Tag Archives: self-sacrifice

Esther: Fate? Luck? A Story for Our Time – Esther 4:12-17, Romans 14:7-10, and John 14:25-27

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 17, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

Esther 4:12-17 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

Romans 14:7-10 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

John 14:25-27 [Jesus said to his disciples]  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

[sermon begins]

I went to a play called “Sweet and Lucky” about a month ago.[1]  Not your usual play in which you walk into a theater, sit down, and watch the actors on a stage.  “Sweet and Lucky” guides the audience in small groups, out of sequence from each other, across many rooms and sets as it tackles the idea of memory and how it works.

A relevant aside, I just found out last week that the show’s New York director, Zach Morris, is a confirmed son of the Augustana congregation. I mean that in the ritual sense.  Years ago, he affirmed his baptism in the rite of Confirmation here. His mother Maggie and sister Katelynn continue to worship here regularly.  Maggie handed me an article last Sunday about the play.  Funny how things happen like that and a connection can be seen only in hindsight.

And that takes us back to the play and why it may be at least loosely relevant to the sermon today.  At one point, an actor asked me if I believe in luck.  I said, “No.” She then asked if I believe in fate.  I said, “No…I think there’s an option that we aren’t able to understand.”  Just her luck that she got to talk with me, eh?  But her questions are onto something.  We are meaning-making beings.  Things need to mean something. If they don’t mean something, we’re stymied.  If they mean something terrifying, we’re still stymied.  We throw everything we can at situations to find some kind of answer to feel better about them. Whether it’s luck, fate, karma, God’s will, free will, or something else I can’t think of at the moment. Things happen and we start asking “why?” We want answers.  We are answer mongers and meaning makers.  When things happen, either we find answers or we make them up.

This reasoning out the “why” is the surface appeal of the Book of Esther.  Esther is an orphan 500 years before Jesus.  Not just any orphan, she’s descended a few generations from the Jewish people who were rounded up in Jerusalem and carted off into Persia by the king of Babylon. Esther is adopted by her cousin Mordecai and raised as his own daughter.[2]

Through a series of circumstances, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia, married to King Ahasuerus.[3]  She remains a Jew but this secret is kept from even the king himself.  Then comes Haman, second in power only to the king.  Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman so Haman plots to murder Mordecai, and I quote the Bible story here, “by giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews…”[4]

Mordecai catches wind of Haman’s orders to kill the Jews. What follows are a number of servant delivered messages between Mordecai and Esther.[5]  Mordecai challenges Esther to save her people. Esther argues back that the king could have her put to death if she shows up uninvited.  And then comes Mordecai’s message back to her, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews…Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Even Mordecai is looking for an answer to the “why” question while he’s looking for an answer to help his people.  The way he asks Esther to help implies that it is either her fate or God’s will or some combination of the two.  In the end, she resolves to help even through it could mean her death and she says, “…if I perish, I perish.”[6]

Esther’s story is cleaned up quite a bit for the G-rated worship musical the kids are preaching through this morning’s 10:30 worship. To get the full story takes reading this Bible book laced with dark humor and questionable outcomes. While reading, it’s engaging to wonder about your own life as reflected in Esther’s self-sacrificial courage, Mordecai’s righteous determination, Haman’s fearful self-preservation, and King Ahasuerus’ detached ignorance.

Esther’s story is meaningful and relevant to the current moment in the world. She begins in the royal court, a place of comfort tainted by episodic fear and indifference. Rattled by Mordecai’s truth, her acceptance of risking death has a self-sacrificial purpose – neither fatalistic nor nihilistic. She listens to him, formulates a dubious plan, and goes into action on behalf of her people.  And the parts of the story you just heard happen in only four short chapters with a little over half the book to go.

Mark George, my Hebrew Bible professor was asked why the stories in these earliest writings are the ones that remain.  Dr. George resisted pious or academic answers.  He said with high intensity, “Because they’re GOOD stories!”  He might have even had a fist in the air when he said it.  There was that much emphasis.  “Because they’re GOOD stories!”

They’re good partly because the stories they tell are about complicated people. Trusty Noah?  Read what happens after the flood when he builds a vineyard and makes wine.[7]  Faithful Abraham?  Lied about Sarah being his sister to save his own skin not once but twice![8] Biblical heroes are often as flawed as they are faithful.  That makes for good story.

It also makes for something more than a good story.  It means that we have a shot at seeing our particular iteration of flawed and faithful in the pages of the Good Book.

