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September 2012 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"The Power of Words" — September 2
"Dancing in the Desert"
— September 9
"Not What We Expected"
— September 16
"Joy, Fully Serving" — September 23
"For Such A Time As This" — September 30

“The Power of Words”
September 2, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

James 1: 17-27

Have you ever been caught in the middle of a natural disaster? I’m talking about disasters more serious than hailstones, flooded basements, and power outages. If you’ve contended with the forces of nature, then you know the meaning of the word, “power.”

On August 23 of last year, people in the Lehigh Valley felt the earthquake in central Virginia. It was a 5.8 on the Richter scale. No one was killed and the damage around the quake was minimal. I was out of town and missed it, and was disappointed, I must admit. John and I have been evacuated from burning hotels in the middle of the night –once in the late sixties and once in 1999. Both fires happened when we were on summer vacations. In May, John and I were rescued from a boat in the harbor on the island of Santorini, during a storm. Nothing like getting away from home for a little peace and quiet!

We all know how powerful faith can be, even if it rarely makes the evening news. Jesus once told His disciples that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains and pull up trees by the roots. Christian witness can be as powerful as an earthquake. Our words and our Christian faith are strongly connected. We must never forget that self-control and willingness to listen are important. That’s the message of our second reading from the letter of James.

Humanitarian Helen Keller was born blind and deaf. When she was a helpless little girl, not knowing how to communicate with the rest of the world, she discovered the power of words. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, recorded those moments in Helen’s life, in her memoirs: “This morning, while Helen was washing, she wanted to know the name for water…I spelled w-a-t-e-r in the palm of her hand, and thought no more about it until after breakfast. Then it occurred to me that with the help of this new word I might succeed. We went into the pump house and I made Helen hold her mug under the pump while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth filling the mug, I spelled w-a-t-e-r in Helen's free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled ‘water' into my hand several times. Then she dropped to the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and trellis and suddenly she asked for my name. I spelled ‘teacher'…. All the way back to the house she was excited and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours, she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary.”   You may remember Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft performing that scene in “The Miracle Worker.”

Words stir us up and empower us, and, pretty often, they hurt us, too. The campaign advertising I’ve heard on the radio this week has made me want to hibernate until November 7. Do you remember the saying we were taught as children? “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I never said those words when I was a child because I knew, from personal experience, that they weren’t true. Most of us have been called names or had rumors spread about us. Words can’t harm us physically, but they hurt us more than sticks or stones. Our bodies usually heal from being hit with a stick or even a stone. The pain of being hurt by another person’s words can last a lifetime.

I’ve been on the other side, too—complaining about another person when he or she isn’t around, and even making fun of him or her. James, who may or may not have been the brother of Jesus, wrote this letter to early Christians who were going through persecution. He warns us, in the third chapter of his letter, that our tongues were created to praise God. We should never intentionally harm others with words, but most of us have done it many times by speaking our minds without thinking.

Words can harm through gossip, too. False rumors can do great damage. There’s no way to take back a juicy story after it’s been passed along to others—no matter how guilty we feel after we have spoken. The harm of gossip doesn’t stop, once it has begun. James says religion is worthless if we don’t “bridle our tongues.”

Gentle, caring words have the power to heal. We find this sentence in the book of Proverbs. It has appeared under many senior photos in high school yearbooks: “A soft answer turns away wrath.” Think about the words, “I love you.” If spoken at the right moment, they can help us to forget our problems. When I’ve had a bad day, and someone thanks me for a hospital visit or a sermon, it encourages me to go on helping people and writing sermons.

James reminds us that it isn’t just the speaking and hearing of words that are important. When we hear and live the Word of God, we are dealing with God’s mighty power to recreate the world. We, as Christians, are called to listen carefully and patiently to others. Jesus didn’t just tell His followers to reach out to the poor and the sick, but He did it, and He called others to follow His lead.

