“A Certain Royal Dignity”
Chilmark Community Church
September 25, 2016
Esther 4:11-14; 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
We’re looking at a rather fun story from the Hebrew scriptures this morning. The Book of Esther reads like a short novel. It has all the elements of drama, intrigue, struggles with ethics and morality – – and of course, ultimately, a happy ending. Out of context, the verses we have read demand closer examination. I had an Old Testament professor in seminary who used to say that when we are using a text from the Hebrew scriptures for Christian preaching, we must continually ask “Where is the good news in this text?” So – with the story of Esther, a delightful treasure hunt begins. A lot of the Book of Esther is concerned with a royal court machine, power politics, the threat of ethnic cleansing, the oppression of women and the politics of revenge. Not a lot of good news there – – and, like so many parts of the Bible, the issues sound all too contemporary.
We work our way into the plot of the story as the Persian king, Ahasuerus, is planning a big bash to show off his magnificent palace to some of the other nobility in the region. As the party wears on, and the wine flows, and the men get more and more drunk, the king gets the idea that he not only wants to show off the building and grounds, he also wants to show off his beautiful queen, Vashti, as well. So he sends off a messenger to the harem to summon her so he can exhibit her to his guests. Vashti is as feisty as she is beautiful and she says “No way am I going to be paraded in front of all those drunken men!” Literally taking her life in her own hands, she refuses the kings command. It might be attributed to his lack of sobriety that the king, instead of sentencing her to death immediately, goes into a huddle with his advisors who tell him “King – you have to get a grip on your wife. If you don’t make her obey you, all the women in the kingdom will follow her example and there will be chaos. None of them will obey their husbands.”
The only solution is to get rid of Vashti. But killing off a popular queen is really tacky – so, instead, the king banishes her from court to spend the rest of her life secluded in a harem of women. Of course, this poses a problem for King Ahasuerus. Now he has no beautiful queen. How to find one to replace Vashti? Enter the advisors again. “How about a beauty contest – – Persian style!” So the search begins for the most beautiful women in the kingdom. Over a period of a year, the loveliest maidens of the land are prepared to come before the king, one at a time. Each one would spend the night with the king. If he liked her, she would become the next queen. If not – – back to the harem.
At about this time, Esther enters the drama – orphaned at an early age, raised by her uncle, Mordecai, very beautiful – – – and very Jewish – – something that was not widely known. Esther was of the second generation of Israel to live in Persian exile. Because of her great beauty she ended up in the king’s harem rather than suffering a fate of slavery or worse. Her Uncle Mordecai kept watch over her and saw to her well being. But the fact that she was a Jew had been kept a secret. Esther wins the beauty contest and becomes the queen – – which, as we have seen, is only fun if you do everything the kings says.
One day, quite by chance, Uncle Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther who passes the word along to Ahasuerus. The would be assassins are hung on the gallows. (A bit of political capital in the bank for Mordecai).
As the drama unfolds, it seems that Mordecai attracts the unwanted attention of Haman, the king’s right hand man. Haman has a bit of an ego problem and expects that people will bow down to him when he walks by. Mordecai, being a faithful Jew, bows to no one but God. This doesn’t set well with Haman so, of course, he plots to have Mordecai eliminated – – but Mordecai is not the only target of his wrath. Haman goes to the king and tells him that “certain people” (namely the Jews) do not keep all the king’s laws and therefore the king should not tolerate them. So the king issues the order that on a certain day, all the people in question (the Jews) are to be exterminated – young and old – men, women and children – – and the right to plunder the property of the Jews is given to those who will carry out the king’s command.
Mordecai gets the word of the order for his people to be annihilated. By a trusted third party, he passes the information along to Queen Esther. In his best authoritative uncle’s voice, he prevails upon Esther to speak to the king in her people’s behalf.
