Peacemaking and power | September 17

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Texts: Esther 4:10-14; Luke 19:5-10

Here’s a bit of Bible trivia.  What two Hebrew Bible characters are most like Esther?  Think about all those stories you’ve heard, and think about which two most resemble Esther.  Here’s a more specific version of the question: What are the other two Bible stories about the struggles and triumphs of someone who comes to power in the court of a foreign king?

Anybody want to give it a try?  ……………

Esther, and Daniel, and Joseph, make up this small sub-genre of stories: Jews who come to power in the court of a foreign king.

Over the last few decades biblical scholars have been emphasizing just how influential an event was the exile from Jerusalem to Babylon at the beginning of the 6th century BCE.  Much of the Hebrew Bible, at least in its final form, was written out of this experience of exile and empire – of being foreigners, and strangers in a strange land.  And when that’s the place where you’re standing when you’re telling and writing down your stories, it affects everything.

One way of reading the Bible is simply as the story of a people living under a succession of empires.  In this sense, the Bible is one of the few cases in which history is told by the losers rather than the winners.

In Egypt the Hebrews were slaves.  In Babylon the Jews were exiles, displaced persons.  In Persia the Jews were foreigners, generations removed from their homeland.  In all these places they were the outsiders.

But there are these three stories of people who rose to positions of power as insiders within the empire.

In Egypt the Hebrews were slaves – but there’s Joseph, son of Israel, a previous Pharaoh’s right hand man, in charge of gathering and distributing massive stores of grain during a regional famine.  Keeping the world alive.

In Babylon the Jews were exiles – but there’s Daniel, whispering in the ear of the king, entrusted like no other as an advisor and interpreter of the king’s dreams.  Seemingly the only one in the room able to read the signs of the times.

In Persia the Jews were foreigners – but there’s Esther, the favored one of the women with which the king surrounded himself, gaining a hearing with the king and influencing national policy that directly impacted her people.

These are stories told by outsiders about one of their own as an insider.  They play with the question of what it means to wield power in a way that builds up a community.  Power as empowering others, and protecting vulnerable people, or not.  What does it mean to be wise? these stories repeatedly ask.  Joseph and Daniel are both dreamers and interpreters of dreams.  How might our dreams be infiltrated with the Divine imagination to see deeply into what’s really going on.  Esther hears the call from her community and finds courage to take a risk.  What risks must we take for the good of the whole?

One of the strange dynamics of our own time is that just about everyone feels like an outsider in regards to having power.  We are highly polarized in the broader church and culture, but one thing we have in common is that hardly anybody feels like they’re on the inside track of steering this thing toward their desired outcome.  Maybe it has something to do with each of us being one of 7+ billion people on the planet.  Maybe it has something to do with the planet showing signs of fighting back against our cumulative effect of altering land, sea, and sky.  Maybe we’re bogged down in bureaucracy.  Maybe we’re just trying to hold our stuff together and have some semblance of sanity.  Maybe we’ve lost the ability to dream or the appetite for risk.

However we tell our own story, it’s pretty easy to shape it as that of an outsider.  If you hang around the Mennonite church long enough, you’ll likely pick up on one version of this.

With today being Peace Sunday, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that peace, peacemaking, not resisting evil with violence, has been a core part of the Anabaptist Mennonite faith from its beginnings.  Our faith ancestors agreed that while they were willing to die for their faith, they weren’t willing to kill for it.  They took their guidance directly from the Christians gospels, from the teachings and the life of Jesus.

Those 16th century Anabaptists were in many ways outsiders, even to the broader Protestant reformation that was happening around them.  They wouldn’t swear their allegiance to any local prince, wouldn’t take up arms to defend territory, wouldn’t allow their infant children to be baptized into a Christendom that would put a sword in their hand.  Several thousand of them died as martyrs.  The survivors migrated east and west, some eventually landing in the United States.

In this country, we are among the historic peace churches that have conscientiously objected to participation in military combat.  Instead, we’ve done alternative forms of service, like conservation projects, and working in state mental hospitals.  Rather than pledging allegiance to a national flag, we pledge allegiance to the Christ whose love knows no borders.  “With liberty and justice for all.”

If we tell the story in a certain way, we’re still the outsiders, the exiles.

Told another way, we’ve become acculturated middle-class Americans, those of us of European descent silently adopted into the living legacy of whiteness.  And as the comedian Louis CK says, it’s not that white people are better, it’s that being white is better…for you.

But what if your identity is connected to being an outsider, with martyrs to show for it?  And if this hasn’t been a part of your religious lineage, perhaps you can still agree that positioning yourself as a persecuted minority feels like the more righteous way to be.

This is where Joseph and Daniel and Esther might have something to say to us.  Not that we’re kicking back every day in the court of the king, but we do have power.  And as Mordechai tells Esther, and here I’m only slightly paraphrasing, to deny that power at such a time as this would be a tragedy.

Power doesn’t have to mean political power.  This week I was talking with a neighbor who’s one of the pastors of the Vineyard.  We were talking about sanctuary and immigration and he was saying how one of the ways they serve folks new to the country is to help them set up their cell phone service.  It turns out knowing English and knowing how to navigate a customer service phone tree is a form of power, and not everyone has it.  They are using power to serve and empower.

Owning property and a church building is a form of power.  Owning a home, or having a place to call home is a form of power.  It might be a place where you provide sanctuary or hospitality for someone, or it may simply be a place where you restore your own soul and get good sleep to be your best self when you’re not at home.

And as the group that visited our sister church in Colombia experienced, sometimes power looks like being the rich Americans with enough disposable income to fly down to visit a sister church.  Debra will have more reflections about the challenges of those dynamics.

And so even though we seek to be voluntary outsiders to the violence and materialism and racism of our culture, there are ways in which we are insiders.  We are Esther, and we find ourselves where we are for such a time as this.  A time that calls for courage and risk taking.  This is the present work of being a peace maker.

We are Esther, and we are Zacchaeus, the insider in that next empire, Rome, the new Rome, who has in many ways sold out to the system.  Benefiting as a collector of other’s wealth, living comfortably.  But today Jesus is coming through town.  We’ve heard about him.  We’re curious, but keep our distance.  We’d like to observe for a while, preferably anonymously.  But Jesus walks right up to us, invites himself over to our house, and reveals to us a kind of power we’ve never known.  It’s a power of pure presence, the authority of an authentic human being who knows himself, herself in God.  A power so full and rich that it needs no violence or coercion to have its affect.  It enters the house and fills the whole room, and we cannot help but be moved by it.  We find ourselves welcomed on the inside of the Divine work of salvation – ourselves and others becoming whole.  As we make commitments to serve this power alone, We hear the words of Jesus and can barely believe they’re addressed to us: “Today salvation has come to this house.”