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Come with me, if you will, away from the dramatic change of Inauguration Day— away from a stunningly bleak view of our nation, away from fist pumps and snarls, away from a nationalistic, militaristic, wealth-worshipping appropriation of the God of the meek, the merciful, and the poor in spirit.
Come with me, hard as it is, away from the exhilaration, hope, and open-heartedness of yesterday’s massive women’s marches in hundreds of cities around the world, and with many of our own keeping solidarity in Northampton, Greenfield, Boston, Raleigh, N.C., and Washington, D.C. Pull yourself away, if you can, just for now—away from yesterday’s strength in numbers, away from a new awareness of your own power, away from the sense of beloved community, away from inspiration and motivation, away from instant church on the streets and on the T.
Come with me, if you will, away from the seemingly parallel universes we’ve seen displayed in our nation over the past two days, away from self-contained bubbles, all of them complete with their own fake news, confirmation biases, and self-righteousness.
Come with me, I’m almost afraid to say, away from an uncomfortable pew where you can at least count on your pastor to preach an encouraging word and tell you what you think you need to hear.
Come with me for the next few minutes—not to follow me, of course, but to consider again what it means to follow Jesus. To remember that there is a difference between serving God and serving country. Not to be a purely political movement seeking power but to be so in love with the God who is love that you cannot help but love all her children, that your desire for justice is so strong that it burns in you like a hunger, that your commitment to the least among us is like a thirst that must be quenched.
Come with me, please—not to agree with me but to consider for yourself what it means to be the church in such a time as this.
Come to the ancient story of a time that may have more in common with ours than we think. Come to a story of political corruption, persecution, danger, brilliant political strategizing, and uncommon heroism.
Let us turn to the story of Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living with other exiled Jews in the land of Persia, generations removed from Jerusalem and the temple, hardly even a people anymore.
They are a religious minority living in a culture that worships different gods—the gods of power, wealth and prestige. By now they have figured out how to blend in and even succeed in a foreign land. They have learned the dominant language, and they can play by the empire’s rules. Much of the time it is hard to distinguish between the supposedly God-fearing and God-serving minority and the wealth-serving, personality-driven, militarily powerful empire. So when King Ahasuerus chooses beautiful Esther—first for his harem, and then to be his queen—he doesn’t know she is a Jew. The king and his servants don’t know and don’t ask, and Esther doesn’t tell.
The king is not particularly bright, but he has his enemies, and one day Esther’s cousin Mordecai overhears some people plotting to kill him. Mordecai gets word to Esther, who warns the king—and his life is saved. But because the king loves wealth and is not particularly bright, he continues to be vulnerable to corruption and open to suggestion, and so his chief of staff Haman, a jealous man who dislikes Mordecai, offers the king a handsome sum of money to kill all Jews in the land.
The king, who apparently likes only himself more than money, agrees to the genocide, and he issues a royal decree (as only kings can do) ordering the annihilation of all Jews—young and old, women, men, and children—on one day. The death-dealing decree is delivered to every province in the land; it is only a matter of time until the Jews are no more.
The king remains unaware, however, that his beloved queen is, herself, a Jew.
And so begins the reading we just heard. So begins a story of salvation involving the coordinated efforts of three characters, a story that perhaps has something to say to us
Mordecai is the truth-telling leader of the disempowered minority—the opposition, if you will. Upon learning of the king’s decree, Mordecai is beside himself. He puts on sackcloth and ashes (traditional symbols of mourning and repentance), and stages a one-man vigil, going through the city wailing loudly that the end is near, that the Jews are done in for, that nothing can be done. As word of the king’s decree spreads, other Jews don sackcloth and ashes and take to fasting, weeping, and lamenting. Some of them might go so far as to pray to the God they can barely remember and hardly believe in.
Esther-the-insider somehow gets word of Mordecai’s ranting and raving. Perhaps his wails were so loud that she could hear them from inside the palace.
Enter Hathatch, one of the king’s men, whose job is to take care of Esther. Hathatch is the classic go-between: a facilitator who works for the empire but hasn’t forgotten the little people, a mouthpiece who can navigate the divisions that separate the powerful from the powerless, a translator who can sing the blues that the high-ranking insider has all but forgotten.
Esther sends Hathatch out to Mordecai to find out what’s going on. All she really wants is for Mordecai to put on some proper clothes and stop making a fuss, to get along and go along, but he refuses. Finally, Esther tells Hatatch to find out what’s going on. Mordecai explains everything, even providing documentation, and tells Hathatch to tell Esther that she must go before the king and convince him to rescind the decree against the Jews.
Back and forth, Hathatch goes. To and from go the urgent messages:
“You must save us!”
“But he might kill me!”
