St. Paul’s Congregational Church
September 26, 2021
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Mark 9:38 – 41;
For Such a Time as This
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
This week we held our regular Church Council meeting – we met a couple of weeks ago in an emergency meeting after the devastating flooding on the night of September 1. That night we all, of course, were in shock and began planning for clean up, remediation, and recovery. By this week the shock was beginning to wear off as we saw progress – including the heartbreaking image of 6 dumpsters filled with unsalvageable items – big and small – from cardboard boxes, books, toys to big kitchen items. Pictures showed the progress our remediation team was making – that was encouraging as was news that our insurance would cover the damages and needed renovation. The numbers are staggering!
Now, we all know that St. Paul’s is struggling – like so many churches our membership as well as our Sunday worship attendance is down, our finances are uncertain, we don’t have enough people to do the work of the church, our outreach programs are limited. We long for the “good old days” when our building was alive with activity during the week and our Sunday School classes were filled. As the reality of the damage we’d sustained in the flooding was sinking in on top of the effects of the COVID epidemic and our inability to be together in person for 18 months, this meeting was very difficult. Could we recover from all of this? Are we a viable church any longer? Conversations such as this have been taking place for at least 20 years based on church council minutes I’ve read. Now with the flooding, can we recover and continue our presence here? What does that presence look like? Do we have the energy to recover and continue? It was a hard meeting – maybe the hardest meeting I’ve ever been to in any church I’ve served or belonged to.
We’d invited the Rev. Nelson Murphy, our associate conference minister to join us at our zoom meeting – it was good to meet him – he asked each of us to talk about our feelings, our hopes for the future – there was a good deal of pain expressed, some of those present had grown up in the church and were deeply sad. But there were also a few sparks of hope – signs of interest in the church from the community expressed through social media, the number of people who have viewed our recorded services on our Facebook page – and the fact that we do have and welcome visitors to our worship. A couple of weeks ago some dear friends of mine visited us at our first in-person, outdoor worship, their first time here – I heard from them how welcome they felt, how a sense of peace and calm came over them – and when nobody was there distributing our order of worship as people arrived, they took the papers and handed them out, extending the welcome they had received to others!
As I listened at the council meeting, my thoughts went to our scripture readings for this morning – two phrases kept going through my mind – from Esther, “for such a time as this” and from the gospel, “give a cup of water to drink.”
At many times in their history, the Hebrew people struggled with what meant to live as the people of God – when they were ruled by another empire or living in another country, the answer wasn’t always clear. The Book of Esther, which appears only once in 3 year lectionary on the 21st Sunday of Pentecost in Year B, today, is a story about Hebrew people living in exile in the Persian Empire and the dilemma they faced trying to live faithfully in a different culture.
When Esther enters the competition to become queen to King Xerxes, Mordecai advises her to keep quiet the fact that she is Jewish. When she becomes queen and Mordecai gains influence in the king’s court no one seems to realize that they are Jewish. It is only when Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, the king’s chief official, that he is revealed to be Jewish.
In revenge, Haman plots to kill him and all the Jews. Mordecai turns to Esther for help. To save her people Esther must place herself in danger and stand with her persecuted people. It’s not an easy decision for her but she chooses to acknowledge her heritage.
What we read this morning is the climax of the story in which Esther reveals Haman as an enemy of her and her people. It’s a violent story, isn’t it – Haman is killed on the very gallows meant for Mordecai.
Then, Esther, Mordecai, and all the Hebrew people celebrate their escape from death in a festival called Purim – still celebrated today – a celebration of the survival of the Jews, even in Diaspora. The festival celebrates turning for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday – with the instruction to make them days of feasting and gladness – and importantly, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
This book is the story of an ordinary woman of extraordinary courage and resourcefulness who saved her people. Like the ancient Hebrews, we too struggle to understand what it means to live as the people of God – this Book, this story, helps us understand that the people of God are those who take a stand and risk acting for God in the world. Just as Esther was an ordinary person who stepped up and did the right thing in order to insure the preservation of her people, so contemporary disciples of Jesus serve him in quiet but nevertheless quite faithful ways today.
