While I was visiting the Taize monastery in France several weeks ago, one of the situations I heard about constantly was the refugees. For four years, civil war has been raging in the country of Syria and since then over four million refugees have fled the country, desperately searching for sanctuary where they can stay alive.
This week, I found myself reading stories of the Syrian refugees recorded by photojournalist Brandon Stanton.
One refugee says that he worked as a waiter in Saudi Arabia for seven years to save money so that he could build a house in Syria. The house only had two rooms and a bathroom but for him it was paradise. He lived there with his wife for twenty years. They did not want to leave. They had young children and no money to travel. He reports it became impossible to live … theirhouse was situated between the army and the opposition. Every day the army knocked on their door and said, “Help us or we will kill you.” The army came into the restaurant and accusedthem feeding the enemy. Minding their business was not a choice. And so they fled with their young children to Greece with only the clothes on their back.
Another young woman tells a story of losing her husband when the boat they were fleeing on hit a rock. After they escaped, her husband gave his life jacket to a fellow passenger to save their life. After several hours, he told the woman that he was tired and was going to float on his back and rest. It was dark and they could not see. His voice got further and further away. Eventually a boat found the woman but not her husband.
As I heard these stories, I couldn’t help but think to myself:
Perhaps we are here for such a time as this.
Yes, there is darkness in our world – we live in a world where humans have the freedom to choice to do good or to do evil.
Yet, even in the night time, the light of Christ burns persistently.
In the song “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant”, there is a line that says, “I will hold the Christ light for you in the night time of your fear. I will hold my hand out to you; speak the peace you long to hear.”
Perhaps we have come here to share the light of Christ for one another.
At such a time as this.
Just like Esther.
One of the things that strikes me about Esther’s story is that she knows something about struggle.
When we look at her story at face value – the reality that Queen Esther learns here people were threatened, visits the king and saves the lives of her people – the story may sound idyllic.
However, when we look closer at Esther’s life, we learn that her courage was hard-won and that she was a human being, just like the rest of us, who struggled with fear and big decisions, and lived in a violent and turbulent time.
As a young child, Esther lost both her mother and her father and so she was raised by her cousin Mordecai. Generations before she was born, Esther’s people – the Jews – had been conquered by the Persian Empire. To secure their victory, the Persian king had required people to leave their homeland – their fields and familiar streets, pack up what they could – and travel to the heart of the Empire. This way their conquerors could “keep an eye on them.”
This exile is where the Jews in the days of Esther, which is around fifth century B.C., find themselves. In exile, they had no political power.
“What do we do when the higher-ups treat us unfairly?” They wondered.
“What happens when we are not happy with the state of affairs?”
“How can we change our living situation for the better?”
These questions were all ones with which the diaspora Jews – or the Jewish people forced to leave their home land – had to wrestle.
Now it’s a bit startling that Esther is a main character in today’s story because she is without power and voice in her culture and society, because:
she is a Jew;
she is an orphan;
she is a woman.
Even when Esther becomes queen, even though she has a royal title, she is still without political power, much like the Jewish people living in as exiles in this foreign land.
Esther actually becomes queen after King Xerxes bans the old queen, Vashti, from his presence.
Picked as Xerxes’ new wife, Esther enters a “life-and-death struggle not of her own making” (Source: Sermon Seeds by Kate Huey) and, ever the strategist, Esther chooses not to reveal her Jewish faith.
Her decision comes to a head when Xerxes’ right-hand official Haman issues a decree that spells out the destruction and death of all the Jewish people.
The plot thickens in the book of Esther when her Mordecai finds out this decree and passes the information along to her.
“What are you going to do to save the Jewish people?” He asks.
Reasoning out loud, Esther responds, “Well if I try to talk to the king about this without being summoned, I may not live.”
Mordecai reminds her of what is at stake – the future of her entire people – and replies, maybe, you are here for such a time as this.
Esther thinks it over and responds, “Okay, I’ll do it – I’ll talk to the king — but please, please, fast for me!
Later additions to the book of Esther, say that following this response, Esther is seized with a “deathly anxiety” throws herself down and prays to God, “Save me from my fear.”
“Can I really make a difference??” She wonders.
“Maybe, I should change my mind?” She deliberates.
Esther’s story speaks to the darkness with which we all wrestle,
Darkness that tells us lies like:
we are powerless,
we cannot change our future,
we are alone in the night-time of our fear.
As she prays fervently, she discovers that even in this moment, there is something within her that cannot go out, that cannot be extinguished, even in the darkest night, there is a hope, a hope that lives within her, that lives within all of us, even in the midst of our struggle.
The truth of today’s Psalm floods over her: “Even at night you direct my heart. I keep you, Holy Love, ever in my sight; since you are my right hand, I shall stand firm.”
Esther suddenly sees that she has power in her own right and – despite the injustices of the Persian Empire – she has an ability to radiate the Divine Light and to choose to embody courage and solidarity.
Esther stumbles upon the spirituality of defiance – the spiritual practice of saying no to:
The degradation of her Jewish siblings.
The degradation of women.
The fear and anxiety that tells her that she is not enough, that she has never been enough.
“I shall stand firm,” she tells herself.
After wisely strategizing, Esther prepares to go before King Xerxes, who graciously spares her life, even though she appeared in front of him without permission. Esther invites him and Haman to two feasts, before finally pleading to the Xerxes, “‘If I have won your favour, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.”
Xerxes grants her plea, saving her life and the life of her people.
What we discover is that, in the words of Rev. Kate Huey, “God’s deliverance of the people in this Book of Esther is not accomplished through amazing, miraculous events but through the actions of flawed but courageous human beings.”
Scholar Sidnie Ann White adds that in the book of Esther, “God appears to act through human beings.”
Esther did not know how her request would turn out, all she knew is that she was called to be a light for her people in a time of darkness.
Esther’s story reminds me of a scene I witnessed a couple of years ago. It was during a theological conference at the Trinity Church in New York City. Hundreds of people participated in this conference because they wanted to hear the wisdom of the speakers. The main speaker was Joan Chittister and we all listened with rapt attention as she divulged her insights on God’s creation. Afterward, she agreed to take questions and a young woman approached the mic. Now Joan Chittister is getting on in years – she is approaching her 80th birthday – and this young woman wanted to know who she should look to next as a leader and guide for the people of church.
“Who is it going to be???” The young woman queried.
“What’s your name?” Joan asked.
“Mary.” The young woman said.
“Well, Mary, I don’t know if you are going to like my answer, but the next leader is you. You’re it.”
I think what Joan could see is that Mary had come here for precisely such a time as this.
And so, as we sit here and wonder about what to do about global warming or refugees, hunger or loneliness or just how to get through the week, we too wonder:
“Who will we look toward? Who will lead us?”
And suddenly the words of the “Servant Song” come flooding back to us,
“I will hold the Christ light for you in the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you; speak the words you long to hear.”
“Who will lead us?”
It is you and you and you. It is all of us.
For we have come here precisely for such a time as this.