This coming week is a very important one for those who work or study at Princeton University - it’s not midterms (yet!), it’s not Alumni Day or Commencement or even open enrollment at the Benefits Office. It is the week of FluFest, Princeton’s annual opportunity to get a flu shot. I reminded my colleagues of this important fact at our staff meeting last week - I encouraged everyone to get their vaccine, not simply for their own sake, but because if each of us gets it, each of us is much less likely to expose one another to the flu. It is in my very best interest not to be surrounded by people who are festering with flu, and that’s true for everyone of course. Choir - get the flu vaccine! I don’t want to be sitting up here with you all hacking away. Same for you all out in the congregation - go to FluFest, go to your doctors, go to your local chain drug store. But seriously, there are things that we do for ourselves, and there are things that we do not simply for ourselves but for the welfare of the community of which we are part. Preventing communicable disease is one important example. Each of our biblical passages for the day provides us lovely instruction on the lengths that we must go to take care of the beloved community around us - on what we do for our community.
We have heard only excerpts from the Book of Esther. If time permitted we would hear the whole text. It tells the story of the Jewish community in exile in ancient Persia. Esther is a beautiful young woman who becomes part of the king’s harem, and then his queen. She is Jewish, but she keeps her identity secret. Her Uncle Mordecai is also a ranking member of the king’s court, but because he would not bow down to another courtier, Haman, that man wants to have him killed. Not only that, Haman convinces the king to destroy all the Jews of Persia: total revenge! Esther connives her way into a banquet at which the king, Mordecai, and Haman are all present. In this very public setting the unctuous king, besotted with his arm candy Esther and delighted to show off his prowess by having her at his side, tells her patronizingly that he’ll do anything for her, even give her half his kingdom. Esther reveals to him that she is a Jew, and that Haman’s plan to kill Mordecai, herself, and all her people is part of a plot against the king himself. The king is incensed, and Haman is hanged on the 75 foot high hallows that he had erected for Mordecai’s execution. Esther saves her people from genocide and the global Jewish community celebrates her story every year in the festival of Purim.
What we do for our beloved community. Esther’s is an extreme situation, of course, but still she teaches us much - she has courage in seeking the welfare of her community, and she has such brains. She becomes queen in order to earn the king’s favor, and to use it for her people’s protection. She navigates the shoals and treacherous waters of the royal court; it is filled with sharks trying to promote themselves at the murderous expense of others. Esther is valued for her beauty, but no one notices her brains. Esther has boldness in seeking the welfare of her community, and she takes risks. Her Uncle Mordecai tells her that she will die whether she appeals to the king or not. She risks being killed on the spot for revealing her identity, but she takes that risk so that her community may flourish. Intelligence, strategy, risk, courage, boldness - these things we use wherever we find ourselves so that we may lift up those around us, divert them from harm, and ensure their well-being.
In our passage from the Letter of James, we see another way that we may lift up the beloved community around us - through prayer and other spiritual disciplines. Our prayers, even our faith, can be efficacious for others! All our prayers are heard, so when we lift them up we lift up the very members of our communities whose names are on our hearts or lips. We do this for one another - we bring people to the attention of God whether or not they can or want to do it for themselves. Our faith is efficacious, our efforts matter. There is always something we can do when we feel powerless, or when others feel hopeless. We don’t lose hope, we pray. We do something.
Wise speech is prayer, says James. We practice this wise speech alone, and frequently, but James invites us to do it together, to pray for the community in community - to make it communal activity. We are to share our needs with one another, and also our sins. We pray our own prayers of confession, but also dare to ask others to commend us in our repentance to God as well. We are to take responsibility for those things that make people in our community sick - sick in spirit, sick in body. We love and respect those in our community so we help them beat addictions and live, we help them beat mental illness and live, we help them beat their demons, the dominating people or ideologies that compromise their ability to flourish. We take responsibility for the environmental conditions around us so that all might flourish and not be poisoned, sickened.
