Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’ Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have won your favour, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’ Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’ Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?’ As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, ‘Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.’ And the king said, ‘Hang him on that.’ So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
For Such a Time as This: Esther 7:1-10
As many of you have heard me say before, when preparing my sermons each week, I follow a list of suggested readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. I like preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary for a couple reasons. For one thing, when I work from this set each week, I know that our churches is connect to thousands of other churches across the world who are also prayerfully considering the same set of scriptures on the same day. I also like to use this lectionary because, when I use it, I'm more likely to wrestle with scripture that I'm uncomfortable reading on my own. If left to my own devices, I'd probably read and preach on the same six things all the time. Now, there are a few things I don't care for about the Revised Common Lectionary. I can get frustrated that it doesn't include the whole Bible. There are some interesting and important stories that are hardly addressed, if they are addressed at all.
Today's reading from the Hebrew Bible is but one example of a story that is rarely told in some churches. In the whole three year reading cycle, only once do the lectionary readings include a story from the book of Esther. Today's reading... just a few verses... may be the only time that you hear about the book of Esther for three more years, which seems a pity. Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai are very interesting. Their story is pretty complicated, too. It is full of foolish kings and cruel courtiers, concubines and genocide. It's not exactly kid friendly. It gets pretty bloody at the end. And, God is never explicitly mentioned in the whole book. Maybe that's why it doesn't come up very often in the reading cycle. It is a complicated read. But, we are called to engage the complexity in life, not avoid it. So, if we're only going to get one chance in three years to talk about Esther, let's take it. Because I think her story has something important to tell us about courage and about working with the situation that you find yourself in, whether or not it actually the situation you want to be in.
This story is said to take place in the royal court in Persia during the time when Persia also controlled Judah. There is a king, Ahasuerus, who has a lot of territory and a lot of treasure and many concubines. He's pompous and wasteful, throwing a party that lasted six months. He's also a jerk to his wife, Vashti. He apparently thought of her as though she were a piece of his wealth that he could show off to impress his guests. He ordered her to come down and prance around in front of the people and officials. She rightly refused. This is where the story takes it's first real turn for the ridiculous. Rather than just go talk to his wife like a normal husband, he calls on his legal scholars to discuss whether or not she has broken the law. They, rather than just advise him to go talk to his wife, come up with some utterly silly response about how she had indeed broken the law and her behavior would encourage other women to do the same. What is initially a sitcom-esque squabble between two spouses is escalated through sheer foolish will to some big legal proclamation that all wives will give honor to their husbands. And, Vashti is disposed of. This story sets the stage for us to know that the king is a fool and his advisors are witless yes-men.
Ahasuerus' poor choice in advisors matters because, a little later in the story, he picks an even worse one, a man named Haman. Haman is about as pompous as his boss, and he's murderous to boot. When one man, one of the king's servants named Mordecai, refused to bow down to him, rather than just deal with Mordecai personally, he decided to take his frustrations out on Mordecai's whole ethnic group. You see, Mordecai is Jewish. And, Jews are a colonized minority in Persia. Powerful people can apparently do what they want to them with no repercussions. This is a very dangerous situation. This is the kind of situation that leads to lynching. This is the kind of situation that leads to genocide. And so Haman declares his intent to punish all Jews for Mordecai's perceived slight. He convinces his foolish and easily manipulated king to allow him to order the death of every single Jewish person in Persia.
This action is so outrageous that it is hard to believe that it could be true. And, yet, even if this genocide that is described in the book of Esther was never actually ordered, we know of plenty others that have been. We know about the Pequot Massacres in Connecticut Colony and Little Big Horn in South Dakota. We know about the more than 4,000 lynchings that were committed in the United States between the 1880's and the late 1960's. We know about the Armenians in Turkey and the Tutsi in Rwanda and the Shia Muslims, Yazidis, and Christians in Iraq and Syria, all of whom have been targeted because of their religious and ethnic identities. We know what genocide of the Jews looked like in Europe, where 6 million of Jews were killed, alongside millions of other people who were identified as minorities who could manipulated to feed the egos of the people in power. We know what the power of narcissistic, bigoted rage can look like. The book of Esther gives us an idea about what can stop it.
