I can’t remember the last time I received a complaint about not hearing enough from the Apocrypha’s “the additions to Esther” in the lectionary cycle. Fear not! If you are one of those folks silently smouldering in lectionary anxiety, the Feria reading for the Eucharist on Thursday the 9th of March calls for a fine reading of just that text (Ad Est 14:1,3-5,12-14). Just prior to the assigned the reading where Queen Esther begs of the Lord, we read that Mordecai told Hachratheus how Haman had promised to pay ten thousand talents into the royal treasury to bring about the destruction of the Jews. Esther is threatened: she and her family will be spared if they remain quiet about the coming slaughter, or face the sword if she warns the community. Caught in an impossible position, she chooses to save the wider community.
Then Queen Esther, seized with deadly anxiety, fled to the Lord.
Now what we did not hear in our abridged reading today was this:
She took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body; every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair (Ad Est 14:2). Then, as we heard: She prayed to the Lord God of Israel, and said: “O my Lord, you only are our king; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, for my danger is in my hand. save us by your hand, and help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, O Lord.” (14:3, 14)
Dung in her hair? Do any of you have such a Lenten observance?
Why is it, again and again, we have such strong language in our scriptures and tradition, of self-denial, negation, or self-abasement in approaching God? Does God like us the more we proclaim our worminess and the larger the bullocks are that we sacrifice on his altars? Here is another prayer of the tradition, that sometimes gets caught in the throat for those Anglicans raised with the BAS:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. (Prayer of Humble Access, 1662 BCP)
In this Lenten season, we reflect on these matters. It is also the time of year when I am personally reminded as yellow signs with a red check mark start popping up on lawns, and sidewalks everywhere. Yes, Student Painters are ramping up for another big season. Student painting is an extraordinary business model. It consists of recruiting type A personalities: university students who already know everything, and have a pension for being the best, at all costs. These young folks are romanced with the idea of running their own business, making lots of money, and being “the man” or “the woman.” For the right person, there is no better way to spend a summer. I was one of those who was recruited, fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and had a great experience.
So good was my experience that I became a General Manager. As a General Manager I had to do the recruiting, and not just that, but I had to teach these [other] know-it-alls how to run a business, to hire painters, to sell paint jobs, train painters, learn about paint, operate their finances, run profitable paint production, and be leaders. We did this training through a series of Spring weekend courses where we would gather these freshly hired youngsters from all over the province.
The most important thing we had to do in each of our training modules, was to create what we called gap. Gap was the space between what I had and what the students did not have. I had to find a way to make a room full of type-A suit-wearing 18-year-olds aware that I had something they needed. I had to connect with them and help them know that there would be no new car at the end of the summer if they did not learn what I had to teach them. If I could not set this gap, if I could not create this desire in them, a deep canyon of need, then all was lost. It would not matter if I had a briefcase full of cold hard cash to pass out—they could not receive it. They would not pay attention or absorb what I had to give them, unless they wanted it.
That experience taught me that you cannot give something to someone unless they ask for it. You cannot receive unless you are hungry. How many of us, as teenagers, liked to receive free advice on how to live our lives from our parents? We can’t hear wisdom until the question is in our hearts and we are the ones asking. It is the same with receiving from God. God has already given you everything: he even gave up his life and hung on the tree—what more could God possibly give you?
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)
Esther has “Gap.” Naming our unworthiness, with our hair full of dung does not please God. The posture of humility and repentance is for us: to create the space, and to acknowledge the vast gap—so to enable us to receive what God has already given.