For Such A Time As This

A Sermon for Sunday, August 4, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Esther 4:8-17

Last month, I had the opportunity to serve as the co-director of the 2019 Montreat Middle School Youth Conference—a four-day event held in Maryville, TN. The experience was the result of nearly two years of planning. In February 2018, our planning team of six adults and four high school youth met for the first time and were tasked with coming up with the conference theme. After a couple of hours of brainstorming and discussion, we chose “For Such A Time As This,”a gripping phrase from Mordecai’s powerful message to Queen Esther in today’s scripture reading. The conversation, which occurs in the book of Esther 4:8-17, puts us in the middle of the story. For those unfamiliar with what has happened up to this point and what occurs after, here’s a summary:

The Israelites are under the rule of the Persian Empire.

The King of Persia, Ahasuerus, holds a huge party over a span of six months to show off his greatness and splendor.

On the last day of the festivities, Ahasuerus gets drunk and demands that his wife, Queen Vashti, show off her beauty in front of everyone. Vashti says, “no,” and is banished from the kingdom.

Then, Ahasuerus holds a beauty pageant to find a new wife. A Jewish orphan named Esther, raised by her cousin Mordecai, enters the competition. Hiding her Jewish identity, Esther gains favor from Ahasuerus and becomes queen.

Afterwards, Mordecai overhears some soldiers plotting to overthrow Ahasuerus. Mordecai tells Esther who informs the king. The plot is thwarted and Mordecai is praised for saving Ahasuerus’ life.

Soon, Ahasuerus promotes Haman, a descendant of the Canaanites, to be his second in command. A power-hungry Haman immediately insists that everyone kneel before him. When Mordecai sees Haman, he refuses to kneel. Mordecai’s act of resistance sends Haman into a rage. And upon learning that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman persuades King Ahasuerus to commit the genocide of all the Jewish people living in the Persian Empire.

Photo Credit: Mordecai and Esther Illustration, Google Images

Mordecai learns of Haman’s plans and encourages Esther to advocate for the Israelites by convincing the king to reverse the decree.

And Esther succeeds. She saves everyone by bravely taking a stand and speaking out for what is right. She says NO to the ruthlessness of Haman and YES to liberating her people.

The Book of Esther is unique in the biblical cannon because it is the only story that doesn’t mention God, which would seem odd at first glance. But actually, it’s an intentional choice on the writer’s part to explain how God is actively present even when the Divine doesn’t physically or spiritually appear nor has its name evoked.  A commentator on the book says the author makes“an invitation to look for God’s activity, and there are signs of it everywhere. The story is full of coincidences and ironic reversals, and it all forces you to see God’s purpose at work but behind the scenes.”[1]

The story of Esther resonated with our planning team because it captures how God works mysteriously in our lives even though we can’t physically see or hear God like ordinary human interactions. Our world is filled with a lot more uncertainty and ambiguity about where God is and what God is doing (or not doing), especially when injustice and tragedy occurs.

We are compelled to see God’s activity in those whom God chooses to say NO to the human sin that seeks to destroy humanity, and YES to the love, mercy and justice of God that lifts up the broken, the hurting, and marginalized.  And “those whom God chooses” includes every one of us.

In a reflection on Esther, religious scholar Sidnie White Crawford says: “God, though unseen and unacknowledged, works through human instruments…  Human action is the key to achieving God’s purpose in the world.”  As the popular singer India.Arie expresses in her most recent single, “What If”:[2]

What if Martin didn’t stand up?
What if Rosa didn’t sit down? …

What if Maya didn’t speak out? …
(What if) Harriet never went underground?
Where would we be now?

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for
We can change the world…

With our love…
Right now, this is our moment
We are a people of motion
Our love’s gonna change the world

It was evident to the high school youth on our planning team that perhaps young people were born for such a time as this to courageously change the world with love. That first meeting where we felt God in the Spirit guiding us to choose the theme occurred only 21 days after the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida and in the midst of school walk-outs and the March For Our Lives rallies to remember the victims and protest gun violence.

We all believed, and still do, that throughout history, God chooses human beings to be instruments for God’s work–specifically at this moment when our world seems more divided and dangerous than ever. And it would seem that many of the people being called “for such a time as this” are youth.

Photo Credit: Naomi Wadler, Google Images

During one of the conference’s morning keynotes, more than 500 middle schoolers heard the story of 11-year-old Naomi Wadler who delivered a moving speech at the March For Our Lives rally in D.C. after leading a walkout at her Virginia elementary school a week prior, in which she confidently stated: [3]

“I represent the African-American girls whose stories … don’t lead on the evening news. … I am here to acknowledge their stories, to say they matter, to say their names … People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It’s not true. My friends and I might still be eleven, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know.”

Photo Credit: Yusa Mardini, Google Images

The middle schoolers also learned about Yusra Mardini, who fled from Syria with her sister Sara in August 2015 after their house was destroyed in the Syrian Civil War. After traveling through the middle east, they boarded an overcrowded dinghy departing for Greece. A few minutes into the journey, the boat’s engine failed. Yusra, a professional swimmer at 18, was determined to keep the vessel from capsizing. Yusra, Sara and two others jumped into the water and swam for three and a half hours till they arrived at shore, saving the lives of 20 people. [4]

A year later Yusra became a member of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team and competed in the games in Rio. After turning 20, Yusra was appointed as the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nation’s Refugee Agency. She travels the world advocating for refugees. During an interview with the media, Yusra said: “Sports actually gave me this really strong voice. I am using it to help refugees to get them to better places; to get them shelter; and to just let the people understand that they should open borders for them.”[5]

The truth is that there are many young people who are being a voice for change, like:

Photo Credit: Greta Thunberg, Google Images

Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish activist who, in 2018, created a movement against inaction by world leaders to address climate change concerns—inspiring more than one million students around the globe to conduct protests.[6]

Photo Credit: Malala Yousafzai, Google Images

Or Malala Yousafzai, who was 13 when she spoke out against the Taliban regimes’ attempts to prevent young girls in Pakistan from getting an education. Though she was nearly killed by the terrorists, Malala kept using her voice to fight for children’s education rights and in 2014, at the age of 17, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.[7]

And there are the youth at the middle school conference who raised their voices. During a Saturday morning keynote, a dozen who were involved in stage leadership, held up signs they created that named the issues people need to say NO toward, like:  Racism, Violence, Closed Mindedness, Exclusion, Sexism, Abuse, Hate, Lying, Selfishness and Fear” They even took the signs and arranged them on a large back drop so that it spelled out the word “NO.”

