Esther

In the Bible, there are certain things that when they happen, you should pay attention to them. For example, when God says directly something that we should do. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. Or, my favorite, from the Book of Micha, the Lord requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Another time you should really pay attention is when a woman is mentioned by name. And when a book of the Bible is named after a woman! That means the woman must be incredibly important! Because it only happens twice, here, with Esther, and in the Apocrypha, with the book of Judith.

Or, at least the story must be important. And that’s what I’d like to talk about today, the overall story told in the book of Esther.

Because our lectionary really cuts this story in an odd way. In fact, this odd cutting of this one part is all we have of Esther in the lectionary. Which is too bad, because this really is an interesting story. So, if it’s ok with everyone, I’d like to take you on a story through the Book of Esther!

I think at the outset it’s important to mention that Esther is almost certainly just a story. Much of the Old Testament is a capturing of the stories that were told, the stories of the Hebrew people. Some stories are believed to be true or at least based in truth. And some are understood to be just stories. Important stories, that capture many different people, places, and stereotypes into fictional events, places, and people. Esther, like the Book that immediately precedes it, Job, is such a story.

Important stories, conglomerations of things that were passed down from generation to generation, to help explain to the Hebrew people who they are, where they come from, and why their identity as Jewish is important to hold on to.

And now, to the story! Esther is King Ahasuerus’s second queen. She is selected after a nationwide search because she’s beautiful and chosen by the King from among all of the most beautiful virgin women in the kingdom after each spent a night with him (before they were married). Had she not been selected as Queen, she would have joined the other women who had the honor of being considered but not selected as part of the King’s harem of concubines. Because, she would have been spoiled goods. Spoiled by the King, but spoiled nonetheless, and thus no longer of value to other men in society.

But the first Queen, Vashti, was still alive. She had recently been deposed because she did not come to the King while he was drunk and wanted to show off how beautiful she was to some of his friends. The King’s noblemen convince the king to depose her so that other wives do not begin disobeying their husbands. The king agrees, and Vashti is never heard from again.

Esther, was raised by her uncle Mordecai after her parents died. Mordecai was very well respected in his community, Jewish, and a very shrewd man.

After Esther was made queen, Mordecai would hangout by the gate of the kingdom to wait for times that he could see Esther. Because he did this, he heard two of the kings Eunuchs talking about a plot to kill the king.

Mordecai got word to Esther, Esther told the king, the allegations were investigated and found to be true, the eunuchs were hung, and the King was very happy with Mordecai.

Around the same time, the king promoted one of the members of his court, Haman, to be the highest ranking official.

Haman really liked being respected and his position of honor being recognized. He required everyone, other than the King, to bow down to the ground before him. Everyone did, except Mordecai. Why he doesn’t put himself on the ground whenever Haman came by isn’t said, but, it was a common practice later, much later, for the Jews to not lower themselves before the Greek authorities.

Haman is absolutely enraged at Mordecai, but won’t lower himself to actually strike Mordecai, because that would be below a man of his stature and importance. Instead, Haman decides to brutally murder all of the Jews in the kingdom as punishment to Mordecai. The king agrees in large part because Haman pays the king 10,000 Talents to be able to do so. A Talent was the equilivent of a years wages for the average person.

Mordecai and all the Jews, except Esther, put ashes on their faces and put on sackcloth in mourning. Somehow, Mordecai gets word to Esther about what’s going on, and tells her to go to the King.

Except that Esther can’t just go to the King, she must be called to court, and the King has not called her to court in more than 30 days. Going to court without being called was required to be punished by death. The only way around being executed was in the King held out his golden scepter to you. Esther gathered her courage and went anyway.

Fortunately for Esther, the King really is quite fond of Esther and holds out his scepter to her. He offers Esther anything she wants, up to half the kingdom.

And all she asks for is a private dinner with the King and Haman.

The king and Haman come to dinner and greatly enjoy it, the king again offers Esther whatever she wants, up to half the kingdom, and she asks for the king and Haman to come to dinner again tomorrow night. Everyone agrees.

Haman goes home, he calls his wife and his servants and his children to share with all of them how amazing he is! They all agree that he’s great. Haman again brings up that he really hates Mordecai, and Haman’s wife suggests that Haman build a 50 cubit high gallows to hang Mordecai on, and to get the king to let him hang Mordecai the next day.

Haman thinks this is the best idea ever! Orders the gallows built, and the next morning goes off to see the King, certain that the king will grant his wish.

The king looks at Haman and asks how Haman thinks a man who had done an incredible honor to the king should be honored. Haman, thinking the King must surely be speaking of him, says the man should be dressed in royal robes worn by the king, and paraded around the city on one of the King’s fancy horses while the person leading the horse shouts how wonderful the honored person is.

The king says “you’re right! That’s great! I never honored Mordecai after he saved my life, go honor him this way, yourself, now.”

Haman does this. And after, Mordecai is returned to his place at the gate, and Haman goes home, absolutely furious. And his wife warns him, if Mordecai is Jewish, be careful, because the King seems to really like him.

While he’s still seething, the king’s eunuchs arrive to summon Haman to dinner.