Jesus spoke God’s righteousness, so His words weren’t always “nice.” He was slow to act when He was angry, but knew how to express that anger. You know what He said to the money changers in the temple. We see Jesus getting angry pretty often in the gospel of Matthew. Although He agreed with the teachings of the Pharisees, Jesus had a problem with the way they were living out their faith. He thought they were too judgmental about the law, and that they were hypocrites. He told the crowds, “Do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

According to James, the Christian life requires a kindness of spirit that is “quick to listen” and “slow to anger.” Words have the power to shake the world. Electronic media, like the Internet, make them even more powerful. James calls us to be not only hearers of the Word, but doers of the Word too. Showing Christian love by being present for those we love, is even more important than speaking our love. One day a father went to visit his son's preschool. It was the annual “Dad’s Day.” But when he got to the classroom, he noticed that only a handful of fathers had come. Later that morning, all the children were sitting on the floor in a circle. The teacher asked the children to tell the group something special about their fathers. One little boy said, “My daddy is a lawyer. He makes a lot of money and we live in a big house." Another child said, "My father is smart. He teaches at the college." Finally it was time for this little boy to speak about his dad. The boy looked up at his father, then he looked around the circle of his friends, and then he smiled and proudly said, "My dad is here!"

In this election season we’ve heard many harsh words spoken. Remember the power of Christian love and action in this stressful time. A columnist for the Washington Post once wrote, “Civilization is a fragile idea, bound together by little more than a wisp of mutual consent.” These days, I find myself longing for that little wisp. James shows us how to live civilized lives, by following Jesus Christ.

Let us pray. Lord, speak your words to our hearts. Command what you will and then work within the grace of obedience, enabling us in faith to carry out your Word. Amen.

“Dancing in the Desert”
September 9, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Isaiah 35: 4-7a

Years ago, Walt Disney made a movie called “The Living Desert.” I was seven years old when I saw that film. I was from the Adirondacks, and I had never seen the desert except in black and white on the television show, “Gunsmoke.” In the Disney movie, the sand dunes looked yellow and dry at first. Later in the film, the sky turned dark. There was thunder and lightning. Then the rain began. First one drop, then bucketfuls of rain fell on the sand. Seeds, buried for years in the sand, sprouted up. Little green plants began to appear. The images in the film moved faster, as the camera speeded up the growth of the plants. In minutes, the dunes had become a garden. Buds blossomed into beautiful flowers that burst open in red and yellow and orange. It was magical.

The prophet Isaiah wrote the poetry that Donna just read, a full six hundred years before the birth of Christ. His words gave God’s people hope in a foreign land. Isn’t this poem wonderful? It’s vaguely familiar to most of us, for a couple of reasons. In the Lectionary, this reading from Isaiah comes up again, late in Advent, where it gets lost among the gospel passages. In Handel’s Messiah it’s part of an alto solo.

In the Old Testament, the desert is a symbol for death. The people of Jerusalem felt spiritually dead, after the mighty empire of Babylon had conquered their tiny nation. The army of Nebuchadnezzar had burned the temple down and flattened the city around it. Each family had lost at least one loved one in the war. The conquerors had spread salt all over the farmlands of Judah to make them infertile. They had dragged the survivors across the desert to work as slaves in their capital city. At the time when Isaiah wrote these words about the blooming desert, a wilderness of a thousand miles separated the Israelites from their homeland. Their devastation was dreadful. They had every reason to believe that God had abandoned them. They needed good news badly.

Isaiah proclaimed, in those dark days, that his people would be saved. In verses five and six, he proclaimed that the eyes of the blind would be opened, and that the ears of the deaf would be unstopped. God would bring the exiles home. The wilderness around them would become a garden, he wrote. Plants on the sand dunes would burst into bloom. All wild animals would be tamed. No one would be lame or speechless, ever again. God would cut a highway through the desert and lead his people safely back to Jerusalem.

It’s beautiful poetry, but is it only wishful thinking? A man from Ethiopia in my graduating class in seminary, told me about how hard ministry had been for him in his homeland, in northeast Africa. I remember him saying, “There is no dancing in the desert.”