No, we haven’t heard God mentioned in this story at all, have we. It’s a story about a woman who has put aside her own safety and spoken up for her people, saving them when they were in danger in a foreign land.
But this is a story about God – about the way God will work behind the scenes lovingly and creatively to accomplish His purposes. How? Through the faithfulness and courage of ordinary people like Esther.
“For such a time as this” – doesn’t this point us to a defining moment that we all long for – our chance to make a difference. St. Paul’s has made a difference in the lives of so many – what’s next? We are in a pivotal moment right now as the Body of Christ here at St. Paul’s: a time to listen for God’s direction, God’s word of hope, a time of trusting God right where we are.
There’s no doubt that we are in a critical time of discernment here as we are faced with decisions about the direction of our future ministry. At the council meeting, Nelson spoke of our need to enter into a visioning process – a re-visioning process – to really talk about our goals. To identify our strengths. To answer the question, what is it that makes this church what it is. To decide what will be our legacy to the future. How to focus our energy on moving forward. Yes, we’re in the midst of hard times, fewer resources both financial and human, and it’s hard.
But as this conversation continued at that long meeting, there began to bubble up a feeling of excitement, of a sense of hopefulness, and when Nelson offered resources like a contact person to help lead us through this process, the council members were truly enthusiastic. But, this process is for all of us – not just the church council. And that includes anyone and everyone – members, friends, visitors, all ages - we’re all part of the Body of Christ. We all have something to offer. We all have gifts to share as we go through this discernment process. What an opportunity we have in front of us: for such a time as this.
Yes, we feel some apprehension. We face times of great sadness, fear and doubt. And it’s possible that this process will take us somewhere we don’t expect but we are not alone – ever. Our faithful God has been with us all along and will continue to guide and protect us and show us the way. We may well face decisions that require holy courage on our part – but decisions that will make a world of difference not only to us but to people around us.
And that’s where the gospel lesson touches us: we are called to give a cup of water to others – to give life, not just to our own isolated community, but to others – others we know or others we will never meet. There are or will be risks we can take – and by the grace of God we take them. To give a cup of water to others is not without risk but that’s our call. The people of God are those who take a stand and risk acting for God in the world.
The realm of God is being advanced and preserved through the good work of ordinary people like us. That’s the way God works – God doesn’t do it all: God enlists and strengthens ordinary people like you and me, to do God’s good work.
We’re not likely to be forced to give our lives for our faith like Detrick Bonhoeffer did – it’s more likely you’ll be at a dinner party and someone will make a comment putting down someone else, or a group of people, or advocate some behavior that’s less than Christian - it’s then that you will need to find a way to speak up and speak out for what you believe.
Maybe we live in a world more like Esther’s than we would like to admit – Esther was a stranger in a strange land. Maybe some of us are beginning to feel like that a little – we live in a society that too often doesn’t feel very Christian, that doesn’t feel very faithful, that doesn’t feel like we’re called to be concerned about “the least of these.” We don’t think about “What does the Lord require of us” when we’re faced with injustice, with bigotry, with hateful words, when we witness or overhear oppressive behavior or words.
Maybe we feel like, “I’m just one person – what can I do?” We’re such a small church – what can we do?
Each one of us can do a lot. This church can do a lot. How will we continue to do God’s work? How will we continue to serve our community?
How will each of us participate? In such a time as this.
Each of us comes to some point in our lives – either at work, at the office, at school, at the Shop Rite, or at a dinner party where there is the opportunity for you to step up, to speak out, and it is as if old Mordecai says to you what he said to Esther, “Who knows? Maybe the Lord is calling you for such a time as this.”
May we hear that call. May we respond to that call. May we experience the joy of that call. So may it be. Amen.