Sunday, 30 September 2018

‘Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth’

The Megillah or Scroll of Esther (bottom right) in an exhibition in a synagogue in Thessaloniki … this is the only book in the Bible not to mention God’s name (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 30 September 2018

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVIII), Proper 21.

11 a.m.:
The Parish Eucharist (United Group Service), Castletown Church, Co Limerick.

Readings: Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10, 9: 20-22; Psalm 124; James 5: 13-20; Mark 9: 38-50.

May I speak to you in name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Some years ago, when I was discussing our readings this morning with a colleague, I jested that I was going to preach from a phrase in the Epistle reading that reminds us: ‘Elijah ... prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth’ (James 5: 17).

After the summer we have had in Ireland this year, it is easy for some to make childish jokes about praying for rain. Indeed, the Old Testament reading, despite its tragic background, is part of a book that creates entertaining and rowdy occasions in synagogues to this day.

But there is a more serious context to this reading, and both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading are serious warnings against the consequences of plotting and scheming that could destroy the innocence of children and the quality of life in wider society.

The Old Testament reading (Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10, 9: 20-22) is one that creates entertaining and rowdy occasions in synagogues to this day.

As the story of Esther is read at the festival of Purim, which usually falls in March [28 February to 1 March 2018, 20 to 21 March 2019], synagogues are crowded with men, women, and children, the adults wearing their best Sabbath clothes, and many children, and some adults too, dressed up in colourful costumes, funny beards and masks.

Children in particular enjoy dressing up as the characters in the Book of Esther, including King Xerxes, the banished queen Vashti, Queen Esther, her cousin Mordecai and the evil, scheming Haman.

In some communities, they still burn an effigy of Haman. So for Jewish communities, Purim is like Hallowe’en, Carnival, Mardi Gras and Guy Fawkes Night ... all rolled into one, and usually focussed on children.

Purim and Hanukkah are two Jewish festivals that are not prescribed in Mosaic law. Indeed, the Megillah or Scroll of Esther is the only book in the Bible not to mention God’s name. It tells the story of the villain Haman who plots the genocide of the Jews in Persia.

Whenever his name is mentioned during the reading, everyone in the synagogue boos and hisses and stamps their feet, and they make a racket with graggers or rattles and cymbals.

The purpose of all this fun is to blot out the name of Haman. Originally, when his name was read, the congregation would shout ‘Cursed be Haman,’ or ‘May the name of the wicked rot!’

Any noise will do, and it is a mitzvah that Jewish people should eat, drink and be merry at Purim. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until they cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai’ … although opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is.

In this morning’s reading, we can tell the difference, for we have the end of the story: Haman the villain is hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai, and Mordecai is given Haman’s job.

There is no reference to God at all throughout this book. But a later tradition grew up in Judaism that Esther was protected by the Archangel Michael, whose feast day fell yesterday [29 September 2018], and which we could have commemorated this morning.

So why, as Christians and Jews, is the story of Esther so important in our traditions, even though there is no reference to God in this story?

This story of Xerxes and Esther, Mordecai and Haman, is not relevant for Jews alone today. It is a story that reminds us constantly, with or without reference to God, that there are always people who plan and plot evil on a grand scale, happy to wallow in the misery and deaths of millions, men, women and children.

The fate of Haman – and of the 70,000 Persians over the course of three days – may seem severe and unconscionable by today’s standards. But it is not their executions, but rather the plots they planned to execute that faithful Jews are asked to call to mind at Purim.

For those with young children, trying to protect them from stories of evil and genocide is fraught with difficulties, and trying to fill their lives with appropriate but fun-filled and joyous occasions is not possible to sustain.

During my visit to Berlin earlier this month, visiting the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, and spending a day walking through the Jewish Quarter of Berlin, I was reminded that while Haman and Hitler planned and plotted on a grand scale, there are always people who plot and plan evil and the destruction of innocence on varying scales of intensity and application.

We would be naïve to ever underestimate the capacity of people to do evil, nor ever undervalue the importance of our contribution to protecting the vulnerable, the frightened and the victimised children in our society today.

When we realise that we have been saved from disasters or from our enemies, then it is not only a matter for celebrating among ourselves. When sorrow has been turned into gladness and mourning into a holiday, we should not only feast and celebrate among ourselves but also mark these as ‘days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor’ (Esther 9: 22).

I sometimes wonder how the story in the Book of Esther was read by Jews during the horrors of the Holocaust, how they could possibly have sung the words of this morning’s Psalm:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
– let Israel now say –
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us …
– (Psalm 124: 1-3)

But during my recent visit to Sachsenhausen, I came across a story told by Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen.

He later learned how Janusz Korczak, had set up an orphanage in Warsaw. When the Nazis came, he had an opportunity to leave the children behind and make good his own escape. Instead he stayed with these children on the train to Treblinka and the gas chambers.

Abandoned by the world, Janusz did not want these children to feel they had been abandoned by him too.

At Bergen-Belsen, Menachem Rosensaft’s own mother and several other Jewish women took care of the abandoned children they found in the concentration camp. She said, ‘We gave them all our love and whatever strength was left within us.’

Many years later, Menachem Rosensaft could write:

‘If God was at Treblinka, I want to believe that he was within Janusz Korczak as he accompanied his children to their death. I feel certain that the mystical divine spark … was within my mother as she and other women in her group rescued 149 Jewish children from almost certain death at Bergen-Belsen.’

The story of Esther is a reminder that even when God’s name is not mentioned or invoked, even when we think God is absent, God can act through the decisions of others and through the ways of the world to protect the rights of the vulnerable, the abused and the violated. For, as the Psalmist says this morning, and as we – and all children – should be able to sing:

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
(Psalm 124: 8)

In the Gospel reading (Mark 9: 38-50), one of the Twelve, John, complains that someone who is not part of their inner circle has been casting out demons in Christ’s name.

But did the disciples welcome him?

Did they praise him for bringing comfort to distressed people and for restoring them to a good quality of life?

Christ rebukes the disciples for attempting to stop this exorcist who is curing in his name. Just as the Book of Esther makes no mention of God, we are reminded in this Gospel reading here that God can work even through those who are not followers of Christ.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘ … the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday … they should make … days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor’ (Esther 9: 22) … (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 9: 38-50 (NRSV):

38 John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ 39 But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’

‘ … it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye’ (Mark 9: 47) … (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green.

Penitence (Michaelmas):

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Woe is me, for I am lost;
I am a person of unclean lips.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your guilt is taken away,
And your sin is forgiven.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God:
Increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

All praise and thanks, O Christ,
for this sacred banquet,
in which by faith we receive you,
the memory of your passion is renewed,
our lives are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory given,
to feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer (Michaelmas):

Lord of heaven,
in this Eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing (for Michaelmas):

The God of all creation
guard you by his angels,
and grant you the citizenship of heaven:

Hymns:

712, Tell out my soul (CD 40);
643, Be thou my vision (CD 37);
446, Strengthen for service (CD 26).

The dome of the Neue Synagogue in Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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