Sermon: September 30, 2018 – the book of Esther
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
On October 9th – one week from Tuesday – we begin studying a book with a big long title, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words have lost their meaning and power – and how they can be restored. (After Worship, there will be a sign-up clipboard in Gordon Hall so we can get a better idea of numbers). There are some specific reasons why this is a good book for us to study:
- it’s by the late Marcus Borg, whose thoughtful, progressive approach to Christian thought has been so influential to folks in this congregation.
- Each chapter is quite self-contained, so if you need to dip in and out of the group, that’ll be OK.
- We’re doing the study along with three other congregations, one in Calgary and two in rural Wisconsin, whom we will be joining via Skype, and that should be pretty cool.
- And then there’s the basic concept of the book, that those of us who grew up at a time when Church involvement and understanding of Christian language was way more widespread, now find that times have changed, and so has the function of those Churchy words. So, we’ll look at the change in how words like forgiveness, mercy and righteousness are understood, and our understandings of God and Jesus, and our relationship with Biblical literalism.
- Whether you’re new to Christianity or grew up in an every-Sunday Church family, I think you’ll find it an interesting experience.
As I scan the contents of this book, I realized that there were other words that I grew up with, which were just as connected to my Christian faith. These were words like accountability, responsibility, and courage. Words that describe the kind of relationship that Christ calls me to have with the world around me. And when I think back to the things I remember from being a kid in Sunday School, I recall the hotly-contested “New Curriculum” books of the United Church, which came out in the early-to-mid 1960s (which were, in turn, connected to the Social Gospel movement some 60 years earlier). These progressive Sunday School books helped me understand that the way I related to the world around me, starting with my schoolyard relationships with other children, was a key expression of my relationship with Jesus. Being a Christian, for me, was never just tied up in heaven-and-hell language; it always had to do with making the world a better place, one kind, loving, brave action at a time.
The importance of words like accountability, responsibility and courage, infuse the story of Esther, the wonderful, dramatic, legendary story we heard this morning. (For those of you wanting to read further, Esther is just before the middle of the Bible: Esther, then Job, then the Psalms). In this story, we meet a young Jewish woman traversing the ways of the world, trying to balance her own personal safety, the safety of her people, and the political life of her nation.
Esther, I must admit, is not particularly well-known to me, but she is extremely well-known within the Jewish faith. As mentioned as a post-script to today’s retelling of her story, the annual festival of Purim celebrates the courage of Esther – also known by her Hebrew name, Hadassah – in saving her people from extinction. It’s quite the festival, with a pre-Purim time of fasting followed by feasting, gifts of food and drink, a recitation of the story and specific collection for the poor, and in places with large Jewish populations, a parade where you trot out your best Esther and Mordecai costumes. Rather than a solemn day of commemoration, a celebration of Esther’s courageous actions in saving her people.
The key moment of this book, comes in the 4th chapter. By this point, most of the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place: young Hadassah/Esther, a Jewish girl living in the land of Persia about a century after the exile, was orphaned and raised by her uncle Mordecai; she is chosen to be amongst the harem of the King, and becomes Queen; the villain of the story, Haman, convinces the King to sign an edict for the elimination of the Jews in that land on a certain date. As this date approaches, Esther – whose Jewish identity has thus far been concealed, is confronted by a choice she has to make, and Esther 4: 14 says that Mordecai sent these words to his niece: “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 father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Esther does, of course, rise to the challenge, taking her life in her hands by approaching the King without invitation, and unveiling Haman’s wicked plot. The King issues another decree, allowing the Jews to defend themselves against attack, Haman meets a very public end, the day is saved, and the actions of Queen Esther are celebrated to this day.
At that moment, Esther has to size up the consequences of her action or inaction. She has to balance her understandings of accountability, responsibility and courage. If she does nothing, chances are that someone else will save the day, but there is no guarantee of that and if they do, her inaction will be fatal to her and her kin. If she dares to approach the King without invitation, she risks her life, perhaps without even having the chance to tell the King of the evil that is to be done in his name. If she does not reveal her identity as a Jew, she can likely live out her days in luxury but would then have to live with the burden of knowing that she could have done something to save her people. Is Esther responsible only to her own well-being, or to the people of her birth? Is she accountable to her King, or her conscience?
Those of you who have seen the movie Black Panther will recognize some of the elements of this type of decision. In that movie, the African kingdom of Wakanda is has technological advances and broad prosperity unknown in the rest of the world, and have managed to keep that hidden; but a crisis occurs and the question of responsibility arises: with their ability to make things better for the world, particularly those of African extraction who are so oppressed in so many lands, is it sufficient for the King of Wakanda to have a narrow focus, a life devoted to keeping his own nation safe by remaining hidden from the world? Does his accountability to the throne of his people overrule his responsibility to the world? (It’s a good film to see and, yes, is now available on Netflix!)
What I appreciate – both in this present-day blockbuster, and in the 2500 year old story of Esther, is the willingness to leave us sitting, uncomfortably, in the midst of such difficult decisions. Yes, there is a big problem here- in the case of Esther, the potential annihilation of a people, in the case of the movie, the clear ability to alleviate global suffering. And yet at a very human level, is the possibility that solving this big problem will come with the ultimate personal sacrifice. Esther has to reveal her Jewish identity, and put her life on the line; the land of Wakanda has to come out of hiding. In what situations is that risk appropriate? Neither the movie nor the ancient scroll resolve the question very quickly, because flesh-and-blood life does not give us pat answers.
