Invisible Fences

Esther 3:1-6 & 8:1-8, September 3, 2017


When I was in college, one of my classmates, Anne, used to run ahead of the group walking to the dining hall and hold the door for everyone. It turned into a running joke. Sometimes one of us would try to out run her for the “honor” of holding the door.

Chris was one of my debate partners in high school. We were an OK team, but not great. We won a little more than half of our rounds. One Saturday after the competition had ended, I was talking to Chris. I asked whether he was going to the awards ceremony. I didn’t expect to win an award, but I knew our team would be heading back home after the ceremony. Chris asked, “Were you planning to carry me?”

Chris was wheel-chair bound, and the school where the tournament was did not have an elevator. I stayed with Chris that afternoon. I found out later who won trophies at the tournament.

Anne was in the habit of running ahead of her family to hold doors because her brother was wheel-chair bound.

More than 10 years ago I was shopping at Piggly Wiggly and I spotted Francis Josh, a member of our church. Francis was literally a little, old lady. I greeted her and told her I was happy to see her. She asked me to get something off a high shelf she couldn’t reach. I was more than happy to. As someone of below average height it isn’t often I can do that for anyone.

But on Christmas Eve, when I was 11 years old, I walked to the grocery store for frosting. I had baked some gingerbread men and wanted to decorate them. The canned frosting was too high for me to reach. I had to find someone with the gift of height.

Shortly after I started my second pastoral position in suburban Baltimore I attended an orientation session for new clergy in the area. I met Stella Dempski. Stella was finally serving a church as its associate pastor. She had had a long search, but she never gave up hope of finding a call. I walked behind her getting a cup of coffee. She asked me to get the cream for her. She couldn’t reach it. Stella is a dwarf, and there are a lot of things she can’t reach. I hadn’t been inconvenienced by a lack of height since 1975. For Stella, it happened every day. I had stopped seeing that. The fence that kept Stella out and me in, was invisible, until Stella pointed it out.

We had a guest from Community Breakfast stop by the church on Wednesday. She needed some emergency assistance, and we were able to connect her to the right agencies to supply her needs, and also her cat’s needs. She lives close by. She’s literally a neighbor, and she’s wheelchair bound. She rode the elevator to the office and wheeled herself in and your church provided direct, necessary help for her. We learned her name. She knew she could come here because we have an elevator.

You know who else appreciates having an elevator? The bell choir. Our custodian. Anyone who’s on crutches. Someone with young children in a stroller. People who are just too tired to go up 21 stairs to see their Samaritan Center counselor. The crew installing the new boilers this week. A lot of these people were not fenced out, but they sure appreciated a ride up or down the stairs. I went through a revolving door on crutches. Once. I could do it. I had never hit the big blue button outside the mechanical door, because until I injured my knee I didn’t see it.

In a few minutes we’re going to celebrate communion. In the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving I will pray, “We trust (Jesus) to overcome every power that can hurt or divide us.”

Sometimes I don’t see the things that hurt or divide us. I call these “Step on a Rake Moments,” I suddenly notice something that’s already there, but I see it with new eyes. Remember how Mo used to step on a rake in those Three Stooges movies? Hits him right between the eyes.

I was at a meeting of the Presbytery Immigration Task Group Thursday. We planned worship for next month’s Presbytery meeting. We always celebrate communion at Presbytery meetings, and the location of meetings rotates through all the churches in the Presbytery. So we had to talk about would we celebrate by intinction or in pews?, how many servers were needed?, would we need someone to serve people who could not walk forward to the table? These are things that leaders know about their own churches, but need to be clear on when leading worship somewhere else And we had to provide gluten-free communion bread, because some people are extremely sensitive to gluten. Extremely. I learned that some people cannot eat a communion wafer that has touched gluten. The gluten free option had to be separate from the other bread.

When we celebrate communion here I often say, “Everyone, everyone, everyone is invited and encouraged to participate!” But in some places there’s a fence around the table, that I didn’t know about until Thursday. It’s no big deal to work around this fence, once one sees it. But how would it feel to be left out of communion? Perhaps you’ve been barred from the Table in other places. It hurts. It can be insulting and isolating.
We closed our meeting with The Gloucester Benediction:
Go on your way in peace.
Be of good courage.
Hold fast to that which is good.
Render no man (or woman) evil for evil.
Strengthen the fainthearted.
Support the weak.
Help and cheer the sick.
Honor all men (and women).
Love and serve the Lord.
May the blessings of God be upon you
And remain with you forever.

-Author Unknown

I went to seminary in the late ‘80s. Future faith leaders were learning about inclusive language then. Most of the names we use when we address the Lord in prayer are masculine. Most of the times that crowds are mentioned in the Bible the figure is something like “5,000 men.” Which raised the question, did they include women in that 5,000? If they didn’t how many additional people were there, after women were included? You see the words have been amended with the inclusion of women in the original benediction. The Ruling Elder who led the prayer was of my generation. Of course this modification is beneficial—and since the author is unknown there are no potential copyright problems. But imagine that you’re 8 years old. You are excluded from these words. Maybe render to no one evil for evil and honor all people would be better wording. That would get through an invisible fence.

