For Such a Time as This: Believe Esther

This is the sermon I preached on September 30, 2018 at First Church of Christ, Simsbury. The week preceding, Dr. Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Ford’s allegation the Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. Both their testimonies were emotionally charged, and traumatizing to some, especially those women who have been sexually assaulted themselves.

Esther 7:1-10

This has been a rough week for many of us. There have been a lot of deeply disturbing stories in the news and on social media. I know I don’t have adequate words to capture or respond to all of it, so I am going to simply tell the story of Esther, and invite you to find yourself in her story.

Esther is one of a very few books in the Bible with a female protagonist, the others being Song of Songs, which I just preached on a few weeks ago, and Ruth. Esther is a great story. In many ways it feels very contemporary, rich with lessons for our lives today.

The tone of Esther is satirical, farcical and political, using exaggerated and improbable situations to ridicule and criticize issues of its day.

Esther is set in the post-exilic Persian Empire. This means that several generations before Esther appears on the scene, the Babylonians captured Judah and took Jewish leaders into exile. The Persian Empire is huge, 127 provinces stretching from present day India to Ethiopia, and Jews are dispersed throughout the kingdom.

King Ahasuerus is portrayed as a pompous fool, ridiculous and inept; he depends on his advisors, who all have their own agenda, to tell him what to do.

As the story opens, King Ahasuerus hosts an extravagant banquet, and “the army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present.” The banquet goes on for six months, and there was drinking by flagons without restraint.

At the same time this was going on, the king’s wife, Queen Vashti hosted a banquet for all the women.

After days and days of partying, the king asks his aides to bring Queen Vashti to him, so he can show off her beauty. But Vashti refuses to come. Maybe she knew what lay in store for her at a party with so many drunk men in attendance.

Remember, the king has difficulty reading situations, he is unable to make his own decisions, and he overreacts to small-scale problems.

When Vashti refuses to appear before him at his party, he is enraged, but he doesn’t know what to do, so he consults his seven lawyers. They tell the king that if women in the kingdom hear of Vashti’s disobedience, all women will disobey their husbands and there will be chaos. So in addition stripping Vashti of her title as queen, the king issues a formal decree calling for wives to obey their husbands.

Because this is satire, we might ask what is being satirized. Since Esther is the hero of the story, it appears that the Persian Empire is being satirized for its treatment of women!

Vashti is dismissed as the queen and needs to be replaced, so word is sent into all the provinces to send beautiful virgins to the capital that they may become part of the king’s harem. The best and most beautiful will be given “cosmetic treatment” for a year after which the one that “pleases the king” will become queen.

We are now introduced to Mordecai, a Jew, who lives in the capital. Mordecai is Esther’s uncle, and adopted her and raised her when her mother and father died. Though it isn’t spelled out, it appears that Mordecai sees the king’s search for a new wife as an opportunity to gain access and power, power that could help Jews. He sends his niece Esther who is described as fair and beautiful to join the king’s harem.

After a year of cosmetic treatments, each of the eight most beautiful girls enters the king’s chambers for a night for a try-out to see how she performs in bed. Kind of like the modern-day show, The Bachelor. Of course we know who gets the rose; we are told that the king loves Esther most of all. And Esther becomes the queen.

The scene shifts back to Mordecai who overhears two of the king’s servants plotting to kill the king. Mordecai tells Esther, who in turn tells the king. The plot is foiled and the servants are hung.

Next we meet Haman when he is appointed as the king’s highest official. All servants and citizens are required to bow down to Haman, but when Haman passes by Mordecai, Mordecai refuses to bow.

Haman is furious, but thinks it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai himself, so instead plots to kill all Jews in the kingdom. Note, this is twice that punishment has been meted out to a whole group in response to one person’s disobedience. All women because of Vashti’s disobedience, all Jews because of Mordecai’s refusal to bow. Perhaps this is identifying a characteristic of empire.

Haman tells the king, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from the laws of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the king’s treasury.”

Remember, the king is an ignorant tool, and says, “Sounds good to me!”

So the king signs an order to have all Jews killed, young and old, women and children. As further evidence that the king is clueless, the king and Haman then sit down for a drink together.

Bible scholar Cameron B. R Howard writes, “The king seems oblivious and prone to excess, and his methods appear arbitrary, yet his decisions have devastating consequences for his subjects. This dynamic is perhaps best summed up in Esther 3:15, just after the king’s edict for the annihilation of the Jews has been released: “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the capital city was thrown into confusion.” For the king and Haman, the edict is just another paper to sign, while for the people in their charge, it is a calamity. The book of Esther…wrestles with how to survive and thrive under rulers who are at turns capricious or hostile.”

Hearing about the edict to destroy the Jews, Mordecai appeals to Esther to intercede with the king.

Esther resists. The king has a rule, if you enter his chambers without being invited, you will be killed. Talking to the king will endanger her own life.

But Mordecai pushes back, saying:

“For if you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”

So Esther hangs around the king’s open door until he invites her to come in and asks what he can do for her.

Meanwhile, Mordecai continues to infuriate Haman by refusing to bow. Haman’s wife suggests building a 75 foot gallows from which to hang Mordecai. Here again, is the use of exaggeration for comic effect; this is a six-story gallows.

But no sooner does Haman complete the gallows to hang Mordecai, than the king decides to honor Mordecai as a hero for saving the king’s life. The king orders Haman to provide Mordecai a royal robe and crown, and parade him through the city on a royal horse.

Haman is humiliated.

Finally, we reach the climax that is this morning’s passage.

Esther invites Haman and the king to a private dinner. When the king asks Esther what he can do for her, she replies, save my life and the life of my people “for we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, to be annihilated.”

Here again, the king shows his ignorance, not realizing he himself signed the decree he asks “Who has done this?”

Esther responds, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman”

The king is enraged, and Haman is terrified. When the king steps out into his garden for a cigarette, Haman stays to beg Esther for his life.

The king returns to find that Haman has thrown himself on the couch where Esther is reclining. Not realizing that Haman is begging for his life, the king thinks he is sexually assaulting Esther.

The king’s attendant suggests a response, “Look, the very gallows that Haman prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house fifty cubit high.”

The simple king has a simple response, “Hang him on that!”

So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai.

The king’s anger abates, Esther reveals that Mordecai is her uncle, Mordecai is given Haman’s position, and all the Jews are saved.

As I said, for many this has been an especially difficult week. Dr. Christine Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that she was sexually assaulted by nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, and she was subsequently questioned and challenged by the committee about the veracity of her experience. Then Judge Kavanaugh shared his own testimony. In addition to the raw, painful emotions of both testimonies, we witnessed bitter, ugly political exchanges between Senators of the two parties.

In support of Dr. Ford’s story, some women are sharing their own stories of being attacked. For others, memories of their assault are being triggered by all the stories in the news and the victim blaming that often accompanies them. For anyone who has witnessed and absorbed all of this, it has been overwhelmingly painful.

Esther reminds us that politics is not tangential to people of faith. Not only does Esther not mention God, there is almost nothing in the book that is specifically religious. But Esther is all about seeking justice for God’s people (here, women and Jews), through politics. In the realm of politics, Haman’s fate reminds us that in building gallows to hang others, we just might hang ourselves.

Mordecai tells Esther, “For if you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”

Every woman does not need to share her painful story for the cause of justice to be served. With or without our participation, injustice will not win out. But choosing to withdraw ourselves from the battle for justice will not secure our safety either.

But like Esther, each of us is perfectly positioned because of who we are and the life we have lived, to act for justice in such a time as this.

 

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: