One of the truly epic tales of the Old Testament is the story of Esther. She was a young Jewish woman who lived with her uncle Mordecai during a time of exile in Persia. Through an unexpected series of events, Esther won a beauty contest and first prize was becoming queen! It all happened so fast that Esther didn’t reveal her nationality to anyone, including the king. Her Jewishness remained a big secret.
In the meantime, Uncle Mordecai was thrown into the political spotlight for an unforgiveable act: he refused to bow down before the king. Much like Daniel, from Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Mordecai’s devotion to the God of Israel wouldn’t allow it. A weasly politician named Haman turned Mordecai in to the king. Mordecai was given the death penalty, along with all of the other Jews, and the date was set for the genocide.
Mordecai sent an urgent message to Queen Esther, pleading for her to reason with the king. She was left with a very big, very difficult choice. The last queen had been put to death for making the king angry. Finally she spoke up, though, and she made her request, as we heard in the reading from the Book of Esther.
Esther may have been queen, but she was from a poor family, she was a woman, and Xerxes, the king, had all the power. In the socio-economic, gender-based, class-dependent politics of the day, she was still pretty much considered a nobody.
Haman, who worked for the king, was not only a low-level bureaucrat, but he was a really bad one. He hated Jews and he came up with an elaborate plot to get rid of all of them forever. He knew that their religious convictions would not allow them to worship the king as the law required. So he essentially said to the king, “Your Majesty, it has come to my attention that a certain ethnic group within your kingdom considers itself to be above your laws. Although multi-culturalism and ethnic diversity is admirable, we all know that a rule is a rule. Won’t you allow me to help you by eliminating them?” Instead of thinking things through carefully, the king took the news personally and agreed that on a certain day all Jews would be killed.
Mordecai sent news of the horrific plan to his niece, Queen Esther, asking for help, and saying rather famously “Who knows? Maybe you have been put in the palace for such a time as this?
Now here is a word about palace etiquette: It was very hard to get in to see the king. It was not acceptable to just barge in with a request. Even the queen had to ask permission to see his majesty, and if she just showed up to say hello or bring breakfast in bed, she could be killed. And so, for three sleepless days, Esther was tormented by her fears about what would happen. She finally decided to approach the king, saying to herself, “If I die, I shall die.”
Esther entered the throne room in terror and asked her question. “Dear King, would you grant me just one small favor?” “Just name it,” replied the king. “Even half of my kingdom. Whatever you want.” Obviously, Esther caught the king on a very good day!
Esther asked the king if he and his advisor Haman would attend a dinner given in Haman’s honor. The king agreed, and when Haman heard about it, he could not have been more proud of himself for being invited to the big house for a party in his own honor. He was obviously in tight now with the king and queen. When he passed Mordecai on the street on the way to dinner, he told him to get ready to swing from a rope by morning.
That night, Esther didn’t get up enough courage, so she asked the two men to a second dinner the next evening. Once again, they dined on rich foods and fine wines. Maybe it was the filet mignon or the merlot, but in the midst of dinner, King Xerxes blurted out, “Esther, you are such a great queen, what can I do to make you happy? Finally Esther had the courage to say, “Your Majesty, there is an evil man in this place who wants to kill me and everyone that I love. Please let me and my people live, that’s all I ask.
The king exploded in rage. “What?!” he shouted. “Tell me who this scoundrel is!” “He’s over there,” she said, pointing across the table. “The once just finishing his chocolate mousse.”
Haman dropped his spoon mid-bite. Imagine the shock! He had no idea that Esther was Jewish! He was even more surprised when the king ordered him taken out and hanged on the same gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.
That’s the story of how the people of Israel were saved from extinction during the time of the Exile. A smart, brave woman, putting aside her own safety, speaking up on behalf of her people, saved them in a foreign land.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us haven’t heard the story of Esther before. The small book of Esther is sort of buried in the pages of the Hebrew scriptures. It’s one of only two books in the Bible named after a woman, probably since ancient written history seems most interested in the actions of men. Some Christians have been a bit concerned about Esther’s morality since she became the king’s mistress before she was selected, in a beauty pageant of all things, to become the queen. And she married a pagan. It has also been noted with some distress that God is never actually mentioned in the entire book of Esther, sort of like the Pope not mentioning Jesus in his address to congress, which also upset some people. God does not ever speak or explicitly intervene in the book of Esther. It’s all very confusing to people who expect those things in a good Bible story.
The bottom line is this, though: one woman saved the Jewish people from destruction.
Yesterday at noon, twenty-some folk from our church took over a small section of the Pearl Street mall We professed our love for the earth, we heard words from the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, we joined in a liturgy, we held hands around a kiosk that was transformed into a big, beautiful sign proclaiming “Justice for the Earth, Justice for Our Children, we held hands in a mostly silent circle, we passed out information on climate initiatives, and we collected signatures from passersby to send to our president in support of the Clean Air Act. Harriott Quinn organized this effort, and she and those who joined her believe that such direct action makes a difference. Actions by individuals and small groups matter. Queen Esther acted to save her people. We are called in this particular time in history to act to save all of creation.
I know that we believe in the power of one, and I see Esther as a remarkable example of one who made a critical difference.
I have been avoiding mention of a woman named Kim Davis in my sermons since I believe that giving attention to persons who are seeking it is usually counterproductive, and often I have felt that is the case in Kentucky. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Ms. Davis’s remarks on Nightline this week when asked why she did not just resign when she felt she could not issue same-sex marriage licenses in Rowan County, Kentucky. Her reply was that if she resigned, she would lose her voice. I would not be surprised if this morning, some others who follow the Revised Common Lectionary are comparing Queen Esther to Kim Davis. Both are women who stood up for their beliefs and used their voice at significant personal risk. Esther prevailed and retained her position as queen. Kim Davis was conferred this week with the specially-created “Cost of Discipleship Award” which is a literary reference to the martyred theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer who died in prison during World War II. What all of this reminds me of is how important it is not just to use our voice, but to use it in ways that support what we believe is truly important and will lead to justice for all people. What do you believe is worth speaking up for at the risk of your own safety or reputation?
I know that many of you have followed the coverage of the Pope’s visit to the United States. I listened to his address to congress on Thursday morning and was as impressed as most people were. He used his voice and massive influence to talk about four Americans who used their own voices on behalf of those on those experiencing poverty, racism, and other forms of injustice. Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day each paid a price for their advocacy work. By mentioning leftist Catholics like Day and Merton, the Pope put himself in the line of criticism as well. I don’t agree with everything the Pope says, which is fine since I don’t believe any human can make infallible pronouncements, but I admire any individual who uses their voice and influence to bring about the common good.
Esther’s saga made it into the Bible, despite its shaky qualifications. Esther has provided a pretty remarkable role model for people of every generation that has read her story. She was a hero, but she was a reluctant one. She didn’t spring into action at her first opportunity. Eventually she did a great thing for her family and for all of Israel, but she took small steps on the way there. Most of us can probably relate to that. If we are stepping forward at all, we are heading in the right direction.
How will you use your voice this week and the next? Will you use it to overcome hatred and violence and apathy that dehumanize people who are of inestimable worth? Will you use it to overcome powers of destruction that threaten the fragility of our earth? Will you use it to speak to your own fears and find ways to overcome them? We are called by God to be overcomers not just for our own sake, but for the sake of all. Amen.