Scripture: Esther 4:9-17

We are doing something a little different this morning in that rather than read the text, you can listen to kind of a fun story.  It is a great story to tell because it is not terribly well known even though it is in our bible.  I think as well as being very entertaining, it is very thought provoking.  I’m going to tell that story, not in its entirety, but as time allows.  I will also have comments to make along the way.  But before we get into it, I need to engage you in a little bible trivia.  What book of the bible besides the Song of Solomon makes no mention of God?  Esther, good guess.  What book of the bible celebrates the story of a heroine who saves the Jewish people from genocide? Esther. What book of the bible was written for one specific Jewish holiday, Purim, celebrated in the spring before Passover as an historical novella?  Esther.  OK, you are beginning to get the idea.  What book of the bible has a significantly different version in the Catholic bible versus the Protestant version?  Esther! Yeah!

And what book predicts that there shall arise from the fields of Oregon a mighty champion who will vanquish his foes and claim the Heisman Trophy?  No, don’t be silly. All right. And while I, of course, have to have my fun with the celebration of the Ducks.  By the way, the next Heisman Trophy candidate will play the previous Heisman Trophy candidate in the Rose Bowl on January first. But having said that, I also have to say that I am very deeply disturbed by what I am hearing from the University and the struggles and particularly any labor strife.  There is always, well not always, but often there is collateral damage. And there is some very significant collateral damage right now.  There are students and others that are suffering because of the labor difficulties.  it is hard at times to celebrate what is happening on one level when it is not happening at another level; particularly over the holiday season.  So please just be mindful of that for those that are struggling and pray for an end to those labor struggles so that people can get on with their lives and god things at the University.

So now, the story of Esther. The setting for Esther is in ancient Persia after the period of the Babylonian captivity.  Though the Jews have been allowed to go back home to their ancestral homeland, many have chosen to settle in the foreign lands where they are located.  Hence, we speak of the Diasporas of the Jews. And so there is a large settlement of the Jewish community in Susa; at that time, the capital of Persia, today in northwest Iran.  It would be another century before Alexander the Great would conquer that city; four centuries before the birth of Jesus. Ahasuerus is the king of the empire that includes most of the Middle East from India to Egypt. And the extent of his power is made very evident in the beginning of the story when he holds a feast that lasts for 180 days – probably a bit of hyperbole.  It is followed by another feast that lasts for another seven days as if 180 days was not enough.

At the conclusion of all this feasting, when he was “merry with wine”, the queen Vashti, paraded before his guests wearing her royal crown; and according to at least one tradition, only her royal crown.  And Queen Vashti refuses to be put on display in this way regardless of her attire – much to the consternation of the king.  And for fear that wives everywhere would take note and take this as permission to regard their bodies as their own, rather than their husband’s, the queen is deposed from her throne and a call goes out to find a more suitable replacement.  Now if I didn’t know better, I would swear that this was a new plot line for a movie by Angelina Jolie.  But it is there, in our bible.  I invite you to check it out for yourself.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Esther who is a Jewish orphan. She is adopted by, some say cousin, others day uncle, Mordecai, her closest male relative, who takes her into his home.  Now just think about this for a moment.  She is part of a religious minority, an immigrant, living in Persia.  She is a woman obviously and an orphan.  In the ancient pecking order, even the bottom rung of the ladder is two steps above where she is. She is the Hebrew version of Evita. Her only hope is to catch the eye of the right man.  And Mordecai who comes off as sort between Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, seizes this opportunity to parade his lovely niece before the courtiers.  They take note of her and send her off to beauty school for a whole year before presenting her to the king.  And sure enough, she wins the contest and becomes the new queen.

Before any of this happens, Mordecai sternly warns Esther not to reveal her Jewish identity. Meanwhile Mordecai is hanging around the eunuchs guarding the king’s concubine (This is why I kind of think he is sort of like Hugh Hefner, as if he is purely innocently looking out after his young cousin or niece, as the case may be), he overhears two eunuchs plotting to assassinate the king.  And he reveals this to Esther and she reveals it to the king and the plot is exposed and the two eunuchs are executed.  Thus the immigrant, Mordecai, shows his loyalty to the king.  However, as a faithful Jew, he refuses to bow down before the king’s number two man, Haman.  Now, in the Jewish tradition, this story is read every year for the Purim festival. Typically noise makers are passed out.  So when you hear the name, Haman, who is the stereotypical bad guy, you make a lot of noise – boo and hiss. Rather than punish Mordecai for disrespecting him, Haman, learning that Mordecai is Jewish, gets the king to sign off on a decree to execute all Jews in the empire on a certain day chosen by the casting of lots or Pur for which the name Purim comes for the holiday.

