Peace, Esther and the Sign of the Bluebird
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
Peace, Esther and the Sign of the Bluebird
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On December 4th, 2022
Today’s scripture passage is from the book of Esther. Esther tells the story of a Jewish community in Persia under threat of an anti-Semitic pogrom, subtly plotted by Haman, a chief advisor to the Persian King Ahasuereus. The genocide is thwarted by the brave actions of his Queen Esther, a Jew who is encouraged in that stand in today’s text by her cousin Mordecai. Esther cautiously approaches the King and designs a plan to reveal Haman’s machinations, who falls into the trap.
A commentator on Esther says, “Though the Deity is not seen or even heard on its stage, God is standing in the wings, following the drama and arranging the props for the successful resolution of the play.” In that way, Esther seems perfect for Advent, this season of waiting and watching for the inbreaking of God’s Love into the world in Christ. What do we do while we wait? As our text for today opens, Haman has arranged for letters to be sent to al the king’s provinces, “giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews in one day.” Listen for what Mordecai and Esther do next.
When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.
Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, ‘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 sceptre to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.’ When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 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. 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.’ Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
O Lord, uphold me that I may uplift thee. Amen.
In the tradition of the Navajo peoples, I understand that
The bluebird is associated with the rising sun. As such
There is a song that they sing to remind tribe members
To rise from their slumber at daybreak and greet the new day.
Bluebird said to me,
“Get up, my grandchild.
It is dawn,”it said to me.
That’s not quite the cockadoodledo of a rooster,
Which has its own resonance in our Christian tradition, right?
But it is a call to wake up. To come to and pay attention to what
Is happening around you. If, as I said quoting Mary Oliver last week, the cardinal shows up all winter, firing up the landscape as nothing else can do, then the bluebird arrives to say,
in the words of a song I used to sing to my daughters to roust them out of bed on schooldays,
It’s time to get up, time to get up, time to get up, time to get up,
Annie Dillard, in her memoir American Childhood,
Describes waking up—the waking up that we are called to in Advent—in this way, “It’s like breaking the surface of the ocean from underneath and seeing for the first time sunlight shimmering on the water, blue sky, birds flying and all of the other wonders of life that remain unknown as long as one lives under the surface of the sea. The breaking of the surface to the world of wonders that includes suffering too is what it is to wake up, to be conscious of the full mysteries of life.”
The world we live in is full of beauty and wonder, but it is not without it’s share of heartache, pain, and peril. To live a life that is fully awake is to know that. It is to become attuned not just to our own needs, but to the needs and challenges of the world around us.
When Mordecai shows up at his cousin Queen Esther’s doorstep, at the entrance of the king’s gate, clothed in sackcloth and ashes, he is, in his way, a bluebird. He arrives to herald a time of transition, a moment of decision. Haman has sent out a decree under the king’s name ordering a genocide, the destruction of the Jewish people—and Mordecai knows something must be done. He goes to the King’s gate, and gets one of the servants to tell Esther about Haman’s plan. And Esther tells the servants to tell Mordecai that for even her to go to the king without first being summoned could endanger her life. To which Mordecai responds, “Tell Esther—don’t think that you’ll escape the fate of other Jews just because you are in the King’s palace. If you keep silence in a time like this—deliverance will come from another quarter—but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity—into this position of relative power—for such a time as this.”
I can hear Mordecai chirping: Time to wake up, Esther! If you keep silence at a time like this, don’t think you’ll avoid the fate of others before you.
In Mordecai’s words, I hear the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a bluebird himself. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” and, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but silence over that by the good people.” I also hear the words of Albert Einstein, “If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.”
The question, of course, is what it is we need to wake up to this Advent—this season of transition. There are so many things happening in the world right now that could merit our attention, so many ways we, like Esther, might use our positions of relative power to make a positive and even life-saving difference for others, by speaking up or taking action in some other way. It is not for me to pick out one and say this is it for you or anyone else. But I think the bluebird and this text invite us to look for the flash of something that catches our eye—and to know that we have a role to play in addressing that particular situation or crisis. When we are truly awake to the pain of the world and in the lives of people around us, it can feel overwhelming. We are human. We cannot meet every need. We cannot address every broken situation. Which is why this quote from the Talmud has always appealed to me. “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” The rabbis in the Talmud were saying, “Wake up. Wake up.”
Today we lit the Advent candle for peace. As we work and pray for peace in this season, and as we allow ourselves to become aware of the many places where peace seems unattainable, perhaps it is all we can do to pay attention and take the next right step—as some of my friends might say.
There are people in the world who the fact is are more vulnerable, more apt to be mistreated than others. You know that, right? You do know that. Perhaps your next right step is when you see something, to say something. Or to educate yourself on how our wider culture privileges some voices over others, and to listen for and amplify the voices which often don’t get heard. When you hear anti-Semitism being treated as a matter of course, being excused, being overlooked, speak up. Listen for the microaggressions that slip casually out of your own or others’ mouths—and then name the ouch.
It doesn’t take a bluebird to wake us up to the truth that there are serious divisions in our larger society—and there are voices that encourage us to demonize those with whom we disagree. Perhaps the next right step is to have coffee with someone with whom you don’t agree all the time, maybe you agree very infrequently. Focus first on what you have in common, and then seek to understand where the other person is coming from on matters on which you don’t agree.
And when what we don’t agree on is whether another person has a right to exist or be treated as a human being, then, for God’s sake, take the risk to challenge that. Because that, after all, is what the story of Esther is about. It’s about caring enough for the vulnerable to stand up on their behalf.
On the wall of the Holocaust Museum, there is a poem written by Martin Niemoller, a German pastor during the days of the Third Reich in Germany. It goes like this:
“First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
That quote is instructive as to how a society that demonizes others may eventually demonize you and me. And it does have echoes of Mordecai’s words to Esther—don’t think you’ll escape hardship if you don’t speak out. But I agree with a colleague of mine—okay, it’s Katie—who wishes that there wasn’t that echo of selfishness to it. Can we speak up because it’s the right thing to do, even if we don’t have reason to believe that our heads will eventually be on the chopping block? I would hope so.
That said, the reality is that death eventually comes for us all. It does. In the meantime, this Advent and every day of our lives, what we are called to do is live in love—and to look for ways and places to embody that love through our words and, more importantly, our actions.
So words might you speak, what actions might you and I take, in this time. It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up. It’s time to get up. Yeah.
One last poem, from Mary Oliver again. I knew she had to have a poem about bluebirds, too.
Bluebirds slipped a little tremble out of the triangle of his mouth
And it hung in the air until it reached my ear
Like a froth or a frill that Schumann
Might have written in a dream.
Dear morning you come with so many angels of mercy
So wondrously disguised in feathers, in leaves,
In the tongues of stones, in the restless waters,
In the creep and the click and the rustle
That greet me wherever I go
With their joyful cry: I’m still here, alive!
We are alive. And it’s time to get up. Amen.