For Such a Time as This 09/30/18 (Proper 21B)

FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS: A TELLING OF ESTHER’S STORY 
RE-IMAGINED AND RE-TOLD BY REV. HEATHER M. HINTON
SEPTEMBER 30, 2018
26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (PROPER 21B)

I’ve been waiting a long time to tell my story.
My story only shows up one time in your three-year cycle of readings.
In my tradition, in Judaism as it is practiced here and now in your time,
my story comes up every single year on the festival of Purim.
But you all have to wait three years to hear from me,
and sometimes you don’t even hear me that often.

Oh, me? I’m Esther. Queen Esther. Sorry. I should have started there.

You know, my story is 2,500 years old, but it’s as relevant today as it ever was.
And it just so happens
that my story was assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary for today.
I’ve had a glance at your newspapers and the timing seems quite…providential. Your pastor didn’t manufacture that. Just saying.

Anyway.

My story begins when the story of another queen ends.

When I was a girl, King Ahasuerus
ruled over the lands stretching from India to Ethiopia.
In the third year of his reign, he decided to throw a big party
for all of the officials and governors and nobles.
No one could accuse King Ahasuerus of being modest.
For 180 days he displayed his wealth and splendor and pomp.

But he didn’t want the regular people to think he didn’t notice them.
So for 7 days he had another grand banquet. There were
white cotton curtains and blue hangings
tied with cords of fine linen and purple
to silver rings and marble pillars.

There were couches of gold and silver
on mosaics of colored stones, mother-of-pearl, and marble.

Drinks were served in golden goblets
and the royal wine was lavished in accordance with the bounty of the great king.

Drinking was, they say, “without restraint,”
for the king ordered the officials to do whatever they wanted.

Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women too.

Now it just so happened that on the 7th day,
Ahasuerus commanded Vashti to come make an appearance.
He wanted to show her off –
her great beauty was quite a prize.

But she refused to come.
I don’t know why.
But she refused.
Unheard of.
Impossible!
Dangerous.

The king couldn’t believe her audacity.
Neither could his advisers.
“The other women in the kingdom will see how the queen behaved
and they’ll start disobeying their husbands too!
Chaos! Mayhem!
Women thinking they can make decisions and do as they please!
Horror of all horrors!”

So the advisers told King Ahasuerus to ban Queen Vashti
from ever entering his presence again.
Then they had him write a letter
to all the royal provinces declaring that
every man should be a master in his own house.

That ought to do it.

Next up? “Find a new queen,” they advised him.

How does one choose a new queen?

Well, if you’re King Ahasuerus,
you hold a beauty pageant.

Yep. Because the most important thing for a queen to be is pretty.

So, following the advice of his councilors,
the King commanded that
all of the young, unmarried, “untouched” women –
girls, really –
be gathered up and brought to the palace.

And that’s where my story really gets going.

My mom and dad died when I was little,
and my cousin Mordecai,
who was significantly older than I,
took me in to raise me as a daughter.
Mordecai and my whole family were Jewish,
and Mordecai raised me that way too.
But we lived in a land of Gentiles – non-Jews –
and they didn’t like us very much.
There were lots of laws and customs
that kept us down in society,
economically as well as culturally.
Look, who am I kidding? Why beat around the bush?
Our lives were constantly in danger.
If we stepped out of line even a little bit,
we could be punished severely.

It just so happened
that we lived in Susa, the king’s city.
So when King Ahasuerus ordered that all the eligible girls be scooped up,
I was caught in the net too.
Mordecai was terrified of what would become of me,
a beautiful, young Jewish girl.
But it’s not like we had a choice.

For 12 months the other girls and I underwent
beauty treatments,
makeovers,
and various regimens
with oils
and ointments
and cosmetics.
One at a time
we had to go in to have a private audience with the king.
We spent the night with him,
and then,
if we didn’t please him,
we were shuttled off to the second harem.
If the king liked us, we would be asked back.

I leave it to your imaginations to fill in the details.

Suffice it to say that,
for whatever reason,
the king was quite taken with me.
He chose me above all the others
and made me queen.

It just so happened that,
around this time,
my cousin Mordecai,
who made it his habit to sit at the gate of the citadel
to keep watch over me as best he could,
overheard two of the king’s eunuchs plotting to kill him.
Mordecai alerted me to the plot,
and I told the king –
and I even gave Mordecai the credit
for uncovering the plot.
But I didn’t tell the king that Mordecai the Jew was my cousin.
Mordecai’s warnings about keeping my Jewishness a secret
still drove me to silence
on that front.

About this time, it just so happened that the king appointed
a petulant, power-hungry, angry man
to be his second-in-command –
Haman.

