September 27, 2015 – For such a time as this

Pentecost 18   9/27/15 James 1:1-8,5:13-20; Esther 4:1-3,10-17,  

For such a time as this

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Sandwiched between our readings from the letter of James – most Jewish of all New Testament letters – is our reading from Esther – perhaps most controversial of all Old Testament books among Jewish teachers of old…

James, brother of Jesus, is deeply rooted in Jewish traditions. He reveres Torah (the Law of God). He highlights the names of Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah, whose steadfast faith is expressed in their works… He knows his way around in the local synagogue and the Jerusalem temple…

The book of Esther, on the other hand, is the only book in the bible in which the name of God is never mentioned. In Esther no prayers are heard, no visible signs of worship (other than fasting) appear. Stylistically, Esther is closer to the Persian novelistic literature of its day than to other books of the bible. Which troubled Rabbis of old sufficiently to delay Esther’s acceptance…Though, over time, as teachers came to recognize the beauty of the hidden-hand-of-God-at-work in the story, they accepted Esther as sacred scripture.

James, similarly, was one of a handful of New Testament writings that took longer to be accepted as scripture by the church. James, it was sometimes said, sounds more like an Old Testament prophet than a New Testament letter… Jesus is only mentioned twice in the letter. The word grace never appears. But, like Esther, over time, James was accepted as holy scripture. (It often takes time for the message of prophets to be appreciated… as a life-saving word…)

And perhaps the story of Esther is also a prophetic book… For just such a time as this….

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Once upon a time, King Ahasueres – also known as Xerxes – ruled over the vast Persian empire. When we first meet King Xerxes, he’s putting on a grand banquet and drinking festival for his staff and political supporters that continues without a break for 180 days. (Even in famously party-hearty ancient Persia that’s a long banquet.) The king then follows up with a seven-day-banquet for all the men of the city, great and humble, with a very big open-bar. As the party’s in full swing, Xerxes sends for Queen Vashti, his wife, who’s been hosting a woman’s banquet. ‘Come over to my banquet, honey; show your face to my guests…’ he says. (Some Rabbis of old say she was expected to show more than just her face.) Vashti says no. (Even showing up well-robed before a huge crowd of men who’ve been drinking night and day for a week…was considered over-the-top, even by royal Persian standards, bible commentaries tell us…)

King Xerxes gets very angry, but doesn’t know what to do – so he does what kings do when they don’t know what to do. He calls in political consultants, and asks: ‘What should be the punishment for a Queen who disobeys?’

‘Make her stay out of your palace’ advisors say. Keeping her away from where she’s refusing to go sounds like funny logic to me… But these advisors are wise in the ways of the world. They’re concerned about precedents. Once other women hear what Queen Vashti’s up to, what’s to keep all of them from saying no to their husbands? So the consultants tell the king ‘send a royal command throughout the land: ‘Wives obey your husbands!’ (We never hear exactly how that goes over….but…)

Finally the advisors get creative and propose The Miss Persia Contest. ‘We’ll bring in all the young beauties in the land, each to spend a night with you. You pick the winner. She’s your Queen.’ The king nods, the contest is on…

I want to say ‘this is a story made for Hollywood.’ Except it’s been done rather badly by Hollywood half a dozen times. And now we learn… Living in exile in Persia, is a beautiful young Jewish woman, named Hadassah, which means “Myrtle,” which may be why she goes by her Persian name, Esther, meaning “star,” as in star of the drama. Young and beautiful Esther’s an orphan. She’s been raised by her older cousin Mordecai. (History channel note: Israel was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC; its nobility and many others were sent into exile in Babylon. Later Babylon was conquered by the Persian Empire; now most Jews went back to Israel, but some remained…)

Esther wins the contest and becomes Queen Esther; keeping her Jewish identity secret all the while, as cousin Mordecai instructs. Meanwhile, Mordecai, who is an official in the royal Persian court, overhears a plot to overthrow King Xerxes, and tells the king, and the plot is squelched. But the king forgets Mordecai’s loyalty, and a wicked man named Haman, rises to become chief of staff to King Xerxes. By royal decree, everyone’s supposed to bow down to Haman. But Mordecai, who makes no secret of being Jewish, refuses to bow. This enrages Haman, who persuades Xerxes (who predictably does whatever advisors say) to issue an order for genocide against all Jews anywhere in the empire.

The deal is done, the word goes out… Mordecai, still well-connected in the royal court in spite of being Haman’s enemy, hears the news first. He tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and weeps and wails. Jews from all over hear the news and put on sackcloth too. Mordecai sends a message to Esther; ‘Go to the king, beg and plead for mercy for our people.’

Esther sends word back: ‘No one may approach the king without being summoned. Unless the king extends his wand, I’ll be dead. I haven’t been called by the king for a month now. I don’t think this is a good idea.’

