We were at 39,000 feet, high over the Atlantic ocean. March 8, 2020. We were flying back home from a trip we had been fortunate to take with my wife’s parents to London and Paris on her dad’s spring break. COVID was spreading around the globe, and if we had scheduled our trip for about a week later, I doubt we’d have made it back home.
So we were grateful to be settled into our seats, watching movies on our small TV screens, as the airplane cruised westward toward Newark Airport. About halfway through the flight, one of the flight attendants came over the intercom and said, just like you’d expect in a movie: “Are there any medical professionals on board? If so, would you please report to the back of the airplane?” And exactly like you’d expect, everyone started craning their heads around to see who would get up to help. And no one got up.
After a couple of minutes the flight attendant asked again, to no effect. Hesitantly, I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “I think it’s me.”
As I made my way to the back of the airplane, I could feel the eyes of everyone watching. The flight attendants were all huddled around a woman on the floor, and of course the first thing they asked was, “are you a doctor?” Knowing that my Ph.D. in biblical studies was of little use in this situation, I simply responded, “I’m just a Red Cross lifeguard instructor. But I teach first aid and CPR. What’s going on?”
The disappointment on their faces was comical. Lifeguard Instructor was evidently far down on their list of “medical professionals,” but they nevertheless ushered me back to the woman. She was struggling to breath, and I was able to get her comfortable by administering emergency oxygen. When we landed, it was a miracle that the whole airplane wasn’t quarantined for a week because of COVID concerns. Security met us at the gate and rushed her to the hospital. Thankfully, she fully recovered and eventually made it home.
This incident came to mind when I was preaching from the biblical book of Esther recently. Esther is a young Jewish woman living in the Persian empire in the 6th century BCE. Surprisingly, she finds herself becoming the queen of Persia, but she keeps her Jewish identity secret, even from her new husband the king. One of the king’s advisers, Haman, has a personal vendetta against the Jewish people, and manages to pass a law to have all of the Jewish people in the empire killed after a year’s time. It’s an awful and unsettling decree.
And so a Jewish man named Mordecai, who raised Esther, goes to the gates of the king’s palace in protest. Queen Esther is living life cozily within the palace, and is for all intents and purposes comfortably insulated from the lives of ordinary people, including her Jewish kindred. Mordecai alerts her to this horrible news, and he asks her to go to the king to beg him to undo this plan for the massacre.
Esther’s first instinct is self-preservation. She says, “If anyone goes to the king uninvited, there is a law that they can be put to death … And the king hasn’t invited me to see him in thirty days.” Esther fears for her life if she goes to confront the king, and rightly so.
Mordecai responds with what is probably the most famous line in the entire book: “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Esther is suddenly emboldened, and she does indeed go to confront the king, and succeeds in saving her people. Esther makes a hard and daring choice, and in doing so, she finds that she possesses far more power than she ever imagined.
In the Jewish and Christian traditions, our Scriptures recognize that the world as it is is not yet how it should be. Can you take a moment and think of a way that the world is not yet the way it should be? Perhaps it’s anti-Semitism, violence, racism and hate of all sorts. Poverty and gross inequality, war, ecological disaster and oppression come to mind, as well. Those are just some of the big ones.
There are also smaller, more local ways in which we see the brokenness of the world: perhaps in a struggling friendship or in a fractured marriage. Maybe at your workplace, or your school or neighborhood, or even in your community of faith. Some of us feel deep loneliness or a lack of purpose. I’d encourage you to focus on one of these challenges that hits you in the gut with the force of the problem, whether big or small.
And then imagine everyone looking around, as if on that airplane, wondering, “who in the world is going to do something about this?” And no one else stands up.
Rabbi Rachel Naomi Remen challenges us with this question: “What if you are exactly what is needed?” What if you are in exactly the right place at the right time to make a difference? What if your life experiences and training and faith have prepared you — and prepared all of us — to act on behalf of those who are most vulnerable and need support? What if we all recognize that we have something important to contribute? Whatever you’ve got to offer, maybe you are here for a reason. What would life look like if you approached every day and every moment as if this were the exact right place you are supposed to be?
Esther could’ve stayed quiet. But she came to recognize her own power and privilege and exercised them on behalf of her people.
The world is an overwhelming place at times. But folks, you have more power and agency than you realize. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who create shalom — wholeness — in their families, and workplaces, and in their communities, and throughout this world.
What if it’s you?
The Rev. Dr. Art Wright is the pastor of Williamsburg Baptist Church.