You may feel that you are living in a barren desert. Sometimes my African friend felt that way, and sometimes I do, too. We live, every day, with fear and anger and loss. Some of us have suffered layoffs. We see gas prices rising higher and higher. When our brothers and sisters are diagnosed with chronic illnesses, we feel sad and helpless. We read about children in school buses and families in movie theaters, getting shot at. We are frightened and depressed when the news is all bad, but we can’t afford to feel defeated. As the church, it’s our job to tell the world of God’s love. When you feel like a lonely voice in the wilderness, read the good news! Believe in Isaiah’s words. They are God’s promises of healing. Isaiah’s vision came true in twenty years, when the Persian army conquered the city of Babylon and set the slaves free. In 538 BCE, King Cyrus of Persia released the Israelites and sent them home. They rebuilt the Jerusalem temple. And they began to live again.

The Bible shows us the new heaven and the new earth, over and over again. Ezekiel and Daniel predict joy and peace, and the gospels and the book of Revelation bring us the same message. The greatest good news of all came when God sent Christ to empower the lame, the blind and the speechless. At the first coming of Jesus, new life sprang up everywhere. He will come again and when He returns, all things will be made new.

Our exile seems never to end. Finding good news is like finding an oasis in the desert. The front page of the Morning Call shows so little joy and so much suffering. We’d like to be on top of the world, but we feel like the world is on top of us. Here’s an idea for everybody this week: Reread Isaiah’s prophecy, enlarge it on your computer, print it out on red paper, and tape it to the dashboard of your car this week. Listen to his words again, and feel the Holy Spirit refreshing you. Here’s Isaiah’s good news:

“4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.” (Isaiah 35:4-7a).

There are suffering people among our families and our co-workers, and several in our church family. Our hope is in God, and in Jesus Christ, who came to save us. Salvation is ours; we don’t need to earn it.

The church has a challenging mission: to help to bring God’s kingdom to earth through faith and love. We can help to do that by supporting the wonders of modern medicine. God brings us hope in ordinary ways—for example, through the skill of physicians and medical researchers. Our church is supporting and publicizing a wonderful concert at 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 7, “Music to Light the Night,” It will feature a son of our church, Dan Kramlich. Dan will donate his talents on the grand piano, along with those of a colleague. Their music will raise funds to research the causes of leukemia and lymphoma. Although there won’t be any dancing there, we will hear a wonderful soprano, Sandy’s cousin Karen Cocca, singing.

Sometimes, God comes in ways we can’t imagine—even in our dreams. He helps us discover gifts we never knew we had. Pay attention to the signs that Jesus is with you, during the week to come. The joy of a blossoming desert, the joy of homecoming, and the joy of healing— one day, they will be ours forever. Thanks be to God!

Almighty God, you made the universe out of nothing. We thank you for color and dancing and music. We know there is nothing you can’t do. Clear a way for us in the wilderness, as you did for the Israelites so long ago. Bring your healing to the people who suffer around us. Thank you for giving us your Son whose good news will cause us to dance in the desert. AMEN

“Not What We Expected”
September 16, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 8: 27-38

In America, people are discouraged from being followers. Following the crowd is supposed to show lack of character. There are no awards given for being an outstanding community follower.  We are led to believe that followers are weak.  Nobody makes documentaries about the lives of great American followers.  And yet, every leader needs followers. 

In today’s gospel story, Jesus has made a name for Himself as a leader.  He's been healing people, casting out demons and raising the dead. He’s a celebrity. The crowds go wild for Him.  For three years, His disciples have seen miracle after miracle. Now the crowds are following Him all over the countryside.

The word, "disciples," simply means "students.” Now, after their three-year mission trip, Jesus wants to know if these men understand what He’s all about.  "Who do you say that I am?" He asks them. Who answers first?  Peter! He jumps in with both feet even before he knows how deep the water is. Peter speaks for all the other disciples.  "You are the Messiah," he responds. And he’s right.

