Monday, October 12, 2015

Risky Business

Risky Business
Esther 7:1-6[1]
Some of you, like me, may be fans of “The Lord of the Rings.” I’m not just talking about the movies—yes I have the extended versions and I’ve watched them a number of times. I’m talking about the books, which I’ve also read through more than once. You may not know that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote them as a Christian allegory, but one that was more subtle than that of his good friend C. S. Lewis. There is so much about these volumes that I love. One quote that comes to mind is from Bilbo Baggins, the hero of the Hobbit. He tells his nephew, Frodo, that “It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”[2] At the time, little did Frodo know where his own journey out the door would lead him.
Part of the point of this is that it is an analogy of the Christian faith. I think many of us would like the Christian faith to be like a refuge, a sanctuary to which we can flee to find safety in the midst of a world that can be frightening. But that’s not the nature of faith. If you read the Bible closely, you’ll find that time after time the leading characters who were great examples of faith found their journeys to be full of risk and danger.[3] In many cases, like Abraham and Sarah, people set out on the journey of faith never knowing where they might be “swept off to.” They discovered like many countless pilgrims, that taking the road of faith can be risky business.
I think the story of Esther is a perfect example of this lesson.  You may know Esther’s story better than I—she was a young and beautiful Jewish woman living in the Persian empire with her uncle Mordecai.  When the King was “in the market” for a new queen, Esther was one of the beautiful young women from all over the empire who “tried out” for the position of queen.  The king was vastly more delighted with Esther than any other young woman, and she became the new Queen. But one of the King’s advisers, named Haman, hated Mordecai and all the Jewish people.  So he convinced the king to sign a decree allowing Haman to execute all the Jewish people—because the King didn’t know Esther was Jewish! 
When Mordecai found out, he sent a message to Esther asking her to do something about it.  Now, what you have to understand is that Esther, queen or not, was subject to the whims of the king.  To approach the king without being summoned meant risking death.[4]  But Esther was a courageous woman of faith—like many before and after her, she was willing to risk what most people would never dream of risking!  And so she asked Mordecai to call a fast for three days, and after that she said “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).[5]
That’s the way of faith according to the Scriptures.  Setting out on a journey without even knowing where you’re going, like Abraham and Sarah.  Or facing death in a furnace rather than compromising one’s commitment to God, like the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Or exposing oneself to ridicule and humiliation to obey God’s command, like Mary did when she agreed to bear God’s son.  That’s what faith is about.  It’s not about knowing exactly how everything is going to turn out.  It’s about “hoping like mad in something” that may seem too good to be true.[6] And because our faith can at times call us to a path that is risky, we have to be willing take the leap of faith while “knowing that we do not know”—and in fact we cannot know—how it will wind up for us or where we might be “swept off to.”[7] 
For those of us who want faith to be something protective, something reassuring, something safe, this may seem troubling. There are many these days who look to Biblical faith to provide rational arguments and scriptural “proofs” that they suppose will to make them feel safe in a world that is more and more confusing.  They look for clear-cut codes and fixed dogmas to protect them from the tension of not knowing, of not being sure, of not having all the answers.  But, again that’s not the nature of biblical faith. If you read the Scriptures closely, you will find that faith is full of questions, uncertainty, and mystery![8]  It opens us up, making us vulnerable to the unpredictability of our world.  It challenges us take part in an amazing journey, a pilgrimage of faith that has always been about taking the kind of risk Esther took. And because this journey takes place right in the middle of the uncertainties and anxieties of our day and time, it is a journey that takes all the courage we can muster.
When I began my journey of faith 40 years ago, I certainly wasn’t looking for a life of uncertainty and risky business. I heard the offer of acceptance and God’s love and I knew that’s what I wanted. I could never imagine at the ripe age of 14 what that decision would mean. Nor could I possibly have any idea where the decision to serve as a minister at the age of 17 would lead me in life. I’ll say this: the journey has been anything but boring! But that’s the way it is for all of us. When we make the decision to take the path of faith in Jesus Christ, we are stepping out of our comfort zone and out the door into a life that is full of twists and turns, full of surprises, full of risks. It’s a path that many have walked before us, and their testimonies, both in Scripture and in the great books of the Christian faith, bear witness to us that the commitment to follow Jesus is indeed one that is risky business. But if we have the courage to step out on that road, it is a road that leads us to life.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon written by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm to be delivered on 9/27/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church. Due to illness, the sermon was not presented. Instead it is being published here.
[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 72
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Romans, 98-99, where he says, “Faith always involves “a leap into the darkness of the unknown.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 76, where he says that faith impels us “out and on to the edge of all experience, thought, and action,” and compels us “to attempt to leap off into the air, where obviously no [one] can stand.”
[4] Cf. Sidnie White Crawford, “The Book Of Esther,” New Interpreters Bible III:904: “It is part of the irony of the book that the first queen, Vashti, is banished for refusing to appear before the king when summoned, while the second queen, Esther, is asked to risk death by appearing before the king unsummoned.”
[5] Cf. Sidnie White Crawford, “The Book of Esther,” NIB III:905: “Esther's position as a woman in a male court is analogous to that of the Jews in the Gentile world, with the possibility of danger ever present under the surface. Esther has no guarantee that she will be successful.” She observes (p. 906) that Esther’s situation presents us with “the dilemma of the average believer”: “How does one find the courage and faith to do what is right in the face of divine and human ambiguity?”
[6] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 2, where he says that “Religion is for … people who believe in something, who hope like mad in something, who love something with a love that surpasses understanding.” He says further (ibid, 31) that “the religious sense,” which I would see as something very similar to faith, awakens when “Something grander and larger than us comes along and bowls us over and dispossesses us . Something overpowers our powers, potencies, and possibilities, and exposes us to something impossible. Something makes a demand upon us and shakes us loose from the circle of self-love, drawing us out of ourselves and into the service of others and of something to come.”
[7] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 19, where he distinguishes “not-knowing” from “ignorance” by saying that we know “that we do not know” and we know that “this non-knowing is the inescapable horizon in which we must act, with all due decisiveness, with all the urgency that life demands.”
[8] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 128-29, where he insists that we cannot know ultimate things, and we are therefore left with “the passion of our non-knowing, our passion for God” and with “our love for God.” He continues (p. 129), “In my view, the very highest passion is driven by not-knowing … when all we can do is push on, have faith, keep going, love and trust the process about which we lack any final assurance.” Cf. similarly, Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 245-46, “The intellect often demands proof that it is on solid ground. The thought of the soul finds its grounding in a different way. It likes persuasion, subtle analysis, an inner logic, and elegance. It enjoys the kind of discussion that is never complete, … . It is content with uncertainty and wonder.”  He continues (p. 246), “Intellect tends to enshrine its truth, while soul hopes that insights will keep coming until some degree of wisdom is achieved.”

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