Proper 21

October 1, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 20-22
Reading 2: 
Psalm 124
Reading 3: 
James 5:13-20
Reading 4: 
Mark 9:38-50
By Ignacio Castuera

All the October sermon notes are written with the following theological assumptions which flow from a paying close attention to John B. Cobb’s recent publications and public statements.

The ecological crisis of our time and the unprecedented attack on the earth places makes it necessary for followers of Jesus to live out our faith as “earthists,” defenders of the earth.

The most concentrated effort in attacking the earth is part and parcel of the “defense” of the “American way of life.” In 1992 George Herbert Bush stated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that no matter what the environmental situation was “the American way of life was not negotiable.”

The “defense” of “the American way of life” is, in fact, a central part of the American Imperial project. Today, the ecological system, the earth, is under the relentless attack of the American Empire.

The most effective way in which followers of Jesus carry out the “earthiest/anti-imperial” mission is through the practices of rituals of remembrance, praxis of resistance, and reflective reimagining.

It is indeed providential that the notes for the first sermon in a series that takes into account all of the above is for World Communion Sunday. No matter what the texts tell us today, we must find a way of applying the texts to the reality of a world communion resisting a global empire.

It is also providential that on this Sunday we have the last portion of the letter of James for the epistle lesson. James allows the thoughtful pastor the opportunity to educate from the pulpit on a variety of ways in which faith in Jesus can be connected with the project of resistance to the empire and defense of the environment. One of the ways in which the Bible is robbed of its power to inspire resistance is by domesticating it as a servant of the empire. The religious right plays an important role as it provides the empire with the “divine” justification for what it does. Naïve, literalistic interpretations serve the empire and James gives us an important opportunity to oppose these false interpretations.

Central to the message of the religious right is the idea that the whole Bible is “the Word of God.” This also connects with literal interpretations of the Bible which are often exploited by the “prophets of the court” to rationalize activities of the empire.

Martin Luther was not fond of the letter of James, he thought it was too Jewish and he even went as far as to suggest (not very seriously, according to some of Luther’s apologists) that James was the “straw epistle,” meaning it was dispensable, even easy to burn. That as far back as the sixteenth century one of the major leaders would suggest that portions of Scripture were less than “literally inspired” so that they could be dismissed, or even, dispensed with, is a most important fact. Many conservative Christians act as if the “liberal” perspective which suggests that not all the texts have equal weight and that some of the texts have, in fact, been mistranslated or misunderstood is something that started only in the 1900’s. Preachers today have an opportunity to correct that misunderstanding and to point out how far back the study of the Bible has included questioning texts and offering alternate interpretations. Today’s text from James must be placed in the context of the whole message of the epistle, the message that Luther found disturbing. The closing of the letter could misdirect the attention of the reader/hearer into merely caring internally for those who suffer and are ill or simply joining with those who rejoice via singing. The astute preacher will present this “clasp” of the letter as the recommendations for the community to care for its internal life in order to be strong in the tasks of reaching out to others, especially the poor. The restoration of those who have left the community is something we can use this WCS, it is time “to bring back” those “wandered from the truth.” Pastors need to urge congregants to invite to the celebration of WCS people who have moved away from the church’s message. In addition, progressive congregations need to emphasize the open table to which all are invited.
Communion, the Lord’s Supper, in the context of a global church, is a most effective ritual   giving us the best way to address the reality of empires and the specific response that Jesus and his followers have had to those empires. We can state unequivocally that Jesus’ death was a consequence to his resistance to the empire, the Roman empire. The Lord’s supper is the ritualized remembrance of that resistance. Too often this is not pointed out and lately communion is not eve observed in many churches because it is, according to many preachers and church growth guru’s” an “inside” ritual that interferes with the task of attracting seekers who might be in church that Sunday. It is uncanny that church growth types shy away from communion. At a very deep and real level it must come through that the Lord’s Supper is indeed a ritual of remembrance of defiance to empire. Church growth types tend to be acolytes of the empire today and communion is an embarrassment to them. Time Magazine on its September 16 issue has as the cover story the tension between those who see Christian faith as supportive of the acquisition of wealth and those who see it as being radically opposed to that since the quest for riches is inevitably connected with the poverty of the many and the attacks on the  environment. Furthermore, wealthy Christianity axiomatically needs to support of imperial policies.