Haman goes, expecting another lovely and calm evening to help rejuvenate his spirits after such a bad day.

The dinner is lovely, and after, the king again asks Esther what she would like, anything at all, up to half his kingdom.

Esther asks the king to save her people, the Jewish people, to save them from the hand of Haman who has bought the right to execute them.

The King is furious at Haman for ordering the death of the Jewish people, which includes Mordecai and his wife (which the king had apparently not realized of before). The king goes out to walk in the garden to calm himself. Haman stays to beg Esther for his life. Esther isn’t swayed and reclines on her couch for a calm after meal moment. Haman throws himself on the couch (which is how they said bed in those days), and the king walks in, sees Haman in bed with his wife, and doesn’t even need to question what has happened.

He believes his wife. Believes Haman is capable of raping her. Has caught him in a position that looks like Haman is forcing himself on his wife.

It is at this point that the eunuch points out Haman just built gallows to hang Mordecai on. The king, in a moment that I can only imagine is filled with cool and pure disdain, says simply “hang him on that.”

Now, what we have today makes it seem like the end of the story. But it’s not. Next, we hear of how the Jewish people are allowed to arm and protect themselves, how they kill 75,000 people who came for them, and how Haman’s wife and sons are also hung from the gallows. The story also talks a bit more about how great Mordecai is.

And that’s it. That’s the book of Esther.

The book of Esther, the story these few pages tell, is the story of the festival of Purim. A festival that celebrates being alive.

What I think is the most interesting about the Book of Esther, honestly, is how little of it is actually about Esther. It’s the story of Mordecai, a story of survival, and story of the abilities of the Jewish people in battle.

Esther risks her life, but only at the insistence of Mordecai. She is brave and courageous throughout. But we don’t know much about why she did these things other than because Mordecai told her to.

We don’t know how Esther felt about giving up the one thing she had to offer, her virginity, to a man she had never met and potentially impoverishing herself for the rest of her life by doing so. She didn’t have a choice. All of the most beautiful women were required.

I love that a Book in the Bible is named after a woman. Truly. But this isn’t her story. Her voice isn’t heard.

This Book is an example of a woman being used for what a society thinks are her best virtues, her looks and her virginity.

I enjoy reading this story. It’s fun. It’s action packed. It’s short. It’s literarily excellent. The way scenes are started and ended with banquets and festivals, the way the role of honor comes back and forth, the book ending of people being hung, the king blindly agreeing with his advisors (first to depose Queen Vashti, then to allow the murder of all the Jews in his kingdom). It’s a well told story. I recommend it to everyone.

But my question today is: why isn’t Esther’s voice heard? I’m not going to answer that. I’ll just point out that this is common for women throughout history. It’s part of why so few women are named in the Bible. It’s part of why Mary Magdalene, who was clearly close to Jesus and important among the Disciples, it’s part of why history has vilified her and made her out to be a whore.

Why women are unimportant throughout history is not something I seek to answer today, but in the interest of learning how to love your neighbor as yourself, I encourage all of us to consider why this is.

I encourage us to consider this because it is part of how we can actually get closer to the humans that God created us to be, and who Christ calls all Christians to be.

In the interest of explaining the rhetorical tools I’m using today, I’m book ending this sermon with things in the Bible that we should pay attention to. And using the one book in Scripture named after a woman to better point us towards the commands that God has given us on how to live.

It’s up to us to live into and up to those commands.

Amen

Knowledge and Wisdom

I was honored to be invited back to St. Andrew’s by the Sea, in Little Compton, RI this weekend (and a few more times in the coming weeks). The readings can be found here; I focused mostly on the Proverbs reading and the Gospel.

 

One of my closest friends is a guy named Chris (that’s his real name; this isn’t an incriminating story). Chris and I grew up together. After high school, I began what would be a rather long journey through college, grad school, law school, and seminary. College wasn’t for Chris. He joined the Army, did a few tours in Iraq, was injured in a massive explosion, lived to tell the tale, and two weeks ago got engaged to a wonderful woman.

Chris and I are very close friends. We know each other well and have talked about a lot of diverse and incredibly complicated things. Chris is a smart person. I am a smart person. But the way that we understand and process information is very different.

The best way that I can describe this is in how Chris and I have studied and can discuss the Civil War. Chris knows a lot about the Civil War, far more than I do. He knows about the generals, the battles, the troop movements, and the military reasons for the success and failure of different campaigns.

I tend to view the world on a systemic level. And so my work on the Civil War has focused more on the systemic issues that were at play in causing the South treasonously leave the Union, what the actual reasons for the Civil war were for both the North and the South, and most importantly, the systemic issues and ramifications from before and after the Civil War that we are still dealing with today.

Spoiler Alert: Chris and I agree that in the south, the civil war was fought over the state’s right to have an economic system predicated on owning other humans. While the North had moved away from a slavery-based economy to an industrial economy that thrived by providing goods to the Antebellum south. But the soldiers on the Northern side didn’t fight to abolish slavery, as is commonly believed. The North fought to preserve the Union.

But that was just an aside. The real point of this story is to show that Chris and I are both very smart, and the two of us are able to have difficult conversations because we respect one another, even though we occasionally speak about the same things in different ways. We do, however, listen to one another and learn together.

