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422 Brenau Avenue, Gainesville, GA 30501
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say: ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
Two weeks ago, the Youth had a party to celebrate something called “Purim.” Purim refers to ancient dice used in high stakes gambling. And it is the only biblically-mandated party. It comes out of the Old Testament book called “Esther.” In Jewish traditions, this is a Mardi Gras sort of party that centers around the story of how a lowly group of poor Jewish citizens manage with Queen Esther’s assistance to foil a plot by a knuckleheaded king to destroy the Jewish people – in this particular game of Purim, the “winning pot.” I suspect we are the only church in town to observe this party. But, it made a lot of sense to me, because just that Sunday we had heard Fr. Stuart’s sermon reference to Mary’s “Magnificat” and the choir also offered a beautiful rendition of this biblical hymn that is Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel’s announcement that she will bear the Christ child.
In the Magnificat Mary, who is about to be filled with God, talks about God lifting up the lowly and bringing the lofty down from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. This theme fills the book of Esther, ironically the only book in the entire Bible that never mentions the word ‘God’, though it is filled with traces of God acting anonymously. The point of Esther is that the lowly are lifted up and the arrogant and lofty are brought down from their thrones.
In today’s gospel, Jesus also makes a reference to another theme from Esther’s story, when he responds that although the suffering that he faces is very intense, he knows that it is for this time that he has come. In Esther’s story, the success of the foil to the king’s plans to destroy the Jewish people hinges on young Queen Esther doing her part, which duty fills her with terror. Her uncle encourages her saying, “Have you not considered that it was for this hour that you were born?”
That both Mary and Jesus allude to a story told annually to all Jews everywhere is not an accident, I think. Stories are tradents that carry so much variety of meaning from generation to generation. When we hear certain themes or phrases, they trigger our computer brains to remember the essence of the original context. Think, for example, of how you felt, where you “went” last week when we heard both “Amazing Grace” AND “Jesus Loves Me.”
In God becoming incarnate through the Virgin Mary, God’s kingdom has come near to us, a kingdom where the existing order of things that insists on keeping some people constantly on the edge of starvation and annihilation is turned on its head and the lowly ones, the ones without any power, are lifted up and filled with good things. What happened once for Esther and the people in a miracle is now the reality through Mary’s agreement that is the coming kingdom of God.
And, Esther’s reminder in her conversation with her uncle that she was born for this moment is echoed in Jesus’ response to his own hypothetical question when praying to God, facing the certain suffering that he completely understands he came in order to be present to endure. Both Mary and Jesus would have grown up hearing annually the story of Esther, including the dramatic retelling of the tale’s surprising ending when the lowly are lifted up and the mighty and arrogant are brought down from their thrones, as well as the spine-tingling moment when Esther realizes that whether her people are saved or not depends entirely on what she does next.
These are so much more than just literary observations. They are examples of the way in which how we pray, what we focus on, the stories we tell ourselves, how all this shapes what we believe and consequently how we live!
These evocative memories are placeholders ready to move us into action, reminding us that constantly throughout our lives there will be situations that call us away from a false sense that no one’s watching or paying any attention to us back to the truth which is that God’s kingdom continues to arrive and its arrival will always upset the status quo and be costly to those who try to hang on to the old order that does not take God into account.
The trick to preaching this during Lent is to avoid the bad theology of implying that “real” Christians don’t like anything about power or powerful people, and can’t wait to die and be shed of these earthly bodies so they can be “at home” with the Lord. This cannot be entirely true. If it were, it would suggest that this world that we live in is a mistake and that our earthly lives are contemptible. They cannot be contemptible and also be the temple of the Holy Spirit. The suggestion that power, per se, is a bad thing and that these mortal bodies are inherently bad is simply not consistent with the whole of scripture.
Jesus lived in this world and had one of these bodies. What appears to have upset him was not that some people in the world had privilege and others did not, but that those with privilege abused it, exploiting those who did not have any privilege. He honored humanity by choosing to enter it, but he did not allow its limitations to define the extent of meeting his duty to God and the world that God created and loves.
Perhaps, as Lent draws to a close here within a week or so, what we realize is that being a true disciple isn’t measured by how often we pray or how we pray; by what we give up or what we take on. It’s about understanding this world and ourselves from God’s perspective, which among so many things means understanding that each of us was born for a reason, to be present at a moment when what needs to be said or done can happen only if we say or do it. Unlike Esther or Jesus, though, our moments may not be so obvious to us.
So, here’s the trick. We have to live as though this is the day that what we say or do really matters. And we have to understand that, in whatever capacity we hold any influence, that we hold it as a sacred trust, expected by God to manage it in such a way that makes it possible for justice and nourishment and housing to reach those who are struggling to find these things that so many of us take for granted.
Today, as in Esther’s time, Mary’s time, and Jesus’ time, this message is hard for us to hear.
“Then, the crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said ‘no, perhaps an angel spoke to Jesus,’ but Jesus answered, ‘No, it wasn’t thunder and it wasn’t an angel talking to me. This message is intended for your sake.’”
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
March 18, 2018