Esther a Heroic Female? Yes!
A sermon based on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 7:20-22
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 30, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
We just heard a few excerpts from the the Book of Esther. One of the claims about the Book of Esther that I often hear or read is that it is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God. And it is true that the word for God is not mentioned. But the spark of God can be found in the characters. That is the point! God is in Mordecai and Esther. But God is also in anyone who desires or acts toward the well being of others, which in the story at times includes even the goofy pagan king. But also it includes us as we respond with desires for the well being of God’s people in the story. It is the God spark within us in play. Esther fans the God spark in her into a flame in the lesson and, of course, in rest of the book that bears her name.
This fall many of our Lectionary readings lift up women and female aspects of God. A few weeks ago we heard about the Syrophoenician Woman in Luke and we also heard about God’s female voice as Wisdom in Proverbs. Today we are considering Esther, a young woman. And we will consider Ruth, Naomi and Hannah before Advent. In Advent I usually preach on Mary Jesus’ mother, but I am hppy to report that Rev. Anna Woofenden our new Visiting Pastor of Peace and Spirituality will preach on Mary as a part of Peace Sunday in December. (Anna is joining the church today and I want to point out you can join without preaching afterwards– so don’t let that hold you back.) Lots of women are being lifted up in the days ahead, so stay tuned.
And that decision to lift op women, including use of today’s reading from Esther, was made when I first came back from medical leave because there’s this sense in modern churches that men are the primary actors in the Bible and the conduits of God’s work (the holders of God’s spark), but that is a patriarchal spin we have been challenging at least since I arrived! So I am glad that the Lectionary provides the opportunity to add more women in our continuing discussion about their equal value and the very important roles they play in the over arching story of the Bible and in doing God’s work.
In real life women have always been somewhere near to half the population. And while patriarchies have long denied women equal opportunities in the earthly power structures created by men, God has always provided women with equal opportunities to do the Divine work of seeking justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God. As half the population, women as a whole, have done more than their part in bringing love and justice and peace into the world. They have arguably brought about more saving acts for love, justice and peace than men have in many respects. Consequently we do well to lift heroic women up and celebrate their accomplishments, and emulate their devotion and courage.
So lets start our look at Esther. This is a story not very well known by Christians, but it has for centuries been the central story on Purim an annual Jewish holiday where Esther a young woman is held up and her story retold with great celebration and meaning. In the story, Esther and Mordecai can be understood to represent age-old literary characters we are familiar with: male and female heroes. Likewise, the king represents what we know as a stock buffoon leader, and Haman is a stock cold hearted villain. Although modern Christians usually do not consider the literary nature of it or humor in it, the story of Esther has been understood by others since the start, to have an intentional element of over-the-top comedy to it. It is farcical, even burlesque in nature. I think of it like one of those western melodramas with a goofy mayor and a “boo-hiss” mustache twirling bad guy, and the save the day cowgirl and cowboy.
I do find it a bit sad that Church tradition of late does not like to consider humor in our Sacred texts. This is especially true of the Book of Esther. Dr. Adele Berlin, a Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Maryland in her article “Esther as Comedy: Can a book of the Bible be funny?” challenges that. She describes the story of Esther like this:
The normally sedate affairs of state, the carefully organized and controlled government structure, the legal system, the efficient postal system, the impressive accumulation of wealth indicative of a successful empire–all of the achievements most praiseworthy in the Persian empire are turned into a burlesque of Persian court life, caricatured by ludicrous edicts delivered by speeding messengers, a foppish royal court with an endless hierarchy of officials, and a wooden adherence to nonsensical laws. A major policy decision, the annihilation of the Jews, is made casually, but a small domestic incident, Vashti’s nonappearance at a party, becomes a crisis of state, with all the bureaucratic trappings that can be mustered. . . . The largest interpretive problems melt away if the story is taken as a farce or a comedy associated with a carnival-like festival. The book sets out a threat to the Jews so that the Jewish audience can watch with glee and laugh with relief as it is overcome. The mad and threatening world of the beginning of the story fades into a happy ending where, for a brief moment, the Jews, through their two representatives, can play at wielding the highest power in the great empire to which they were in reality subservient and in which they were an insignificant minority.
The story, like its accompanying festival, does what comedy and carnival are supposed to do. It confirms the belief that the power at work in the universe favors life and favors the success of the Jews. The Book of Esther affirms that all is right with the world and with the place of the Jews in it.
Those are enlightening observations on the story we are considering this morning.
