Lectionary Reflections for Sunday, September 30, 2012
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Today’s readings focus on healing and protection. Neither of these entirely comes from God, but involve our agency as well as divine creativity and care.
Left to its own devices and apart from context, the reading from Esther is confusing. It needs history and context, a narrative to make sense of this “profile in courage.” Put briefly, known for her beauty, Esther catches the eye of the King and soon becomes the first lady of the realm. She is Hebrew and, like the holocaust, her people are in danger. Genocide is a possibility. She has been able to pass for a non-Jew, but Mordecai her mentor calls her to task, asking her to consider whether God has brought her to the throne for “just a time as this.” There is a divine movement running through history and her life, and she has the opportunity to respond to the call. She can say “no” and it appears she is a bit reluctant to come out of the closet, but like Jesus’ mother Mary, she says yes to a risky and provocative invitation. She is not predetermined or compelled to declare herself; freedom is real here. She can choose safety, but she responds to the divine call to save her people and free the king from the influence of a ruthless, self-serving counselor.
Esther risks everything to save her people. Her sense of self goes beyond personal well-being to embrace the well-being of the Hebrews. She is truly a person of stature who recognizes her vocation and the reality that her responsibility is for others as well as herself. She grows in stature, moving from self-interest and self-preservation to a sense of self that embraces the future of others. This is something to celebrate and emulate. The story of Esther begs the questions: Whose daring risk-taking do we need to celebrate – both in the past and in the present? Where are we called to go beyond self-interest to embrace the well-being of others as significant to our survival and success? What might we risk to save the lives of others? Whom are we obliged to take risks for their survival?
Psalm 124 expresses Israel’s gratitude at God’s deliverance from Egypt and throughout history. There is an implied “Hebrew exceptionalism” here that can be the source of gratitude but also nationalism and expansionism. The people are called to affirm: “If God had not been on our side, we would have perished. Our help is in God who delivers us from the foe.” The Psalm proclaims an historically-active God moving in the affairs of persons and nations to achieve God’s purposes. But, this joining of ethnicity, nationalism, and divine activity raises some questions: What does it mean to speak of God being on our side? Is this an affirmation of favoritism or a preferential option for our group to the detriment of others? Given the biblical notion of Israel’s chosen status, what does this passage have to say about our current relationships with the State of Israel and the politics of Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East? These words can be affirmations of gratitude for God’s providence in pivotal moments of our lives, and as such we need to claim God’s presence with thanksgiving. But, can we really invoke the statement “God is on our side” in ways that don’t promote militarism, colonialism, and self-interest? Without watering down issues of justice, we need to affirm God is on everyone’s side, working to invite all of us to be part of God’s realm of Shalom.
While Jesus did not teach one particular healing technique (he used many methodologies), the Epistle of James gives us a pattern for healing and wholeness. First, healing begins with a life of prayer: prayer about all things, positive and negative. Pray in good fortune and pray in times of sickness. If you are ill, seek the support of a healing community that will anoint, lay hands on you, and pray for you. Similar to the healing of Jairus’ daughter, in which Jesus created a healing circle -a community of believers – Christian communities need to lift up certain persons to be healing companions. These healing companions pray for those in need and trust God’s providence in all the seasons of living and dying.
James notes the importance of confession in the healing process. He is not trying to add to persons’ guilt or to identify sin and sickness, but rather assert that guilt, alienation, regret, shame, and unforgiveness can contribute to disease as personal, pastoral, and medical experience indicate. Feelings of guilt have been identified with illness, while joy enhances the immune system. Community and religious involvement have been found to be factors in well-being. Conversely, alienation, fear, and guilt may be factors in depressing our overall well-being. God wants us to be well and invites us to create healing circles, whose prayers contribute healing energy and create a field of force that supports vulnerable people and enables God to have greater impact in our lives. This is not faith healing, nor do such healing circles guarantee physical recovery. Health and illness are influenced by many factors, but moving within physical, emotional, and environmental factors is a lively synergy of divine call and human response.
In a relational universe, there is a lot of free play and no one factor, including God, is all determining. Yet, the interdependence of life calls us to focus intentionally on others’ well-being. Whether we call this the power of prayer, the placebo effect, or divine-human synergy, we have a role in promoting others’ health and the health of our environment. We can pray with our hearts and with our hands and be part of the “greater things” Jesus promised. (For more on healing practices and Christianity and complementary medicine, see Bruce Epperly, God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice; and Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus, written with Kate Epperly; and
The gospel reading exclaims: Don’t get in the way of healing! The disciples think Jesus will applaud their theological orthodoxy and gatekeeping. They boast that they have silenced a healer from outside their circle, insuring the purity of Jesus’ message and, I suspect, their authority as healers. Jesus challenges their behavior: if anyone is healing in my name, support them. Other healers are welcome even if their words and techniques differ from ours.
This passage is especially relevant to our time in which people practice multiple spiritualities and techniques – liturgical laying on of hands and reiki healing touch; social action motivated by Jesus’ ministry and Zen meditation; chemotherapy and Tai Chi; worship and yoga. Sadly, church leaders have seldom made the connection between non-Western practices and Christian faith. This has led to compartmentalization, fear of judgment, and theological confusion. I believe that God is present and moving in all things: each moment is an opportunity to hear God’s call for health and beauty in your life right now and also for the well-being of others. Wherever there is healing, God is its source, even if God’s name is not mentioned. We can pray for healing, anoint with oil, practice forgiveness, and reach out to vulnerable people; we can also do reiki healing touch and other forms of energy work, practice yoga or Tai chi, and spiritual affirmations.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.