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For Such a Time as This

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Feb 14

Texts: Esther 3:13, 4: 5-17

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand going through airport security. It’s always the same drill. Hand over your ID. Hand over your baggage. Hand over your cell phone. Empty your pockets. Take your shoes off. And then they make you walk through this giant cylinder of glass for the full body shot – feet on the mat, arms up! Being the big and broad shouldered guy that I am, I often brush my elbow on the door on the way out so the alarm sounds, and the agent’s wand waves up, down and all over, all to make sure my ‘topical layer’ is what it appears to be.

Nancy and the kids and I will be doing this routine later today as we head out west to see family and friends for the school vacation week. I know I shouldn't be complaining. It's a privilege to travel, especially to California on a day like today. More deeply, my Muslim friends are always telling me that they are constantly stopped and pulled out of the line for the sole crime of “flying while Muslim,” and all the more so these days amidst heightened fears and division. Don’t get me started on the experience of Palestinians, or even many immigrants to this country, passing through highly charged political checkpoints.

Still, there is an experience to which I’m certain we all can relate. No matter what name we call our maker, there is a demand that comes to all of us to surrender ourselves to the scrutiny of a stranger, and one that is in a position of authority no less. It’s enough to quicken the pulse every time. Each visit to Terminal A, B or C, a decision time, a moment of truth, that could change the course of our days and stand in the way of our getting where we need to go. They search and scour our identity. They need to know we are who we say we are. They ask for our tickets. They need to know where we are going. And they go through all our baggage, especially the unchecked kind. They need to make sure we aren’t packing anything that will be a danger to ourselves and others. And now, with all that being said, welcome to Lent, everyone!

Lent bears an odd sort of resemblance to the experience of TSA security, does it not? Lent is the season for the church’s deep dive into inner reflection and self-awareness, a time to check our identities and our proverbial baggage, a time to remember who we really are and to prepare for the journey ahead, especially that road to Jerusalem. Did you notice the language of our sung confession? “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” As Martin Smith reminds us each year in his Lenten devotional, Season for the Spirit, Lent is very much invitation to surrender. It’s an invitation to surrender our well-protected self image, to let our guards down, to be vulnerable. It’s a time to surrender our daily distractions and endless to-do lists. It’s a time to give up all the ways we convince ourselves that we are control of our lives and that we are masters of our destinies. Lent is an invitation to surrender our habits of self-reliance and of isolation and thinking it’s all about providing for our family and loved ones. It’s about surrendering our habits of thinking that we know better or of assuming that our narrow interpretations of what’s right and righteous are the only truth that bears our uttering or hearing. Ultimately, it’s a chance to check our power and privilege and to relinquish it, to hand it over in humility, love, and service to ourselves, our neighbors, and our God. Indeed, we surrender ourselves so as to make room for that higher power and that higher purpose for our lives. Lent is a chance to remind ourselves that we are who we say we are, and that we are willing to act accordingly and that we too have not just a journey but a destination ahead of us. And, just think, the good news is that we don’t have to hold this all out under the scrutiny of a TSA scanner or a beefy tough guy security agent! We hold it all up to the light, tender mercy and loving scrutiny of our loving God. Perhaps we all might remember this next time we are asked to take our shoes off at the airport! Imagine doing it just out of recognition of humility and that we are standing on holy ground of preparation for a journey into an unknown future!

Think about it! Jesus had to face such a test in the desert for those 40 days when the devil drew near offering him the false promise of security. And yet, from his baptism in the Jordan in the preceding chapter, he knew who he was - a beloved child of God! Baggage wasn’t much of an issue for Jesus. Let’s just say he knew how to travel light, maybe something he learned at a very young age from his migrant family. Perhaps most importantly, he knew by that point where he was going and what he had to do. His purpose, his prophetic ticket (and ours), was to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to blind! After a stay in the Galilee, he would soon set his face to Jerusalem. His body surrendered in love, to bring into being new life and a new community, through love. Is it any wonder that he begins his public ministry right out of the gates of that wilderness experience? That, and his baptism before, was his terminal experience! Through it all, he surrendered the false promise of power, pleasure and security. Instead, he chose a path of trusting in God, of reliance on God’s word to see him through.

And, yes, we see this pattern in our marvelous story from Esther, too. In case you haven’t heard, Esther is our text for this season of Lent. It’s from Esther that we get our Lenten theme: For Such a Time as This. Brent Coffin just lead a brilliant overview at our 10 am hour in the Hastings and Karin and I will be leading upcoming sessions. Whether you can join us for those or not, please do yourselves a favor and read this book. It wont take long. We’ve even prepared copies which you can pick up at the doors, complete with a very helpful introduction written by Brent. Though it was written in the latter part of the 5th century, BCE, it's a story for our times! I’m telling you. It’s got power, prestige and palace intrigue. It’s got bombastic, egotistical rulers who could care less about those outside the palace walls. It’s got extravagant wealth and extreme poverty, ethnic and religious segregation. Characters are in the midst of crises with multiple claims on their identities. It’s set in an almost entirely secular context, unless you read between the lines. And what's more, there’s a beauty pageant and— get this— a 6 month bacchanal! This party of booze and feasting would be the envy of the Wolf of Wall Street! Do check it out!

