FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS
Scripture: Esther 4: 9-17
July 25, 2021
(Celebrating the 65th Anniversary of Full Clergy Rights for UM Clergywomen)
Foundry UMC, Washington, DC
There are times when the words in a letter are burned into our memories. Such a letter to me got lost between the move of my first and second pastoral appointments. I had recently been ordained an Elder in Full Connection in the Florida Conference. I suppose I reasoned at the time that it didn’t matter anymore if I kept the letter. But it did matter because I can still quote it today - 47 yrs ago! - from the Chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry in 1974 - “Dear Charlene, You seem to be qualified for ministry, but because you are a woman, there might be issues in the future. if you think you have a call to ministry, you could try to exercise
it in another annual conference.” At the time I received the letter, it still didn’t sink in that I had been turned down royally, and the kind suggestion by the Registrar was to tell me to look elsewhere if I insisted on pursuing my calling. I began to hear all the negative voices in my head. Was I really called? Did I have the capacity to be a pastor? Can I finish seminary? I’m a
failure. The endless loop continued in my head. But more importantly, what was God saying to me? After crying all the way home on my flight from central Fla to the Chicago airport, and then getting to Evanston where I was a student at GETS, I was pretty much paralyzed, and not able to discern God’s voice or presence.
My soul was wounded and my spirit was crushed. But right away, I began to hear other voices speaking to me: from seminary students and faculty, from church friends, from my pastor, from my husband, and especially other women on the path to ordination.
“Don’t give up. Try again even if they said NO to you. Come to my Ann. Conf - we will take you. And most poignant from a professor - don’t let the church rob you of your calling. DON’T LET THE CHURCH ROB YOU OF YOUR CALLING! It’s a long story with several chapters, but suﬃce it to say that in another year, I applied again to my home conference and was accepted for Deacon’s orders and my first appointment as an Associate pastor. All because a Path was opened up to me by prayer, advocacy, a visit on our seminary campus by a Fla. Leader, a plea from me for another chance, a DS and a Sr. Pastor willing to give me a try and support me, offering me a place to serve. As it turned out, I would be the first female pastor in the Fla. Conference to be appointed to a local church, the first female Elder, the first female DS, and later, much later, the first female bishop in the SEJ.
When a discernment and support team accompanied me for a year as I was being called to the episcopacy, our theme for my candidacy was FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS. The SEJ had yet to elect a female bishop after 4 quadrenniums of effort to elect gifted women candidates. In a book titled “Women Bishops of The United Methodist Church” Bishop Sharon Rader and Professor Margaret Ann Crain interviewed all the living women bishops of our denomination in 2019. In some way or many ways, all the women bishops have carried the unique and heavy burden of being the first woman - to serve in an appointment, to serve on a Cabinet, to birth a baby in an appointment, to lead on a Conference staff, to lead a delegation to Gen. Conference, and to be elected as bishops. Bishop Judy Craig, who is now in the Communion of Saints, said “When our dust is dust, they’ll remember us as those who did the first thing.” Bishop Susan Morrison stated, “To be claimed for a time such as this in the role I was in and the ability to touch lives is unbelievable. I’m awestruck.” Being firsts also meant being under constant scrutiny of what they said, how they looked, how they led, whether they could preach, how they presided and on and on. The reality is we were all under the stress of charting a new course as clergywomen while experiencing the tyranny of an anti-woman mindset and gender bias, ( pg. 174 in “Women Bishops”. ) Even today,
some women bishops continue to receive threats on their lives, and need to be accompanied by armed security in major public events. Even today
65 years after Clergywomen received full ordination rights, the resistance to women’s leadership in the church continues to take many forms.
Was it any surprise that my discernment team looked to the story of Esther as empowerment for the journey ahead? Something about this book makes us examine ourselves and wonder what God is up to. Something about this book makes us laugh and cry and reach out to God all at the same time. (Interpretation, “Esther”, Carol M. Bechtel, pg. 1) Oh, Esther, how often have we clergywomen recalled your story, and the memory of your being Called by God FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS. We can see God’s hand so clearly at work in your life, your actions, your wisdom, your servant leadership, your desire to bring good to your people.
