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Pr. Michelle Sevig

September 30, 2018

Lectionary 26b



Esther, Identity, and Empowerment


Pop the Popcorn folks, it’s going to be a good show! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this phrase in my social media feeds the past few years. It’s become a popular expression to use when something exciting is about to happen. Or when, as in recent weeks, a conflict has grown so intense that hopeful onlookers prepare to sit back and watch the whole thing unfold, as if they were watching a thrilling movie. A simple Google search also taught me that this phrase is code for getting high… but that’s for another sermon.

Or is it? In today’s story from the book of Esther, there’s plenty of drunkenness and boisterous merrymaking. So, Pop the Popcorn, and get ready for an exciting story—in the Bible—about an inept King, his devious wingman, and an unexpected heroine. This story includes powerful, elite men partying to excessive drunkenness, a harem full of virgin girls, deaths commanded by the King and a young woman who saves her people at great risk to her own life. It’s a story rarely told in Christian circles, at least not liturgical ones like ours, but it’s a favorite among the Jewish people and re-enacted each year for the festival of Purim. According to the Talmud (the source for studying Jewish Law (b.Meg.7b)) the people are “encouraged to get so drunk they cannot distinguish between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai””

But there’ll be none of that today, sorry…just popcorn.

  • The story begins with a detailed description of an elaborate party that’s hosted by the Persian King Ahasuerus. As was common for the Persian ruling class they hosted extravagant parties and this one was no different. Not only were there expensive and exotic furnishings, there was also a never ending stream of the very best wine.
  • The King asks for his wife, Vashti, to be summoned into the court wearing only her royal crown. That’s right, naked! But Queen Vashti refuses to be paraded in front of a room full of drunken men and she paid the ultimate price for disobeying the king. She was immediately banished from the kingdom.
  • Eventually the King was lonely and took the advice of his “guys” and began looking for a new wife. A nationwide search for a new queen began—the first ever recorded beauty contest—and young Esther was given by her uncle to be part of this new harem of virgins.
  • After 12 months of cosmetic preparations each girl was presented to the king for a one night “trial period.” Young Esther pleased the king so much that he put the royal crown on her head.
  • Now, he didn’t know that his new queen was Jewish.  
  • Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, stayed in touch with her and when he learned of a plot to kill the king, Mordecai told Esther and she warned the king. The plotters against the king were hanged immediately and Mordecai’s warning was recorded in the king’s records (which will come in handy very soon!)
  • Remember when I mentioned the king’s wingman? His name is Haman and he was the king’s closest advisor (let’s say, Vice President.) At one public event, Mordecai refused to bow to Haman and boy did that make him mad.
  • After a lot of back and forth between the two, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews and he told the king lies about the Jewish people living in their land. He told the king these people were different, they obeyed different laws, spoke another language, that they couldn’t be trusted, that they were a danger to keeping his kingdom great. The Jews, Haman said, must be eliminated for the good of the kingdom; so the king agreed and wrote a decree to have all the Jews in his kingdom killed. But still the king did not realize that Esther, his beloved queen, and Mordeaci, the man who saved his life, were Jews.
  • So Esther and Mordecai came up with a plan, but the plan was risky. To approach the King without first being summoned was breaking the law, and she would be punished by immediate death. Esther knew the risk, but boldly said, “If I die, I die.” So be it.
  • At enormous personal risk, Esther broke the law and went into the throne room of King Ahasuerus. But instead of killing her, he was charmed. Esther invited him to a banquet in her quarters. And she invited Haman, the deceiver, to attend as well.
  • During the dinner party the king told her he would grant whatever she wished, even half his kingdom, an extravagant offer from a foolish king.  But her only request is that they both attend another lavish party the next day.  
  • And it’s at this 2nd party that we come to today’s scripture reading. As they were drinking wine, the king said again, “What is your wish Esther? I’ll give you anything you want.” Esther asks that her life be spared and her people be saved. “Because we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, to be in annihilated.” The king asks, “Who is he? Where is he? Who has presumed to do this?  Esther points to Haman and says, “This wicked man!” I can imagine the soap opera response to this scene, Haman’s shocked face, the king’s gasp, Esther’s worried look as they all stare in silence and wait for the next move.
  • Haman was trapped. There was no way to talk himself out of the mess he made. Haman was taken out by the king’s servants and hanged in the very place he had built to murder Mordecai. Haman did not repent for his hatred of the Jewish people. He begged for his own life, but gave no indication of any change of heart.
  • And the Jewish people in Persia were saved from destruction. The festival of Purim was established to be celebrated each year with feasting and gladness, for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.

Now, I’ll be honest; I knew none of this story a week ago. I knew Esther was a queen and that was about it, but I sure did enjoy reading this story and learning about it, especially during this week.

Esther found herself in a unique position to confront the powers that are threatening her and her people; and she made a bold decision to plead her case and tell her truth. “Let my life and the life of my people be given to me; that is my request.” And because she speaks up and puts herself on the line for countless others, the Jewish people living in a foreign land are saved from the destructive powers of the system that protects the powerful elite and keeps “the other” oppressed. She risked it all, and through great courage and trust, she claimed her own identity. Because of her own bravery, God’s story continues.

And speaking of God…here’s another fun fact about the book of Esther: God is never mentioned. Not even once. God’s name is hidden from the story, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t present. And Esther’s name means “I will hide,” and though she hides her true self (her secret) for years, she does not stay hidden when the time was most urgent. And I would bet that there are many among us here who at times feel that God is hidden too.

But just as we find God’s presence in the book of Esther, we can find God revealed clearly through the courageous acts of vulnerable people today who risk everything to save others in the face of callous disregard from those in power. When the working poor come together and demand a fair and equitable wage; God’s hope for justice is not hidden. When immigrants tell their stories and seek safety from family violence and war, God’s desire for wholeness and peace is not hidden.  When women stand together and tell their truth of the sexual violence we have experienced, God’s very own weeping is not hidden.

Just this week and in countless other circumstances, we have witnessed God at work in the world through people like Esther who have risked everything to speak truth to power so that their lives and the lives of others can be lived in freedom and wholeness. Like Esther, you have been called to claim your own identity as a child of God. You too are called to holy and important work, to speak on behalf of your people. Connected to other people of faith in this place we are empowered to passionately and wisely share what we know about God’s presence and God’s faithfulness to a broken people. Maybe you were silent in the past, or hid who you truly are, for fear of punishment or attack. No more! It’s time to speak about who you are, what you believe, and what it means for the way you live your life.

You are not alone. God is not hidden. God is with you. So Pop the Popcorn and get ready for an exciting adventure. Together we will turn away from all that weighs us down and turn toward what is holy and life giving for everyone.