Sermon Seeds: Courage for Community
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 21
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Courage for Community
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
It’s unusual enough that a book of the Bible bears the name of a woman; it’s even more unusual that a book from the Holy Scriptures never mentions God. Plenty of things about the Book of Esther make it a fascinating read, so the short excerpts provided this week by the lectionary hardly do justice to this rich and complex story. The Book of Esther explains the origins of the Jewish Feast of Purim, a celebration with feasting, drinking, and sharing gifts with one another but, of course, “remembering” the poor, too. Purim is not one of the major feasts of Judaism, but Jewish writers recount vivid childhood memories of hearing the story of Esther read aloud and of play-acting the roles of its main characters. As adults, they continue to enjoy this festive commemoration of their people’s deliverance long ago from death at the hands of Haman, the wicked advisor to the Persian king.
The short story of Esther is full of all sorts of things we find in the most entertaining movies: irony and intrigue, a thickening plot, clever wits and evil villains, royal splendor and a weak ruler, and, of course, the hero who rises to the challenge and saves the day. Only this time, the hero is a heroine, and not at all a likely one. We read, for example, in the first chapter, about the earlier queen, Vashti, who stood up to the king and paid the price for her disobedience: the king’s legal experts and sages were appalled that her actions might cause the women of the kingdom to “look with contempt on their husbands,” too (1:17). No wonder that Vashti was banished from the king’s presence, and no wonder that feminist commentators enthusiastically see her as a little-known heroine in the story.
On the other hand, they seem uncertain about what to do with Esther, who goes about things in a somewhat different way. Esther uses her power for good, and her place for the protection of her people, even though she risks her own life by “coming out” as one of them. For this, we say that she has “Courage for Community.”
Women work even from the margins
In a Bible full of male prophets and priests, military leaders and kings, it’s refreshing to have a courageous heroine at the center of the story, even if she has to work the system, or go against it, as women have done for so long in order to do what needs to be done (think, for example, of the midwives in the Exodus story of saving the infant Moses). Esther’s power does not come from her but derives from her husband, the king of Persia. However, instead of being unnamed, or relegated to the margins (from which women still manage to play key roles in many biblical narratives), Esther is at the center of the book that bears her name.
Ironically, the story still contains bloodbaths of vengeance and executions of enemies that strike our ears harshly, especially at the end, when Esther participates in exacting vengeance. Still, this is a tale of survival in the face of overwhelming power: Esther, Sidnie White Crawford writes, finds herself “locked in a life-and-death struggle not of her own making” (“Esther,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III). That simple phrase is good for us to keep in mind when we get to the part of the story where the Jews are allowed to “lay hands on those who had sought their ruin” (9:2).
Adding what isn’t there
Scholars note in the Book of Esther the absence not only of God’s name but of prayer, and the Law, and most of the other practices we associate with observant Judaism. Crawford observes that Esther (not God) calls for fasting, in order to unite the community. These omissions disturbed ancient writers so much that they later added 107 more verses to the original Hebrew text, but these Greek “Additions to Esther” are part of the Apocrypha, a collection of books not considered canonical by Judaism or Protestant Christianity, although the Roman Catholic Church does give them such authority. The Additions are full of prayer and talk of God, and make the story of Esther seem more religiously “appropriate.”
However, we might look at the original Hebrew text as a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” exercise; looking at the entire story closely, we know God is there even if that isn’t obvious at first glance. Throughout the story (which reflects, in many ways, the larger story of Israel), God provides and protects. That is, Providence runs through the story as a thread of evidence pointing to God’s abiding presence with God’s people. The New Oxford Annotated Bible finds God at the center of this drama, if not on center stage, but able to accomplish a lot while “standing in the wings, following the drama and arranging the props for a successful resolution of the play…. Providence can be relied upon to reverse the ill-fortunes that beset individuals or the nation – provided that such leaders and their followers do their part, acting wisely and courageously.”
God works through human beings
Unlike several other books of the Bible (for example, Daniel or Exodus), God’s deliverance of the people in this Book of Esther is not accomplished through amazing, miraculous events but through the actions of flawed but courageous human beings who were probably never sure they were doing the right thing. And yet, as Ted Kennedy said at the funeral of his deceased brother, Robert, they “saw wrong and tried to right it.”
