The Boundaries of Community
Esther 7:1-6, Mark 9:38-41
In an interview on NPR yesterday Buffy Saint Marie said, “The good news about the bad news is that more people know about it.” She was, of course, referring to the #metoo movement and the hearings in Washington DC this past week. Now I have considered myself a feminist for many years, but I count myself as one of the “more people” who knows more about it because of this past year and past week. I am aware of the trauma that was awakened for many survivors of sexual abuse as they listened to Christine Blasey Ford. That pain is heightened by watching the historic institutions of this country exposed as fraternities of male privilege and abuse. My apologies to the women here today, and women everywhere, for my slowness in waking up to that.
It is uncanny that the Hebrew text today is about a powerful woman dealing with powerful men. After watching a powerful woman deal with powerful men in Washington D.C. this past week, I couldn’t limit my reading of Esther to the passage we heard today. I had to read the whole book. I have read it and preached on it many times in the last 40 years. But the story sounded different to me this time. Reading it with eyes opened by the #metoo movement made me notice details I’d never seen before.
Of course, we always have to take into account cultural differences when we evaluate the meaning of events. Esther’s experience happened over 2000 years ago. Christine Blasey Ford’s experience happened over 35 years ago. I myself have excused the men in Esther’s story by saying they were creatures of their times. Many have said that the way a boy treated girls in high school 35 years ago should not determine the qualifications of that boy today. While there may be some truth to that it blinds us to ways things are essentially the same, especially between women and men. That argument shouldn’t be used to defend the double standard used to evaluate Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh last week. Had Dr. Ford exhibited the angry yelling that was praised in Judge Kavanaugh’s performance, she would have been shut down and totally dismissed.
The powerful men in Esther’s story looked more foolish to me as I read it this time. King Ahasuerus was manipulated by men and women at every turn. He showed no wisdom of his own, and kept changing his decision based on the last recommendation he heard. Haman was a typical middle management hack who had more ambition than he could handle, and less tolerance than a man in his position could have to survive. The only man who came off looking good was Mordecai, Esther’s parental guardian. He demonstrated wisdom, compassion and tact.
Women like Queen Vashti who dared to claim her status were executed for acting like men. Her replacement was determined by a process akin to a Miss America contest. Esther won the contest, revealing the quality of woman she was; but it was still decided by the whims of powerful men. Later Esther showed her brilliance as a human being in partnership with Mordecai. Together they saved their people, the Jews, and
brought down their oppressor, Haman.
The Book of Esther is included in the canon of Scripture because it describes a time when the Jewish people were saved from extinction. As is always the case when entire groups of people are excluded, the powerful come to the conclusion that the group represents a threat to the wellbeing of the dominant group. Sometimes a boundary is placed between the groups – a wall, or a border or exclusionary laws. At other times the dominant group tries to exterminate the other group. This was not the last attempt to exterminate the Jews.
Haman tried to destroy the Jews because of his personal hatred for Mordecai. He decided that the best way to punish him was to eliminate his people. So he went to the king and said, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they don’t keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. The king gave him authority to destroy them without investigating further. It was only Esther and Mordecai’s clever intervention that saved them.
We are all part of communities that draw boundaries around themselves. In Persia during the time of Esther, boundaries of status existed between men and women. Now Haman tried to draw an additional boundary between Jews and Persians. The Gospel presents a different view of boundaries between groups. Jesus’ criterion for inclusion in the new community he was forming was: “those who are not against us are with us.” The question of how we will draw boundaries is front and center in our country right now: gender, nationality, religion, race, immigration status, trade balance, even attitudes toward our president increasingly determine who’s in and who’s out.
Jesus dealt with boundaries differently from most communities: anyone who is not against us can be considered an ally. Even though it shocked the disciples, Jesus had already lived out those words many times. By touching lepers, healing on the Sabbath, relating to the demon possessed, traveling to the regions of the Gentiles, not insisting that his disciples ritually wash their hands, and in many other ways, Jesus offended religious sensibilities by not paying attention to their definitions of who’s in and who’s out. In today’s Gospel, all that becomes explicit.
Jesus didn’t create boundaries. Instead he comforted those that the dominant culture kept outside, and confronted the ones who excluded them. The passages surrounding today’s verses describe how Jesus did this. Those who put themselves first, and those who fail to welcome children, do not reveal the truth about Jesus’ community. Those who choose to ‘be last of all and servant of all,’ and those who welcome children like they welcome Jesus himself reveal the truth. Those who make it difficult for “the little ones” fail to reveal the truth of Jesus’ community. Jesus has made clear who “the little ones” are: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the children, and the prisoner. Those who make them insiders reveal the truth of Jesus’ community.
Mark makes it clear that it is no longer about insiders and outsiders by confronting the disciples themselves as the ones who failed to reveal the truth about Jesus’ community. And there was never any consideration of making them outsiders. Isn’t it comforting to know that Jesus will never excommunicate us for getting it wrong! The disciples argued about who was the greatest among them. They wanted to exclude someone who did what Jesus did but was not on their team, even though the person was able to cast out demons, which the disciples themselves had not been able do. They wanted to ban this man’s ministry because he didn’t have the right credentials. Over the centuries, Jesus’ disciples have continued to exclude people who don’t completely agree with our doctrine, or who call God by a different name. Our country is doing that more and more. But for Jesus the issue is truthfulness, not labels.
We need to practice truth-telling rather than exclude and avoid people who don’t fit our mold. Conflicts within the community get worse when we don’t tell the truth in love because the truth is uncomfortable. What Jesus said to the disciples was uncomfortable, but it led to a more loving environment in their small community.
This passage also shows why we need to be welcoming in all aspects of our life together. When I give the invitation to communion, I believe it matters to say: “if you want, and feel the need to receive, the grace of Jesus offered at his table, you are welcome and worthy to approach the table.” So many people who come through the doors of the church seeking God assume they are unworthy to approach God, partly because that’s what the church told them in the past. Karl Menninger once said that if he could convince patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, three quarters of them could leave the hospital the next day.
Jesus included and appreciated people as uniquely gifted individuals. It is urgent that we restore the true message of Jesus, that those who are not against us are with us. When the church determines holiness and purity in terms of race, sexual orientation, health, national origin, gender and other factors, supposedly to protect the community, it goes against Jesus. When the leaders of our country strengthen stereotypes of men and women, immigrants, refugees and citizens, Muslims and Christians and Jews, Mexico, China and Iran, it goes against Jesus and the heart of humanity. And when leaders place in positions of authority powerful men who have trampled on those groups on the way up, they are destroying the very soul of the nation. None of those labels and categories have a place in Jesus’ community or any human community. It is past time to stand up and say that.