Sermon: Esther Week 3: The Spiritual Practice of Holy Boldness

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Marylee: The king and Haman came in for the banquet with Queen Esther, and the king said to her, “This is the second day we’ve met for wine. What is your wish, Queen Esther? I’ll give it to you. And what do you want? I’ll do anything—even give you half the kingdom.”  Queen Esther answered, “If I please the king, and if the king wishes, give me my life—that’s my wish—and the lives of my people too. That’s my desire.  We have been sold—I and my people—to be wiped out, killed, and destroyed. If we simply had been sold as slaves, I would have said nothing. But no enemy can compensate the king for this kind of damage.”  King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is this person, and where is he? Who would dare do such a thing?”  Esther replied, “A man who hates, an enemy—this wicked Haman!”

Michael: Haman was overcome with terror in the presence of the king and queen. Furious, the king got up and left the banquet for the palace garden. But Haman stood up to beg Queen Esther for his life. He saw clearly that the king’s mood meant a bad end for him. The king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room just as Haman was kneeling on the couch where Esther was reclining. “Will you even molest the queen while I am in the house?” the king said. The words had barely left the king’s mouth before covering Haman’s face with dread.

Marylee: One of the eunuchs serving the king, said, “Sir, look! There’s the stake that Haman made for Mordecai, the man who spoke up and did something good for the king. It’s standing at Haman’s house—seventy-five feet high.” “Impale him on it!” the king ordered. So they impaled Haman on the very pole that he had set up for Mordecai, and the king’s anger went away. That same day King Ahasuerus gave Queen Esther what Haman the enemy of the Jews owned. Mordecai himself came before the king because Esther had told the king that he was family to her.  The king took off his royal ring, the one he had removed from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. Esther put Mordecai in charge of what Haman had owned.

Michael: Esther again spoke before the king. She bowed at his feet, wept, and begged him to treat her kindly. She wanted him to overturn the evil plot of Haman—his secret plan directed against the Jews.  The king held out the gold scepter to Esther, and she got up and stood before him.  She said, “If the king wishes, and if I please him—that is, if the idea seems right to the king, and if he still sees me as a good person—then have people write something to call back the order—the order that put into effect the plan of Haman, that he wrote to destroy the Jews in all the royal provinces. How can I bear to watch the terrible evil about to sweep over my people? And how can I bear to watch others destroy my own family?” King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to Mordecai, “Look, I’ve given Esther everything Haman owned. And Haman himself my servants have impaled on the pole because he planned to attack the Jews. So you yourselves write to the Jews whatever you like in the name of the king and seal the letters with the king’s royal ring. Anything written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s royal ring can’t be called back.”

(Sing) “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. That’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love sweet love. No not just for some but for everyone.”

What are you afraid of? Or more importantly, what are you afraid of doing wrong? I’ve spent a lot of my life being afraid of doing the wrong thing, and it can feel like being frozen in Dante’s inferno. My place in my family of origin was the good child, and I learned to keep a low profile, and at times to do absolutely nothing, in order not to upset anyone. This is less a complaint about my childhood and more the realization that being good and quiet and pleasing became a habit, became my persona. Reflecting on my longtime fear of doing the wrong thing, has made me wonder if this is why I’m so captivated by the story of Esther, the girl who was raised to be good and quiet and pleasing, but who learned the practice of holy boldness.

I think my call to ministry began when I was a child, although I couldn’t have named it as a call, and I didn’t know any clergywomen until I was a young adult but I remember being worried that if I for whatever reason I said “yes” to God, that God might send me to Outer Mongolia, which I wasn’t sure was a real place, or an imaginary place like two scary television shows of my childhood, the Twilight Zone, and the Outer Limits. Saying “yes” to God can be risky… like Esther risking her life to save her people. Saying “yes” to God can be risky because God might need you, your gifts and your wit and willingness… even someplace outside your comfort zone, even someplace as scary as the Outer Limits. Saying “yes” to God can be risky because sometimes the bold and heroic thing God calls us to do is live our ordinary lives with grace and gratitude. What the world needs now is people who say “yes” to God. God’s will is shalom, which is peace and wholeness, love and shelter, food and safety, and the fullness of life for all creation. All of us can answer God’s call to help bring shalom to the world.

Esther was called to step out of the tradition and role that had been shaped for her of a good, and quiet, and pleasing girl. It’s interesting that in the ancient world when this story was written (and the holy scriptures were written by men, and for men) that a heroine emerged to change the course of history. Esther was apparently written from the back to the front. What that means is that is that a pagan festival was appropriated by the Jews, and in order to give it a religious identity, a dramatic story was created – about the weak and easily manipulated King Ahasuerus; his evil and murderous prime minister Haman; the beautiful young Esther who won the King’s favor and was crowned Queen; and her quietly-revolutionary cousin Mordecai – a dramatic story that unfolded to victory and a celebration of triumph over the enemies of the Jews. The most notable thing about the story of Esther, tucked into the Hebrew Scriptures between the books of Nehemiah and Job, is the hiddenness of God. God is absolutely absent from the story of Esther. Somehow without any supernatural or spiritual intervention Esther had to find in it herself to act with holy boldness to save her people, and her story relevant to our time. Rarely, if I may speak for the human experience, is there empirical evidence of divine and supernatural intervention. It appears, rather, that we’re on our own, having to rely on ourselves and our own wits and wiles as Esther did. And this is the hidden message of Esther… that even though God seems hidden, God is in the mess, God is in the planning and the creating and the inspiration. God is present. The Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, famously said, “Bidden or not God is present.” Esther’s story says, “Seen or not… God is with us.” This is what I love about Jesus… whose name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

When I was a young Christian trying on scripture, trying to make it fit as if it were an off-the-rack garment, I struggled with the apostle Paul’s smug-sounding declaration, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” I couldn’t stuff all of my insecurity and fear and imperfection fit into the sleeves of this garment. I understand Paul better now and I believe that he was talking about the lifelong practice of holy boldness. Holy boldness is small, sometimes infinitesimally small steps of faith, of trusting that God – who like in the book of Esther might not seen or heard – it’s trusting that God is here in Christ’s love and presence with us. In Esther’s story, Mordecai seems to be like Jesus; he gives Esther strength to act boldly beyond anything she could imagine herself doing. If only each of us had a Mordecai, who says to us (look at the words of mediation in your bulletin) “Perhaps you were born for such a time as this.”

