Obedience & Disobedience in the Name of God

Esther and Acts 4

They are different in specifics for each of us. But there are things that are SO important to us that they will pull us out of our comfort zones to challenge our peers, people in power, and even our families. It would be a good conversation over lunch or dinner: What will be stand for even if it makes our lives and our relationships more difficult?

Principles are often inconvenient. Following God, or doing what we believe to be right often makes us unpopular. And if we dare to stand before the powers saying, “There are things you do not understand,” it is dangerous.

Esther. In the Book of Esther, the story of this heroine is full of hidden conflict. Let’s be clear: this isn’t history, but more of a narrative set in a historical context. It is a teaching story – a way to demonstrate to Jews that it is possible to confront kings and governments even from the position of powerlessness. And that was the position of the Jews in exile, and under overlords – powerlessness. Their survival was often in doubt. The story of Esther is to help with an answer to the question, “How can Jews survive in Gentile lands?”

Esther presents the model of a wise courtier – using her influence to urge the king to tolerance and a wiser model of leadership. In the story, she is at risk in several ways. She is at risk as a secret Jew with a leader who holds a grudge against one man and seeks to destroy her whole people. She is at risk when she appears before a very mercurial king without his request for her presence. And she is at risk at the moment when she confronts Haman, because this king has given away a lot of his power to this man and doesn’t like being corrected or challenged. Esther sets things up very carefully to try to minimize her risks. It helps that the king has just heard read the story of how Mordecai saved the king’s life – so an accusation against Haman who seeks Mordecai’s death has a bit more credibility. And it is worth noting that the grudge that Haman has against Mordecai is because Mordecai wouldn’t bow to him – he bows only to God. It is a complicated narrative.

But in the end, because of Esther’s words and actions, she and her people are saved. At least this time. The king is still too intent on appearances and his own consequence – and mercurial in disposition – so their security must rest in God, not the tolerance of this particular ruler. MOVE CLOSE: Esther very carefully explained to the king that there were things that he didn’t understand, casting it as deception rather than the king having signed documents without reading them, or delegating power so he didn’t have the responsibility of actually making leadership decisions. As a heroine in the story, she was very wise – but don’t let that diminish the sense of risk, either for her or for anyone else who confronts those in power with injustice or cruelty. It is dangerous business. This story helps to explain that.

There are things worth taking risks. In Acts, the story of the early disciples after Jesus’ death and the story of them forming the church, Peter and John are arrested after a healing. Worse than healing on the Sabbath, which is not according to the tradition, they are testifying about the power of Jesus – who was just put to death by the Roman government on a charge of insurrection.

The Jewish authorities ask them “By what power…?” and they speak words of defiance, “We will obey God – not human authority.” There is a huge disconnect here. The Jewish authorities see themselves as speaking for God – but how can they speak for God when they do not understand what God is doing? They have misunderstood Jesus and his mission, and now they misunderstand what the disciples are doing in carrying out Jesus’ ministry.

It happens often. The institutions of religious leadership venerate the tradition of the past so highly that they miss what God is doing in the present. And then the orders come from tradition-bound authority with threats of punishment. The rulers want to keep whatever is happening quiet because it just might overturn their authority. They seek to control the people’s access to information about what is going on. It’s a pattern: suppress the press, control the media, ban books that tell a different story…talk about the dangers of varying opinions, the need for agreement, a mandate even. Paint the new with words like “dangerous,” or “Free thinking.” Chain the Holy Spirit so things stay the same.

This is what came from Pope John Paul II when he was asked to change the status of women in the Roman Catholic church in 1987. He refused, saying that the Catholic Church has no room for dissent and those who didn’t agree with the church’s position were disloyal.[i]

In the Methodist Church today, you can see exhibit one of this. That’s why, I am certain, the conservatives named their plan “The Traditional Plan,” trying to make it seem like the NORMAL plan, the historical plan, even though it is not. There is nothing traditional about the punishments they have attached to officiating at a same gender wedding. This is actually the only mandated and minimum punishment for any chargeable offense. None for felonies, none for child abuse, none for murder – just for officiating at a same gender wedding. We will stand against this. It isn’t traditional to hold all American Methodists to one doctrine – we are not a doctrinal church. Not on the Lordship of Christ, nor on the Trinity can you be forced out of the church for disagreement – just on this. So they call it traditional and try to clamp down on any disagreement. We will stand against this. Do not worry – we will stand against this. Not for long will it be in force. And our conference, and its leadership, have said it won’t be in force here. No trials, no punishments, and clergy and churches will do what they think best. We will stand for God’s love for all people. Period.

