Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 7, 2018
“We Were Meant for Just Such a Time as This”
Esther 4: 14-17 – New Revised Standard Version
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.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “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.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
Last week I shared the story of Queen Vashti. Here’s a brief synopsis. King Ahasuerus held a six-month long party all around his kingdom to celebrate his vast territory and tremendous wealth. For the final week, he gathered all the men for a seven-day drinking binge. As a final act, the king instructed his beautiful wife, Queen Vashti, to parade in front of all the well-intoxicated men, wearing her crown, which according to some ancient traditions meant only her crown. But she refused causing great panic by all the men who feared that if she wasn’t punished sufficiently for her rebellion, all their wives would feel empowered to disobey their husbands too. Therefore, Queen Vashti was banished.
So, to pick a new queen, the king’s advisors suggested a beauty contest. First, gather all the most beautiful women from around the kingdom. Then, give them cosmetic treatments for an entire year – described as six months with the oil of myrrh and six months of perfumes. Lastly, each young woman would be brought before the king so that he could choose the one who pleased him the most. He chose Esther, about whom the only thing he knew was that she was beautiful. What else was there to know? But more to the point of this story, he did not know she was Jewish. As a child, Esther was an orphan who had been adopted by her uncle Mordecai. He advised her throughout the year of cosmetic treatments not to tell anyone they were Jewish.
Esther and Mordecai lived in Susa, one of the four capitals of the great Persian Empire. A hundred years before, Jews had been carried off into captivity in Babylon, the heart of Persia. 70 years later, Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem, but many like Mordecai chose to stay where they were. And yet, living as a Jew at the heart of the Persian Empire was risky. King Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes, has been described as “the most powerful man in the world. A reckless, extravagant, and easily manipulated character.” He was surrounded by men who knew how to use flattery to get him to enact their evil schemes. Powerful, reckless, extravagant, and easily manipulated by flattery. Ahasuerus, not who you are thinking. But the worst character of them all, the most opportunistic, was a man named Haman who plotted and schemed his way up the ladder to the position of second in command in order to carry out some extraordinarily devious acts, a character that reminds me of presidential advisor Stephen Miller, but more on that later.
Haman was a petty man with an easily bruised ego. He had an irrational hatred of a certain people he labeled a “dangerous element.” One day Mordecai failed to bow to him. He used that snub to put in motion a plan to kill Mordecai and everyone associated with him. He got the king to issue a decree. Haman personally paid to have a gallows built on which Mordecai could be hanged, followed by getting rid of his people. Jews through-out the entire Persian Empire. Which, by the way, included Jerusalem, ensuring they would be wiped from the earth.
The powerful, reckless, extravagant, easily manipulated king fell right into Haman’s trap. When Mordecai found out, he went to see Queen Esther. He told her, “You’ve got to do something about this.” But what could she do? Even she couldn’t just schedule an appointment to see her husband. That’s because if he didn’t wave his golden scepter at you, you would be put to death, queen or not. But even if did wave his golden scepter, asking him to spare her people would require an explanation, which would risk revealing her identity to him, something Mordecai had always instructed her not to do. And yet, she was their only hope. He said, “Perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this.” And she agreed. “If I perish, I perish.”
But, even if you did see the king, advocating a reversal of his policy wasn’t enough. The law stated that once a decree was declared, not even the king could reverse it. The date set for the slaughter of the Jewish people was quickly approaching. Esther had to both change the kind’s mind and figure out a way to get a new decree declared before the other one went into effect. The pressure was on.
Esther dared approach the throne, using her wit to employ her beauty and charm to get his attention. She told him all she wanted was to have dinner. And, she suggested, let’s invite Haman too. Haman was thrilled. He bragged to everyone that he had been invited to a private dinner with the king and queen. So charmed by her, at that dinner the king offered to do anything she wanted. She simply asked for another dinner, again with Haman. It was at the second dinner that Esther told the story of a group of people in his kingdom who were about to be executed by his decree, something he didn’t even remember ordering.
Then Esther boldly revealed her identity to the king and told him that if his decree was carried out, she would be killed too. He was incensed. Who would want to do this to you? She pointed to their extra special dinner guest. “Him.” And then pointed out the window. In a reversal of fortune, Haman was executed on the gallows he built to hang Mordecai. Mordecai, by the way, also replaced Haman as the king’s second in command.
But just when we think, “Justice has been served!” the king issued a decree to save the Jews – by having them murder their neighbors the day before they were to be murdered. Sure, Haman and his ten sons were killed, along with 500 more. But the next day, 75,000 more innocent people. It’s a rather dreadful way to end what is otherwise a very inspiring story.
