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"No Ordinary Time," by Claire Helton

Esther 4:1-17

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.

Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai 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. For 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. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “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.” Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.


This is one of our sacred stories.

Thanks be to God.



Sermon


Today marks the first Sunday in the season after Pentecost, the season called Ordinary Time. Ordinary, because it does not fall during one of the more specific liturgical seasons that make up the first half of the Christian year: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide. Ordinary, because in marking the weeks as they pass by, we continue to order our lives in the rhythms of faith. But how can we begin to conceive of ‘ordinary time’ when the times we are living in seem anything but? A part of me hesitates to acknowledge that we are entering into this longest season of the church year because it always seems to drag on forever, even in the best of circumstances. To think, right now, of a season that begins today and stretches on through November is almost unfathomable. What will the world be like when these 25 weeks have passed? Will a miracle have occurred, and we’ve found a treatment, or a vaccine in record time? Or, on the other hand, how many people who are going about their lives today will be gone come November, victims of COVID-19? How many millions more will have lost their income as a casualty of the fight against the virus? Will we have learned how to prioritize our own mental health, or will we as a nation still be strung out, angry and defensive, leaning harder than ever into social media fights because it’s one of the only ways we can feel connected, even in anger?

This is no ordinary time.

And yet, the season is upon us. Every year we have to do the work of asking ourselves this question, but it feels more important this year than ever: What do we want our ordinary to look like in this season of Ordinary Time?

If we’ve learned anything from the past couple of weeks, it’s that often our perception of what’s ordinary depends so much on our social location and our race. Nearly two weeks now of riots and peaceful protests all around our nation, and the backlash against them, have left us reeling, but hopefully they’ve also helped us to wake up to what constitutes “ordinary” in so much of black experience.

And now that we’re awake: we have real work ahead of us. The time is here. And perhaps we, this congregation, made up of each one of us, perhaps we’ve been assembled here for just such a time as this.

“For such a time as this.” Mordecai didn’t speak those words in a vacuum. An edict had gone out in the ancient kingdom of Persia, declaring that Mordecai’s people, the Jews, could be killed with no consequence. Never mind that Mordecai’s cousin, Queen Esther, herself, was a Jew, for the king had no knowledge of this. Of course, Esther’s people had been in danger all along, considered second-class citizens, with officials in high places doing their best to keep them in their place while appearing upright, even devout. This, of course, is why she had hidden her ethnicity from the king when she became queen. Now the threat was out in the open; the king himself had signed off on it. The inciting incident of this story is that, all of a sudden, everyone in the nation realized the threat against this particular people. And now Mordecai and the throngs of people lamenting this state-sanctioned murder were going through the cities of the kingdom, in every province, wailing with a loud and bitter cry, demonstrating in sackcloth and ashes. I’ve read this story a hundred times and never considered until reading it in light of the news this week that in order to lie in sackcloth and ashes, something had to burn. In other words, the scenes in the backdrop of Esther Chapter 4 ought to be familiar to us.

Queen Esther does what we might do. She tries to comfort her cousin Mordecai, to calm him down. Before she makes the effort to ask why he’s in mourning, why he’s making such a scene, she sends him a change of clothes, a gesture that says, “Take a deep breath, get out of that sackcloth, and just calm down.” That action is the signal that this is a story about privilege.

In the last couple of weeks, Zach and I have been passing a book back and forth on parenting toddlers (because, come to find out, quarantining with two preschoolers is hard). And the entire first chapter, before you get to any of the stuff you were looking for about how to get kids to do what they need to do without all the fuss, is this significant essay on acknowledging emotions. She walks through the way we respond to kids when they’re acting out, crying out in distress, and names off many of the tactics we unthinkingly use. We hit them with philosophy (Listen, kid, life’s not fair). We use rhetorical questions. (“Why would you bite your brother?!”) Or we just flat-out deny their emotions. (“Buddy, I’m telling you, there is no reason to be so upset!”)

And then she turned the tables on us. Imagine if I said that to you, she says. Imagine if adults spoke to one another that way. Denying an emotional response is the surest way to take a person of any age from frustration to rage. I imagine Mordecai was pretty angry with his cousin, denying his emotional response, while she sat protected in her turret, or so she thought. As if this were not her fight, too.