Esther is no exception to Dr. George’s “GOOD story” category.  In the face of Haman’s treachery and King Ahasuerus’ indifference, Esther is challenged to save her Jewish people, putting her life at risk to do so.  But the reality is that while we aspire to Esther, we’re regularly caught in moves that smack of King Ahasuerus’ ignorance or Haman’s power grab.  Comparing Esther’s self-sacrificial resolve to Christ’s self-sacrifice may get us a little further.  Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is good for this comparison.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death on the cross is the inevitable outcome to his life-giving ministry.  Inevitable because the life he offers is one of mercy, freedom, and peace which is perceived as a threat by the people around him.  In his death no hand is raised against the people God so loves. Rather, Jesus is resolved to see it through. Resolve that ends in self-sacrifice on a cross.

Jesus’ resolute self-sacrifice means that Christians are neither nihilists nor fatalists.  Nihilists argue that life is meaningless. Fatalists argue that life is determined by an impersonal fate.  Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans reflect a Christian’s take on life – “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

Paul’s words are a confession of faith.  Not a faith that protects us against the struggles of life and death.  Rather, a faith that confesses Jesus’ resolve to make redemption and healing known even from the most difficult situation.[9]  And still we may not see the redemption and healing except for time passing and hindsight, if we get to see it at all.

The readings today from Esther, Romans, and John, offer slightly different perspectives on fear, death, and peace.  In John, Jesus promises peace as the One whose ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross is purposeful rather than nihilistic – gathering us around the tree of the cross, transforming death into life as well as our self-preservation and indifference into action for the sake of the world God so loves.

________________________________________

[1] Zach Morris. Sweet and Lucky, a collaboration between Third Rail Projects and Denver Center for Performing Arts Off-Center.

[2] Esther 2:7

[3] Esther, chapters 1 and 2

[4] Esther, chapter 3. Direct quote is from verse 13.

[5] Esther, chapter 4

[6] Esther 4:16

[7] Genesis 9:20-27

[8] See Genesis chapters 12 and 20.

[9] David Lose. “Faith, Forgiveness, and 9-11.”  Dear Working Preacher… September 4, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1595

“I do not think it means what you think it means” (*) – Luke 4:1-13 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Pastor Caitlin with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 14, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; the Deuteronomy reading is at the end of the sermon]

Luke 4:1-13  Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

[sermon begins]

Last week the sermon began with the question, “What is it you seek?”  Someone suggested to me after worship that it may have been the wrong question to ask the same day as the Broncos were taking the field for the Super Bowl.  It’s possible some listeners drifted off to pondering whether or not the defense was really up to the challenge of Carolina’s offensive surge.  Now, a week later, we know the ending to that tale.

The Broncos’ celebration with a million fans coincided with Mardi Gras this year, the eve of Ash Wednesday.  Peyton Manning added one more career highlight to an already long list which leaves me wondering what data the NFL doesn’t collect. The flip-side is that Manning’s 39-year-old body is no longer as willing or able as his mind. The Broncos’ win really did take a team of “53” even though his leadership is included in that number.  Cam Newton’s smile and swagger, ordinarily contagious and larger than life, collapsed under disappointment.  The Carolina Panthers’ loss shrunk Newton into a shadow of himself. So much so that the criticism of his press conference behavior has become an intellectual sport.[1]

The fragility of Manning and the shadow of Newton in contrast with their accomplishments opened up Lent this year.  Opening up an honesty about ourselves that includes acknowledging our fragility and our brokenness.  I told my coach at the gym on Ash Wednesday morning that, “I love Ash Wednesday.”  She asked me, “Why?”  I told her that I like its honesty about so little I actually control, that it’s a break from striving.  The irony of being in the gym as I talked about this was not lost on me.  But it’s also not lost on me how much my 20-something gym friends are able to do over and above the 40-something me.

We enter Lent with honesty about our fragile bodies and brokenness.  In the Bible story today, Jesus enters the wilderness with his fragile body, eating nothing for forty days.  The translation we’re using says he’s “famished.” A more accurate description after forty days without food would be “wasting away.”  He must look pretty beat-up at that point – rail thin and bone weary.  The story doesn’t fill in all the temptations offered to Jesus. It’s more like game highlights of the red-zone plays.

The temptations are like a triumvirate – the big three of power, prestige, and prominence:[2]

Jesus, in his hunger, is tempted with the power to change stones to bread.

Jesus, in his weakness, is tempted with the prestige of authority over kingdoms.

Jesus, in his isolation, is tempted with the prominence of surviving death.

