triennium, we prayed to be brave enough to show gentleness and kindness. Sometimes it is faithful and heroic to slow down and help someone stand after the school’s most notorious bully has tripped a smaller kid.

On the last full day of Triennium all 5,100 participants met with their small groups and built floats for a Purim parade. I am pretty sure this is the largest Purim parade ever held in July in Indiana. We made a lot of noise and acted very silly. We had a huge feast featuring hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, potato chips and hamanstachen.

Hamantaschen are triangular cookies with filling in the center. Tradition has it that Haman’s hats were shaped like this. I was stunned that none of the adolescent Presbyterians knew anything about Purim! (And where did the Triennium planners find a bakery that could turn out thousands of hamantaschen in Indiana in July?)

My group made paper versions of Haman. Other groups wore costumes they’d made or showed off their noise makers. As we walked Haman was sort of a kite, because he had a long string around his neck. When we got to the quad we hung our Haman from a tree. He was vain, he was mean and he got his -- we hoisted him on his own petard. Victory!

Right away I saw a chaperon for a different group, an African-American woman, a little older than I, who was in great pain. I understood right away. I took Haman out of the tree and apologized to this woman. Some of the members of my small group, teenagers I had spent the week with, kids I liked and respected, wanted me to put Haman back up.

And, to be honest, they hadn’t done anything wrong. And our Haman was completely faithful to the story we had studied, and, to us, an appropriate expression of good triumphing over evil. And, as a group of white young people, we simply had not seen the association between hanging Haman from a tree and the history of lynching that blues singer Billie Holliday described in her song “Strange Fruit.”

(I looked through a lot of images of lynching to find the one below. I have to say, it was a wrenching experience, and difficult to find an image that made my point without being too ghastly to show in a worship service.)

During the summer of 2016, there was a huge controversy over whether it was appropriate for the battle flag of the confederacy to fly on the grounds of the Capitol of South Carolina. Some argued it was a symbol of pride, some a symbol of defiance of which they were proud. Some argued that they have a right to free expression as Americans and if someone doesn’t like it -- look away.

And finally, at last, we also heard a voice of people long silenced, who said to them it was a symbol of oppression, pain and degradation. It’s the same symbol. And symbols are powerful because they can mean many, different things.

More than any argument about free expression, I was moved by seeing the pain of this woman in Indiana eight years ago. Perhaps our nation had an “Esther moment” in 2016 when we chose to feel and respond to the pain of our national history, and put the flag with the Confederate symbol in a museum.

I believe we need to have more, perhaps many more, Esther moments.

I’ve attached an image of the “Strange Fruit” hanging for lynching sites that Billie Holiday made famous.

Strange Fruit

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From team member Mary Austin:

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Just the Right Time
Esther is alerted to the plot again her people, and is placed into the life of the king, at just the right moment to make a difference. Judge Lloyd Zimmerman had a similar experience when the phone rang in his judicial chambers one day. Exhausted after a long day in court, and with people waiting in line outside his office, he had no interest in doing one more thing for anyone. But a hospice social worker was on the other end of the phone, trying to get an emergency wedding license for a dying man. As Judge Zimmerman writes, “The hospice social worker, Cheryl, explained the situation in a rush. She had tried 15 judges, and all were either in court or otherwise unavailable. By chance, she had reached me directly… Cheryl begged; she practically yanked my bleeding heart right out of my chest. She explained that she was a hospice social worker for Thomas, 77, who had recently been discharged from the medical center hospice unit so he could die at home. He was conscious and lucid but likely to die at any moment. He could no longer talk and communicated entirely though hand squeezes.”

Thomas’ last wish was to marry his longtime love, Donna. They had been together for over thirty years, and had talked about getting married, but never had. Judge Zimmerman recalls, “The wedding license bureau had told Cheryl that no one there had the power to issue an emergency license by phone, but maybe she could try to reach a judge. There were formalities: the five-day waiting period and an appearance in person at the wedding license bureau. There was no official procedure for an emergency deathbed-wedding license. When someone goes to the trouble of trying to contact 16 judges, there’s usually an important issue at stake. But I was a sorry excuse for a judge that day, and I was in no shape to do anyone a good deed.”

