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Once upon a time there was a little girl named Esther who had had a rough start in life. She was born into a Jewish family, a descendant of those who had been captured by King Nebuchadnezzar and carried away into a life of exile and service. When Esther was quite young, both her mother and father died, and she was taken in and raised by her older cousin Mordecai, who cared for her as though she were his own.
Esther grew into a young woman of good character and great beauty, and one day news came that the king was searching for a new wife because his previous wife, the beautiful Queen Vashti, had disobeyed his command and refused to be put on display when the king drunkenly wanted to show off his wealth and power to his dinner guests. So he took away Vashti’s crown and banished her from the kingdom, and the call went out to collect the beautiful young women of the surrounding area and prepare them to meet the king. The preparations included a full year of cosmetic treatments, which perhaps indicates that the king valued the way women looked over their substance, the inner quality of their souls. At the end of the year of preparation, the king would select one of the young women to be his queen.
Esther was gentle and humble as well as lovely, and she went along with the program quietly. At the suggestion of Mordecai, she didn’t reveal to anyone that she was Jewish, thinking it might be counted against her. And when the king met her, the story says, “he loved Esther more than all the other women; she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen.” The king was so happy, in fact, that he gave a great banquet he called “Esther’s Banquet,” granted a holiday to the provinces, and gave out gifts far and wide. The king was in a generous mood. It must be love. Love, we hope, that is more than skin deep.
But from this gracious moment of happiness, almost immediately things start to take a darker turn. Mordecai, who throughout the year had been sitting at the king’s gate each day awaiting news of Esther, overheard a plot two of the king’s men were making to assassinate the king. Mordecai told Queen Esther what he’d heard and she told the king. The plot was exposed and the conspirators were brought to justice.
But next we hear about Haman, one of the king’s officials, who was becoming drunk with power and was infuriated that Mordecai the Jew, waiting at the king’s gate, would not bow down to him as he passed. His hatred of Mordecai grew to do what racism does when it gains power, unchecked; it became a full hatred of the Jewish people, and Haman devised a nefarious plan to destroy all the Jews throughout the kingdom. Unwittingly, the king plays right into Haman’s hands, giving him the means to carry out his vengeful plan. Mordecai learns of it and–after tearing his clothes and putting on sackcloth and ashes, and spreading great mourning among the Jews –he pleads with Esther to ask the king to help their people. She is desperately afraid to tell the truth; all this time she has hidden who she is and who she comes from. She hesitates and reminds Mordecai that she could be killed for going to the king on her own without first being summoned.
Mordecai replies, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
That idea—it is for this moment we have come—was the turning point in Esther’s mind and heart. She saw the truth shimmering. She saw how truth—the truth she held inside, away from the light—was the key in the lock of this whole situation. Of course she must act, come what may. The truth—God’s truth—required it. It was for this moment she had come.
Esther asked Mordecai to have all Jews in the kingdom join her in fasting for three days and three nights. She said, “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
Chapter 7, verses 2-4 say,
“On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. What is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, 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. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”
This was a bold act of fearless moral courage for Esther. First she had to show up, to tell the truth of who she was, to claim her Jewish heritage as her own. She asked for her life and the lives of her people to be spared. In doing so, she does the most important thing in this whole story: She tells the truth. She no longer holds in the shadows the detail that was central to her life, her values, her faith. And because she told the truth, the treacherous dishonesty of Haman is exposed, and the king acts honorably with love and protection. Mordecai also is blessed when the truth is told—he is honored and forever after treated as a friend of the king. Light prevails, the scales of justice balance, and love wins—all because a gentle Jewish woman told the truth.
Not only does this story hinge on this very important and simple idea—that truth of who we are matters—but it shows how we grow in authority as we let ourselves be led by the light within us. At the beginning of this story, Esther was an orphan, an innocent girl needing protection, who didn’t want to push back on social norms. As the crisis nears for her people, Esther becomes a Queen, no longer relying solely on Mordecai but listening to her own inner wisdom and acting with integrity and strength on behalf of her people.
