Today's Reading: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10 & 9:20-22
When most folks encounter the story of Esther, they think of it as a wonderful story of liberation. And they tend to think of those liberating acts as having occurred one direction: they like to think of how one person saved her entire community from destruction. There is certainly that aspect in this morning’s story – for the Jewish people literally lived to see another day because of the selfless and courageous actions of Esther.
But if you ask me, such an understanding would only be capturing one half of the story. For I believe there is another way you could look at it in which the community aided in the liberation of Esther as well.
Let me take a few moments and tell you why I say that.
Following the dismissal of Esther’s predecessor - Queen Vashti –the King embarked on a long and arduous process to find a replacement. Beautiful women from each of the provinces throughout the empire were gathered and put through a grueling twelve-month process. In fact, by the time the selection process was completed – it had taken 4 years to find Vashti’s replacement.
Given the amount of time and attention devoted to the selection process, you’d probably assume they would have thrown in the equivalent of a background check to make sure the successful candidate came from the right stock. Surprisingly, they didn’t.
Esther had won the beauty-portion of the contest hands-down. She bowled them over with her intelligence. In fact, she was so impressive that the king and his minions never bothered to take time to find out from where she had come.
Of course Esther never volunteered that information either. She was content to remain silent about her Jewish identity.
And you know what?
There is no indication that Esther would have ever volunteered that information under normal circumstances. She might have gone through her entire life never sharing the fullness of who she really was.
But then the fateful edict was issued that threatened the very existence of community from which she had come – the community that had helped shape and define both her perception of the world and her place within it. Her people needed her to not only use her new-found power to advocate on their behalf; they needed her to find her voice and reclaim a piece of her story. It was through that need that Esther was finally able to do the unthinkable: accept herself. Not for whom others thought she was – but for whom she really was. That, my friends, is how I believe the community was able to help liberate Esther.
This notion of how an individual and a community can help liberate one another was brought home to me in a very powerful way last Tuesday when I opened my email and found one from the Southern California-Nevada Conference (UCC).
The email was one of the “Quick News from Jane” editions that are sent out regularly by our Interim Conference Minister – Jane Fisler Hoffman. It was titled “Ministry, Mental Illness & My ‘Coming Out’” – a rather provocative titled, so I started reading.
“‘You are always so upbeat!’” the email began. “Over the years, I have heard that on many Sunday mornings, and it is true. I am a positive, happy person who loves my work, loves the church, and both loves and feels loved by God and many others.”
“Nothing earth shattering so far,” I thought as I read. “I’ll hang in there for another paragraph. If it doesn’t pick up, I’ll delete it,” I thought.
“Thus the first time I fell into the shadowed hole of clinical depression in around 1992, it was a profound shock to me. In fact, I did not recognize it for what it was for some time—yet I knew that it was ‘not me’ to think about driving into that bridge pillar or to weep in despair day after day.”
I felt the earth below me begin to shift a little, so I read on.
“[I] went to a doctor, [and] when an antidepressant was suggested, I reacted with disdain. All those jokes about ‘Prozac’ on nighttime television were about weak people who just couldn’t get their own act together, weren’t they?’ And, hey, I’m a Christian and a pastor, shouldn’t God and I be able to take care of this? And if it was happening, wasn’t it because my spiritual life just wasn’t good enough? Because I just wasn’t good enough?’
The rest of Jane’s email went on to talk about how she came to terms with her diagnosis and found her way through depression.
So why did Jane bother to take the time to air what some might consider her dirty laundry?
“Dear friends,” Jane wrote, “we church folk are, I believe, too long in denial about the presence of depression and other mental health [issues] in our own lives, families and churches – and the body of Christ is suffering because of that denial… mental illness needs to ‘come out’ of the closet in the church… It is killing our youth and adults who take their lives and in many less visible but still destructive ways it destroys families and even whole congregations.”
As I finished her email, I realized that in that moment I had had an experience much like the one those around Esther must have had in this morning’s passage. An experience where an individual who could have gone to her grave with a secret chose not to. An experience where a courageous individual stepped forward, took a risk, and – through her utter vulnerability – helped saved a group of people from calamity.
And this brings me to my point this morning.
Each of us here this morning are individuals associated with a church who – like Esther and like Rev. Jane –made itself vulnerable. Members of this church knew they lived in a day and age where it has become chic for local churches to declare some outside the bounds of God’s love and mercy. You could have tried to pass yourselves off as just any other congregation. But you didn’t. You dug down deep, found the courage of community, and said: “We, the congregation of Woodland Hills Community Church, declare ourselves to be Open and Affirming…”
And when you cast that vote last June, you probably thought the hard work was over? Am I right?
Well, if Esther and Rev. Jane’s stories teach us anything, it’s that the hardest work is now before you. By proclaiming this church to be a place where all people and all stories are of sacred worth – you now have the challenge of stepping forward and sharing those faith stories with one another. Faith stories that - in many other churches - would have to be edited (or perhaps even fabricated) before they were shared aloud. Not here!
For as Esther and Rev. Jane showed us, it is in the sharing of the fullness of our stories that freedom – true freedom - is achieved.
So how will the sharing of our stories take place?
In a variety of forums – many of which have existed long before I arrived. The Monday and Thursday covenant groups have – for a number of years – been that place. So too have the moments just before and after the Wednesday evening choir rehearsals, and the days leading up to the Youth Musical Theater production each year. Those are just a few examples.
We’ll also be adding a few outlets for sharing our stories as well. We’ve added the Tuesday evening Sacred Grounds gatherings at The Coffee Bean on Ventura Boulevard (between Canoga and Topanga) as one weekly opportunity to share our stories against the backdrop of Scripture. The Young Adult Confirmation Class that we’re pulling together for folks between the ages of 16 and 21 will be another venue. And starting in the month of November – on the first Sunday of Advent – I’ll devote the sermon time on the fifth Sundays to giving someone from the congregation the chance to share their story.
And so in the days ahead - as we embrace our own stories and the stories of others - may we do so knowing that these stories contain the three most crucial ingredients to our individual and collective liberation: a willingness to acknowledge brokenness, a openness to healing, and – most important of all - hope.