But, like Esther, Judge Zimmerman was placed in the path of people in need, at just the right time to make a difference. So, he says, “I performed this ceremony holding the phone, sitting at my mess of a desk, as the detective waited impatiently for his search warrant just outside my door.

“Do you, Thomas, take Donna to be your lawful wedded wife?”

The chaplain said, “He squeezed her finger ‘yes.’ ”

“Do you, Donna, take Thomas to be your lawful wedded husband?”


“Do you promise to love and care for each other, in good times and bad, in sickness and health, for better or worse, for as long as you both shall live?”


With their families looking on, I pronounced Thomas and Donna husband and wife. Invoking the power vested in me by the laws of Minnesota, I told them that after 38 years together they could now kiss each other, for the first time, as a married couple.

I was told they did.

And later that evening, Thomas died.

* * *

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Placed Here for Such a Time as This
In the Dallas area, four judges frustrated with the school to prison pipeline for teenagers decided to do something different. The four -- Judges Stephanie Mitchell Amber Givens-Davis, Lisa Green, and Shequitta Kelly -- are the founders a four-month-long youth mentoring program, Pipeline to Possibilities.

Each was frustrated with the revolving door of young offenders in and out of their courtrooms. But the 2016 documentary 13th, which explores racial inequality and the mass incarceration of Black people, inspired them to create a prevention program instead of addressing the problem in their courtrooms case by case. “Knowledge is power, and maybe if they knew more about the criminal justice system, they wouldn’t find themselves on that side of the bench,” Givens-Davis says. “Maybe they would be on the bench as a judge or an attorney in the courtroom or a probation officer or a sheriff’s officer.” The judges wanted to create a program that would help youth navigate the roadblocks they similarly faced growing up. For Judge Kelly, whose father was killed when she was young, those barriers were compounded. She grew up with limited resources, and her family struggled with a history of substance abuse. She eventually became a teen mother. “I got pregnant when I was a teen, and felt like a lot of people in society had turned their back on me,” Kelly says. “So, I decided long ago that whenever I get in the position where I can give back and help pave the way, I would do that.”

The program does more than expose teenagers to the criminal justice system, with the goal of keeping them out of it. “The judges discuss making healthy life choices and maintaining a positive image with the students. They bring in professionals to talk with them about their health, their appearance, and about appropriate social media behavior. Johnson says that session was her favorite because she watched many of her male friends learn how to tie a tie for the first time. The program ends with a college fair and celebration, which the judges call College Explosion.” The judges are determined to use their place and position to reach out to people who can benefit from their presence.

* * *

Mark 9:38-50
Thinking Together
Jesus’ disciples see other people doing what they do, and immediately see a division. Jesus sees beyond the separation to the shared work for God. Similarly, legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson is famous for taking talented individuals and getting them to work together as a team. Generally, a winning team. Jackson says, “When a player surrenders his self-interest for the greater good, his fullest gifts as an athlete are manifested. He's not trying to force a shot, or do something that's not in his repertoire of basketball moves, or impose his personality on the team. It's funny -- by playing within his natural abilities, he activates a higher potential beyond his abilities, a higher potential for the team. It changes things for everybody. All of a sudden, the rest of the team can react instinctively to what that player is doing. And it just kind of mushrooms out from there -- the whole begins to add up to more than the sum of its parts. We see this a lot in critical situations. When players are totally focused on the team goal, their efforts can create chain reactions. It's as if they become totally connected to one another, in sync with one another, like five fingers on one hand. When one finger moves, the rest of them all react to it.”

