February 20, 2022
• Rev. Mindie Moore
Hey everyone. My name is Mindie Moore and I’m the Pastor of Adult Discipleship here at St. Luke’s, and I’m filling in for Pastor Nicole today who is sick. So I just want to start off with a word of prayer-
I’m excited to continue our series called Indispensable: relationships we simply cannot live without. And this theme is perfect for this week, when you and you and you and you and, according to market research, 145 million Americans gave Valentine’s Day cards to people they find indispensable. And you know, there’s not just ONE kind of relationship that we celebrate on Valentine’s day. There’s:
But you know, of all the types of cards that were given this week- to the husband, wife, partner, galentine or friend- you may not find one written for the relationship that we’re exploring today. Because today, we’re going to talk about “the challenger”.
Now, when you hear that phrase, it’s likely that someone comes to mind quickly- and you might not be filled with warm fuzzies thinking about them! A challenger is the type of person that pushes back. That calls us out. That holds us to a higher standard. A challenger is usually not the most comfortable of our relationships. We might even be tempted to avoid letting a challenger be part of our lives.
But even though our relationships with challengers aren’t easy...the truth is, we need them. And our text today, the story of Esther and Mordecai, shows us why the challenger is an indispensable relationship- not just in this story, but for us too.
Because here’s the truth about a Challenger- (SLIDE) Challengers don’t make us comfortable- but they do make us better.
Before we jump in and see how this plays out in this story of Esther, I want to give you a little background in case this story isn’t familiar to you. Esther is a book in the Old Testament and it’s special because it is one of TWO books that are named after women. And so you might think that this means that Esther would hail from some long illustrious lineage or that she has an especially privileged background. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Esther is actually an orphan. And in the time that she lived in, an orphan was at the rock bottom of society. It’s why throughout scripture, God’s prophets remind the people over and over and over again “Don’t forget the widows and orphans.” Their social status left them with nothing- no support or resources. And that was Esther’s reality.
Another part of Esther’s story is that she is a Jew- and more specifically, a Jew living in exile. She and her cousin Mordecai are living in the Babylonian empire- they are a minority community both ethnically and religiously- and they’re basically subject to whatever the people in power might have in mind for them, good or bad.
But even with this background of foreigner, exile and orphan- with the help of her cousin Mordecai who works in the palace, Esther’s story takes an unexpected turn- and she is selected, over hundreds of other women to be the new queen for King Xerxes. It feels kind of like a fairy tale- a beautiful, kind orphan rises through society, eventually taking her place beside a king whose empire stretches over half the world. And now all of a sudden, she’s not AT the mercy of people in power, she IS the people in power.
But this isn’t a fairy tale, and it's while she’s in this new position of security and power that Esther receives absolutely devastating news from Mordecai, and a challenge along with it. She learns that because of the Jews’ devotion to their God, because they won’t conform to the customs of this new land, one of the royal officials has schemed to have the Jews wiped out entirely. And according to Mordecai, It’s up to Esther to stop it. To use her newly acquired position and power to keep this terrible plan from coming true.
But like many of us react when we first encounter a challenger, Esther isn’t so sure. Even with her position, she’s subject to the king. There are obstacles like the royal law that says no one can seek an audience with the king unless summoned- and it’s not just an annoyance to him, but it’s a law punishable by death! So the stakes are pretty high here and as far as Esther sees it, this might be a terrible situation, but her hands are tied.
But as we see in this text, Mordecai doesn’t just let it go. Because that’s what a challenger does- they don’t let it go! They push us out of our comfort zone to help us move past our excuses, beyond ourselves so that we can move into action. And in Esther’s case, she had to be reminded that where she found herself at that moment was not where she had come from.