But it’s possible to give the right answer and still not understand what it means.  Just a few verses later, Peter pulls Jesus aside to rebuke Him for all His suffering Savior talk.  "What kind of Messiah is that?" Peter demands. He wants the happy, popular Jesus, not the humble one.  Jesus cuts him off with harsh words: "Get behind me, Satan." 

Imagine Peter’s embarrassment, at being put in his place. Don’t you imagine he feels like a pebble, instead of a rock? Jesus has spoken some of the harshest words in the Bible, to this man He loves with all his heart. What does this tell us? The work of the kingdom of God is serious business. Here’s the lesson of today’s gospel reading: Everyone who is baptized into Christ has to learn to follow Him or to get out of the way.

Remember that Jesus began His ministry in the wilderness? Satan tempted Him three times, to see what kind of Messiah He really wanted to be.  Jesus hears Peter’s words and they take him back to that desert. He’s tempted once again by Satan—who offers Him a chance to rule the world and never feel pain. He resists. Then He tells the disciples and the crowd what kind of Messiah He is called to be: "If any want to become my followers," He says, "Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it." 

Even though Peter had gotten the job title of Messiah right, He was wrong about the Messiah’s job description. Following Jesus requires going where He goes and doing what He does.  Usually, when we say something or someone is "our cross to bear," we’re talking about a handicap, a chronic illness, or the cruelty of another person. Those things aren’t crosses. They are just burdens, terrible ones. We don’t take up the cross merely by accepting suffering.

What does the cross really mean to us? Once upon a time, a woman went into a big department store to buy a piece of jewelry. “I’d like a silver cross,” she said to the man behind the counter. The clerk looked down at the assortment of crosses there. He asked her, “Would you like a plain one, or one with a little man on it?” Nowadays, many people don’t know what crucifixion was, or what it meant. We wear crosses everywhere; we put them on our cars, and we even eat chocolate crosses at Easter.

For Peter, the cross is the symbol of suffering and shame. Jesus is telling him how to take up the cross. A person who bears a cross walks into danger, even death, in order to make life better for others. Hear the words of Jesus again. "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” How much are we willing to lose, in order to follow Christ?

Peter is trying to lead, and refusing to follow. We do that too. We want to be Jesus’ managers and lead Him. We’re happy to call Him the Messiah, but we would prefer to write His job description. We’d rather not follow Him, if it means we have to die. Our comfort comes first. Serving God comes second.

Since when are we supposed to fit Jesus into our lives, instead of fitting our lives into His? Whose agenda is more important, ours or God’s? Jesus doesn’t expect perfection. After all, Peter went from the head of the class to being the devil himself in just a moment.

Peter had a dream of what the Messiah ought to be. Can we let go of our dreams and follow Jesus as He actually was, and is? As church leaders, we think we know how to lead. A congregation may try to lead Jesus, rather than to follow Him. Christian congregations struggle to survive, in this economy and in our Godless society. Congregations are afraid of going under, so they focus on human things. They fear taking risks. I think I can guess what Jesus, and maybe the Apostle Paul, might tell us about that. The church, in every generation, has struggled to live from God’s point-of-view, and that isn’t easy. A church that focuses just on saving its own life will lose it. A strong church wants new members. But its focus is on the people it already has, and those in need, even if they can’t give anything back. It teaches compassion and caring. It is a center for Christian followership.

Losing our lives for the sake of the gospel may not mean death.  But it might mean martyrdom. We think of martyrs as people who literally die for the sake of the gospel.  "Martyr" is a Greek word that means "witness."  A martyr may not lose his life, literally, for Christ.  A witness tells the truth of what they have seen and heard of the will of God, no matter what the consequences.  Thirty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, when Mark wrote his gospel, being a Christian was madness. It might to get you executed. But you had to risk losing your life to witness to the teachings of Jesus.

Notice that this story takes place in Caesarea Phillippi, a city that worshipped the Roman Emperor as God, and had just built a temple to him. The civil religion honored its leader as Lord and Savior. People who didn’t pay tribute to the Emperor were put to death. We aren’t in that kind of danger. But our cultural values tempt us. We think like consumers. We have desires and we expect our faith to support them. We may want a big church where we can make business contacts; a church that doesn’t expect anything of us; a church where we can sit in the pews and not have to speak to anyone; a church that offers programs at all hours of the day.

