September 27, 2009
SERMON OF SEPTEMBER 27, 2009
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
“Courage for Community”
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, Mark 9:38-50
We’ve told the story of Esther in a different way this morning because it’s a different sort of story than those we normally find in the Bible.
One way this story is different is its focus on a woman. Men typically are the central figures in Scripture. While there are other prominent and powerful women who are mentioned it’s abundantly clear that women were living in a man’s world in biblical times. Women were always supposed to obey their husbands. The only reason Esther had an opportunity to become Queen is because her predecessor, Queen Vashti, had the temerity to disobey the King.
Being a book of the Bible named for a woman who is its central figure doesn’t make Esther unique. The same can be said for the Book of Ruth. What does make Esther unique is that it’s the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God.
The entire focus is on human beings and human behavior. You might say the entire focus is on what it means to be human – to live a human life and not just any human life – but our life – the life God created us to live.
God has given each of us, like God gave Esther, a particular life to live and a particular time to live it in. We too, like Esther, are invited by God to live an undivided life – a life where our inner being, our true self, is consistent with the life we live in the world.
God is Still Speaking through the Book of Esther inviting people like you and me to become the Word God speaks by living the life God intends for us to live.
In the 13th verse of the 4th chapter of Esther, Mordecai sends a message urging her to go before the king on behalf of her people. He says:
“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 arise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
“Just such a time as this.” It was over 2400 years ago. Jews were in exile in Persia, 100’s of miles from home. They were cut all from all that had given their lives meaning and purpose. And they felt powerless in face of the forces that shaped their daily lives. Esther rose to a position of power based on her physical beauty. With the help of an extreme makeover she was chosen to be Queen by a King who didn’t know that she was Jewish.
When the villain Haman planned the ethnic cleansing of all the Jews in Persia, Esther had a decision to make. She could continue to conceal who she was and hope that she survived the Holocaust that was about to happen. Or she could risk her own life in an attempt to save the lives of her people.
After preparing herself, her maids and her people with 3 days of fasting Esther said to Mordecai, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
Sitting here in the safety of this sanctuary, within a few miles of home, as people who have no one plotting our annihilation we might well say, “So what.”
So what if Esther was faced with such a decision. In such a time as this – in which we live – we aren’t faced with having to risk much of anything at all on behalf of our people – or are we?
In part our answer depends on how we define “our people.”
Buford was an alcoholic I got to know during my ministry in East Harlem. He spent much of his life on the street but never wandered too far from the liquor store on Lexington Ave. between East 103rd and 104th Streets Buford was often upbeat and talkative but one day I found him sitting on the sidewalk propped up by the wall of the building next to the liquor store. He was weeping.
“What’s wrong, Buford?” I asked.
“I got no people,” he said, “I got no people.”
He meant that he had no family to be with – no family to turn to – no family to support him - no family to challenge him to live the life God created him to live.
“I got no people.”
Some of us, in our community of faith, have large and supportive families. Other’s of us come from much smaller, yet supportive families. Others of us have families that have done as much harm to us as good through the years. Still others of us have few, if any, people in our lives we think of as family, beyond this family of faith.
And yet, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, “we’ve all got people.”
“We’ve all got people” because our faith assures us that “we’ve all got God” – the God in whose image are all created – the God who knit each of us together in our mother’s womb – the God who reminds us time and time again that “our people” don’t just include the members of our biological families, our religious tradition, our racial group, our gender, our sexual orientation, our economic class, our physical or mental ability or our family structure.”
“Our faith reminds us that “we all got people,” because our faith reminds us, as it reminded Martin Luther King, Jr. that “…all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever effects one directly effects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in the world, no one (man) can be totally rich even if that person (he) has a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than 20 or 30 years, no one (man) can be totally healthy, even if that person (he) just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America.”
“Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way the world is made. I didn’t make it that way, but this is the interrelated structure of reality.” (Testament of Hope - The Essential Writings of MLK, Jr. edited by James Washington, p.210).
There is no more eloquent expression of our interconnectedness than that found in the words of John Donne: (adapted to include the female half of the human race)
“No one is an island, entire of itself; everyone is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a home of thy friend’s or of thine own were: anyone’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in humanity, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
In such a time as this the bell tolls for each of us in both our personal and our public lives. The bell tolls for each of us to act with the courage of Esther.
Paul Tillich, one of the most prominent Protestant theologians of the last century, wrote a book entitled The Courage to Be. In it he argues that the essential task of every human being is living with two types of distinguishable yet interrelated courage – the courage to be oneself and the courage to be a part of a community beyond oneself. (p. 86-89)
Both types of courage are required in living the life God created each of us to live!
Esther was an orphan. She knew what it was like to feel abandoned, unloved, unwanted in a world that she felt powerless to change.
She was raised by her older cousin Mordecai. He became the father she never had. She knew in her deepest self that her people were not just her biological relatives. She knew the life of an orphan and the life of a Queen. She knew the life of being a Jew and she knew the pain of concealing who she was. She knew in her deepest self that her destiny was linked to the destiny of her people.