‘You and all your family will all be dead for sure if you don’t act,’ Mordecai sends word back. ‘Don’t think your privileged position inside the palace will make any difference. But who knows? Perhaps you have come to be in the royal palace for just such a time as this.’

Esther says, ‘Gather all the Jews; have them fast for me. Don’t eat or drink for three days. My attendants and I will fast also. After that I’ll go to the king, even though it’s against the law. And if I perish, I perish.’

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Esther is a deceptively simple drama about Jews living in exile, away from their homeland, without the once familiar social infrastructure of temple and synagogue. A drama also about people anywhere, living apart from our true homeland in God. And perhaps the name of God – and prayer – and worship are never mentioned in Esther – to prompt us to think harder, longer, deeper about the ways we too, sometimes live as if apart from God… Afraid perhaps, like Esther, of entering our King’s presence… Projecting what we know of the world’s rulers onto God… Many among us barely mentioning (perhaps barely thinking) of God…And the more I ponder the more I’m convinced – Esther is a very post-modern story for times just such as this… When so many seem oblivious to God’s presence… Even while (consciously or unconsciously) deeply hoping… for God to be present… and bring meaning and redemption to the times…

And part of our take-away today is that God is (amazingly enough) quite willing to use humor, romance, drama, and whatever it takes to get our attention. Remaining off-camera, out of sight, the un-named, as the unseen Director-Producer who makes happy and blessed endings…even against all odds…

We may remember… how the Jews escape genocide at the hands of wicked Haman. And ever since, the Jewish people celebrate the Day of Purim – first with fasting in remembrance, then with feasting, in cheerful parody of the innumerable, sometimes ridiculous banquets in Esther. Purim also features giving of money to the poor (an ironic reversal of Haman’s pledge of silver to fund genocide)…

The date of Haman’s planned holocaust is chosen by casting lots, called Pur. Now the day of celebration of the saving of the Jews is called Purim in an ironic turn of phrase. The book of Esther and Purim are all about dramatic ironic reversals of the plans of the wicked. A lot of cheerful hyperbole is built-in to the celebration. People dress in costumes, like a sanctified halloween and sing funny songs. (If you search Purim songs at You Tube you’ll find Rabbis doing hip hop Purim rap and gangnam-style Purim singing and dancing.) Adult celebrants are encouraged by ancient Rabbinic writings to drink til they can’t tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai.’ (This is probably a spiritual metaphor for becoming intoxicated with the love of God, as in Song of Solomon… But however you interpret, do not try this without proper rabbinic supervision…)

Esther is a sacred story. Probably not, however, to be taken overly literally. The extreme violence near the end, where Jews take gruesome revenge on enemies is surely a parable about spiritual warfare, designed to teach everyone to treat all God’s chosen people well….

Which brings us to consider: How should we hear the word of God speaking to us in the interplay of holy Scripture? In Esther’s drama, and in James’ cry for peace, wisdom, faith, justice, love? Is not hearing the word of God speaking to us in the present our daily work of faith? Has not God brought each of us to where we are – for just such a time as this? Is not God asking each of us, as Esther was asked long ago – what risks are we willing to take for our faith?

These have not been merely theoretical questions for the Jewish people. Living in exile has been the Jewish national story, from the time of the wandering patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis, through 400 years of slavery in Egypt…Through Babylonian and Persian exile… Through the crusades, when nominally Christian nations stole their lands and goods, through persecution in nominally Christian Russia and Europe…Through the holocaust in nominally Christian Germany… To the present…And…

What are you willing to risk for your faith? Was not a theoretical question for the early church either – as the Roman Empire struck back in many attempts to crush this movement that threatened the foundations of Empire… and…

What are we willing to risk for our faith? Is still today’s question…

As James bluntly warns – as Pope Francis gently reminds – compared to most of the world – compared with most Christians in the Global South – we’re royally privileged here in America… And like Esther, we sometimes need to be reminded – God expects our faith to be made evident, as James, Jesus, and Esther alike all tell us – in how we respond to the needs of the least of all God’s family…

Jesus tells us, “from those to whom much is given – from us, that is – much will be expected.” The test of our faith is whether our deeds match our words. So pray always (as James says). Sing praise to God without ceasing. Confess sins, pray all the more for one another. Remind each other often – as Mordecai reminds Esther, and the word of God reminds us all – God has called us to faith –

for just such a time as this.

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Pray with me: Thank you dear God, that you are the One True King of the universe. We come into your gracious presence with confidence, knowing your love, through Jesus Christ, who is your perfect Yes to all our deepest prayers… Help us listen always for his voice, your living Word – and answer yes to all you ask. Knowing you ask always in love… Thanks be to God. Amen.