18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 21) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 26 September 2021

Esther 7:1-6, 9-19; 9:20-22 | Psalm 124 | James 5:13-20 | Mark 9:38-50

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who delivers us from fowler’s snare and turns our mourning into joy.

People who fish sometimes have a story about the one that got away—a big impressive fish that they almost caught, but it somehow managed to escape. They don’t have the fish to show, or even a picture of it, just the story of the one that got away.

In today’s readings, we have two versions of the “one that got away” story, but from the fish’s perspective. In our Psalm and in Esther, we hear stories from people who almost got caught and then escaped at the last minute. These are stories from communities who almost became somebody else’s lunch but lived to fight another day. And these are not only exciting and dramatic stories, but they’re also formative stories. These stories of survival, stories of deliverance, shape how we see ourselves and what we do next.

Our Psalm is a song of praise for God’s help in a narrow escape. “If the Lord had not been on our side, then the raging waters would have gone right over us. We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the trap is broken and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord.” This Psalm brings the people together in giving thanks to God for God’s deliverance. It goes right up to the brink of what could have happened, only to breathe a sigh of relief and thanks to God for deliverance. The fish got away. The trap broke and the bird got out and kept flying free.

This is the same kind of story we have in the book of Esther. It’s a story of deliverance, a story of a narrow escape. We only read this one little piece near the end of the story in our cycle of church readings, but it’s worth reading the whole book of Esther sometime—it’s short and full of dramatic twists. It’s a story of when the Jewish people were in exile under Persian rule. Esther, a young Jewish woman, is married to the king and becomes queen of Persia. Haman, a scheming advisor to the king, plots to annihilate the Jewish people, and he doesn’t seem to realize that Queen Esther herself is Jewish. Then Queen Esther’s uncle Mordecai urges her to try and convince the king to stop the genocide. At great personal risk, Esther goes to the king, reveals her hidden identity, and pleads for herself and her people. Then the tables are turned. Esther’s people are saved, and it’s their enemies who are destroyed. The fish gets away, and the fisherman who was trying to catch it even falls in the lake at the end. The trap is broken and the bird flies off safe. It’s a story of a narrow escape, a story of reversal, a story of deliverance.

And it’s a formative story. It’s a story with lasting effects. Most scholars don’t think that the book of Esther is meant to be read as historical fact; Esther probably didn’t become queen of all Persia. But it’s a story that helped people live their lives at the time it was written and still does today. It’s partly a story about how to survive by adaptation and diplomacy. For people living in exile, this was an especially formative story because it helped them learn how to stay true to their unique Jewish identity while doing what they had to do to get by under foreign rule. It’s a story that gives hope for oppressed peoples that the tables can turn, that sudden reversals can upset the expected balance, that sometimes the underdog can come out on top.

Jewish communities today retell the Esther story at the feast of Purim every year in festive and humorous ways. It’s a melodrama with audience participation and irreverent costumes and plenty of chances to make fun of whatever oppressive empires exist today. The king is played as hilariously incompetent and full of himself, and everyone boos and makes noise when Haman’s name in mentioned. There’s food and drink and celebration. It’s a holiday that builds resilience to survive the new challenges by retelling this ancient deliverance story with laughter and play and feasting.

It’s interesting that of all the parts of Esther we could be reading, our lectionary included these verses near the end where they set up a holiday to remember the story. I wish that we were reading more of Esther in our Sunday reading cycle because it’s such a great story, but I also really appreciate that we get this part. We get to see the connection between Esther’s story of deliverance and the way that a community remembers that story together with “feasting and gladness.”

And that’s something we do in our Christian communities too. We celebrate the stories of our faith in our holy days. At Christmas we gather around the manger. At Good Friday we gather around the cross. At Easter, we gather around the empty tomb, and we remember what God has done for us, and we pray together, and we feast together.

Every Sunday at the altar, we retell the story of our deliverance in Jesus, and we eat in remembrance. We tell the story of how we were wandering, but Jesus found us. We tell the story of how the raging waters almost drowned us, but Jesus pulled us back up. We tell the story of how the snare is broken and we have escaped, thanks be to God. In the eucharist, we tell the story of how when the powers of death were closing in on Jesus and on us, our God turned the tables and brought resurrection life. Listen for that story of our deliverance today when we move to the altar to pray. Telling that story together again and again is part of what makes us who we are, part of what unites us with Christians all over the world, with those who came before us, and with those who will come after us.

It’s like the stories a family tells around the dinner table, how we learn who we are and who we want to be in that feasting and storytelling. I grew up hearing stories from and about my cowboy grandpa and great grandpa in Texas—stories resourcefulness and survival in difficult times. These are some of the stories that make me who I am. And I’m sure you have those stories in your family too—stories of where you’ve come from that are also about where you’re going and who you want to be. Those in our community who have survived cancer and other serious illnesses have their own deliverance stories and their own scars—the Psalm today could have been written for them. These stories of survival and deliverance form us and guide our decisions and give us strength.

But we know that not all our stories are deliverance stories, or at least not yet. Sometimes the bird stays caught in the trap, at least in this life. Sometimes we or our loved ones are caught in suffering, and we don’t see the deliverance we want. Some of our stories are full of trauma that needs healing and gentleness. Sometimes we need to unlearn stories of scarcity or exclusion that we learned growing up, or learn to tell them in a different way. Some of our stories of illness or trouble are unfinished, and we don’t yet know the outcome even though we hope for deliverance in some unseen future.

Our reading from James invites us to bring all of those stories—the deliverance stories, the suffering stories, the unfinished stories—to our community in prayer. This letter to the early church invites us to come together in prayer when we are suffering and to come together in praise when our spirits are high. It invites us to share our joys and our troubles with one another through prayer and praise and counsel—to be part of each other’s stories as we bring those stories to God. We carry our stories of deliverance and of suffering together. We retell them together and help each other find new meanings in them, new ways to tell the story. We pray about them together. We feast about them together.

And when we do that, these stories shape who we are as a community. These formative stories become part of our collective DNA. Sometimes they are even part of our physical spaces. Soon after I came here, I learned that this church survived both a flood and a fire. The building had to be rebuilt, but the church, the community, survived. I heard the story of how this baptismal font survived too. When the fire burned the wooden floor, this font fell through onto the basement floor below. There’s a broken place right here where it hit the floor, but it survived. Sometimes our deliverance stories come with some scars. Sometimes we and our communities carry the marks of our survival stories even when we make it out alive. Deliverance stories like this become part of who we are as a community.

And when I hear us tell stories like that one about the fire, I wonder what stories our parish will tell about these pandemic years. I wonder what we’ll be able to say about how we got through, how we helped each other, how we found God in the mess. I wonder how we’ll mourn those who didn’t make it through. I wonder how we’ll celebrate the hard-won victories and the narrow escapes and the tipping points where hope broke in against all odds. I wonder what scars we’ll carry forward and what deliverance stories we’ll tell in the church years from now. When we look back, maybe we’ll find some Psalm 124 stories to tell and some Esther stories to tell—stories of deliverance and courage that will shape who we become and how we face the future together.

And I wonder: What are the stories that make you who you are now? Where has God shown up in the story of your own life? How can we make space in this community together for you to share the stories that matter to you? What Psalms are you singing? And who are the Esthers in your story today?

I pray that in this season we will be inspired and strengthened to tell our stories together, and that when we do that, we will discover new glimpses of God’s deliverance among us. Amen. 

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