A young Jewish woman named Esther had been taken into Ahasuerus' harem. It is not clear that she had any choice about whether or not she wanted to be a concubine. My guess is that her wishes really didn't matter. But, the king took a liking to her and she ended up becoming the new queen. She had told no one that she was Jewish. Her cousin Mordecai, the one who raised her after her parents died, had warned her that it might not be safe to tell people. Mordecai also helped her save the king's life by telling her about an assassination plot that he had learned of. From that point on, the king knew that he owed his life to her. Esther, now most beloved by the king, was in a position to help people, even if she had never wanted to be a concubine. But, could she do it? Could she stand up to the king, knowing what happened to Vashti when she stood up to him? If she admitted she was Jewish, would she be killed, too?
Thankfully, Mordecai had faith in her even when she didn't have faith in herself. He knew that sometimes you have to have people help you be brave. He said to her, "If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this." When she heard these words from the person who she most respected in the world, she remembered her bravery and she knew what she had to do. She asked her cousin and other Jews to pray and fast for her, and she said she would speak to the king, knowing that addressing him without being invited was courting death. To not speak on behalf of her people would also mean death. She said, "If I perish; I perish." And, she went to speak to the king.
Fortunately, in a rare bit of wisdom, Ahasuerus had just realized that Mordecai had saved his life and had finally thanked him. He was primed to be generous at this point. Esther seized the moment and asked for her life and lives of her people to be spared. Ahasuerus agrees and quickly turns on Haman, having apparently forgotten that he gave Haman permission to destroy the Jews. Haman is hanged on the gallows that had been built for Mordecai. Esther goes back to the king and asks that the bounty on the heads of the Jews be removed and that the people be allowed to defend themselves. The king again agrees. The Jews defend themselves against their attackers and survive. Esther continues on as Queen and Mordecai as advisor to Ahasuerus. Esther bravery continues to be remembered by the Jewish community each year at the festival of Purim. She is celebrated as one who saved her people.
Now, I could probably end my sermon here. I could just tell you to be brave and do the right thing, even when it could cost you. I do believe that is one important way to respond to adversity. I do believe it is necessary to use the privilege that you do have to help people with less privilege be heard. I hope we all can be like Esther and listen to the Mordecais in our lives who know that we can use our privilege in such a time as this. But, even as I celebrate Esther's resolve and bravery, I cannot help but be troubled by the parts of the story that follow today's reading. They describe a response from that Jews that seems to be more than simply defending themselves from marauding soldiers. Many other people who had nothing to do with the war, the women and children of the warriors, could also be killed. The ensuing struggle is described as a blood bath, one that includes the killing of 10 of Haman's sons. While some scholars have pointed out that the scripture goes to great length to describe the violence as defensive, as only being directed towards those who would kill the Jews, I am uncomfortable with the inclusion of attacks on non-combatants in the original decree. I can't help but wonder why Esther only asked Ahasuerus to allow the Jews to defend themselves. I wonder why didn't she ask him to rescind the order to kill the Jews instead. Rescinding the original kill order would have stopped all the bloodshed. Nobody would have had to die.
At the end of this complicated story, I guess that I am left with a sense that we need to be brave in the face of danger but also a realization that we are called to not just save ourselves, but to do the most good. Esther was stuck in a destructive system that did not value her choices or her life. She was able to save her people because she figured out how to use the system to her advantage. I think our next step is not just to figure out how to use a broken system, but instead get to the point where we are able to re-orient the whole system. I want to get to a point where stopping calls for violence is a better option than arming the group that has been targeted. Systemic change is more powerful than reactionary change to one event.I think that this is the next place where we need to deploy our Esther-like bravery and cunning. Because Esther shows us that one action can make a change that matters. Now, let's work to make some bigger changes.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker:
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).
Amy Oden: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1378
Brent A. Strawn: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=389
The Sunni-Shia Divide: http://www.cfr.org/peace-conflict-and-human-rights/sunni-shia-divide/p33176#!/
Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).
A compilation of lynching statistics:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.