I asked Rabbi Mo about this. Why does Esther have to end with this gruesome act? He reminded me that though Esther is set in a historical time and in a particular political context, the story is satire. It’s historical farce – over the top. After all, had the men really been drinking for seven straight days? An entire year of cosmetic treatments? Death for a wife who asked to speak with her husband? A law that can’t be reversed? 75,000 people murdered? And even, the literal execution of every living Jew? Although, that one doesn’t seem quite as impossible.
Nor, as we are living through right now, does it seem impossible to imagine a powerful, reckless, extravagant, easily manipulated world leader, susceptible to flattery to carry out the evil deeds of scheming advisors who have an irrational hatred toward a certain people labeled a “dangerous element,” creating the conditions that allow for absolute cruelty and even death. Huh. How about that. Anyone who says the Bible is irrelevant doesn’t know the Bible.
Esther was famously made queen for “just such a time as this.” Just what kind of time are we living in? As Adam Serwer in The Atlantic wrote, “The Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track.” You surely heard about the rally in Mississippi on Tuesday night at which a crowd of Trump supporters cheered as the president mocked Christine Blasey Ford. That’s just his normal disgusting stuff. But did you that then the crowd started chanting “Lock her up!” Not Hillary. Dr. Ford. Deplorable.
But lost among the coverage of the supreme court, on Thursday news broke that the Trump administration lied about creating a database of children separated from their families, one of Miller’s proudest accomplishments, making it impossible to reunite all of them. On the same day the administration, once again led by Miller, announced its intention to implement his plan to revoke the temporary protected status of immigrants who have been here for as long as 20 years. Some proponents argue that “temporary means temporary.” What they won’t say out loud is that this means separation from their U.S.- born children – 192,700 children. Actions which are called ethnic cleansing in the Washington Post.
Then on Friday, Haman’s latest project, or rather, I mean, Stephen Miller’s latest project, was revealed: a blanket ban on visas for Chinese students. So, while at the same time the administration is trying to eliminate affirmative action in college admissions, deceptively claiming it discriminates against Asian-Americans, they are attempting to outright ban all students from China at US colleges and universities. Because they might spy on us; the “dangerous element” argument also used to justify Japanese internment camps. Plus, a bonus effect would be depriving income from “elite” universities who often criticize President Trump.
And then came Saturday…
For just such a week, for just such a time as this, we are a church called together by Jesus Christ to overturn injustice with acts of hospitality for 20 women every Tuesday in our fellowship hall. And acts of compassion at the Senior Support Center. And acts of solidarity on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
For just such a time as this we are a church called together by Jesus Christ to offer generosity toward organizations like the Florence Project which provides legal services for separated families. And undocumented day laborers at El Centro Humanitario. And disaster relief for victims of this administration’s neglect, or perhaps even malicious intent, against Puerto Ricans.
For just such a time as this, we teach Sunday school classes about loving our neighbors. And gather youth on Sunday evenings. And invite any group whose mission is racial justice to meet in our building for free.
For just such a time as this, when there seems to be so little to celebrate, we gather to witness the joyful baptism of children. If you missed last Sunday, one-year old Karsten reached down into the water and gleefully stirred it while I attempted to say, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ.” He was more interested in the water than the blessing.
For just such a time as this, through worship I am sustained by hearing the Word of God, not just a diet of Rachel Maddow and the Washington Post. And surrounded by people who know that these times call for resistance against biblical-level cruelty by modern-day Hamans, wondering, who is the Esther that will save us just in time this time, before realizing, Esther is every woman who is speaking up and telling her story, bravely revealing their identity in a very risky time. Women and men who won’t be silenced anymore. Dreamers who have risked their identity as undocumented. LGBTQ citizens who have come out to families or to their churches, only to be told, we don’t want you here anymore. It still happens.
This is stewardship month and sometimes when we approach this time of year to ask for pledges for the next, it can come across as somewhat of an apology. “I’m sorry we have to ask.” But I have to tell you, I’ve never been so convinced of the power of this gathered community, this gifted congregation, for exactly such a time as this. To put together our talents and our time and our money toward an endeavor of hope. To remember, God never loses hope in humanity, and neither should we. Hope can be hard, but it isn’t meant for times when it is easy. Hope is meant for just such a time as this. Hope expressed through acts of hospitality, solidarity, generosity, affirmation, support for one another, education, worship and more.
This church is not an institution deserving of your financial support. This church is a force for good in the world that invites your full participation. We were meant for just such a time as this, for exactly this kind of time. And so were you? Yes! So, Rise Up! Be bold.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world