Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
How do we understand who we are? How do we understand what makes us ourselves? In a lot of ways we do this by identifying what we are NOT, and who we are NOT. I am NOT male, not a Southerner or East Coast person, NOT a fundamentalist, NOT a sporty kind of gal. It is okay to figure out who we are in relationship to what and who we are not. But often we then take this to the next step of excluding others, keeping out those we identify ourselves against. We exclude folk, don’t invite them to our gatherings, to our dinners, to our activities. We pick people usually who are in the same “categories” that we put ourselves in. And we either don’t even see, or specifically bar and exclude people who don’t fit into our categories or what is okay, what is good, what is “us”. But in so doing, we run the risk of keeping people from God, from God’s grace, from God’s redemption, from the life that God gives to each of us.
We know this. As we’ve worked closely, for example, with the Rainbow Community Center, it has become extremely clear that the Church (big C) has lost thousands of LGBTQ+ members as a result of Christian exclusion, or prejudice, of unkindness, of intolerance. Again, we know this. We are called to be known by our love. But how many times, instead, are we known by our judgments, our exclusion, and even our hate?
We too easily feel threatened, feel jealous, feel scared of those who are different. We are too easily afraid we will be “corrupted” or damage or harmed by those who are different from us. We judge as a way to protect. We set up boundaries of inclusion as a way to try to be safe. But these choices to exclude are much more dangerous than any inclusion could possibly be.
All three of today’s passage emphasizes the deep and real importance of not excluding, not keeping others from God. The story of Esther is a story of a woman who had the courage to beg the king to not destroy her people, people who were being excluded because Haman, the king’s advisor, felt threatened by them. Haman almost succeeded. His fear, his jealousy, his anger led him to almost destroy an entire group of people.
In the James passage we are encouraged to not ever give up on someone else, to never consider another beyond redemption but to rejoice in the possibility that all can find their way back.
And of course the Mark passage emphasizes that when we are quick to exclude, we need to look again. I love this passage because the disciples were clearly people like all of us: they became jealous, they felt threatened by the power and attention that this other person was getting. And Jesus basically said, “do not allow those feelings to cause you to treat another person as an enemy. Don’t decide they are against you because they aren’t with you at the moment. Don’t decide they are your foe because they hang out with other people, look different, make different choices, see the world differently.”
I have shared with you before some of what author Mitch Albom has written. In his book, Have a Little Faith, he really is writing his own story of ‘drifting’ from his faith. As he looks into why he drifted away from his own faith, he at first claimed that it was mostly apathy. But as he told his own story, it became clear that there were other reasons at the heart of his drifting from his faith. He noticed hypocrisy. Well, we all do, right? We all know about the many people of faith who claim to be about love who act hateful, for example. Or the many people who shout condemnation only to be caught doing whatever it is they are condemning…
(On a side note, I find it a bit confusing that people expect church folk to BE perfect, or to somehow be less hypocritical than everyone else. We are here because we need TO grow. So if we came in perfect, what would be the point? As Jesus himself said, Mark 2:17, “ It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”).
But for Mitch, also, he started to notice that he was excluded, as a Jewish person, from the larger culture. And instead of staying true to his faith but stepping away from an exclusive culture, he chose to be part of the culture and step away from a faith that would leave him out. Additionally, and this is described more than stated in his book, he found good things in other traditions…he married an Arab Christian, not rejecting her because of her faith, not finding her hideous or unacceptable because of her faith. And yet because of his own upbringing, he felt guilty about not having an exclusivist vision when it came to his faith. He found wisdom in other faiths, such as Christianity, and felt this must be wrong. At one point when he was talking to his Rabbi, the Rabbi had made the comment, “I have what I need, why bother chasing more?” To which Albom responded, “You’re like that Biblical quote, what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”
“That’s Jesus” responded the Rabbi.
“Oops, sorry,” I said.
“Don’t apologize,” he said, smiling. “It’s still good.”
The Rabbi was able to accept the wisdom in other traditions. Albom, though, felt guilty in quoting Jesus. He felt he was crossing an unacceptable line by valuing wisdom from different faiths.
At one point Albom confronted the Rabbi about this asking how he could be so “open-minded” as a clergy person for the Jewish faith.
The Rabbi responded, “Look. I know what I believe. It’s in my soul. But I constantly tell our people: you should be convinced of the authenticity of what you have, but you must also be humble enough to say that we don’t know everything. And since we don’t know everything, we must accept that another person may believe something else.” He sighed. “I’m not being original here, Mitch. Most religions teach us to love our neighbor.”
Albom continues, “I thought about how much I admired him at that moment. How he never, even in private, even in old age, tried to bully another belief, or bad-mouth someone else’s devotion. And I realized I had been a bit of a coward on this whole faith thing. I should have been proud, less intimidated. I shouldn’t have bitten my tongue. If the only thing wrong with Moses is that he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with Jesus is that he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with mosques, Lent, chanting, Mecca, Buddha, confession, or reincarnation is that they’re not yours - well, maybe the problem is you. One more question? I asked the Reb. He nodded. When someone from another faith says, ‘God bless you’ what do you say? ‘I say, “thank you, and God bless you, too.’ Really? ‘Why shouldn’t I’ I went to answer and realized I had no answer. No answer at all.” (p 168)… “You can embrace your own faith’s authenticity and still accept that others believe in something else.”
