Rev. Jessica Palys
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As we conclude our series of Biblical Women that are largely unknown - or misrepresented - we come to Queen Esther, a tale of reversals rich in characters, rich in irony and rich in timely rhetorical questions. The book of Esther tells the story of the survival and triumph of a group of people - the nation of Israel - living in a state of anxiety with their survival dependent on the whims of others. Using the temperament of the King and the maneuvers of the villain Haman, The story illustrates the precariousness of living as a Jew in a foreign land, with rulers who are at turns impulsive or hostile. Just as so many of our featured women hold national symbolism for the concerns that plague the Jews themselves, in this story behind the political intrigue and ironic reversals, the story speaks to peoples’ fear that their families, their community, and their culture may not survive. For centuries, Jews have continued to revel in an ancient story of being the victor while continuing to live as minority group in an outer culture at times tolerant, at times hostile to their values. As history progressed out of Old Testament times, Jews around the world continued to celebrate this story with the holiday of Purim, even as they continued to exist as a minority group vulnerable to the forces surrounding them. Because, perhaps the story was for such a time as this…
So first, we meet feminist icon Queen Vashti. This woman was obviously a second-wave feminist, in that she did not feel like appearing when summoned just to pirouette and smile for the adoring male onlookers. She refuses. And then there is a comic passage where all the noble men of the kingdom plead with the King to banish his wife, for how will any of them have any authority to boss their own wives around if the King can’t boss his own Queen around!?!? (It certainly sounds like the 70’s!) So, after the King has secured the manhood of all the husbands in the village by banishing his Queen Vashti, we have our opening for Esther. The writers take care to tell us Esther is a Jewish orphan. According to the Women’s Bible Commentary, this means she is “the least powerful member (orphan) of the least powerful gender (female) of a powerless people (Jews) in the mighty Persian Empire.” This is a mirror image of the Hebrew people in exile - without the security, identity, or rootedness of family. In this role, in this story, Esther is a stand-in for the nation itself; a relatively powerless entity just trying to survive until she finds herself in a dangerous situation where she must use every trick and ounce of cleverness she has to become a victor and save her people.
Now Uncle Mordecai has pricked the anger of a fully egotistical official, Haman, by ignoring the king’s decree to bow. And Haman, reasonable fellow that he is, has decided that all the Jews in the kingdom must suffer for this one man’s insolence. And there is great panic and the city of Susa is bewildered - all while Haman and the King sit down to drink. (again.)
And so Mordecai seeks out Esther. Esther, despite her position of relative privilege and safety compared to other Jews, is at first paralyzed by fear for her future. You can almost hear her saying, “what do you want *me* to do about it?” As readers, we are told about the former Queen Vashti to illustrate how impulsively the King can turn to cruelty: displease him briefly and you can be exiled. Disobey and you can lose everything – your home, your status, your livelihood, your safety. Request his attention when he doesn’t feel like giving it, and it could result in your death. Esther recognizes the parameters under which she lives, and the anticipation of disaster makes her reluctant to violate them. She would much rather keep her distance and her comfort and take a pass on this particular task.
But for such a time as this…
Mordecai, who plays both the wise father figure and the prideful old goat who caused this crisis, contacts Esther as her conscience. One of the things I love about this story is how relatable the characters are. I mean, we all have a prideful old goat in our lives who seems to take pleasure in defying customs or challenging authority, right? Some versions of this story say that Mordecai refused to bow to Haman because it would violate his religious beliefs - but there’s no strict reading of the Jewish law that prevents one from bowing to civic authorities. More likely it’s an ancient tribal grudge that began this dispute, which grew to genocidal proportions - and now Mordecai needs a rescuer. So he turns to Esther, who also feels like someone we know… Who among us hasn’t wanted to be picked as the belle of the ball? Who among us hasn’t wished to be selected from a crowd and favored by someone powerful? Who among us hasn’t dreamed about being set apart for a life of relative ease and comfort? And who among us doesn’t hesitate when we are asked to do something that may risk that comfort and status?
But for such a time as this…
The situation is dire, and Esther has run through all her excuses when Mordecai lays out for Esther the real choice: perhaps you have come into the royal court for such a time as this. Perhaps God is using you in this time of extreme peril to safeguard God’s people and God’s purpose. Perhaps you shone above the rest and were given this place of privilege to use your power for others in just this way.
Our Heroine’s story this morning poses the timeless question to the reader: What is it that God requires of you for such a time as this? Here we are in the middle of a global pandemic where half of our country won’t take the prescribed medicine while half of the world can’t get the prescribed medicine. Here we are in the midst of a foreign crisis entirely of our own making, but it is those in Kabul left bewildered and terrified. Here we are, in an economic system where no one working on minimum wage can afford to rent a 2-bedroom in any city in this country. Here we are in the country that that peddles luxury and convenience no matter how much energy it requires while the UN has issued the most dire climate report to date, giving us approximately 10 years to make drastic changes. Here we are in a city with a poverty rate of 16.1%, where one of every 6 people you meet are living below the poverty line (but that jumps above 25% when it’s a person of color) according to WelfareInfo.org.
And so Esther’s story begs the question - what power were we given for such a time as this?
Will God intervene in our world directly, or are we expected to take action on God’s behalf? What kind of risks are we willing to take on behalf of those vulnerable and threatened? Did God help us in our journeys so that we might be useful in building God’s kingdom? Where are we complicit with cultural or political powers in hopes to maintain our own status and privilege, but unable to imagine how to help someone less privileged than we? Where God has presented opportunities in our path where it’s up to us to act on them? How might God be preparing us to step forward to speak truth to power - and what happens when that power is *us*? Perhaps we need to see beyond the anticipated risk, and beyond the fear of loss to a greater future that will require your courage, your participation, and your voice.
Our world needs more Esthers, more people willing to step into the hard places we fear with a word of truth and sacrifice, compassion, and life. Perhaps we will have to lean on each other, and ask for fasting and prayer like Esther. Perhaps it is the wisdom of one who knows, like Mordecai, that we need to give us a push. Perhaps we will need to rely on the crowd around us to help us see and hear the greater future that lies beyond this moment, beyond such a time as this. The faithful life requires that we hold these two truths in tension; that we both make our own way by proactively using the gifts God has given us toward our own flourishing, and thank God for the circumstances that allow us to do so. But we, too, are a part of God’s story - right here, right now, in such a time *as* this. The story of Esther provokes us to gather the courage we need and be proactive to bring about the change the world needs!
Through the wisdom and encouragement of Mordecai, Esther finds courage to raise her voice to stand up for her people. She uses her position, a position that she has gained for such a time as this. Perhaps it is up to us to use our power to speak about the ways in which the world can be changed in such a time as this. We can get stuck in the paralysis of anxiety or fear, we can get overwhelmed, or we can look for the opportunities we have set before us and ask God for the courage to move forward to a greater future that lies beyond. Perhaps the opportunities that lie before us are there for the seizing, where our courage and God’s will merge. Perhaps God will use us as a tool to bring us to a greater future beyond. Perhaps the church has been set aside for such a time as this. Perhaps, in such times as this, we are called to be resolved, to be courageous, to risk and in so doing, to learn something about ourselves and the power of our relationships to enter us into the kingdom - God’s kingdom where justice reigns, all people are valued and all people contribute, to create a future of greater possibility, greater hope, greater security, and greater love for all. May it be so. Amen.