Moved to Act
Sunday, May 6, 2018
One of the most famous endings in the history of the movies, is the final scene of Disney’s classic Old Yeller. I have no doubt that for some of you, even the mention of that moment conjures up a lump in your throat and a tear in your eyes and so I apologize for beginning my sermon this morning on such a sad note. Nonetheless, the scene deals with Old Yeller’s death and the moment that this special yellow Labrador Retriever mix has to be put down by his owner who is a young man by the name of Travis Coates.
As Travis and his mother, whose name is Katie, pass the shotgun between them while trying to decide who will inflict the fatal wound that will ease Old Yeller’s pain, it is Katie who says these words in the midst of their collective tears “there is no hope for him now” or as we might say “there is nothing else we can do”.
Our tears have a way of drawing this same response out of all of us. So often, our grief, our tears are offered in the midst of our sense that we have no control over the place where we find ourselves. Be it death, life’s tragedies or the grief that can come with the every day experiences of just living life, often our sadness is a result of our sense that there is nothing we can do.
This is one of two responses that come in Esther chapter 4, our text for today, as the Israelites learn that an edict has been given in the Persian Empire that all Jewish people must be put to death and eradicated from the earth.
The central figure in this moment of grief is Mordecai who is Esther’s older cousin. When Mordecai learns of the judgement that has been handed down on he and his fellow Israelites he dawns sackcloth and ashes. This common custom of the Israelites of putting on coarse clothes, and placing ashes on ones head was an outward expression of the inner grief that had developed. At the same time, sackcloth and ashes made one look more like a corpse than a living person and thus it also signified a sense of hopelessness over the given situation. In essence it was a way of saying, “we are as a good as dead”.
According to Esther 4, when the other Israelites around the region heard the news as it was passed on, they have a similar response – weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, sack cloth and ashes is their reaction too. Again, the die had been cast. The judgement had been given. The case was closed. There was nothing else that could be done. Sadness, grief, heartbreak, tears.
Even though Esther is unaware that her people have been sentenced to death, she does know that Mordecai is grieving and sitting outside the palace gates wearing sackcloth and ashes. Again, while Esther does not know why Mordecai is grieving, she responds to his emotions with the other common response to these types of occasions of grief that feel so hopeless. Through her servants, she sends Mordecai new clothes to wear. In other words, she wants Mordecai to dry his tears, put on new clothes and get over it.
Ironically, Esther’s first grief is not really over the thing that has made Mordecai sad. Instead, she is grieved by his grief. In other words, it is his grief that bothers her.
Esther is like the person who sits with another in the face of tragedy but rather than talk about the elephant in the room, talks about the weather or last night’s ball game.
The initial responses of the Israelites around the region and the initial response of Esther -these are so often the two ways we deal with our tears too. We either sit and wallow in our misery, or, we change the subject as quickly as we can and act like this thing has not happened or this grief it is not there.
But, here is where Mordecai becomes so instructive to us as to what we can often do with our tears. Rather than continue to wallow or rather than ignore what has happened while tying to wish it all away, Mordecai ultimately allows his tears to call him to be the first to act. Mordecai allows his tears to be that which beckons him to do something.
I am reminded here of one of the famous quotes of the Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel who once said “the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference.”
Love and hate are attitudes and emotions that lead to action. When we love someone, we find ways of expressing it. Unfortunately, when we hate someone or something we also find ways of acting upon that hatred. In this way, love and hate eventually both lead to the same thing – physical response. Indifference, however, is an emotion accompanied by inactivity.
Mordecai cried, but, he did not cry tears of indifference. He did not wallow in his grief. He did not ignore his tears by drying his eyes and thinking happy thoughts. Instead, Mordecai’s tears led to his attempt to address the grief and do something about it.
I have shared the story before about going to the hospital at Thanksgiving during our years in the Atlanta suburbs to visit a family whose loved one was close to death. When I arrived, my friends and every other family in that waiting room as well as doctors and nurses were sharing in a gourmet meal. As they invited me to make a plate and join them, I naturally asked where the food had come from. After all, it was such an odd sight in a hospital waiting area.
It was then that I learned that a family years before, just like all of the families in that waiting room on that day, had found themselves in that same place at Thanksgiving. They too were grieving. They were grieving for a dying member of their family. And, they were grieving over having to be in the hospital on a holiday rather than at home, around their table, experiencing happy things on a special day.
Their grief led them to act. Their grief led them to do something to provide a little comfort, a little peace and a way of helping others who would one day be where they had been. Their tears led them to act. And, so, every year, at Thanksgiving, a gourmet meal showed up in that waiting room at lunchtime for every family that happened to be there on that day all paid for by an unknown family who understood their tears because they too had shed them in that same place at a similar moment in the past.
I have a friend in ministry who says that his job is to help people to learn where their heart sings and then to follow that passion as they serve the church and God’s kingdom through their interests and talents.
This morning, I want to change my friends words by inviting all of us to think about where our hearts grieve? Where do our eyes shed tears? Once we know, what it is in this life that makes us grieve, then we must ask ourselves where those tears are leading us? To indifference through our wallowing? To indifference through our ignoring the elephant in the room? Or, to action?
Our youth sang so beautifully this morning about God wiping away our tears. This is a beautiful promise of scripture and our faith. Yet, perhaps, it is you and I, through shared tears, who are now being called to join God in consoling others just as we work through our own sadness – not with indifference but with activity.
Today, please, let us not waste our tears. Let us listen to them instead. Amen.