When the decree is issued, there is of course, much mourning and distress among the Jewish community.  So Mordecai goes in sack cloth and ashes before the king’s gate to wail.  Queen Esther hears his mournful protest.  She sends out a eunuch, Hathach, by name, to find out what has happened.  Mordecai informs Hathach of their impending peril.  So now we come to our text for the morning which comes from Chapter 4, Verses 9 – 17.  Hathach went and told Esther what

Mordecai said.  Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai saying all the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who goes to the king inside the inner court without being called there will is but one law.  All alike are to be put to death.  Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live.  I myself have not been called to come into the king for thirty days.  In other words, she is just as helpless as anyone else even though she is the queen.  Who is she to intercede on behalf of her people?  When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace, you will escape anymore than all the other Jews.  For 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’s family will parish.  Who knows, perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  Then Esther said to Mordecai, “Go gather all the Jews to be found in Susa and hold the fast on my behalf.  And neither eat or drink for three days either night or day.  I and my maids will also fast as you do.  After that I will go to the king though it is against the law. And if I parish, I parish.”  Mordecai went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

Now, I’ve got about ten minutes left.  I could tell you the rest of the story, but then I wouldn’t have any time left to make any brilliant commentary. What fun would that be?  Besides what better way to encourage you to go home and read your bible for yourself?  And I don’t want to spoil the ending, so you are going to have to go home and read it. I will tell you this much, without revealing too much.  There is this wonderful little ironic twist in the story that reads like a Shakespearean play.  First of all Haman goes around bragging that he has been invited to a banquet with the queen, right?  How important is he?  And then, the king suffers from insomnia so in order to help his sleep he orders the annals of the court to be brought to him to read.  There is a little humor there, right? To put him to sleep he has to read his own history, his own autobiography.  He is reading and he comes across this incident where Mordecai spoiled this assassination attempt.  So he calls in his servants and says, “Did we ever do anything to reward Mordecai for his loyalty?”  And they said, “Well, no I guess we haven’t.”

So he summons Haman to come in who has been busily building gallows in order to hang Mordecai on the appointed day.  He brings in Haman and he says to him, “What I shall I do for the man I wish to honor?”  And Haman thinks well who would the king wish to honor besides me?  He says, “Well, if the king wishes to honor someone, the king should put on him a royal robe that the king himself has worn and seat him upon the royal horse that the king himself has ridden.  Then parade him through the city and such shall be the man that the king wishes to honor.”  The king says, “That is a great idea, Haman.  Now go and do all that for Mordecai.”  And of course, Haman is mortified.  Suffice it to say that things go downhill for Haman

When the decree is issued, there is of course, much mourning and distress among the Jewish community.  So Mordecai goes in sack cloth and ashes before the king’s gate to wail.  Queen Esther hears his mournful protest.  She sends out a eunuch, Hathach, by name, to find out what has happened.  Mordecai informs Hathach of their impending peril.  So now we come to our text for the morning which comes from Chapter 4, Verses 9 – 17.  Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecia said.  Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai saying all the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who goes to the king inside the inner court without being called there is but one law.  All alike are to be put to death.  Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come into the king for thirty days.  In other words, she is just as helpless as anyone else even though she is the king.  Who is she to intercede on behalf of her people? When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace, you will escape anymore than all the other Jews.  For 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’s family will parish.  Who knows, perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  Then Esther said to Mordecai, “Go gather all the Jews to be found in Susa and hold the fast on my behalf.  And neither eat or drink for three days either night or day.  I and my maids will also fast as you do.  After that I will go to the king though it is against the law. And if I parish, I parish.”  Mordecai went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

Now, I’ve got about ten minutes left.  I could tell you the rest of the story, but then I wouldn’t have any time left to make any brilliant commentary. What fun would that be?  Besides, what better way to encourage you to go home and read your bible for yourself?  And I don’t want to spoil the ending, so you are going to have to go home and read it. I will tell you this much, without revealing too much.  There is this wonderful little ironic twist in the story that reads like a Shakespearean play.  First of all Haman goes around bragging that he has been invited to a banquet with the queen, right?  How important is he?  And then, the king suffers from insomnia so in order to help his sleep he orders the annals of the court to be brought to him to read.  There is a little humor there, right? To put him to sleep he has to read his own history, his own autobiography.  He is reading and he comes across this incident where Mordecai spoiled this assassination attempt.  So he calls in his servants and says, “Did we ever do anything to reward Mordeai for his loyalty?”  And they said, “Well, no I guess we haven’t.”  So he summons Haman to come in who has been busily building gallows in order to hang Mordecai on the appointed day.  He brings in Haman and he says to him, “What I shall I do for the man I wish to honor?”  And Haman thinks, well who would the king wish to honor besides me?  He says, “Well, if the king wishes to honor someone, the king should put on him a royal robe that the king himself has worn and seat him upon the royal horse that the king himself has ridden.  Then parade him through the city and such shall be the man that the king wishes to honor.”  The king says, “That is a great idea, Haman.  Now go and do all that for Mordecai.”  And of course, Haman is mortified.  Suffice it to say that things go downhill for Haman from there or down the gallows, as the case may be.  And things go up for Mordecai and the entire Jewish community thanks to Esther’s willingness to save them.  There is much more to this story.  You will want to read it yourself.