When Mordecai refuses the change of clothes his queen has sent, she takes the hint, and this time, Esther sends a messenger to listen to him, to find out why he’s so upset. So, Mordecai presents her with the facts. “Our people are in imminent danger. This is how much money is involved in the political scheming that brought this about. This is how dire the situation is. It’s life or death, and it affects all of us – even you – simply by virtue of the skin you were born into. And here’s what you can do to help.” Still, she hesitates. She’s afraid for her own wellbeing. Esther has much to lose if she speaks out. It would be one thing for her to send Mordecai her thoughts and prayers. It’s another thing altogether to risk losing her home, her status, her security, even her life.

And Mordecai responds, “Don’t think that this doesn’t affect you. You have privilege in that palace, but it will only get you so far. And if you don’t do your part, I have faith that change is coming, that help will arise for us from some other quarter, but that doesn’t mean you’ll make it out unscathed. Who knows, but perhaps you are positioned exactly as you are for just such a time as this.”

Mordecai’s speech is incredibly powerful. But there’s this one line that, on this reading, troubled me. He says, “If you keep silent, help will arise from some other quarter.” Would it? We don’t know; because of how the story plays out we didn’t have to find out. But when I read our current situation in light of this story, this line feels dangerous to me. It smacks of magical thinking. As if Mordecai’s words could be twisted to mean, ‘Calm down, things will eventually work out. Time is on the side of the right.’

And then I think of a similar sentiment, a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., paraphrasing an abolitionist. Perhaps you’ve heard it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s a statement of hope, it’s a reminder that the road ahead will be long and arduous, and I think we can hear Mordecai’s words echoing in it. We trust that help will arise. It’s this sentiment that God’s justice cannot be far away; surely, surely, it’s coming. And I realize that my discomfort with Mordecai’s words, or even with this quote from Martin Luther King, is totally dependent on who is speaking the words. Again, it comes down to privilege.

When the one who is oppressed cries out, “Surely, surely, our day is coming! The arc is long, but it bends toward justice!” we can do nothing but say, “Amen!” When the one in a position of privilege or power says, “That arc bends toward justice, but it’s a long one: this will take time,” that’s when we need to be wary. That’s when we need to hear the rest of Mordecai’s speech.

This line he says to Esther, this is the part that speaks to her not as his young Jewish cousin, but as the queen tucked away in her tower; and to those of us with privilege, whether privilege of race, or gender, or social status, this is the part that speaks to us: “Who knows,” he says, “but that you have come into your position for just such a time as this?” Yesterday may have been an ordinary day, but this is no ordinary time.

Again, Mordecai’s speech echoes in a sentiment from Martin Luther King. This time, King spoke about the myth of time. “There are those,” he said, “who argue that only time can solve the problem of racial justice in the United States…the only answer that I can give to that myth,” he continued, “is that time is neutral. And somewhere along the way it is necessary to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”

Friends, when it comes to this particular season of Ordinary Time, and we find ourselves asking that question: what do we want our ordinary to look like this time around? I don’t know about you, but I know that for me, the work of racial justice has got to become part of my ordinary, not just an extraordinary occurrence sparked by one tragedy or another. I have been privileged to be able to deceive myself into thinking I did not have a dog in this fight, that as much as I supported it from a distance, I was doing as much as I could. It’s not enough. If help were going to arise from some other quarter, it’s had 400 years to get here. No, friends, the work is ours to do: yours, and mine.

May we find it in ourselves to embrace the necessity of our own sacrifice, real sacrifice, taking real risks, however large or small. May we follow the wisdom of Esther’s example, fasting and praying, seeking to discern in community how to face the tragic realities that confront us. May we learn, hardest of all, to accept the consequences of sticking our necks out; to learn to say, alongside that ancient Jewish queen, “If I perish, I perish.”

May the Spirit of Love walk alongside us, transforming us in this season, transforming our sense of ordinary to better reflect the fullness of ‘ordinary’ human experience in our world. Amen.

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