mary lee talbot
“It is incandescently clear that our choices are a picture of our life, our spiritual DNA, and no text illuminates that better than the book of Esther,” the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell said at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service.
Campbell gave her final sermon as the director of Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Religion on Sunday.
“I am thankful and grateful for the way you have changed my life,” she said to the congregation. “We have celebrated our unity, survived our differences and taught each other that reality is rich and full.”
The sermon was characteristic of Campbell’s style of preaching: telling the Biblical story with witty asides and pressing home the practical guidance that she sees in the text. The book of Esther was the last to be included in the Hebrew Bible, she said; many scholars believe it does not belong in the Bible, as God is never mentioned.
“I believe it is necessary for Esther to be included, because it is about true love and courage and contains a lot of high drama,” Campbell said.
The book of Esther begins with the story of King Ahasuerus, who is married to Vashti, a princess.
“Ahasuerus had married ‘the boss’ daughter,’ ” Campbell said. “When he asked her to perform a striptease for his cronies, he found out she had a mind of her own and she had no intention of being his plaything. Her fate was sealed and she disappeared immediately. She was the first example of women’s liberation.”
The king held a beauty contest to find a new, more cooperative companion. Esther was a beautiful young woman, raised by her Uncle Mordecai, who suggested she enter the contest but not reveal that she was Jewish.
There came a time when Esther was required to risk her life for her people. She was God’s child, Campbell said; she was chosen.
Haman, a bureaucrat, denounced the Jews — especially Mordecai — to the king as a threat to his power. Mordecai came to Esther for help.
”Imagine how difficult it was for him to ask her to intervene on behalf of her people,” Campbell said.
Esther responded to Mordecai with fear, questions and hesitation, telling him of the danger she would be in if she went to the king unannounced and unbidden.
“Mordecai did not settle for this response,” Campbell said. “He challenged Esther. … Esther, knowing the risks, made her decision and risked her life to go to the king, saying, ‘I go … and if I perish, I perish.’ ”
Esther is inspiring and instructive to Christians because she is a flawed human being who responded to God’s call, Campbell said.
“This is a story about love, faith and courage, of one who ‘marched into hell for a heavenly cause,’ ” she said. “We don’t have to be saints to respond to God’s call. We are able to transcend our human nature; we are not called to have blemish-free lives to be God’s messengers. In our weakness, we can speak with compassion. Our humanity allows us to be obedient.”
Campbell gave a litany of people from the Bible who were not perfect but who were still used by God. She included Moses, David, Mary Magdalene and Paul.
“These were God’s ordinary people who responded with courage, love and clarity of vision,” she said. “They heard God’s call and interrupted their carefully planned lives.”
“Let it be so for us in our lives,” she continued. “All of God’s people are called to dream impossible dreams. Esther’s humanity, her … willingness to risk her life, face danger and sacrifice herself … and her absolute honesty about who she was allowed her to acknowledge the Jews as her people. In the end, Mordecai had more of a claim on her than the king.”
Esther’s wisdom gave her the “courage to run where the brave dare not go,” Campbell said. Esther read the signs of the times and acted.
“She didn’t mask the suffering of the people,” Campbell said. “She did not check with the neighbors, she did not take polls or listen to the 6 o’clock news. She believed Mordecai and risked death.”
Many stories in the Bible urge humans to choose life. At the same time, Jesus said that to find life, you have to lose it; you have to lay down your life for your friends.
“Esther’s choice did not cost her her life, but it did cost Martin Luther King Jr. his life,” Campbell said. “My work with him was formative in my life, and his … profoundly right and holy choice to free his people cost him his life.”
“Our choices are a picture of our life,” she continued. “Our lives are composites of the choices we have made. Our choices give our lives timbre and substance, direction and meaning.”
Everyone will make hard choices. The choices that are formative are the ones that require wrestling with uncertainty, Campbell said.
“People will generally advise you against taking a risk and living with a lack of security,” she said. “It is the refusal to give in to false illusions, the willingness to make choices that are personally costly and professionally unwise that are the most richly rewarding.”
Campbell called on the congregation, in a world that is fragmented and heartbroken, to make choices that give life to others, to go into the world as ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary tasks.
“We will all have choices to make,” she said. “That is the unity of all the created order. There is no choice that affects only us; all our choices have ramifications for those around us. Perhaps we should all take the Hippocratic oath — to do no harm.”
All significant choices are a matter of life and death.
“We won’t always know the result, but we have to be faithful and choose life so we can look on the tapestry of our life and see the fabric of our unique choices,” she said.
“Everyone has a vision and comprehends deeply the power of love,” Campbell continued.
“Yes, you all can dream the impossible dream,” she said, quoting the first verse of the song “The Impossible Dream.” “And the world will be better for this.”
Campbell presided and preached the sermon. Her daughter, Jane Louise Campbell, read the Scripture. She is the former mayor of Cleveland.
Paul Roberts and Pati Piper were the cantors for Responsorial Psalm 100, “We Are God’s People,” with a setting by David Haas.
The Chautauqua Choir, with Todd Thomas serving as cantor, sang the anthem “O Sifuni Mungu.” The anthem used an arrangement of “All Creatures of our God and King” by Roger Emerson. David Maddux, Marty McCall, Mmunga Mwenebulongo Mulongoy and Asukulu ‘Yunu Mukalay wrote the music. The text was by St. Francis of Assisi, as paraphrased by William Henry Draper. Chautauqua Choir members played percussion instruments. The choir was under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music.
Sarah Kemoli Campbell, granddaughter of Joan Brown Campbell, and Jennifer Jansen played “Ashokan Farewell,” a violin duet by Jay Ungar.
The offertory anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Choir, was “A Song of the Wilderness” by Todd Wilson. Wilson was commissioned in 2012 by Douglas C. and Suzanne Evans Neckers to write the anthem in honor of Joan Brown Campbell in gratitude for her service as director of the Department of Religion and pastor of Chautauqua Institution. Wilson is the head of the Organ Department of the Cleveland Institute of Music, curator of the Norton Memorial Organ in Severance Hall and director of music and worship at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Cleveland. Donna Dolson, a member of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, was the French horn soloist.
As a response to the sermon, baritone soloist Todd Thomas performed “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion.
For the postlude, Jared Jacobsen played “Toccata” from Symphonie V by Charles-Marie Widor.
The Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund provides support for this week’s services.