“For Just Such a Time as This” (Esther 4:14)
David R. Weiss – June 10, 2018 – St. Paul’s UCC
(Esther 4:1-17 was the text for the day, chosen by the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ as the theme for their annual meeting. St. Paul’s UCC clergy were at the weekend conference, which is why I preached in church today. I wrote up this short version to share with the children during their time up front; it’s also helpful to set the context for my message.)
A short version of the Story of Esther
The story of Esther happened long ago—several hundred years even before Jesus was born. Esther and all of her relatives—the Jewish people—were living in another land, called Persia. While she was just a teenager, Esther was chosen by the King of Persia, to be his queen. No one expected this. It was a big surprise. But the king liked Esther very much. However, no one in the palace, not even the king himself, knew she was Jewish.
One day, one of the King’s friends got very angry at a Jewish man named Mordecai. Now Mordecai was a good man; he was also Esther’s cousin, but nobody knew that. Well, the king’s friend was so angry that he tricked the King into making a new law to kill Mordecai—and ALL the Jews—everywhere throughout Persia. Can you believe that?
When Mordecai heard this, he was sad, and he was scared—not just for himself, but for ALL the Jews. So, he sent a message to his cousin Esther. He told her that all the Jews were in danger, and that she must try to change the King’s mind. She was the queen, after all.
But Esther said, “I can’t do that. The King has a very strong rule: No one—not even the queen—can go see him unless he asks them to. If I break that rule, I might get killed myself, even though I’m queen.” Then Mordecai replied, “Listen, Esther, all the Jews are in danger. You might be the ONLY person who can save us.” And he added, “Esther, maybe God you made you a queen for this very moment.”
So Esther agreed to go the king. But first she asked Mordecai to have all the Jewish people pray for her, that she would be both brave and wise before the King.
Well, she went to the King, and she changed his mind. All the Jewish people were saved. And still today the Jewish people celebrate the bravery of this teenage girl who dared to ask herself, “is it possible that God made me for this very moment?”
“For Just Such a Time as This” (Esther 4:14)
David R. Weiss – June 10, 2018 – St. Paul’s UCC
This morning I’m going to sharemy“Mordecai moment.” I don’t claim to be as daring as Esther. But the day Mordecai spoke to me changed my life.
It was February 1997. I was a Lutheran graduate student in Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. But we need to start before that.
In the mid-80’s I was a student at Wartburg Seminary, in Dubuque, Iowa. While there, the “question of homosexuality” took on flesh in the lives of classmates who felt God’s call to ministry, but found that call unambiguously rejected by Lutheran policy.
I didn’t work through the biblical or theological questions back then. But I did the emotional work. I listened.I heard their ache and fear. Their longing, their love, their joy. Quite beyond any societal stereotype or religious teaching, I came to know their full God-beloved humanity.
A decade later, at Notre Dame, I took up the biblical and theological questions. The ELCA (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) was wrestling, rather begrudgingly, with the place of gay and lesbian persons in its pews—and potentially in its pulpits. In a graduate seminar paper I did my first careful study of biblical texts and theological perspectives alongside the ELCA study. I began to do my own thinking. Humbly, cautiously, quietly.
The following summer, my Lutheran congregation met to discuss the ELCA’s draft statement on sexuality. I don’t know if there were any gay or lesbian people in the room that day. I do know the room had plenty of half-truths, stereotypes, outright prejudice … and very little grace.
I listened, and finally, my knees trembling, I stood up. I spoke about my friendships with faithful gay and lesbian Christians. I was hardly eloquent, but I managed a rambling witness to the goodness of persons too easily and too often dehumanized.
Afterwards, several persons thanked me for my words. Mostly I breathed a sigh of relief—and resumed my quiet diligence as a grad student. That was June 1994. It would still be more than two years before I heard Mordecai’s voice.
But other pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.
The Notre Dame student newspaper published every day but Sunday. It always featured a lot of opinions. Letters to the editor and entire columns regularly focused on homosexuality. Often in response to current events on campus, in the news, or in the Catholic world, they were overwhelmingly negative.
I’d read them and cringe. But I held my tongue. I was there to do graduate work, not change the world. I didn’t know a single undergraduate student. And I was Lutheran, anyway, on a very Catholic campus. It wasn’t really my argument to get involved in.
That fall, one of the friends I’d mentioned in church—a gay man who’d been my junior high Sunday School teacher—suffered a massive stroke. He’d spent most of his adult life heart-broken, bereft because he’d been kicked out of seminary for being gay. Dale buried his sorrow in drink and food, and at forty-three his body just gave out. He lingered, half-paralyzed, in a nursing home for another year-and-a-half. He was just thirty miles away, so I visited him about every three weeks for the rest of his life.
In spring 1996 I taught my first undergraduate class at Notre Dame. These students, at least, became real to me. They had names; but also thoughts, ideas, academic struggles and successes. And at the edges I also saw hopes, dreams, sorrows, lives. They were so fully human.