My son and I were watching the movie “The Help” last week. It’s one of my favorite movies, so we’ve watched it a number of times. But this time what struck me the most was the story that Skeeter’s mother finally told her about what had happened to their life-long African American maid who disappeared from the family while Skeeter was away at college. The story takes place in the 60s in Mississipi, where the household servants were exclusively African American woman serving all white families. Skeeter had been raised by their help, their maid, by Constantine. Constantine had been with and worked for this family forever. And in many ways she was one of the family, though in other ways the limits and social behaviors of the time would never allow for close connection. But at the point at which the Daughters of America had come out to offer Skeeter’s mother an award and the President of the Daughters of America behaved in a very racist, exclusive way, expected the same exclusive, judging, condemning and belittling behavior in Skeeter’s mother, when suddenly Skeeter’s mother was being judged for being too kind, too inviting of the woman who had raised her kids, who had taken care of their family for decades, suddenly Skeeter’s mother had a terrible choice to make. She either had to stand up to a woman she respected, the woman who had the power to give her this honor that she had sought for so long, or she had to throw out the helper, Constantine and her daughter who had given all of their lives to care for Skeeter’s mother and her family. Skeeter’s mother made a terrible choice. She chose to impress her guests by kicking out and firing Constantine and her daughter for coming in through the front door of her house, something that had never been unacceptable in that house before. She chose to impress her guests by taking livelihood and a family away from someone she loved. She chose to exclude, to judge, to condemn – all for the sake of appearances, for the sake of her own acceptance into a group that was behaving in a manner we know to be deeply racist, to be utterly atrocious.
We may not face these exact same challenges. But we know there are times for many people when they are called on to choose between being inclusive but losing the respect of people they had otherwise looked up to, or to exclude in a way we know is wrong but puts us in a better place with someone who has power in our lives. This can happen at work, this can happen at the store, this can happen on the BART train when we witness cruelty towards a Muslim or an immigrant. Do we choose to speak up? To stand up for those who are being attacked? Do we choose to include, to love, to stand up for people who are different from us even when we might lose something, personally, by doing so?
I was reminded of a time in one of the churches I served where one of the members who volunteered constantly to be a greeter was a woman that others found… well, slightly repulsive. She didn’t bath nearly as often as she should have, she didn’t have a good sense of personal space, but would tend to stand too close, and touch too often. She said whatever came into her head, which was never unkind, but often revealed more than people really wanted to hear. And I remember when one of our other church members “suggested” that having her act as a greeter might be sending the wrong message to visitors. “She isn’t like the rest of us. She should not be the spokesperson for our congregation. She will turn people off! We want people who dress right and look good and say the right things to welcome our guests.” We were in a group of people when this man declared this, and as I looked around to see how other people felt, I could see the discomfort. The man speaking in this way was highly respected, a big donor, a leader in the church. At the same time I think most of the people in that room also knew that our job as people of faith, as Christians, is not to turn away someone from a service they feel called to do because they don’t fit the stereotypes we have. I finally gently suggested that I thought her presence as a greeter sent exactly the right message: that all are welcome in this place, that we are not just a country club for the rich and comfortable, but a sanctuary for all people. But I have to admit that for me, too, it was not easy to say those words, it was not easy to put a different perspective forward, even if it was one of inclusion, one of love, one of acceptance and celebration of all of who we are.
The reality is it goes farther than simple inclusion. It also has to extend to really seeing the other.. it has to extend to respect.
Thinking about all the #metoo stuff that’s been going on lately, and the harrassments and assaults that have been coming to the forefront of our awareness lately, reminded me of one of my favorite MASH episodes. Hawkeye needs to give Margaret a shot because Hepatitis is raging through camp. This is shot that you get on your rear. And Hawkeye is making comments about Margaret’s appearance, which he believes to be a compliment, but which she hears, as most women would, as crossing a line, as being a form of harassment, of being an invasion, of being disrespectful. She doesn’t like it. And she says to him, “How dare you come in here on the pretext of giving me a shot and then stand there ogling me as though I were a sideshow attraction.”
His clueless response, “Boy, I show you a little appreciation, and you hit the roof. - What do you want from me?”
To which she responds, “Respect. Simple respect. I expect nothing more, and I'll accept nothing less.”
Because in MASH people actually grow and change he is able to hear that, he is able to hear her and learn. Can we do the same? Can we learn to include, and more, learn to respect, even people who are different from us? Who have different visions of the world, different views, different understandings, different backgrounds, different skin colors, different heritages, different genders and orientations, different ways of being human in an increasingly complex and difficult world?
It takes great courage at times to stand up for one another. It takes deep courage to include people that other people would reject. But Jesus’ phrase, “for whoever is not against us is for us,” is one that we need to take to heart, in our dealings with one another, and in our choices to live with courage in the face of other’s judgements, exclusive behavior, and acts of injustice and oppression towards others.