© Michael Clarkson, 2018. Preached at St. John’s, Ithaca, NY, September 30, 2018, for Proper 21, Year B, Track 1. Texts: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; and Mark 9:38-50. Image: The Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus by Jan Victors.
Today’s reading from James prompts some hard questions. What does prayer do? How does prayer work? These are entirely natural and entirely unanswerable questions. Yet they are inescapable. So, let’s do our best with them.
We pray every Sunday for the church, the world, for those in need. We pray for our friends and family. For those who lose their jobs and cannot support their families. For homes and lives destroyed by hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. For children incarcerated in warehouses. We pray at home, at church, as we dash between meetings. We struggle to find the time to pray. We pray for a year for a friend dying of cancer and struggle to understand why nothing happens. We pray desperately to God “who so loved the world” and struggle to understand how the world can be falling apart. The struggle, as they say, is real.
In the midst of that struggle, the psalmist declares, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” How do we keep these two, heaven and earth, God and world, together? Rowan Williams writes, “In spite of appearances, God and the world belong together. There is no place where the love of God can’t go. And that is unbearably hard to believe.” But that is our call: to believe so hard as to find the love of God in all persons, and in all the world. Jesus did. Jesus, on the cross, held together God and world. Jesus, in his passion and resurrection, proclaimed that even all the forces of evil cannot defeat God’s love or send God away from the world.
So, what does prayer do? How does prayer work? Prayer binds us together with Jesus and with our community, struggling as hard as we can to believe that nothing separates God and world; to believe that our help is indeed in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth; to reveal God’s abiding faithfulness to us; and to deepen our faithfulness to God. In short, prayer is a sacrament of faithfulness: it points us toward faithfulness, and it creates faithfulness in us.
The Jewish people thought a lot about faithfulness, especially God’s covenantal faithfulness to his chosen people. The history of Israel and Judah is seen throughout the Hebrew scriptures through the lens of faithfulness. God was faithful through Abraham and created a nation. God was faithful through Moses and delivered that nation. God was faithful through David (yes, even David) and established a royal kingdom. Though many a time did they rebel and break that covenant, God remembered it, saw their distress, heard their lamentation, and relented in accordance with his great mercy.
Which brings us to the book of Esther. Today is the only day in the entire 3-year Sunday lectionary that we read from Esther, and we get just a smattering of verses. So, first, some context. It’s a short story, accepted relatively late into both the Hebrew canon and the Christian canon. The Jewish nation is living in forced exile in Persia, a historical fact, but much of the rest is historical fiction, or maybe even historical salacious comedy. The Persian queen is deposed because she refuses to appear before the king—Jewish commentary more explicitly says to dance for the king wearing nothing but a diadem. Then a Jewish girl, Esther, becomes queen through her great beauty, but hides her ethnic identity. Her Jewish mentor, Mordecai, who once saved the king from being assassinated by courtiers, becomes a target of the king’s right-hand man, Haman. It isn’t enough for Haman to destroy Mordecai; instead, Haman wants to kill the all the Jews living in Persia. So, he bribes the king to issue an order commanding their annihilation. Mordecai persuades Esther to act, saying, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape 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.” But action comes at great personal risk for Esther: she’s going to have to risk her own death in bringing to fruition the banquet scene from today’s reading. So, she calls for the Jews to fast on her behalf, to neither eat nor drink for three days. After that, she says, she will go to the king, dramatically declaiming, “If I perish, I perish.” She does not perish, though, nor do the Jews, as Haman’s plot is revealed and, in poetic justice, Haman is hanged on the very gallows on which he intended to hang Mordecai. Later the Jews get to kill some Persians—that bit is omitted by the lectionary—then they have a grand feast that becomes the progenitor of the modern Jewish holiday of Purim, which I’m told is celebrated not unlike Carnival. That seems appropriate, since the book of Esther contains no fewer than 10 wine banquets.
