Rejoice in Love
What do people of faith do when they find themselves at a critical turning point? The story of Esther is full of all kinds of intrigue and amazing characters. It takes place in the ancient Persian capital of Susa, which is modern-day Iran. The Persian Empire had defeated the Babylonians, essentially freeing the Jews from their captivity there. King Cyrus had permitted Jews to return to Judah and rebuild a temple in Jerusalem, but other Jews had stayed within the Persian Empire where they had found uneasy peace as a religious minority.
The story of Esther reveals that peace coming apart at the seams. King Xerxes is on the throne. Esther, a Jew, is his queen. Her uncle Mordechai, who had taken the orphaned girl in and raised her, is her voice on the outside. Haman is the scheming courtier looking to eliminate the Jewish minority once and for all, which is when our lesson intersects with the story.
Esther is torn; she wants to help her people, but she wonders if there is much she can actually do, since for her to approach the King unbidden is essentially a death sentence. She seeks her uncle’s wisdom.
There is one character, however, who is notably absent from the story: God. God is the central character throughout the Bible. God is the star of everything from Creation to Revelation. And yet, no version of the divinity makes any appearance in the story of Esther at all. Many have tried to find or justify where God is by doing detailed word studies, but the truth is this: the word God or Yahweh or Lord never appears. Not even once.
I don’t know about you, but this sounds awfully familiar. It’s not that I that God isn’t there. It’s that I haven’t witnessed first hand any of those bush-burning, sea-parting, curtain-tearing, grave-opening moments where something clearly haunting and holy is happening. Even so, God is at work.
The same is true in our lesson this morning. When Esther demurs from stepping forward on behalf of her people, Mordechai offers the closest thing to a theological statement in the whole book: “Esther, we are going to be saved. If you don’t speak, someone else will. But isn’t it just possible that you have been put in this place at this time for this very reason?”
In other words, “Whether you say anything or not, God is going to fix it. And if you decide not to step up, God will find someone else. That’s how God works. Consider this: maybe you’re the one that God has chosen. Maybe that’s why you have been taken out of poverty and into the court of the Empire, so that you might just find the courage to save your people.”
What do people of faith do when they find themselves at a critical turning point?
This is the question we ought to ask ourselves. What do we do when we find ourselves at a critical turning point? For Esther, the moment is a huge one: she could very well prevent the genocide of her people. We might never be in that kind of position, but there is no doubt we are in situations all of the time when we might just make a difference.
It could be when a friend makes a casual remark that seems counter to everything you know. You could let it slide; after all, they’re your friend…but can’t friendships weather truth? Or maybe you witness a complete stranger being mistreated. “It’s none of my business,” you might think…or is it? Or perhaps there’s a story on the news that churns your heart and mind. It’s quite natural to be wearied by compassion fatigue: after all, the news cycle will find something else to manufacture outrage about in the next few days. But who knows? Maybe your soul has been stirred for such a time as this...
Last week, I spent part of my sermon reflecting on the grand jury ruling from Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, we have had a grand jury ruling from Staten Island and a scathing Department of Justice report on the Cleveland Police Department. These have come together as a harsh crucible, sparking incredible conversations with friends from around the country. As I said last week, the light that has been shed on what it means to be young, black, and male in America, is not going away. I personally feel compelled to continue these conversations and share them as much as I can, so that I can move beyond my little cultural silo and out into challenging and uplifting relationships that look a little bit more like the kingdom of God. And I may be wrong, but I think we are at a critical moment as a civil society. Who knows? Maybe we have been called to this place for such a time as this…
I want to make space for those of us who want to continue these conversations to do so, and to find a way to respond as faithful people whose hearts break for the things that break the heart of God. If you feel particularly moved by any of this, just let me know by dropping a comment below or reaching out to me.
Maybe none of this grabs you, but surely there is something that does. Perhaps it’s the situation that Christians and other religious minorities find themselves facing under the fearsome rule of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Or maybe it’s more personal, closer to home: the neighbor who is going through a time of transition or grief; the family member who needs a word of encouragement or of tough love; the colleague whom you value but have somehow never managed to tell.
Whatever strikes you, my point is this: just as Esther found herself in a place to share a word and save her people, we find ourselves in places all the time where we can make a difference by sharing the very thing that is so central to our faith: love.
Love ought to undergird all that we do. I’m not talking about a wishy-washy, feel-good kind of love, but a love that seeks after truth, a love that knows we can do better, a love that lives in hope of a world that can look more and more like the world God desires.
And that’s the point here: we ourselves are not the source of love. We are, however, made to be vessels of that love that we see in the one who gathers us here today. God loved, and so God created. God loved, and so God redeemed. God loves, and so God sustains.
Let me put it this way: what if each of us were to find affect one person every month with a healthy dose of love? What if that was our goal, that over the course of a year, we would have an impact on twelve people, being those vessels of holy, healing love out into a hurting world? What if, by the end of December, you thought of one person whose life you could impact for the better? For such a time as this…
When Mordechai challenges his niece to examine her conscience, she does, indeed, step up. And in doing so, she offers her own challenge, that Jews throughout the Persian capital would pray and fast for Esther. She knows she can’t do it alone. She knows she needs the strength and encouragement of the whole community behind her. She knows she needs to enlist God to her side, even if the holy name is never uttered.
I don’t know; maybe you hear all of this and think, “What can one person do?” It’s a fair question. When we’re talking about world-shattering concepts like war and death and racism, what, indeed, can one person do? To that, I say, consider this: Esther may have been a queen, but she was still a woman at a time when that was not much to be. More than that, she was a Jew among Persians. And even further, she managed to speak up to the all-powerful Xerxes when doing so was strictly forbidden. And in doing so, she managed to stop a genocide.
What is it that you are called to, in such a time as this?