Now – -sticky wicket here – – it seems that there is a rule that no one gets to appear before the king unless the king calls a person to appear before the throne. AND, no one gets to actually speak to the king unless the king extends his golden scepter toward the person. Since there was no one lobbying for 1st amendment rights, i this was a very efficient way to silence any critical voices in the royal court. So – -of course, Esther is reluctant to follow her uncle’s bidding. She sends a message back to him saying she hasn’t been summoned before the king for a full 30 days. If she attempts to appear and speak to the king on her own, she is a candidate for the death sentence.
But old Mordecai will not be put off and he sends another message to Esther in these words: Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief will arise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish. And then he adds: Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.
And so, Esther does indeed make an appearance before the king. She petitions the king on behalf of her people – – appealing to his sense of economics (more likely his royal greed!) She greets him with humility : If I have won your favor, O King, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given to me – that is my petition – – and the lives of my people – -that is my request. We have been sold to be annihilated. If we had been sold to be slaves, I would have held my peace. But no one can compensate for the economic damage that the death of my people would do to the king.
Long story short, Esther points her finger at Haman, the king’s right hand man, who has plotted the extermination of the Jews and the king orders that Haman be strung up on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai. Subsequently, the Jews rise up and take revenge. The 10 sons of Haman are hanged and thousands of the enemies of the Jews are slaughtered in the outlying provinces. To this day, the Feast of Purim is celebrated in February or March as an observance of the deliverance of the Jews from annihilation.
Well – – where is the good news? How are we to appropriate this story for our thinking as followers of Jesus more than 2500 years later? These are the kinds of questions that can make sermon writing a nightmare!
But – – another thing I learned from the same professor is that often, scripture interprets scripture. Enter the gospel reading for this morning. Jesus is talking with his friends about the conditions and the cost of discipleship. He asks “who goes about building a tower without first figuring out how much it will cost to complete it?” Or “who decides to go into battle without first figuring out if there are enough soldiers to win the battle against the enemy? If it seems that winning is out of the question with the resources at hand, the wise general sends a delegation to seek terms of peace.” And then , in a seemingly unrelated statement, Jesus says “therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” It is a strange juxtaposition of words, jumping from estimating building costs to developing military strategy to giving up all that one possesses in the service of becoming a disciple.
The clue resides in the last verse of this section: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its flavor, how can its saltiness be restored? It is neither fit for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!” Mark’s gospel renders the teaching this way: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (Mark 9:49) Have salt in yourselves and be at peace.
The substance that Jesus knew as salt was not the same as the kind of salt we use today. Our modern salt -made up of sodium and chloride -is a very stable substance. If you dissolve some in water, it still retains its saltiness. If the water evaporates, the salt that remains still tastes salty. The salt that Jesus talked about was much less stable. If it was exposed to sunlight or too much moisture, or stored in a damp place, it was apt to lose its taste and become useless. There was no way it could be made salty again.
So Jesus teaches that being a disciple of his definitely will cost us something. There may be a lot of things we need to let go of in the way of pride or uncertainty, of fear and anxiety about how to rise to the occasion of discipleship.
Jesus teaches that discipleship is not a hit or miss kind of thing. It requires thinking and not a little inward preparation for the task.
Discipleship – that is – being a disciplined follower of the teachings, requires that we be wise in the ways of the world. It sometimes requires that we stand back and look at how we are going to complete a task before we get going on it. Do we have the energy? Do we have the resources? Are we willing to make some sacrifices? Going out into the world unprepared is not a requirement of discipleship. We are to use our minds as well as our hearts and our spirits. But Jesus also reminds us that we have indeed been “salted” – we have been given gifts that can be used in God’s service – and if we choose not to use those gifts -we may, indeed, lose our saltiness and become rather lackluster in our daily lives.
I think we can build a bridge in both directions between the words of Jesus and the words of Mordecai to Esther – – and then maybe we can see how these words can have meaning for us today. Jesus spoke for his time. Mordecai spoke for his time. They both speak for our time.
