Delivered at Claremont UCC on December 7, 2014
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
I have a friend who was raised Jewish in Chicago in the 1950s. This means that her family had living memory of the most recent European genocide of Jews as well as the long American tradition of Jewish quotas in schools and employment.
When she went to college in the 1970s, one of the first things her Christian roommate asked was how old she was when she had her horns and tail removed. This was no joke. My friend’s roommate sincerely believed, had been raised to believe by her Christian community, that Jewish people were essentially a different species.
Thirty years later I was with my friend at a church where we heard a pastor preach about the Jews and their strange, backward customs. This was a man with authority by virtue of his position teaching total lies to an audience that relied on him as a religious expert. We both froze and were careful not to look at each other.
Obviously anti-Semitism is not a 20th century invention. Just look at today’s reading from Esther.
Esther is a short book, just 10 chapters long. It starts with King Ahasuerus drunkenly asking Queen Vashti, to come before him wearing only a crown. At a party. Vashti refuses and the king is angered. After calming down, the king sends for a harem of virgins in order to pick a new queen.
Esther, our heroine, is one of those girls. Esther had been orphaned and taken in by her uncle Mordecai. Both were Israelites living in exile after the Babylonian empire’s conquest of their land. Mordecai instructs Esther to keep her Jewishness a secret, to stay in the closet. After being presented to the king, Esther is selected as the new queen of the land.
Some time after that Haman, a new character, is promoted in the courtly ranks. Uncle Mordecai refuses to bow to him. Haman knows that Uncle Mordecai is Jewish and so, rather than simply punish Mordecai, he get the king to agree to kill all of the Jewish people.
Then we get to today’s passage where Mordecai warns Esther that not even she will be safe. Esther knows Mordecai is right. Nothing and no one is safe in the face of the “othering” that comes from bigotry.
However, through some clever manipulation, Esther gets the king to execute Haman instead and reverse his order for genocide. There is much rejoicing.
Esther is a fantasy of an oppressed minority. It pokes fun at those who presume to have power and celebrates the underdog’s capacity to outwit brutality.
Esther is a perfect story for this moment in American race relations.
You don’t need me to review the last two weeks of judicial outcomes, protests, grief, and defensiveness. The names Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown are likely forever etched in our minds as are the phrases “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Not One Dime” and “I Can’t Breathe.”
What are we supposed to do? As Christians, as a mostly white church? Are we supposed to do anything?
I would wager that even for those of us who are white we have someone we love, even someone we are related to by blood or marriage or adoption, who is of a different race or ethnicity than us. Someone we care about who daily lives with the kind of microaggressions and outright hostility as I described my Jewish friend experiencing. So it is not hard to believe the stories that are emerging because they are familiar.
Our congregation has a history of racial justice work, such as our care of Medgar Evers’ family. In January we will co-host an event to honor the civil rights work of our Dr. Louilyn and Rev. Jim Hargett.
Attending to systematic discrimination is something we value institutionally and have stakes in personally.
And that’s because of Jesus. Jesus who angered his disciples by listening to women and children, foreigners and the sick. “Jesus,” you can hear the disciples saying, “don’t bother with them. They are just women, complaining silly women who do not know what they need. And those others? Well, their illness and poverties are not our concern. They are not one of us. Can we even believe them, what they say about their lives? Let them solve their own problems.”
But Jesus stands firm in his Jewish faith, the foundation of our Christian practice. The most consistent message from Genesis through to Revelation is to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as our own selves. To fight for and feed and heal the widow, the orphan, and the stranger just as we would for our own bodies.
We are obligated by our love of Christ to hear the cries of our fellow countrywomen and men.No matter how each of us individually may feel about the details of these deaths or the judicial outcome of their cases, we cannot be like the begrudging disciples and dismiss the cries of Black America.
Right now those cries are directed primarily at police and policing. It reminds me of my own profession.
Most of my fellow priests and pastors are hard-working, decent people who take seriously our obligation to practice what we preach. But a few really bad ones–Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Mark Driscoll, and the Catholic pedophile priests–destroyed the faith and even lives of huge numbers of people. Their contemporaries and institutions protected them as if the profession and church mattered more than God.
And all of us religious pay the price of the public distrust and anger they earned. I asked an adult ed class last year if pastors have any moral authority in the public square and to a one they said not any more.
I have a sense that the American judiciary is in a similar moment, with the hard-working, decent officers who take seriously their obligation to serve and protect, to encounter ugliness we cannot imagine in order to make our communities safer paying the price of distrust and anger for the really bad ones.
The story of Esther is the basis for the Jewish holiday Purim. Purim often includes reenactments of the drama including a parade. We have a similar holiday. It’s called Palm Sunday.
On Palm Sunday Jesus leads a parade. He rides a mule into Jerusalem through the back gate. At that same moment, Pilate is coming through the front gate in full imperial regalia. “Your power is a joke,” Jesus is saying, “Real power is not in the hands of empire, but God and God’s people.” It is a parade that inspires us to have no fear of human kingdoms only love of holy kin-dom.
Mordecai told Esther that just because she was queen did not mean she was safe. Jesus says the same: being his follower is not a road to comfort and security but risk and challenge.
The good news in the face of that daunting task is that because we are not just a national people, but residents of that kin-dom of God, we have tremendous resources and hope at our disposal.
Look at Esther. She was deep inside the institution that would destroy a whole people. But she did not simply continue in her life, betraying her faith, hoping no one would find her out. No, she leveraged her access to power. Esther not only protected her people but set them up for success.
Esther knew that her allegiance was not to the king who made her rich but to the people who simply made her. Our allegiance is not to the systems that divide America along racial and economic lines, but to the vision offered to us on Easter morning: die to human lies and live in God’s truth.
During Advent we are not just preparing for the most precious story of Jesus’ birth. We are also preparing for the stories of his ministry, miracles, parade, execution, and Easter mystery. Which means we are also preparing to engage with the world, to learn not to be like the disciples but to be fully present at the Palm Sunday parade.
As I watch my friends galvanize their churches and mosques and temples and unions to address racial inequality, I feel a holy heat that will not be stopped, a new parade.
What are we supposed to do as Christians, as a mostly white church? Are we supposed to do anything?
If we claim Jesus Christ in our lives, yes we are.
I pray that as we let the Christmas star lead us to the Easter sun, we will have earned our place in the parade, through local and national engagement. That we will be like Jesus’ disciples, ultimately willing to set aside our doubts and fears to stand up for our neighbors as ourselves. That we will be like Esther and her people, elated that the weak have again triumphed over the strong.