This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 22, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Esther 2:5-11.
The story of Esther’s rise to power begins when Queen Vahsti says No.
Once upon a time in a far away kingdom, a great banquet had taken over the palace —all you can eat, all you can drink, all the pleasure you desire, come and get it. On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he called for Queen Vashti to come into the court and perform, but the queen refused. (This is exactly what you’re thinking. Hashtag: Me too.)
So the king flew into a rage! He summoned his advisors, and they shook their heads and furrowed their brows. “If word gets out that Queen Vashti said No, that’s going to teach all the women of the land that they can say No to their husbands. We can’t have this!” So the king and his men set out to find a new queen, and this time, the queen had better be obedient. And beautiful.
In our scripture we meet Esther who is, indeed, obedient and beautiful. She auditions at the pageant then gets selected to become queen. Two things about Esther: one, she stays close to her uncle Mordecai (who’s technically her cousin but then becomes her adopted father, so he gets called her uncle). The second thing is that Esther and Mordecai are Jewish, and Jews were a minority. The beautiful and obedient Queen Esther does not mention her Jewish identity to the king. At first.
Before long, the king hired an advisor named Haman. Haman required that all the servants at the gate bow down to him. Well Mordecai regularly hovered around the palace gate to check on Esther, but Mordecai would not bow down to Haman. He’s reserving his respect for God not for a national emblem. And if you’ve ever seen someone refuse to show respect when respect is demanded, then you can imagine how this turned out. Vashti cannot be allowed to refuse the king; Mordecai cannot be allowed to disrespect Haman. So Haman issues a pogrom to wipe out all the Jewish people.
This brings us to the turning point of the story, which I’ll come back to in a minute. Basically, Mordecai appeals to Esther to help the Jewish people —her own family — she agrees and appeals to the king. He agrees and overturns Haman’s plans for a pogrom. Instead, the king has Haman executed on the very gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai.
The story ends with two events: one is a genocide waged by the Jewish people to destroy those in the region who were not Jewish. Over a period of a few days, the Jewish people slaughtered five hundred people including Haman’s sons, then three hundred people, then seventy-five thousand people. The second thing that happens is the people enjoy a marvelous celebration —all you can eat, all you can drink, come share your food with the poor and see how our mourning has turned into dancing.
These days Jewish celebrations of Purim include a humorous reenactment of the book of Esther—the heroes get cheered for, the enemies get booed and hissed, and you’re allowed to drink until your blessings sound like curses and your curses sound like blessing.
And so it is that the story of Esther is a complicated clashing of worlds. It culminates in genocide. But after the slaughter there’s a party celebrating how oppression has been defeated and a people have been saved. It teases women’s Bible studies —look the hero is a woman, but then we have to stomach that Esther rises to power because she’s sexually attractive and submissive. So it’s no wonder we find ourselves pulled between worlds, all the blessings and curses mixed up together.
Today we are hearing this story in light of the fall series called Choosing Family. Now something that often happens in families is we make demands of each other. (If you happen to be making travel plans for Christmas, you might be feeling this.) There may be no way around making demands on each other; this is what it is to live in the world together. But underneath the demand, there’s a deeper question that goes, How much is this going to cost them?
Noticing what we’re asking someone else to risk, this noticing means everything.
When Jesus approaches the fishermen and says, “Come follow me.” Does he realize what he’s asking them to give up?
When Mordecai asks Esther to go to the king and reveal her Jewishness and plead for her people, does he really know what he’s asking? Because I’m not sure he does.
Here at the turning point in the story, Mordecai is in sackcloth and ashes publicly grieving because of the pogrom. Esther’s eunuch finds him in the city square and serves as a messenger between uncle and niece. “You tell Esther,” says Mordecai, “that she needs to go to the king and plead for the lives of her people.”
“You tell Mordecai,” says Esther, “that I have to be summoned by the king. I can’t just go up to him and start pleading.” Mordecai says to Esther: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than the other Jews… Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:13-14b).
What I’m not sure Mordecai notices is that Esther is not only Jewish any more. She’s not just his niece any more, nor his daughter. She is also the queen. She has learned to speak the language of the palace and follow the customs of her new people. Mordecai is insisting that her loyalty belongs to her family, and her father’s people, and her religion.
But Esther is living in two worlds and moving in between them. Say what you will about her obedience and beauty, this work of moving between worlds is what changes the story. This is her power.
“All right, Mordecai,” she says. “Go, gather the Jewish people and spend three days fasting and praying for me. Then I will go to the king and break the law, and if he kills me, he kills me.”
Remember Mordecai used to come to the palace every day to check on Esther! Now he doesn’t even flinch when she mentions this might cost her her life. We know that it doesn’t. But I wish Mordecai were a little more concerned for her, a little more sensitive to how she has changed since becoming queen. Which makes me wonder whether I could be more concerned for those on whom I make demands, more sensitive to the people who are doing the work of moving between worlds.
The truth is, if you’re looking for any sign of hope these days, you will find it in the people who move between worlds, those who make their homes in multiple communities, who learn to speak different languages then go back and forth repairing our division. For example, this world-moving happens at weddings when families from different cultural backgrounds are brought together by the love of two people. It happens every day around here when mamas and babies who have survived refugee camps come into our church to learn English.
What does this cost them? It’s one thing to know what services we’re willing to provide, but what is the hidden demand we’re placing on the people we mean to help? I think of teenagers who might come to church some Sunday but then they have to go back to their non-religious friends and explain why. I think of older church members who go out of their way to listen to children and learn about what matters to them. This is the kind of translating we demand of each other all the time, and making this demand is not wrong; but it is brave.
Forty-two years ago, the people of Church of Peace made the defining decision to stay in the neighborhood when it might have been easier for to move. It could sound like this decision is an example of our gritty German resolve. You know, “We’ve been at Twelfth and Twelfth since Nineteen Twelve so nobody’s going to make us leave!” But that’s only one part of the decision. The other part was a new commitment for our church to become a good neighbor to the people who live here.
In this neighborhood, there are immigrants and refugees. Not everybody speaks English. Not everybody knows their neighbors. There’s a fair amount of turnover —people moving in and out. There is still gunfire in this neighborhood. There are young children living in this neighborhood.
There are people who are afraid of the police, not because they have done anything wrong, but because they are black and this puts them at greater risk. There are police who might think twice about getting out of their SUVs to walk around, not because they mean to cause harm, but because being a police officer comes with risk.
If there was ever a need for a community of peacemakers, that need is before us. Church of Peace has something to offer this neighborhood that is so much more than our determination to stay. I’ve seen it. We are a people who know what it is to move between worlds, so we are exactly the people who can recognize this in our neighbors and honor their choice to do this. We know how it feels to not know the language being spoken around us. We know what it is to feel afraid but show up anyway. Our neighbors are not alone in this.
Alongside providing services like food, and books, and diapers, what if our outreach efforts considered the question that asks: What is the cost to the people we mean to help? What are we really asking of each other? What are you risking in order to be here? What are our neighbors risking…
Becoming aware of what I’m asking of you is what will deepen my empathy. This is the first step in the work of building trust. Becoming aware of what others are risking is how we make each other less afraid. And you know, police cameras can’t do that. Street lights can’t do that. Peacemaking is the work of loving people, and this peacemaking is our call. (It’s right there in our name!) This is what we are doing here.
Or as Mordecai put it, Who knows? Perhaps you have come here for such a time as this… May it be so. Amen.