“For Such a Time As This”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 9, 2018
University Baptist Church
The Story of Esther:
My name is Esther. Some people call me Queen Esther. I don’t like what that implies: too much power, too much attention. It’s a dangerous position.
The former queen, Vashti, got a little too brazen in criticizing the king. She lost her head, so to speak. The King had a banquet for his noblemen—a seven-day drunken feast designed to celebrate how great they were. Women weren’t allowed, so Vashti held her own party for the women. The King wanted to parade her in front of his noblemen. But she, being the good hostess, refused to leave her own party to be an object of ogling. The King got back at her by holding a beauty contest for a replacement Queen. That’s how I became queen, by winning the Miss Persia pageant. So it was my looks that got me my station, but it was my wits that let me keep it.
So, I entered the role not wanting to make waves. When Haman, the King’s chief of staff, oppressed the Jews, I looked the other way. That’s my confession. I didn’t want to die. Maybe I could soften the King who would then soften Haman. I tried, but it didn’t work.
What really challenged me was my cousin Mordecai. He raised me after my parents died and even entered me in the Miss Persian Pageant. He had this annoying habit of organizing protests. Haman ordered everyone to bow to him. What a fragile ego. When Mordecai refused, Haman plotted to destroy all of the Jews. It was guilt by race. If one Jew did wrong, then all Jews must be bad. Day after day, they were there calling out the palace for their oppression. It was uncomfortable, let me tell you. I retreated further in, away from the noise, the discomfort. It’s serene inside the castle. It can almost make you forget who you are. Mordecai tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes and wailed. Day in and day out. I tried to give him clean clothes to wear, but he refused them.
Then he told me something that cut me to the core. He reminded me of my Jewish heritage and that it was my own people who were being persecuted while I lived in relative ease in the palace. He said, “do not think that in the King’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence 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 just such a time as this.”
Now I have a choice. What should I do: live a life of safety and security in the palace, or risk it all and maybe die trying? What would you do?
How ironic that the anonymous story of from inside the White House broke the very week that we were going to look at Esther.
Read Esther this week and see the parallels. The King and Haman are both people who can’t take criticism. If someone has a beef with them, they persecute their accusers and their families. Haman and Xerxes are cartoonish. They’re paranoid and kinda drunk on their own power.
What they don’t count on is someone within their hallowed walls who is colluding with the outcasts.
Mordecai gives Esther the encouragement to remember who she is. She’s not just the beautiful Queen. She’s a secret Jew who has learned a thing or two about organizing from her uncle Mordecai. Perhaps she was given royal authority for such a time as this.
As the story unfolds, she takes a risk and asks for a meal with the king. To ask such a thing could get you killed. Just ask Vashti’s friends. But Esther does so anyway. She asks the king to have a dinner with her and Haman. The king obliges and in his drunken stupor promises to give Esther anything she wants, up to half of his kingdom. Esther asks him for another dinner party.
Haman is so proud of the favor that he has with not only Xerxes, but also Esther that he goes out and brags about his wealth and his power. But he can’t get Mordecai and his insolence out of his mind. Everyone bows to him except Mordecai. He orders a gallows to be made for Mordecai’s public hanging. Haman issues orders to kill the Jews because Mordecai is an obstinate Jew.
Meanwhile, the king can’t sleep so he has his scribes read to him the King’s history. Nothing like self-aggrandizing history to put you to sleep. The scribes pick which stories to tell him. People who write history, make history. But they include in the story telling a tale about how Mordecai stopped a plot to kill the king. The King is shocked and wants to know this Mordecai and give him the honor he deserves. So he summons Haman and says, “what should we do for someone so important, so vital to our success?” Haman, of course thinks the king is talking about him. So he says, prepare a feast for him. clothe him in royal clothes, give him a ring and a crown. Heck, let’s have a military parade while we’re at it. No expense is too much. The King says the Haman do this…for Mordecai. You can just hear the wind go out of his sails. Haman start to unravel.
Mordecai gets treated like a king. Haman, who could not get Mordecai to bow to him, now has to lead a royal –looking Mordecai around and watch others bow to Moredcai. Haman had people bow to him because of their fear. Moredecai had people bow to him because of his bravery. In my mind’s eye I see Haman, dripping with sweat, filled with rage and stuck in a cycle of anger and shame. It’s the beginning of his end.
The King again feasts at a banquet set by Esther. He again asks her what she wants. She says give me life for me and my people. He grants the wish. She then reveals that like Mordecai, I am a Jew and Haman has ordered that we all be killed. Haman hangs from the gallows he had made for Mordecai.
It’s a bloody book. And not for the faint of heart.
God is not mentioned in it, but is always off to the side watching.
Mordecai becomes ruthless in the end, perhaps even worse than Haman. Maybe it’s good that God is absent form the story.
According to the caricature, Haman is a megalomaniac who can’t stand it when anyone disagrees with him. He obviously had something wrong with him. Was he not held enough as a baby? Was he dropped on his head? Abused? Was he short, as some have supposed? Or was this a cartoon, a caricature of power running amok? This is a tragic picture of self-destruction.
