Vicar's Sermon - 30th September 2018
I learned this week that Judaism recognises 7 female prophets. You will know them but, of course, not by their writings. Sarah was married to Abraham. Miriam was Moses’ sister. Deborah was one of Israel’s judges. Hannah gave birth to Samuel. Abigail was married to King David. Huldah took part in the renewal of the nation under King Josiah and finally Esther, Queen of the Persian King Ahasuerus (who also goes by the name of Xerxes). In contrast to priests in Israel who were born into the priesthood and exercised their ministry with the authority that comes from tradition and eternally valid truths prophets are ‘one offs’, their authority is received as a direct charism from God and their ministry was for a particular time and a particular moment in the people’s life. Such was Esther’s ministry, remembered through the book that bears her name, remembered every year in the Jewish calendar through the feast of Purim that celebrates her deeds but more often than not overlooked by the church. We have this reading today almost by accident: a few select verses offered to tempt us to read the whole book but Esther won’t appear for another few years after today…so make the most of it and listen up!
So what do we make of her? The basic story is this. Esther is a Jewess, an orphan being brought up by her Uncle Mordecai in the Persian city of Susa. King Ahasuerus, having fallen out with his Queen Vashti orders hundreds of girls to be presented before him at court and from them chooses Esther to be his Queen, not knowing that she is Jewish. Meanwhile the empire’s chief minister, Haman, decides that the Jewish community poses a threat to the body politic because it refuses to follow Persia’s laws. Haman decides that the whole people are to be killed and sets in train plans for their genocide. Our chapter brings us to the moment when Queen Esther reveals her true identity and pleads successfully for the Jewish people against their persecutor Haman.
I’d like to highlight just a few things from the overall story that we might learn from this morning.
Firstly, Esther is a story about personal responsibility. As we see in our passage events have brought about this moment in Esther’s life when she must act, she must take responsibility for herself, for her own life, but also for the life of her people. She has, till this point been a fairly passive heroine: stuff has happened to her. She has been under the care of her Uncle. She was then swept up in the King’s great beauty pageant and removed from her family into a life in the palace. For all the soft focus of the story (the perfumes, the ointments, the clothes and the attention of a personal valet) she must still be passively presented to the King for his pleasure (let the hearer understand). This is not the era of women’s rights or MeToo. How appropriate that we get this reading this week. This is a young woman being offered up against her will to a powerful man. She survives. More than this, she is given the Queen’s crown but she is there simply because she is a pretty face, she’s been judged by her looks (sounds all too familiar) and no one expects anything more of her.
And then Haman’s plans become known and, through Mordecai, Esther is challenged to act. Our faith endows human beings with great dignity and great responsibility. We are free. We are free agents. We are free to choose what we will become, what we will make of our lives. Our faith is not fatalistic: we are not driven by the Fates (as the Greeks were in their literature), unable to shape our destiny. Contrary to Freud we are not captive to the undisclosed urges of the human psyche. Against Marx we are not corralled by unseen economic forces, nor are we totally subservient to the influences we inherit through our genes as some might claim. All these things, ( the genes we inherit, our economic circumstances, our psychological makeup) have a power and a strength but they still do not negate the great gift of freewill granted to us by God. But with the gift of freedom comes responsibility. As people we can rise to this responsibility...or step away from it. We can choose by our action or inaction to make life hell …or we can set our minds on higher things and come close to the kingdom of heaven. So what will Esther choose?
So far she has been carried along in the story. Desired for her beauty. Nothing expected of her other than compliance with the King’s wishes but now she must become a moral agent in God’s world. She could choose just to save herself. That’s the thing: she could say nothing. No one in the palace knows that she is Jewish. Her life is safe. She could pretend ignorance of what is taking place around her and ignore Mordecai’s appeal ‘perhaps it was for such a time as this that you became Queen’. But she chooses to act not just for herself but for others too – and that’s the second thing we learn from her. God’s gift of moral freedom to us must find space to be concerned for our neighbour, not just for ourselves. The answer to the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ is a most definite ‘Yes, you are.’ Esther exemplifies this for us.
As an example of faith in action she lives up to her name. Esther means ‘star’, and she is that!...a star. From her we learn that we can be and do so much more than we (or others) might think. There she is, on the inside of the palace, cut off from her family and her faith community and yet she is the one who saves the nation, who averts massacre. Orphaned, removed from all that she knew and loved, abused, tempted by the wealth of the palace…who would have thought it. She steps up to the plate and makes a difference. How easy it is to ‘keep your head down’, to feign ignorance, to pass by on the other side, to make excuses not to act, to assume that someone else will address the problem. How hard to put your head above the parapet, to see a problem and know it must be addressed, to get involved, to feel the moral imperative and ‘do the right thing’ even when others are silent, or stand to the side and criticise.
More than this, (and this is our third point) she is prepared to acknowledge publicly ‘who she really is’. She pleads for her people and acknowledges that she is a Jew too. This is a moment of great danger for her. For all she knows the king might well favour Haman over her: by signalling her membership of the Jewish community she may well have sealed her own death warrant. But she is prepared to take that step. Esther confesses her faith. Her faith has been hidden but must now come to the fore. She is willing to identify with this group who are under sentence of death and by so doing she saves them. (Does that remind you of anybody?) Esther’s true identity is not as Queen or concubine, not as royalty in the Persian court, not as ‘the most beautiful girl in the known world’, not even as Mordecai’s niece: no, she is first and foremost a daughter of Israel and therefore one of God’s chosen people. With that comes an expectation that she will reveal Him and His light to the world in and through her life. Again, she could step back from this calling but that would be deny her true self, to live a life with her soul divided. She must become her true self – that means she must become an active agent for God’s purposes and sovereignty in His world. Christian people also know who they are and to whom they belong. We are Christ’s. He has anointed us not with the perfumes and lotions of the Persian palace but with His Spirit. He has set His seal upon us. We are called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves. This calling demands that we place ourselves alongside some of the most needy people in the world and, at times the most reviled. It asks that we share in their lives and their fate. It falls to us to put ourselves on the line for His names’ sake as Esther does for her people and as Christ has set us an example for the whole world.
So what does God ask of you? ...and can you rise to the responsibility that he places before you in your marriage, in your work, on your street, in this community. Perhaps it was for such a time as this that with the particular gifts and experiences that you have, you have been brought to this place in your life. Someone perhaps needs your voice to be heard, someone needs you to act on their behalf to speak up for them, someone needs to know that you stand with them in whatever difficulty they may be facing. You feel inadequate. Perhaps you feel unqualified. You don’t have the words. You’ve not done anything like this before. But you are a child of God and you can minister his grace and His goodness to a world that needs to know His love. The Book of Esther shows just what one person can do – they can save a nation. There is a saying in Judaism ; ‘the one who saves a life saves the whole world’ – someone needs you today. Pray that you might be there for them.