Wednesday, October 10, 2018

For a Time Such as This - Esther 4:3-14

Esther 4:3-14
Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 

Having been a pastor for 38 years, I can say that I have preached on every single book of the Bible – except one.

If you are wondering why I am preaching on Esther today, I have to admit, that’s why.  It is the only remaining book of the Bible I have never preached on.

I’m not alone.  A lot of ministers have not preached from Esther.  There were those who did not believe it should be included in the Bible  -  for one thing, Esther and the Song of Solomon are the only two books of the Bible that does not mention God.

So let’s begin with a quick overview of the Book of Esther and what this book is about.

It starts with the King deciding to give a party for the men – no women are invited.  The Queen has her own party, women only, no men are invited.

I know, what kind of party are those?

Anyway, the king decides he wants to show off his queen because she is one hot lady – well, the Bible doesn’t put it that way, it says the King ordered his servants, “to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.

By the way, biblical scholars agree that the term “wearing her royal crown,” meant that was ALL she was wearing.  No clothes at all.  Just the crown. (IB, v3, page 837)

Queen Vashti refused.  Good for her.  She was not going to go to a party just to be put on show and to be sexually harassed. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti's disobedience the "first stand for women’s rights.” 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti "added new glory to [her] day and her disobedience; demonstrating that ‘Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.’”

Well, the king didn’t like it that his Queen had disobeyed him, so he fired the Queen.  Not only that, but the king also made a law that women were to respect their husbands and that every man was to rule over his household – period.

Yep, king was old fashioned, but after all, this was 25 hundred years ago.

Everything went fine until the king realizes, he has no queen.  She he sends his servants to go out and look for one.  The only requirement is that she has to be good looking.

Yep, this king leaves a lot to be desired.

So all these beautiful women come in, and this is where Esther comes in.  Now she is smoking hot – or as the Bible puts it more delicately, she “had a lovely figure and was beautiful.”  The king picked her to be the queen.

As for Esther's backstory, she was an orphan who was raised by her righteous cousin, Mordecai.

As the story goes, Mordecai helps uncover a plot to kill the king, he tells Esther. Esther tells the king, and this earns Mordecai some Brownie points.

But, not enough Brownie points – because when Mordecai refuses to bow down to one of the king’s counselors, Haman, Haman goes to the king and says Mordecai is a Jew and all those Jews are trouble.  Let’s kill all the Jews in the kingdom. 

The king ponders this and says, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Sounds good to me, let’s do it.”

What the king doesn’t know is that Esther is a Jew.

Esther eventually approaches the king and he offers to give her whatever she wants.  She asks for a banquet for her and Haman the next day.  Yep – that king is still a party animal. 

Haman is excited about the massacre of the Jews that is about to happen.  He builds a special gallows to hang Mordecai.

But Haman’s hopes are dashed the following morning, when the king—remembering how Mordecai saved the king’s life—orders Haman to honor Mordecai and lead him in a parade through the town (which Haman very reluctantly does).

At a second banquet – yep, the parties are still going on - Esther asks the king to punish Haman for trying to kill her and her people—and the king does. Haman is hanged to death on the same gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Man, talk about irony.

The Jews of Persia massacre all of Haman's agents and supporters (roughly 75,000 people in all), Mordecai is made into the king's new counselor, and Purim becomes an official Jewish holiday to celebrate this story.

Good times, gang.  Good times.

Hmm… now that I retell this story, there may be a reason why I never preached about it.  This is a wild story.
But it is an important story because tells how Esther changed the course of history for an entire nation. 
And looking at her life can serve as an example of how we can make a difference. 
If you want to be an element of change in your family, in your community, in your school or work place, or change the world, here are two things that Esther teaches.
Two things that stand out.
The first is – know when to be silent.
In the business of advertising that the most successful ad campaigns don’t try to change people: they try to reflect how people are already feeling. Advertisers know that consumers won’t respond to an ad unless the ad is a response to them. This is why advertising companies spend so much time and money on market research. They want to “Listen” to the market and respond to it.
The story Esther teaches us the same lesson. If you want to be an element for change there are times when you must learn when to be silent and listen.
Esther listened to her mentor – her uncle Mordecai – and kept her mouth closed.
Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, didn’t tell the king she was a Jew because Mordecai had told her not to. (Esther 2:10).
Keeping her mouth closed preserved Esther’s life and enabled her to gain access to the king.
Sometimes, you have to be silent for a period of time.
You have to gather information, learn about the others involved, and sometimes even gather your own thoughts.
Proverbs teaches, “A fool gives full vent to one’s spirit, but a wise person quietly holds it back.” Proverbs 29:11
James, in his New Testament letter, wrote, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak.”
Whenever we see an unjust situation, it may well be that our first step is to be silent for a period of time.
However, there is a second principle we can learn from Esther.
First, know when to be silent,
Second, know when to Speak Up .
Perhaps you know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was active in the anti-Hitler movement of the second world war. He was a German Lutheran Pastor who spoke up against Hitler; he worked as a double agent; and he was actively involved in an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazi’s in 1943 and hanged on 9th of April 1945, just days before the end of the war.
But what Bonhoeffer’s life shows us, is that if we want to be elements for change, we must also learn when to speak up.
Esther also chose very carefully her time speak - - this was the third occasion she had approached the king. And then she came out with the hard truth. Esther said, "The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman" (Esther 7:6)
There comes a time when we must speak up for the truth and to speak loudly for justice.
We see evil, we need to speak up.

