Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Esther and the vocation of personal risk...

It isn't often, but from time to time the Daily Office lection of readings and the Sunday lection (weekly) readings for our liturgies in the Episcopal Church fall into alignment, sort of like when the Earth and the Moon do so. Celestially, that creates the conditions for an eclipse. Scripturally, it gives me a chance to pause and digest a certain portion of holy writ in, I hope, some deeper-or even slightly unique-way. That is what is happening this week with the book of Esther. The Daily Office has us reading this story from the Hebrew scripture that is commemorated amongst our Jewish brethren with the Feast of Purim. Sunday's reading is a particular passage, really the denouement, of the story. First a synopsis of the tale, then I will write a bit about what I see in this book as a guide book to the ways God calls us to personal risk for the glory of the kingdom:

Esther is a story that occurs during the Exile. The Jews are dispersed throughout the empire, and during the reign of a king named Ahasuerus they are trying to live relatively assimilated lives in the midst of a culture that is dominant and in which they are forced to live a significant portion of their faith lives underground. Esther is the cousin of a Jew named Mordecai, and hence our tale begins...you see, there is a bit of palace drama when the king's favorite wife, Vashti falls from favor. The king seeks a new bride, and a call goes out into the kingdom that all beautiful maids should come to the capital for "auditions." Mordecai brings Esther to the palace. Mordecai also, as he waits to hear of Esther's fate, thwarts an assassination attempt by some of the king's eunuchs. As the dust settles, Esther is accepted as the king's favorite and Mordecai settles down in one of the palace gates to watch out for her. In the process, he runs afoul of one of the king's noble servants, a villain named Haman. One thing leads to another, and Haman takes exception to Mordecai (and by extension, all of the Jews of the kingdom) and arranges for a pogrom to wipe them out. He even goes so far as to erect a gallows in his own courtyard for the dark day of the purge, reserving it for Mordecai.

Word of the purge gets to Mordecai and he pleads with Esther to implore the king to have mercy on the Jews, in effect to risk her comfort, her safety and her life for the people of God. It would require of her great risk, basically breaking all the rules governing her access to the king. She balks in fear, and Mordecai argues that perhaps God has called her to this life for this very moment. She asks her cousin to implore the Jews to fast and pray for her...and she gets ready to do the impossible, to alter the will, and law, of the king.

Over the course of several days, banquets and maneuvering Haman into a political corner, she achieves both the salvation of the Jews and the downfall (and impaling) of the villain. She is the hero, Mordecai-for his earlier heroism in saving the King- inherits Haman's position and role that Haman's appropriately grisly execution opens up in the king's court...and all live "happily" ever after.

Now, here is the rub: without flipping pages forward in the story, what can we learn about God in the call issued to Esther to embrace a vocation of personal risk? Having achieved a life of comfort and protection as the favored wife of a great king, why would she answer a call to risk it all for people she had little need for, and of whom many she had never even met? We can chalk it up to being raised by an upright kinsman, as Mordecai seems to be her active conscience in the story. But aside from listening to her own "Jiminy Cricket," what is there, really, that would provoke her to risk everything for the hope of protecting a people, granted her people, from destruction? She could take the easy path and enjoy a life of quiet. Instead, she feels a call to take a personal risk.

On a grand political stage, as the one depicted in the story, we could easily turn it into a soap opera or Hollywood film. These are big personalities, and many innocent lives are at risk. Esther is morally bound, by our observations, to do something-anything-to save Mordecai and the Jews. That it is a life and death struggle would presumably made the choices to risk easier... Sure, that makes sense.

But what of us, in our relatively more modest lives? We have to make choices every day to embrace personal risk. For some, that means getting into the car, on the train or bus, or on the bicycle for the commute to work. For others, there are ethical challenges in the work place to overcome every day. For a few, choices need to be made that affect the lives and safety of people placed in their charge. For all of us, we will be challenged in a myriad of little ways, not all of them as clear cut as Esther's dilemma. Still, as a pastor, I see folks making choices daily in their walk with God that leave me puzzled. I confess as well that I struggle, too, to put the concerns of God for creation first before my own wish for comfort and quiet. Risking for God, connecting with the people of God in an ongoing and sacred way lies at the very core of our way as people of faith, be you Christian, Jewish, Muslim or of any other sacred path. Making TIME for that vocation of risk to be exercised is where that life is made or broken.

Look at the way people risked their lives in Libya in an attempt to save the life of the United States Ambassador during the recent attack on the US Embassy in that country. Look at the way people around the world place themselves between the attacker and the attacked. There, we might say, the choice is "easy." But my focus today is seeing the vocation of personal risk as a daily, simple walk with God. Am I speaking peace to my fellow creatures today? Am I striving to live in faithful covenant with those I love, and with those who are strangers to me? Am I giving time in my busy schedule to walk humbly before God...first...before I consider my own comfort and safety.

Sometimes, but not anywhere near often enough.

What I take from Esther and her willingness to lay it all on the line for her people is a deep lesson in two things: first, we really are called to risk our lives for God regardless of whether it is convenient or not; second, that the risk we embrace is sometimes "life and death," but more often it is found in little, small decisions that put the health, welfare and salvation of others before our own desire for comfort and self-assured peace and safety.

I wish I could say that I have learned that lesson in life. At 45, I should at least be a semi-successful amateur. Instead, I find that I am always on the crest of my learning curve in embracing a vocation of personal risk for the glory of God. Someday, perhaps, I just might get "good" at it. For now, I am just hoping that I can meet today's challenges with open eyes, a willing heart and a willingness to do what needs to be done today more often, and more effectively, than I did yesterday.

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