Worship Resources for September 26th, 2021—Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 10:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Narrative Lectionary: Jacob’s Dream, Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23, 28:10-17

In Jewish tradition, the book of Esther is part of the Wisdom literature, and the selections for today tell the story of the celebration of Purim. Taking place in Persia, the story is about how the Jewish people survived in a country that was not theirs. Though many Jewish people had returned to the land of Judah after the exile, others remained where they had landed during the exile and even in the land of Judah they were ruled over by the Persians, then later the Greeks (which is perhaps when this story was written). Esther is a story of a young Jewish woman who was chosen to become a wife of the king of Persia. The king and others did not know her background, and Haman, the right hand of the king, plotted to commit genocide against the Jewish people. Esther, having won the favor of her husband, and through the urging of her cousin Mordecai, requested to hold a banquet. During this banquet, she revealed that Haman has conspired against her people and her very self. Mordecai convinced her to go to the king for this request even though she risked her own life, and the king responded faithfully to her because he loved her. However, the decree to kill all the Jewish people was already issued and could not be revoked. Nonetheless, the king allowed Esther and Mordecai to alert the Jewish people and allowed them to defend themselves. After the Jewish people successfully defended themselves against their attackers, the king declared those days were to be kept as a celebration every year for the Jewish people.

Psalm 124 is a song praising God for victory from battle. The song invites the people to join in and remember that if it wasn’t for God, they wouldn’t be there. God has delivered the people from their enemies once again, as God delivered them when they passed through the Red Sea. The creator of all is the people’s God—the one who has rescued them.

Once again, the people of Israel forgot their past hardships while in Egypt and only remembered their present difficulties in Numbers 11. Before they reached Sinai, they complained, and preparing to set out from Sinai, they complained again. The complainers became a “rabble” with a “strong craving.” God was not pleased, but Moses was fed up. He didn’t know what to do and he whined to God about it, that it would be better for him to die than have to deal with the people who are acting like spoiled children crying for their moms. God’s response to Moses was to call forth help, as God did for Moses back in Exodus 18. Before they reached Sinai, Moses’ father-in-law suggested that he appoint judges to help him. After Sinai, God told Moses to appoint seventy elders of Israel, and God’s Spirit was granted to them. However, it was soon discovered there were two others, not among the seventy, who also appeared to have God’s Spirit. A complaint was given to Joshua who told Moses about the two and that he should stop them, but Moses was thrilled. He wished that more people had God’s Spirit and were prophets!

In this portion of Psalm 19:7-14, the psalmist praises God for the teachings of God through the commandments and ordinances. The law of God is rewarding when one keeps to them. The psalmist knows, however, that there are times when they fall astray, and asks God to be cleansed of hidden shortcomings, and also to be kept back from those who are insolent and rebel against God. The psalmist concludes the prayer with the hope that their words and meditations are acceptable to God, their strength and salvation.

The Epistle reading concludes its series in James with 5:13-20. In these final verses of this letter, the author of James writes about the power of prayer. Prayer is helpful for those who are downtrodden and sick. Prayer is also a way to confess sins and seek forgiveness from God. The author of James reminds the reader/listener of how powerful Elijah’s prayers were, and so they, too, should trust in prayer. The writer concludes that it is important to help those who have sinned—who have missed the mark and gone astray—to come back to God’s ways. This is the power that saves us from the dead-ends of this world and life now, and from the power of death’s finality.

One of Jesus’ disciples, John, told Jesus that they found someone else casting out demons in his name and tried to stop him in Mark 9:38-50. However, Jesus’ response was similar to Moses’ response in Numbers—“do not stop him … Whoever is not against us is for us.” Both Moses and Jesus recognized the power of the Holy Spirit at work in people who did good things. It was not about identity—who you are, or what group you are with, or the line of authority that approves you—if you are doing the work of building the reign of God on earth, doing good things—then who has the authority to stop you? Instead, Jesus warned about becoming a stumbling block for others. Don’t do something that would cause another to go astray, to place heavy burdens on others in order to be validated. Instead, bless others, grant them their needs. Salt preserves and fire cleanses. “Have salt in yourselves”—in other words, do what you need to do to be right with God, and be at peace with one another.

