Out of the Shadows
(Text: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22)
She impressed me the moment she walked into the room. I was in Chicago doing research on a book on the future of the mainline church. She was young, of Asian descent, and a first-year medical student. She had been raised in the northeast, attended the finest schools, been taught to appreciate the subtle beauty of classical dance and art, music and literature.
On the prior Pentecost, she had experienced something that she had never even considered. She walked to the front of the sanctuary, bowed her head, and felt the waters of baptism flow down her face.
She described what a hard-fought decision it was to be baptized. The day she was baptized, her father and mother were at home in the northeast, and all of her siblings were either at home or scattered elsewhere. She had not told them of her decision and when she could no longer contain her joy, she called home only to receive this response: “Darling, I thought you were more intelligent than to take part in all that religious nonsense.”
If you suffer from the illusion that this woman’s parents are the exception to the rule, let me propose a simple experiment. You can conduct the experiment at Dr. Ho’s after worship today or feel free to pick your favorite restaurant in Charlottesville. Go table to table and poll how many people worship in a religious congregation of any faith on even a semi-regular basis.
My research also took me to San Francisco where an elder in the Calvary Presbyterian Church shared with me this telling story. He said: “I left the house last Sunday, dressed in suit and tie. My neighbor walked out of his door at the same time to grab the paper. He yelled over, `Hey, Fred, you heading to work’?” Where else would someone in dress clothes be heading on Sunday morning?
The old saying in the church that I continue to hear is: “Once they get married or have a child, they’ll be back.” Statistically, my generation – the Baby Boomers – have proven this notion null and void in large numbers. And, increasingly, many of their children and now grandchildren have been raised with no sense of what it means to worship God in any community of faith.
More than ever before in American history, when you worship and serve in any Christian congregation, you do so against a growing cultural tide, even in the South. When you choose to worship God in a congregation of faith on Sunday morning, you choose against so many options. After all Sunday is the one day when many can get some extra sleep or go on that hike in the Blue Ridge or watch a child’s soccer match or play in that golf tournament or sip on a cup of Starbucks, sitting on the porch with the Washington Post.
Despite all political outcry about the importance of faith, we live in a thoroughly secular society. The church can pretend that things have not changed in the past 50 years and that our opinion is eagerly sought by people in power and that church decisions still shake the foundations of society. Or, the church can recognize how dramatically the place of religion has changed in the land and can use its energy to refocus and respond to the role God would have us fill in this new century.
Strangely enough, that brings me to a favorite Old Testament story. It is the story of Esther, a Jewish woman who becomes queen in the Persian court. Were Esther not a book in the Bible, many a concerned Christian would call for us to ban the book or burn it or at least slap a MA rating on it. In fact, centuries ago rabbis and later church leaders feverishly debated whether Esther should be included in the Hebrew and then the Christian Bible at all.
Why? Well, for one thing, there is not one mention of God in the entire book. And, for Jews, the book raises a host of additional problems; Esther, a Jew, marries a Gentile, does not follow the teaching of the Torah, and throughout most of the book keeps her identity masked to prevent calling attention to herself or her people. Jews finally embraced Esther as either a story that explains or was created to explain the festival of Purim, a Jewish early spring festival now filled with fun and practical jokes as children dress up like the characters in the story.
So why preach from Esther? And why preach from Esther in the church today? First, the story. The setting is the royal palace in Persia where one queen vanishes and a new queen is needed. Meanwhile, evil Haman, chief toad of the king, plots to get rid of an annoying segment of society – the Jews – a group of people who do not do what others do on their days off.
Onto the scene comes Uncle Mordecai, Jewish matchmaker par excellence who knows his niece Esther is a beauty whom no king could ignore. He is right. So, the king calls this orphan, beauty – and Jew – Esther, to be his queen, but she keeps quiet about her faith.
