A Dream Unfinished

Esther 4:12-17 (New Living Translation)
So Hathach gave Esther’s message to Mordecai. Mordecai sent this reply to Esther: “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?” Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I must die.” So Mordecai went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

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“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on August 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke those words in his speech at the “March on Washington.” That was the centennial year of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, when President Lincoln had signed the document into law, declaring the end of slavery in the United States of America. On a hot summer day, one hundred years later, over a quarter of a million people came to the nation’s capital to protest segregation and racial discrimination.

That march and Dr. King’s powerful speech were powerful catalysts for the signing of the Civil Rights Acts less than a year later, in July 1964. Title VII of that Act, made it illegal -- specifically in employment practices -- to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

This day, I, too, have a dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up,
live out the true meaning of its creed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal.”

Equal, meaning “considered to be the same as another in status or in quality.”

A dream of equality.

Equal, regardless of the color of our skin,
whether we are black or white or brown or pale or dark.
Equal, regardless of our gender, whether we are male or female.
Equal, regardless of where or whether we choose to worship.
Equal, regardless of who we love.
Equal, regardless of our physical abilities or disabilities.
Equal, regardless of our intellectual strength or weakness.
Equal, regardless of the contents of our bank account.
Equal, regardless of our age.
Equal, regardless of what nation we have come from.

It is,
I firmly believe,
a dream that is within our reach.
But we have to be willing to reach out for it.

There is in our Bible a fairly short book -- just ten chapters long -- about a young woman. Born into a Jewish family, she had been given the Hebrew name Hadassah, but as an exile in Persia, she was also given a Persian name: Esther.

Esther caught the eye of the Persian King’s servants when he was searching for a new wife. Installed in the palace, she eventually becomes queen.

Time passes, and a politician named Haman is promoted through the ranks, and becomes the highest official in the land, next to the King himself. Haman convinces the King to allow an edict ordering the destruction of all the Jewish people living in Persia.

You would think that Esther, living right there in the palace, would be one of the first to know about this edict, but she is sheltered there, but she has no idea what is happening in the city around her -- fear and the grief. The first she hears of it is when her servants report to her that her Uncle Mordecai is making a scene, tearing his clothing, putting ashes on his head, and crying and moaning at the gate between the city and the palace.

Esther doesn’t understand what is happening, so she sends her servants back to Mordecai with fresh, clean clothing. Which he refuses in his grief. Esther then sends a trusted servant, Hathach, to find out what is happening. Mordecai’s reply through Hathach:

“Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”

Mordecai forces his niece to listen to the difficult truth: this problem, this horrible, evil threat, it wasn’t just going to go away on its own. And Esther was uniquely placed to make a difference. If she was willing to take the risk.

And, make no mistake, it was a risk for her. Even as the queen, she could not simply walk into the King’s presence — she had to be invited. Leaving the safety of her luxurious chambers, and entering the King’s rooms uninvited meant, quite literally, risking her life. If he wasn’t happy to see her, she could end up being killed.

Knowing this, and knowing that she had to do at least try, she sends Hathach back to Mordecai with this reply: “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I must die.”

There are four things that Esther does in this story that can help us to respond to the evils in our own world. Esther…
(1) Listens to the difficult truth
(2) Recognizes that it will not be easy or comfortable to respond
(3) Goes to God for help
(4) Uses what influence she has

First: Esther listened to the difficult truth.

It would have been personally easier for Esther to just hide out in her palace suite, closing her ears to the cries of the people around her.

It would be easier for us to do so, as well.

Back in September, I flew up to New York to spend time with my Father after his open heart surgery. On that flight, I sat next to a man. Let’s call him Bill.

Bill had the aisle seat, and I was in the middle. Through the miracle of modern technology, once we were at cruising altitude, I was able to open up my laptop to begin working on my church's website. Bill was looking over my shoulder, as I updated the site's landing page, and he saw the picture in the header.

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Bill asked, "What kind of church is that?"
I answered, "A wonderful church!"

I thought -- I really thought -- that the conversation was going to go in the direction of what a beautiful sight it was, people from many ethnicities, many cultures, worshipping and working together.

"Hmmph," Bill said with evident disgust,
"You've got people of different colors in there."

Over the next one and a half hours (did I mention I was in the middle seat?), Bill talked at me, telling me how Black people were constantly exaggerating both the difficulties they face and the historical abuse they had experienced, "making mountains out of molehills."