I tell this story because I think it’s important to point out that intelligence comes in different forms and expressions. Some people are great at math. Some are great at remembering historical facts and figures. Some people are good at languages. Some people can fix machines. Or make things. Or understand children. Or dogs. Some people are organized. Some people can view the same issue from multiple angles and share what they learn. Some people can write beautifully and creatively. Some people can make art. Some can make us laugh

And we are all intelligent in our own ways.

Being intelligent, being smart, those are things that can be learned and developed, often in classrooms, but not always. I am filled with knowledge because of my time in classrooms.

I have come to appreciate a couple of things about knowledge. First, the more you know about something, the more knowledge you have in a field, the more you realize what you don’t know. And, also that there’s a big difference between knowledge and intelligence, and between knowledge and wisdom.

I’m an intelligent person. But my knowledge of the facts of the Civil War is small. That doesn’t make me unintelligent, it just makes me not an expert on the troop movements and the battles of the Civil War.

My buddy Chris is a smart guy. That he didn’t go to college doesn’t change that he’s a smart guy. And some of the things that he has seen and experienced have given him a wisdom beyond anything that I would be able to learn about in a classroom.

Readings like the ones we have today really make me consider the difference between intelligence and wisdom.

Readings like these encourage me to take a deep breath, and really consider the places where I am relying on my own intelligence instead of trusting the wisdom of God.

This is complicated because it can be really difficult to discern the wisdom of God. It’s difficult for a lot of reasons. But the biggest struggle for me is to figure out when it’s my knowledge talking, or God’s Wisdom. Or when it’s the world talking, instead of God’s Wisdom. Or a combination there of. Or one of those rare, blissful moments, when I’m actually on the same page as the Wisdom of God!

What the world says we should be doing is incredibly blinding. Especially when what the world, or society says is right aligns with what we want to do anyway!

There’s an example of this in the Gospel today. Jesus says that he will have to suffer and die, and Peter pulls Jesus aside to tell Jesus not to say those things.

I really appreciate the audacity of this scene. A guy, who is following Jesus to learn how to be more like Christ, is pulling Jesus aside to tell him he’s wrong.

I laugh at this scene. Until I remember that it happens every day. Every day.

Humans, every day, attempt to correct God about what is right, or best, or needed.

There are a lot of ways that we do this. A lot. I’m sure that as we sit here, a few thought bubbles of this are happening.

Throughout history, there has been an attempt to claim that God ordained something that humans wanted to do. The wars that Kings waged in Medieval Europe to expand empires. The Crusades. Manifest Destiny. Colonization. Slavery. Racism. Violent Jihad. The Prosperity Gospel. Violence against LGBTQ identifying people. Refusing to bake a cake for the wedding of those LGBTQ identifying people.

My point, is that this has been happening for as long as there have been humans trying to figure out the difference between what God wants and what we want.

I have a proposition. I propose that we, the humans who are alive now. I propose that we be the ones who finally, truly, honestly, and vulnerably, spend time to actually figure out the difference between what we want and what God wants.

Here are a couple of useful road signs, courtesy of Richard Roar: if something is violent, warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, or vain, it’s not of God.

Now, note, I’m not saying that we always have to do what God wants. I would suggest that we should. But what I’m suggesting is to be honest with ourselves and others about why we’re doing something; that’s actually all I’m looking for. You can still occasionally be greedy, or selfish, not violent or warlike or racist – let’s just get rid of those things, but I will be the first to admit, I’m vain at times.

But let’s own that it is us and our will, not us doing what we think God wants, when we are greedy, selfish, or vain.

For example: You’re against immigration. Fine. But why? And I ask that as a person who has spent a lot of time gaining knowledge about God and Scripture, and that knowledge leads me to believe that what Jesus said in the Scriptures is what I should be aiming for, and Jesus says to welcome the stranger. To treat everyone the way we would want to be treated.

You think being Gay or Trans is a sin. Fine. But own where that comes from, and that it is something within you, and not God. Because the word “Homosexual” wasn’t even invented until the last century. And God still looks at each of us and thinks we are perfect, including those who are born trans and those who are born gay (and believe me, you are born trans or gay, it’s not something one just wakes up and decides to be one day).

Think the races should be separate? Fine. But own the racism and hate within that belief, and don’t claim that God made it so. Because God made this beautiful rainbow of humanity. Every single color.

“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

How long do we need to live this way? How long do we need to ignore God, as she stands at the gates, waiting to be invited in. How long do we, as a collective we, not just individuals, how long will we leave God waiting?

How long will we set our minds on human things instead of Divine things? How long will we mistake our knowledge for the Wisdom of God? How many Civil Wars must be waged until we are finally able to admit when it is our will instead of God’s Wisdom?

How long until we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ?  For if we want to save our lives, we must lose them. Because, really, what do we actually gain if we gain all the things in the world, but forfeit our lives, and the reason we live?

What would you be willing to give up to follow Christ? Anything? What’s the one thing you would give up everything for? Does that point to love? If it points to love, it points to God.

And if it doesn’t, well…