March 6, 2005
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Esther 4:1-14

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.

Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”

When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

John 9:1-12

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent mewhile it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

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Sermon - The Reason Revealed

This morning the children are having a Purim celebration as the wrap up event of the work they’ve done on the story of Esther.  Esther, as many may know, was a young girl whose bravery saved her people from destruction.  Her story is set about 500 years before the birth of Christ, when the Persians were the dominant power in the middle east.  The Persian Emperor in the story is Xerxes, also called Ahasuerus, and he sets the drama in motion by calling for his Queen, Vashti, to come and dance before his guests at a party. 

Now these were not just any guests and this wasn’t just any party.  The Bible says that the king has invited all his officials and ministers and the nobles and governors of the provinces to the capital city to see the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor of his majesty. Then he gives a week long party and after 7 days of unrestrained drinking he sends for Queen Vashti to appear wearing her royal crown and dance for his guests.

What besides her royal crown the Queen was supposed to wear has been a matter of conjecture, but in any case she refuses to appear and all the men are scandalized at her defiance and say to the king –  this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands.

So the king banishes Vashti and starts a search for a new queen in her place.  If this were set in the year 2005 it would probably be a reality TV series.  It comes to pass that Esther, a nice Jewish girl, is brought in as one of many candidates before the king and after a long process the king says – you’re hired.

In the meantime, a battle is brewing between Esther’s uncle, Mordecai and one of the King’s top lieutenants, Haman.  Mordecai won’t give Haman the respect Haman thinks he’s due, and Haman gets the King to decree the destruction of all the Jews.  The king doesn’t know that Esther is Jewish, but Mordecai urges her to speak to the King and intervene on behalf of her people.  That’s about where our scripture lesson from this morning begins.

It’s really against all law and custom for Esther to take any initiative in speaking to the King.  The King must call for her and the King must raise the subject – anyone who doesn’t follow this protocol is subject to death.   Esther is worried, Esther is hesitant, but Mordecai sends her this message:

“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Some commentators take that as the key verse in the whole story, and it’s the line that is at the center of this sermon this morning – All the circumstances that led to Esther becoming Queen, all the twists and turns of fate that brought her into the Kings palace, perhaps all of that was precisely so she could be of use in God’s plan to preserve her people.  The reason was suddenly revealed and she was in the right place at the right time to do some good. 

But it would mean that she understood her privilege and power in a different way – not for her own sake, but for the sake of others.  And it could mean that she’d be called upon to sacrifice everything she had gained to fulfill the purpose of her position – at the very least, she had to find the courage and strength inside to risk that sacrifice.

I was reminded of the story of Esther when I read about an incident from the life of Arthur Miller that was included in his obituary in the New York Times.  Arthur Miller was world famous as a great writer, but also as the man who married Marilyn Monroe.  Quite a bit after their divorce and three years after Marilyn’s death, Arthur Miller became the President of PEN International, an association of writers and literary figures.  One of the things PEN does is look out for the safety and well being of writers who live in repressive regimes where their artistic or political expressions can land them in jail or get them shot in the middle of the night. 

One such situation, at that time, was in Nigeria where a General named Gowon was about to take over the government.  A Nigerian writer named Wole Soyinka was in danger, in prison, and facing execution.  Miller wrote a letter to the General asking for the release of Soyinka and, the obituary quotes Miller saying, “when the General saw my name he asked with some incredulity whether I was the writer married to Marilyn Monroe, and, assured that this was so, ordered Soyinka released.” “How Maryilyn would have enjoyed that one!” Mr Miller added. 

Twenty years later Mr. Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature.   In such a case, someone might have said to Arthur Miller - Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Did anyone read the story that was on the front page of last Sunday’s News Times about the church that is moving into the big facility being built on the New Milford – Brookfield line on Route 7.  It’s beginning to look like a church, now that the crosses are visible on the front, and I was interested to read what the pastor had to say about their approach to faith.  One thing he said was: What do people want from a church?  What are their expectations, and what do we need to do to meet those needs.  We’re in the people service business.  When people like a product, you then make more of it.”  He also said, “God has an incredible plan for every single person’s life, and my job is to help people maximize that life.”