Then Bill asked my connection to the church. When he learned I was the senior pastor, he threw his head back and exclaimed:

"Oh man, don't even get me started on uppity women feminists!"

[feel free to insert here a mental picture of me repeatedly banging my forehead on the airline seat in front of me]

I tried -- I really did try -- in that seemingly interminable 1-1/2 hours to calmly and lovingly talk with Bill about the challenges faced by people I know and love, who deal with discrimination and prejudice as a regular occurrence.

But Bill wasn't having any of it.
He wasn't interested in listening.
He certainly wasn't interested in understanding.

You see, it is so very, very easy for us to close our ears to the cries of those who are struggling around us. In our community. In our world.

It would be easier. But we cannot do it.

One of the things that have impressed me the most about the resurgence of the “Me Too” movement is the reaction from so many men: “I Believe.” This movement, which Tarana Burke began in 2006 to raise awareness of abuse experienced by women of color, took off this year as women posted online about their struggles.

And people have responded by... listening.
And believing.
And seeking to understand.

One of the most important things that we can do is simply listening, and learning, as we seek to understand the difficult truth about what people are experiencing all around us. What people we know are experiencing. What we may be experiencing.

We can listen to and seek to understand the difficult truth of those who are hurting. That is what Esther did.

Second: Esther recognized that confronting that difficult truth would not be easy or comfortable.

That’s true for us, as well. It is easier to cluck our tongues at the anger and division as we watch the news, as we check our Twitter feed and update our Facebook pages. It’s easier to do that than to struggle with the discomfort of doing something about it.
It’s easier to say that someone ought to do something about it. Someone with more authority, with more power, with more time and energy and strength and influence. Someone, basically, other than us.

Challenging the status quo is not easy. It’s hard. And that is why we need to take the third step…

Third: Esther went to God for help.

Esther is one of the few books in our Bible that doesn’t overtly talk about God’s influence in the events recorded. Yet when she faces this difficult challenge, she immediately makes the decision to go into an intensive time of fasting and prayer. And she doesn't just do this on her own. She reaches out to her community, and asks them all to join with her in preparing.

There is power in joining together as a community of faith to pray together, to fast together, begging God for guidance and direction as we seek to address the evils in our world.

Fourth: Esther used what influence she had.

Just about two years ago, I received the call that I would be coming to Plantation United Methodist Church as the senior pastor. I was so excited! Not just because I was getting out of the miserable cold of the Washington DC winter (I'm such a wimp), but because I already knew that the Plantation family of faith was a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

And, thanks be to God,
the Christian church is meant to offer such a glimpse.

The Christian family
across our communities,
across the United States,
around the world
is a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

We worship God:
people of different ethnicities,
different colors,
from different countries.

We worship God:
the owner of the million-dollar house
and the man who beds down under the bridge.

We worship God:
the grade school education and the PhD;
the employed, the underemployed, the unemployed.

We worship God:
black and white,
male and female,
gay and straight,
rich and poor,
young and old.

All around our community, around our country, around our world,
the Christian family is meant to be a witness
of love and grace and hope!

We are meant to use our influence
to bring not hurt, but healing
to offer not judgment, but redemption
to create not division, but peace.

I have ideas about how we can use our influence to make a difference. But I don’t want to press my ideas on you. I want to know your ideas. I want to know how God is calling you, calling us together, to do our part to make the dream a reality.

And we do that by:
(1) Listening to the difficult truth of those who are hurting
(2) Recognizing that confronting that truth will not be easy or comfortable
(3) Going to God for help and guidance
(4) Using what influence we have — our unique witness to be a catalyst for change

I do have a dream, for the church all around the world.

I have a dream that the church would rise up, and live out the promise we find in Galatians, chapter 3: "For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (26-28).

No matter the color of your skin, no matter your gender, no matter your sexuality, no matter your origins, no matter your abilities, your resources, no matter what: you -- YOU -- are a child of God. You belong to Jesus. You are beloved by Jesus.

I have a dream that this truth would be known by all people.
And that all people would see in the people around them,
not strangers to be feared,
but brothers and sisters yet unmet.

And, who knows if perhaps we have been brought here by God for just such a time as this?

I have a dream.
And I believe that dream is within our reach...
if we are but willing to reach out for it.