Suddenly when I saw gay-bashing letters in the student newspaper I shifted uneasily while reading them. I didn’t know whether any of the eighty students in my two classes were gay, but I knew the odds. And I knew—inescapably—that whichever students found themselves in the crosshairs of those letters, they were fully human, just like mine.
Midway through that semester Dale died. He had asked me to preach at his funeral, and I did. He’d never come out to his family—but wasout to his circle of un-churched friends. So I gave a sermon that carefully held the tragic truth of his life, still largely hidden from his family, in words that comforted people listening from very different places. I spoke unremittingly of God’s love.
But I still hadn’t heard Mordecai speak to me. So, here’s one thing to note. In the Book of Esther, the moment of decision builds quickly, compressed into a few months over just a few chapters. Usually these moments have roots that reach far back and meander on the way to their culmination.
It was ten months after Death’s death that Mordecai met me in my upstairs apartment on Marquette Avenue in South Bend, Indiana.
Earlier that day I’d picked up a copy of Scholastic, a Notre Dame student literary magazine. I usually scanned it with mild interest. The February 20thissue changed the course of my life.
In a short prose-poem titled “Living in Fear,” a gay senior described coming to Notre Dame four years earlier, already knowing he was gay—and lamented that he would graduate … without having told a single person the truth of his life. He’d spent his entire college experience “living in fear.”
He recounted wondering almost daily whether perhaps thiswould be the day he dared to tell someone he was gay. But so far that day had never come. He ended the poem voicing his desperate hope that at least God loved him “anyway”—despite his being gay.
That’s when Mordecai spoke to me.Unmistakably, in the stillness of that night, I heard—not so much as words spoken, but as breath sucked out of me: “Perhaps you—David—are here … for just such a time as this.”
Scholasticpublished his piece anonymously. To this day, don’t know who he was. But long into that night, as I read and re-read his words, I knew—because I found myself shaking and sobbing over the words of a complete stranger—I knew THIS was my moment to speak.
Behind me were my seminary friendships, my childhood connection to Dale and my months of visiting him in the nursing home. My graduate seminar paper, my testimony at my church, my sermon at Dale’s funeral. But it was on thisnight that I poured out my passion for a welcoming God with nothing held back.
I wrote a prose-poem letter directly back to him. I titled it, “Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.” It ran in the next issue of Scholastic.
In it I ransacked the Bible for images—there is no shortage of them!—that bear witness to a God who persistently welcomes those that society prefers to exclude. I wanted him to see—to feel in his very heart—that the Biblical story of welcome held a place for him, too.
Among the first words tumbling forth through my tears were these: “I see now that if God keeps silent in the face of your anguish, it is only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words. Well here they are.”
Unlike Esther, I had no royal dignity to leverage. But I had words.And that night I opened a floodgate, and God’s grace and welcome came spilling out onto page after page after page. I went on to write essays, plays, hymns. I’ve published a book, taught college classes, spoken at churches and on college campuses all across the country.
I didn’t planto be such a strident ally for LGBTQ persons. And while there are certainly deep and winding roots to this, it truly all turned decisively that February night in 1997 when an echo of Mordecai’s voice summoned my gifts and my passioninto action.
I’ve had a few other “Mordecai-moments,” including my recent pull to think and write and speak around climate change. But nothing has so reshaped my entire life as that night twenty-one years ago.
And yet, while my story may be compelling, it’s YOUR story that matters most to you.
This weekend leaders from UCC congregations across Minnesota have gathered … precisely to ask where Mordecai might be directing our attention today.
Surely still toward LGBTQ persons. But also Black … brown … and Native Lives. Immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers. A nation entangled in white supremacy … and imperiled by gun violence. Those who say, “Me, Too.” Those plagued by anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide. Those left behind or excluded from economic security. People and places threatened by climate change. And more.
The sources of suffering are many. They can be overwhelming. Which is Mordecai’s voice matters so much. Because God doesn’t ask you to be Esther—or to be me. God asks you … to be you.
It happens somewhere. Some when. You may or not see it coming. But the needs of the world cross the path ofyourlife where and when yourgifts, passions, and skills—maybe even your own wounds—have all conspired to make YOU ready for just such a time as this.
And in that “Mordecai moment,” God nudges you toward becoming the YOU that is truly gospel—good news—for God’s world.
We might encounter such moments as individuals, but there is particular power when we encounter them—and respond—as whole communities, through our interwoven gifts.
I expect Norma Rae, Clare, Kay, Bob, Becky, Anna, Brien, and Jacquelynn will come back from the Minnesota Conference Meeting ready to wonder where Mordecai is nudging us, not simply as individual persons of faith but as a deeply gifted faith community.
My prayer—for you, for me, for us as a church, is that when Mordecai speaks, like Esther, we will be ready to respond. AMEN.