Do we know, in our deepest self, that our destiny is linked to the destiny of our people – our people as defined by our faith?
If so, we too - like Esther - have come to where we are for just such a time as this.
If so, we too - like Esther – can’t help but hear the bell toll for us.
In such a time as this how is the bell tolling for you – for you to act with the courage to be yourself and with the courage to be a part of the human family – the family of God’s people?
In such a time as this, when more and more people speak about being spiritual but not religious, the bell tolls for us, as a community of faith, to remind people that being spiritual requires both a relationship with God and a relationship with God’s people.
We can’t be who we are, who we really are – without having the courage to be ourself and the courage to be in community with others.
I received an email a while ago from someone who’d recently found her way to our church. I’d asked her what had brought her to Pilgrim-St. Luke’s. She wrote: “I do my best to practice my faith with my family, friends, co-workers and those that I encounter. But, am I doing a good job? I dun-no. So, I think I need that nudge of a community to rely on, to work with and for, to get involved in, to feel comfortable with.”
In such a time as this, when any sense of community is increasingly hard to find we all need the nudge of a community to both comfort us and confront us with the challenge of living the life we were created to live – both for ourselves and for “our people.”
In such a time as this, when the divisions in our society are growing greater, when violence is increasingly becoming a way of life, and when we are made to believe that our lives consist in the abundance of our possessions, how is the bell tolling for you and for us as a community of faith?
In such a time as this when over 45 million Americans have no health insurance, over 35 million Americans are poor, and over 11 million undocumented immigrants live in fear of arrest and deportation some lives seem to be worth more than others. And we hear the bell toll for us this morning in a congregation rooted in the biblical values of community, compassion and justice.
Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist and writer has worked with children in many communities. In his book, The Spiritual Life of Children, he describes meeting with a 5th grade class in Lawrence, MA.
He said to the class, “‘Tell me, as best you can, who you are – what about you matters most, what makes you the person you are. If you don’t want to mention one thing about yourself…then include others, but try to single out one person for special mention.’ “(p. 308-309)
One boy said, “’My uncle had polio. He’s in a wheelchair for life. But does he give up? No. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself either. He tries to be useful. He gets around. He’s good with kids. They’ve got him working, and he’ll give his shirt to you, (and anything else) if you need something from him and he has it. You talk about `marching through life.’ He can’t walk but he’s `marching.’ He says God has been good to him! My mom says, `Can you imagine it – your uncle saying that! You see it’s all in what you decide to do with yourself.’” (p.319)
This boy’s uncle’s life had been salted with fire and yet he still knew the goodness of God's love for him, and he still found the courage to be.
Philip Hallie taught philosophy at Wesleyan College in Connecticut. For years he studied the Holocaust and became consumed by the horror of the Nazis killing six million Jews, along with countless gays, gypsies and people with handicapping conditions. The question of how human beings could do this to other men, women and children led Hallie to despair. He writes:
"Reading about the damned I was damned myself, as damned as the murderers, and as damned as the forgotten victims. Somehow over the years I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape."
One night, as he continued his studies, he was reading about how the Jews were hunted down in France. There was one place, however, a small French Protestant town called Le Chambon, where the villagers not only refused to cooperate with the authorities but hid Jews and smuggled them into Switzerland, even at the risk of their own lives and the lives of their families.
Reading this account touched Hallie deeply and he decided to go to Le Chambon to interview anyone who remembered what had happened during the war and to try, for the sake of his own soul, to account for "how goodness happened there."
He learned that the people of Le Chambon, through the study of the scriptures and their worship together, had decided to be a community of hospitality – a community with the courage to be a part of the broader community of God’s people. Years after the war, a woman of Le Chambon explained to Hallie how this happened for her:
"A German woman knocked at my door," she said. “It was in the evening, and she said she was a German Jew, coming from northern France, that she was in danger, and that she had heard that in Le Chambon somebody could help her. Could she come in my house?”
I said, `Naturally, come in, come in.'"
It happened that simply. "Naturally," she said - at the cost of her life, her family's life, perhaps even the whole village's life. "Naturally, come in, come in."
The journey to Le Chambon changed Philip Hallie. As he says: "I know what I want to have the power to be. I know that I want to have a door in the depths of my being, a door that is not locked against the face of any other human being. I know that I want to be able to say, from the depths of my being, "Naturally, come in, come in."
What Hallie wants, what Esther wanted and what God wants for us, is the courage to be ourself and the courage to be a part of God’s people in community with others committed to opening the doors of our hearts and the door of our community and saying to who is ever there, “Come in, come in.”
In such a time as this, we live, as Esther lived, looking into the face of division, despair and death – our own death and the death of our people - our physical death and the death of hope – the death of compassion – the death of courage.
When Death Comes is the title of a poem by Mary Oliver.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
At such a time as this – may we each be a lion of courage – knowing that we are precious to the earth.
May we each act with the courage of Esther – the courage to be ourself and the courage to be part of God’s people!
May we do so knowing that we are always in the hands of our God of Grace and our God of Glory - whose love for us will never let us go!