In small ways, and occasionally in bigger ways, we make these kinds of choices all the time. In the 4th chapter of Esther, we twice hear the words, “in such a time as this.” For Esther, this was a single, pivotal moment…but as we live our lives – and as we think back to stories that our parents or grandparents may have told about their lives – we realize that “such a time as this” is a phrase that can be used at many times with equal force. There is ALWAYS something going on that needs people of faith and courage to stand up and speak up. There is ALWAYS someone on the rise, who is counting on the power of fear or racism or nationalism or patriarchy to expand their power. There is ALWAYS a desire to label and isolate and abuse those whose skin tone is different from the norm, whose language is different from the norm, whose beliefs are different from the norm, whose love is different from the norm. There are particularly critical times in history, and we, like Esther, may well be living in one of those, but in another sense we are never off the hook; EVERY time is “such a time as this” when we need to look ourselves in the mirror, and ask if we are doing enough?
Strangely enough, the book of Esther is one of two books in the Bible that never mentions God by name (the other being Song of Songs). One group of scholars claim that if you dig down into the Hebrew, some very clever literary structures are employed, so that the letters of the name of God show up in the correct order when the good guys are speaking and in reverse order when Haman is speaking, but even if the name of God is hidden in the story, Esther’s overt loyalty in this story is to her people rather than her God. If not for the development of the festival of Purim, and the need for ongoing encouragement of Jewish communities in foreign lands, it has been suggested that the book of Esther might not have been included in the Hebrew scriptures because it does not explicitly speak the name of God, and that ambivalence toward this book continued with Christian theologians as well. But perhaps, “in such a time as this” – the days that we live in, now – a story where a female protagonist is spurred on by the greater common good, by her conscience, by virtues such as courage and responsibility, may be a Biblical story with the greatest ability to speak and be heard. I hear the voice of God in what Esther did, I can even say I see the sacrificial love of Christ in what she did, but that’s not explicitly found in the text. All we hear in the text, is that Esther is confronted by a drastic need, and responds.
When we do stop to look at the factors at work in our precise time in history, when we survey “such a time as this” and wonder what Esther might inspire today, the list of connections is not hard to see. I have rarely looked at Facebook in 2018 – it was somewhat of a New Year’s resolution to not give it so much of my life this year – but I did look at it yesterday. Posted by one of my daughter’s lifelong friends, was a #MeToo account of being abused as a child by an adult who held great control over her future aspirations as a performer. There were “orange shirt day” posts, detailing the realities of residential school life, and the slow progress of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry. And fully half the posts expressed opinions on the Kavanaugh hearings in the US Senate, some wondering aloud how many of us would be walking free if everything we did in High School while testing our sexual boundaries became known, others offering scathing commentary on the advantages of white male privilege, especially the version that gets honed at prep school. As I look at this collection of posts – just one day’s worth, and just on my Facebook feed – I realize how relevant the story of Esther is, right now.
It is not an insignificant detail, that Esther was a woman of an ethnic and religious minority, trying to function in a system that could not possibly have been more patriarchal than it was. Women had so little voice in that time and place – as is still the case in much/most/all of the world today – that the decision to speak was daunting. Everything was against her, not one aspect of her social context worked fully in her favour – even as Queen her life could have been ended by one word from a man. Yet there is here a story of empowerment, that encourages us, whatever our circumstances.
Though it is easy to get discouraged by the immensity of world problems, this story reminds me that I do have, at the very least, the power of one. As a human being – and, I believe, as a being who is connected to others through the Divine power of love – I do have the ability and responsibility to live a principled, broad-focused life. So I pay attention to the little things, like turning off the lights when I leave a room, even with the knowledge that some Bitcoin miner is using as much power as some nations as part of their quest of greed. We choose to brew ethically-sourced coffee here at Church, even with the knowledge that mega-corporations make most of the money in the world coffee market. We display the rainbow flag, here and as a denomination, even with the knowledge that this doesn’t endear us to a number of other Churches. And we continue to raise our voice, as a denomination, with ecumenical partners and people of other faiths, to address the big issues of the day: poverty, war, sexism, environmental concerns, intensifying nationalism, and the awful, enduring power of anti-Semitism. We see the size of the problems and know one thing for sure: silence and resignation aren’t going to change anything. We see the complexity of the problems and pray for the backbone to start somewhere, even in the knowledge that somebody with a vested interest is sure to tell us that our actions won’t do a thing. For even if our actions are small, even if the potential personal costs are high, we act in faith and courage, and we pray for forgiveness and new vigor when we aren’t up to the task or when the actions we take are not what was needed. We are reminded this day, of the power of principled living, the importance of speaking up even when the odds are stacked against us.
The story of Esther reminds us that the words we speak – the actions we take – the way we read the community around us, and respond to its needs in love – are expressions of commitment to be people of love, the people God calls us to be. In our life as a congregation, in our decisions as consumers and electors and neighbours, in the changes we are about as The United Church of Canada, we pray for the wisdom and guidance of the Divine, in reading the signs of our times. By the power of the Holy Spirit, may our responses be enlivened by the love of Christ, and meaningful to those whose lives bear heavy burdens. In Christ we pray, Amen.
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church
For further reading:
Barenblat, Rabbi Rachel. https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/esther-actually-rabbi-rachel
Borg, Marcus J.. Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored . SF: HarperOne, 2011.
Curtis, Donald E. https://bible.org/seriespage/23-esther-irony-and-providence
Fairchild, Mary. https://www.thoughtco.com/book-of-esther-701112
Harvey, Charles D. http://d3pi8hptl0qhh4.cloudfront.net/documents/sbjt/sbjt_1998fall6.pdf
Mountain Blends Coffee. https://www.mountainblendscoffee.ca/ (our coffee vendor!)
Orange Shirt Day. http://www.orangeshirtday.org/
White Crawford, Sidnie. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/esther-bible (Jewish Women’s Archive)
Wikipedia: “Purim” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purim