Based on Esther 7:1-6, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50
How many times a week would you say you hear or see an exclusionary marketing pitch? Words like, “just for you”, “you have been selected because you are unique or special”, “because you’re such a good customer”, etc. Marketers have long known that if they play to our vanity, ego and pride, that they can sell us almost anything. We all want to feel that we are unique or special – even if it is only being used to part us from our hard-earned money. We seem to have a love-hate relationship to exclusivity…we love it when we are part of the “in” group and we hate it when we are excluded. Think about gated communities, gerrymandered voting districts, racially segregated neighborhoods, members only clubs, special credit cards and even frequent flier boarding perks. All of these are great if you have met the entry criteria, but they wound, demean and marginalize those who are excluded. Being on the outside looking in is one of the worst feelings we can experience in our lives.
Being on the outside looking in would describe most of the people in the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day. Similar to today, there were the one-percenters of the ruling class, then the average Roman citizen (about 10% of the total population of an estimated 55 million). A maximum of 3% of persons in the Roman Empire in the first century were Jewish and almost none of them were citizens. They were workers, slaves or merchants and had few if any real protections due to their status as conquered people. It is no wonder that Jesus’ gospel of inclusivity, equity and community were so readily embraced by a population that was so excluded.
Our readings today speak to us about how humans have always had to fight against the forces that continue to try to exclude them. We have before us the reading from Esther where she thwarts the exclusionary and fatal plans of Haman toward the Jews and wins them inclusion and higher status in the kingdom. Jesus is teaching about how to include as many people as possible in the work of the kingdom and to not put barriers (i.e., stumbling blocks) in front of any. The writer of James speaks about how all should be included and ministered to and that any who wander away should be brought back into right relationship. Before we go farther, let us go to God now asking for God to remove from us any exclusionary views and behaviors…
The Book of Esther is in some ways cringe-worthy in our “enlightened” day, but it does have a lot to say about the treatment of the marginalized and how life can hang on a single decision. Esther, a Jew, is elevated to the position of queen, but learns that this alone is not enough to save her people. She has to work through the king to make sure that Haman’s plans do not get enacted. Haman comes from a people who were supposed to be wiped out by the Jews as they conquered the Promised Land, and he seeks revenge against the Jews for that ancient act. Haman has miscalculated however, he thought that he was chosen by the king and queen exclusively because he was such a good guy. Turns out, he was executed because of his plans to kill all the Jews who, it turns out, were quite important to the functioning of the kingdom.
Jesus is teaching the Disciples about being inclusive. A person who doesn’t fully follow Jesus is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The Disciples try to stop him, but Jesus teaches that whoever does deeds of power in his name are working for the same God and overall mission – don’t get in the way of the plans of God, says Jesus. Further, try not to get in your own way by following the wisdom of the world and doing worldly things. Finally, anyone who keeps another from believing in Jesus is in for a severe reckoning. Jesus once again teaches that the kingdom of God is inclusive, not exclusive.
We are at the end of the letter of James. The writer is summing up all the teachings that have come before by reminding the faithful to always be in prayer, no matter what the circumstance; praying for and anointing the sick and the suffering. James also gives the believers a final directive about those who might wander away from the community of faith – whether they exclude themselves or are excluded by others. The last two verses of the letter state clearly, “…My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins….” Exclusivity in Christian communities, according to the teaching of the writer of James, is never what Jesus intended.
James teaches us to not write each other off. It is perfectly clear in this letter that we cannot be indifferent to either our own sin or the sin of others. Further, James calls us to display a profound level of compassion and empathy for our sisters and brothers in Christ. Should believers wander into any of the sins the writer of James has detailed in the body of this letter, it falls to their sisters and brothers in the faith to seek them out and turn them around. Indeed, James suggests that absent our intervention, the salvation of the wandering brother or sister is at stake. The degree to which James imagines believers to be dependent upon each other is instructive.
In synch with the generosity displayed by Jesus, the empathy James desires believers to show to each other stands in sharp contrast to the ways contemporary Christians typically behave toward each other. It is much more common, especially nowadays, to see believers separating themselves from each other because of real or perceived sinfulness. Smug indifference and indignant divisiveness are far more common than a redemptive relationship with our brothers and sisters. Does James really mean for our pursuit of sinful brothers and sisters to persist indefinitely? Surely there must be some end point; there must be some point at which persistence must give way in the face of a willful refusal to return from one’s wanderings.
To help you ponder that final thought, I give you a story from Jo Saxton, in her book, “The Dream of You”. She writes, “…There’s a brilliant family of people in Africa, called the Himba. When a Himba woman is expecting a child, she goes out into the wilderness with a few of her sisters, and together they wait till they hear in their hearts the song of the coming child. Himba women wait as long as they need to; they wait under stars; they wait until the dream of the child begins to beat like a singular rhythm under their hearts. Because these sisters know that every heart has its own unique beat—its own wild and blazing purpose. And when the Himba women attune to the song of the coming child, they circle around and together they sing the miraculous refrain of the expected child. Then they return to the gathering of their people and teach this child’s unique song to the waiting community.
When the anticipated child is finally born and taken into arms, the Himba family enfolds her with their presence, and their voices rise, singing the child’s own song to her breathing in first air of this earth. Later, when the child begins her schooling, the villagers gather and boldly chant the child’s song. And then when the child passes through the initiation to adulthood, the Himba again circle round and sing hopefully and bravely. At the time of marriage, the young woman again hears the assuring notes of her very own song, carrying her forward to meet her hopes.
But there is one more occasion upon which the Himba sing. If at any time during her life the sister loses her way, falls short, forgets who she really is, or lets anything steal the dream of who she is meant to be, she is gently beckoned to the center of the village. And there she stands, her people forming a safe, ringing circle around her, like her own galaxy of stars. Then the villagers sing, letting the beat of her drum, the rhythm of her own being rouse her to wake to the dream of her soul again. They sing her own soul song to her because Himba sisters believe that change happens most when we remember who we are and whose we are….”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to sing again the songs of inclusive and perpetual community to all those who feel excluded or have wandered away from the Body of Christ – after all, the souls we save with our inclusive song may be our own! May God teach us this new song! Amen and amen!