It isn’t always easy, however, to know how to go about righting wrongs, and we’re not always confident that we’re the ones who are called to do so, at least in a particular situation, and we’re often unsure about how to proceed. The most familiar line from Esther, “for such a time as this” (4:14b), comes from Mordecai’s message urging her to step out of her safety zone and to consider that she was made queen expressly for this moment when she could save her people. Again, Sidnie White Crawford writes that humans are limited in their knowledge of God’s purposes and their own role in them, but “[t]hey must act, with profound hope that they are thereby participating in the divine scheme” (“Esther,” The New Interpreter’s Bible).
Using the gifts we have for good
While some feminist commentators have turned away from Esther, others have found deep meaning in her story. Perhaps Esther was, at first, just one more young girl trying to survive by using whatever gifts she has, including her great beauty. But we learn that Esther has many more gifts that are called forth by this crisis. In a remarkable show of courage, she seems to take a leap toward her responsibility “in such a time as this,” and she talks herself out of her anxiety: “If I perish, I perish,” she says (4:16b), and we wonder what she means. Is her life meaningless in the face of thousands dying? Does she turn herself over to Providence? Does she feel that a failure to act that brings on the destruction of her people, even if she herself survives because of her position as queen, would make life unbearable?
In any case, like so many women before and since, she has to work the patriarchal system to the benefit of her people, for even as queen she is marginalized and limited in her power. She has to depend on “The Man” of the story, the weak and malleable king. In this regard, Esther is like many women throughout history, Crawford writes, who know how to maneuver in a male-dominated world in order to accomplish what needs to happen, and this provides inspiration and “a model” for people, who struggle, powerless, on the margins of society in the land of exile. Perhaps Crawford recognizes in Esther a wisdom and strength and courage that remind her of another woman, for she dedicates her commentary to her mother, “also a heroine” (“Esther,” The New Interpreter’s Bible).
A community that remembers who they are
It may be that the story of Esther omits mention of the core practices and institutions of Judaism precisely in order to paint a picture of how much the Jewish community had been assimilated into the Persian empire around them. Indeed, it was probably written, three or four centuries before Christ, for the very people it describes, Jews residing in the Persian Empire, in the diaspora (the scattered Jews living outside Israel, often because of exile and other calamities). Wouldn’t it be easy, under such circumstances, to forget who you are? Perhaps one of the many good effects of spiritual practices in any faith is the way they remind us of who we are, and to Whom we belong.
Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., calls us to reflect on the situation of the Jews in Persia during the time of Esther, and, before judging them, to compare their assimilation to our own. Yes, they had adapted to some extent to the culture surrounding them in exile (although, in 3:8, Haman does tell the king that the Jews obey their own laws; that doesn’t sound so much like full assimilation). However, Carter challenges North American Christians’ own ways of fitting in with the surrounding culture and its “patriotic observances, sporting championships, musical festivals, celebrity obsessions, and economic forecasts.” How do we establish and nurture a sense of identity, and what is our primary identity: as sports fans, shoppers, and shrewd financial planners, or as disciples of Jesus and children of God?
Finding a different kind of rhythm in our lives
Carter suggests that the liturgical year of the church might offer a different kind of rhythm, a different kind of pattern, a different set of values for our lives that will remind us that we belong to God, and we follow Jesus (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). If Carter’s challenge makes us at all uncomfortable, might that discomfort reflect our own degree of assimilation and how much we have forgotten that we follow a Teacher who taught us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and lay down our lives for one another? A Teacher who observed how difficult it is for a rich person to enter heaven, and encouraged the earnestly religious to “sell everything and give it to the poor”? We’ve somehow managed to let ourselves feel quite at home with very different values, even as we claim to follow Jesus. How many of us Christians find a way to justify any number of contradictions to the teachings of Jesus? Suddenly this colorful little story of vengeance and intrigue becomes much more about us than we might like to think.
For so long, Christendom has given Western Christians (that would be us) a sense of place and privilege that is now fading, and that may not be so bad. Perhaps now we can, in our shared life, think about what it really means to be Christians, and to subvert and dissent from every power that would exterminate the good news that we bear. We can learn, obviously, from the long history of the Jews, who live in the tension between what is, and what they hope and imagine they might be. Walter Brueggemann recalls the words of Jacob Neusner: “We are more than we seem, other than we appear to be.” Brueggemann’s book, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, unlocks the richness of this text for us in the Christian church today. Like many discussions by scholars such as John Dominic Crossan about Paul’s writings being set in the midst of the Roman empire and contrasting Christian discipleship with the values of the empire, Brueggemann focuses on this story’s setting, whether historical or fictional, in the midst of the Persian empire. It doesn’t matter, he says, whether the empire was Persian or Greek – and we might say Roman or modern – we still have to deal with the powers-that-be that hold sway over our lives.