People want to organize the church, and the world, around themselves. Our anxieties, our status, our time schedules, our need for control— they all hold us back from following our leader. Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” Will we follow Him to the place where He is going? The answer, and what happens next, is up to you and me.

Let us pray.  Gracious and loving God who came, in Jesus Christ, to give us abundant life as followers on the way of faith, fill us with the strength to take up our cross and follow Him, that we might have the abundance of true life you intend for us.  Through Christ our Lord, we pray.  Amen. 


“Joy, Fully Serving”
September 23, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 9:30-37

Not all Olympic competitors are top athletes. Paula Barila Bolopa was the women’s fifty-meter freestyle swimmer who represented Equatorial Guinea, in the Summer Olympics in Sydney twelve years ago. She had never even been in a fifty-meter swimming pool until she arrived to compete in Australia.

How did this woman qualify for the Olympics? She could barely swim across the pool. She had never stood on a starting block before the Olympics. In fact, Paula didn’t even own a swimsuit until she arrived in Sydney. The International Olympic Committee had invited her to participate. The IOC reaches out to athletes from developing nations who might not otherwise have a chance to compete.

Why would Paula travel so far from her home in West Africa, to swim in an event she had no chance of winning? It took her more than three times longer than it took the women’s freestyle gold medalist from Netherlands to finish the fifty-meter competition.

But sometimes it isn’t about winning. When Paula finished her heat in one minute and 3.97 seconds, the crowd gave her a deafening round of applause. “I got very tired at the end, but the crowd urged me on,” Paula confessed to an interviewer from Sports Illustrated.

Which, do you think, will carry you further in life, your awards and prizes, or your faith? Most of us watched the London Summer Olympics on television. The sports commentators constantly told us which athletes were leading in the medal standings. We Americans are proud of our athletes. We like to know that our teams are winning. There’s nothing wrong with national pride. But, our preoccupation with ranking teams and comparing athletes is huge. The "winning ethic" shapes our lives, whether or not we like to admit it.

It’s not just the sports world that promotes competition. The top presidential candidates are spending millions on advertising in order to win in November. You name it--- the top Ivy League colleges, the biggest party schools, the best towns to retire in, the states with the fattest and thinnest populations, and the most popular baby names, all get ranked in newspapers and magazines. The Morning Call polls its readers every year so they can print a booklet, listing the best dry cleaner, the best florist and the best sushi in the Lehigh Valley.

You may not think you care about rankings, but they affect your life much more than you realize. Televised sporting events, political party conventions, Facebook, and even the US News and World Report, all want you to express loyalty to the products you like, so you’ll buy from their advertisers.

Our gospel lesson takes place when Jesus and His disciples are walking through Galilee. He overhears His followers arguing about which one of them is the greatest, right after He’s revealed to them that He will be giving His life for their salvation. He has said—I will be betrayed. I will die. I will rise again! It seems pretty insensitive on their part to be jockeying for status, doesn’t it?

How does Jesus respond to their bickering? He doesn’t act shocked. He doesn’t sink to their level. He doesn’t tell them that it’s wrong to be ambitious. Instead of putting His friends down, He makes a surprising statement: “If you want to be first, then you must be last.” He saves the clincher for last: "You must be servant of all."

Imagine the expression on the disciples’ faces. They must feel ridiculous after making such a fuss over who is the greatest. But Jesus knows they still don’t understand what He is all about. To get His point across, Jesus holds a child in His arms and says, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me."

What does welcoming children have to do with being a humble servant? Children in Jesus’ time were the lowest of the low, unless they were born into royal families. The life of a child was miserable and dangerous. Sixty percent of children in Jesus’ time died before they reached the age of sixteen. Many of the children who survived, harvested crops or shepherded. If they didn’t have jobs, they stayed with the women and kept out of the way. Children were no better than slaves. They had to depend on adults to get their needs met.

