So, parents, you’re just about ready to go to work, or out with your spouse for a date while waiting for the baby-sitter, when all of a sudden, your child says, “I don’t feel so good,” and the next thing you know, you’re cleaning up, putting a sick child to bed, and calling the boss or the baby-sitter to cancel all plans. Or students and recent graduates, maybe you’ve experienced something like what a friend of ours has recently: just when he’s starting his new job and preparing for a major test in his field, for his professional license, a friend of the family dies, and the funeral is just days before the licensing exam. And its on the West Coast, two flights there each way. He’s been a straight A student all his life, but with this curve ball suddenly thrown at him, he’ll be grateful just to pass the licensing exam. Which he will. Just maybe not with another A.
As frustrating or scary as those complications can be, they’re all small potatoes compared to the need, and the cry for help, coming from Haiti this week. The year 2010 may be remembered as the year in which some of the best-laid plans did not get off the ground because of the time and resources committed to our friends in Haiti. And that is as it should be. May their need bring out the best and most noble in us.
If you’ve ever faced any such surprise interruptions of your best-laid plans, you know the truth of what John Lennon said, that “life is what happens while we’re making other plans.” Or as a corollary of Murphy’s Law puts it: “The most important things in life are all scheduled at the exact same time.” Sometimes the most important things in life are not even on the schedule.
At such times its easy to despair and to think that we’ll never get any traction on our precious plans; that life will always be an uninterrupted series of interruptions that must be interrupted if we are ever to get anything done. But experience has shown me that, in the days and years that follow many such surprises and last-minute, unforeseeable interruptions, I may not even remember what those waylaid plans and projects were. Or if I do, I am glad for having remembered and done what was most important instead. In fact, there are few better barometers of my true spiritual state than how graciously I respond to the unexpected cry for help from one direction, while I was heading in another.
For such interruptions to our best-laid plans can serve to remind us who is God and who is not, who lives within the realm of time and who created time. They force us to ask ourselves, what are our most important priorities, and who matters most to us? In fact, in every moment of our lives, more often than we admit, we are already choosing what is most important from among many options. In that sense, it is always “such a time as this.”
That was how Mordecai told Queen Esther to view the unforeseen crisis of huge dimensions and monstrous character that had suddenly and surprisingly imposed itself upon her best-laid plans and schedule: it was “such a time as this.” That is how she was to consider all the steps and stages of her history that had brought her to that critical moment, as having prepared and positioned her to deal with the crisis in her life. It came as a surprise to her, but not to the God who had led her there and prepared her for “such a time as this.”
We’re not told what was in Esther’s day planner or her weekly schedule when she was suddenly and shockingly confronted with the imperial plans to liquidate her people, the Jews. I’d like to think it was something along the lines of advocating for racial and economic justice, for environmental stewardship, or for public education, such as what some previous American first ladies have done, like Eleanor Roosevelt. But that all became a moot point for Esther when she learned about plans being hatched for this earlier round of “The Final Solution,” in the same spirit and toward the same end as what Adolf Hitler tried to do.
That was also how Martin Luther King, Jr., experienced the call to lead the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, in 1955. It was just the second year of his first pastorate, when he was already busy serving Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, his family, and with leadership positions on several community organizations, such as the local inter-church pastoral alliance and the Montgomery Improvement Association. That was an inter-racial alliance to improve conditions and race relations in the city. We often look at all this leadership Dr. King took on so quickly and say, “Wasn’t he an on-fire, motivated, minister?” He certainly was. But after my 17 years in ministry, I wonder if it also was because, in local ministerial associations, the old hands are often quite willing to let the newcomers take on as much responsibility as they want. The old-timers have learned to pace themselves if they’re going to survive. Let the newcomers learn the same way they did just how scary busy they can get if they don’t know how to say No sometimes.
Just how scary and busy things could get was brought home to King when Mrs. Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested on a city bus for not giving up her seat to a white man. Groups like the Montgomery Improvement Association were just waiting for something like Rosa’s case to press the case for civil rights in the city. And the Montgomery Improvement Association was logically the group to lead it. In the year that followed, the MIA led the successful boycott that ended racial segregation on the city buses.
