A sermon preached at Hillcrest Congregational Church, Pleasant Hill, CA
on Sunday, October 6, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Esther 4:1-17 and Matthew 25:31-40
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The book of Esther is a distinctive book in the Bible because it is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t directly mention God.  It is also the basis for the annual Purim festival celebrated by Jews each spring.  If you’ve never been to a Purim schpiel, find an observant Jew to invite you to their synagogue.  They can be a real hoot as the retell the Esther story, a story replete with good guys and bad buys.

The chief bad guy is Haman.  The chief good guys are Mordecai and Esther.  The Jews are in exile in Persia and Haman decides to get rid of them all by killing them.  And this is where we pick up the story.  Esther 4:1-17 (NRSV):

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 scepter 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.

If your congregation is like most United Church of Christ congregations (at least in our Conference) there are some of you who are uncomfortable with the word “sin.”  It is a word that definitely carries plenty of baggage with it.  But there are situations where the actions or plans of the powers that be are sinful.  To use a lesser word fails to speak God’s truth.

When Haman plotted to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire, that was sinful.  It wasn’t just “wrong.”  It wasn’t just “a bad choice.”  Pogroms are sinful.

But when the rulers, the people with power decide they are going to undertake such sinful acts, what is a common person supposed to do?  All too often we sell ourselves short, denying the power we have.  All too often individuals have power they aren’t aware of.  All to often people aren’t aware of how power can be made manifest when people band together in community.

Esther was in a position where she thought she had no power.  She was a Jew who had been forced into a beauty pageant so the king could select a new wife.  The old queen had been cast out for exercising her power.  Commanded by the king to come before him and a bunch of powerbrokers so the king could show her off, Vashti refused.  Not only was this an insult to the king and the other elites in his court, but word might get around and all the women in the kingdom could become uppity and start exercising their power.  So Vashti was cast out and Esther was forced into becoming queen.

What power did Esther have?  None she assumed.  Then the plans of the king’s number two, Haman, to kill all the Jews became known to her.  What could she do?  Perhaps, Mordecai told her, you were made queen for just this moment, “for such a time as this.”

What Esther decided to do could be called non-violent direct action.  It could be called civil disobedience.  Risking not just arrest but also execution, she decided to exercise her power and speak truth to the king.  It turns out that the risk paid off, Haman died, and the Jews were saved.  But even if Esther had been killed for speaking truth to power, it still would have been the right thing to do.

Sometimes sin needs to be confronted even if doing so is against the rules or against the law, even if doing so comes with great personal risk.  We’ve seen this truth in the United States.  The fact that God’s truth can sometimes be offensive to some people was all too clear to the people who put their bodies on the line in the Civil Rights movement.  And that included preachers.  In fact, clergy were at the forefront of the movement.  But that makes sense.  Civil right is a moral issue.  In fact, civil rights was the moral issue of that day.  Making visible the humanity of each person was paramount to the cause.  You can’t get much more biblically grounded than that:  recognizing the humanity of every person.

Today, we are faced with another moral issue.

IPCC-AR5-coverThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report released last week says that, with 95% certainty, human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, is causing climate change.  95% certainty.  I was trying to think of what things scientists are probably more certain about.  Gravity, I suppose.  How evolution works (it’s been observed, so scientists are pretty certain about that).  The evolution of human beings is probably up there.  But I can’t imagine scientists being that certain about string theory.  And maybe not even about the Big Bang Theory.

In other words, the science about climate change is clear.  Climate change “is, or should be, dry science, an entirely rational question that should be addressed by economists, engineers, scientists working on our behalf and with our thanks; a democratic process, difficult but not controversial.  No one has a prejudice against chemistry, an animus about physics.  A moral issue?  Almost the opposite.  Opinion isn’t the issue; no one’s heart should need changing.

“But it’s not happening.  For [over] 20 years now scientists and engineers and even many economists have spoken with rare unanimity: we need to use much less fossil fuel, and very quickly.”[1]  We need to do this.  We need to stop dumping the carbon – currently sequestered underground in those fossil fuels – into the atmosphere (and through the atmosphere, into the oceans).  You see, if we don’t stop dumping carbon into the atmosphere, we will cause severe damage to ecosystems worldwide.

