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Sermon Illustrations for Proper 21 | Ordinary Time 26 (2021)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” In this reading from the Book of Esther, we enter the story after Mordecai has spoken his most important message to Esther about her placement in the kingdom for such a times as this, a time to protect the Jewish people.  Esther has been called to speak, to not remain silent. The memory of her actions, on behalf of her people, live on in all of us, all of us who are activists for the causes of justice in our days. High School valedictorian, Paxton Smith, this past June, determined that she could not speak silent. Whether or not we agree with her stance on the Texas restrictive law on abortion, we must admire her willingness to speak out about what touches her and something that matters to her. May we each and all speak out against the injustice we see.
Bonnie B.

* * *

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Esther was praised by the famed women’s rights champion Elizabeth Cady Stanton for “her unfaltering courage...” (The Woman’s Bible, p.92), though some feminists today critique Esther for submitting to the patriarchal system.  Either of these insights could have relevance for sermons on women and their role in church and society.   

Since the Esther story reports the origins of the Jewish festival of Purim, remarks about the festival and so concerning this text by two prominent Jewish leaders have relevance for Christians too.  Elie Wiesel observes that the lesson taught us that “in Jewish history there are no coincidences.”  We Gentiles can make that claim about history in general.  Noah Weinberg says the festival and the story remind us that “if you don’t know what you’re living for, you haven’t lived yet.”

Esther certainly used her common sense (which may be why she conformed to the patriarchal system) to get things done.  There is a long history in American Christianity of seeing such connections between the ways of God, a sense of why we are living, and common sense.  The only clergyman to sign The Declaration of Independence, the primary intellectual influence on James Madison, was a Presbyterian pastor named John Witherspoon.  He wrote:

... the truths of the everlasting gospel are agreeable to sound reason and founded upon the state of human nature...  (Works, Vol.4, p.47)

To this point, modern reformed theologian William Bouwsma adds:

A positive spiritual life means progress in realizing the purposes of human existence.  (Jill Raitt, ed., Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation, p.332)
Mark E.

* * *

James 5:13-20
I came across this anecdote that was too funny to not share. At the end of a revival service, the preacher invited people to come forward if they wanted someone to pray for them. About midway through the line of people stood an imposing, intimidating looking man. When the minister asked about his prayer request, the burly guy said, “Reverend, I need you to pray for my hearing.” The minister quickly placed his hands over the man’s ears and prayed fervently for restored hearing. When the minister finished praying, he looked the man squarely in the eyes and shouted above the choir’s strong singing, “How’s your hearing now?” The man loudly replied, “I don’t know yet, Preacher. My hearing isn’t until next Wednesday at the courthouse.”

Clearly, this is a misunderstanding. What can’t be misunderstood, though, is the power and importance of prayer. This passage makes it clear that prayer is “powerful and effective.” (vs. 16) Whether it be for sickness, suffering of thanks, prayer matters.  In his book Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, Philip Yancey writes, “History is a test of faith, and the correct response to that test is persistent prayer.”
Bill T.

* * *

James 5:13-20
This last chapter of James has the feel of the end of a phone call, when you try to blurt out a lot of things you wanted to remember before you hang up. What holds together the verses of this miscellany? Prayer? Faith? Wellness?

As one who has come to these verses every three years over the course of my ministry, I’ve had the chance to reflect on this. Some of my reflections are colored by the fact that my denomination practices the Ordinance of Anointing for Healing, based on these verses. As a side note, I’ll emphasize that from our beginnings we have seen this ordinance as something practiced alongside traditional medicine, based on the belief that God heals directly, even miraculously, but also heals through the agency of doctors, nurses, and others in the health care system.

But I’ve also come to believe that a crucial aspect of this section of the letter, and indeed, for the whole letter, is the notion that we are not solitary Christians, but a community of mutually dependent believers. So often we speak of being saved as something that happened to us alone, and that gives us a special status that sets us apart as individuals. Scripture talks about all of creation being raised, of all being punished, of all being restored. We’re all in this together.

Downcast, cheerful, or sick, we share this with others. Prayer is out loud, not silent. So is singing. And in calling for the elders we are not suffering in silence but sharing each other’s burdens.

More than one commentator I consulted emphasized that in asking us to call for the elders we are not saying that the power of prayer, the power of the Spirit in our community of faith, is invested just in the elders. The prayer of a righteous person, any righteous person, has power. As these verses point out, Elijah was a person just like us!

The act of prayer recognizes that it ain’t over till it’s over. Sickness can be healed. Wholeness restored. Wellness may not lead to a cure, but it brings peace. Let us recognize again that we are all connected. In these last verses we’re invited to remember that people can change. Just as the verses about anointing recognize that salvation, which in this context means wholeness as much as anything else, requires all of us. The tendency is to think our task is to pray about other people’s sins. It works both ways. People will be praying for you (me) because you (I) am also a sinner. Inviting other people to pray for you, in times of sickness, despondency, and with the presupposition that we have strayed, should be the default setting.
Frank R.

* * *

Mark 9:38-50
Jesus wants us to be good salt. To have salt in ourselves.  John Wesley offers a helpful insight on this point.  He thinks that the salt referred to in the lesson is “divine grace, which purifies the soul... and preserves it from corruption” (Commentary on the Bible, p.430).  We need that kind of salt or grace to live as God in Christ wants.  American Charismatic writer Joyce Meyer has another insight about what it means to live with this salt. She writes:   

The Bible says that Christians are the salt of the earth...   On the job, in the grocery store, even among unsaved friends and family members, God’s people are there to bring seasoning to unsavory situations.    

Baptist theologian John Piper has great advice on how we “salted Christians” can bring seasoning in bad situations.  He writes:

We don't enjoy salt. They enjoy what is salted.  We are the salt of the earth. We do not exist for ourselves.
Mark E.

* * *

Mark 9:38-50
Jesus proclaims to the disciples who have witnessed someone not from their community healing the sick, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In these days it is sometimes difficult to know who is for us and who is against us. The world seems to be challenged repeatedly by rhetoric, falsehoods, and hate-speech that masquerades as the fight for what is right. However, my friends, when hate is professed, when exclusion is called for, when violence or hate is promulgated, those are not actions for right, no matter the desired outcome. We are called to love our neighbors, not rail at them with violent speech. Whoever is not against us — whoever anchors themselves in the love of God and the love of neighbor — is for us. Let us remember to rest in the mercy, compassion, kindness, truthfulness, and love of God and share those with others.
Bonnie B.
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For Luke 1:68-79

(Distribute this sheet to the readers.)

Reader A:
Reader B:

(As the introit is being sung, Readers A and B come forward and stand by the Advent wreath until the music is finished.)

Reader A:
Please turn to the Advent litany in your bulletins.
(Pause as they do so.)
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we will be kept in perfect peace.

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