There are some hopeful things in the book. First is Esther who speaks truth to power, but in a way that reveals the truth. She needs to find a way to have the ear of the King. She uses her wit and her placement in the court to do so.
As you begin your academic careers, students, you have been given this grand education for a reason. Maybe your position is to speak truth to power. Maybe it’s to speak truth alongside the marginalized, in the power of God.
Esther used her station to make a positive change.
It was as if she used her place in life, so close to the throne to thwart the desires of the King, to prove as a foil to evil Haman.
She was the anonymous Hebrew who had the King’s ear.
She was the one who could prove that some Hebrews were actually human beings.
But there is more to the story.
If you read the book of Esther, pay attention to those who are named. You have the king, the two queens, Haman and Mordecai, the enemies. But you also have the eunuchs. They are named. Doesn’t that seem odd? I think it is a very important thing. They are central to the story. They are the ones who watch over the household. They are the ones whose ears are to the grindstone. They were the scribes who wrote the history that lifted up Mordecai. They are socially and sexually outsiders, but they have knowledge and wisdom that begs to be noticed.
Esther was given royal dignity and she used it. She didn’t use it to boost herself. She didn’t use it to play it safe. She didn’t use it to curry favor. She used it to save the lives of her people. She used it to tell the truth.
She could have played it safe.
But I think it was the eunuchs who whispered in her ear as much as it was Mordecai. They are the caretakers of the queen. They see what is going on. They know about sacrifice. They know the king’s weaknesses. They knew the foods he liked.
They knew that he couldn’t resist a beautiful woman who flattered him. They know that behind all of that bravado, Haman is really insecure and was easy to push over the edge.
Maybe they leaked a memo to Esther.
There is a famous story about a final exam given in a class. The professor asks all of the questions of the facts that they have examined in class. At the end of the exam is the final question worth 50 points. “What is the name of the person who cleans this classroom?” You pass her by every day. She nods a hello which many of you ignore. She’s an essential part of the academic community. As important as all of you privileged students. If you ignore her, you diminish yourselves.
As we enter this year of discovery and learning. May we do so remembering the ones who risked so that we could be here. Remember the people who gave us life, who nurtured us, who are praying for us, who want us to succeed. Let’s also remember that we seek to discover something that will set more people free. We’ll discover how to make the world a bit more fair, a bit more joyful, a bit more peaceful. For who knows, maybe you have been given academic privilege for such a time as this.
Mordecai insists that Esther remember who she is. His persistent truth-telling wore her down and revealed who she really was underneath those royal garments and behind her protected fortress. All of that was a façade designed to shelter her from her people, from her own soul.
You and I, living in this part of the world, in this city, in this culture, we are the Esthers of this world. We are the ones inside the castle walls. We give our tithes and offerings, we help out the poor, sure we even get our hands dirty from time to time, but by and large, we never let ourselves get beyond the comfort zone. We are Esther.
But we are also Mordecai. Mordecai is the persecuted, the outcast, the unfriendly, the homeless, the agitator, the one who makes us uncomfortable, the one, who like wrestling Jacob will not let us go until we grant him a blessing. And this Mordecai is calling at us from the gates of the castle in sackcloth and ashes, calling at us through emissaries, “Don’t forget your kin. Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”
So the question I want to leave you with is this: What time is it? Who determines the time of your liberation from the throes of the places of power to the places of liberation? Who controls your destiny? To whom have you ceded control? What truth needs to be told? What begs to break free from your soul? What time is it Esther? What time is it Mordecai?
In the movie Amistad—a great story of abolitionists coming to the aid of enslaved Africans—an embittered John Quincy Adams speaks with Cinque before arguing his case before the Supreme Court. He says: “One tries to govern wisely, strongly. One tries to govern in a way that betters the lives of one’s villagers. One tries to kill the lion. Unfortunately one is not always wise enough or strong enough. Time passes and the moment is gone…We’re about to bring your case before the highest court in our land. We are about to do battle with a lion that is threatening to rip our country in two. And all we have on our side is a rock. Of course you didn’t ask to be at the center of this great historic conflagration and more than I did, but we find ourselves here nonetheless by some mysterious mix of circumstances and the whole world is watching us. So what are we to do?”
And Cinque (or should I say Mordecai) responds, “We won’t be going in there alone.”
Adams retorts, “alone, indeed not, no we have right on our side, we have righteousness on our side.”
Cinque corrects Adams: “I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past far back form the beginning of time and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them to me. And they must come for at this moment I am the whole reason they have existed at all.”
Sisters and brothers, whatever truth you need to tell, remember you do not do it alone. For not only are Mordecai and all of the Hebrew people fasting and praying for you, but all of your ancestors, too. Your time is the whole reason they existed at all.
So what time is it for you?
Who begs outside the castle walls to be freed?
Who knows, maybe you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.