With all of that as our backdrop, in chapter four we encounter Mordecai, an outsider to the palace, who is sending his cousin Esther a message that the King has a plan to slaughter all their people, the Jews. You see, Esther won that beauty pageant and was swept up into the palace good life to be the next Queen of Persia. The King didn’t know she was a Jew, just that she was the most beautiful woman in the land. Still, she didn’t get much quality time with the King. In fact, it was strictly forbidden and punishable by death if she or anyone else approached the King without his bidding. She’s kind of like a modern day Beyoncé. She’s flying first class for the fist time in her life. She doesn’t have to look back behind the curtain. She doesn’t have to risk a highly politically charged half-time show that could impact her status! It's a moment of truth for Esther, and frankly for us. You see, without Esther, there are no more Jews. Without the Jews, there is no Jesus. Much is at stake! Will she remember who will she really is? Will she check her newfound power and privilege? What will she do under the gaze of her deeply troubled cousin, Mordecai?! Dun, dun, dun! This would be a good time for a commercial break, or maybe that Beyoncé halftime show. I won’t keep you waiting though.

First, hear his ask of her again. It has got to be one of the most piercing in all of scripture!

13Mordecai 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. 14For 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.

And this exquisite line:

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

So what does she do? As Sam Wells has noted: “She stops denying, stops ignoring, stops making excuses, stops running away. She realizes this needs more than her own strength, so she falls back on the devotional habits of her people and calls on the Jews to fast with her. She resolves that she will face up to her responsibility and go in to the king…. She recognizes that what she must do must include disclosing her true identity as a Jew. She takes stock of the realities of her situation and says simply, “If I perish, I perish.” And, here Wells continues: “She goes to the heart of the empire to save the Jewish people. She becomes Christ.”

This is Esther’s Lenten moment, if you will pardon the anachronism! Not only because she remembers who she is, but because she draws on her people and her tradition of fasting, of giving things up, in order to surrender her lesser inclinations up to a higher power and purpose. As a result, she acts boldly, fiercely even, in resistance to a present power of evil. But first, she needs to remember and rally her troops in “formation!” For those who missed it, Formation, was the name of Beyonce’s identity politics driven and black-power laden halftime performance last week.

Listen again to the text: Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16“Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

We can see the pattern set before us. ID and baggage check, and ticket in hand to a new horizon of hope for her and her people. A time to stop and surrender herself to the scrutiny of loved ones and of her faith tradition. A time of preparation, here it was 3 three days, for Jesus and for us it was 40. And then, bold and courageous action out of love and service, out of integrity, out of a movement of resistance!

Friends, these days we are living through require such bold commitment.

Yes, For Such A Time As This is also our capital campaign theme. Today we are just beginning to offer a taste of our vision of how we think First Church is preparing itself to respond and how you can be part of it. For now though, and for this season upon us, It’s ours to recognize our power and privilege, and with it an opportunity! It’s ours to realize that our people, especially those outside of our palace of Harvard Square, are already being slaughtered daily. Black lives, brown lives, Syrian lives, Congolese lives, lives of people in Flint Michigan, lives of middle class white people who are dying in increasing numbers to suicide and overdose, lives of schoolchildren in fear of the next mass shooting. I asked Kate this morning how many froze to death on our streets last night! Gratefully, she said that all were accounted for, but if that question alone doesn’t draw God’s scrutiny near to us, I don’t know what will! Besides, who says that “we” are being spared of this tragedy. Who says that we ourselves are not perishing, too, if not in our bodies than perhaps in our souls.

But, dear friends, there is good news in this story. There is opportunity! For we too have our chance to contemplate Mordecai’s probing question: Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” We too have our chance, this Lent, to prepare, to pray, to fast, to surrender and to respond! And we don’t have to do it alone. It’s not possible to respond to all this alone!

Together, and by gracious powers, we too can remember who we are and whose we are. Together, and by God’s gracious mercy, we too can do our best to check our baggage for harmful belongings. Together, and by God’s unconquerable love, we too can set our face toward Jerusalem. We can find our places in that formation and movement against the death dealing powers of an already crumbling empire. Only together can we know the hope and joy that is on the other side of our surrender.

As a church, we are called once again in this season to follow him, to walk with him, to walk with him and have him walk with us, until we give away our very lives in love and service, until that new life and new community is formed, until God’s searching hope is ever ours to know and to trust. Amen.

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