Living in the empire in any age
While we may seem far away in place and time and, to an extent, in circumstance, we share the ancient Jewish longing to be a faithful people in the midst of values and pressures foreign to who we are. How then can we, like those ancient Jews, live where we live, not withdrawing into a separate culture, and yet remain distinctly true to who we are and what we believe, true to the One to whom we belong?
Another theme in this little story full of themes is that of the reversal of fortunes. In yet another of many biblical reversals of fortune, the seventy-five-foot-high scaffold prepared for Mordecai is used, ironically, to execute the mortal enemy of his own, and Esther’s, people. The people without hope or power suddenly have both power and hope. Fear and sorrow turn into joy, and prompt the establishment of a regular celebration that expresses the sheer relief of being delivered from death, narrowly, and at the very last minute. Even that celebration is decreed by Mordecai, who went from being a condemned man to being the king’s trusted right hand man.
Reading in the shadow of the Holocaust and the pogroms, and the Trail of Tears, too
How can we read this story without remembering the Holocaust of our modern history, only seventy years ago? When Haman works his evil ways, he uses oddly, painfully familiar words to do what advisors to despots have done for centuries, describing the Jews in a way that bothers the surrounding culture by being “different”: “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction” (3:8-9a).
Haman, of course, is most incensed by Mordecai’s (possibly religious) refusal to bow to him. That anger sets the story in motion. What angers, misunderstandings, fears and prejudices have set in motion similar purges and orders of destruction in our own time, or made individuals feel somehow justified in taking matters into their own hands? This is not just a story of “long ago and faraway,” but a warning to us, in every age. Are there “groups” of people today who are considered a “problem” in our society? What sort of action does that kind of talk – and thinking – lead to? This Sunday is American Indian Ministry Sunday, and the painful echoes of this story in the history of our own country are hard to miss; they provide more material for reflection by the church on this text.
This is our story, too
What then is the Stillspeaking God saying to us today, in such a time as this, through the story of Esther? Karen Jobes claims that this story is ours, too, for we also trust in a God who has delivered us from death, a deliverance we recall as a resurrection people who in turn share our joy with the world around us by acts of generosity and compassion (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
Next Sunday, on World Communion Sunday, our churches, like our Hebrew ancestors in faith, will hold a day “of feasting and gladness,” a day to break bread, share the cup, and remember God’s works and God’s promises from of old. Within that same verse is a reminder to send “gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor”; as we come to the table on that great day, will we too remember those who are hungry, and make sure we share with them, too, as our Teacher instructed us? Like Esther, are we speaking on their behalf and using the power we have for their good as much as our own, no matter the cost? Do we, indeed, have courage for community, and not just for ourselves?
An unnamed God can still be known
A beautiful line of commentary on this text comes from H. James Hopkins, who observes the power in this story, “the hope that though God is not named, God can still be known” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). In stories and places and experiences that are not explicitly religious, the Stillspeaking God finds ways to reach us, and to show us that God can be known, and heard, and trusted with our lives and the lives of those we love. It is ours to step out in faith, courageously, on behalf of our community, and to say with Esther, in those supplementary verses in Additions to Esther, where she does indeed pray: “Save me from my fear” (14:19b, Addition C). Save us, indeed, from our fear.
For further reflection:
(Note: It was not difficult to find an abundance of quotations from women about courage.)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, 19th century
“All serious daring starts from within.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century
“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Marian Wright Edelman, 21st century
“Whoever said anybody has a right to give up?”
Nora Ephron, 21st century
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 19th century
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
“‘I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.'” (Atticus Finch)
Anaïs Nin, 20th century
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Audre Lorde, 20th century
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me — that is my petition — and the lives of my people — that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
If it had not been God
who was on our side
— let Israel now say —
if it had not been God
who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
Blessed be the Sovereign, our God
who has not given us as prey to their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of God,
who made heaven and earth.
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once — if I have found favor in your sight — and do not let me see my misery.”
So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.”
So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
The law of God is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure,
the ordinances of God are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also
from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O God, my rock and my redeemer.
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.