Thursday, October 4, 2018

Esther's Story (and Ours)

Sermon given at All Saints Episcopal
Sunday, September 30, 2018
Proper 21b, Track 1

I don’t usually do this, but I do want to issue a content warning before I begin because today I will be touching on issues of sexual assault and violence.  If these topics are harmful to you, please do not hesitate to do what is right for you.

Many times in my life as a priest, I have found myself called to name the emotions in the air when the people I’m with may be struggling to do it for themselves.  There is power in naming what we are feeling and experiencing – it often deflates it a little, and makes it possible for us to attend to whatever it is that is going on.  So I feel like today I have to start by just naming that for many people it’s been a really hard couple of weeks.  My communication platforms have been full of stories from survivors of abuse in many and various forms.  These are stories of people I know and people I don’t.  These are stories of women, and men, and persons of nonbinary gender identities; of children to the elderly.  And when this amount of trauma is broken open, it becomes hard not to reflect on my own experiences of abuse, times when violation and harassment has happened to me too.  For many of us, it has been really, really hard.  So let’s start there.

Part of what has been so hard in hearing the sheer volume of these stories, is that we realize the amount of cruelty that is possible, the way people can viciously harm other people, is seemingly boundless.  The bulk of these stories have been told to no one.  Some tried to report the assault and still no justice was served.  It is those stories that so many survivors cite as the reason they have never come forward, and instead suffered in silence.  And I think part of the reality of life in America in the 21st century, is that our cultural narrative tells us that victims can seek justice, that people who have been assaulted and harmed should expect the perpetrator to be punished.  Yet, part of what has become painfully clear is that too often this is a false narrative.  While the laws have come a long way recently, making things like marital rape and sexual harassment illegal, the reality is people – particularly women – still experience this on a daily basis and often with little or no recourse.  These crimes are ones in which the victim is interrogated as if she did something wrong, to precipitate the attack.  Victims know this is the case, so they often decide not to be retraumatized by reporting the assault.  Furthermore, when a man can boast about grabbing women’s genitals with no repercussions and still be elected to the highest office in the world, we can no longer delude ourselves into believing victims can seek justice here. Thus, due to this absolute disconnect between perception and reality, there is a tremendous amount of suffering happening in our culture right now.

I know survivors I have worked with and many others are now asking the crucial and difficult question: so where is God in this?  Interestingly, today the lectionary has given us this snippet from the Book of Esther.  We don’t tend to be very familiar with Esther and that’s a shame.  Our Jewish siblings read the book of Esther in its entirety every year during Purim.  Indeed, the book was probably written to explain and codify the celebration of Purim – a sort of Halloween type event where the kids wear masks and there’s a dramatic reading of Esther.  It commemorates Queen Esther saving the Jewish people from annihilation, thus defeating anti-Semitism.  But it is about so much more than this.  It is about racism, and misogyny, and religious persecution, and salvation from all of that.  The story is set during the Exile – when the Jewish people were sent to Babylon and were forced to live among people who were culturally different from them and who didn’t share their religion.  So part of what Esther looks at is how can the Jews remain Jews while living in an a foreign land, without their Temple (which was God’s house on Earth), without respect for their culture, or their religious values?

By this time, Babylon has been conquered by Persia, and so the story is set in the Persian royal court in the capital of Susa.  Esther is an orphan who, probably as a young teen (like 12-14 years old) is swept up in a literal round up of beautiful virgins into the King’s harem.  Make no mistake: at this time, women are property, they have no rights or say in their life choices, and they were passed from their father’s possession into a husbands’ (who she did not choose).  We know that the King has already gotten rid of his wife Vashti because she refused to dance naked for him and his drunken friends.  You see, this is what happens when a woman asserted herself.  She refused to obey her husband’s demoralizing request, and so she is gotten rid of (perhaps killed – we don’t know).  And Vashti is made an example of for all wives as a warning of what happens to a woman who disobeys her husband.