But Dr. King seemed reluctant at first to lead the charge. He was a fast learner, so perhaps he was already growing aware of the limits of his time and energy. You might almost say that the black community of Montgomery led him into the boycott cause as much as he led the community. Perhaps it was the response of all the attendees at a meeting, the night after Mrs. Parks’ arrest, in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, when King took his turn at the microphone and said, “There comes a time when people grow tired of being trodden under by the iron feet of oppression.” Something about those words brought the audience to their feet, cheering, clapping, weeping, yelling amen! In those simple words King gave voice to the feelings and the stories of his listeners. The audience’s response may have done as much to motivate King as he had done to motivate them. Like Esther, he recognized that then and there was “such a time as this.” The rest is history.
As for Esther, I can understand if she ever wondered where she might go to get a new uncle. Orphaned at an early age, she was raised by her uncle, Mordecai. Even when she rose to prominence in the king’s harem and became queen, her uncle kept telling her not to let on that she was Jewish. Only when it could get her killed did Mordecai then urge her to identify her faith and her people (Gee—thanks Uncle Mordecai!). After all that time of silence, this seemed hardly the right time to stand up and be counted among the king’s targets. But time was running out before the genocidal edict was to be put in place. Even in the palace she would not be immune to the coming imperial pogrom.
To get an idea of how much courage and faith Esther needed “in such a time as this,” consider why she was queen in the first place. She was chosen to replace a previous queen, Queen Vashti, who resisted her husband’s demand that she put on a personal public beauty show, something like a Bronze Age photo op. Her good looks were supposed to make the king look better. It was more about him than about her. She had enough self-respect though to not want to be treated like a trophy. But “What will happen to men around the empire if their wives hear that the queen got away with such insubordination?” the royal counselors ask. So she was divorced and sacked from office.
Esther became the new queen through a beauty contest. That’s all we need to know to understand why that empire went down the tubes. What Esther, the new queen, must do, to seek the king’s audience, and then to advocate for her people’s survival, and, if that weren’t gutsy enough, to declare herself one of them, far surpasses even Queen Vashti’s act of self-respect and of courage and conscience. But that is why she was queen: for “such a time as this.”
Brothers and sisters, we too live “in such a time as this.” In fact, for God’s people, it is always, “such a time as this.” We live in the time when God’s kingdom has come, with Jesus, while we wait for God’s kingdom to come, in its fullness, again with Jesus. As God’s mission to the world goes forward, as human needs cry out for our attention, it is a time of danger and of opportunity. A time to choose among competing choices. A time to remember and to claim our highest, holiest priorities. A time to do the little we can do at the moment, rather than to wait forever for a chance to do many things that are beyond our power and responsibility. A time to take risks and pay the cost, and embrace the cross for the sake of love. A time to reply to the call for help from unexpected directions, while we were heading in another. A time to trust that God is not caught off guard, even when we are. Even, a time to trust that God has already positioned and prepared us precisely “for such a time as this.” Because we never know if “such a time as this” will come again tomorrow. We aren’t guaranteed tomorrow. God gives us right now and forever, but we can’t presume upon later and tomorrow. Yes, with all the possibilities and problems that dog us every moment, it often seems like there’s never a good time to do the right thing. But its always the right time to do a good thing.
No, that does not mean that there are no limits to what can be asked of us. Only God can be on, 24/7 for everyone, everywhere. Yes, there are times to turn off the telephone and the pager, to get away from email, twitter and facebook, to lock the door or get out of the house, and seek rest, solace or solitude. Or to concentrate on that one most important relationship, with God or another person. But even that is to recognize that we have come to a critical moment, to “such a time as this,” when the uninterrupted stream of other pressing needs and demands must be interrupted, to attend to that highest, holiest priority.
Maybe that’s how we should define the historic Mennonite value of simplicity. Instead of seeing it as just a dress code for simple, black and white clothing, which a few of us grew up with, or instead of defining it by what we don’t own by way of flashy cars or the latest technology, as the Amish and some Old Order Mennonites do, we can see simplicity in terms of our few highest priorities among our many options and limits. As people of God’s peace, we can be at peace with our human limits and can let God be God. And as people of God, we find freedom in the fact that we can only do a few things well, with great love, so we don’t need to try and do it all, with little love and much anxiety and agitation. Because our priorities are clear: to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice. Anything else, among all the competing demands and choices calling to us, we can let go and leave to God, because it is always “such a time as this.”