So when was the last time you read from the Book of Esther?
Yeah, me neither.
It was certainly a challenging text to preach on (only because you have to give a TON of history in order for any of it to make sense) but I really am glad I pushed myself to do it. I feel like I gained a lot just in wrestling with a tough OT text and I think people liked hearing about someone in the bible they don’t hear about a lot.
Here’s my sermon – enjoy!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
September 27, 2015
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Be Bold. Be Courageous. Be Audacious.
I definitely had a moment this week while I was stumbling through the hard-to-pronounce names in this passage and then got to the hanging of Haman when I wondered why in the world I ever thought it would be a good idea to preach from the Book of Esther.
So I have three disclosures this morning before I start preaching.
1. There is a good chance I am not pronouncing any of these names right.
2. There is a reason that the Old Testament has a reputation for being violent. This book certainly has some violence; I will not deny that. But I do think that part of strengthening our faith means wrestling with stuff like this. Our world can be violent; our world is not always fair and just. So we have to talk about where God is in the midst of all of it.
3. In order to truly do justice to what is going on, I really need to talk about the Book of Esther as a whole, and not just this specific passage.
The Book of Esther is an intriguing book. Truth be told, I probably have not read a passage from it since I was taking Old Testament in seminary. It is short; only ten chapters long. And it is very much a bibliographical and historical story about Esther; the book itself never mentions God.
This book tells the story about a time in history – sometime around the 5th century BCE – when the Jewish community was suffering from genocide under the Persian Empire. It opens with two big banquets being put on – one by King Ahasuerus for military leaders, princes and nobles and one by Queen Vashti for the women in the royal palace.
During one of the festivals, King Ahasuerus called to his servants and asked them to bring Queen Vashti to him. She refused.
Apparently that did not go over very well with the king.
King Ahasuerus felt that not only had he been wronged when the queen refused to submit to him, but that all the people of his provinces had been wronged. This was the king’s theory: He was concerned that the women in his provinces were going to get word of what the queen had done (not coming to the king when he called for her) and then they would start getting bad ideas in their heads about not being fully submissive to their husbands. And once women stopped submitting to their husbands eventually the whole society would start to break down.
So I feel like that is a much longer sermon that I am not ready to preach yet.
But it does bring us to Queen Esther.
Long story short: The king consulted with legal experts and had a decree written up against Queen Vashti. She did leave; but eventually the king got lonely. He asked his servants to bring a group of women to him and to be placed under the care of one of his servants. Esther was one of them.
Esther was a Jewish girl who was orphaned after her parents died. Her cousin Mordecai, who was from the tribe of Benjamin, adopted her. His family had been taken into captivity and he advised Esther not to tell anyone about her Jewish heritage. She had a chance, after all, of gaining wealth and status by joining the harem King Ahasuerus. At first, Esther followed this counsel. And in the second chapter of the Book of Esther we find out that the king was attracted to Esther more so than any of the other women; he crowned her queen and held a great banquet for her.
So that sort of brings us to where we are today. Esther – now Queen Esther – had invited the king and a man named Haman to a banquet. Haman was one of the king’s nobles who had been honored and therefore been given a seat higher than his other nobles.
There was a reason that Esther put on this banquet. Haman had been plotting to destroy the Jewish community – her family. But Mordecai – Queen Esther’s cousin – had uncovered Haman’s plot and asked Esther to help put a stop to it. Esther asked if the king and Haman would attend a banquet that she had prepared and they agreed. The passage that we read this morning begins when the three of them sit down together to eat.
I think it is really important for us, as we read Esther’s story, to keep reminding ourselves that this whole narrative was unfolding in a time when women had no power. Do not forget that Esther was originally brought to the king because – essentially (and I am paraphrasing a bit) – he got ticked off at his queen and kicked her out because she refused to submit to him. On top of that, Esther was a Jewish orphan; born into a culture and community that was facing genocide at the hands of the very people that Esther was dining with.
Which makes what Esther did all the more incredible.
She laid it all out on the table.
‘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.’ (Esther 7:3-4)
Esther had the opportunity to live a life of wealth and status; a life that members of her bloodline never could have even dreamed of. But she was willing to give it all up. And knowing full well what the consequences could have been, Esther stood wholly and completely vulnerable before the king so that her family would be saved. She pledged her allegiance to the Jewish community – a community that was under attack by the men she was dining with – and she called out Haman for conspiring against her family. She showed courage, she showed bravery and she showed a bold audacity that I think we can all still learn from 2,500 years later.
There are going to moments in our lives when we have two choices. We can choose to follow the crowd; to make choices that will bring us money and security and safety; to stretch our moral compass so that our lives are a little bit easier.
Or we can choose to listen to God; we can choose to follow the path that God is leading us down, even if that path might be a little harder to travel.
We do not have to live our lives along the grain of society. In fact, scripture teaches us time and time again that the most influential people in our faith went against the grain of society. They did not not care what the people around them were telling them to do; they cared about what God was telling them to do.
And so should we.
Our world is broken. People are hurting, tragedies strike, communities are struggling. Every day we have to fight for our own safety and security. And sometimes it is hard not to get swept up in the current of our culture and just go along with what everyone else is doing; to make easy choices, even if they are not necessarily the right choices. We do what is safe so that we do not have to be vulnerable.
But we are not alone in this world. We are created, redeemed and sustained by a God whose love is powerful, whose mercy is never-ending and whose grace is found in the most unexpected ways and places.
We can and should rise up and speak out against the things and the people in this world that are threatening justice and dignity for all people. We can show courage, hope and bold audacity in the face of oppression. We can take risks in our lives. We can clear away the noise of the world is telling us to do in order to listen to what God is calling us to do.
I joked this week on Facebook that – after Pope Francis’ remarks to congress on Thursday – there really was no need for me to preach.
Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.
Be bold. Be courageous. Be audacious.
Thanks be to God!