You’re probably wondering about the readings. I need to tell a long story about not seeing, and needing to see.

At the Presbyterian Youth Triennium in 2010, the theme was “For such a time as this.” Those words come from the Book of Esther, not a book we often use in worship. The one thing some of you might know about the Book Esther is that the word, “God” is not used even once. The story of Esther is the basis of the Jewish holiday Purim, which occurs in the spring every year.

There were about 6,000 Presbyterian teenagers and perhaps 800 more staff and chaperones at triennium. We took over Purdue’s campus in Indiana for four days. Everyone was placed in a group of about 40 people, and these groups of 40 split into smaller groups of six or seven. We learned the story of Esther and did projects and crafts about it.

The story starts with King Ahasuerus who was impossibly wealthy, ruling from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces. He hosted a lavish six month party and while drunk, commanded his queen, Vashti, to show how beautiful she was by standing in front of all the guests wearing only her crown. Vashti refused and she was removed from the throne.

King Ahasuerus held what is effectively a beauty pageant, and selected Esther, a young Jewish woman to be queen. Her uncle Mordechai was on the scene and one day he heard about a palace plot to kill the king. He exposed the would-be assassins and that’s really good.

King Ahasuerus’s right hand man was named Haman. And on Purim, every time that name is mentioned people, boo or hiss or make some type of loud noise. He was very vain and full of himself and he commanded that everyone bow before him when he passed by. Mordecai refused. He was a faithful Jew, and bowing before a man would be idolatrous. Haman was furious. He got the king to make an order to be sent throughout the kingdom to kill all the Jews. This prompted Mordecai to tell Esther to go to the king and get him to call the slaughter off. But Esther was afraid. She was young, and if anyone approached the king without having been invited, they may be killed. Esther didn’t know what to do…Mordecai told Esther that maybe she’d been put into this situation for such a time as this…

Meanwhile, Haman has commissioned a gallows 75 feet high (50 cubits) to use on Mordecai.

Then one night the king can’t sleep. He asked a servant to read to him from the royal record book; it was sort of like a bedtime story. It just so happened that the day he read from was the record of the day Mordecai exposed the plot to kill him. The king asked whether Mordecai had been rewarded for this service. He had not, some kind of bookkeeping oversight.

So the king asks Haman….how he should reward someone who had done something really good for the kingdom. Haman imagined that the king meant him, so he said the king should really, really lavish things on the hero. Haman says the hero should dress in the king’s robes and be led through town on the king’s horse. That sounded good to Ahaseurus, so he told Haman to do that for Mordecai! Haman was humiliated. But it got worse for him.

Esther bravely approached the king and he received her. She asked for a favor, and the king asked her to name it. She asked the king to revoke the edict to kill the Jews throughout the kingdom, that Haman had dreamed up. The king did more than that! He gave Haman’s house to Esther and decreed that Haman should be hung from the gallows that he had built for Mordecai!

The good guy won, and it is a stunning, joyful reversal. I know of a rabbi who dressed up as Batman one year. Silliness and irreverence are the order of the day. Today when Purim is celebrated, hamantaschen are eaten, here’s picture of them. Now imagine you’re a bakery in central Indiana asked to bake about 10,000 of these in July.

Maybe they’re three cornered because Haman wore a triangular hat, but these are also called Haman’s ears & Haman’s pockets.

The last big event at Triennium was a giant cookout on one of the quads on campus. Groups of 40 teenagers and chaperons each left their meeting place and streamed into the quad from all directions. People were wearing silly costumes, and making all kinds of noise with the noise makers they’d made. And in the middle of the quad were long tables with soda, chips, hot dogs and hamburgers and hamantaschen. The kids really got into it! And you could feel the energy increase as the groups streamed toward each other, and got bigger and bigger.

My group had made a Haman out of paper and tied a string around his neck. We sort of flew him like a kite, but also dragged him on the ground. When we got to the Quad we hanged him from a tree, just like in the story!

…and there was an older black lady, the grandmother/chaperon from another church. She didn’t see the comic reversal of Haman getting his. Seeing someone hanging from a tree recalled what Billie Holiday famously called “strange fruit.”

I was horrified when I saw the pain in her face. The kids and I took our Haman out of the tree immediately. Some of them pointed out that they were just telling the story…and the story was from the Bible…and that was all true. But in this woman’s face I saw eyes that saw something much different. Much different.

None of my group had seen what she saw.

In a few minutes we’re going to celebrate communion. In the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving I will pray, “We trust (Jesus) to overcome every power that can hurt or divide us.”

That woman’s pain was real. And my group had touched a deep wound in her that we saw too late. Last week I preached from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He told them that there is no distinction among members of the Body of Christ. Everyone is the same. All are sinners; all fall short of the glory of God. All when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.

This summer I have found the metaphor of invisible fences very helpful. There aren’t many places where people like us are fenced out. But there are a lot of fences we need to work to see before we can truly be one in Christ. Amen.