In all the book of Esther, though, something is shockingly absent: God. God is never named. All the activity is ascribed to humans. When Mordecai is persuading Esther, he says only “deliverance may arise from another quarter,” not from God. When Esther calls for the fast, no mention is made prayer or petitioning God. A reader of this story could be forgiven for assuming everything is due to fate, not God. Most shockingly, given the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, God is absent in the face of the almost-genocide of the Jews. It’s as if the writers of this story, themselves in exile, have given up on the idea of God’s covenantal faithfulness, of the idea of reconciling God and world, and even of the idea of prayer. God has ceased to be an active player in the world. God isn’t even interesting enough to put in the narrative. Based on the text of the story, Esther’s world is Godless. No wonder it took so long to adopt into the scriptures.
The questions this raises are troubling. Is God omitted out of a jaded secularism? Has God become so transcendent as to be beyond human engagement? Or is God just no longer relevant? And: are those questions about Esther’s world? Or ours? When we look at the world around us, at our culture, at our everyday life… Is God omitted out our jaded secularism? Has God become so transcendent as to be beyond our engagement? Is God relevant?
The reading from James answers this unambiguously: yes. God is relevant. Are you suffering? Pray. Are you sick? Have elders pray over you. Are you cheerful? Sing. “To sing is to pray twice,” as the aphorism goes. Pray. Pray. Pray. God is relevant. God is involved. God broke through in a new and unexpected way in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and is still deeply, passionately involved in this world. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
But right away, the struggle begins anew. What does prayer do? How does prayer work?
It’s tempting to read James as a user manual. Pray for world peace, you’ll get world peace. Pray for a cure from cancer, you’ll get a cure from cancer. Pray for a drought to begin or end, and a drought will begin or end—at least if you’re Elijah doing the praying. The problem is, that’s not how the story goes. As recorded in 1 Kings, Elijah does not pray to God to begin a drought; Elijah just announces it to King Ahab as a throw-down to declare that Yahweh is the real weather god, not Baal. And Elijah’s prayer does not end the drought; that happens because the people confess, “The Lord indeed is God” and give up worshipping Baal.
Perhaps James got carried away here in hyperbole, much like our Lord did in the Gospel reading. Is Jesus really telling you to maim or to blind yourself? Or is it about priorities and values? Jesus calls us to put the kingdom of God first; to renew our faithfulness to God’s eternal purposes; to let nothing stand in the way of finding the love of God in all persons, and in all the world.
If we can put the kingdom of God first, maybe we can read James not as a user manual of prayer, but as an inspiration to faithfulness. Then prayer is not a means to manipulate God, nor a shopping list of requests on which we want a “yes” or “no.” Prayer is no longer about petitioning for isolated interventions, as if God occasionally deigned to be involved in our lives, and the rest of the time was absent. No, prayer is about recognizing and participating in God’s constant presence with us. There is no time that God is uninvolved, no time that God is not present.
Then we see: Esther’s world is not Godless, nor is ours. How do we keep heaven and earth together? God and world, together? The question is bogus. It’s a false dichotomy: there is no separation of the world from God’s love. And that is unbearably hard to believe, yet it is the good news of Jesus Christ.
One last time: What does prayer do? How does prayer work? I know of no better way to answer these unanswerable questions than simply to pray. Pray the Lord’s Prayer before getting out of bed. While waiting in line, point your phone’s web browser to the book of Psalms, the Bible’s own prayer book, and pray a Psalm. Maybe even find a podcast or a website with the Daily Office and join in with your brothers and sisters throughout the world.
Most of all, pray in faithfulness to God. Pray in response to God’s faithfulness. Pray because prayer is a sacrament of faithfulness: it points us toward faithfulness, and it creates faithfulness in us. Pray because our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
- Raymond Brown. An Introduction to the New Testament, Yale University Press, 1997.
- Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt. An Introduction to the Old Testament, second edition. Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
- Michael Williams, ed. The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, volume 4, “Old Testament Women”, Abingdon Press, 1993.
- Rowan Williams. “Intercessory Prayer” in A Ray of Darkness, Cowley Publications, 1995.
 Paraphrasing Rowan Williams.
 Ps 106.
 Paraphrasing Brueggemann and Linafelt.
 Attributed to Augustine of Hippo though he didn’t actually write it, and it’s really “to sing well is to pray twice.”