MOVE CLOSE: There are, after all, things worth taking risks for. We, like Peter and John, will obey God, not human authority.

Our task, as followers of Jesus, is speak out with authority to those in power about what is right, especially when what is right goes against policy, or tradition. We are urged by the biblical witness to Confront, to correct, and the connect with hope for a new way of living – we call it God’s kingdom, or kindom.

We come to the conversation with a different set of values – we hope for a better world that better reflects God’s priorities. And although we often speak against specific policies and practices, it is more that we are FOR something altogether different. We want a different kind of world. We should be standing for the same things that Jesus did, for the same dream of a world that he shared.

Actually, when we who are Christians do not stand for the same things that Jesus did, people rightly get confused about who we are and disillusioned about what we are doing. But this is hard – because in standing for the things Jesus did we find ourselves in conflict with most of the world in which we live, and the ways things work in our time.

Jim Wallis explains in the Forward to Red Letter Christians. “Jesus himself is a problem. He’s problem for the Wall Street traders, the Madison Avenue advertisers, the media moguls of Times Square, the Hollywood stars whose limos cruise Sunset Strip, the K street lobbyists and the powerful people on Pennsylvania Avenue who strive to maintain American imperial power. Closer to home, Jesus is a problem for many churches on Main Street who have substituted the values of the culture for His teachings.”[ii]

Jesus is the problem because he pushes us to think morally – not ideologically. Not politically. Not socially or traditionally. Morally. How would God have us act? How can we act in ways that lead to the kind of kingdom Jesus envisioned? THOSE are the questions Jesus would ask us.

Biblical scholar and ethicist Robert McAfee Brown reminds us that we have an obligation of dissent against “all things that threaten the integrity of the gospel to which we are committed.”[iii] He reminds us that we are Protestants from the Latin pro-testari which means “to testify on behalf of.” We have as part of our DNA, a tendency to encourage dissent as an “act of loyalty” to prevent human and fallible ideas from becoming misunderstood as “God-given absolutes.”

The book of Acts may be our greatest treasure for this work. If we read it, it reminds us that discipleship takes place in the context of empire. The early church told an unpalatable truth OUT LOUD – even to the establishment. They continued, even under threats, imprisonment and even death to live their truth out loud. It was how they lived – and it “refused the totalizing claims of power,” even the power of the Roman Empire. [iv]

This is only possible, then and now, if we have a sense of who we are beyond what is suggested by the culture around us. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg says that we need a “counteridentity” to the one formed by culture. This counteridentity must be formed by our faith and values. As we are formed as people of faith we develop an identity rooted in God which is a reflection of the Bible and Jesus, not of the culture. One where we see ourselves as “in Christ” and not in the version of self expected by the world.

Followers of Jesus, with our understanding rooted in his vision of a new world, a kingdom or kindom where all persons are valued and justice reigns – that will give us the courage we need to stand up to the powers, to tradition, to injustice, for what is right.

May we find our identity as followers of Jesus, as those who worship God, to be so strong that we can stand against what is unjust, against what is wrong – and stand and speak for what is true like Esther and Peter and John. God’s dream of a world where swords are beaten into plowshares and where a table is set for all peoples is worth the risks. May we be bold in insisting upon steps towards that day … Until it comes…. Amen.

[i] Robert McAfee Brown, “A Dissent on Dissent.” October 26, 1987 in Ethics in the Present Tense: Readings from “Christianity and Crisis,” 1966-1991. Edited by Leon Howell & Vivian Lindermayer. 1991. P. 104.

[ii] Jim Wallis, “Forward,” in Red Letter Christians: A Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics. Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, 2008. P.9.

[iii] “A Dissent on Dissent,” in Ethics in the Present Tense, 105.

[iv] Walter Brueggeman, Truth speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture. 2013. 162.