The opposition by Christians to the empire requires that we ally ourselves with all people of good will from all religions and from no religion. In addition, that opposition must be non-violent and the fact that World Communion Sunday is also the eve of the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi offers the preachers a way to connect with the pacifism of the Christ as understood by a man from the Hindu faith. If that were not enough, October 4 is the holiday which observes the birth of Francis of Assisi, another resister to forces of avarice and someone who understood, however primitively, that earth is our sister. A singing of All Creatures of Our God and King would help reinforce this point to the congregation. Singing in several languages ought to enrich the concept of the world communion at prayer preparing itself for resistance to a monochromatic and monopolar empire.

The providential confluence of Yom Kippur, Ramadan, Gandhi’s birthday, St. Francis’s holiday, and World Communion Sunday should be inspiring enough in itself, and combined creatively with a thoughtful hermeneutics of the texts ought to produce a great variety of challenging sermons. The text from Esther is too cumbersome to read adequately and points out why in Judaism the whole story is read at one sitting. Our TV influenced worship “hour” will not make time to do that. In addition, it is awkward that this text appears in our lectionary at a time Jews are observing their New Year. As pastors we can utilize the inclusion of Esther in the Jewish and Christian canons as a symbol of the radical inclusivity of our ancestors in the faith. Esther is a Persian story adopted and adapted by Judaism for the purposes of reminding the faithful followers of that religion that since God is in some kind of “eclipse” (God’s name is not mentioned at all in the book!) individual men and women must act in “such a time as this.”

The psalm is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance that should not turn into triumphalistic chant. The escape from death and persecution is ascribed not human cleverness or the amassing of military power.  “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heavens and earth.”

The Gospel lesson preaches itself on a WCS! John complains about the fact that someone is casting out demons, opposing the empire, in “your name.” Jesus’ reply forms the basis for our team building and coalition forming as we oppose the empire: Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Gandhi told E. Stanley Jones that his peaceful project of opposition to the British Empire was influenced by his reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi had nothing but good to say about Jesus as he was doing deeds of power. Christians also claim Gandhi and use his methods as Martin Luther King did and so the family of the World Communion can keep on growing.

The harsh statements from Mark 9:42-50 cannot be ignored even as we celebrate communion. They constitute a summons to focused, fervent even ferocious following of the teachings of Jesus. Anything that detracts us from accomplishing the mission must be “pruned” and tossed away so we can accomplish in a non-violent way the purposes that we are called to fulfill.  My eyes, feet and hands cause me to stumble every time I loose focus and concentration on tasks that enhance and improve my following of Jesus. Cutting off eyes, hands and feet can properly be translated today as keeping away from trivial activities and from spending too much time under the spell of the weapons of mass distraction which the Empire uses so well such as TV, professional sports, and other ways in which the equivalent of the Roman circus operates today.

It is World Communion Sunday! What a wonderful opportunity to oppose the World Empire of domination with the Commonwealth of God through Christ. To a world of greed and acquisitiveness we say one loaf of bread, properly shared can go a long way. To the empire that spreads sadness and misery we raise the alternative of a cup of wine to gladden the hearts of the daughters and sons of God. To an empire of board rooms of exclusivity we counter with a board with room for all.

Ignacio Castuera, a United Methodist minister, is currently serving Trinity United Methodist Church in Pomona, California, and also serves as the national chaplain for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Rev. Castuera has served churches in Mexico, Hawaii, and California. In 1980, he became the first Latino District Superintendent of the Los Angeles District of the California Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.