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For Such a Time as This

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Nov 19

Text: Esther 4:1-17

Well over two years ago, a team of us were sitting in my office pondering a theme for our capital campaign. As a congregation, we had already honed in on our Grounded, Growing and Acting vision, developed a 3-5 year ministry plan, and had begun dreaming about much needed changes to our building and the impacts it could have on our church and wider community. We had been working with our campaign consultant —the man from Minnesota, Jeff Kjellberg— and had just come through a survey filled out by over 200 of you telling us, among other useful measures, that as compared with congregations around the country, we were in the “strike zone,” as a “high energy” and “high satisfaction” congregation and that we should therefore be bold in our vision for the campaign. This was exciting stuff! At that meeting we circled around some less compelling thematic ideas, then Leslie Pelton Cairns, who would become our fabulous campaign co-chair, recalled a phrase we just heard in the passage from Esther: “For Such a Time as This!” Most of us could barely remember the amazing story of Esther, but the theme found an almost immediate resonance. For one thing, and for me at least, it captured a sense of the foreboding times we were living through: chilling media coverage of Michael Brown lying dead on a street in Ferguson, of Eric Garner being choked by police, of a three-year old Syrian refugee lying face down on a beach, of climate change disasters and an increasingly surreal political theatre with then-candidate Trump still trailing in the polls. Our wider world seemed to be at some threshold moment even then. At the same time, the theme felt like a bold retort to a politics of fear, and a hopeful and resilient call to us all to “stop playin,” to wake up, stand up, to come off the sidelines, to get off our screens, to engage, invest all the more in creating lasting change that would matter not just for this generation but for future generations as well. “For Such a Time as This” captured both disquiet and defiance, and all the more so when we dug into its original context in scripture.

In case you need a very quick recap or don’t know the story … the phrase is spoken by a Jew and a palace outsider named Mordechai to his cousin Esther. Esther is the Jewish orphan and exile who, after winning a beauty pageant, was catapulted into the role of Queen of Persia. For a time, Esther mostly sat on the sidelines of palace politics, even as Jews living outside the gates were facing increasing deadly threats from the King. Near the end of the story, cousin Mordechai pleads with Esther for his survival and that of their people. He sends Queen Esther a message: “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 then this exquisite line:] “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?”

This was Esther’s chance to do the right thing. Not to get lost in the daily distractions of her comfortable life, but to realize that she could no longer shield herself from the daily life and death struggles of her people and God’s children. It was a moment, a specific opportunity, for her to risk her comfort, to use her power and position to resist the violence and oppression of an empire. The story is clear: she couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it alone. She needed that nudge from Mordechai, that reminder that her place in history mattered, her decisions mattered, and had real consequences on future generations. Without going into further detail, suffice it to say, Esther stepped up. She stepped up big time but only after looking in, only after taking a good hard look at herself, recognizing and remembering who she really was, aside from her title and royal lifestyle. She connected with who she was at her core— a spiritual being, a child of God, one who had moral and covenantal commitments beyond her immediate family and to her wider community. If she were a Christian, I’d say she remembered her baptism, perhaps for her it was a mikvah or a ritual bath. This is, after all, why religion offers such rituals as we just did to Bennett, Atticus and Lillian – they draw us back to our best selves, to our deepest identities. They recall our God-given dignity and remind us of promises we make to ourselves and to others. They ground our ideas of love and hope in a higher power, a higher purpose, and in truths that last.

For Such a Time as This! By God’s grace, that theme and vision has been working in this congregation for a good while now, asking us to step up and recognize and remember who we are, and to make commitments from that place, right here and right now, as our expression of that defiant hope in fearful times. We were given a specific and significant opportunity to care for and improve upon for this magnificent structure, which is itself a gift from past generations. Right here… on this corner of Mason and Garden Streets in Harvard Square, in this sixth meeting house of this 382 year old New England establishment congregation that has counted actual pilgrims and puritans as our first members, that has hosted the framing and signing of the Massachusetts constitution, one of the earliest attempts at documenting democratic governance anywhere, right here in this congregation that has counted both slave owners and enslaved persons as part of our congregation, including Africans and Native Americans who were likely pressured into membership. Like any human institution, there is a history that we can and should celebrate and a hidden history about which we must speak soul-searching, painful truths as we seek healing and reconciliation. All of this, right here, at First Church in Cambridge, for such a time as this!