Esther was in a position to act in a saving way for her people. She was scared. To follow through on Mordecai’s request might have meant her death. She was essentially powerless in a culture and a location where power was everything and it belonged to only a few who were strong enough or wealthy enough or deceitful enough to grasp it for themselves. Esther was a foreign born captive – an alien – an object of beauty to be used and displayed at the king’s pleasure. She had no political or financial or moral agency – – at least as far as she thought. But, as push came to shove – as it often does in life – she became the only hope for her people. Uncle Mordecai’s words resound in her ears: “If you keep silent – the Jews may find help elsewhere, but you will die.” Jesus might have said “ If you don’t act, you will lose your saltiness.” Mordecai in his wise question asks “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity – – maybe you came to be queen of this arbitrary and powerful man – for just such a time as this?”
Being a powerless queen in the court of a king who has absolute power over everything – – being a follower of Jesus in a world that seems just a godless as the world of the Persian court – – being a follower of Jesus in 2016 – the situations are different only in degree. I can almost hear Jesus reaching back over the centuries to Esther – “Esther – – everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good – but if you lose it, you will die -you will wither inside – you will lose everything that makes you beautiful and strong and courageous. Have salt in yourself. Be the active ingredient that works in behalf of the preservation of your people.
And perhaps we can hear the words of Mordecai reaching forward to the disciples over the centuries too – – “if you guys keep silent in times that call for clear thinking and truth speaking, the people around you may survive and go on, but you will perish. Think about it. Perhaps you are right here in this moment to
serve a particular purpose in the preservation of the world.
The trick is, of course, to hear the challenge of the story for us in our time. Heaven knows there is a fair amount of risk these days. Every bit of the political intrigue and anxiety and oppression that permeated the court of King Ahasuerus permeates the political scene today. People are imprisoned without just cause because they are aliens in a strange land. Their properties are plundered, their families left unprotected and un-provided for. Nations grasp for power and wield it irresponsibly without regard for what it means for the next generation. The health and education and wellbeing of the people is secondary to the need for ever more political and military and financial power. Sometimes our inner questions arise: “Where will it all end?” “Where is our hope?” “What can we depend on?”
It’s curious. The Book of Esther never once mentions the name of God. There is absolutely no reference to a greater power. None of the laws and rituals of Judaism are mentioned. The Book of Esther is not a religious book. It is thoroughly political from start to finish. And yet, the words of Mordecai evoke a subtle awareness that there is a power at work in the wings, so to speak. A power that calls human beings to something higher, something greater than the terrible, dangerous pettiness of the politics of Esther’s time.
We are in the countdown of one of the most difficult and demoralizing election campaigns of our lifetime. In the weeks ahead, we can only expect it to intensify. There will be innumerable opportunities for us to listen, to ponder and then to discern the truth. It is incumbent upon us as followers of The Way to sift and sort and interpret all the sound and fury in the light of the teachings of Jesus – – and then to speak the truth as the opportunities present themselves.
In Uncle Mordecai’s words, there is a call to life in the midst of horrendous danger. He calls forth in Esther the willingness to use what ever
whatever power she does have in behalf of her people. Jesus calls us to do the same thing. He pleads with us: Just be the salt you are called to be. Be your highest and best self, fully informed by the life and teaching of Jesus. Let the power of the Spirit that enlivens you empower you to see the truth and then speak the truth that needs to be spoken when you feel it pulsing its way forth.
Trust that you are called by that greater and often unnamed power that works always and in all things to being a disorderly and chaotic world around right.
Jesus uses salt figuratively to challenge his followers to be true disciples – -people who by their own lives raise the moral tone of the society in which they live. He asks us to believe that how we conduct our lives makes a difference, no matter how large or small our spheres of influence. Perhaps, as we go out from this time in the sanctuary, we might hear Jesus and Mordecai whispering in our ears: “Have salt in yourselves – – – who knows, perhaps you have come to a certain royal dignity for just such a time as this?”