That afternoon, in one of the small groups where conferees reflect on the messages in keynotes and worship, 20 middle schoolers, ages 10-14, studied the story of when Jesus flipped the tables in the temple to call out the exploitation of the poor. Then they were asked to make a list of things that Jesus might speak out against today. They came up with 23 injustices that would cause Jesus to become upset, such as:

–people who don’t have access to clean water and food

–bullying

–human trafficking

–body shaming

–racial discrimination

–gun violence

In a Facebook post, the small group leader shared the entire list with the comment: “Amazing. Don’t ever think that kids are not noticing and watching the wrongs in the world.”[8]

The children are seeing the wrongs of the world, and they are wondering what adults are doing to address them? Those in our churches, who are learning about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, are asking how we as adults are being the body of Christ in the world.

There are many adults who are saying NO—like Esther, Jesus and the young people I mentioned earlier—to the many injustices that occur. But there still remains too much silence, as the pastors of The Washington National Cathedral recently expressed in a letter regarding the President’s bigotry:[9]

When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? … As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words.

Similarly, there are people of all ages saying that silence and inaction about remedying the gun violence epidemic, some of which is connected to racism, needs to end.

Just a week ago, on a Sunday afternoon, a 6-year-old and a 13-year-old were killed by a white supremacist at The Gilroy Garlic Festival in California. And yesterday, 20 people were killed and 26 were injured in another mass shooting by a white supremacist at a Wal-Mart in Texas. And then, at 1 am, after I had gone to bed, nine people were killed and 26 injured by a shooter wearing body armor in downtown Dayton, Ohio.

These are the latest in a string of horrendous shootings that have been plaguing our country for years, and yet nothing changes in regard to sensible gun laws.[10]How many more lives and communities have to be destroyed until we say, NO—Enough!

When does it all end? The gun violence. The racism. The exploitation of people. The marginalization of anyone who is different because of their religion, culture, country of origin, economic status, sexuality and gender identity. The devastation of the earth and apathy about climate change. The injustice. The destruction. The hate. The fear. When. does. it all. end?

The answer may be found in a message that a Presbyterian pastor and friend of mine posted on social media, hours after the tragedy in El Paso:

Our voices of hope must be louder than the voices of fear. Our dreams for a more diverse world must shine brighter than the nightmares. … Our love must overcome their hate.[11]

On the last day of the youth conference, Sunday morning worship, that same group of middle school stage leaders, took the signs that made up the giant “NO” and flipped them over to reveal various colors of paint splattered on the back. The youth then reassembled them on the back drop to create a giant “YES.”

Moments later, the preacher, the Rev. Joann Lee, shared these words to close out her sermon:

For such a time as this, we are called go forth and to say YES to God, YES to love, YES to standing up and doing something. Though we certainly aren’t omnipotent, we must recognize that we are also not powerless.  … We must take action on behalf of the marginalized and the oppressed. On behalf of those who are forgotten and silenced; we must take action. Sometimes we won’t have all the answers, and sometimes we won’t be sure if what we’re doing is what God’s planned.  But even with our doubts and our uncertainties, we must choose to say YES and to be agents of peace and justice in this world.  The good news is, we don’t do this alone. Remember, Esther did not do this alone.  Rather, she had a community who helped discern with her, pray and fast with her and advise her through Mordecai.  [12]

We are not alone. We have each other in this community of faith and beyond. And we have Jesus who leads us in the way of saying NO to what divides, dehumanizes, and destroys and YES to the love and mercy that brings healing and wholeness.

Every time we participate in the sacrament of communion, as we will shortly, we are reminded of that very purpose God has for human beings.

Friends, we are the body of Christ, and as such, we’re not created to be complacent and silent about injustice. We’re not designed for violence and hate. We are chosento make manifest God’s love in word and deed, voice and action. Let us not be afraid to do so with every ounce of breath and life that we have in us.

For perhaps we were born for such a time as this.

Amen.

_______________________________________________

[1]https://thebibleproject.com/blog/esther-secular-sacred/

[2]https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/indiaarie/whatif.html

[3]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqKy7TXKO8c

[4]https://www.yusra-mardini.com/

[5]https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/09/sport/yusra-mardini-syrian-swimmer-rio-2016-olympics-spt/index.html

[6]https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/0e9e80de-62cb-4782-a26f-1cd480d28f26?fbclid=IwAR3e9gTQC9_E6GaLze4XzTVKRTl911TPuxBdZxlv4pitn2dPs55TBWi4iog

[7]https://www.malala.org/malalas-story

[8]Hannah N. Facebook post, July 20, 2019

[9]https://cathedral.org/have-we-no-decency-a-response-to-president-trump.html

[10]https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-america/

[11]Rev. Steve Lindsley. Twitter post, August 3, 2019.

[12]Rev. Joann Lee, preacher for the 2019 Montreat Middle School Conference. Sermon for Sunday, July 21, 2019.

 

 

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