Worship ~ 4 December

Audio Recording

3:8   Haman (the bad guy) said to (the Persian) King Aha-súerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.” So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman and said to him, “The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.”

4:1 When Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry;  he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.  In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. 

When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them.  Then Esther called for one of the king’s servants, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why.  

[The servant] went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate,  and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews.  Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people. 

[The servant] went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. She gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 

When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, he told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any 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.” 

Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 

Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

For such a time as this. Esther’s gift was called out.

How about you? First step is to ask about your gift or gifts. The next question is what are you doing about it? These are kind of intimidating questions, but maybe not. Maybe they are the questions we should be asking ourselves and one another.

How are you equipped to expand, explain, extend, explore the kingdom of God in this place, in this time? What might be your particular skills for developing or growing God’s gift for the sake of others, for the world in need? Gifts are not to be kept under a bushel (we are told), or in the closet. They aren’t to be denied or denigrated or dismissed (even though we often do that). And gifts aren’t for your benefit. They are for God to use within you. You have been issued a gift, a wonderful, bewildering bit of the image of God, so that God can use it, so God may use you in the salvation story that began with creation and has no end, resting, as it does, in eternity.

Discerning gifts is your soul work – quieting yourself from the busy-ness of duties, responsibilities, expectations, distractions –  and asking what it is that gives you joy. What do you have passion to do? What gives you energy and a sense of power?

I believe our gifts come from a creating God and are essentially creative by nature, if that helps you locate one within you. Courage, justice, teaching, building, cleaning, writing, helping, leadership – these are as creative as music or design.

Church work too often calls out the first list –  the duties, responsibilities and expectations – right? Baking cookies, attending meetings, sharing your resources and finances, signing up to serve in one way or another, baking more cookies. The Cookie Sale is Saturday. The list can sound kind of joyless, unless you like to bake artful, delicately, delicious cookies for the Cookie Sale.

If you’re still feeling a bit dismissive of the notion that you have a unique and precious gift, others might be able to offer suggestions – things they’ve observed about you, things they feel. And that can be helpful to get you started. But in the end it is yours to discover, yours to own up to. It has to feel sound and true to your inner self. 

Some people know right away what they are good at, what they’re called to do from deep within.  They may have been practicing it for years, and are learning to trust it. But maybe your gift is shy, reticent, and you need to allow yourself to be vulnerable. To let that deep inner spark make contact with the world. To let God expect something of you. You might feel that it’s nothing really, not as good as some other person’s, not worthy of being God-given, better kept quiet and private until you’re sure.

Esther is the story of a young woman, a Jewish woman, chosen for the king’s harem because of her beauty. So, was her gift her beauty? or her Jewishness? Her beauty was what placed her in proximity to the king and likely what kept her alive when she entered his presence unbidden. Her Jewishness is what gave her passion to speak against the unjust genocide of a minority population. So both were gifts and both called her to take the risk of her lifetime. 

Esther was orphaned in Susa sometime at the end of the Babylonian exile. Most Jews went back to Judah when King Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and allowed prisoners to return to their various homelands. But many stayed. They had settled into life in their foreign communities, perhaps married a local lad, or been taken as apprentice in a trade. We don’t know much of Esther’s back story, except that she was an orphan, rescued and raised by her old cousin, Mordecai, until taken from his home and thrust into the political and sexual intrigue of the Persian royal court.

In her various roles, as orphan, foster child, and consort to the king, Esther plays a dangerous game in deciding if and when to reveal her Jewish identity.  As the plot twists and turns, we realize that her willingness to disclose or deny it, effects not only her own life and safety, but that of the noble and brave Mordecai, and eventually, the lives of Jews throughout the kingdom. No pressure! And so the gift that emerges, that Mordecai helps draw out finally, is courage to act and speak on behalf of others who have no voice.

If this story seems like it should be on PBS or the big screen rather than in the Bible, you’re thinking along the same lines as about half the early Jewish and Christian scholars whose task it was to put together the biblical canon. There was a great deal of controversy – and movement of this book in and out of the box of keepers.

For one thing, God is never mentioned – not once in the whole book. That’s unique for a biblical story. No one prays overtly. No one quotes scripture. No one goes to the temple – because, of course, there isn’t one. No one goes to synagogues because the story takes place in Persia.  The only sort of religious ties the story has are references to sackcloth, ashes and a fast –  traditional signs of mourning – and Mordecai’s assurance that even if Esther failed, help would come to the Jews from some other quarter – implying that God has a plan for this people. 

The unspoken, hiddenness of God is what I love about this story and for which I am very grateful to the canon keepers for its inclusion. Because this feels realistic, closer to what our lives and stories are like. God is unknown, unseen, yet to be revealed, but hoped for, trusted in… much like Habakkuk’s story. Mordecai’s actions express the belief that God isn’t through with the Jewish people – even those outside Israel. And God continues to rely on outsiders to the covenant to get things moving, indicating to me, the inclusive nature of the kingdom.

This is one thing I really like about the narrative lectionary that I hope you have come to appreciate, too. We get to read novellas that don’t mention God and that have a woman as the story’s heroine. That’s a remarkable thing in the long tradition of the church, and is why not many people know Esther’s story. But it’s right here, edifying or not, between Nehemiah and Job… and we are given this day to think a few collective thoughts about what it means and why it’s there.

How many of you could see your life written up as drama? I bet everyone of you has done something, lived through something, experienced something that would make a good story – or a children’s book. Or a cartoon! I’ve heard some of them. If you let your imagination run for a few moments I bet you can picture a time, fill in a little of the scenery, capture a bit of the action or dialog or emotion of the event. 

And I bet there’s a time when each one of you has made a difference in someone’s life. And I bet there’s a time when you’ve been inspired or dumbfounded by someone’s generosity or helpfulness or kindness toward you. I bet each of you has suffered, has doubted, has dreaded. And I hope that each of you can at least picture what it would take for resolution of the conflict, for turning things to rights, for a happy ending.

Now, how many of you can imagine your life written up as gospel – good news of God’s activity living through, shining through, breaking through your life to others, for the sake of others?

Doubtful? Nah.

Look again at Esther. And if you’re still not getting it, go home and watch It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, because that movie takes its premise from this biblical book. 

Ordinary lives, little things that happen, unseen connections and consequences, contingencies – some bit of drama, or fear, or danger; some major doubts about identity and worth and personal value; God-given gifts drawn out of hiding; and a decision to stand for something, defend someone, to set out on a course of action whose ending you cannot see from your doorway…this is the plot of many a good story… and of most of our lives. 

Unlike the novella form or the movie, though, we don’t get to see the ending of our particular story, or know whose lives we have touched and turned. We don’t get to see the web our interconnected stories have woven, but chances are – just like Esther and George Bailey, we have been set here, positioned in such a way, for just such a moment, just such a time as this. 

I think it’s too bad on the one hand, but probably a very good thing on the other, that God remains invisible in our lives and in our workings. I don’t think any of us really want angels showing up unannounced or words placed upon us in prophetic impulse. Most of us prefer our unenlightened, yet inspired lives. It’s easier to live that way. 

But that hiddenness of God does not mean God is absent or uninterested. It just means God somehow trusts our nature enough to know that we’re going to screw up, and also that we are the very best medium for reaching those other screw-ups who need to be loved. 

Esther loved Mordecai and her people enough to take a huge risk. As we move closer to Christmas and the incarnation of God in earthly life – that story, that risk, that love becomes God’s story. If our lives reflect a portion of that plot line, if we, too, are able to risk loving and caring and confiding and challenging, then the drama of our lives becomes good news for a waiting world.