Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Needless to say, we are living in interesting times; and it is especially interesting as it relates to the most vulnerable in our country, church, and world. I am grateful for the many voices and movements that continue to cry to be heard for the sake of justice and equity in whatever forms they present themselves.
Honesty tells us that abuse is real in our world. The stories are many and they are everywhere, in all the places where humans gather. Abuse of any sort: physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and sexual, is wrong and should not be tolerated; and not just abuse toward women but also to men, children, the elderly – wherever harm is done.
To objectify and debase, to take advantage and misuse power, to render one vulnerable or helpless in his or her own life, to hurt or harm another out of greed, selfishness, fear, personal aggrandizement, or indifference is not ok. It is not ok regardless of how long ago it was, nor who participated. It is wrong.
Jesus was adamant about this. He was adamant about it. In our gospel, which follows up from last week, Jesus took a little child (the most vulnerable of them all) and held it in his arms and said to the crowd, “If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the seas.”
Whatever is standing in your way: your hand, your eye, your foot, your customs, your rituals, your traditions, your family history, or shame – whatever is preventing you from doing what is good, and just; what is fair and equitable even to the very least person needs to be re-evaluated. It needs to be gotten rid of.
Our Old Testament passage is the story of Queen Esther, the beautiful bride of King Ahasuerus, who ruled over 127 provinces from what is now India to Ethiopia. If you are not familiar with this story, I strongly recommend it to you and suggest you take a bit of time this coming week to read through it thoroughly. It’s not very long; only 10 chapters, and well worth your time.
Esther is described as beautiful and “pleasing to the eye”. But she is much more. No one probably figured that she had a brain and a heart underneath all that beauty, for none of that is mentioned; at least not at first.
But before Esther, there was another queen. And I always like to give Vashti her due because she could have been one of the first to participate in the #MeToo Movement.
The story goes that one day, the king in a drunken stupor, having returned from winning many battles, was in all of his glory. He threw a grand party, and for more than 180 days (that’s 6 months), he partied with all the top officials from all over the land.
He was drunk and powerful and the parties were grand, with nothing spared. The king gave orders to all the palace officials to do as each one desired. It’s in the text. They were drunk and without restraint, and the highest official in the land gives permission for people to do as each one desired.
One day, when he was at his merriest, he ordered his beautiful first wife Vashti be to be brought before him “to put on a show of her beauty” for all to see. Now some commentators say that he wanted her to parade around naked. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But whatever he wanted her to do, she had the moral courage and fortitude to say “no”. She said no to the king. And it was a problem; though he loved her.
We are told that his anger burned within him. And less all the other women in the kingdom began to think that saying “no” is acceptable, Queen Vashti was banished from the kingdom; never to come into the presence of the king again. Her position as queen was terminated and given to another who was “better than she”; considered more manageable, I presume. More willing to understand her role and place.
And the search began. After 12 long months and hundreds of young virgins bathed in oils of myrrh and rich perfumes, along comes Esther, an orphan girl, adopted and raised by her uncle Mordecai.
One day, Mordecai overhears a plot to kill the king. He tells Esther about it and Esther in turn, tells the king, and the traitors are identified and hung.
Haman, who was essentially the king’s right hand man, becomes an arch enemy to Mordecai. The king had commanded that all persons in the kingdom bow down to Haman for he was a very important man; but Mordecai refuses, saying that he will only bow down to his God. Insulted and humiliated, Haman is filled with rage and devises a plot not only to kill Mordecai, but all the Jewish people.
While the king and Haman sit drinking, the entire city is in a state of panic and fear worried about their imminent death. But Mordecai chooses to sit at the king’s gate crying aloud, day after day, until the word gets back to Esther who implores him, “Stop crying!”
Up to this point, Esther had hidden her identity, and now that her uncle is acting so shamefully, she realizes that it is only a matter of time before the dots are connected. Exposure of her Jewish heritage would surely put her life on the line.
Esther had been living in the king’s palace and perhaps, she had forgotten who she was. Perhaps she thought that by acting small, playing it safe, she would be alright. After all, look at what had happened to Queen Vashti. Surely, she should have learned from that. But those of us who have been down that road know that hiding out and acting small; retreating and refusing to step up does not guarantee us anything. There is no safety there.
In one of the greatest challenges in all of Scripture, her uncle Mordecai issues a stark reminder that calls Esther back to a sensibility about who she is. And if we are lucky, we will also have those persons in our lives who will also remind us of who we are, lest we forget; lest we are too afraid; lest we get too satisfied.
Mordecai sent word: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise 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.”
You see the power of that, can’t you? Who knows, but that it has all come down to this? We must ask that of ourselves as well. What if all the striving and navigating; all the twists and turns; all the heartache and disappointments; the tears, anger and pain; the joys, successes and triumphs; all the people who have let us down and those who have built us up – what if all of it has all come down to this moment; that you are on the job you are on; living on the street you live; in the relationships you are in; even your presence in this church is for this particular season that calls to us so that we can do something courageous together for those who need us most?
It would be easy to think that we have brought ourselves here but I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure about that.
Esther was a beautiful young girl, but she was more than just another pretty face. More than a possession to be owned, displayed; and possessed. She was God’s child in a world crying out to be saved. And when her uncle reminded her, Esther said, “I will go to the king. And though it is against the law, I will plead for my people. And if I perish, I perish.”
Something happens to us in those moments when we remember who we are. When we stand at the crossroad; the intersection where potential and necessity meet; and necessity meets opportunity and possibility. And we all will stand there at some point in our lives. We will stand there and we will have to decide which road we’re on; which road to take.
We begin to realize what life and death are all about. We search ourselves, and at best we refuse to live beneath our potential. We refuse to live below our purpose. We take the risk of living into the person God has created us to be. And it is risky; but we do it as if our very life depends upon it, because of course it does.
We should never fall asleep in our own life; never tire of the wonder of God’s hand at work. Never get so ensnared that we think that life is just happening to us. Never lose perspective that the world, regardless of how things might appear, is still being held in the embrace of a loving and just God.
If I perish, I perish because to do nothing means that I am already dead!
You probably know the end of the story. Hesitation and fear gave way to courage. Hopelessness gave way to victory. And the impossible gave way to all sorts of possibilities. And the people were set free. And that’s what it’s like when we trust God and act according to his way. People are set free; but we are also set free.
God gives strength to the faint, and courage to the weak. Courage beyond our wildest imaginings. That’s what I know for sure. Even as I am speaking these words, I feel God giving me something new. Something wonderful and holy.
How about you? Are you fully alive? Can you hollow out the vision of God in your life? For such a time as this? For such a time as this?