"For Such a Time As This"
A sermon preached by Erin Dunigan
January 1, 2006
Listen to the sermon intro
Listen to the sermon
Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.
Then Esther spoke to Hathach and 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 sceptre 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, Mordecai 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.
When Lance asked me to preach this morning, New Year’s Day, he also mentioned that today is a Sunday dedicated by the Presbyterian Church to pray for those who have been martyred or persecuted for their faith.
On New Year’s Day?! Why such a heavy topic for New Year’s Day? Why not pray for something a bit more uplifting, a bit more inspirational?
A New Year’s Day service should be about new life, new resolutions, new beginnings, new possibilities… A New Year’s Day sermon should be about reflecting on the past and looking toward the future. It should be about evaluating what has been and looking toward what is to come.
Really, on New Year’s Day people should be congratulated for showing up to church at all!
You should all get a pat on the back for being here! Though maybe not quite as hearty, since the parade and the bowl games are all tomorrow…but still…New Year’s Day…death…persecution…martyrs?
As I pondered this seeming incongruity, and as I tried to make sense of it, I landed right into the story of Esther. And from there I realized that actually, this is the perfect Sunday to dedicate to those who have died for what they believe, for those who, even as we sit here, suffer because of their belief.
I hate to admit it in public, but I am a reluctant fan of the tv show Desperate Housewives, on each Sunday night at 9PM. I have to say, it is actually quite clever, and definitely a social commentary. However, that critique and social commentary do come in the form of an incredible amount of drama. And in the drama department the story of Esther reads a lot more like Sunday night material than Sunday morning fare.
As we begin Esther’s story the scene of our drama opens on day seven of a seven day party. It is a celebratory party thrown by the king as a finale to his recently finished one hundred eighty day party. The camera zooms in on the king, who is, as we can see, ‘merry with wine.’
As we get closer there appears to be some sort of commotion. Advisors are being sought, everyone is rushing around the king.
Apparently, in his merriment, the king had ordered his queen, Vashti, to appear before his guests so that he could show off her beauty. We don’t see Vashti, or have any explanation, other than that she has refused his command and her refusal has set this chaos in motion.
The scene dissolves into another in which we see a line of beautiful young women being led toward the king’s palace. There’s a sign posted in the background, “think you have what it takes to be the next queen? Interviews are being conducted this week at the palace.”
The line moves forward and our gaze is drawn to one of the young women. She is more beautiful than all the rest. And as we study her we overhear the words of a man giving counsel to this beautiful young woman: “don’t reveal your people or who you are…” It’s funny, but there is some resemblanc between this mysterious man and the young woman.. As quickly as he enters the scene he melts back into the crowd and is gone.
Watching the scene play out we realize that this young woman is to become the next queen. Esther is her name. We happen to know that she is of the people of the Jews, but the king seems none the wiser.
But this is not the only story in town. It seems like this tendency toward overreaction is not limited to the king. As the next scene opens we find the king’s Prime Minister, Haman, in a fit of rage.
It has come to Haman’s attention that there is one man who does not bow down when he walks past, even though it is against the king’s orders. The camera pans toward this defiant man. It is none other than the man who we just caught whispering to Esther. Though he told her to remain silent about her identity, he, apparently, has not kept his own counsel. Word has gotten to Haman, the angry prime minister, that this impertinent man, called Mordecai, is a Jew.
As Haman schemes with his advisors how to punish such disrespect, we notice that the scowl on his face is beginning to turn into a grin…a grin that looks a bit ominous, actually. The scene fades and a voiceover reveals the cause for the grin—
Haman thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom…to destroy, kill, and annihilate all of them, young and old, women and men, in one day and to plunder their goods.
We see couriers rushing off to every province with a copy of the decree…and as the city is thrown into confusion, the king and Haman sit down for another drink.
This seems like a great time for an intermission. Let’s take a momentary break from Esther. Cut to the modern day middle east.
We, a group of internationals, are sitting around a table. It is loaded with hummus, tomato and cucumber salad, pita bread, and piles of rice and chicken. It is lunch and we are in Nazareth. It is banquet of sorts, but hardly a one hundred eighty day party.
More specifically, it was day five of a seven day “Witness Visit” to Israel and Palestine. The purpose of the visit was to learn firsthand of the suffering caused by Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Far from being merry with wine, by this point in the week our hearts were heavy with the burden of hearing story after story of suffering recounted in our visits with ordinary Palestinian Christians.
One such visit was to see a section of the Israeli Separation Wall being constructed around Bethlehem. At that point Bethlehem was almost entirely walled in. Its residents cannot leave without a permit. To obtain a permit they must visit Jerusalem, which is outside the Wall. They cannot go to Jerusalem because they do not have a permit to leave. As this was being explained to our group my response was, you’re kidding, right? I mean, that makes no sense. How could that be?
