Last week, I spent some time at the Mildred C. Haley Apartments in Jamaica Plain celebrating a big win for public housing residents in Boston. I showed up because my friend Beverly Williams was speaking at the event. Beverly is the co-chair of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, who’d helped organize this effort.
And she was giving a speech that day at the mayor’s celebration of 50 million dollars devoted to maintenance and improvement there and some much needed renovations in some other public housing. These long overdue funds are coming because people who grew up in and live in public housing organized together to get what they deserve. And as a co-leader of GBIO, Beverly Williams was one of those people.
In her speech, she talked about growing up in public housing herself and seeing all of the government programs and policies that broke up Black families and communities and blocked paths to economic prosperity for her and her neighbors and her community.
Bev also had a career as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools. And there she saw too many of her Black student’s families and her former students needlessly brought into the criminal justice system, having their paths to flourishing blocked. And at some point, Bev said to herself:
Hell, no! I’ve got to see better. I’ve got to do more.
And so when she retired as a teacher, instead of moving to Florida or kicking back, she became an organizing force – helping lead GBIO’s criminal justice reform campaign, and later becoming our co-chair. Bev’s no to sitting back and her yes to justice for her community has helped change our city, helped change our state, and has helped change GBIO, all for the better.
And it started with what I’m calling today ahell, no! And a heaven, yes! A frustration, a resistance, a not letting it go anymore – hell, no! And a desire, a commitment to be for something good, to stand for something right, to work for something better – a heaven, yes!
Love is warmth and kindness and affection and friendship. Yes, absolutely. But love also is a hell, no! and a heaven, yes! Which is the topic of today’s sermon.
Today’s Hell, no! and heaven, yes! love takes us to the Bible’s book of Esther, which is a barn burner of a story.
I’m drawn to Esther for a few reasons. It’s significant to me. Years ago, I was asked to consider applying for the position at Reservoir I have now. And what turned my initial “hell, no!” to a “heaven, yes!” was a line from the book of Esther, the words “for such a time as this” that I appropriated for that time and place. Aware that God sometimes asks people to do strange things in unique times and places, I became open to how that might be true in my own life, for such a time as this.
Esther, though, is not my story. It’s not even our story, or church’s stories at all. Esther is first the possession of the Jewish people, as it tells the story of genocide averted and of Jewish survival and resilience under the Persian empire, and of so many other empires. Jewish communities still tell this story and celebrate its victory in a holiday called Purim, which is coming up in just a few weeks. There are several synagogues near where my family lives, and we can hear the raucous Purim celebrations from the streets. They remember and reenact a community’s hell, no! to injustice and extinction and heaven, yes! to survival and flourishing. It’s a great holiday.
I’m drawn to Esther too because of some teaching I heard from a gifted Black pastor named Dominique Gilliard on a Christian justice podcast called Inverse. I’ll put the link to that podcast in the sermon notes we publish on our website.
He talks about how Esther’s heroism is born out of complex, generational trauma. I promise you there will be no details in my talk, but a heads up that the story includes racial and cultural and sexual violence and trauma. Here’s the short version of the story, which will include today’s text:
In recent generations, Jews had been subject to a military campaign against them that put them into exile under the Persian empire and subject to campaigns of cultural assimilation, much like Native Americans have faced in this land, for instance.
And the book of Esther opens with the great king of Persia, Xerxes, throwing a months-long celebration of his own might and awesomeness. And at the end of all this, there was a kind of week-long afterparty for all the VIPs, so he could further impress his buddies and all the other top people in the kingdom. There was a week-long open bar, with Xerxes showing off everything he could.
Until he realized after seven days that he had just one more thing he hadn’t shown off yet, which was his trophy wife, the most ravishingly beautiful Queen Vashti, whom he ordered to appear at the party and to show off her beauty.
And that’s where we get the text’s first “hell, no!” Vashti on the one hand is a person of privilege. She’s the queen of Persia, after all. But we see again and again in Esther that privilege is intersectional and complex. The most privileged people can still sometimes be put in their place and subject to violence by someone higher up the food chain. And the seemingly least privileged people and communities can still find ways to exercise their voice and power.
Anyway, Vashti – after plenty of experiences of living under patriarchy, faces one more experience of possible sexual assualt, and this time she says, hell, no! But not wanting to see a #metoo movement of women’s voices and strength break out, the ruling men of the kingdom make sure she is put in her place. She’s basically divorced and put into exile in her own land, and the king opens up applications for a new first lady.