The trick with the Big 3 temptations is that they are hard to confront in ourselves because there are cultural aspirations that support those temptations.  My older teenaged children are marinating in those cultural aspirations as they figure out their next right steps.  Mother Theresa’s words are an antidote.  She said, “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”[3]  Faithful, not successful.  Her words are good for us as celebrity and specialness seem to be the epitome of success.  I’m not sure which part of endless opportunity in the pursuit of happiness was once true.  But it was truer in recent history than it is now.  And right now in the story, we see Jesus who cannot be tempted at his weakest and most isolated.

Jesus is isolated.  But is he alone?  Jurgen Moltmann, renowned systematic theologian, would say most definitely not.  Moltmann’s faith came to him as an adult. He was a German soldier in a Belgian prisoner of war (POW) camp in 1945.  Raised in a non-religious home, he started reading the New Testament and Psalms out of boredom as a POW.  Faith hooked him.  After the war, he received his doctorate in theology, becoming a pastor and a professor.[4]

Moltmann argues that Jesus’ temptations are “not levelled at his human weakness…they are aimed at his relationship to God.” This challenge comes in the opening statement of the temptations: “If you are the Son of God then…”[5]  More importantly, Moltmann notes that, “…if the Spirit ‘leads’ Jesus, then the Spirit accompanies him as well…and if the Spirit accompanies him, then it is drawn up into his sufferings, and becomes his companion in suffering.”[6]  Why does this matter?  Because Jesus has the Spirit with him in the wilderness as well as through his suffering on the cross.  Isolated, not alone.  We are baptized by the power of the same Spirit into Jesus’ death. This same Spirit accompanies us as we encounter temptations that are ultimately the temptation to forget that God is in relationship with us.

What does Jesus do when he’s tempted?  He skips the argument and confesses scripture.  By confessing in this way, he claims his dependence on God and their relationship.  Something similar happens in the Deuteronomy story.  While Moses coaches the Israelites on their giving, he also instructs them on their confession.  When they take their gifts to the priest, they align with the powerless. They confess their ancestors’ affliction, oppression, and tears along with God’s redemption.[7]  They confess God’s relationship with them even at their weakest.

In the face of temptation, Jesus remembers God.  Jesus confesses God. Ironically, the things offered to him already belong to him.  But there’s a big difference between the temptation to power, prestige, and prominence versus God’s freedom.  As Moltmann puts it:

“True dominion does not consist of enslaving others but in becoming a servant of others; not in the exercise of power, but in the exercise of love; not in being served but in freely serving; not in sacrificing the subjugated but in self-sacrifice.”[8]

Jesus freely serves in self-sacrificing love.  This is the Jesus into whose life and death we are baptized.  And by the power of the Spirit, the Jesus through whom our lives become ever more Christ-shaped.  As baptized people we worship and remind each other about God’s promises and, in turn, are able to confess the love of God in Jesus.  It’s simple.  It’s weird.  It’s faithful.  It’s freedom.

The sober addicts in the room know this freedom.  The freedom that comes through our dependence on a higher power much bigger than ourselves to resist temptation.  Last week I started with the question, “What is it you seek?”  This week I end with the opposite question. What is it that seeks you?  In other words, what comes up in your life that tempts you to forget that God is in relationship with you?  It certainly could be power, prestige, and prominence.  It could also be something else.  You know what it is.  And it may isolate you.  Know this, you are not alone.  As people of God, we confess Jesus is the Lord.  We confess this together as the church and remind each other when we are tempted to forget.  In our fragility and brokenness, Jesus is with us and for you by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen and thanks be to God.

 

(*) Rob Reiner, screenwriter. The Princess Bride: Quote from character Inigo Montoya. (Iver Heath, UK: Pinewood Studios, 1987).

[1] Dr. Kimberly D. Manning. “Mom: Be Careful with Your Cam Newton Narrative.” Weekend Express: February 10, 2016. http://www.hlntv.com/shows/weekend-express/articles/2016/02/09/op-ed-how-to-talk-about-cam-newton-with-your-kids

[2] Another way to think about these three temptations are: control (power), respect (prestige), and celebrity (prominence).

[3] Mother Theresa. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/329513-god-does-not-require-that-we-be-successful-only-that

[4] Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology: Jurgen Moltmann. http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/moltmann.htm

[5] Jurgen Moltmann. The Spirit of Life. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 61.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] William Yarchin. Commentary: Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Working Preacher for February 14, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2761

[8] Jurgen Moltmann.  The Church in the Power of the Spirit. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977),103.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5 you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.