Listen to our service and sermon below:
It’s been a heavy week in our national news, and for many of us this week, the news has not just been the news, as in stories about things that happen to other people; the news has been about us, too. Our nation heard testimony this week that, in the words of one commentator, “unlocked a heavy door in America….” There were testimonies on Thursday on a national stage, but since then, for many of us, there have been other testimonies that are crying out to be heard. Some of us have been shocked or saddened by the stories that have started tumbling out of people we love. Some of us have been newly traumatized by the reawakening of our own memories and stories. Some of us have been reexamining understandings of things that have happened in our own lives or in the lives of people we care about. And as we have grown in our ability to articulate our testimonies, even when they’re painful, some of us have raised our hands online over the last year with the word, “#metoo.”
There are a lot of sad and difficult stories behind that heavy, unlocked door. And some of those stories are in this room. And some of those stories are in your lives and in your families.
And some of those stories are in this book we call sacred, that we call our Bible.
And the story of Esther is one of them, though we don’t usually think of it that way. Her story is beloved in the Jewish tradition, which points to the book of Esther as the basis for its raucous, celebratoryfestival of Purim. But the Book of Esther has received less love in the Christian tradition. It was one of the last books to make it into our Bible, it isn’t quoted anywhere in the New Testament, and the early church fathers rarely mentioned it. During the Reformation, Martin Luther particularly disliked it, saying, “I am so hostile to this book that I wish it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much, and has too much heathen naughtiness.” Throughout the centuries, there have been many Christian scholars, teachers, and preachers who have read Esther’s story through their own warped preconceptions. There are preachers in our own day and time who hold up Queen Esther as an example of moral and sexual sin. There are people who have tried to tell us what our Scriptures mean, and in doing so, they have wanted very much to shut this girl’s story down.
The Book of Esther is the story of power – who has it, who abuses it, who loses it, who uses it. And like the stories coming out of our own halls of power this week, this story starts with a party.
The king of Persia is a self-important buffoon who oversees a corrupt administration and throws a six-month party for all his officials in the capital, so he can show off his opulence. After the 180 days of that party, he hosts a seven-day feast for all the citizens of the capital, and, having already shown off his wealth, he now wishes to show off one of his most beautiful possessions, his wife, Queen Vashti. So he summons her to come out in her crown, and many Jewish scholars through the ages say it means for her to come out in only her crown. She refuses, the king is enraged, and a national crisis ensues. His advisers counsel him to banish her and strip her of her title, and he does, and and then they send out a royal decree throughout the kingdom “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.” (1:22) Here is the patriarchy, exerting its control over women and men and children and families.
But now the king needs a wife. And the way I learned this story growing up, there is a national beauty contest and the king selects the beautiful Esther to be his new queen. But that Disney version is not really how this story goes.
This is not a beauty contest. This is a story of young girls rounded up, taken from their homes and families, gathered into a harem, where they will be taught how to satisfy the king. Esther, a girl of maybe 13 or 14 years old, is an orphan raised by her cousin Mordecai, and she is taken. That is the word for it in the Scriptures – she is taken. In other words, she is trafficked. This is human trafficking, even if the words aren’t there. But it’s such a fact of life that there is no word of judgment or condemnation in our Scripture. So we get people who instead save their judgment for Esther and the women – young girls – in the harem.
After a year of preparation, the girls are sent in to the king, night by night, one by one. And morning by morning, one by one, the king sends them away, not to come back until he calls for them. To be clear – these teenage girls are not free to go, nor is he making any one of them his wife. He keeps these teenage girls as his concubines, his harem, his property – a collection of young women he’ll keep for himself to be used whenever he pleases.
And now it is young Esther’s turn. And after a night with her, the king decides he has to have this one as his new queen, and so he does.
That’s not the way I was told the story – were you? I’m sorry to take away the Disney version. But this was not a beauty contest, this was not a love story, and this was not the story of some young woman trying to climb into power. Esther was an orphan. Esther was an ethnic minority. And Esther was exploited. Which was so common that that’s not the way it’s told or remembered. In a patriarchal culture, a girl in her situation had no ownership over her own body, no control over her own choices, and no voice in her own treatment. When we unlock the heavy door of the history of the world, this is what we will see, if we can face it: the subjugation of women and girls, the use and abuse of ethnic minorities, the vulnerability of orphans and widows, and the propensity for the dominant culture not to notice or remember any of it.
But here is what we will also see when we unlock that heavy door: survivors. Esther does not have choice, voice, or ownership. But like so many people in her circumstances throughout the centuries, she is not only a victim; she is a survivor.