When Jesus tells the disciples to "welcome" the children, He is actually telling them to care for the powerless. The Greek word means TO WELCOME, not TO ACCEPT or TO TOLERATE. This child that Jesus is holding, stands for all the poor people, slaves, lepers, foreigners, disabled people, and prisoners. He’s saying, “When you welcome a nobody, you welcome me.” For Jesus, to be first means to care for the people around us who have no power. His "winning ethic" shocks them. It shakes us up, too.

For Jesus, it’s a level playing field. For Him, everyone has value and worth. Jesus turns our understanding of winning and losing upside down.

His most important words in the Bible may be these: "If you want to achieve greatness as a disciple, you must be a servant of all." In the best sense of the word, Jesus was a public servant. He lived what He preached.

Do you remember Cassius Clay, now known as Muhammad Ali? He was THE champion boxer of the sixties. Somebody just bought one of his childhood homes in Louisville, KY for a million dollars to turn it into the Official Muhammad Ali Museum. Ali is a fascinating character. He grew up poor, in the slums, and he loved his fame. Remember how proud he was to boast, “I am The Greatest?” back in the late sixties? A sportswriter once asked him, “Do you mean that you are the greatest fighter or the greatest human being?” Ali replied, “I mean that I am the greatest boxer of all time.” The writer pressed him further. “Do you think that, fifty years from now, people will still say you were the greatest?” Ali responded, “Fifty years from now, everybody in this room will be dead. No one will remember what a great boxer I was. The only way I will not be forgotten is if I can do something to help and aid my people.” Ali is alive, and he’s suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. He’s been using his fame and fortune to help the poor people from his Louisville neighborhood.

This gospel passage is a tough one. But you’ve probably noticed that Jesus’ lessons in the Gospel of Mark are never easy. Jesus’ definition of winning is very different from that of the world of sports or politics. Winners bear a cross before they wear a crown. Winners serve before being served. Winners lose in order to gain. Winners would rather win together, than lose alone. Winners know how to move from the idea of me, me, me – to the idea of me and you.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, we were unprepared to receive you, as you came to us—so humble and lowly that you took the form of a servant. For us and our salvation, you came and reached out. Help us to love you, in some small measure, as you have so greatly loved us. AMEN

“For Such A Time As This”
September 30, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
Mark 9:38-50

How did you learn to swim? When you were little, did somebody teach you to float in a plastic wading pool? Or, did an older person challenge you to stay afloat in deeper water? I hated breathing in the chlorinated water, so I stuck to dog paddling at the shallow end. Finally I learned how to breathe out through my nose, and that did the trick for me. Most of my classmates were never afraid of water, but I was a nervous swimmer.

Can you imagine God as your lifeguard? I did then, and I do now. There are times when we paddle around at the deep end, hoping that God will rescue us before we “go under!” We hope He isn’t on dinner break or, Heaven forbid, on vacation.

Queen Esther was thrown into the deep end of the pool, so to speak. She had every reason to feel afraid, because she was in over her head. Esther is one of many women I admire in the Old Testament. Esther had it all. She was a beautiful, rich young queen. She could have lived her entire life in luxury without lifting a finger to help anyone. And yet, she found the courage to save the Jewish people of Persia from annihilation. Esther is the only book in the Bible that never mentions the name of God. Martin Luther didn’t like this book. A few centuries later, it was banned and burned in Nazi Germany. And soon you’ll know why.

Esther lived 475 years before Christ was born. The young queen was an orphan. She’d been raised by her religious uncle, Mordecai. Esther was Jewish, but she had never practiced her faith. The Emperor Xerxes of Persia, the most powerful man in the world, had chosen her for his wife in a beauty contest. (By the way, he’s the only character in the entire Bible whose name begins with “x.”)

