Sunday, September 27, 2015

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9: 20-22  (Proper 21B)

I need to begin by saying perhaps as a confession that in all of Holy Scripture the Book of Esther is one of my favorite parts.  The book is usually placed by scholars within the Biblical genre of “Wisdom” writings, like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and many of the Psalms, and perhaps as we reflect on the exceptional character of Queen Esther we will be reminded of the “Capable Wife” we heard about in Proverbs 31 last Sunday.  Embodying gifts and graces, strength and courage and intelligence and judgment.  Aspects of “wisdom,” and for Esther, that the beauty of her appearance is seen to be a reflection of the beauty of her spiritual and moral character.  My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was named Esther, and though the name was a bit out of fashion I notice that it seems to be coming back, which is nice.  Hard to imagine a better Biblical namesake.   The setting of Esther’s story, the wonderful and colorful cast of characters, the plot, the careful and skilled literary art and development, emerging graciously through every translation—and what is for me after many readings over many years such a deep and meaningful spiritual message.  Used to be a favorite in illustrated children’s Bibles, but certainly not what we would call a children’s story.  All the elements of a later Shakespearean comedy like Twelfth Night or Winter’s Tale . . . .

The story begins with the reality of exile—and as we watch the migration of refuge seekers today across the Middle East and Northern Africa and Europe we catch perhaps a glimpse of the traumatic dislocation and the sorrow and the suffering  that lies in the deeper background of the story of Queen Esther.  The distant part of the diaspora community of God’s people has been washed ashore far from home in the rich and cosmopolitan and exotic kingdom of Persia.  Some perhaps in what we would call refugee camps.  Others eventually finding their way to the cities, to live in small ethnic enclaves, or scattered around the countryside and surviving as agricultural laborers.  Decades pass, and some manage more successfully than others.  Some try to assimilate, while others remain resolutely apart.  Reminiscent perhaps of the story of Joseph in Egypt at the end of the Book of Genesis, and certainly, more directly, of the parallel story of Daniel and his companions the Three Young Men in the Book of Daniel.  Again, in our world of so many peoples dislocated by war and famine, not an unfamiliar story.  And here in Esther story of several people who are aliens, strangers in a strange land, yet rising to what we might call stations of high success, prominence, power, by virtue of their native gifts and character.  Struggling to avoid the kind of assimilation that is also cultural annihilation, to keep memories and identity alive, remaining faithful to the God of Israel even when Jerusalem is only a memory, the ruins of an invading army--and even when that faithfulness in this new place, this foreign land, risks sometimes a great cost.

Mordecai is a Jew, though this doesn’t seem to be known widely.  He must have spoken ancient Farsi like a native.  Perhaps a graduate of the School of Public Policy at the Imperial University at Persepolis, the great capital city of the Persian world.  He has risen in any event in an amazing career to a very high place in the court of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes, the great and powerful Shah, the king, the ruler of an empire and vassal states stretching across the Near East to Egypt and Africa to the south and to Europe on the North.   And the story really begins when this great king lets it be known that he is ready to add another wife to his household--one who would be of extraordinary beauty and intelligence and graceful demeanor.  And apparently the customary way of finding a new queen was a kind of festival pageant—I picture something like the Miss America event in Atlantic City, though the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly how this was supposed to work.  In any event, Mordecai sees this as an opportunity and secretly brings his niece Esther to the fore as I guess we might say one of the “contestants:” an exceptional young woman in every way, who quickly attracts the king’s eye during the swimsuit competition and wins the heart of the king with her demonstrations of talent and wit—and she is quickly chosen to be queen and just as quickly it seems she becomes the first and most loved of all the king’s wives.

The plot thickens when Mordecai’s arch-rival  Haman, a man of unfettered greed, ambition, and cruelty,  begins to connive to take down Mordecai and advance his own position.  In traditional Jewish pageants retelling this story he is kind of a Snidely Whiplash, and as soon as he steps on the stage the audience is expected to boo and hiss with enthusiasm.  Haman has somehow become aware that Mordecai is Jewish—and here, like the “fiery furnace” story of Daniel and the Three Young Men that is told in the Book of Daniel, Haman uses the fact that faithful Jews will refuse to participate in pagan religious cults and ceremonies, even those sponsored by the king, to develop an argument that the Jewish people are unreliable foreigners and even traitors, who should be arrested and eliminated because they threaten the king’s status and authority.  Neither the king nor Haman seem to be aware that Queen Esther herself is Jewish, which adds to the layers of suspense.  Ahasuerus, not seeing through Haman’s intrigue, agrees to an order decreeing death to all who fail to worship at the royal shrine, and Haman begins to plan for the event when he can reveal that Mordecai is Jewish and has refused to join in the public ceremony, and then, with the old advisor being carried off in chains to the gallows, he can take the honored place now vacant at the king’s right hand. 