We see people abused, we need to speak up.

There comes a time in Esther’s story that she has been silent, but it is now time to speak up.  She is hesitant.  Uncle Mordecai tells her “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will die.”

And then Mordecai says these great words: “who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Queen Esther refused to let her people die. 
Before her, Queen Vasti refused to be sexually harassed.
Anytime we see injustice, there comes a time to speak out. 
We can be elements of change – in our families, at work or school, or in our nation.
We just need to speak out. 

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Recipe for Christian Living - 2 Peter 1:5-9

2 Peter 1:5-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual[a] affection, and mutual[b] affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.

I found a great bread recipe that I’ve been using lately.  The thing I like about it is that it is simple.  Just whole wheat flour, honey, oil, water, yeast and just a hint of salt.  No sugar added.  And it only takes two hours!  I love that recipe.  I think my wife does as well.

There was a time when I cooked all sorts of complex recipes, but today I want to keep everything simple.  The simpler the better.

Peter gives us a recipe for living Christ like life. 

There are only seven ingredients he lists. 

mutual affection

One of the things I have learned about cooking is that there are many recipes in which you have to add ingredients in a certain order.  With this bread, you start with warm water, then add the yeast, then add the honey, and then you let that set for a while so that the yeast proofs.  Which means it starts to bubble a bit.  Don’t add anything until then. 

In Christianity, you look at Peter’s list and your eye may go immediately to the ingredient of love.  You know that is the most important ingredient, so you may think to work on that first.

But that is not what Peter’s recipe says.  He says to start with the simpler parts of the recipe.

Look, you and I both know that you don’t love people as you should.  None of us do.  Love is hard.

We can love our children and grandchildren – but as Christians we are called to love all people.

Do you really love that neighbor down the street who plays loud music or who walks his dog in your yard without cleaning up?

Do you really love that co worker who gossips about you or spreads slander about you?

Do you really love your boss? 

Or the strangers in the parking lot who frightens you when they come out of nowhere to ask for money?

Do you love your enemy?

Sometimes you have a hard time loving your own family.

Love is hard. 

Peter says, start with goodness.  Emotion is hard to control, so start with behavior which you can control.  And on that you add the ingredient of knowledge – get to know God, Jesus, the people around you.  Then you add the ingredient of self-control.  Then endurance, and on down the list until you finally have built a foundation of character so that you are able to love for even your enemy. 

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for them.”  Matthew 5:”44. 

He makes it sound easy, but we know, and Jesus knows, it is not easy.  Start with mutual love.  Build up that skill.
Peter starts his recipe for being a Christian with the ingredient of goodness.

Just be good to people.

Smile at people.  Call the waiter by name.  Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. 

The people you encounter may deal with a dozen people every hour, and you may be the only one who treats them with goodness.  Be that person.

A while back I had the opportunity to speak to someone who was celebrating her 100th birthday.  She told me about what it was like growing up.  She and her family lived on a forty-acre farm with no phones, no lights, no motor car, not a single luxury. 
With all the changes she had seen, I asked her what she thought was the single most significant change she had seen in her lifetime.
Smart phones?  Space travel?  Medical breakthroughs? Having 1000 channels on television and still having nothing to watch?
Her answer? 
“The most significant change I’ve seen in the world is people. They just don’t care like they used to.”
She went on to describe how her family, even though they lived on 40 acres, knew their neighbors. When one neighbor was in need the other neighbors pitched in to help.
When one of the Fathers were sick and couldn’t do the chores around their farm, the other neighbors would all get together and make sure everything was done until that Dad could recover and return to his duties.
The whole world has changed.  And we are the ones who have changed it.
Everything we deal with in this world is due to goodness – or the lack of it.
When we boil down fights, arguments, wars, terror, tragedies, (like the Pulse shooting a few years ago) we always come to the same conclusion — humanity has lost its sense of goodness.
Which means that ultimately, if we want the world to improve, we have to become the change we desire to see.
We have to practice goodness to others.
Peter lists seven ingredients in his recipe for living the Christian live. 
Ultimately, what we are cooking up is a life of love.  Loving our neighbor, stranger and even our enemies.  But he starts off this recipe with goodness.