What little we’re told about Esther is that she was beautiful and young and pleasing. In the first few chapters of her story Esther doesn’t have much identity, as if she hasn’t yet woken to her purpose, and hasn’t yet come home to herself. Today is Homecoming Sunday, and we’re celebrating this wonderful spiritual home we share with each other… some lifelong friends, some of us newcomers, and some saints who are long dead but whose laughter and prayers and mentoring still live in us. And today we’re looking at the spiritual practice of holy boldness, and Esther is our teacher. Either this is a quaint little story that was snuck into the bible to fill out its pages, or it’s got something to tell us about God, and about ourselves. I think it’s the latter… I think Esther has lessons for us about the hiddenness of God, about the practice of holy boldness, and about coming home. These lessons are braided together in Esther’s story and in life.

On the face of it, life does echoe the book of Esther. God isn’t seen or heard and so many people don’t think about or talk about God. But to be fully human is to see yourself as a spiritual person. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience” said the 19th century Jesuit and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Coming home to the fullness of your humanity is acknowledging yourself as a friend of Jesus, a child of God, a person of faith. Talking about your experiences of God (which is much more important than sharing your theological understanding of the substitutionary theory of the atonement of the cross… a little pastoral humor there) what is important is talking about your imperfect, and sometime uncertain, experiences of God that allows other people to express their faith and how and where they see God. Part of the holy boldness of talking about God is confessing that – like in the story of Esther – sometimes you can’t see God. Talking about your faith, and your experiences of God, is a way to shine light for another person who might be walking in the darkness and looking for a way home.

Many of the funerals I do are for families of unchurched people, and often there’s some embarrassment as if I’ve been taking attendance (worse, that God has, and has noted their laziness and inattention to the spiritual life.) When I talk with these people about my experiences of God’s tender and unconditional love and endless welcome there are almost always tears of relief as if I’ve invited them to come home. Sharing your faith, and looking for God with holy boldness for the unseen God, invites other people to come home to the practice of looking for God. Mysteriously or ironically (I don’t know which it is) but looking for God, even when you can’t find God, is a way of seeing God.

A spiritual practice to do by yourself, or to share with your children or grandchildren, is to ask, “What was the best thing (that happened today)?” and to respond, “Thank You, God.” Or to ask, “What was the hardest thing that happened?” and to respond, “Help us, God!” To look for God between the lines of the script of life, takes some holy boldness, because like the book of Esther, it’s not obvious that God is here. If you risk talking about your faith you might be pitied as someone who believes in things like the Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny… or you might be dreaded as someone who’s judgmental and narrow-minded. But what the world needs now is people who are looking for God, and who are practicing with holy boldness the Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So talk about God, and allow others to see God through your eyes… to see between the lines… to see a loving God active in the world, and in you.

Today is Homecoming Sunday, and our hope in planning and dreaming about today, was that people who’ve been missing (either because they’ve been gone or because they’ve never been here) would come. There’s a Jewish practice of providing an empty chair at special occasions for the prophet Elijah. Elijah is believed to be the one who will announce the coming of the Messiah. At Seder dinners a cup of wine is poured for him in the hopes that he will appear. There are lots of empty seats in this place, and I wonder if we could see them as seats for guests we are waiting for.

Ralph and I had dinner guests on Friday night and last night, and both times we invited friends to come, to come at a specific time, and we cleaned our home, and made good food, and prepared to celebrate guests coming to our home. Why am I telling you this? It’s because the church, and specifically this sacred and beautiful place (which, I will tell you because I have an amazing view from here) is more beautiful and sacred when all of you are here…because you are part of the sacredness and the beauty… this place is a spiritual home, and what the world needs now… is a spiritual home. And people don’t usually come to our homes unless they’re planned for and invited and made to feel like friends and honored guests. What the world needs now is a spiritual home… a place to see God… to see God even when God, like in the book of Esther, seems absent. A spiritual home is a place to practice holy boldness by walking in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s a place to learn to be authentically who you are, made in the image of God; and where you are encouraged to use your unique gifts to answer God’s call to build God’s kingdom and help heal the world. Holy boldness is looking for and identifying God in a world that doesn’t see God. It’s inviting all kinds of people to belong, to be welcomed and included in this sacred place, this spiritual home. And holy boldness is believing – actually a better way to say that is “it’s acting as if” – you’re Esther and the fate of your people (the people of the earth) is in your hands. Holy boldness is treating yourself, and all other people, as precious, irreplaceable, and beloved children of God. What the world needs now… is love and holy boldness.

“The book of Esther is a work of subtle complexity and insight” says the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible. “On first reading it appears straightforward and simple. But the more time we spend with it and the closer we attend to it, the more fascinating it becomes. In the end, it leaves at least as much left unsaid as it says and raises at least as many questions as it answers.” The book of Esther seems to echo life itself… where there’s more left unsaid than said, more questions than answers, and perhaps a God who is hidden in plain sight. Thank You, God, that in Esther’s story we see You. Amen.

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