We admit to our vulnerability when we ask others to pray for us. This isn’t always easy. If we, or someone we love, are in true peril we’ll take help anywhere we can find it, but sometimes our biggest challenge is something we’d rather keep private, something we feel is very personal. There are medical conditions that come with stigma, personal situations that are embarrassing, or that we feel speak to an imperfection or weakness in us, or someone we love.
I’ve said that I think we make ourselves vulnerable when we ask others to pray for what we really need. We also make ourselves vulnerable when we agree to pray for another member (or all) in our community. We are admitting that we are that human, too, and that we could easily be in their place, and maybe we have been. We make ourselves vulnerable because we don’t pray from our heads but from our hearts - from our compassion. We make ourselves vulnerable to the suffering of others; we let our ourselves accompany others in their suffering or striving when we will accompany them with our prayers, include them in our prayers, commend them to God in our prayers. We make ourselves vulnerable by simply agreeing not to look politely away when some or many among us have landed on hard times. Often we don’t know what to say. James tells us what to say: “I want to pray for you. Please tell me anything you want me to lift up in prayer.” We make ourselves very vulnerable when we offer that kind of solidarity.
Sometimes the greatest thing we offer our community is our very ability to pray during a difficult time. Depending on the circumstances, others simply may not be able to. We empower them and lift them up especially when it is something they cannot do themselves, not now. We are doing it.
And so James writes to you and me about the qualities we need in order to ensure the well-being of the beloved community around us - faith, vulnerability, compassion, tenacity, stubbornness, humility. Let’s add those to the qualities modeled for us by Esther - courage, boldness, risk, intelligence, strategy. Are they mutually exclusive? Not at all! They are wonderfully complimentary. Together, they are a beautiful composite of strength and caring, and indeed - our strength comes from our caring while our caring is born of our strength.
I’ve been speaking of our “beloved community” throughout these minutes. That saying, as you may know, was a favorite of Martin Luther King, Jr. - the Beloved Community to him was one founded on love and justice, integrated by every category and indicator one could think of, and based in a vision of radical, total relatedness. He said that we, the human family are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Yes, we are! Esther and James know it. We are all called to live it, and we do that by thinking continually about what we must do for whatever community surrounds us.
We pray for one another here at the Princeton University Chapel; we’ll do so again in just a few minutes, and we’re not going to stop. As a faculty member among us once said to me, “All those shared petitions become their own text!” They do - we script our prayers together here for ourselves and for those we know to be in need, they become their own testimony, a new litany, a powerful new narrative week in and week out. Some years ago, I read the results of a study that found that individuals who are ill and who pray for themselves do not have measurably better health outcomes than those who do not pray for themselves. However, those who know that others are praying for them have demonstrably better health outcomes, no matter what their own religious beliefs. For this reason, I always make sure to tell people who are ill that I am praying for them, since that knowledge alone may contribute to their healing.
There are so many ways that we can, through spiritual practice or physical labor, lift up and preserve the beloved communities of which we are part. As some of you know, my family and I live in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is one of the states that has recently adopted a voter ID law, although there have been no cases of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. The law threatens to disenfranchise thousands in Philadelphia alone. We anticipate a court ruling this week that may freeze the law until after the November elections, but that may not happen. And so for months now, many congregations and religious societies (including my husband’s) have bonded together to simply get photo IDs into the hands of registered voters - the great majority of them elderly, students, the poor, and people of color. People of faith and others haven’t waited with fingers crossed to see if the court will uphold the Voting Rights Act, they’re doing it themselves. It’s what their faith tells them they need to do to lift up and ensure the welfare of members of their community - their beloved community.
Whether through our prayers or our physical deeds, let us be bold, vulnerable, courageous, humble, strategic, compassionate, risk-taking, stubborn, tenacious and wise as we lift up the needs of the beautiful people around us. We are connected to one another on a level so profound as to defy any human language’s attempt at a description. Only a spiritual understanding begins to get at it. We are the equally beloved children of God, and God rejoices in our every effort on another’s behalf.
So don’t forget - get your flu shot.
Feasting on the Word , editors D. Bartlett and BB Taylor, Year B Vol. 4, pp 98-103, 110-115.