Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sermon, "Women of the Bible: Vashti and Esther," Esther 1:1-2:4, Esther 4

Sermon 7/23/17
Esther 1:1-2:4, 4

Women of the Bible: Vashti and Esther


            Today we’re looking at the story of two women, two queens, Vashti and Esther. The book of Esther is a fairly short book, set in the time of exile. Remember, Israel had been conquered by foreign rulers, and many Israelites had been sent away from Israel to live in foreign lands. Some Jews find themselves living in the kingdom of Persia, under the rule of a man named King Ahasuerus, who is known elsewhere as King Xerxes. Persia is in the region we know today as Iran.
Esther is unique in being one of only two books of the Bible named for women – we read from the other, the book of Ruth, two weeks ago – but it is also one of only two book of the Bible that doesn’t explicitly mention God anywhere. (The other is Song of Songs.) So why is this book part of the scriptures you might wonder, if God isn’t mentioned? Today we’ll talk about this story of Esther, and see if we can see God woven throughout this text, even when God isn’t explicitly named.
Ahasuerus gives a banquet for the leaders of his government, including military figures and nobles of the region. The display of his wealth and splendor and pomp goes on for 6 straight months. And at the end of that lavish party, he gives another party, this one 7 days long, for all of the people present in the citadel – higher ups and regular folk. The scripture describes the extravagant decorations, food, and festivities in detail. We read that drinking was “without restraint,” and that the king ordered everyone to do just as they desired. At the same time, Vashti was giving a party for the women of the palace.
On the last day of festivities, Ahasuerus orders his servants to bring Queen Vashti before him and his guests, wearing her crown, so his officials can see her beauty. And Vashti refuses to come. We’re not told why. In fact, we never hear Vashti speak a word. Readers of the Bible have imagined a variety of possible reasons over the millennia for her refusal, including everything from her being ill, to being modest, to being unhappy with her appearance that day, to being simply stubborn. But to me, it seems pretty obvious why she doesn’t want to appear. She’s being ordered to present herself to be stared at by a large group of very drunk men. It feels like a demeaning command, and one that would leave her vulnerable. So she refuses. The king is enraged, and he seeks to impose the harshest punishment possible. For a woman in her time and context, her actions are actually illegal. She’s not allowed to refuse the king this way! And her bold refusal might stir up other women to question the commands of their husbands! So, Vashti is permanently banished from the king’s presence, and letters go out from the king declaring that “every man should be master in his own house.” And then, a group of young women are collected together to undergo beauty treatments, so one of them can be chosen as a new queen for Ahasuerus. Although we never hear Vashti speak, I can’t help but admire whatever led her to refuse the king. It seems it was the only power she had at her disposal, and she used it.
Her banishment paves the way for a young Jewish woman named Esther to be chosen as queen instead. Esther has been raised by her cousin, a man named Mordechai, because Esther was an orphan. She was raised as Mordechai’s own daughter. When Esther is made queen, Mordechai tells her not to reveal her Jewish identity, and she obeys. She is loved and admired by the king and his court, and showered with gifts. Mordechai somehow also uncovers a plot to kill the king, and through Esther, the king is warned, further putting Esther in the king’s good graces.
Eventually, though, Haman, a high-ranking official promoted by the king, is insulted by Mordechai, who fails to bow when Haman enters the city gates. Haman isn’t satisfied just to punish Mordecai though, so he decides that he will try to have all Jews in the whole kingdom put to death. He suggests to the king that it’s not right to have these people, these Jews, scattered through the kingdom who have different laws and practices than everyone else. “It is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them,” he says. Haman offers to pay a lot of money to the king for the right to have them all put to death, and the king agrees. A date for the execution of all the Jews, men, women, young and old is set.
When Mordechai hears what is happening, he puts on sackcloth and ashes, a sign of mourning. All the Jewish people fast and weep and lament. And Mordechai appeals to Esther to beg the king for mercy. But Esther is scared. No one goes to the king without being summoned. And look what happened to Vashti! She can’t risk it. She could be put to death! Mordechai speaks to her bluntly: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Finally, she agrees to go. She asks Mordechai to fast on her behalf. And she says, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” Fortunately, she finds favor with the king, receives an audience, and saves her people from death.
            The book of Esther is about this moment of truth: when crisis comes our way, when conflict comes, what will we do? What is safe, or what is right? What is comfortable, or what is hard, but just? What protects ourselves, or what will serve God and serve others? It isn’t an easy question to answer. But we have to ask it of ourselves, again and again.
            Some of you may know the famous poem penned by Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller during World War II. He has a compelling story of transformation, and over time, he became more opposed to and more outspoken about Hitler and Nazism. He wrote about our tendency to not speak up for others as long as we ourselves are safe. He wrote, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
            I was thinking about Niemöller’s poem as I thought of Esther. It was so tempting to stay silent, even as her own people were being set up for slaughter, because speaking up might mean forfeiting her own life. What does it take for us to be moved to speak on behalf of someone else who is being wronged, hurt, threatened, mistreated? What does it take for us to speak up for what we believe is right, when doing so would put ourselves at risk? When by staying silent, we might be able to remain comfortable and safe? Esther could have stayed quiet and played it safe. I think perhaps a large part of her wanted to stay quiet. I know that would have been my impulse. Who could blame someone for wanting to protect their own life? Mordechai helps Esther see things differently. Perhaps Esther – a Jewish woman who somehow ended up as Queen of Persia – perhaps Esther is where she is when she is for just such a time as this, for just such a purpose as this – standing up for a whole people.  
            Remember earlier this summer, when we talked about Sarah and her long-awaited child, and about kairos, God’s right time for action? God’s right time, kairos time, is all over this story. Esther is in just the right place at just the right time to act for God, for others. So where has God placed you? Where are you now, in the right time and the right place to serve God? Who are you in just the right place at just the right time to serve?
            Is God explicitly mentioned in Esther? No. But God is all over Esther’s story, and working so clearly in Esther’s life. Is God’s work in our life so clear? Can we see God written all over the stories of our lives? Sometimes I hear Christians lamenting a diminishing of Christianity in the public sphere. People might mentioned prayer in public schools, or the separation of church and state, or settings becoming more secular that once seemed more steeped in religious language and practice. But I have to tell you, I’m not too worried about these things. Because I think that our lives can have God written all over them, like Esther’s life eventually does, when our actions are steeped in following God’s call. You might work and live and move in a “secular” setting, but your discipleship and faithfulness and openness to God’s call can be seen in all that you do. Your voice, speaking up for those who are in desperate need, is a voice of faith, a sign of God at work in the world, and at work in you.
            Who knows, friends, but that God has called you for just this time, and just this place? How will you answer that call? Amen.