The Jewish Festival of Purim is a beloved holiday when every word of the story is read aloud to melodramatic boos and hisses for the villain and costumes for the gathered–which is why I guess the old fashioned melodramas stick in my mind. And the moral of the story plays out in commandments given during the holiday. One commandment, the most famous, is that participants are instructed to get so drunk that they cannot “differentiate between “ Blessed is Mordecai” and “Blessed is Haman” Let go of hate, forgive, is the point. That’s when Shalom rolls in. And there are other commandments during the holiday, including one to provide food and gifts to others, and another to be charitable to everyone. These are also efforts toward Shalom.
The holiday of Purim grows out of the whole story found in Esther. Which while having humorous content is a profound story about how an alien Jewish female found a way to do God’s work in the middle of very oppressive foreign regime with terrible patriarchal treatment of women and foreigners. The story is meant to mock the oppressive patriarchy and evil actors with humor, but the main thrust is finding a way to heroically do God’s work from the places we find ourselves in in every dark place.
Esther is seemingly stuck in her role as a piece of property owned by an abusive and goofy king–and at the mercy of the king’s dysfunctional leadership headed by dastardly arch villain Haman. In all that, Esther heroically finds a way to not just seek, but to achieve justice, to not just love kindness but provide kindness, to not just be humble but to walk along God’s side while being so. Esther is not alone in doing God’s work. Mordecai works the system from his end as an oppressed foreigner male while she works it from her end as an even more oppressed foreigner female.
And we do not need to hear God actually referred to by name or labeled in the story, because Esther and Mordecai personify God at work – to borrow from Genesis the image of God is made in them, male and female. And sure enough when we hear or read the story we presume God’s presence in the people and in the positive outcomes that unfold– because of them in God’s presence. God’s presence is found either calling humans toward or away from actions and inactions. And it is not hard to figure which way God’s calling. It is toward the well being of God’s people. And so the heroes Esther and Mordecai are cheered and the over the top villain and bumbling king are booed and laughed at.
The underpinning story is not actually funny–especially in light of the Holocaust and the more recent rise of white power and Nazi like groups. Antisemitism has been around a long, long time and it is in this very old story, haunting us. That haunting is our God spark calling us a away from hate and oppression of others and toward desiring and acting for their well being.
I wrote this sermon weeks ago (as is my habit) but yesterday and this morning after prayerful and careful consideration I added this ending. It is obvious that the underpinning oppression of women, Esther and others in the story, is also not funny AND that is especially so this week when a woman through the thoughtless machinations of incredibly divisive politics on both sides of the aisle was placed before the world to painfully describe teenage boys–whoever we may believe they were or were not– that were raised in such away they laughed while horrendously threatening her fifteen year old body and life.
And the culture provided no place that seemed safe for her to tell someone, even now, more than three decades later. Her story made me weep. Many women do not feel there is safe place to speak of their experiences of abuse. If you are such a person I will do my best to provide or find you a safe place, if you let me know or your Shepherd know you need it. Or call a place like New Directions or look for help on line. . . You are in my prayers.
The result of the past few days of is that we find that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story haunts us and that haunting is also the God spark calling us away from hate and oppression of others and toward desiring the well being of others – most especially girls and women in our culture who are exposed to the threat of violence. The event has terrible negative implications, and there appear to still be thoughtless machinations at play on both sides, but I want to point out that this week in the darkness it is the “God spark call” seems to have been experienced by almost all people on both sides.
Lost in the awful political wrangling is the fact that there has been a glimmer of light in the united expression of concern by most Americans left, right and in the middle for the well being of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and for women and girls exposed to such abuse. The God spark at work in Esther is at work in the real life story of America. And while we may want to caricature people of other political persuasions as one dimensional demons. Almost all political leaders of this nation expressed concern for Dr. Ford’s well being and disdain for what she has been through. And we can argue about the dysfunction and wrongs in the events and we can be upset and we should be upset, but in the horror of the story of abuse and the victim’s harm and presence, there is evidence God’s call to well being is ringing out.
How and when and whether that call is properly followed is something we all need to pray about and ourselves work to fan into spiritual flames that turn to action to bring well being about. . And we need to pray for all victims of the type of abuse Dr. Ford suffered and our culture that has not done nearly enough to stop it. So our nation needs prayers too. God help us end violence toward women.
In our lesson God’s call to well being was fully acting on. May it be so with us! May we all remember Esther and may we all emulate her by fanning the spark of God within to a bright light in whatever situation we find ourselves in. And may God help us today, help us in our country to learn how to end violence and oppression against those we consider others – most especially may we address and end violence against women and tolerance of such violence and the lack of a safe place for them to speak of such violence. God help us!
1. Adele Berlin, “Esther as Comedy: Can a book of the Bible be funny?” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/esther-as-comedy/
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