This is the message that I gave on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 28 September 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY. The Scriptures for that Sunday were Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10; 9: 20; James 5: 13 – 20; and Mark 9: 38 – 50.
It sounds very simple but it is a puzzle with some interesting considerations.
A barber posts the following sign in his window, “I cut the hair of all those men in town, and only those men in town that do not cut their own hair.”
This is a paradox for if the barber cuts his own hair, then he belongs to that group of men who cut their own hair. But that is the one grouping of men whose hair the barber does not cut. If someone else cut’s the barber’s hair, then he does not cut his own hair and the sign says that he does. Either the sign is wrong or nobody, including the barber, can cut the barber’s hair.
This paradox, which we should not and will not spend a lot of time discussing, was developed by the mathematician Bertrand Russell and is related to set theory and logic. Much has been done with this problem, both in jest and serious study of what constitutes sets and groups. Paradoxes are those special problems that intrigue us by defying all logic and reason. There are many paradoxes in life but only because we try to apply logic in situations where logic is the one thing that cannot be applied.
It would seem that we are faced with a number of such paradoxes in today’s Gospel and Epistle readings. James says in the Epistle lesson for today, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” (James 5: 13) and the disciples are grumbling that others are saving people in the name of Jesus, which to them is a clear violation of the notion that only they, the chosen twelve, can do the work of Jesus.
But the problem is that when we limit ourselves or force our thinking from a limited viewpoint, we are never going to see the whole picture. The problem for the disciples, at least at this point in the Gospel story is that they have lost sight of the true kingdom and think only instead of their own power and territory. Like the early Israelites during the Exodus who reacted to the dangers of their journey with fear, the disciples have reacted with fear and jealousy to the notion that others can heal in Jesus’ name.
Remember that during the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were constantly complaining. At points along the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they complained about the lack of food and the lack of water. Each time God responded with the needed items. The transition from slavery to freedom was not the easy step they, the Israelites, felt it would be. They would have accepted the comforts of slavery rather than the nourishment of God; they would have traded their freedom for a few leeks and cucumbers.
Even Moses was getting upset with them. “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at one… and do not let me see my misery.”(Numbers 11: 15) And when God responds to Moses’ pleas and empowers others to assume the responsibility of leadership, Joshua gets upset. Joshua is Moses’ chief assistant and the heir apparent to the leadership role of Israel; yet, he begs Moses to stop this sharing of power and responsibilities. Here is an opportunity for a community in which all are prepared and willing to share the burdens of the communities. But the one who should most want the additional help is the loudest to complain.
Jesus reacts to the disciples’ complaints by noting that “whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9: 40) Obviously, our desires to limit the work of God to only our hands or our church or our faith are nothing new. But egoism and territorialism were rejected from the very beginning. God’s prophets will not always speak our language, pray our prayers, or look like us. And we can be sure that spectacular examples of blindness and ignorance will come from our ranks just as easily as they come from others. Only when we assume responsibility for our own faith community and discern together can we hope to see clearly and act rightly.
The prayer that James calls for in the passage that we read today is not a prayer of hopelessness, nor is it a paradox. For we have to look beyond the call of those who are suffering to pray. We need to see that it is a call for the community to act, to come to the aid of those in need.
That is the whole reason for the story of Ester that we read today. From one standpoint, the Book of Ester is in itself a paradox. There is no mention of God or His name Yahweh found in the entire book. Some say that this is because of the author’s chosen point of view.
The author of this book may have felt that the Jewish people who remained in Persia and did not return to Israel (remember this book comes after Nehemiah and the return of the Jews to Israel after the Babylonian captivity) were people cut off from the principal blessings of God. Thus, the absence of God’s name is a way of expressing God’s distance from them. At the same time, the book clearly reveals God’s surprising protection.
The second view is that it is written to explain to the Persian people what the Jewish celebration of Purim is about. It explains the emphasis on the Persian king but writes about the Jewish people in a detached manner. This also may explain why the book is in the only one in the Bible that does not directly mention God.
The Book of Esther is a story of a young orphan girl who rises from obscurity to become queen while hiding a deadly secret. It is a story with romantic love, power, intrigue, and a startling exposé at the end. It is the type of story that could be one of those less memorable made for TV movies. But through the twists and turns it is a story about God’s character. At a time when He seemed so distant, God was preparing to deliver His people.
The celebration of Purim reminds the people of Israel of God’s presence in the community of believer, even believers far away. I think that what we have to remember today is that our community is not a limited one but rather one with many members in many places. And because there are so many who are not here, we must make the effort to reach out to those not here, as a reminder that they are not forgotten.
I would hope that each and every member of the community that is called Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church will join in the birthday celebration when it is their turn. Perhaps we can also include anniversaries as well as birthdays. It is a way of saying thanks to God. And the monies collected will go to Habitat for Humanity, an organization devoted to building communities.
But I also think that we should take the opportunity to send birthday cards to those who are not here. This would serve as a reminder to them that they are not forgotten and they too are a part of the community of believers.
Too often, many churches say to those who are not here that they are not wanted. Sometimes it is a subtle statement; other times it is a bold and brazen one. It sometimes is stated by not sharing tasks, by stating that a particular task is the property of one person only. Sometimes it is said by having the person take on a task without any help from others.
Many churches today seem to be like the disciples, feeling that certain parts of the church and its work are theirs and theirs alone. We also send out messages that Christianity is limited to only a few people. It is limited but those who choose not to hear the word of the Gospel place the limits. Unfortunately, many Christians today feel that they are the ones who can define the limits.
There are many reasons why people are driven from the church. And in a time when membership is declining, it may be that we need to find ways to bring people back. There isn’t a marketing scheme developed that will do this. But if people want to hear the Gospel, there should be a place where they can hear and see the Gospel in action.
If a church is to have a vision of the future, it must see the future through the present. In the words of James, whom will they call if they are sick? For some the answer that James gives means the elderly of the church, those advanced in years. But the Greek term for elders also means those holding positions of authority in the community or in the local congregation and, since our particular congregation has adopted the council as a whole concept, that would mean everyone. The final verses of today’s reading are the final verses of James’ letter to the congregation; they are reminded that what the congregation does will be the final determination of whether or not someone is saved.
If the congregation does nothing to help one person who is lost, then that person is lost. But if the congregation works together to help bring that person back, then the soul is saved.
It is the question that perplexes mankind to this day. In a community where the barber cuts everyone’s hair, who cuts the barber’s hair? In a community where there are believers, who will watch out for the believers if they do not watch out for the lost, the sick, and the troubled?