Today’s sermon, strangely enough, is organized in four distinct sections: The King, Esther, God and us. Let’s begin with The King. The Book of Esther is a work of historical fiction. It’s also a scathing satire, mocking King Xerxes, and critiquing the whole enterprise of empire. The King is portrayed as a ridiculous, inept and tyrannical leader. He governed an entire country out of his need to be the center of attention. He expected that his queen would show off at a party and reacted in a childish, jealous way to her refusal. He demanded the advice of seven sages to help him navigate his wife’s rebellion. And her defiance prompted him to legislate the submission of all women across the whole kingdom. Xerxes lacked empathy. The potential of genocide was merely a game to him. He didn’t care a bit about the lives of the Jewish people until he realized Haman’s persecutions posed a personal problem for him.
On to Esther.
Esther was an orphan, raised by her older cousin, Mordecai. As far as I can tell, Esther had no choice but to obey when Mordecai sent her to be considered for the position of queen. Why he did that, the story doesn’t say. Was there some reward in it for him? Or was his motive a nobler one? Did he have a premonition that the Jewish people might need an advocate in a powerful place? Here’s how the scripture describes the process.
Then the king’s servants . . . said . . . let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in the citadel of Susa under the custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. . . . The turn came for each girl to go in to King Xerxes, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their cosmetic treatment, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women. When the girl went in to the king . . . in the evening she went in; then in the morning she came back. . . . She did not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name. (Esther 2: 2-4, 12-14)
This description, though perhaps somewhat satirical, also reveals the ugly truth of patriarchy. Esther and all the other young women in the harem were treated as objects, their value judged on the basis of their physical beauty and their ability satisfy male desire.
Esther doesn’t say what it felt like to enter the harem, or to be chosen to serve as queen beside a king like Xerxes. She doesn’t say how she felt about hiding her Jewish identity. From a distance of a couple millennia, I imagine she must have been terrified. At the same time, she had the ability to play along, to conduct herself with grace and dignity and to charm the King. It’s clear that Esther was reluctant, as most of us would be, to risk death to advocate for her people. As a foreigner, a Jew, an orphan, and a woman, I’m sure she was painfully aware of her vulnerabilities. Though she was now a queen, she did not believe she really had agency to make change. And yet, reminded of the unique place in which she now sat, and the possibility that she might have influence over the king, she reflected and took stock. She summoned the support of her community, and anchored herself in their shared, and sustaining spiritual practice. Communal fasting clarified and strengthened her resolve and prepared her to step out in faith. She used all her creativity and strategic thinking to get the King in the moment and the mood that would allow her to succeed. And she acted with selfless courage.
One of the most interesting things about Esther is that there is no mention of God in the entire book. Same with the book of Ecclesiastes, actually. I am happy that books like this are the Bible. A hidden God feels realistic and honest to my contemporary sensibilities. God is not in control of events. God is a shimmer of possibility, a spark of newness. God’s loving influence is woven into the heart of creation. God’s call resides deep within us. God works beside us and dwells all around us. God is a mystery whose full scope of work and purpose is beyond our vision and understanding. God is revealed in the courageous, loving, and creative choices of people like Esther.
That leaves . . . us.
The portrait of a childish, self-centered tyrant certainly resonates right now. At the most basic, human level, we know what it feels like to be betrayed by such a leader. We are living, and dying, with the catastrophic effects of bad governance. Like Esther, we did not choose to be in this situation. And yet, perhaps we, too, are being called “for such a time as this.” Maybe this is our moment to navigate the destructive forces around us and within us with boldness and trust, and to say, with Esther, “If I perish, I perish.” What I hear in this statement for us is: Sometimes it is life giving to let go of our need for security and to do what is right, no matter the consequences. Sometimes, what perishes, when we face our fears, is something that needs to die in us.
I think of Emma Gonzalez, who is healing her own trauma by working to end gun violence. She did not ask for this job. No one, and especially not a child, should have to survive a mass shooting. However, her experience now positions her to speak a unique sort of truth, to wield a particular kind of moral, spiritual and political power. Wherever we sit, our circumstance gives us influence, shapes our voice, and enables us to exercise power in particular ways. It takes time, sometimes a lifetime, to recognize, and own, the authority of our own stories, and our own capacity to make a difference. It takes imagination and trust and courage to perceive how God is inhabiting our souls and how the sacred is shimmering in the opportunities, challenges and risks of daily life.
On Thursday, our study group discussed an article by theologian David Weiss. David described how, as he was sitting with the worry he feels about climate change, he remembered Vedran Smailović. David writes:
In 1992 [Smailović] became known as “the cellist of Sarajevo” when he chose to play his cello for twenty-two days in the midst of a ruined town square after a mortar blast killed twenty-two people simply waiting in line for bread. Against the backdrop of a city undone by the worst impulses of a twisted humanity, Smailović choose beauty. His cello playing—an act of reckless courage—was at once a judgment against the madness that reduced the city to ruins and a testament to the unbowed beauty of the human soul.
It’s time for each of us to pick up our cellos. The impulse will be to pick up our guns . . . or devolve into despair. We must fight both of those impulses. Instead, bracing yourself for the inevitability of death, choose to make beauty, come what may.
David explains how his cello is writing, and the crafting of theology that is responsive to real people and the moment in which we live. He urges us each to ask ourselves what our cello will be and to tune up that cello and to play that cello. So I want to leave you today with a piece performed by another famous cellist. It offers diverse images of people picking up their cellos, people creating beauty, people recognizing that we are indeed here “for just such a time as this.”