Sunday, December 4, 2022

Paula Stoltzfus: An unlikely candidate

PEACE: Waiting for peace with justice
Esther 4:1-17; Isaiah 11: 1-3a; Luke 1:68-70, 78-79

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Esther is another story with nuance and complexity.  Although when is there not a story involving complex relational human beings.

It is alongside Ruth, which we looked at this summer, as being the second book to be named after a woman.  

We could call Esther yet another unlikely candidate to be used by God. She was young, female orphaned and raised by her cousin Mordecai, in a time when her religious community was in exile. It had been long enough for the Jewish community to have assimilated into the communities, intermarrying and working alongside Persian neighbors throughout the empire.

The Persian empire’s King, King Ahasuerus was in search of a new queen. A call went out in the city of Susa for virgin women to be selected to enter the King’s court. Esther was one among others who were chosen.  She was coached by her guardian cousin, Mordecai, to hide her ethnic identity. After over a year following the customs of the King’s court, Esther was chosen as Queen.

Through twists and turns of power, King Ahasuerus made Haman his right hand man.  With it came enough power that the King commanded people to bow in respect to Haman. Mordecai, who was a faithful presence at the King’s gate, keeping an eye, as much as possible, on Esther, refused to bow in respect. Out of anger, Haman’s conniving got the king’s support to create an edict that all the Jews in the Persian empire were to be killed. The edict’s date was set by rolling some dice which ended up being close to a year away.

Now this edict wasn’t an operation that was to be carried out by the military, but rather neighbors turning on neighbors. As the Jewish people were scattered, the edict was to give Persians the authority to kill their Jewish neighbors on the day.  It was a systematic dehumanizing of a people group.

Not unlike what has gone on in our history in dehumanizing people groups of color. Or what happened in the Hollocaust, tribal groups, or pitting one ethnic group against another in the name of superiority.

We aren’t told what other Jewish people did in the empire.  I’m sure there was anxiety beginning to boil in their pockets. Our passage opens with Mordecai choosing to make a public statement by ripping his clothes and putting on sackcloth and ashes in the middle of the city. He drew attention to himself.  

Esther, seemingly unaware of the edict, hears about the spectacle Mordecai is making and sends him clothes to try to quiet him down.  Or perhaps to be able to open the possibility of him to enter the King’s court to talk to her.  Whatever the case, Mordecai fills Esther in on the gravity of the situation.

Perhaps, “for such a time as this,” he says, you, Esther, in the King’s court, can do something about this incoming calamity. Esther clearly faced challenges growing up as a female, exiled, and orphaned. It was a matter of her survival to navigate the nuances of her status. Therefore she was all too familiar with a lack of power. Once Mordecai shook the scales from Esther’s eyes, she was able to think creatively about where her power did lay. She used all that she learned in surviving as a child through the eyes of observation to her advantage. So, When Mordecai put her life on the line, she was emboldened and empowered to see the agency and power she did have to act.

In her wisdom, she calls upon her people to join her in a communal fast. She may have been the lone Jew within the King’s court, but there was something about doing it with her people, scattered as they were. There was power in community.

Esther proceeded to act in ways that were creative and demonstrated her ability to master the  relationships and system around her. She was able to speak the language that caught the King’s attention, which was beauty and honor.  She dressed up as a queen and threw him not one but two banquets, along with his side-kick Haman. As a result, she was able to gain his trust and unveiled the scheme of Haman, leading to his demise. She and Mordecai end up being honored and given Haman’s house in return.

This is a story where all was not right with the world.  Power was corrupt.  The people of God were scattered. And yet, in the midst, the lowly were given power and the powerful were brought down.  

Sound familiar?

How many times have we heard of stories of God’s kingdom where those who don’t have power are lifted up and those in power are brought down?

The image in Isaiah of a branch out of the stump of Jesse offers both a humble and promising image.  A tree that held strength but no longer stands, still has life that will generate new growth.

Our Luke passage is Zachariah’s first words after John the Baptist was born, praising God for the redemption that was coming to pass. A savior was to come.

Esther may be a non-traditional advent story on peace Sunday. But that seems to be the way that God works throughout salvation history.  God works at redeeming the brokenness in our world and in our lives.  Esther may not have felt like she had much of anything to offer. Oh, but how her early years prepared her for what she orchestrated in this story, a redemption of the people she held dear.

We each hold a story within us.  One in which our childhoods shape our pains and our gifts.  One in which shapes the embedded narrative we tell ourselves of how good or not good enough we are, which instructs us in how much power or not we have.

Advent is a time of waiting and recognizing that all is not right with the world. However, waiting can be a way of exercising privilege if it is passive. It can be a bubble of comfort. Waiting for someone else to take action.

The invitation of Advent is a call for “all hands on deck.” It isn’t enough to wait for the help to come from “above.” or another corner of the church, town, or world.. Advent is a time of active waiting trying to figure out how we can be a part of bringing about God’s upending peace. What does it take to tap into our creativity, lean into our relationships, and exercise our imaginations of how the Divine seeds of peace can be planted and nurtured.

Our fates are tied together.

Esther exercised much wisdom. She saw the power of community.  We are not creatures to endure life alone.

She also was a master of the people and system of power around her.  She knew how to speak the language of ego and culture. That mixed with God’s insinuated presence in this story, brought about redemption.

We often couch our inaction in the words of insecurity or humility. The fact is that we all have gifts that stem from our life experiences.

What has life prepared you to be and do for just this time? How can we be present enough with God, ourselves, and our community to create seedbeds of peace?

The communion table is a place where all of who we are, mind, body and spirit meet. It is a tangible symbol of God’s desire to be in relationship with us, Christ’s love which surpasses death itself, and the Spirit’s flow of energy which goes beyond our human understanding.

It is a place where we surrender to our own will in order to be fed. As we are fed we are able to be open to ourselves and one another.  In the openness, we are more fully able to walk into the awareness of the fullness of “such a time as this.”

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