So now Esther is in this harem of girls who spend one night with the King and can’t approach him ever again unless he summons them.  This is sexual servitude that is not consensual for these young girls.  Esther’s cousin/guardian, Mordecai, warns her not to tell anyone she is actually Jewish, so she doesn’t.  And because she is very beautiful the King selects her to be his new Queen.  Meanwhile, a villain named Haman rises to power within the King’s court and he tries to force Mordecai to bow to him, which as a Jew, he refuses to do.  So Haman plots to wipe out all of the Jewish people.  King Ahasuerus agrees and sends a royal decree that this genocide would occur on the 13th day of the 12th month of Adar.  The Jewish people have no recourse, no protection, no way to stop this atrocity.  The King has ordered it.  It will happen.  Mordecai implores Esther to go intercede with the King on their behalf.  But she hasn’t been summoned by him in a month and the penalty for going to him out of turn is death.  She knows being Queen does not protect her or release her from the consequence.  Mordecai responds: we die either way, so why not try?

Esther and Modecai and all the Jewish people ritually fast and pray for her.  Then, she approaches the King’s royal chamber, presumably with great fear and trepidation, and luckily he admits her.  She offers to throw him and Haman a banquet with lots of food and wine, and then one the next day.  Apparently, they are such good parties that the King offers her anything she wants, including half his kingdom.  This time, she asks for the life of herself and her people, the Jews, and she uncovers Haman’s plot against them.  For this, the King orders Haman’s death.  Mordecai is brought in and given Haman’s position.  Esther again asks the king to cancel the genocide, but he won’t stop it.  Instead, he proclaims the Jews are allowed to defend themselves against the attack.  And this is where it gets pretty violent.  So the Jews fight back, although the text indicates they killed “those who hate them.”  They end up doing this for two days, and on the third they feasted and rested.  The book ends with codifying this date and holiday of Purim to be kept henceforth.

So that’s the plot of the story in a nutshell.  What does it teach us?  Esther was a queen – by definition someone with a high level of power and status, and yet, she can be killed at the whim of the king.  Her social status, like a doctorate or professorship at a world class university of today, does not protect her from the ever changing will of powerful men.  The story takes pains to show the King and his officers as drunken, bumbling idiots.  And yet, they have complete power over literally everyone.  (Let that sink in.)  Furthermore, as a Jewish woman in Persia, her life is even more in jeopardy, and she must be very careful to stay true to her faith while also having to conform to the rules and expectations of the Persian culture she now finds herself a part of.  So she blends in.  She hides who she is, what has been done to her, the fact that she cannot exit the palace.  She cannot say no to the King’s desires.  When he calls her she must go to him.  Or die.  Yet, she prayerfully persists.  She survives.  And when she needs to take a stand, to risk her life and her people’s lives, she bravely tells the truth.  And because of this, they are spared, and the Jews prevail.  While I don’t love that they in turn killed their attackers, I think it’s crucial that the bible takes pains to say the Jews ‘killed those who hate them.’  Hate is what motivated the attempted genocide.  Racism, anti-Semitism, irrational fear of the other.  So as is often the case throughout the Bible, God says no.  And the Jewish people live.  Thanks be to God.

Patriarchy, racism, misogyny, rape, hatred, genocide – God worked through Esther and Mordecai – two of the least powerful people in the story – to change the outcome, to stop the inevitable.  Obviously, as this story is over two thousand years old, these horrors didn’t end there.  Esther’s triumph didn’t suddenly bring safety, equality, and the end of oppression forever.  Because whenever one group of people has more power than another, no one is truly safe.  And yet, what this story – and the whole of Scripture – tells us is that this is not God’s will for us.  We are called “for a time such as this,” as Mordecai says to Esther, to look for the ways we can end injustice and oppression, to stop harm from happening to people both interpersonally, and from powerful leaders, who see and treat people as if they are disposable, with hatred and disdain.  And we do it because this is obviously antithetical to Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.  What this story teaches us is that with prayer, and truth telling, and yes, even resistance, we can end injustice, because that is what God wants for us.  It’s not easy.  It’s scary.  It’s painful.  It’s dangerous.  And yet, as it was the community that came together in Esther’s time, so must we come together to do it now.  May God give us the bravery and faith of Esther to do this.  Amen.

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