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We Hardly Know You!

A tale of Esther and empire.


01

September 27, 2009: Pentecost
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

The Lectionary gives us this one crack at the amazing tale of Esther. Don’t be afraid to tell the whole story today!

Esther’s an embarrassment for us. (Like the Song of Solomon. God isn’t named at all.) Esther and Mordecai act out of their ethnic identity. That’s enough, apparently. If God, or at least a faithful person, rescues you—surely that means God is with you.

As mythic melodramas go, Esther’s tale rings all the bells. There’s suspense. Risk. A villain. A heroine. And a happy ending brought about by violent justice. The underdogs end up on top. The villain swings in the breeze.

Esther may not be prominent in our preaching program, but her story is in the Jewish lectionary to be read in holy season; one of the five little scrolls that are opened when Esther’s heirs remember who they are and how they are in a world that has rarely befriended them. A world that doesn’t seem to know their God. Jewish people have had lots of opportunities to live faithfully in places where their God isn’t named and doesn’t seem to be in the picture.
Esther’s happy ending is acted out at Purim, complete with the hanging of Haman.

Even when we Christians read Esther, there’s an eerie pre-echo of a 20th-century event we want to believe was unique. Couldn’t have happened in any other time. Can never happen again. Esther’s community in Susa, in the Persian Empire, even in exile, was strong. It flourished and remained in Susa after the rest of the exiles went home. Still outsiders. But the Empire couldn’t get on without them.

To a wannabe tyrant like Haman, drunk with the power he already has, anyone who doesn’t honour him is a threat. To be eliminated. Anyone who’s not like him doesn’t belong in Persia. Haman can’t pull off his final solution because one of the emperor’s favourite wives is one of them. And her father is appropriately honoured.
Obviously the king doesn’t see things as clearly as Haman does. Haman has no doubt he can overcome these obstacles. Years ago I was honoured to hear one of the grandfathers of the Halifax Jewish community tell the story of Purim. All through it he replaced Haman’s name with Hitler’s. Esther reminds us what can happen in our world. What can happen to vulnerable people within the power structures of empire.

Esther is for us. We claim kinship with our Jewish sisters and brothers. We share spiritual ancestry and sacred story. Esther comes with the package. She won’t let us dress her, lighten her skin, make her a Barbie doll and hold her up for the children in moralistic stories at the chancel steps.

What sustains a minority within an empire? One thing is awareness of the tenuousness of its existence. Not paranoia. Hyper-vigilance. Not the assumption there will always be a threat. Empire exerts control through all of those. Simply accepting there’s no guarantee. Existence, preservation, perpetuation can’t be taken for granted.
And because God may have something new in mind. Let’s not think of Esther, the Sunday school heroine. Think of her as our Jewish neighbours do. God may call on a community to become something new and unexpected and dangerous “for such a time as this.”

A community within an empire has to strike a balance between deep rootedness in heritage and identity, and being light-footed, ready to move, adapt. To find new ways of acting out of that heritage and identity. Risking courageously because you are who you are, and you belong to whom you belong.

Now I don’t know if you think this has anything to do with the church in our part of the world today. This is just what I find in this sacred story. We’re not under threat of extinction at some tyrant’s hand. We’ve made peace with the forces of empire. We may still assume they’re there to protect us and our way of life. What could God possibly call us to do in our time?

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