The Persian court was a dangerous place, particularly for a young Jewish woman. The villain in her life was Haman, the chief advisor to the King. This wicked man wanted to kill all the Jews in the land of Persia. He didn’t know Queen Esther was Jewish, and neither did Xerxes. Haman was powerful at court. He slithered up to the King, and he said, “Dear King, I have discovered that a certain ethnic group thinks it’s above your royal laws. Permit me to help you by wiping them out.” The King wasn’t very smart, and he trusted Haman, so he ordered him to kill all the Jews without thinking twice.

Esther’s Uncle Mordecai worked in the King’s court. He heard what Haman was planning to do, and told the Jews. They were terrified! Mordecai begged Esther to help save her people, by pleading their cause with the King. “Maybe God put you here for this moment, for just such a time as this!” he told his niece.

Esther lay awake, worrying, for three nights. Approaching the king about this matter would be risky. To enter the throne room, when the king hadn’t invited you, was punishable by death—even for her. The King had to call you into his presence—if you just wandered in for a little chitchat, off with your head! (I guess Xerxes didn’t have too many interruptions on an average day.) Finally Esther agreed to talk her husband out of Haman’s plot. She knew she would need more than her own strength to pull this off. So she asked all the Jews to pray and fast with her, so that she might find the courage to plead for her people.

The next day, Esther entered the throne room uninvited. “Dear King,” she asked, “please grant me one favor.” “Name it!” the King answered. And so she asked, “Would you and Haman do me the honor of attending a private dinner in my chambers, which I will cook for you?”

The evil Haman happened to be there, listening. He was thrilled to be included in the royal couple’s dinner plans! Esther spent the whole next day, wondering what to tell the King. She was simply too afraid to bring it up, and never did. So the evening was just an elegant dinner party --- nothing more.

At the end of the evening, Esther invited the two men to dinner the next night. Would the King and Haman come? They agreed. The next night at the dinner table, the King was impatient to find out what was up with his wife. So he blurted out, “Esther, you are a great queen. Tell me what would make you happy!” It was now or never. Esther whispered, “There is an evil man who wants to kill me and my people!” The King was horrified, and demanded to know who the scoundrel was. Esther pointed to Haman, sitting next to her. The King had him executed, right then and there. That’s how Esther saved the Jews of Persia.

What Esther does in this story isn’t spectacular. She gets her husband to change his mind. Most good deeds God calls us to do, as people of faith, are not spectacular. Sometimes, we find ourselves in the right place at the right time, just like Esther did. Ordinary folks can accomplish amazing things. She prevented the first Jewish holocaust. To this day, the Jewish people celebrate the joyful holiday of Purim to honor Esther’s act of bravery.

God isn’t mentioned in the book of Esther, but I think God is really there all the time. Evil is defeated. Everything turns out right—except for Haman and his family. And Esther and her people pray together—and stay together.

Esther is brave. Later we see this quality in Jesus as a young man. He never set out to be a hero or a martyr. Willingly, Jesus disobeyed the powers of His day.

Today’s gospel story from Mark is not a sweet story of Jesus. A magician has been performing miracles all around Galilee, in Jesus’ name. The followers of Jesus are shocked and angry at this man. They disapprove of him. “We tried to stop him, because he wasn’t following us,” they complain to their leader. Jesus tells his friends to leave the man alone. Jesus is not gentle, meek, or mild when He warns these men that they will have to lead less self-centered lives. They will need to associate with people who aren’t like them.

Then Jesus predicts that God will “salt the disciples with fire.” In ancient times, salt was like money. Workers got paid in salt. Being a salty Christian, in the eyes of Jesus, means caring first for others and putting yourself last. Queen Esther, when she was only a teenager, was salty enough to challenge the King and his adviser. Jesus was salty when He caught the disciples using their power to exclude a newcomer. We are salty when stand up for somebody new to the faith, no matter how much our friends may object to that person. Jesus urges us, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Are you ready to be salt to the world?

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, strengthen us to be faithful disciples. Prepare us to be courageous, and to keep our wits about us, when we get thrown into the deep end of the pool. When the time comes to swim quickly and well, give us the strength and faith we too often forget you gave us. Because you sacrificed yourself to save us, inspire us to do the same for you in our ordinary lives. AMEN

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