He says that an attitude of focus on the team matters as much as -- maybe more than -- simply talent. “The fact is, selflessness is the soul of teamwork. We have a practical rule in our game: when you stop the basketball, when it resides in your presence and you hold it for longer than two counts, you've destroyed our rhythm. When the ball is in your hands, you become the focal point. And when you become the focus, our system breaks down. It's that simple. Suddenly the defense can catch up, and the spacing is destroyed. So it's the unselfish players -- players who are more interested in reading what's happening and keeping the flow going on the floor -- who are the most valuable players that you have. They may only be averaging seven points a game, four points a game, or whatever, but their ability to play in a selfless manner gives the team its real opportunities. In those individuals, the power of we instead of me is more advanced…That's why teams that are less talented but more selfless and group-oriented can have more success.” He makes basketball sound like the Christian faith when he says, “Everybody needs help in this game. Everybody's going to get dunked on. We're all susceptible to falling down and being exposed. But when we lose our fear of that, and look to each other, then vulnerability turns into strength, and we can take responsibility for our place in the larger context of the team and embrace a vision in which the group imperative takes precedence over personal glory.” Just like following Jesus.

* * *

Mark 9:38-50
Those People
When Jesus’ disciples complain to him about the other people casting out demons, they see rivals. Jesus sees an unusual kind of community. Best selling author Philip Yancey says that this kind of enforced community with different groups of people is an essential part of faith. For that reason, he attends a small church instead of a large one. “Given a choice, I tend to hang out with folks like me: people who have college degrees, drink only Starbucks dark roast coffee, listen to classical music, and buy their cars based on epa gas mileage ratings. Yet, after a short while I get bored with people like me. Smaller groups (and smaller churches) force me to rub shoulders with everybody else. Henri Nouwen defines "community" as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives. Often we surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, thus forming a club or a clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community. The Christian church was the first institution in history to bring together on equal footing Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free. The apostle Paul waxed eloquent on this "mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God." By forming a community out of diverse members, Paul said, we have the opportunity to capture the attention of the world and even the supernatural world beyond (Eph. 3:9-10).”

He adds, “even all-white or all-black congregations are richly diverse. Church is the one place I visit that brings together generations: infants still held at their mothers' breasts, children who squirm and giggle at all the wrong times, responsible adults who know how to act appropriately at all times, and senior citizens who drift asleep if the preacher drones on too long.” Following the example of Jesus, our faith leads us onto common ground with a most unusual set of people.

From team member Dean Feldmeyer:

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Who Was Deep Throat? (Speaking Out)
The scene is a dark, damp, cold parking garage in downtown Washington, D.C. Two intrepid reporters have agreed to meet a secret “source” there and, as they climb out of their car, they see a figure standing, half concealed, at the edge of the shadows, wearing a trench coat, a fedora low, over his eyes. He says he has information about corruption at the highest levels of government, information that could bring down the president of the United States. He goes by the code name, Deep Throat.

Deep Throat’s information would, in fact, prove true and bring down President Richard Nixon and nearly his entire Whitehouse staff in what would become known as the Watergate scandal.

Sound melodramatic? If it is, it’s only because sometimes truth is melodramatic.

Deep Throat was probably the most famous whistle blower in the history of our country but for 30 years his identity was kept secret by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters to whom he revealed his information.

Then, in 2005, Deep Throat answered the question a generation of Americans had guessed and speculated about for three decades: Deep Throat’s true identity was Mark Felt, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent and Associate Director, the Bureau's second-highest-ranking post, from May 1972 until his retirement from the FBI in June 1973. When Felt served as the anonymous informant, Deep Throat, he was the Associate Director of the FBI, the second highest ranking officer in the bureau.

* * *

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Historic Whistle Blowing (Speaking Out) 
We tend to think of the term “whistleblower” as a relatively new one, used to describe relatively new phenomena. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

The first American law to protect whistleblowers was enacted in 1777 in the midst of the Revolutionary War.

Midshipman Samuel Shaw, along with Third Lieutenant Richard Marven, were key figures in the passage of the first American whistleblower law passed by the Continental Congress. During the Revolutionary War, the two naval officers blew the whistle on the torturing of British POWs by Commodore Esek Hopkins, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy. The Continental Congress enacted the whistleblower protection law on July 30, 1778, by a unanimous vote. In addition, it declared that the United States would defend the two against a libel suit filed against them by Hopkins.

* * *

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
War is a Racket (Speaking Out)
Smedley Darlington Butler was a United States Marine Corps major general and the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. During his 34-year career as a Marine, he participated in military actions in the Philippines, China, in Central America and the Caribbean during the Banana Wars, and France in World War I.