Oh, now wait. I forgot.
You aren’t Jewish.
Maybe you don’t know the tradition.
Haman is the bad guy in this story.
And at Purim, anytime a Jew hears the name “Haman,”
she makes lots of noise –
as if to drown his name right out of history.
You have noisemakers –
or if you don’t you certainly have mouths and hands and hymnals and pews.
Whenever I say Haman’s name,
you hiss or boo or make noise.

OK. So the king appointed this
petulant,
power-hungry,
angry man
to be his second-in-command:
Haman.

Now Haman
was a very proud man, too.
And very attached to his power.
He wanted everyone to take notice
and pay him respect.
He demanded that everyone bow
whenever he passed by,
even though he wasn’t himself the king.
He was the next most important
man in the realm.
He was
the best.
And he wanted everyone to act accordingly.
To kiss his feet, as it were.

And cousin Mordecai
wouldn’t do it.
He wouldn’t bow down.
Jews only bow before God –
our true Ruler.
And man, did that make Haman
angry!

But he thought it beneath him
to do anything to Mordecai himself.
So Haman
asked around
and found out that Mordecai was a Jew.
And then Haman
was struck with an idea.
Why not punish all the Jews –
all those uppity people
who might follow in this Mordecai’s footsteps?
So Haman
plotted to have all the Jews killed.

Haman and his cronies
cast Pur –
which means “the lot” –
to decide when the genocide should take place.
Then Haman went to King Ahasuerus
and told him that there was
a dangerous group of people in the kingdom.
“Their laws are different,” he said.
“They don’t keep the king’s laws,” he said.
“They’re not really from here,” he said.
“They speak a different language
and worship a different God,”
he said.
“They shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“Make a decree, O King,
that they should be destroyed,” he said.
“Not only that,” Haman said,
“I’ll GIVE YOU MONEY TO MAKE IT HAPPEN!”

And the king said, “So be it,”
and gave Haman
his signet ring as a sign of power.

And so a decree went out
to destroy, kill, and annihilate all Jews
young and old
women and children
in one day:
the 13th day of the 12th month,
and of course, to plunder their goods.

And the king and Haman
sat down to drink
while the city around them erupted
in confusion
and terror.

It just so happened
that Mordecai,
my cousin and stand-in-father,
was still sitting at the king’s gate
when the news broke.
When he heard it,
he tore his clothes
and put on sackcloth and ashes.
He went through the city,
wailing with a loud and bitter cry;
and he sat outside the king’s gate and fasted.

I, of course, knew none of this.
I was just the pretty queen
who made King Ahasuerus look good.

But my maids and eunuchs
soon told me
about Mordecai’s strange
and embarrassing
behavior.
My heart broke.
I couldn’t understand what Mordecai was doing.
I sent clothes out to him
but he refused them.
So I sent out one of my servants
to find out what on earth was going on.
Mordecai told him all about the plot
to kill the Jews,
and even about how much money Haman
had promised the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews.
Mordecai even gave my servant
a copy of the written decree
so that I could see it, and believe –
because, let’s face it, we don’t like to believe
that people would abuse their power
so abhorrently.
Sometimes we want to have evidence –
even if our heart of hearts knows the truth.

When I found out
about the impending genocide,
my heart felt like it was being torn out of my chest.
I had gotten used to my own life
as a captive to the throne.
But to imagine that a whole race of people –
my people –
would be destroyed
just because one
little
self-important man
named Haman
felt slighted?
It was appalling.
But what could I do?

I couldn’t just march into King Ahasuerus’ throne room
and demand an audience.
I couldn’t storm in all full of rage
and make him listen to me.
Anyone who entered the king’s throne room
without an invitation from the king himself could be –
would be –
put to death.

So I sent word back to Mordecai
that my hands were tied;
the king hadn’t called for me in over a month.
Apparently he had found a new plaything,
or two or three,
to keep him occupied.
The likelihood that I’d get an audience with him
in time
was small.
And Mordecai – my brave, dear cousin/father Mordecai,
sent word back to me:

“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 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.”

Well.

I told Mordecai to gather all the Jews in the city together
and to fast for 3 days.
My maids and I would fast for those 3 days too.
Then, I would go in to see the king.
And, I said to Mordecai,
“if I perish, I perish.”
I had to speak the truth.
I had to try.

I can tell you I was terrified.
But after 3 days of fasting,
I put on my royal robes
and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace.
Ahasuerus was sitting on his throne,
and when I saw him notice me,
my heart started beating so hard
I thought I might faint.
But then he held out his golden scepter to me –
a sign of approval!
I approached on shaking legs
and touched the top of the scepter –
a sign of subservience
and humility –
or maybe humiliation?

