Based on Esther 7:1-10, Mark 9:38-50, James 5:13-20
In 1913, a philosopher named Josiah Royce published a book entitled, “The Problem of Christianity”. This work develops his view of religion and of a perfectly loyal society. This society he dubbed the “Beloved Community” and it is this moniker that was picked up and developed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in his work to create a more equitable world. In Dr. King’s interpretation of the writings of Royce and others, the beloved community must strive non-violently against the three great evils: poverty, racism and militarism. In 1967, not long before his life was ended, he wrote an article entitled, “Where do we go From Here: Chaos or Community?”. Dr. King expounded on the issues of each of the three evils, positing about poverty that for the first time in human history we have the resources to eliminate it. On racism, that “it is a philosophy based on a contempt for life…of total estrangement.” He further wrote that, “Inevitably it descends to inflicting physical and spiritual homicide to the out group.” Finally, on militarism, he wrote, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Therefore, community informed by the three evils cannot long exist. It is predicated on hyper-individualism and greed; in other words upon the wisdom of the world which is “unspiritual and devilish – leading to chaos and wickedness of every kind” as our scripture from James told us last week. Our scriptures this week give us a view of beloved community based on healing of our sins and a focus on wholeness and inclusiveness. Let us go to God to ask how it is that we can build and live together in such community. Please join me in prayer…
The scripture passage from the book of Esther this week is the climax of the story that has been building since the book began. If you are not familiar with the story of Esther (Jewish name Hadassah), she is a young woman who becomes part of the Persian king’s harem following the disgrace and ouster of the king’s first wife, Vashti. The king’s counselor, Haman, is descended from the Agagite people, one of the groups that were displaced by the Hebrews when they took over the Promised Land. Esther/Hadassah’s cousin Mordecai tends the gate of the King and doesn’t bow down to Haman, so Haman devises a plot to kill Mordecai and all the Jews within the Persian kingdom. Got it? Now we can pick up today’s scripture…
Esther/Hadassah has invited both the king and Haman to a feast and she has skillfully played the king to the point where she is in his good graces. She then reveals that there is an atrocity about to be committed and that Haman is behind said plot. Haman, who had built a gallow to hang Mordecai and his fellow Jews, is strung up himself in an ironic twist to this already satirical story. Esther/Hadassah reveals her true identity to the king and Mordecai takes Haman’s place at his side. All the Jews are saved and the Jewish holiday celebration of Purim is instituted.
There are many things happening in the Gospel lesson today. Jesus is teaching about a sense of inclusive community beyond just the Disciples; He continues the teaching about including the vulnerable (including children) and taking bold steps to counteract the temptation to sin, and it ends with a bit about remaining salty. Taken all together, the Gospel teaching for today is really all about building a tolerant, inclusive, peaceful community of believers in Christ who seek to season the world with the gospel message. Just as salt enhances the flavor of the food – or can serve as a preservative, so the followers of Jesus are called to enhance and preserve the world around them by introducing people to a new way of living in community.
We are at the end of the letter of James and the writer is getting his final messages communicated. He is tying up any loose ends on the subject of preferred forms of lived community and communal interaction. Picking up on the proper use of the tongue from last week, he notes that prayer and praise are proper ways to be in community with each other and in relationship to God. Folks who wander away from this community are to be brought back through prayer and conversation – not allowed to just be forgotten. Verse 16 states that in order to be in right relationship with each other and be healed of our sins, we should honestly and fully confess our sins to one another. This was the basis of the Wesleyan small groups that formed the Methodist movement – and that helped it spread. Beloved community can be achieved through these types of actions and verbal exchanges between believers. How are we doing with the choice between chaos or beloved community?
It does not take long for anyone to look around our world and arrive at the conclusion that we are very far removed indeed from a beloved community. Wars and the resultant return of combatants with disabling PTSD, ethnic conflicts and “cleansings”, fractionated families and communities, alienation and despair, tens of millions of displaced persons, unreconciled atrocities leading to vengeful and retributive violence, and communities redlined and gerrymandered to keep them subjected to the “powers and principalities”. The three evils: poverty in its many forms (e.g., unemployment/under-employment, homelessness, hunger/food insecurity/malnutrition, illiteracy, infant mortality, sub-standard housing, gangs), systemic racism (e.g., prejudice, incarceration, ethnic conflict/racial profiling, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, ageism, discrimination against the differently abled and mentally ill, stereotyping), and militarism (e.g., war, imperialism, domestic violence, rape/incest, terrorism, human trafficking, media violence, drugs, child abuse/neglect, violent crime, militarized police force), are out in the open and actively working to achieve their intended goal of becoming normative so that they are accepted as the way the world is supposed to be!
Jesus looked around his world and saw many if not all of these same problems. God had sent him to each to teach a vision of a transformative community which He communicated to us in the “Sermon on the Mount” (for a refresher, see Matthew chapters five through seven). Dr. King’s view of beloved community is informed by these teachings, but brings us forward two thousand years and makes it achievable in today’s environment. Dr. King’s vision was a global one that hinged on a “critical mass” of people who were trained in non-violence and adopted this approach to living life in community. In this type of community, poverty, hunger and homelessness would not be tolerated because international standards of human decency would be promulgated and enforced. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice would be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. International disputes would be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of through military power or economic coercion. This vision truly believes that love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict. Dr. King’s vision was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of living in community. However, he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence.
This is what Jesus is teaching and what the writer of James is communicating to the newly minted Christian communities. To survive they had to assimilate a wide variety of types and classes of people. There was friction, misunderstanding and outright heresy – a lot of chaos. Yet, when the communities came together in the teachings of Jesus and lived life as a beloved community, then everything clicked and they were fruitful and multiplied. It is the reason that we are here today still worshipping God through Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is truly what we have been designed for when we speak about living into our Christ-likeness or God image.
Mordecai tells his cousin Hadassah that though she is afraid to tell the king about Haman’s plan and to identify herself as Jewish, that she may have been gifted by God for such a time as this – to be able to save herself and her people. What about us? In Dr. King’s words, will we continue to choose chaos or work together with the Holy Spirit and God’s grace to co-create beloved community? If you believe, as I do, that we have been created and gifted by God to work as much as we can to create this vision of a beloved community where all may live non-violently, equitably and abundantly, then the time is now to begin. If you do so believe, then let us trust God and pray for the courage to get to work on God’s plan for Madison County and the world. Amen and amen!