One of the things I notice as a result of the current upheaval in our national life is how different, old and familiar words and passages of scripture now sound. Not a word has changed. The context in which they reverberate has changed. They now teach, puzzle, inspire us to see, understand, and act in new ways.
Pericopes and passages that were once smooth stones in our hand have become rough, or perhaps are now one of those smooth stones chosen by David to take down the bully, Goliath.
Evolving in context is a key part of what happens to Esther in tonight’s reading. The Book of Esther is well known as the one book in the Bible which does not mention God. It is a narrative of human cleverness and courage. As such it has inspired and comforted secular and observant Jews for centuries. It provided a festival in which children can wear costumes and a distinctive cookie named after the villain.
But under the harsh oppression of the Seleucids and then the Romans in years just preceding the birth of Jesus, the resurgence of anti-semitic threat and violence rendered Esther’s story inadequate. The text was appended throughout to call the reader back, through her story, to a relationship with and reliance upon the Covenant God. So tonight we hear an Esther who has withdrawn to figure out how she can possibly save her people from pogrom, praying urgently–”help me who am alone and have no helper but you O Lord.” A verse from tonight’s psalm tells us the response she received; “When I called you answered me, you increased my strength within me.” So strengthened, Esther can act.
Jesus teaches his followers and us, to ask, search, knock. . . and be assured of God’s response. This can easily become or be seen as a formula, as an injunction to be perpetual petitioning, striving for more of . . . something. In the context of the great American Experiment this teaching has, for many, generated a transactional God who is supposed to fix and provide. Even more potently, it becomes a prosperity Gospel that links judgement and grace to accumulation. Those blest in their asking, searching, and knocking are obvious as the visibly, materially rewarded. Those not blest in their asking, searching, and knocking have erred in making bad choices—like opting for a cell phone instead of health insurance.
In these times we are called back to the heart of Jesus invitation. Ask: ask of God how shall we be in and with each other? Will you increase our strength within us so that we have courage, can be faithful, can be the change we desire? Search: search not for advantage but for the way, the way that is the incarnate Word, the way that is inexorable movement into the dream of God. The words of Eucharistic Prayer C thank God for gifting us with “memory, reason, and skill.” These words always grab my attention. They are the tools for searching. They invite us to bring our best to finding and living the way. In the midst of the cacophony of click-bait and the energy of fear we search, looking for the sure way of right relationship with God and each other. So simple. So hard.
Knock: knocking is something physical, sensate. It is a moment of possibility. “Knock” evokes a very personal image for me. One of the things we have appropriated from Buddhism is the practice of sounding a bowl-shaped bell. In good Western fashion we tend to use it in our worship to mark time. I have been privileged for a number of years to do some retreat leading with a good friend and colleague who is a self-styled Quaker Buddhist. She brings to her dharma teaching and practice a large, resonant bell with a rich and arresting sound. A participant in one our retreats noticed that she first touched the bell and then paused before, in her terminology, inviting the bell. She explained that each sounding of the bell begins by “waking” it, bringing it present with a gentle tap. Then, with a gatha, or what we would hear as an invocation, the bell is invited. The final words of the gatha are, “may the sound of the bell call us to our true home.”
Knock. Let the sound of whatever we can attend to in the moment open for us the door, the way to our true home in God: our home in the moment—in every moment. Our ultimate home, at one with the One. When we know our true home, we are free to risk following the way wherever it takes us.
Again, in the context of radical individualism, in a church culture that keeps asking, “where are you on your personal spiritual journey,” the call to ask, search, knock can be heard as inviting a richer, deeper personal piety. Jesus sets this as work to be done in relationship with the final words we heard this night. “In everything . . .everything . . do to (act for and with) others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Some of these words are known as the Golden Rule. It has become a solid universal standard for a reciprocity that can minimize, if not eliminate, exploitation and mistreatment. For us, it is the insistence that we ask, search and even knock together. Asking, searching, knocking are the work of community often in very dark and risky circumstances.
This is how I finally “got” why the base community movement is so powerful, and why it has been suppressed by ecclesial hierarchs and secular tyrants. When people engage the law, the prophets, and the Good News as who they are, and where they are in any broken system, they ask, search, and knock together—and the powerful perspire. Asking, searching, knocking builds solidarity, not isolated individualism. This is why Pope Francis says of the movement, “the word solidarity frightens people in the developed world.”
In these dangerous, abusive, mendacious, grasping times; in this context, this is how we are invited to hear our Gospel for this night and for our common work in the worse that is sure to come.