By the end of his career, Butler had received 16 medals, five for heroism. He is one of 19 men to receive the Medal of Honor twice, one of three to be awarded both the Marine Corps Brevet Medal (along with Wendell Neville and David Porter) and the Medal of Honor, and the only Marine to be awarded the Brevet Medal and two Medals of Honor, all for separate actions.

So why have you never heard of him?

Well, in 1933, two years after his retirement from the marines, he came to a congressional committee and reported that a group of wealthy American industrialists had approached him about leading a military coup to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and install him as dictator. The individuals he named all denied the existence of a plot and the media ridiculed the allegations. Eventually, a final report by a special House of Representatives Committee confirmed much of Butler's testimony, but no action was taken and it was too late to repair much of the damage that his wealthy detractors managed to do to his reputation.

He became, however, a popular speaker and lecturer, traveling around the country and speaking against war profiteering, U.S. military adventurism, and what he viewed as nascent fascism in the United States.

In 1935, Butler wrote a book titled War Is a Racket, where he described and criticized the workings of the United States in its foreign actions and wars making him a popular activist, speaking at meetings organized by veterans, pacifists, and church groups in the 1930s.

Smedley Darlington Butler died of cancer in 1940 in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Two years later the United States Navy acknowledged his contributions to his country by naming a navy destroyer after him: The U.S.S. Butler.

Smedley Butler quote:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.” Smedley Darlington Butler “Common Sense”

* * *

Mark 9:38-50
The Making of an Artist (Self Examination)
Katsushika Hokusai was and is probably Japan’s most famous artist. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s summation of his biographical article says that he “embodied, in his long lifetime, the essence of the Ukiyo-e school of art during its final century of development. His stubborn genius also represents, in its 70 years of continuous artistic creation, the prototype of the single-minded artist, striving only to complete a given task. Moreover, Hokusai constitutes a figure who has, since the later 19th century, impressed Western artists, critics, and art lovers alike, more, possibly, than any other single Asian artist”

But Hokusai was not so impressed with himself. It is said that, on his deathbed, he summed up his professional career by saying: “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”

* * *

Mark 9:38-50
Too Self Critical? (Self-Examination)
The ability to be honestly self-critical is essential to success, but Psychology Today offers that one can be too self-critical. In fact, in their February 17, 2016 issue they offer “20 Signs That You are Too Self Critical.”

Here are a few:

You blame yourself for every negative situation.
You avoid taking risks.
You avoid expressing your own experience.
You compare yourself to other people…and always come up short.
Your achievements never seem like enough.
You don’t assert your needs or desires.
You can’t let go of your mistakes or failures.
You let “What if…” paralyze you.

For others, go to https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-neurochemical-self/201602/20-signs-you-are-too-self-critical

From team member Ron Love:

Boston had been under siege for nine months by the British and the commander of the colonial forces was journeying to Cambridge to break the impasse. Though three frontal assaults by the Red Coats were recently repelled at Breed’s Hill, mistakenly recorded as Bunker’s Hill, the coastal city still remained in possession of King George.

As the general journeyed north a lesser known yet more significant development occurred by legislative fiat, far surpassing the victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Both the New York and Massachusetts legislatures wrote congratulatory letters to General George Washington, addressing him as “His Excellency.” This became his official epithet throughout all the colonies for the remainder of the war. Less imposing than “His Majesty,” as one would approach a king, it still carried the hallmarks of European elitism. Semi-royal status was bestowed upon the designated sovereign of the American Revolutionary War.

The war was won, a constitution ratified, and it came the day before the inauguration and the issue arose: how was the new President of the United States to be summoned? Should the first president continue to be hailed as “His Excellency,” known for this throughout the war years? John Adams, the presiding officer over the senate and a man of great vanity, desired to keep with European formalities advocated, “His Highness.” Washington refused such high-mindedness as unfitting for a democratic state that purposely separated itself from royalty, settled for the more subdued “Mr. President.” It was a simple enough title, but he reasoned it would acquire dignity and respect.