Maybe you’ve been there- we grow, we move away, move up or move forward...and over time, as we grow, we forget. We forget where we came from, we forget what we value. We might even find ourselves with some places that are out of alignment, or with some pretty significant blind spots. And so it’s here that we see the first reason that having a challenger in our lives is indispensable, (slide) God places challengers in our lives so that we don’t let upward mobility exempt us from collective responsibility. The challenger is an indispensable because it helps us remember where we’ve been, what we care about, and who we are called to be.
None of us are exempt from needing these reminders. Not you and me, Not queen Esther, not even the most rich and famous among us. In fact, one of the most well known basketball players of all time had his own moment like this with a challenger. (slide of Shaq)
Shaquille Oneal. At the height of his NBA career he was the second highest paid player and raked in millions upon millions of dollars in endorsements. Like all franchise players- he was courted by the major shoe companies: Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Puma- they all wanted to get an exclusive deal with him. He eventually signed with Reebok and his shoe was put on the market in 1992 for what would be about $140 today.
One day he was signing autographs after a game when a woman came up to him and said, “ Why can’t you all make more affordable shoes?“
Now, the question didn’t really interest him, and Shaq just kind of wanted the lady to move on, so he grabbed the 2000 dollars cash he had in his pocket, gave it to her and said, “look I don’t make the prices- just go buy yourself some shoes.”
Moment of honesty- if shack would’ve offered me $2000 I probably would’ve taken the money and let it go, but that is not what this woman did. She smacked the money out of his hand, looked him in the eye and said to him again, “why don’t YOU go make a shoe that’s affordable!“
So now Shaq was paying attention, and he says that the conversation challenged him to his core. It reminded him that when he was a child being raised by a single mother- she couldn’t afford $140 shoes either. That’s not where he came from! And so that day- he pulled out of the 40 million dollar deal with Reebok and instead brokered a deal with Walmart. His shoes are still sold there today...and you know how much they cost? $20. All because a challenger spoke into Shaq’s life and reminded him of where he’d been, what he cared about, and who he was called to be.
And you know what? Whether you are a queen, an NBA player or more everyday 9-to-5, the truth is that we all have those areas of our lives where we are elevated to the point where we can forget the people and the places we've come from. And especially if you are someone with any type of power in an organization, or a community, or a family- you NEED a challenger in your life. You NEED someone who can speak the truth to you because they have your best interests in mind.
And that’s key here- challengers speak the truth without tearing us down. While it’s true that a challenger might give feedback that’s hard to hear or push us to be the best version of ourselves, here’s what a challenger is not: a challenger isn’t a critic. We’ve all had critics, right? We’ve all known the people who just want to point out the ways we could be better but don’t really have our best interests at heart. We’ve all had that person who just can’t seem to let whatever it is go and knows exactly how to push our most sensitive buttons.
But while a : (SLIDE) a critic serves up commentary, but a challenger offers collaboration. A challenger is invested. Your outcome is their outcome and they WANT you to succeed.
Challengers join us in what God has called us to do and we can count on them for both honest feedback and but also faithful partnership. We see it in this story- Mordecai has some hard, challenging words for Esther. He’s honest about the fact that there are things that only she is able to do in this situation and if she doesn’t, there are going to be consequences that are on her. He doesn’t hold back or mince words here.
And he also doesn’t leave her to take this risk alone. Esther can depend on the fact that Mordecai and the whole community of Jews will be fasting and praying right alongside her. She knows that they will support her as she lives into who she’s meant to be. Because any good challenger doesn’t just have high expectations for us but they are willing to get their hands dirty right alongside us and invest in who we’re becoming.
My high school chemistry teacher was this kind of challenger for me. In high school, I LOVED science, especially biology. Loved it so much that I took an extra advanced year of it, I went on a weeklong birdwatching trip in Georgia with my class, and was even thinking about majoring in biology when I got to college. But, to do that, you had to clear a hurdle called chemistry. And do you know what chemistry has significantly more of than biology?
