Called for Such a Time as This

April 25, 2021
Reverend Dr. Meghan Gage-Finn

Esther 4:1-17; 1 John 3:16-24

I started work on this sermon, or rather, it started its work on me, long before we knew the verdict in the trial of the officer who killed George Floyd, and before the killing of 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant by a police officer in Ohio while that verdict was read here in Minneapolis. The sermon was taking hold well before the news of the killing of Daunte Wright, before we knew that 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot by a police officer in Chicago, and before a mass shooting in Indianapolis, killing four members of the Sikh community. As the Scripture texts took root in me preparing for today, I was sensing no matter what the jury delivered this past week, no matter what new Covid challenges would be realized, what fresh horror might pop up as an alert on my phone, this morning would feel like “such a time as this.” In many ways, it is hard to remember when it did not feel like a perpetual “such a time as this,” and for communities of color and marginalized and traumatized individuals, has it ever not been “such a time”?

The first time I realized the impact of this phrase from the book of Esther, “for such a time as this,” as Mordecai describes the time in which he and his cousin Esther are living, was in my very early days in seminary. This was before I had even stepped into a classroom, bought a book, or listened to a lecture. The words were invoked in a special worship service held in the seminary chapel, calling together the campus and wider community.

I began seminary in Princeton, NJ in the fall of 2001, in early September to be exact, newly immersed in a small town that was an easy commute for those who worked an hour away in Manhattan. The orientation for my incoming class was to start on September 12, but all of that changed after the terrorist attacks the day before. I, along with my classmates, radically shifted travel plans and routes to the East Coast, with many finding themselves suddenly stranded in different parts of the country and world as planes were diverted mid-flight on 9/11.

Once we were all able to get to campus safely, I could look out from my residential window across the street at the Episcopal Church commuter parking lot for those who took the train into NY each day and see cars, days later, still unclaimed. There was a sorrowful hush over the whole community, and even though I had never been to Princeton before, the collective grief and personalized shock was palpable in the fall air. Of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of September 11, twenty-six were from the small town of Princeton and the immediate area.

I do not remember the prayers offered or the hymns we sang that day in the light-filled space of the chapel, but I do remember the preacher laying this mantle upon us, that we were all, students, faculty, staff, and community members- all as people of faith, called to lead and serve “in such a time as this.” It was a time of growing Islamophobia and fear, and nationalism, prejudice, and racism directed toward Arab and Muslim Americans was running high.

At that point, I was committed fully to the unfolding and developing sense of my call into ministry, but I had this panicked realization: What have I gotten myself into? It occurred to me that from here on out, I was going to be expected to have some theological insight or response to everything that happened in the world. I was going to have to not only be able to do my own processing, but to speak intelligently and pastorally to tragedy and hardship, to walk as a leader into spaces where God’s people treat each other in the worst and most unspeakable ways.

There was no turning back, but even as a planner, a researcher, I really had no idea what I was actually answering yes to, and in the smoke and sorrow of 9/11, I felt wholly unprepared.

Four years of seminary training later, and over fifteen years of ordained ministry has taught me a few things, enough to know I do not have to have all of the answers. In fact, maybe I need only be prepared by having more questions than answers, and with a readiness to listen, pray, and be present.

I also know it was not just one “yes” I offered in response to God’s call on a single day. Call is a continual listening for and responding to, so that “yes” will be a renewing “yes” to God and God’s people. Our “yes” can be an incremental one, always in partnership with God. For me, that has been a good reminder in a seemingly boundary-less “such a time as this.”

It is as an imperfect person of faith, not just as an imperfect pastor, reliant upon God’s grace, that I must see and understand my world through theological lenses. I have come to better appreciate what was preached that day in Miller Chapel: clergy or not, ordination or not, God calls each one of us in challenging times, hardship, and spaces where the gospel of justice needs to be lived and proclaimed by all.

One of the foundational principles of the faith we share in the Reformed tradition is the priesthood of all believers. No one person is closer to God by virtue of office or training. All of us are peers, as John Calvin would describe it, in proclamation of the Word, in sharing in prayer, and in serving those in need. I would also add- we are all peers in whatever time we find ourselves, with equal ownership over the charge not to keep silent, not to rest on relief or a moment of victory for one family. This is because we know that the system as a whole is still broken, it still betrays, and the time is such for us to stand up, not to settle down.