“His Excellency.” “His Highness.” “Mr. President.” All three are titles with very distinct meanings and implications. Interchangeable they are not. If George Washington would have adhered to the advice of his vice-president the occupant of the Oval Office would be viewed much differently today, not only by the citizens of our own land but by foreign dignitaries.

* * *

Samuel Langhorn Clemons is better known to us by his pen name Mark Twain. Four years after his birth, in 1839, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a thriving port city. It was from this locale along the banks of the Mississippi River that Clemons became endured to the mighty river and the steamboats that traveled to and fro. At the age of 17 he left home for St. Louis to work as a newspaper reporter. However, the siren call of the river never parted from his ears, so pursuing his passion he secured his river pilot’s license 1858. With the outbreak of the Civil War river trade was no longer profitable and Clemons returned to his other ardor, writing.

In 1827 Clemons wrote a humorous travel story and elected to sign his name to the article as Mark Twain, the name under which he wrote thereafter. Mark Twain was adopted from a term frequently used and heard by riverboat captains. The minimum depth of the water needed for a boat to pass unobstructed was 12 feet, or two fathoms. “Twain” was slang for two. “Mark” referred that the depth had been measured. When the helmsman heard the cry “Mark Twain” he knew the river passage was safe for further navigation.

As many of us have read the books by Samuel Clemons we know the name on the cover page of Mark Twain is most appropriate. The books are equally as lighthearted as challenging, causing one to think and question preconceived notions. The writing style coupled with the story provides for easy passage from page to page.

* * *

With sanctimonious pride the token was boldly laid upon the table of our Lord. The candidate was indeed deemed worthy to receive the sacrament of forgiveness. Having been previously visited by the church elders with an accompanying inquisition into the worthiness of the patron’s soul, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper could be received at Seceder Church in Ireland. It was the annual observance of the service that focused on the solemnity of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Only the pure in heart were welcome to participate. The days previous were always approached by communicants with trepidation and fear. Who would want to be damned as ignoble, condemned to remain seated with the scourging eyes of the righteous are fixed upon the hideous ones.

Things changed in May of 1809 with one bold act of refutation. Alexander Campbell, a student at the University of Glasgow, placed his esteemed token on the altar before the clergy, arose and walked out, renouncing his allegiance to the Church of Scotland and all institutionalized religions.

In September of that year he arrived in America where he partnered with his father Thomas in Washington County, Pennsylvania, to establish a religious community absent of creeds and hierarchy. Each individual was granted the liberty to interpret the Bible as he/she best understood it. Their motto became, “Where the scriptures speak, we speak. Where the scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Their goal was to restore unity among the sects. “Let unity be our polar star,” became the mantra for a universal Christian community.

This began the early nineteenth-century “Restoration Movement” in America. One outcome of this endeavor was the establishment of the Disciples of Christ or Christian Church, derogatorily called Campbellites in one era. Like most denominations it has since lost the vision of the founders Thomas and Alexander Campbell, but be assured that one need not approach the altar of Christ this day with a token in hand. In the spirit that blest the original adherents, let us always adulate its pioneering principle: “Christians only, but not the only Christians.”

* * *

Eat your cornflakes! And praise the Lord for this is truly the breakfast of champions!

William Miller (1782-1849) was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher from Low Hampton, New York. A biblical literalist, his study of the scriptures in 1818 concluded that the “2,300 day prophecy” of Daniel (8:14) ought to be interpreted as “years.” Using a finely tuned self-conceived mathematical formula he calculated Christ would return on October 22, 1843. Miller, along with his followers, expecting the immediate advent of the Lord became known as “Adventists,” jokingly referred to by others as “Millerites.” Jesus, failing to appear at the appointed hour, constituted what became known as the “Great Disappointment.” Undeterred, Miller revised his numbers proclaiming the date to be March 1844, and when that month came and went he set forth October 1844, equally to no avail. Understandably, his disheartened flock drifted away and Miller withdrew from the Baptist fellowship.

The movement would have ended except there was another willing to pick up the mantle where Miller had disappointedly dropped it. The Adventist psychic was Ellen Gould White (1827-1915). The lady from Maine was converted to Miller’s views at a revival in 1842. Engulfed by the Holy Spirit she had thousands of visions and ecstatic transports, all of which she recoded. At the time of her death her stream of mystical revelations filled eighty volumes.