That’s where Esther comes onto the scene. As a teenager, she’s drafted into a nationwide beauty pageant, which really isn’t that at all. It’s a round up of young subjects for entrance into the king’s harem, with the faint possibility of becoming the replacement queen.
She’s a child of trauma – she’s been orphaned, she’s part of the Jewish exile community. And her adopted caregiver, her cousin Mordecai, tells her to hide her ethnicity and pass as a Persian, when she goes to the harem, so she won’t get into any trouble. She agrees, and in time, the king chooses her to be his replacement queen. And she takes her place in that role and in that bed, hiding her identity and living in this strange mix of fear and privilege.
Esther and her cousin Mordecai both prove useful to the king, but for a variety of reasons the king is manipulated by his advisors into signing off on anti-Jewish, discriminatory legislation that becomes a threat to disposses and kill all the Jews in the kingdom.
That takes us to today’s text, where Mordecai has told Esther she has to out herself as a Jew and use her position as a queen to put a stop to all this, before it’s too late. Esther at first says,
“Hell, no. I may be the queen, but if I step out of line, things will be no better for me. Even I can’t speak to the king without permission.”
But Mordecai pleas for her to change her mind. Which takes us to today’s text, in chapter four.
Esther 4:12-17 (Common English Bible)
12 When they told Mordecai Esther’s words,
13 he had them respond to Esther: “Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace.
14 In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.”
15 Esther sent back this word to Mordecai:
16 “Go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa and tell them to give up eating to help me be brave. They aren’t to eat or drink anything for three whole days, and I myself will do the same, along with my female servants. Then, even though it’s against the law, I will go to the king; and if I am to die, then die I will.”
17 So Mordecai left where he was and did exactly what Esther had ordered him.
Hell, no! And heaven, yes! This language isn’t in the book of Esther of course. And in case my friend Beverly doesn’t like all this “hell” talk, let me say the hell, no! heaven, yes! language isn’t hers either. It isn’t even mine.
I got it from a psychologist named Dan Allender who uses this language to talk about “nos” and “yeses” we feel and say when we’re called to the courage to make changes in ourselves and in our world. We find the strength of a hell, no! to something that isn’t as it should be, isn’t worthy of us and of God and this good world God made. And we find the courage and love of a corresponding heaven, yes! – a commitment to beauty, and goodness, and truth that is worthy of us and of God and this good world God made.
Here we see a deeper “hell, no!” and a powerful “heaven, yes!” is born in Esther. She comes back into solidarity with her own people and realizes: I cannot stay silent. I will not stand by why my people are dispossessed and rounded up and killed. Hell, no!
Instead, with Mordecai’s help, she catches a redemptive vision for this privilege she never asked for, probably never wanted. Maybe it was all for such a time as this. Heaven, yes! She can align her voice, her privilege, with God’s purposes. And she says yes to her role in saving her people.
This past week included international Holocaust Remembrace Day. In the past, I’ve been part of commemoration ceremonies. The Holocaust marks a time in Jewish history, and in world history, where too few people of privilege said hell, no! to the antisemitc violence of that era, too few said heaven, yes! to the justice and love of God. And these commemorations invite us to remember, and to resolve – that in the face of injustice, in the face of things that are not as they are meant to be we will summon courage to say “no” and to align whatever privilege or power we have to a “yes” to God’s better ways, in our own times and cultures and circumstances.
I shared a bit of my friend Bev’s story, as she faced retirement and reflected on all the youth and families whose paths hadn’t gone like hers, of her hell, no! to the ongoing systemic racism diminishing Black Bostonian lives and communities. And of the heaven, yes! she’s found in using her voice and leadership and relationships to lead in GBIO and secure more justice for Black Bostonians and for all Bostonians and residents of this state.
I wonder how this voice speaks to us. I wonder how this form of love calls to each of us today. We each have our lives, our circumstances, our one precious, powerful voice.
Because if God lives with us, if God lives among and within us, and if God sees this world not as it should be, not yet in tune with God’s loving justice, then God has a hell, no! and a heaven, yes! for us all to discover. God’s love includes God’s own passionate hell, no! to all that mars the beauty of what God has made.