Philosopher and activist Dr. Cornel West said after 9/11, “The ugly events…should have been an opportunity for national self-scrutiny. In the wake of the shock and horror of those attacks, many asked the question, why do they hate us? But the country failed to engage in a serious, sustained, deeply probing examination of the possible answers to that question.”[1]

That quote by Dr. West seems fitting for such a time as this, but the racialized violence of the police toward people of color, the rise in hate crimes toward Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, the continuous cycle of trauma; these are more than just “ugly events.” They are the result of interrelated systems through the fabric of our struggling society, rooted in the sin of white supremacy. This time should be an opportunity for national and personal self-scrutiny. And in some ways, for some folks, it is. In the wake of the shock and horror, many are asking, why do we hate? What needs to change? Many are doing the hard work of listening, learning, and growing.

But the end of West’s statement seems to be all too true in such a time as this- the country as a whole is failing to engage in a serious, sustained, and deeply probing examination of possible answers to these questions.

In a recent Pew Research study, “eight-in-ten Asian Americans say violence against them in the United States is increasing, and nearly half experienced an incident tied to their racial or ethnic background since the pandemic began.” Additionally, “about two-thirds of [all] Americans say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with the police and by the criminal justice system.”[2] We can identify the complexities and inequalities of the times in which we are living, but simply identifying is not enough.

The story of Esther is set in a particular time of hatred, exclusion, and fear, when Jews were in exile and a minority group. They were viewed with suspicion and sometimes faced threats to their very existence. Esther, before she was Queen of Persia, was a Jewish maiden who was taken into the royal court of King Xerxes. As Scholar Amy Oden describes, Persians ruled and while some Jews had been allowed to return to Jerusalem, there were diaspora Jews who made their homes in Susa, in the heart of the powerful Persian Empire. Oden explains, “As an orphan and a female, Esther is a nobody among nobodies in this minority community…she is a resident alien, a foreigner, and a member of this peculiar tribe that Persians tolerate unevenly.”[3]

Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, becomes her foster parent, but even this is a short-lived reprieve, as she is taken from the safety of Susa and put into the center of plots within the Persian royal court. Returning to Oden, “As queen, we might expect Esther to be aware of her own power and to exercise it. Yet, at least up to this point, Esther has not identified herself as a player in the king’s political circles. She has not weighed in on policy, or leveraged her position to maneuver others into power.”[4]

In fact, the text we heard from chapter 4 is the first time Esther speaks in the book bearing her name. Mordecai is demanding she go to see the king, but if she does so unsummoned, the chances are good that she will die. And what influence does she imagine she would have if the king has not wanted to see her for thirty days? She must be wondering, as many do when confronted with a call- Who am I to speak? What could I possibly do to make a difference, to make change? Mordecai prods, reminding her that she must not keep silent at such a time as this, emphasizing one of the major themes of the story of Esther: the importance of human action in accomplishing God’s purpose.

There is danger in reading too far into Esther’s marginalized status, extrapolating that those in our own times who have been pushed to the edges, devalued and dehumanized, should rise up and fight on their own the way Esther did to save the Jewish people. More important in Esther’s story is to see her courage, her willingness to step into a hostile and malevolent situation in order to take risks on behalf of those who are vulnerable and habitually harmed, threatened, and deemed as less than. That is a universal lesson for all, especially to those in positions of power.

Esther lives out her faith publicly, and deliverance comes. Ultimately, as her story continues, she calls upon her community to fast and pray for her. She takes a risk on behalf of others, but does not go it alone. This can be a model for the call of a community moving together.

The message in I John is also about the power of community, specifically of one that is becoming increasingly aware of itself in the midst of the call to be new, covenant-bound people. In a time of their own social and cultural challenges, they are being honest about who and how they are, and the work they need to do. This is a Jesus-shaped community, oriented toward God’s love and justice for the world. It is an invitation to love in action and truth.

Mordecai cautions Esther against the perils of inaction, of keeping silent, warning of the damage that will come if she continues to think of herself as having no agency to effect change or make a difference. The warning is not for Esther alone. It is not for any one individual, but for the whole community of faith.

What would have happened if Esther had not stood up and used her position to speak a word of life?

What do we imagine will continue to happen if we do not?

What will the next bystander video reveal?

Who will continue to cry out to be heard, seen, valued, and known if we do not take a risk?

Most importantly, as we consider the answers to such questions, we must ask ourselves one more: how might God be preparing us to step forward, to keep silent no longer?

If we allow it to, all of this can teach us something about the call to lead as people of faith at such a time as this. We may be tempted to hope and pray for different times, when the call from God is not so urgent, and the call from our siblings is not so desperate, but until that time, we have so much work to do as individuals and as a collective. Simply put, we cannot deny that we are a people of faith called by God for such times as these.