Another visit was to Hebron to meet with the Christian Peacemaker Teams working there. It is this same organization, CPT, whose four members were kidnapped in Iraq last month. In a small village outside of Hebron we heard the story of young children being harassed and having rocks thrown at them as they walk past an Israeli settlement to get to school. When some of the CPT members accompanied the children on their journey they were beaten. Matt and Jenny, two Americans in their early 20’s, are living and working in this village hoping to be a presence for peace.
A third visit was to the town of Bel’in, where Israelis and Palestinians are living and working together, and where every Friday they host a peaceful protest against the ongoing Israeli military occupation and the suffering which this is inflicting upon the Palestinian people. It is a pacifist group, against violence of any sort, from either side of the conflict. The Israeli young man that we met, Yassi, said that he was released from his mandatory military service. Due to his pacifist and pro-Palestinian beliefs he was deemed unfit to serve in the Israeli military.
By the time I reached that lunch table in Nazareth I had heard five full days of stories like these. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Overwhelmed and a bit guilty, or perhaps convicted is a better word.
In story after story we heard, “what we want most is for you to go home and to tell people what is happening here. The American people must not know. The Christians in America must not know. If they knew, they would do something…” Here I sat, filling myself on the hospitality of my hosts, an American, and as someone who was seeing firsthand. “If they knew, they would do something…”
A woman arrived late to the lunch and sat down next to me. She was Palestinian, but lives in Nazareth. Nazareth is in Israel So, technically she is an Israeli citizen, but she is of Arabic decent.
As we chatted over lunch she explained to me that being an Israeli citizen means that her status is worlds ahead of her fellow Palestinians—the ones living in Palestinian territory… the ones whose stories we had heard all week. The comparision would be to blacks living in the north before the Civil War. Sure, most of the time they were much better off than the black slaves in the South. But at the end of the day they were still second class citizens.
The difficult thing, she said, in working with Palestinians who live in Israel, those with more advantages, is that they tend to deny the suffering of their Palestinian brothers and sisters in the West Bank. I was stunned.
How can they deny the obvious suffering? Having seen so many examples of it in the past five days, I wondered, How can they possibly turn away when this is happening to their own people, so close to them?
Well, she responded, It’s easy, actually. You see, if they believe it then they have to do something about it.
It is easier not to believe.
But let’s get back to Esther…
As the scene opens, we see Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, the same one who refused to bow down to arrogant Haman, and he’s lying on the ground, in sackcloth and ashes, looking very disheveled. He is wailing, beside himself with grief over the impending destruction of his people. He is not alone, as all the Jews of the city have come outside, wailing and tearing their clothes in grief.
Esther, meanwhile, is in the palace and hears the commotion outside. Her servants run in and tell her what is happening out in the street. We see the news hit Esther as her face falls and a look of distress comes upon her. Quickly she sends one of her servants to Mordecai to get the full story.
I wonder if she wished that she didn’t ask. Not only did Mordecai give her the full story, by way of her servant, but he also charged her
Go to the king and make supplication to him and entreat him for your people.
The servant runs back to Mordecai and gives him Esther’s response:
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.
Esther also mentions something more about a loophole in the law allowing for the king to grant mercy, but quickly follows it with the revelation that she has not even been called to the king at all for the past month…so don’t think that is going to start now.
Plus, wasn’t it Mordecai who had told her to keep her identity a secret in the first place? And didn’t he remember that the only reason she was even queen was because the king had banished Vashti for breaking the rules? It’s not like she was in a position of power here…better to keep quiet.
Mordecai did not argue. He simply replied:
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.
These two stories, one of Esther and the other told to me by the Israeli Palestinian woman, wove together in my pondering. That is what led to my change of opinion of the rightness about designating New Year’s Day as ‘Martyr Sunday.’
Who knows? Perhaps you have come to this place for just such a time as this. It is easier not to believe, because if you believe, then you have to act.
The thing is, we don’t live to ourselves alone.
Our new year, our new life, our new beginnings and resolutions…
Our looking back at where we have been and our looking forward toward where we seek to be…
Our hopes for what is to come, for what the new year may bring…
Mordecai’s words to Esther cause her to reflect…why have you found yourself in this position? Is it by your own beauty? Is it because of your own cunning, your own ability to work the system, your own understanding of what it means to work hard and move ahead in life?
And finding yourself in this position, will you choose to safeguard it, to keep its benefits to yourself, to put your arms around it and say mine, this is mine?
And what about us? Will our chosenness be for us, for our own security and saving our own skin?
Or will it be for service, to use our voices on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, those who are suffering, those who are being persecuted?
As we prepare for communion we do look back and remember the ultimate act of sacrifice given on our behalf.
We remember the one who came not to be served but to serve.
We remember one who came into the world as a little baby, in the fullness of time.
The one who came so that we might see and believe and act.
This Jesus, is the one we remember as we celebrate communion today. As we enter into that sacrfice, the only thing left for us to do is to act, to take his gift, his love, his peace, out into the world.
This Jesus is the one who came for even such a time as this.