September 30, 2015
In a village in Sierra Leone, Africa, a tribal elder sat the children of the village in a circle to tell them a story. The children's parents stood behind and listened, too. He began, "This is a very important story. There was a young hunter on his very first monkey hunting trip; he went into the forest and after just a few minutes, he saw a monkey in a tree above him. He raised his gun and got ready to pull the trigger. Suddenly, the monkey spoke, 'if you shoot me, your mother will die.' Of course, the boy began to lower his gun, but the monkey spoke again, 'if you don't shoot me, your father will die.'"
What did the boy do? The tribal elder pointed to each child and asked him or her to give an answer for what they would do if they were the boy. "Would you shoot the monkey or not?" The children's parents were standing behind them. Of course, they didn't have an answer...but the elder insisted. You see, these children lived in a land where sometimes they would be faced with NO GOOD CHOICES, yet they would have to make a choice...Shoot the monkey and your mother will die. Don’t shoot the monkey and your father will die. Sometimes in life there are NO GOOD CHOICES.
This predicament reminds me of the one Esther finds herself in in today’s Scripture.
After Queen Vashti in banished from the kingdom for disobeying her husband's orders, the king is in need of a new queen. Esther, who had been raised by her cousin, Mordecai, is chosen out of all the beautiful young virgins in the kingdom to be the next queen. While waiting to learn about Esther’s future and well-being, Mordecai, who worked at the king’s gate, would pace back and forth in front of the women’s house, hoping to hear news of his daughter. Sometime later, the king promotes a man named Haman to be his top official and orders all the royal workers to bow before Haman. Mordecai, a Jew, refuses. This makes Haman so angry that he convinces the king to write an edict to destroy all the Jews in the Kingdom on the 13th day of the 12th month. When the Jews heard this, they were “in shock” and mourning. Mordecai himself dressed in mourning clothes and wept loudly and bitterly outside of the temple. Esther didn’t know what had happened, but she sent new clothes to Mordecai, hoping he would stop mourning. He sends a message back to Esther, letting her know what has happened and asking her to go the king to seek his kindness and help. This is where Esther has to decide between NO GOOD CHOICES:
Esther tells Mordecai, Verse 11 - "All the king's officials and the people in his provinces know that there's a single law in a case like this. Any man or woman who comes to the king in the inner courtyard without being called is to be put to death. Only the person to whom the king holds out the gold scepter may live. In my case, I haven't been called to come to the king for the past thirty days."
If Esther goes to the King, she will likely die. His past and future actions have proven that he does not respond kindly to disobedience. But if she doesn’t go, her people will die. Esther has NO GOOD CHOICES.
NO GOOD CHOICES. I’m guessing you know how that feels. As pastors, you hear from and pray for people with NO GOOD CHOICES–
The married couple who has wounded each other so deeply they are left with no good choices. The mother of the mentally ill son who knows that if she kicks him out of her house, he will end up on the streets, addicted to drugs, dead much too soon, but if she doesn’t kick him out of the house, he will likely kill her. This mom has no good choices. The child put in the middle of an ugly custody battle, forced to decide if he wants to live with Mom or Dad. A child with no good choices. The church member who know she will eventually die from her illness without surgery but knows she may die on the operating table if she does have surgery. No good choices.
And how about as pastors of our churches? I’m guessing you know what NO GOOD CHOICES feels like as well…
When I sat down for lunch with Pastor Susan after having resigned from a job that was incredibly difficult, not knowing what was next, and she asked that fateful question – “what do you want to do next?” I gave an honest answer, “I want to write, speak, and encourage others in their faith.” I didn’t expect her to make a suggestion – “have you ever thought about being a licensed local pastor?” I didn’t even know that such a thing existed! I did note that I felt the Holy Spirit move in me, but the rational side quickly took over: “No. Why would I want to do that? I don’t want to pastor a dying church.”
These were my honest, genuine thoughts. In terms of moving on to bigger & better things, pastoring a church – a church I loved, but a church that I saw changing – didn’t seem like the answer. It didn’t seem like a good choice.
But God was at work. Here I am. And I love this job, but I’m also afraid sometimes to do this job –
We hear it often: “These are challenging times to be a pastor.” We know the statistics – we see them all the time: people don’t just come to church anymore; our congregations get older, our children are fewer. We are faced with NO GOOD CHOICES:
If I change the status quo, people will get upset. What if those people – esp. when many of them are the biggest financial supporters – what if they leave? But if we don’t change the status quo, this church will eventually die anyway. NO GOOD CHOICES
Do we put our precious resources of time and energy and money into having children’s programming when only a few kids come? But how can we get kids if we don’t provide programs for them? NO GOOD CHOICES.
