Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
That first Scripture passage already offers you a little of the flavor of the book of Esther. But we’ve entered a strange new world here, and it requires a bit of introduction, which is why I’m jumping in between our two readings.
This is a world of harems and eunuchs, an empire where a powerful king can conscript all the beautiful virgins and try them out, one by one. A world where drinking parties go on for months and where the king’s power and wealth is always on display -- even the royal horses have their own robes and crowns. When this king says jump, people jump. And when this king later in the chapter summons his queen, Vashti, to show off her beauty to all his drinking buddies, and she says no, she is instantly deposed as queen. How dare she refuse to be exploited? How dare she have the nerve to call out such a powerful man for sexual harassment? We get to listen in on the king and his advisors consulting about this, worrying that if they let Vashti get away with this, then all the other noble women in the kingdom will start standing up to their husbands too, and clearly we can’t have that! But Vashti does stand up for herself, and suffers the consequences of that brave action. (#Vashtitoo!)
Now before we fast forward to our second reading in chapter 4, you need to know that in the intervening chapters we are introduced first to a Jewish man named Mordecai and then to his niece, Esther. Esther has been chosen, out of all the beautiful young women in the land, to replace the deposed Queen Vashti. She now lives in the palace of the Persian king, but no one there knows of her Jewish identity. Then quite unexpectedly a horrifying decree is issued by the king, (thanks to his right-hand man, Haman), that all the Jews of the land should be killed. We’ll pick up the story again just after Esther has received a desperate message from her Uncle Mordecai, pleading for her help…
A government that fancies itself the most powerful in the world flexing its political and military muscles. Life-and-death decisions about other people’s lives made both in lavish banquet halls and more privately, behind closed doors. Those far removed from the corridors of power knowing they could lose everything and everyone they hold dear, even lose their lives, because of decisions made by powerful, wealthy, well-armed men they’ve never met. Mounting suspicion on all sides, fears of a deadly attack from adherents of a different religion, or people from another racial-ethnic group.
The year was 500 BC, give or take a few decades. The setting, the great Persian Empire that reached all the way from India to Ethiopia. The banquet halls were located in the king’s palace in the capital city of Susa. And it was the Jewish people, in this case, who were in grave danger. A minority people living far from the land of their ancestors, far from the land in which most every other Bible story takes place.
There are so many dimensions to the book of Esther. Its masterful use of language. Its unmistakable sense of humor. Its memorable characters. If it’s not a book you’ve read, or read recently, I commend its 10 short chapters to you to read over the next few weeks as we explore its themes together here in worship. Whatever else it may be, it’s a great story. A wonderful gift to us tucked away here between Nehemiah and Job, not terribly familiar to many Christians, but celebrated every year on the feast of Purim by our Jewish friends.
Not convinced? How’s this for a book jacket write-up? “Set in the ancient empire of Persia, and opening as exotically as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the book of Esther draws us into its extravagantly dangerous, darkly funny, sharply satirical, and yet breathtakingly poignant world of intrigue in the palace of King Ahasuerus. There, failure to heed the call of drunken kings spells banishment, and refusal to bow before arrogance means death. Yet Esther, a young heroine who is at once foreign, female, and orphaned, takes courage alone and, aided by a providential chain of circumstances and an excellent wine list, rescues the Jewish people from genocide.”[That’s actually from the introductory chapter of a Bible study curriculum I once used, in teaching this story – it only sounds like you’ve hit the jackpot while browsing through your local bookstore.]
Like so many literary classics, the Book of Esther is a good read not only for the adventure in its pages but also for the powerful ways it speaks to contemporary themes. Conflicts between ethnic groups, between religions, between men and women. Acts of terrorism and vengeance. Courageous decisions to stand with the oppressed and to speak the truth to power.
How can you keep silent “at such a time as this?” Mordecai pleads with Esther, her own people condemned to death by her husband the king. “Who knows whether you have not come into the kingdom for such a time as this.” (4:14) As the story unfolds, Esther will rise to her uncle’s challenge, putting herself at considerable risk to right a terrible wrong.
“As we sit here hearing Mordecai’s word to Esther, we know it is a word to us as well, for it coincides with the Christian understanding of divine providence which tells us that we are where we are for a purpose. We have not just been thrown together … by a random act of fate; rather, for such a time as this, we have been called... Our understanding of divine providence says to each one of us, “You are here for a reason, and your being here makes a difference.”