White was content that Miller’s calculations were accurate, but Jesus chose not to abide because Christians failed to keep the Ten Commandments, especially the fourth, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) Further, she admonished Adventists for not properly preparing themselves for the return of the Lord, which included the avoidance of drugs for medical treatment, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, and for not adhering to a vegetarian lifestyle.

Relocating to Battle Creek, Michigan, she became a friend and admirer of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who in turn became a disciple. Under his direction came forth the manifesto that his cornflakes were the most nutritious vegetarian health food Adventists could consume. Kellogg’s Cornflakes became the staple in all Adventists diets.

In obedience to the Law of Moses to sanctimoniously observe the fourth commandment, and by the ruling of White, Adventists worshiped on the biblical day of rest, Saturday, the seventh and last day of the week. This gave a name to their sect, the “Seventh-Day Adventists.”

* * *

The Hebrews were prohibited from speaking the name of God, which was YHWH. Ascriptions substituting for this were usually preceded with “El,” the generic name for “God” or “deity.” This accumulated a host of names that could be uttered: “El Shaddai” meaning “God Almighty”; “El Olam” meaning “God the Everlasting”; “El Bethel” meaning “God Revealed”; “El Roi” meaning “God Who Sees Me”; “El Berith” meaning “God of the Covenant”; “El Eloche-Israel” meaning “the God of Israel.”      

Those who are familiar with Amy Grant’s song “El Shaddai” have already been introduced to this. The opening lyrics read:
El shaddai, el shaddai,
El-elyon na adonia,
Age to age you’re still the same,
By the power of the name.
El shaddai, el shaddai,
Erkamka na adonai,
We will praise and lift you high,
El shaddai.

* * *

Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, as “a paradigm of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen.” He told John Adams, the first vice-president of the United States, that he was rescuing the Philosophy of Jesus and the “pure principles which he taught,” from the “artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms as instruments of riches and power for themselves.” After having selected from the evangelists “the very words only of Jesus,” he believed “there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

* * *

In Rockefeller Center across Faith Avenue from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan is a two-ton statue of Atlas, cast in 1936 by Lee Lawrie and Rene Chambellan, balancing the world on his shoulders. Breathless, sweat beaded brow, strained tendons, muscles taut from the burden, he unbearably bears the grievances of the world. A relentless burden from which he will never be relieved. He does this in punishment from for defying Zeus, the king of the Greek gods and the ruler of Mount Olympus.

Inside the cathedral is a statue of Jesus. As you enter, it is the first statue along the left side of the sanctuary. It is titled, “Infant Jesus of Prague.” The original eighteen-inch statue was commissioned by Princess Polyxenea von Lobkowitz to Our Lady of Victory Church in Prague in 1628. The statue was donated to the New York City cathedral in 1950. It is a child, effortlessly holding the globe in his left hand. In the simplicity of faith he effortlessly sustains the trespasses of the world. His right hand, as so often depicted in art, has his fingers spelling the name of Jesus Christ using the first two Greek letters of his name.

With faith we can emulate the child and remove ourselves from the burden of Atlas.

* * *

Adam and Eve were deported from the Garden and denied access to the Tree of Life. Forever banished, absent of any expectation of life eternal. It would have ended there, but the sentence was unfinished in Genesis until the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, when the question mark is transposed to an exclamation point. John the Seer reports in the Book of Revelation that if we have put on the white robe of martyrdom, literally or figuratively, the pathway into the garden will once again be ours to traverse. “The Unfinished Sentence,” as this theological treatise between Genesis and Revelation is referenced, knows completion when the Savior pontificates over creation, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” (Rev 22:14)

* * *

In 1946 a California lawyer needed a change in life. His practice was mediocre and the cases routine. An ambitious man, he knew there was something more invigorating he could do with his hard earned and costly law degree. One morning searching the Whittier newspaper he read this ad: “Wanted: Congressional candidate with no previous political experience to defeat a man who has represented the district in the House for 10 years. Any young man resident of the district, preferably a veteran, fair education, may apply for job.” Richard Milhous Nixon answered the inquiry, launching his political career all the way to the White House.