Part of what Esther does to survive as a Jew in the Persian Empire is to keep her ethnic identity secret, as her cousin Mordecai has directed her to do. But then Mordecai himself exposes the secret, by refusing to bow down to Haman, the king’s right-hand man. Haman is enraged and sometimes when anger-driven men have unlimited power, they use it for their own whims. So Haman plots to destroy the Jews, all of them. He picks a date for the extermination, and then the king, who is lazy and foolish and very moldable to other people’s whims, listens to Haman’s lies and asks no questions. He signs the decree. The decree goes out: all Jews, young and old, women and children and men, will be destroyed, killed, and annihilated. (All three of those words, just in case there was any question what is to happen to the Jews.)
The Jews mourn and fast and weep, and Mordecai sends word to Esther, directing her to go to the king to beg for mercy for her people. Now the king does not know that these are her people; he doesn’t even know that the people Haman had him sign the decree against are Jews – it’s irrelevant to him. Esther sends word back to Mordecai, reminding him of what everyone knows: No one can approach the king without being invited, not even is wife – anyone who does so is to be put to death, unless the king holds out the golden scepter. Esther has not been summoned to the king for a month.
Mordecai receives her reply and sends back his own: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent 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 such a time as this.”
What does a survivor do, when there are no good choices? What does a survivor do, when the choice is between possible death and certain annihilation? This is the thing about being a survivor. A survivor may have had no choice, voice, or ownership – but she still has power. She still has the power to be who she really is. She has the power to claim her identity. She has the power to link herself with her people, whomever those people may be. She has the power of hope in the face of uncertainty. Esther steps into that power. She tells her cousin to gather all the Jews he can find and hold a fast on her behalf for three days; she and her maids will do the same. Then she will go to the king, though it is against the law. “And if I perish, I perish.” And her cousin Mordecai goes and does everything she has ordered.
She does go. Uninvited, breaking the law, risking her life. And the king holds out his golden scepter to her. Esther is a survivor and she will survive. The king asks what her request is. What she wants is her life – and the lives of her people. And now the secrets all come – Esther is a Jew; Haman has plotted to kill them all. And by the end of the story, all these men – the king, Haman, and Mordecai – their lives are directed by this young girl’s words. In the end, Haman is killed, the Jews survive, Mordecai is rewarded. And the Jews celebrate with their raucous festival. It was not the first, nor would it be the last time that people in power tried to get rid of the Jews. There is an old joke that says that all Jewish holidays can be summed up in the same way: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” In this case, they survived because of one young survivor’s courage in the face of uncertainty and risk.
One of the reasons this story has not always gotten very much love from Christians through the ages is because God is never mentioned in it, not by name. There are no prayers, no theological statements, no prophets, no miracles. In the Book of Esther, the king is referred to 190 times; God is mentioned zero. A lot of Christians haven’t liked that very much.
But it is the seeming absence of God that actually makes this book’s very theological point: God moves behind and beyond the scenes, a silent, hidden force, made manifest through human choice and action. And not just any human – a teenage girl. God is able to work in any situation when people are open to that possibility and are willing to act decisively – even when there’s no certainty about how things will turn out, even when it seems there’s no way they possibly can. we aren’t sure things will work out, or can’t see how they possibly can.
A young girl – 13, 14, 15 – was not created by God to be used, abused, assaulted, humiliated, ridiculed, objectified by anyone else. A young girl – or any child for that matter, or any adult for that matter – was not created by God to be treated as anything less than a child of God. And yet. We know the stories. We’ve heard the stories. We’ve lived the stories. And we must not be afraid to listen, to hear, to believe, to bear, to unlock the heavy door and see what light might shine if we can first be honest about all the darkness. We must not be afraid to listen to the stories, including our own. Listen to your own hurt. Listen to your own heart. Listen to what your life is trying to tell you. And listen for God in it.
Because there is nothing – there is nothing – that has happened to you that can shut down God’s possibility in your life. There is no place you have been that cannot be a starting point for you to step into that power. There is nothing anyone else has done or can do, nothing anyone else has said or can say, that can take away who you really are. You are a child of God.
Once upon a time, you may not have had a voice, a choice, or ownership of all you should have. But you do have this power: you are a child of God. You are a survivor. And you are meant to be a light. So who knows? Perhaps you have come to this moment in your life for such a time as this.
 Scott Simon, “Opinion: Christine Blasey Ford’s Moving Testimony,” Weekend Edition, September 29, 2018
 Sidnie White Crawford, “Esther,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume III, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 868-9.
 Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22,” Working Preacher, September 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2631