Mordecai of course sees immediately what is going on, and he sees that there is only one chance for his own survival and now to save the whole people of God living in the empire, only one person who can plead their cause.  He goes to Esther, and asks her to plead the case of the Jews to her husband.  She is terrified at the request.  Though she is indeed beloved and a favorite of the king, women are never permitted into the throne room and into the presence of the king while he is conducting matters of state, and she is aware that if he takes her approach badly she will likely lose her position and even her life.  She waivers, fearful, and then Mordecai offers this wonderful word, in Esther chapter 4, verse 14: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”   That is the key question of discernment so often when we find ourselves faced with costly choices.  We might ask, “why me?  Why can’t I just be left alone?   St. Paul could ask the question.  Or Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.  Or Harry Potter.  Or Rick in Casablanca.  “All the gin joints in all the world:  why does she have to walk into mine?”  And there is a Mordecai to say to Esther, this is no accident.  You were chosen.  It isn’t an accident.  Indeed, God has placed you here precisely because you are the right person to meet this challenge.

And the story unfolds.  Esther gathers herself, is filled with a spirit of holy courage--the love of God and God’s people overwhelming her fears—and she steps into the throne room and to plead with the king on behalf of her people.  And—spoiler alert!—after a moment of suspense, she is received graciously.  The king in his love for her hears her request and extends his mercy.  He is moreover  righteously enraged that his trusted advisor Haman has betrayed that trust by plotting to advance his own ambition, and has manipulated him in this way: and so the tables are quickly turned.  There’s a dramatic scene at the banquet that same evening when Haman arrives thinking he is about to be advanced , but instead the wheel turns, the real traitor is exposed--and in a very satisfying symmetry the evil Haman is put to death on the very gallows he had ordered to be prepared days before for the execution of Mordecai.  And so at the very last moment all the Jewish people of the land are saved from destruction.  Thanks to Esther and her courage. 

Again, it’s an exciting and beautiful story.  Very gratifying, even when you already know how the story ends.  The good guys win, the bad guy get what’s coming to him.  And it is of course even more the pattern of the gospel.   The golden thread of Scripture.  Not just an entertaining or inspiring tale, whether for children or for adults.  Even more: a pre-figuring, poetric anticipation of the drama of our redemption.  The Cross gives us a new pair of reading glasses as we turn back to the ancient story.  We can almost hear the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on Esther’s lips as she considers what Mordecai has asked from her.  “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.”  Esther knows that what is asked of her at this moment is to put everything on the line.  Her happiness, her position in the world, her riches--life itself.  All is at risk.  The loving and self-less offering of a costly sacrifice, not for any benefit of her own, but because through her, there could come salvation for God’s people.  And through that offering, her own life on the line and offered freely, evil is defeated, the power of death overturned, and there is life and peace and joy.

The story is we are told in the part of the reading we’ve heard this morning from chapter 9, at the end of the story, and the foundation behind the Jewish Festival of Purim, where for all time and in all generations God’s people around the world will remember good Queen Esther, and how through her God accomplished this mighty work.  The days of Purim, as we have heard this morning, to be “days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.”  Overwhelming gratitude.  All thanksgiving, joy and peace, graciousness, generosity, blessing.  We might say, a eucharistic foretaste of the Kingdom.

Again and again, the Cross and the Empty Tomb:  when every hope seems to be extinguished, when defeat seems inevitable, when catastrophic loss is sweeping toward us, when we were helpless, when our every effort to save ourselves has resulted in failure.  Then the great hymn appointed for us this morning as a complement to the reading from Esther, Psalm 124.  “If the Lord had not been on our side, when enemies rose up against us, then they would have swallowed u up alive, then would the waters have overwhelmed us, the torrent gone over us, the raging waters.  Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.  We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

What we would remember the ancient festival  celebration of Esther at the Holy Communion this morning, as we receive the Gifts of the Table, the Bread and Wine of his presence, a free gift, and a sign of what God has done for us, and of the joy to come.  The story of how the people of God were saved through the courage of Esther stirring up in our hearts a fresh reminder of our own stories of amazing grace.  Stirring up a fresh offering of gratitude and thanksgiving.   A holiday for “Feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.”   To hear the story and to have our hearts and our minds and our imaginations turned to the one who is the Savior of the world, to remember and to know in a fresh and new way the merciful love of Jesus, his generosity, his forgiveness, his love, filling our hearts and changing our lives forever.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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