He said, “What is it, Queen Esther?
What is your request?
It shall be give you,
even to the half of my kingdom.”

He did like me, after all.
I made him look good.
I had what he prized most
after power and money:
female beauty.

Then I said, “If it pleases the king,
let the king and Haman
come today to a banquet that I have prepared for the king.”

The king complied.
He and Haman
came to my banquet.
And while they were drinking wine,
the king asked,
“What is your petition?
It shall be granted you.
And what is your request?
Even to the half of my kingdom,
it shall be fulfilled.”

And so I asked him to come with Haman
to another banquet the following day.

Haman
left my banquet happy and in good spirits.
Even the queen could see his greatness!
But then he saw Mordecai sitting at the gates,
and immediately his anger was inflamed.
Here was this man,
this Jew,
who still refused to bow to him!
The chosen date of the genocide
wasn’t soon enough.
to get rid of this insolent Jew!
Haman
went to his friends and wife
and they told him to build a gallows
75 feet high
and have Mordecai hanged.

Now it just so happened
that that night the king couldn’t sleep.
So he gave orders to his servants
to bring the records of his reign
and read to him.
It was then that he was reminded
of the long-ago-plot to kill him,
and of Mordecai’s swift action to save him.
King Ahasuerus asked
what had been done to honor Mordecai for his service.
When he learned that the answer was, “nothing,”
he decided to do something about that.
He told the servants to call in whoever was on duty.

It just so happened that Haman
was on duty.
The king asked, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?”
Haman
said to himself,
“Who would the king wish to honor more than me?”
And he said,
“For the man whom the king wishes to honor,
let royal robes be brought,
which the king has worn,
and a horse that the king has ridden,
with a royal crown on its head.
Let the robes and the horse
be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials;
let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor,
and let him conduct the man on horseback
through the open square of the city,
proclaiming honor before him.”

Then the king said to Haman,
“Quickly! Take the robes and the horse,
and do just as you said
to the Jew Mordecai who sits out at the gate.”

Haman
was shocked and in disbelief.
But did as he was told.
Mordecai was honored, but Haman
was embarrassed,
ashamed,
and enraged.

But he didn’t have long to stew.
It was time to come to my second banquet.

And again, as we were drinking wine,
the king asked me for my request.
And this time,
gathering all my courage
and knowing I was about to tell
my deepest, most dangerous secret
to the two men
who could destroy me, I said:

“If I have won your favor, O king,
and if it pleases the king,
let my life be given me – that is my petition –
and the lives of my people – that is my request.
For we have been sold,
I and my people,
to be destroyed,
to be killed,
and to be annihilated.
If we had been sold merely as slaves,
men and women,
I would have held my peace;
but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”

King Ahasuerus said,
“Who is he,
and where is he,
who has presumed to do this?”

I rose to my feet.
I pulled my back up straight.
I took a deep breath.
And with power coursing
from the earth right through my fingers,
I pointed at the villain and said,

“A foe and enemy,
this wicked Haman!”

And that vile worm was terrified.

The king, filled with wrath,
left the table
and went out to the garden.
And Haman
groveled at my feet,
begging for his life.
When I ignored him,
he threw himself on me
where I was reclining on the royal dining couch.
He held me down
and tried to make me acquiesce.

That’s when the king walked in.

“Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?”
he shouted.

That was the last straw.
The king wouldn’t stand for someone
trying to take his property –
for that is, after all,
what I was.
In his fury, the king had Haman
hanged on the very gallows
he had constructed for Mordecai.

The king elevated Mordecai to Haman’s
post in his stead.
So his life was saved and his future secured.
But I couldn’t stop there.
The order to kill all the Jews in the land
was still out there.

One final time I dared to enter the king’s throne room
uninvited,
and once again he
held out the golden scepter to me.
I begged him to revoke the order to kill all the Jews.
And once again I breathed a sigh of relief
when he agreed to do as I asked.

Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king
wearing royal robes of blue and white
with a great golden crown
and a mantle of fine linen and purple
while the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced.
For the Jews, my people,
there was light and gladness,
joy and honor.
It became a festival and a holiday,
known as Purim.

My story, and the story of my people, continues. But maybe that’s enough for now.

Thank you for listening.

Oh – one more thing.

These have been hard days for many of you –
personally but also communally
and as a body politic.
But my story is one of hope.
My story is one of possibility.
Think of it:

“A young woman
in the court of a mighty king,
a young woman valued
more for her beauty than her brains,
a young woman
willing to risk
her own safety and security
for the well-being of her people
calls attention
to a desperate situation.
She has only a few words at her disposal,
words that must be very well chosen.
She speaks.
History is changed.” [1]

Perhaps you, too, were born for such a time as this.

 

[1] H. James Hopkins.

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