So here are my questions of the text.  First of all, in an era when sexual assault on university campuses and in the military have prompted congressional investigations and terms like “rape culture” have become a part of public discourse, how do we view Queen Vashti’s refusal to be put on public display and Mordecai’s willingness to place his niece or his cousin in that void of Vashti’s defiance.  At the very least, should we not speak of not one but two heroines in this story?  For without Vashti’s integrity and assertiveness, Esther’s courage and cleverness would have been null and void.  And even as we celebrate this rags to riches story that embodies Mary’s Magnificat 400 years before she sang of the work of God that reverses the fortunes of the powerful and the lowly, should we not also lament and reject the sexist exploitation on which the story is based?  For what ultimately is important in this story is not the beauty of Esther that wins the heart of the king, but the humanity of the oppressed that wins the heart of God. Now when it comes down to a match of wits between Esther’s and Haman, it is not the beauty of the queen that wins the contest, but her intelligence.  When we have made the aspirations of women not fashion shows and beauty pageants, but science fairs and Nobel prizes, then perhaps we can say that we have fulfilled Esther’s destiny in our time.

Second question, throughout this story, there is this tension between the Jewish identity of Esther and Mordecai and their Persian culture.  And typically this story is used to teach about the history of anti-Semitism, but it also offers us an opportunity to reflect on other cultural tensions, be it religious minorities under attack by the Islamic State, so called, or immigrants under increased scrutiny in this country.  Last week, April challenged us to think about the ways in which so many African American youth today grow up in a culture of distrust and fear towards those in authority.  We have much work to do.  But there is another question this story raises for us, especially those of us who are part of the dominant culture, specifically how do we maintain our witness to our faith that challenges so much that is accepted as part of the cultural norm -.and especially in this season as the  power of consumerism overpowers the hope of Advent.  There is a group of Christians that in 2006 started a movement that they called the Advent Conspiracy.  Anyone hear of it?  You are going to.  It creates and promotes the concept of alternative giving, which we have been promoting for more than a decade.  They do it with some really creative work and videos.  I’m going to show you just a short one.

So our staff has decided this year rather than giving little trinkets for Christmas to each other that we don’t need, we are going to gift our Good Samaritan Ministry to provide sack lunches for people on the street.  Giving to charity, giving food to one another is one of the ways that Jews celebrate Purim to remember Queen Esther.  It is a great tradition.

Third and final question.  At the key moment of this story, when so much is at stake, Esther risks her life by going to the king, contrary to the law, to intercede for her people.  So what risks are we willing to take on behalf of those who we know that are vulnerable or under threat.  Mordecai challenged Esther, “Do you think that if you do nothing, that you will escape unscathed?”  And I wonder, do we think that by doing nothing, we can escape the impact of climate change?  Or do we not speak up for the Michael Browns or the Trayvon Martins of the world because we think that will never happen to us?  And it probably won’t.  Do we ignore the homeless because we think that will never happen to us?   And it might.  What if Rosa Parks, when challenged, had given up her seat on the bus and moved to the rear?  What if Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu had said “Well if black South Africans need to settle old scores, so be it, we are not to blame?  What if Nobel Prize recipient, Malala Yousafzai, after being shot by those Muslim extremists had said “I’m scared for my life. I will no longer speak out for the rights of young women to be educated.”?  Martin Niiemoller, a German Pastor during World War II, became famous for saying,”When they came for the Jews, I did not speak out because I was not Jewish.  When they came for the Communists, I did not speak out because I was not Communist.  When they came for the Trade Unionists, I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.  When they came for me, no one was left to speak out.”  So he spent the last few years in a Concentration Camp.

You know, there are those times in all of our lives when we have an opportunity to speak out for others beside ourselves and to stand with the lowly and the powerless from those at the university to those on the street.  To those too often left to stand alone.   And even though God is not mentioned in the original Hebrew version of the story of Esther, God is all over it; present in the voices of Esther and Mordecai, seeking justice for God’s people; having faith not that God will magically save them but that if they act, God will be with them.  And it is not easy, I know, stepping out of our comfort zone, just as it was not easy for Esther.  But when the time comes, if we do not, who will?  If there is to be peace and wholeness in this world, then it depends on us.  May God help us, may God be with us.