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on Jacob in Genesis 27 and 28. Jacob was the second-born son of Rebekah and Isaac, though he was a fraternal twin. However, Rebekah conspired with Jacob for him to steal his father’s blessing from his slightly older brother Esau. This caused some great distress in the family once it was discovered, and Jacob was sent to live with Rebekah’s brother Laban until Esau cooled off. On his way, Jacob rested for the night, and used a stone as a pillow. He dreamed that night of a ladder or staircase that extended from earth to the sky, with angels ascending and descending on it. God spoke to Jacob in this dream, that his descendants would be like the dust of the earth, and that God was with him, protecting him, and would bring him home one day. Jacob woke, terrified and in awe, for God had been there and he hadn’t known it.

Jesus also recalled the stairway to heaven in John 1:50-51. He saw ahead of time that Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree and came to him. Philip had told Nathanael about Jesus, but Nathanael didn’t believe until Jesus told him how he saw him under the fig tree. Jesus declared they would see greater things than this—and shared the same vision that Jacob had of the angels ascending and descending to heaven.

There are several times in the Gospels where Jesus was accused of having a demon (example: Mark 3:22). Jesus then speaks about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. A demon cannot do good things. No one can do good works apart from the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ ministry of healing was the proof that the Holy Spirit was at work in him. In the same way, Jesus wasn’t concerned about the man that John saw casting out demons. The Holy Spirit was among him. Moses wasn’t concerned about the two others prophesying in the camp, because they were delivering God’s word to the people. The Holy Spirit was among them. Far too often, religious people of all religions like to claim theirs is the true way and others are not. Others must be influenced by the evil in the world. But how can we question the real-life experience of these good works? Jesus was questioned even by John the Baptist through his disciples in Matthew 11:1-6, if he was really the Messiah. Jesus’ response was to go report to John what they saw: the blind could see, the lame could walk, those with skin diseases were healed, the dead raised, the poor had good news. What other proof is needed? We are not called to be gatekeepers. Instead, we are called to recognize and honor the power of the Holy Spirit at work in all of God’s children, whether they’re part of our group or not.

Call to Worship
You call us into this space, O God,
Inviting us into a time of worship.
You call our hearts, O God,
Inviting us to know Your love.
You call us by name, O God,
Inviting us to know You more deeply.
Continue to call to us, O God,
And may we know Your grace and peace.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Holy One, forgive us when we have kept others out, intentionally or unintentionally. Forgive us when we have slammed doors shut that You opened. Forgive us when we have assumed our measures were accurate to determine who was worthy, when we know in our hearts we have all fallen short. Forgive us for the glass ceilings, the longer staircases, all the ways oppression in the forms of sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia, and economic status have been used to keep Your people from fulfilling the call You have on their lives. Forgive us for the gatekeeping that You never wanted us to do. Instead, fling open the gates, make a highway in the wilderness, and springs in the desert. For You are always finding a way where there was none, O God, and tearing down the walls we built, and constructing bridges where we assumed it wasn’t possible. Call us into the work of restoration, forgiveness, and healing. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance
Be the salt of the earth! Give flavor to the world! Preserve what you know of God’s love, mercy, and peace, and share it with others. Open your hearts to receive God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace, and go and share it with the world, for you are forgiven, loved, and restored. Amen.

Prayer
God of Awe and Wonder, we tremble when we think of the universe and what You have created. We wonder how we could be so important to You, and yet, You call each of us by name. You have given us meaning and purpose in this world. Like Esther, may we know that at times, even when it seems we have no choice, we still have the choice to follow You. Like Mordecai, we may not have the power and privilege to do what needs to be done, but we know people who do. Help us to speak up, O God, for Your ways of love and justice. Help us to cry out, O God, against the oppressive empires of our world. Help us to demand, O God, reparations and justice for those who have been oppressed. Guide us in Your ways, O God, because You are far beyond our understanding and comprehension, and yet, You continue to instruct us in the ways of wisdom and insight. Help us to draw near to You, O Holy One, and to live into Your truth. Amen.

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