“Yes, dear one, but if you do not try, he will surely kill me and all the Jews. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to your privilege (your position that is based on nothing but your God-given beauty), for just such a time as this.”
And finally: “Okay. I’ll see what I can do. If he kills me, he kills me.”
And so the suspense builds, even as time is running out. The stakes for the Jews and their future as a people could not be higher.
Now, I want to be very careful here. I am not suggesting that our new president is out to kill anyone, although his cabinet-full of billionaires and a congressional majority seem determined to implement dramatic policy changes that could leave tens of millions uninsured, force another 10 million out of this country, strip away the rights of countless others, and endanger our planet.
I want to be clear: My hope is that, as followers of Jesus and as a church, as the body of Christ in this sometimes frightening world, we will figure out who we are and what God would have us do in just such as time as this. What is the role of First Church Amherst in doing God’s work of loving and healing, peace-making and justice-building? What is your role?
Are you the prophet Mordecai, calling out the powers that be and speaking out for your people? Are you the go-between Hathatch, devoting yourself to keeping open life-giving channels of communication? Or might you be the privileged Esther, called to risk everything for the sake of those whose well-being is endangered? Perhaps you are one of the many unnamed heroes in the story: the countless Jews who turned to prayer instead of violence. the mother who taught Hathatch to make friends with everyone, the friend who whispered encouragement in Esther’s ear as she prepared to approach the king.
Perhaps our faith requires us to play all these roles—and others—at different times. Perhaps we should notice how dangerous bubbles can be; that our salvation depends on connections with those who are different from us, as well as a willingness to hear the cries of the poor and disenfranchised, to walk with them and advocate for them.
Our new president is no fool. Knowing how critical white evangelicals were to his victory, he wasted not a minute in claiming God’s blessing on his plans, in treating God as little more than another appointee charged with carrying out the president’s plans.
There is much discussion and no little controversy in these days about the proper role of the church in relation to the new administration. Some progressive Christians blasted the National Cathedral for holding its traditional prayer service for the new president; some have even argued that we should not pray in worship for our new president, at least not by name, lest that trigger our own fear, anxiety, and distress.
Well. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time tried to use the conflict between Caesar and Jewish nationalists to trap Jesus in a position that would diminish his standing in one or both camps. I would suggest that we follow the Jesus strategy: refusing to take the bait and, instead, keeping our eyes on the prize, which is loving and serving God by loving, serving, and protecting all her children.
Yesterday was a celebration of the reality that we are still here, that a large, loud and faithful opposition stands outside the royal gates, fasting and wailing, weeping and praying for the good of all. Yesterday was a celebration of community but also a call to action, and all our amazing numbers and good feelings will mean nothing if we do not commit ourselves to action. Yesterday was a reminder that church takes many forms and can happen anywhere—in the midst of an immovable but high-spirited crowd, on a jam-packed T car where children and adults break into song and a 92-year-old rally-er named Rita sits in her wheelchair, remembering the time she marched with Dr. King.
Yes, we live in uncertain, unsettling, even frightening times. But who knows? Perhaps we have come to faith, perhaps we have come to church, perhaps we have come into our own callings for just such a time as this.
So let us promise to be true to God’s love, to follow where Jesus leads, to resist all manner of evil, to listen for the still-speaking word of God coming from the mouths of babes, the unpaid bills of the poor, the fears of the undocumented, the daily hassles of the homeless, the anxieties of the LGBTQ community, the vulnerabilities of the earth. Let us speak truth to power and love and hope to the powerless, let us pray and march, make calls, build alliances, and use every channel. Let us be faithful but shrewd, joyful but determined, working on the inside and the outside, the in-between and the upside-down.
In closing, I invite you to repeat after me a personal, spiritual inaugural oath, written for these times by the Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes:
Today, God, you create me anew;
today I inaugurate a new life.
By the power invested in me by the Holy Spirit
I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute
your call in my life, and will to the best of my ability
uphold your commandments.
I will act with love and gentleness,
with reverence and forgiveness toward all people.
I will practice humility, generosity and truthfulness.
I will honor and delight in the diversity of the human family,
respecting the true unity of all people
and the oneness and sacred worth of all living things.
I pledge to live, speak and act for justice and peace.
I accept the power you give me
to resist evil, injustice and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves.
I will stand against all violence, disrespect and bullying.
I will speak out against meanness,
give voice to those who are silenced,
and include those who are outcast.
I acknowledge that I shine with your light, O God,
that my life is not mine but yours.
This day I pledge to do your will, not mine,
for your sake and the sake of the healing of the world.
I understand that this pledge
will often set me against my culture,
and that the culture will resist me.
With your help and those of like mind and heart,
I will persevere.
I give you thanks. I ask your blessing. I trust your grace.