New Feature!
2009-09-23 by David Howell

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Esther and James
2009-09-23 by Rochelle Stackhouse

As I thought more about the call in James to gather with the community in prayer in time of need, I also remembered the Esther reading set for this Sunday.  The problem with reading just what the lectionary has set for Esther is that it makes absolutely no sense without the whole story, which we cannot assume everyone knows. So if I want to work with this passage, I need to at least do a quick summary of the story before the scripture reading.

So Esther has a considerable challenge ahead of her:  save her people from genocide, the scheduled Persian holocaust. After having protested her inadequacy to address this, she finally asks Mordecai to gather the people for fasting. And though God's name does not appear in this book, I think it is safe to say that in Jewish tradition from forever, fasting and prayer are connected, and so God is assumed. 

But what really stands out here is that Esther, though Queen of Persia, reaches out to her people and asks them to become one with her, albeit from a distance, in prayer and fasting, so that she might find the courage, the wisdom and the strength to do what needs to be done. She is a witness to the power of a community at prayer, even when that prayer is done at a distance from the one in need. 

So now I've traveled a bit far from my original idea about this sermon, but maybe not so far. What the disciples were trying to do in the Mark story is limiting God's power to a small in group of people, maybe the "elders." Jesus urges them not to limit the community which is at work in God's name doing "deeds of power." Esther understood this long before Jesus, and James after Jesus' death. So how do we understand this, or deny the power?

An Open Kingdom
2009-09-22 by Stephen Schuette

The words startle and shock.  Perhaps they were meant to, all this bloody business of cutting off hands and feet and gouging out eyes.  But it’s helpful to see that what comes before provides the context for what this really means.

Gehenna is the trash yard in Jerusalem.  It’s where a fire burns constantly to keep down the odor and worms devour.  (See the many references in your study Bible, but especially Jeremiah 7:30-34 where there are clear connections with how children are treated, linking it with the previous pericope.)  It has nothing to do with an after-life, but everything to do with the choice between fullness of life now or a living death now – linked with the immediacy of the Kingdom at hand and the choice that it requires.

But here’s the important context:  the cause of the stumbling is the disciples’ boundary-making exclusiveness.  It’s the way they (we) block others and bar them with our traditions that are of human origin.  The disciples keep wanting to make the relationships exclusive (and therefore special?) and Jesus keeps pushing the relationships open (and therefore makes them special!).  It is a precursor to the “abundant” life of John’s Gospel.  It doesn’t run out.  It doesn’t have to be preserved.  It has to be lived and shared and we need to be open to it because it’s not of our making.  It’s from God.

Could it be, then, that we tend to read this text through our tradition of Lenten sacrifice where we give something up as a discipline when rather this sacrificing of a part of ourselves is about a joyful liberation from anything that blinds, lames, or hinders us from the fullness of the relationships of God’s Reign?  And could it be, in fact, these verses suggest a radical or even joyful trust that Jesus who is the one who came to heal the blind, the lame, the maimed, will make us whole – that our wholeness comes not from preserving ourselves but in trusting him?  Is there more wholeness in this trust than in any bodily wholeness we can cling to?

Perhaps what Jesus is saying is directly anti-militant too.  To the disciples’ exclusiveness and order he is suggesting that any army which maintains such order with soldiers who march, handle weapons, and see enemies undo themselves!  This should be good news to unarmed followers of a non-militant Messiah, if they understand his message.

No question, it’s radical stuff.  But I want to suggest that the tone underlying the whole text is not onerous or hard or even meant to put-off.  This is not what the larger context suggests.  Instead this is a consistent message of freedom, liberation, and even joy in this different way of Jesus.

Our guest preaching blogger this week is
2009-09-22 by David Howell

The Rev. Dr. Rochelle A. Stackhouse. Shelly was born in Cleveland, Ohio the same summer as the United Church of Christ. Her academic degrees include a BA in English from Millersville State College (PA), a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from Drew University. Ordained in 1982, Shelly has served as settled pastor for UCC churches in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts. She has served as Interim Pastor for churches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As a professor of Worship and Preaching, she has been on the adjunct faculty at Lancaster, New Brunswick, Hartford and Moravian Seminaries and currently at Yale Divinity School. Shelly is the author of one book, The Language of the Psalms in Worship, and numerous articles and book chapters. Currently she serves as Pastor of Church of the Redeemer UCC in New Haven, Connecticut. Shelly is married to Dr. P. Gavin Ferriby, University Librarian at Sacred Heart University, and they are the parents of three children, Luke, Leah and Benjamin.

Mark or James?
2009-09-22 by Rochelle Stackhouse

I have been pretty clear since I planned my preaching schedule in August that I was going to work with the beginning of the Mark text this week, talking about the dangers of exclusivism in the Christian community. And I may still go there as I think it is a real issue that the church, even churches like mine who think they include everyone, has to face.

But then I read the James again and found myself stuck on verse 14.  I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with someone in my parish who was most distraught that a friend of hers "insisted on suffering in silence." Apparently this friend was going through a difficult time with a physical illness and family problems, and when my parishioner and others tried to reach out to her, she simply withdrew and insisted she was fine. How do you reach out to care for someone you know is hurting when they reject the caring? 

And why do so many people choose to suffer in silence, and alone?  Even, sometimes, members of churches! Not only in this little letter, but in Paul's writings, one of the gifts of the church continually lifted up is that in community we rejoice together and we hold each other in suffering, "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep" as Paul puts it. Yet it happens too often that we as clergy notice that someone has not been in worship for awhile and we find out they have had some kind of illness or other trouble and didn't feel they could come to worship and be with people:  even with the community that is supposed to be there for them in these times!

So I wonder if we as the church have not always done a good job of building the kinds of relationships of trust tha would make it okay for people to come to church to cry? 

Then I began to think about the fact that James indicates that the call to pray and care for the sick is not just for one pastor, but for "the elders." The use of this term in the New Testament is vague, sometimes seeming to refer to what we would call "clergy" (specifically bishops) and sometimes to leaders in the church. At any rate, in James it is in the plural. So now I'm thinking about how we might discuss what it means for us to be a caring community and not just have a "professional carer" in a paid pastor. 

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