Already, California’s farm belt is facing some thorny challenges from our changing climate.  Rising temperatures, an uncertain water supply, and more abundant pests are threatening the nation’s salad bowl.[2]

Dr. Terry Root, Senior Fellow at Stanford University Woods Institute, explains the dangers and damage of climate change:

“Plants and animals are already going extinct.  They are going extinct 100 times faster than the did 1000 years ago, and as the climate continues to warm, we’re going to lose more and more and more species because we’re going to have more surprises happening.  We are going to have a mass extinction event that could happen in the next two hundred to three hundred years.  ‘Mass extinction event’ means that we loose half or maybe there-fourths of the number of species we have on the planet.  Are we going to losing the plants that clean our water?  the plants that clean our air?  If there’s no pollinators out there to pollinate, then we’re going to have to do it by hand – and they’re already doing that in China, having to go out and pollinate their crops by hand.”[3]

Because of thermal expansion and melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, sea level rise that will happen in my niece and nephew’s lifetimes will be somewhere between a foot and a half and three feet – minimum.  “That doesn’t sound like a lot if you live up in the Rocky Mountains, but if you live down in Chesapeake Bay, along the Gulf Coast of the United States, in the Ganges flood plain, that matters a lot.  It matters in China.  It matters in Indonesia.”[4]

According the National Geographic scientist and photographer James Balog, “A minimum of one hundred fifty million people will be displaced [by sea level rise alone] – that’s like approximately half the size of the United States – and all those people are going to be flushed out and have to move somewhere else.  It also intensifies the impact of hurricanes and typhoons.  It means that there’s a lot more high water along the coast lines so when these big storms come it pushes that much more water that much further inland.”[5]

This is why I’ve been saying for several years that climate change is the moral issue of our day.

In Matthew 22, a lawyer asked Jesus what the most important commandment was.  Jesus’ said the greatest commandment was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  And he quickly added a second commandment – to love your neighbor as yourself.  “On these two commandments,” Jesus says, “hang all the law and the prophets.”  As the great Jewish rabbi Hillel said of these two great commandments, “Everything else is just commentary.”[6]

1264194_10151861723847708_2112051364_oThen we get to Matthew 25 and Jesus tells an allegory about the great judgment.  Nations are gathered before the king who judges them according to how well they treated “the least of these.”  Climate change is having and will continue to have the greatest impact on the poorest people on the globe.  Those who are least responsible for causing climate change and most impacted by it.  They will be the first climate refugees – a new category of what the UN calls “displaced persons.”  They are the ones who will face the water shortages and famines – or the extreme flooding, disease, and famine.

People starving is a moral issue.  People displaced from their homes and sometimes their nations is a moral issue.  And the wars that may well come over food and water – that too is a moral issue.

How sad it is that we have made “the science of climate one more political football – just another issue we square off over, as if physics was simply one more interest group.  As things stand, we are nowhere near taking the decisive action that might give us a chance of avoiding the most devastating kinds of warming; as coral bleaches, deserts grow, and ice sheets melt across the planet, we’re just marking time.”[7]

This is why two and a half years ago, Bill McKibben said it was time “to mount a campaign of mass action, of civil protest, of dignified disobedience.  Its goal would not be to shut down the fossil fuel system – that system is much too big and too pervasive to be shut down, since it powers every action we take from the moment we wake up.  The campaign’s aim, instead, would be much simpler:  to demonstrate the sense of urgency that this issue requires.  It would be in the nature of a witness.”[8]

Bearing witness is our business, the church’s business.  That’s what Esther was doing when she went to see the king.  That’s what I was going on August 3rd when I went to the Chevron Refinery in Richmond and was arrested.  Climate change is the moral issue of our day and the religious community needs to be putting our bodies on the line to bear witness to this moral issue and to speak truth to power.  And preachers need to be in the forefront of this work.

I know this sounds like a radical action.  It’s not.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.

It is deeply conservative.  “What’s radical is to double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and just see what happens – no one, not Marx or Mao, has ever proposed a change as radical as that.  Those radicals backed by the fossil fuel industry flirt with destroying the planet’s physical systems, and they do it so a few of us can keep our particular way of life a decade or two longer; that’s not just radical, it’s so deeply irresponsible [and immoral] that there’s really no precedent.”[9]

So climate change is the moral issue of our day and the church is called to lead our people to freedom.  Amen.

[1] Bill McKibben, “Disobedience,” The Christian Century, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2010-12/disobedience (posted 27 December 2010; downloaded 1 August 2013).

[2] KQED-FM ran an interesting radio special, “Heat and Harvest,” on 31 August 2013 that focused on this problem.  See http://www.kqed.org/a/radiospecials/R201308310100

[3] Dr. Terry Wood, Dr. Terry Root, Senior Fellow, Stanford University Woods Institute, interviewed in the 2012 movie “Chasing Ice,” transcribed by me.

[4] James Balog, National Geographic scientist and photographer, interviewed in the 2012 movie “Chasing Ice,” transcribed by me.

[5] Ibid.

[7] McKibben, op. cit.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.