And God’s love includes God’s own hopeful heaven, yes! to everything that restores beauty and justice and goodness and truth. And God has people and circumstances in our lives like Mordecai to help us find our hell, no! and heaven, yes! Too. For us awaken to the power of our privilege and the possibility of our voice working for loving justice in our spheres.
Where do we find this? Amidst all that is wrong in the world, and amidst all the ways God longs to make things whole, where do we partner with God?
Three things come to mind. I think God can call us to align with the love of hell, no! and heaven, yes! In at least three places. In our heartbreak, in our anger, and in our privilege.
The heartbreak angle is where this has been speaking to me.
Last year at some point I read about the phenomenon of COVID languishing – where you’re not quite depressed, but the losses and interruptions of this pandemic have sapped your energy and hope and left you in kind of a listless, low energy paralysis.
And I thought: that’s me. So much, so long. And the particular ways I felt that heartbreak, I started asking:
does it have to be this way?
And there some places where I started to feel:
hell, no! it doesn’t.
And I’m not talking about trivial things, like: I’m tired of having to wear a mask in the supermarket. No, that’s like the most minor of inconveniences. I’m talking about the losses and malaise in the lives of some teenagers in my life. And I’m talking about putting relationships on hold, or the vitality of this Reservoir community going on hold, or wondering if my life mission and life’s joy needed to be on hold. And I thought:
I can take care of my health, and look after my loved one’s health, and participate in responsible public health measures while also starting to interrupt some patterns of malaise in my life and still living. And for a season, I started asking, where can I show up for life today? Where can I show up for hope today, my own or someone else’s?
For a while I was praying this written prayer each morning:
Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord.”
For me in that prayer, the sin and adversity language was about drifting toward lethargy and despair. Which I didn’t need any more of. And I started finding that each day I could give time and energy to what this prayer calls “the fulfilling of God’s purpose,” And when I could say “heaven, yes!” to showing up for one of my kids, or one of you, or for work I was made for, or even for a few moments of wholehearted rest and delight, I had more strength and hope. I felt more alive.
It’s a weird thing that for those of us who’ve lived in the West in relative privilege and affluence, the pandemic is calling for two things – it’s calling for surrender – to let go of our illusions of control and accept whatever comes in life. And it’s calling for struggle – to not just cave to the most dire of our fears, but to choose life still and choose hope and purpose each day where we can. Surrender and struggle – an odd combination, maybe – but I think resilience is found in that combination.
So that’s me finding a hell, no! and a heaven, yes! in heartbreak. But you can find it in anger and in privilege too. Where you’re awakening to anger – anger at what’s wrong in the world, anger at how you’ve been done wrong in your life, anger at the crap that you or others get dealt or need to put up with, that anger is an invitation to disruption. That anger is calling out for a big hell, no! to something that needs to change and a heaven, yes! to something good and redemptive and just in its place.
Anger’s a funny thing. We can feel threatened by our own anger and want to shut it down. Certainly we can feel threatened by other people’s anger. We live in times of a lot of coming into the power and expression of Black anger, Asian anger, women’s anger. And a lot of us – certainly white guys like me can be like, woah, woah, woah, why is everyone angry? Can’t we just get along?
But anger isn’t by itself a threat. Anger is so often the voice of truth and the energy of change if we’ll let it be. When Mordecai went to Esther and was like: you have got to speak up! At first she’s like:
no, no, I can’t, and calm down.
But he isn’t having that. His heartbreak and anger know better. Hell, no to the diminishment and destruction of a people. And Esther listens.
Same with privilege. When people have voice and power and opportunity, that’s not inherently bad. It’s just a problem if it’s hoarded or not used well, and it’s a problem if it’s unearned privilege that is denied to someone else or some other community. Esther has immense privilege. So do many of us. And with privilege comes opportunity, and responsibility.
I think my friend Bev’s heaven, yes! leadership for social justice in Boston has been so powerful in part because it comes out of all three of these places – heartbreak for the conditions in her community, anger at the racism and injustice that’s made that so, and the leveraging of the privilege of her education and relationships and talent.
When you find ways to say hell, no! and heaven, yes! born out of heartbreak and anger and privilege, you’re in a sweet spot there. Watch out and see what’ll happen.
But anytime, in anyway, we say “no” to the ways things are but shouldn’t be – in ourselves or around us, and right with that we say “yes” to the ways God would have it be so, we’re aligned with the purpose and power of God, because we’re practicing a very particular and potent form of love.