Now back to evil Haman. He convinces the king that a holocaust is in order, a cleansing of the kingdom of those nasty Jews who just do not fit in. You can hear the toad whispering to the king, “Your majesty, I know how much you value affirmative action, multi-culturalism and diversity, but still we are a people of laws and these Jews thumb their noses at your laws every day. They must be taught a lesson.” The king agrees and authorizes overtime for Haman to build gallows to hang every Jew in the land.
Mordecai gets wind of the plot and gives his niece a call. “Dearest Esther, you are the only hope for your people. Don’t feel too much pressure here, but unless you come through, we are all dead!” Esther tosses and turns in her sleep and finally decides, “If I perish, I perish.” Catching the king in an especially great mood, the beautiful queen snuggles up to him and say, “Sweetie, would you grant me one favor?” “Anything. Absolutely, anything. Just ask.” She screws up her courage to ask her king, “My love, there is an evil man in this palace who wants to kill me and those whom I love. Protect us from this beastly brute and let me and my people live; that is all.”
The king is aghast. “Bring me the scoundrel.” She points out the toady Haman sucking down his third glass of the palace’s finest. Haman’s teeth nearly drop in his glass. You see, he does not know Esther is Jewish. His teeth do drop when the king orders Haman hung on the same special-order gallows that Haman had built for old Mordecai and his cronies.
About Esther, Johanna Wijk-Bos writes: “From a charmer who hides her true self, she comes out of the shadows to claim her identity and to intercede successfully for her community. By overcoming the limits of her existence, she rises from power that is a sham to true power. She becomes someone when she is able to lay claim to who she is and in that capacity is able to save her people” (Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, p. 106).
Life was easier for Esther when she kept her faith under wraps, her identity closely guarded, so that she fit in with the dominant culture. She could not exactly practice her faith, kneel and say the Shema to God several times a day or sneak out of the palace and go to the Temple or tell the palace cook: “I only eat kosher.” So, she lived in both worlds, but in public, until Haman’s nasty plot, Esther was pure Persian.
Some Christians argue that the church and the Christian faith have been under attack in America in recent years. Perhaps, but if it is, it is not an attack like Haman’s. For basically today, society is not persecuting the church; mostly, society simply does not see the church. And, when society does see the church, it is often annoyed by what it sees. It sees a church that wants to build a home for runaway teens in a crowded residential area or construct a clinic for the poor when the neighborhood would rather “relocate” the poor.
It is tempting today for those who do come to church on Sunday to go underground for the rest of the week. After all, is not faith an intensely private affair anyway? God knows what we believe and that should be just fine. Others will know our faith by our actions. Unfortunately, faith is not nearly so apparent and winsome as some Christians wish were the case.
Some say God does not appear in the book of Esther. Literally, they are correct. In reality, though, they are wrong. God appears when Esther chooses to come out of the shadows, to no longer hide beneath the cloak of comfort and anonymity and to announce that she is a child of God whose people are in danger. She says, “If I perish, I perish.” Later, Jesus would say, “If you choose to hide who you are, you will lose who you are.”
If where I am leading makes you a bit uneasy, do not squirm too much. For, I am not suggesting that you and I wear T-shirts with: “I am a believer” written in neon colors on the front and “I am a Cove Presbyterian” embroidered on the back. What I am suggesting is that for people of faith in our secular society, we have the joy and the responsibility, the risk and the opportunity to bear witness, both in deed and in voice, to the One we call Lord who calls us out of the shadows.
In just one moment, we will stand to affirm words from the Confession of Belhar. Written by Christian believers during the reign of apartheid in South Africa, it was an occasion for brave Christians and the church to come out of the shadows, to announce to the world that our God is color-blind and does not condone racism. This week many brave women in our country have come out of the shadows to speak about their abuse, a subject too long held silent, and over the past few months many men have spoken about their abuse as boys by those entrusted to pray for them and protect them.
As you and I are inspired by courageous women like Esther, as we resist the urge to fit in by ignoring our faith outside the safe confines of this sanctuary, as we refuse to utter or accept the lame adage of “boys will be boys” as an excuse for the assault and abuse of women, may God give us the courage and the wisdom, the tenacity and the love, to come out of the shadows.