I have tried everything I can and nothing is changing….what’s the point? Or – things were going well when I got here. What if I mess it up? NO GOOD CHOICES.
I’ve got to be honest – I look at all of you and wonder how you’ve done it – how have you stuck with the church when you’ve seen it change in disheartening ways? Or how were you brave enough to answer the call, knowing how difficult it would be? I’m not patronizing; I’m impressed. It’s bold….it’s an inspiration…much like Esther.
It’s what I love about the story of Esther – the bold and brave actions taken in the midst of NO GOOD CHOICES. But it’s not just Esther who’s bold & brave. It really begins with Mordecai:
Verse 13-14: “Don’t think for one minute that, unlike the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace. In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, Relief and Rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.”
Maybe it was for a time like this that you came to be part of the royal family.
Man, I admire “tough love” parents. I hear Mordecai saying, “Listen up, Esther! I have loved you like a daughter and I have raised you to be bold, smart, strong, and courageous. I have worked hard, teaching you to do the right things. You buck up, girl, and do what you were made to do! I know this is hard but I know you can do it. And don’t forget who you are and Whose you are – God is at work. God will rescue God’s people…Now go save your people!”
And apparently, this is what Esther needed to hear. Esther listens – how could she not listen to this man who loved her enough to raise her as a daughter, who loved her enough to pace the walls of the palace to hear how she was doing?
What a lesson for us…one of the things I have enjoyed over my past “rookie” year of being a pastor, is meeting other pastors, hearing your call stories, listening to you talk about the work you’re doing for God in the places God has called you. Again and again and again I think, “you are right where God wants you to be, doing what God wants you to do.” And for some reason, I’m always a little surprised by that. Surprised, perhaps, to realize that God is so clearly at work; surprised, perhaps, to realize that God must be at work like that in my life, too.
And think of all the people that have helped get us to the places we are – parents, grandparents, our own pastors and youth leaders, teachers, friends, even enemies…how can we not honor the hard work, the faith, and the love they have poured into us so that we might be ready “for a time like this?” How and why do we doubt that we were brought to the very places we are “for a time like this”?
I can hear Mordecai talking to all of us – “yes, these are challenging times. Yes, it sometimes feels like you have NO GOOD CHOICES. But buck up, pastors! God has used others to shape you and mold you into bold, smart, strong, and courageous leaders. No go and do what God has called you to do!
And Esther responds to Mordecai -
Verse 16: “Go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa and tell them to give up eating to help me be brave. They aren’t to eat or drink anything for three whole days, and I myself will do the same, along with my female servants. Then, even though it’s against the law, I will go to the king; and if I am to die, then die I will.”
Mordecai responds, verse 17: “So Mordecai left where he was and did exactly what Esther had ordered him.”
I can hear Mordecai thoughts, “Yes! There is the bold, smart, strong, courageous leader I raised! Of course I will do what you asked. YOU WILL NOT BE ALONE IN THIS…Your people will fast and pray with you and for you.”
YOU ARE NOT ALONE IN THIS. What a beautiful image and reminder! Yes, Esther had decided to act boldly and bravely but she knew she needed support. She wasn’t afraid to ask. And Mordecai wasn’t afraid to get it for her.
This is something I’m guessing most pastors need to reminded of; I know it’s something I need to be reminded of - WE ARE NOT ALONE IN THIS.
Yes, it’s a challenging time to be leaders of the church. Yes, there are times when it feels we have no good choices. Yes, we trust that God has called us for a time like this, but often we don’t understand or see or feel God at work. We need support! We need encouragement! We need to know we’re not alone! We need people who will fast & pray with us and for us…
I remember sitting in this very room one year ago. I was a brand new pastor, trying to figure all of this out, trying to figure out how I fit in with all of you. And though I felt like I had so much to learn & experience to be like all of you – I still feel that way – I also remember thinking, “These are my peeps! This is where I belong.”
And when I left Bozeman last October, when I left Advent planning weekend with Sarah & Sami at Camp on the Boulder, when I left Annual Conference this Spring, when I left each month’s clergy cluster meeting, when I left Course of Study this summer, one of the greatest gifts I walked away with was the reminder that I am not alone in this. WE ARE NOT ALONE IN THIS. We are doing our best to be leaders of God’s church, to be leaders in the places God has called us “for a time such as this,” to be bold, and smart, and strong, and courageous…with the love and support and encouragement of each other. Thanks be to God!
So, my dear colleagues – and truly, it is humbling to call you that, it is humbling –and an honor - to be asked to share this message with you – let us remember the story of Esther & Mordecai. Sometimes in life there are NO GOOD CHOICES…but take heart! God is with you. You have been called for a “time such as this.” You are bold, and smart, and strong, and courageous. And you are not alone. Amen.