When circumstances in the world feel overwhelming to me, when I am in need of an example of courage and strength and hope for positive change, I think of Esther. Not because she had a special gift or some kind of superhuman qualities that enabled her to act justly in a difficult time, but because she had a heart that recognized the right thing to do—the right thing for all—and as soon as she realized it, she acted.
She didn’t plan for it. She didn’t prepare her whole life to be in the position she was in. She was simply a normal person with a good heart who’s life swept her (thanks to God) into just the right circumstances for just the right moment. And with the help of Mordecai, her loving and wise adopted father, she was able to see the truth of what was being asked of her in that moment—selflessness, care, faith—and she responded with a clear and loving heart.
When we find ourselves in difficult circumstances—and I don’t think “difficult” really covers all that we’re going through together right now—it is normal, at first, to duck and cover until we have a chance to understand the threat and take steps to protect our families. That’s our human nature and it has helped us survive and thrive for millennia.
But that’s not the limit of our potential, that’s not all we can do in a crisis—care about ourselves and our own. We can also get quiet and let God show us what we have to give, to share, to pray, to do. It is for this moment we have come, too. We don’t have to have special training or have prepared all our lives for the way in which God will lead us to contribute. Maybe it’s something simple, like contributing to a GoFundMe account. Perhaps it’s sharing uplifting things and encouraging friends—like so many you see posting music and dancing and art on social media right now. Perhaps there is an expertise you can contribute, some practical knowledge that would be helpful. Or praying faithfully—for all, the whole world over, who are affected by the virus and the shockwaves of effect it is bringing to our social, financial, and work lives around the globe.
Maybe it’s something that stretches us, like only buying one gallon of milk, one loaf of bread, one package of toilet paper when our fear—and our “me and mine first” mentality—would urge us to pile up our carts. We can remember there are young families that need milk and bread and toilet paper too. There are those who struggle more than we do, who need our care and our concern and our action.
Our New Testament reading today is 2 Timothy 1:7, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control,” and that seems to me to be a perfect “compass verse” for living through these times. There is of course anxiety and uncertainty and fear—that is a part of living in this world just now, if you are paying attention. We don’t know how bad things will get, or how long they will last, or even truly—although the experts are working on it—how to make things better.
But no matter what the circumstance, in the quiet of our own hearts, we can listen for God’s leading on what God would have us do. And it will always have something to do with loving our neighbor. Doing what we can to show we are still connected. Putting our self-interest aside for a moment in the name of love. Letting spirit lead us to the next…and the next…and the next.
Then at the end of the day—whether we’ve been able to leave our houses or not—we will feel we contributed something worthwhile in this scary time. We cared for others; we found the source of strength within us; we navigated, we chose, we acted, from the leading of Love in our hearts.
In a recent email to everybody, I wrote that, “if our faith teaches us anything, it’s that the “physical” is not the ultimate and lasting reality.” God continues to lead and comfort and accompany us, and we can not only hold that reassurance close but share it—in countless tiny ways, as we are so led—with others. That’s how we’ll get through this crisis, day by day, by caring for and encouraging one another with the spirit of love and power and self-control God continually pours out to us.
I’d like to close with a lovely poem written by John O’Donohue, from his book, To Bless the Space Between Us:
“This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.”
If we remain generous, time will come good, and we will find our feet again on fresh pastures of promise.
Let’s hold on to that beautiful idea with hope and courage, Friends. God has not given us the spirit of fear, but the spirit of love and power and self-control. It is for this moment we, too, have come. And we have the promise that God is leading us—day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute—to share God’s love so that it spills over into and helps to bless and calm our badly frightened world.
- OT Esther 7: 2-4
- NT 2 Timothy 1: 7
- John O’Donohue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZYWIW1Kjio