Today is Valentine’s Day (sorry if I’m the one to remind you this late in the day!), and as far as we can determine, the day takes its name from not one but two or possibly three second century Valentines—one a priest in Rome, another the bishop of Terni, the third a a mystery man in Africa. All three were martyrs. In the late fifth century, Pope Gelasius I put St. Valentine’s Day on the church calendar at February 14, hoping to “Christianize” the Roman fertility festival known as Lupercalia. In the courtly love days of the Middle Ages, the poets and troubadours associated St. Valentine’s Day with the growing cult of romantic love. Modern American consumerist culture has of course turned it into what we in my family call a “greeting card holiday.” I know this dry historical summary won’t do much to warm the heart of your main squeeze, but it will at least help explain why I won’t utter another word about St. Valentine, his day, candy, flowers, or greeting cards during the remainder of this homily.
Our Gospel this morning is one of the more familiar and more troubling of Jesus’s sayings in the Sermon on the Mount:
‘Ask, and it will be given to 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.’ [Mark 7.7-8]
If you’ve ever spent any time as a parish priest, as I have, you will no doubt recall the numerous conversations you’ve had with people about this passage. In one context, the question comes this way: Does that mean, Reverend, that God will give me anything I ask for—a new car, a better job, a trophy spouse? In another context, the question sounds like this: tell me, Father—will God cure my cancer, heal my marriage, save my child? As a preacher, it is tempting to take the most base and selfish spin on this passage and preach mightily against it when, of course, the Palestinian Jewish peasants to whom Jesus spoke in this sermon had survival rather than luxury vehicles on their minds.
So let’s be clear: Jesus has created a problem for us preachers. Like Hillary Clinton promising to win Ohio and Texas, Jesus has put us on the spot. He has promised that God will give us what we ask for. So how come, Reverend Father preacher, I keep asking for things that I never get?
When we pose the questions of prayer and the way God hears and answers it, today’s reading from the Book of Esther provides us with some grounding and orientation. Listen again to how the book describes her preparation to pray on behalf of her people:
[Queen Esther] 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. [Esther 14.2]
This is a striking beginning to a powerful prayer. As the Jewish Queen to the Persian king, Ahasuerus Esther was alarmed at the counselor Haman’s plan to destroy all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Eventually, Ahasuerus relented and allowed the Jews to take vengeance on their enemies, Haman famously included. The Jewish festival of Purim celebrates this deliverance of the Jews from those who would destroy them. Now if you know your Bible, you know that it was Esther herself who persuaded her husband, Ahasuerus to abandon Haman’s plan. But our passage for today shows her asking God to “turn their plan against them.” So before she herself could act, Esther approached God in all humility asking for guidance and insight and, of course, justice.
Now what interests me about this passage is this prefatory bit I just read to you. Before she prayed, Esther “took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning”, she “utterly humbled her body”. Esther did not approach God as a Persian queen nor even as a Jewish princess. She approached God as someone in distress and mourning, devoid of all the outward symbols of power, beauty, and wealth.
This is a very important and powerful moment, I believe, in the history of what the Bible tells us about prayer. By taking off her royal robes and clothing herself in the garb of mourning, Esther approached God not from a position of power but from one of weakness. Or, to put it another way, she approached God as one of her vulnerable people, as someone with something to lose. Esther came to God in solidarity with those who are at risk, who suffer, who mourn. Esther came to God as someone who knew herself to be finite and fragile and frail.
And if you know even a bit about how God deals with human beings in the scriptures, you’ll see that what Esther does is consistent with the style of prayer adopted by Job, by the speakers in the Psalms of lament, even the style used by Jesus himself. Esther dressed as, stood with, those who are up against it. She approached God as someone who, as Jesus says elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, “knew her need of God.” Esther acknowledged herself as a dependent, limited person whose vulnerability placed her in community with the fellowship of the rest of the world’s vulnerable people. And it was when she adopted that posture, as Job and Jesus did, that God attended to her prayer.
This helps me, at least, to see what Jesus might be up to in promising on God’s behalf an answer to all our prayers. If the Sermon on the Mount is an extended commentary on the line that opens it—“Blessed are the poor”—then what Jesus seems to be saying is this: insofar as we stand with and for those who know their need of God—the poor, the sick, the mourners, the oppressed, the prisoners—insofar as we stand with them then we know our own real situation. And our real situation is that we have more authentically in common with life’s so-called losers than we do with the so-called winners. When we stand with and for those who are up against it, we are in a posture out of which God can hear where we’re saying. When we stand with them we articulate our real, not our fake, needs. We ask for healing, for justice, for love, for pardon, for help. When we speak that way we are being authentic. When we speak that way God hears us and answers, usually in unforeseen and surprising way, our cries.
And this is what Lent is really about. It’s about paring away the fake and the worthless and the overblown garments with which we usually clothe ourselves and, like Esther and Jesus and Job, putting on the garments of those who suffer. When we let go of the false and speak out of deep solidarity with the poor, we are speaking the truth about ourselves and about God. Lent is a season of ashes and mourning not because of some sentimental fantasy about piety but about getting real with ourselves and with God. If, like Esther, we can use these forty days to see ourselves as we are, and to speak to God out of that reality, then God will answer and open and lead us toward the new life we see now even dimly before us the dawn of Easter approaches. Amen.