* * *

Frederick Douglas approached the front door of the White House seeking admission into the Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball. Just as Douglas was about to knock on the door two policemen seized him as an uninvited guest, barred by the color of his skin. A large and powerful man, Douglas brushed aside the constables and stepped through the doors into the great and majestic foyer of the most publicized house in the world. Shouting racial maledictions, officers within grabbed the abolitionist, dragging him across the polished floor to the street beneath. He hollered in dismay, “Just say to Mr. Lincoln that Fred Douglas is at the door.” Confusion ensued that did not go unnoticed by the celebrant of the hour. Intervening, the President announced in a distinguishable voice audible to all in the Great Hall, “Here comes my friend Douglas.”

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by George Reed

Call to Worship:
Leader: If it had not been that God was on our side
People: Then we would all have perished.
Leader: Blessed be our God who has sustained our lives.
People: We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers.
Leader: Our help is in the name of our God.
People: Our helper is the one who made heaven and earth.


Leader: We are called to take a look our ourselves.
People: With fear and trepidation we consider that task.
Leader: Sometimes is seems easier to just lop off our past.
People: But we will look at who we are who we have been.
Leader: We are invited to do this for the healing of ourselves and others.
People: With God’s help we will begin the task.

Hymns and Songs:
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty
UMH: 64/65
H82: 362
PH: 138
AAHH: 329
NCH: 277
CH: 4
LBW: 165
ELA: 413
W&P: 136
AMEC: 25
STLT: 26
Renew: 204

Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
UMH: 127
H82: 690
PH: 281
AAHH: 138/139/140
NNBH: 232
NCH: 18/19
CH: 622
LBW: 343
ELA: 618
W&P: 501
AMEC: 52/53/65 

All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
UMH: 154/155
H82: 450/451
PH: 142/143
AAHH: 292/293/294
NNBH: 3/5
NCH: 304
CH: 912
LBW: 328/329
ELA: 634
W&P: 100/106
AMEC: 4/5/6
Renew: 45

Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive
UMH: 390
H82: 674
PH: 347
LBW: 307
ELA: 605
W&P: 380
Renew: 184

Take Time to Be Holy
UMH: 395
NNBH: 306         
CH: 572
W&P: 483
AMEC: 286

Take My Life, and Let It Be
UMH: 399
H82: 707
PH: 391
NNBH: 213
NCH: 448
CH: 609
LBW: 406
ELA: 583/685
W&P: 466
AMEC: 292
Renew: 150

Open My Eyes, That I May See
UMH: 454
PH: 324
NNBH: 218
CH: 586
W&P: 480
AMEC: 285

More Love to Thee, O Christ
UMH: 453
PH: 359
AAHH: 575
NNBH: 214
NCH: 456
CH: 527
AMEC: 460

I Want a Principle Within (Although only in the UMH this is right on target)
UMH: 410

Humble Yourself in the Sight of the Lord
CCB: 72
Renew: 188

You Are Mine
CCB 58  

Music Resources Key:
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal
H82: The Hymnal 1982
PH: Presbyterian Hymnal
AAHH: African American Heritage Hymnal
NNBH: The New National Baptist Hymnal
NCH: The New Century Hymnal
CH: Chalice Hymnal
LBW: Lutheran Book of Worship
ELA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
W&P: Worship & Praise
AMEC: African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal
STLT: Singing the Living Tradition
CCB: Cokesbury Chorus Book
Renew: Renew! Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship

Prayer for the Day/Collect
O God who is self-knowledge:
Grant us the grace to use our reflective abilities
to take a clear eyed look at ourselves
and allow your grace to lead us to change;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.


We praise you, O God, because you are the one who knows yourself totally. As you created us in your image, help us to know ourselves and to take on the difficult task of change. Amen.

Prayer of Confession
Leader: Let us confess to God and before one another our sins and especially our lack of courage and self-reflection.

People: We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. Too often we fail to speak up when we are aware of things that need to be faced. We allow wrongs to go unaddressed. Even in ourselves, we fail to take a serious look at ourselves so that we can change. Open our eyes to the evils around us and in us. Give us the courage to face both in the faith that you are calling the world and us to be healed. Amen.

