Sunday, September 26, 2021
By: David H. May, Rector
In the three-year pilgrimage we make through the Bible with the readings assigned for Sunday mornings, the Book of Esther is heard from exactly one time. So, unless your church attendance hits just right, it’s possible that you may never have heard this reading or been introduced to this strange and beautiful story.
Esther has perplexed both Jewish and Christian commentators for at least two millennia. For example, you may have noticed that there is no mention of God in the reading we just heard. In fact, God is not mentioned at all in the entirety of the ten chapters. Not once. The great rabbis who translated the Hebrew into Greek in the late 3rd century before the birth of Jesus took dubious notice of this as well and tried to make it into a more specifically ‘religious’ book by adding to the original text. They inserted mention of prayer and fasting and religious observances in their translation in the hope of polishing up its religious credentials a bit.
I suppose that’s understandable, but it’s possible that God was content to inspire the writing of this book with no thought of including his own name for a reason. Perhaps God doesn’t have to always be in the business of ‘taking the credit’ (or the blame!) for this or that human experience of blessing or curse. I had a classmate in seminary who became a good friend but who also had this habit of taking my words and thoughts and treating them a little like the rabbis who translated the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek: he had to ‘religious up’ my thoughts. ‘Do you see how the Holy Spirit was leading you, David?’ ‘There the Lord’s hand was all over what you just said!’, or, ‘do you see what my prayer for you has done?!’ He was a good and faithful man who spoke entirely in earnest exclamation points. But honestly, sometimes I thought his piety must surely be grating to the Lord God Almighty who might rather that we take some responsibility too for living our lives.
Rather than ‘religious-ing up’ this text by shoe-horning it into the tale of a godly woman’s travail and victory or layer onto it our own expectations of what the Bible is supposed to sound like, maybe it would be better to simply let the story of Esther have its say.
So, in brief, this is the story of a great and powerful blowhard of a king call Ahaseurus. As the story begins, Ahaseurus asks his queen, Vashti, to parade in front of his courtiers and underlings in a slinky revealing dress so he can crow about how good-looking his wife. Apparently, this is one time too many for Vashti and she basically tells her husband to ‘stick it’ and refuses to come. So, fearing that all the other women of the empire will follow Vashti’s example and refuse to be treated like adornments for their husbands’ vanity, Ahaseurus kicks Vashti to the curb and begins a yearlong American Idol-style search for the next queen. Enter Esther, a young Jewish woman living like nearly all other Jews in exile far from home, clinging to the bottom rung of the imperial ladder. Her uncle Mordecai signs Esther up for the next-new-queen sweepstakes. Esther, on first sight, is a sensation, becomes the front-runner and soon after becomes queen.
Meanwhile, Ahaseurus most trusted adviser, Haman, suffers what he thinks is a slight from Esther’s uncle Mordecai. Mordecai, refuses to bow and grovel in the street when the greatness and splendor that is Haman (at least in Haman’s estimation) walks by. Haman notices this affront and convinces the king that Mordecai, the Jew, should be hung and what’s more that all Jews everywhere in the kingdom which stretches from India to Ethiopia should be exterminated. The king in a stunning leap of irrationality and overreaction says: OK. Good idea.
When Esther learns of this, she decides to take a very risky and scary step. As it turns out, Esther has never told Ahaseurus about her Jewish identity. Presumably, she could remain quiet on this account and at least save her own skin. She could. But she decides not to. She decides to risk putting herself in the line of fire to save her people. So, Esther decides to host a small get-together for her husband and for Haman and to risk everything. She is going to get one roll of the dice with everything and everyone on the line.
A detail from the backstory: some time before, while standing at the gate of the city, Mordecai had overheard two royal eunuchs talking about their plot to kill the king. Mordecai gets word to Esther about the plot and Esther tells Ahaseurus who promptly rounds up the two eunuchs and impales them on a pole at the gate and showers Mordecai with praise.
Now, back at the dinner party. Even though an irrevocable order from the great king that all the Jews – every last one of the them – should be exterminated, Esther reveals that she is a Jew and that those being lined up for slaughter are her people. It has been ordered. ‘By whom?!’ the king thunders with a breath-taking inability to ‘connect the dots’. ‘Well, him,’ Esther says pointing to Haman who freezes mid-bite with a royal canapé hanging from his mouth. Another royal eunuch in attendance helpfully points out, ‘Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house.’ The king says, ‘Hang him!’ And they do.
The king calls off his previous genocide of the Jews and instead instructs the Jews throughout his kingdom to take up the sword themselves and kill those who would have killed them. We read that 70,000 people were killed in the violence that then erupted in the kingdom which makes you wonder if anyone has taken the time to learn anything at all.
This story has got it all which is what makes it such a good story, and a good story should be allowed to do its work on its own terms. You dear hearers should be allowed to let the story speak to you as it will.
But I might offer a few soundings. First, the demise of the wicked Haman should be a reminder that we shouldn’t turn our own anger at a perceived personal affront into a ‘spectator sport’ that we expect everyone else to participate in – unless we want risk getting our lives impaled on that. Second, power for its own sake will always undermine itself. God has a way – always – of using the apparently powerless and small to crumble empires as if they were nothing. Third, God has made us to take a proper responsibility for the lives he has given us to live. So, live your life – it’s the only one any of us has. And finally, it’s a fool’s errand to imagine that even though God appears to be silent that he is absent from the scene; God watches over this world and its goings-on with mercy and justice that will come to pass and cannot be stopped. And what is more, you may find yourself in just the place and in just the time to be God’s instrument of deliverance, like Esther. At the moment of decision, with the dice in her hand, Mordecai sent Esther the following written message: “who knows, you may have come to the kingdom for just such a time as this?”
Who knows, you may have come to this place, at just this time, on just this one rare Sunday when we remember Esther and her story. Is that a coincidence? – as much of the events of her story could be – or is it God? And if it is, maybe it’s for just such a time as this that we hear the story of a woman who could’ve saved her own skin but didn’t.
It takes courage for her to claim her identity in that dangerous place as a daughter of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and an inheritor of the promises of God. It takes courage to place our whole trust in God’s love and mercy even when God seems to be silent.
And for us, it takes courage to follow Jesus’ way of love when the way of power seems to be so much more effective. It takes courage to think less of your own skin and more about your neighbor. It takes courage to admit that you are wrong even if no one else will. It takes courage to show kindness when anger would feel so much better, and offer mercy when none seems to be required. It takes courage to live in community with others – like this place – when going it alone seems so much simpler.
But for such a time as this, we have been called. Our poor world needs outposts of grace where faith, hope and love are practiced. So be of good courage. It may be that we have been called for such a time as this. Amen.