And let us look to right now— in this age of Trump, in this moment when we are in desperate need of spaces and communities that foster warmth, beauty and healing as a bulwark against the cold, ugly traumas we encounter daily. Right now, with draconian cuts to social services bearing down, we need spaces and communities that can feed 113 hungry bellies (that was just this past week’s count at the Friday Café), that can provide temporary shelter for months on end if need be to 14 men who would otherwise be homeless, that can provide spaces for embodied connection, for spiritual nurture of children and grownups too, for soul searching conversations about our power and privilege, and for opportunities to change the system. On Monday, this past week, First Church was in the house – the Statehouse, that is— as part of Greater Boston Interfaith Organization’s strategic campaign demanding and negotiating real criminal justice reform in this legislative session. On Thursday, First Church was in the “house” again at Boston City Hall, showing up for a public hearing of the Boston Planning and Development Agency to ensure that a well-heeled real estate developer behind a huge new project in the Back Bay would follow through on their agreement with our interfaith partners to add $6 million of public benefits to their projects, including $3 million for historic preservation of neighboring churches and $3 million more for affordable homeownership.

This is right now at First Church in Cambridge— as in, that’s just this past week, even as our building project has been racing towards completion. You see… Mordechai’s challenge is ours: how can we keep silent at such a time as this? Who knows? Maybe we too are being called to check but also to use every last ounce of our own royally well educated, relatively highly privileged, largely white mainline establishment “dignity” for just such a time as this?”

First Church, I have good news and more good news today! First, you have already stepped up big time! And we are about to see and celebrate and give God thanks for the stunning results of what we and God have accomplished together! How rare it is to see such a beautiful vision made so apparently and tangibly manifest, all because of your almost unbelievably generous response to our campaign appeal. The ministries and moments that will flow from these beautiful spaces, the possibilities they will give birth to, will astound us in the coming months and years. God has so much in store that we have helped make possible.

The more good news is that there is yet another specific opportunity to step up before us today - to engage, to invest, to ensure that our congregation has a sustainable financial future. In a few moments, we will ask you to commit an annual pledge to maintain our ministries, to cover daily care for our spaces and staff and to help us pay down that $600,000 loan we took last year to help us accomplish even more with our current campaign. The fact is this congregation has always had a large appetite for ministry, which is a good thing, but it has left us with a deeply concerning pattern of significant deficit spending. When we agreed as a congregation to the capital campaign and loan, we also agreed to increase our annual giving to close our budget gaps and to cover the loan. Friends, it will feel all the more amazing when we are able to do that together. The support and safety we will make manifest as a community will create a spirit of security that has the potential to touch all of us deeply.

Now that we’ve lived through six months of this construction project, it’s good to remember it took 35 years to complete London's magnificent St. Paul's Cathedral. I’m told that “when its architect, Sir Christopher Wren, died twelve years later in 1723, he was entombed inside, under a simple slab of black marble. Wren's son placed a dedication nearby, which contains the words "Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice" ("Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you"). The phrase is generally used to describe a person's legacy - and can be taken to mean that what we leave behind (including intangible things like relationships) best represents our life.” (1)Friends, together every week and every year, and especially this year of Capital Campaign culmination, we are making that monument together— a living monument to Christ-like love and compassion and care for justice, mercy and healing, a monument we need to lean into and lean on now more than perhaps ever in our lives.

With Esther, do look inward, remember that you are a spiritual being, remember your baptism, your best self, your commitments. But also, look around you as well. Look at this community and the legacy we are building together. And together, by God’s abundant, ever-giving, ever-loving grace, may we step up again for such a time this, for such a church as this, for such a God as ours! Amen.

1) https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/top-10-latin-words-to-live...

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