The Book of Esther is intended to be read in its entirety in the temple or the sanctuary. It is such a powerful unveiling of God’s plans unfolding in the unlikeliest of people and circumstances. It is a drama, a burlesque, a comedy, a short story. It so powerfully captures God’s Power and our roles in God’s plans that each time it is heard it renews the community of faith. Historian Deborah Lipstadt actually won a court victory over a Holocaust denier during her career. Soon after that court verdict, she went to temple and the scroll of Esther was read at her local synagogue’s celebration of Purim. She reports in the Jerusalem Post Magazine in June of 2000, “ I heard that! All of it, and it made me think: Who knows if not for this very
reason I got the education I got, I got the upbringing I got, my job — maybe we’re all meant to do one something really significant. And some of us do it on the public stage, and some do it by helping a child. Nobody knows of it, nobody sees it, but we’re all meant to do something. And maybe this is the something I was meant to do.”
We remember you, Esther. From becoming an orphan with no discernible future, your uncle Mordecai brought you into his family and treated you like his daughter. They were Jewish, descended from the tribe of Benjamin, living in the time of King Ahasueras who ruled from 486 to 465 b.c.e.
Mordecai is a respected man, a civil servant in the Royal Court. Because he hears all the gossip from the comings and goings of people making their way to the King’s Court, he knew about a royal party in which the King indulged himself and his subjects in endless drinking and dining and carousing. All to display the King’s massive wealth. When the King calls upon his wife, Vashti, to come and be displayed as a trophy wife to all the guests at the height of the party, she refuses.. He who commanded such great wealth and a vast territory, was not obeyed by his wife.
Embarrassed, drunk and raging, he orders the death of Vashti. Then he decreed that all the virgins of his empire were to be brought to the court, become his harem, so that the King can choose one of them as his new Queen. Here enters Esther, a young, beautiful and brilliant young woman, who is carried into court. She, like the other women, were treated like
royalty for a year - with long perfumed baths and soap bubbles, with facials and makeup and massages, with manners and posture training, with fancy meals, with brand new clothes, with skills and duties related to hostessing , and of course to be ready to go into the King’s bedchamber at his beck and call. What does Esther take with her when she is called to the King’s chambers? She always began “ If it please the King...”. She also takes great beauty, knowledge, humility, cleverness and wisdom.She is able to tell the King about an assassination attempt on his life and gives her Uncle credit for how she got the information. She exposes Haman, the arrogant and brutal supervisor over Mordecai at court. Haman has tricked the King into issuing a decree to kill all the Jews, destroy, and annihilate them. Why? All because one Jew, Mordecai, refused to bow down to him when commanded.
Uncle Mordecai had instructed Esther to keep her Jewish identity a secret when she was taken into the court and the harem. Then he coached Esther how to get the Kings’ favor and to have the killing decree removed and a new decree proclaimed. The extraordinary turn of events reveals that Esther is indeed able to save her people. She becomes their Queen and rules with equity , dignity, and compassion. The whole book of Esther is still read at Temple services in the festival of Purim, a celebration where God’s Power of freeing the Jews was made possible through Esther.
I dare to say that every clergywoman has perceived a call like Esther’s - surely not as dramatic, but a clarity that God has called her and equipped her to serve God’s people in the church and in the world. It has only been through hard work and preparation, the mentoring and coaching of others who went before, the discernment of leaders in the church, and the abundant grace of God that each of us has stepped into such a calling, tried it on, and found our own courage and voices along the way. Whether we are representative of the First Wave of Clergywomen, or daughters of clergywomen, representatives of racial ethnic groups, or brought in by long and circuitous routes, we have been emboldened. It is not about us, it is never about us as individuals, or any distinctions or honors that may come to us along the way. It is about how we will live for God and serve others.
That will be regardless of who calls us what - in my case, pastorette, priestess, preacherette, lady preacher, or baby bishop.( these are only the names I can say in church). or where we are sent to serve, or who
rejects us and denies us or threatens us with bodily harm, we are still called by God. And like Esther, we will be given opportunities to lead, to use our power for good, to help save and serve God’s people.
As a retired clergywoman who is still serving as a bishop, I am reminded of the vision and hope of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader of the Suffrage movement. I still have a vision of God’s Justice and Joy, bringing Heaven to earth. In my small part of God’s healing work, I can say with Elizabeth
that “I never forget that we are sowing winter wheat which the coming spring will see sprout and other hands than ours will reap and enjoy”. Thank you, Esther. Thank you to all clergywomen, those who were “firsts”, those who came before, those who will follow us. “I never forget that we are sowing winter wheat which the coming spring will see sprout and other hands than ours will reap and enjoy.” May it be so. AMEN.