In a few moments we will share in the ordination and installation of individuals called by this congregation to serve in such a time as this as Deacons and Elders. They have been preparing for many months, listening, learning, and praying. A couple of weeks ago, I asked several of them why they said “yes,” when asked to consider a call to serve the church and community in this way.

One Elder, who is moving into a second term, said, “I felt a spiritual pull telling me there was still more that I could do and could lead for the Church. We sit at a pivotal moment in national history, Westminster included, a time that requires all of us to think differently about our preconceived notions & biases, and our place in the community. I feel compelled to share my voice and my ideas with fellow leaders as we move into the next three years, and beyond.”

An incoming Deacon shared this: “We need all different kinds of leaders in our church because God wants us to care for all different kinds of people. We each have something to bring to the table to make up one body of Christ. I used to think of call stories as this big moment where God says ‘I want you to do this thing!’…but over time I’ve realized that God can also be whispering and hinting at you. [It may be a] message that took some time to interpret as my heart began to stir.”

These are faithful interpretations of God’s call, to God at work in our lives and in the life of a community, and for that we give thanks. But the foundations of our faith remind us, we do not need to be ordained and installed into any formal role or office to respond to the stirring of our hearts, to feel compelled to follow where God leads. Each of us can answer “yes,” rather than keeping silent. Each of us can look internally in order to live out our call externally.

Over the past two days, several of the pastors participated in an online Asian American Theology conference: Race, Justice, and Politics in the Transpacific Context. One of the workshops, led by Dr. Melissa Borja, centered on how religious communities can share in courageous communication about faith and justice. She pushed listeners to think about what tables we need to be around, what actions we need to take, and what conversations we can initiate to build support for the longer-term work of taking action toward policy changes. She encouraged us to think about at a basic level who we need to be talking to, saying, “The more we have conversations, the more we understand.” Eventually we need to go beyond conversations, but for some, especially on the topic on which she presented, realizing and organizing around specific issues Asian Americans face, conversations can build the support for partnership and advocacy. Dr. Borja recommended the organization Resetting the Table to become familiar with their work in supporting collaborative deliberation in the face of strong differences.[5]

Or perhaps you will join me and others in the community for Tuesday evening’s Respectful Conversations Training and Small-Group Talking Circles. I encourage you to invite a friend or two, as I have. As Tim mentioned, there is information on the church’s website on how you can participate.

Beloved, we cannot deny this is the time. It has been time for a long time. And if we don’t make changes, if we don’t respond, take up the mantle of our call to act, serve, and lead, for those most vulnerable and oppressed, it will be such a time in perpetuity. Let us live into this moment to take risks on behalf of others. Because we have boldness before God, may we find our own sense of agency to participate in change, and commit to being part of the beloved community in truth and action.

In all of this, let us not forget- this is joyful work! It is hard, and it will require big things of us, but we respond because we know the deep love God has for us and for the world God has made. Christ abides in us by the gift of the Spirit and that is cause for praise and celebration! And it is cause for joyful, committed action that we share in together!

I would like to close with a prayer The Westminster Centering Prayer group shared, this week, written by Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen, of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Pastor Rasmussen offered this as an Opening Prayer for the Minnesota House on Monday, April 19. She captures in her prayer the naming of this time, and with honesty gives voice to why it can be hard to move forward in such a time as this. But she reminds us that God partners with us in the joyful living of our call in community. Let us pray:

“Renewing Spirit,

we want to believe this *is* the moment—

even as we mourn George Floyd and Daunte Wright,

even as we decry violence against another generation of Black and Brown bodies,

even as righteous anger and sacred lament are met with military force,

all as the world watches on.

Dear God, we want to believe this *is* the moment.

But we need you to fill in the spaces of our disbelief and doubt.

We need you to bridge the chasms between peacekeeping and peacemaking.

We need you to abolish the cynicism that quietly feeds brutality.

And from gravel road to city street, we need you to bind a fragmented people together.

Living Spirit,

the truth is that you can already see a new world,

one we have not yet known.

May this be the moment, God of All,

when we catch a glimpse of *that world* arising.”

And may it be so.

Amen.

[1] John Neafsey, A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006) 154.

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/04/09/views-of-racial-inequality/; https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/21/one-third-of-asian-americans-fear-threats-physical-attacks-and-most-say-violence-against-them-is-rising/

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-1-john-316-24-5

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.resettingthetable.org/

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