First ingredient – goodness. 
Start there. 
Start there and become the change you want to see take place.
Immanuel Kant is one of the central figures of modern philosophy.  He wrote a book on ethics and moral behavior that he titled, appropriately enough, Groundwork.  In the very first sentence of the book he says, “the only thing that is unconditionally good is a good will.” Kant argues that anything one might think of as good, might not be good at all.  These THINGS, like  health, wealth, beauty, intelligence, etc. could, in certain situations, be bad.
Wealth is good, if a person uses it wisely. Another person can be corrupted by their wealth. The robust health of a bully makes it easier for him to abuse his victims. A person’s beauty may lead them to become vain and fail to develop their talents. Even happiness is not good if it is the happiness of a sadist torturing his victims.
The only good in us is what he called “goodwill.”  But what, exactly, does he mean by a good will? The answer is fairly simple. A person acts from a good will when they do what they do because they think it is their duty: when they act from a sense of moral obligation.
That is what Peter is trying to get at.  The first ingredient to the recipe of the Christian life is to have this goodness, this good will that comes from a sense of duty to Christ.  It is a behavior we show to others.
Kant also said that the way we act, changes the world around us.  If we act mean – that permeates the community and others become mean.  If we act good, our good actions infects the others with goodness.
In other words, we become the change we want to see take place.
We become to others what we wish others would be to us.
Life isn’t fair, and people aren’t nice, but in spite of the odds, seemingly stacked against us, we can still win. How?
Not by changing the world – but by changing ourselves.

Jesus, taught his followers that they should respond to people who hurt them after this manner:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
That’s hard – and in Peter that kind of love is the last ingredient.  How do you love your enemy?
Simple steps – start with goodness.
And not just Jesus, but all throughout history countless of other people have given their lives for causes greater than their own in hopes that one day the world, your world, our world, would change.

Lau Tzu (Loud Cha) the Chinese philosopher taught “Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.” 

Goodness – it is among the most ancient wisdoms.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you.  Those are the words of Jesus Christ that we often refer to as “the Golden Rule.”  It is the best definition of kindness.

Are you fed up with Congress?  Are you fed up with the way we have devolved into tribalism of Republicans and Democrats and how nothing gets done because the two parties are so divided.

You can change that – and I’m not just talking about voting.  There is something else that is more fundamental that you can do every day.

I have heard people in this church say the most hurtful and unkind things about people of the opposite political party.  I have seen posts about people of the other party that are not true – not true, as in violating the Ten Commandments and its prohibition against bearing false-witness. 

Whenever a person says the Republicans are evil, or the Democrats are evil, you perpetuate the very thing that you hate about Congress.  You make this division in our country possible.

We are all Americans – and we need to return civility to politics and that will start with us and how we talk about each other.

Don’t like it when someone talks smack about you? Don’t talk smack about someone else.
Don’t like it when someone cuts you off on the freeway or jacks your parking spot? Don’t do it to someone else.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you.  It is the best definition of kindness.
You may not love the people of the other political party, you may not love the person who cuts you off in traffic, but at least you can treat them with goodness – and that is the first step in the journey of loving them.

Love is hard – and that is why Peter starts with goodness. 
Love is an emotion.  Goodness Love is the ONLY cure; the way to heal our world. Love is the ONLY way to heal our schools. Love is the ONLY way to heal our families. Love is the ONLY way to begin getting this giant blue planet spinning in a different direction.
And the power to do that, friend, is in each and every one of us.

Each day we are either a part of the problem or the solution. I challenge you, and myself, to be a part of the solution.

Love is hard – and demanding and challenging, and perhaps it is also demanding and challenging for us to be good to others.  Let me share an observation from my niece.

My niece decided a year ago that she was going to get in top physical shape.  She got on the floor to see how many pushups she could do.  Push ups are, after all, a basic form of exercise, and cheap – no gym membership no equipment required.  She started off wondering how close she could get to 100.


Just one.  That is all she could do.  Within a week she was doing ten.  Within a month, 20. 

A year later she is still not able to do 100 pushups, but she is up in the 70s. 

It takes time to build skills. 

Love is a skill and it is hard.

Start with goodness.  All of us can be kind to others.  Can’t be good to all of the irritable people in your life?  Start with one.  Just one. Build up to two, then 20, then everyone.

I like to cook, but I occasionally have a fantasy. 

You know those food replicators that are on the television show Star Trek?  Someone goes to the wall and says, “computer, tea, Earl Grey, hot.”  And out of the wall comes a cup of hot tea, brewed to perfection.

Or they say, “chicken soup.”  And immediately, there it is.

But I don’t have a food replicator.  And add to that I have problems with my liver and I’m told I need to eat more things from scratch.  And so, these things take time.

So it is with the Christian life.  You can’t just go up to the Alter and say, “Make me an instant Christian, saintly and true.”

No, these things take time, and every ingredient has to be added and perfected.  It takes time.  It takes practice.

Don’t yet love your enemy?  Start with the ingredient of goodness.  One person at a time.  One moment at a time.

You can be the change the world needs.

Copyright 2018. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.