Now on the surface that last statement might sound a lot like what Mordecai said to Esther – in effect, God has a plan for your life.  But upon closer examination I think what you’d find in that church, and in a number of churches here and around the world, and growing especially fast in Africa, is really an inversion, a mirror image of what the Bible teaches.

This approach is sometimes called Prosperity Preaching, the Word Faith Movement, or Abundance Theology.  Let me read you a little that Time magazine reported on it’s growth in Africa a while back:

It is miracle week in Monrovia, Liberia, and inside a huge, open-sided, thatch-roofed cabana some 4,000 Liberians are praying, singing and beseeching Jesus for help. Drummers thump out a beat as Reverend Isaac Winker prowls the stage shouting into a microphone: "Forgive us our sins, Father! Cure these cancers, these tumors! Get rid of blindness, get rid of lameness!" On the other side of the continent, at a lunchtime prayer service a Pastor roars out a similar message: "Poverty should be under our feet, amen! Fear should end, amen! I don't care if you had no food when you woke up this morning. You cannot go back there, amen! Reach out and accept what is coming. You deserve wealth! Yes, amen!"

Later the author writes:

A growing number (of African churches) also embody a more fundamental theological shift away from European tradition. In place of the mainstream churches' offers of salvation in the next world for good deeds in this one, many newer African churches preach instant deliverance in the form of worldly wealth. It is this message, so-called Prosperity Theology, that appeals to the continent's poor and displaced. "It is a miracle people are looking for. And they want it right here, not in the next life."

In America this movement traces back to a preacher named Kenneth Hagan, who plagiarized and popularized the work of an author named E. W. Kenyon.   Hagan has a number of well know disciples with large television audiences.   One of these disciples is Joel Osteen at the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.   Osteen preaches that church members need to discover the champion in you, teaching them weekly how they, too, can achieve their dreams and hearts’ desires. God wants to reward his congregation and viewers abundantly, he tells them, if only they would use the principles the Word-Faith Teachers have discovered to tap into this divine treasure trove.

Ken and Gloria Copeland are also within this movement and have huge television audiences, and locally the Word First Ministries down the street and Faith Church – this new one on Route 7 – are in it as well.

It isn’t up to me, really, to judge what other’s find in the scriptures.  (Although that is precisely what I am about to do and the very reason I need to give a disclaimer.)  Certainly the stories of miracles have been central to the Gospel since Jesus gave sight to the man born blind.  I do think, however, we need to be aware of how our understanding is different and see the true distinctions.  The reason the man was born blind, Jesus says, is not because of sin but so God’s works might be revealed in him – the story is about God’s works, not about the blind man’s needs.

I’m not sure I can put this simply, but I’ve always been taught to believe that God has a plan of salvation for this world and I can chose to give my life to the service of that plan.  I’ve also been taught to understand that the choice might involve sacrifice.  The Word-Faith movement, however, in a shift of emphasis, a slight of hand, preaches that God has a plan for my life and if I come to know that plan and give myself to it, God will serve me and I will be guaranteed success.

When I look at the table that is set before us today I am reminded that when the reason was revealed for Jesus life, it was revealed on a cross.  I am reminded that each of the disciples that sat around the table and listened as the Lord spoke the words – This is my body, this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me – that each of them was set upon a path that offered very little in the way of worldly wealth and material prosperity, very little in the way of tranquility and peace. 

I don’t know that God has a plan for my life – I do know that there are many opportunities for me and for each of us to give ourselves to God’s plan by serving others in the pattern of Jesus Christ.  That door opens daily.   It may not be as dramatic as the story of Esther, but surely if we listen we can hear an echo of the words spoken by her uncle Mordecai - Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

In the holy quiet of this hour, let us open our hearts and minds to God as we prepare to receive the gift of grace offered in Jesus Christ.  May the Spirit of God bring us into close communion with one another, with our neighbors, and with those absent from us

We celebrate an open communion.  This sacrament is for all who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people. Christ welcomes you.  Christ recognizes you.  Christ invites you into the circle of fellowship in his name.  Let us join together, then, in a prayer of thanksgiving

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