Granted, living the privileged lives most of us do, sharing both the religion and the race of those in positions of greatest power in our country, we don’t find ourselves in Esther’s position exactly. But the author’s message still comes through loud and clear: one person’s action, one person’s words can make a difference. There are moments when we simply cannot keep our peace but must speak out. Sure, it’s risky business. Look at Esther. She was terrified. Her very life was at stake. But there are times when saying nothing, doing nothing, isn’t really an option...not if we don’t want evil to win.
I want to give a little shout out to my daughter Alina here, for pointing me in the direction of Esther this summer. It’s been one of her favorite Bible stories since she was a little girl – I remember how much fun it was to teach it to her Sunday School class many years ago - so as far as she’s concerned there would never be a badtime to preach on this biblical book. But that wasn’t her reasoning this year. This year it was about the line: “for such a time as this.” When I wondered aloud at home recently about where I should focus my next several sermons, it was Alina who said: “bring us back to Esther, Mom. It’s time…”
“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.” (Esther 4:14) If we feel those words are notas urgent today as when Uncle Mordecai spoke them to Esther, I believe God’s asking us to think again. For if we in the Church keep silent at such a time as this – when fellow children of God are being treated as less than human simply because of their skin color, their religion, their countries of origin – if we choose to keep silent, others will rise up to fight against injustice, it’s true. I imagine you’ve noticed - they already are. But shouldn’t we as church folks be out there with them?
It’s only natural to worry about the risks, the costs involved in speaking up and getting more involved politically. And some of us are introverts, for Pete’s sake, who’d always prefer to unite separately in our own homes! And some of us have all kinds of work or family responsibilities to juggle. But surely all those things are true of people actually coming under attack right now too. So what is the cost of our notspeaking up? Shouldn’t we who gather regularly to sing and pray and speak about God’s justice and God’s grace, and about every person on this planet being made in God’s image, shouldn’t we make sure we are taking our place on the right side of history right now?
Organizations like the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the Faith Action Network regularly send me emails with opportunities to step up and make our voices heard. Sometimes all we need to do is literally show up in person with a group of fellow Christians to make a statement. Sometimes there is a petition we can sign. Or for that matter sometimes there’s an incredibly low-key invitation we can accept – like simply walking in the door of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound for their open house this coming Saturday. That option seems almost tooeasy, honestly, but my friend Aneelah assures me it makes an enormous difference when Christians show up at her mosque. Because it says we are open to learning, and making friends outside of our own religious tradition, and above all, it makes it clear we are standing as allies with at least one group of people in our country who are routinely coming under attack. If you want to know more about that open house on Saturday, or if you want to learn more about opportunities to sign petitions or show up at rallies around issues like the Muslim travel ban, or families being detained on our southern border, or any number of other battles for social justice well worth fighting - let me know and I’ll be happy to connect you to these resources.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to how best to use my particular skill sets, my particular setting, the groups of people with whom I’m most closely connected, and to leverage those gifts as I try to listen for God’s call. I invite you to do the same. As Pastor Justin reminded us so powerfully last week, we are beloved, chosen children of God who care deeply about how other beloved, chosen children of God are being treated. Our prayers are important, certainly, but “at such a time as this” what does it look like to move beyond“thoughts and prayers” to action?
Admittedly, for some of us right now, and likely for all of us at one time or another, our energy will need to be directed to challenges closer to home. To fighting the good fight for a parent or spouse’s physical care. To fighting the good fight for a child who is struggling in school or for a friend who is struggling with depression. God offers us innumerable opportunities to make a difference over our lifetimes, and certainly we can be called to different projects in different seasons. The battles we must fight for our nearest and dearest are no less important because the larger world is a mess.
But – and please understand I’m preaching to myself too! - is everything to which we devote a great deal of time and energy – is it all equallyimportant? Or might there – if we’re honest with ourselves - be chunks of time here and there that could be redirected to a more important cause?
One of the gifts of being part of a whole family of faith, is that at any given time there will be some of us who cannot channel much energy toward national and international issues … but there will also be some of us who can. So it’s important to ask ourselves periodically the question we posted outside on our church sign this week: “What does God ask of us at such a time as this?”
In a place like the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle, as a bunch of mostly-white Presbyterian Christians, we automatically find ourselves in positions of power and privilege, compared with many, many other children of God in this country and in this world. Many of us have financial resources. We have voices people will actually listen to.
At “such a time as this,” Mordecai says to Esther and God says to all of us. At “such a time as this,” people need, people in danger are watching and waiting to see what youwill do. Who knows? This may even be the reason you were brought into God’s kingdom.
 Patricia K. Tull, “Esther’s Feast: A Study of the Book of Esther,” p. 2.
Nancy J. Duff, “Such a Time as This,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. XIII, number 2, 1992.