Leader: God seeks healing for all creation. Receive God’s grace and courage so that you can heal and be healed.

Prayers of the People
We adore you, O God, because you are the God of love. In your grace you seek the healing of all creation.

(The following paragraph may be used if a separate prayer of confession has not been used.)

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. Too often we fail to speak up when we are aware of things that need to be faced. We allow wrongs to go unaddressed. Even in ourselves, we fail to take a serious look at ourselves so that we can change. Open our eyes to the evils around us and in us. Give us the courage to face both in the faith that you are calling the world and us to be healed.

We thank you for the gift of self-reflection and for the freedom to change even when fail to use our gifts. We thank you for the healing that you offer us. We thank you for those who have taken a courageous stand against evil so that our lives are better.

(Other thanksgivings may be offered.)

We pray for all your children, everywhere. We pray for those who find evil oppressing them and need to the courage to speak up. We pray for all of us who need the courage to take a look deep within and confront the evils there.

(Other intercessions may be offered.)

All these things we ask in the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together saying:

Our Father....Amen.

(Or if the Our Father is not used at this point in the service)

All this we ask in the Name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity. Amen.

Children’s Sermon Starter
Talk to the children about how much courage it took for Queen Esther to speak up. Even though she was a queen, she had no right to speak unless the king allowed it. She was courageous and spoke anyway. It is difficult sometimes for us to speak up, say if someone is bullying us, but God gave us courage to do such things.

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Trusting Prayer
by Bethany Peerbolte
James 5:13-20 and Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

Movies today use the magical wish to get out of danger and to fix a multitude of problems. For kids, prayer may seem like a magical wish we make to God and poof it’s here. When prayers go unanswered or our problems aren’t solved as quickly as we would like our feelings get hurt. We wonder if God is really listening. The story of Esther can show praying also means trusting that God will answer in the best way. It may not be our way, and God may say no, but that doesn’t mean God loves us any less.


Who knows what this is? (allow the kids to answer) Yes this is a phone. What can I do on my phone? (allow the kids to answer. They may say something like listen to music, call/text someone, play games, etc). There are lots of things phones theses days can do, but what is the main purpose of a phone? (allow kids to answer). Phones are made to call someone and talk to them. Can we call God on the phone? (allow for answers, if a kids says yes ask them if they have God’s phone number). We can’t really call God on the phone but there is a way we can talk to God. Does anyone know what we call talking to God? (Allow of answers). Yes we pray to talk to God. The Bible tells us God is always ready to hear our prayers. That means anytime we want to talk to God we can and we know God is listening. How many of you have called someone and they were busy and could not answer the phone? (allow for hands raised) It’s frustrating and sad when we want to talk but the other person is busy. God is never too busy to hear us and that’s great!

What kind of things do we pray for? (Allow for answers). Those are all great things to pray about. In our story from Esther today there were lots of people praying. They were scared someone was going to hurt the people they loved and so they prayed for God to help. As they prayed, though, they felt like things were getting worse and worse and that maybe God wasn’t listening. Raise your hand if you ever prayed for something and felt like God wasn’t listening, or that God said no? (allow for hands raised) The people who were praying were getting mad and sad that God wasn’t answering their prayers. Even though they were mad and sad they kept praying and eventually God inspired Queen Esther to get help from the King, and the King helped! Their prayers were answered!

This story has a happy ending but sometimes God does say no to our prayers and they don’t get answered. It can hurt to not know why God said know no. When we feel this way, the Bible says we should keep praying and trust that God knows what we need. Trusting God can be hard but if we practice trusting God we will get better and better at it. God wants what is best for us and will always be there to help in the best way, even if that way isn’t the way we expected. Let’s pray for help trusting God this week.

Loving God, we pray for all kinds of things. We know some of those things are not what you want for us. Help us to keep trusting you even if you say no or ask us to wait. Help our trust grow this week and inspire us to keep praying. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Immediate Word, September 30, 2018, issue.

Copyright 2018 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to The Immediate Word service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons and in worship and classroom settings only. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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