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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Esther: For Such a Time as This

Pr. 21B, Book of Esther


Once you’ve watched a Bible story in a format that has cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and green onions playing the parts of the various characters—Veggie Tales, anyone?—it’s really hard to picture it any other way! I have to say, though, that the Book of Esther, from which today’s first reading comes, is perfectly suited to comic book/cartoon format. The personalities and action are bigger than life, with heroes and villains, dastardly deeds and breathtaking bravery, prejudice run amok and wholesale mayhem, assassination plots, secret alliances, and last minute rescues. Esther is the one book of the Bible that never mentions God, which perhaps explains why the Book of Common Prayer lectionary never included it; thanks to the more recently adopted Revised Common Lectionary, we’re now hearing it in church for the first time.

This story would be great with a flannel board, but today you’ll have to imagine the characters. Though their saga truly has a soap opera quality to it, in the end I think Esther herself might be a lot like us, or at least our best selves…an ordinary young woman who takes a leap of faith and finds her voice at a critical moment.

We begin with King Ahasuerus hosting half a year of parties for his nobles, culminating in a week of feasting for the entire city. On the last day, he sends an order to Queen Vashti to appear before all his guests for an impromptu beauty pageant. Alas, the queen publicly humiliates Ahasuerus by refusing to come. His noblemen warn him that if word gets around about the queen ignoring the king’s order, their wives will be impossible to live with as well, so Vashti ends up exiled, and the king begins the hunt for a new queen.

A call goes out for the most beautiful virgins in the land to be brought to Ahasuerus’s harem and given—this is honestly what it says—a year of beauty treatments. At the end of the year, each will be brought to the king for a night, and when one pleases him, she’ll be the new queen. Among these young women is Esther, an orphaned Jew raised by her cousin Mordecai. As she’s taken away, Mordecai cautions Esther not to breathe a word of her Jewish heritage.

Predictably, Esther delights Ahasuerus with her beauty and charm, and she’s brought into the royal household as the new queen, still keeping secret her Jewish faith. One day, Mordecai gets wind of a plot to assassinate the king and passes the information to Esther, who tells the king, giving credit to Mordecai. The would-be-killers are hung from the gallows or impaled on poles, depending on how you read it, and the whole affair is noted in the royal records.

Ahasuerus’s right hand man is Haman, a prideful, sneaky man. Because of his rank, Haman requires everyone to bow down when he passes by. Mordecai alone refuses, which enrages Haman. And rather than simply having Mordecai killed for the offense, Haman extends his wrath to all the Jews in the kingdom. He incites fear in the king, telling him that there are people in the land who are different, who hold to laws other than the king’s, and he convinces Ahasuerus to order their wholesale slaughter…the text, to avoid any possible misinterpretation, says the command is to “destroy, kill, and annihilate all the Jews.”

Understandably, Mordecai is overcome with despair, and he knows that Esther is their one hope. He sends her a message begging her to reveal to the king that she’s Jewish and plead with him for the life of her people. She responds that going into the king’s presence unbidden is a capital crime, and it won’t do anyone any good if she loses her head. Mordecai’s answer is simple: sooner or later the king will find out on his own that you’re Jewish too, and you’ll die anyway, so why not risk everything now? Maybe you are queen for such a time as this. Esther resigns herself to Mordecai’s logic and agrees to appeal to Ahasuerus.

When Esther dares to enter the court, she discovers Ahasuerus is delighted to see her, so much so that he offers her anything, up to half of his kingdom! All she wants, however, is for the king and Haman to come to dinner that night. At dinner, the king asks her what she really wants, and—probably overcome with fear—she simply suggests that they come back again the next night. As Haman leaves, full of himself for being invited to these exclusive dinner parties, he sees Mordecai, who once more refuses to bow down to him. Haman storms home, fuming over Mordecai’s insolence, and only feels better when his wife suggests that he build a towering gallows from which to have Mordecai hung.

Meantime, a sleepless king has the royal diaries read to him. The passage selected recounts Mordecai’s revelation of the assassination plot, and the king realizes he never properly thanked Mordecai. Just then Haman shows up to ask the king to order Mordecai’s hanging, but before he has a chance to make his request, Ahasuerus asks his advice on how to honor a man. Haman assumes it will be him, and comes up with a grand idea for a parade with the man on the king’s best horse and wearing royal robes and jewels. What a shock when he finds out that Mordecai is the one being honored, and he himself will have to lead the parade! The gallows have been built, but clearly Mordecai won’t be hanging from them.

The next night at dinner, Esther summons all her courage, tells the king she’s Jewish, and begs for the life of her people. She tells him that if they’d only been sold into slavery, she could live with that, but they’ve been condemned to—there it is again—“destruction and slaughter and annihilation.” Ahasuerus responds with fury over the order, demands to know who’s behind this evil, and storms out in a rage when Esther tells him it’s Haman. While the king is in the garden trying to calm down, Haman begs Esther for his life and then attempts to rape her. Ahasuerus walks back in to find Haman assaulting his queen, and he readily agrees to a suggestion that Haman should hang immediately from the gallows Haman had built for Mordecai.

There’s almost a happy ending. Queen Esther gets Haman’s estate, Mordecai gets Haman’s job as the king’s top advisor, and the king revokes the edict of destruction against the Jews. But this tale isn’t as pure as that; the king also turns the tables, allowing the Jews to destroy anyone who threatens them, which ends up being 75,000 people. Esther decides Haman’s 10 sons should hang from the gallows with dear old dad. And the Jews rejoice in their last-minute salvation with a huge celebration, continued to this day as the Jewish festival of Purim.

So why did I take all this time to recount the story of Esther? First of all, it’s in the Bible, and yet most of us probably don’t know it; you can ponder for yourself why it even shows up in scripture. Second, because every human response is in there; it’s like a catalog of the 7 deadly sins with a few fruits of the Spirit thrown in to balance it out. We do well to remember that whatever goes on within and around us today has been with humanity for a long, long time.

Most of all, I wanted to share the whole story because Esther was, I think, not so different from most of us. She was no Joan of Arc…she didn’t have visions of saints, nor did she burn with the desire to lead her people in time of crisis. Nor was Esther like Mary; no angels brought her a message straight from God. She had to figure out what to do on her own, with no guidance beyond her conscience and the pleas of Mordecai. Esther was a reluctant, hesitant risk-taker who finally found her voice on behalf of her community for such a time as this.

Honestly, most of us don’t get the special delivery angel treatment either. We pray, we listen, we wait, hoping for small clues that point us in the direction of God’s will and timing for us. Maybe we get them and maybe we don’t. More often we simply see that something needs to be done and needs to be done now, and that has to suffice as the basis for our call.

We may not save an entire people, but we can help a few; we may not quench the world’s thirst, but we can bring relief to one parched soul. If we wait for the exact right moment, when we’re absolutely sure, we might end up standing in safety forever. Better that we figure God has brought us to such a time as this for a reason, and dare to raise our hopes, our hands, our voices, and our hearts.

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Most excellent Mo Betsy! I have read Esther but never noticed that GOD is not mentioned. Shame on me!
I think I could actually see and hear you preaching this enlightening, and challenging sermon in my mind's eye.
Upon reflection, I think I was called to be Esther during my 3 week stay at the Huntington Ritz (as I call it -:) ) I can honestly say that I felt as blest during my "incarceration" by taking time to listen to the Spirit & step up to the challenges as Esther did as I did by your sermon. As a friend of mine likes to say, " Amen, Preach it sister!"

By Blogger Unknown, at October 19, 2009 at 6:35 PM  

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