I mean, there are so many numbers in chemistry. And I have many gifts, but unfortunately, processing numbers is not one of them. So I LOVED the idea of chemistry, I loved the spirit behind the experiments, I certainly loved learning how things worked, but when it came to calculations and formulas and figuring out the math, I genuinely struggled. I wasn’t sure if I was even going to pass that class.
And my chemistry teacher was tough. There were two chem teachers at my high school, and I remember wincing when I saw that I had him. He had a reputation of being super strict and never holding back exactly what he thought. So this was a tense situation for me in his class- because he offered me a LOT of feedback, a LOT of challenge, often in front of the whole class.
But the reason I consider him a challenger and not a critic- despite the fact that he held me to a higher standard than I thought I could achieve, despite how frustrated I would get in his class- I had no doubt that he was 100% in my corner. Because he pushed me to do better, sometimes more than I wanted him to, but he never left me to figure it out alone. He would let me come into the lab early to have extra time to work, he connected me with students who were more...fluent...in chemistry than I was to help me out, and he made a point to know about the other activities I was involved in so that he knew me as more than the student who was struggling in his class. For him, my success was his success, and amazingly, with a lot of challenge and investment, I DID pass chemistry. And I couldn’t have done that without the challenger in my life.
So I wonder, can you think of a time when you wouldn’t have been able to do what you did, or get where you are, without a challenger? Who was it? When we think about it that way, we can see just how indispensable this kind of relationship really is. We need the people who can see the potential in us, the best in us, and who are willing to keep pushing us to live into it.
And here’s the key to letting a challenger be an indispensable relationship in our lives: we have to be OPEN to receiving a challenge!
Sometimes that’s the hardest part. Our egos, our pride, even just our self preservation get in the way and it can be incredibly difficult to be open to that kind of honest feedback.
To truly make room for a challenger in our lives, to actually be open to people speaking into our lives in such a genuine way, we have to have trust- trust in the relationship and trust in who God says we are.
Esther trusted Mordecai. He had helped take care of her once she was orphaned. He was an advocate for her. He didn’t just want something from her but wanted something FOR her. There was no question of his motives, no worry that he was trying to dethrone her or cause her harm. The trust that they had was the foundation that made it possible for Esther to receive such a bold challenge from this person in her life.
And maybe even more importantly than that, Esther trusted her identity in God. Remember, she was a Jew living in exile- her identity was EVERYTHING. She was part of a people who were willing to break rules in order to stay connected to the God who loved them. She was part of a bigger story. Who she was didn’t depend on her status or her opportunity, but it was anchored in something that no king, no law, no tragic moment could ever take away.
Esther’s life got easier when she moved from orphan to queen, sure. But her worth didn’t increase. Her value didn’t rise. God didn’t love her more because of this thing that she had achieved. Who she was didn’t rest on any of that. Her identity was anchored in who God said she was- chosen. Loved. Set apart. Capable to lead in the exact time she found herself in.
How would your relationships with the challengers in your life change if you believed what God believes about you? Who could you be more open to? If you DON’T have any challengers speaking into your life- what's holding you back from that? If that’s true for you, I want to encourage you to start cultivating that indispensable relationship. Find the people who you will let speak truth to you and walk alongside you as you grow. Find the people who won’t hold back the truth even if everyone else is telling you exactly what you want to hear. Find the people who love you and are trustworthy and invest time and energy into making those relationships as strong as possible.
For me, some of those people in my life are my Adult Discipleship team- made up of both of paid staff and volunteers. When we first got started as a team, we had a principle- feedback and challenges are always welcome, especially when they are directed to me as the leader of the team. It felt a little scary to open that door, but it has been the best thing for our ministry and for me as a leader. This team is honest, they push back when they need to, they tell me when I’m missing the mark- and I am so deeply grateful for their voices in my life. Everything is better because they are willing to offer challenge when it’s needed and to keep doing the work to help us be the best team we can be.
So I’ll say it again- challengers don’t make us comfortable, but they do make us better. And THAT is the mark of an indispensable relationship. Let’s pray.