It is a powerful statement of our shared tradition. Christians do not all interpret the Bible in the same way. But we all look to the same Bible, and on any given week, many of us look to the same passages of the Bible, for God’s message to us.
That is a great gift. In a world divided in so many ways, we should celebrate anything that brings us together.
Having said that, I don’t understand what people were thinking when they chose our Old Testament reading for this morning.
Normally the readings from week to week include enough information to follow the basic story. That requires us to remember what we heard last week, which is not easy. But it is at least theoretically possible.
That is not true for this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Today is the only time we will hear from the book of Esther in our entire three-year cycle. My guess is, if you don’t already know the story of Esther, this passage doesn’t help much.
But it is a great story, with a powerful lesson. Here is the short version.
Esther is a beautiful, young, Jewish woman. She comes to the attention of mighty Ahasuerus, king of Persia. She impresses him, and she becomes his queen. It is an astonishing rise.
But Esther doesn’t tell her new husband that she is Jewish. Apparently Ahasuerus didn’t much like Jews. Apparently a lot of people in his empire didn’t much like Jews. So, Esther must have thought to herself, why take a chance on ruining a good thing by identifying with a despised group?
Now change scenes. Haman, the king’s wicked adviser, hated a Jewish man named Mordecai. To get at Mordecai, Haman convinced the king to condemn all the Jews in all of Persia to death.
Until our time, such a plot might have seemed exaggerated. Could any ruler really condemn
so many innocent citizens to die? Living after the Holocaust, we know the answer is yes. After the Holocaust, we may well be in a better position than were earlier generations to feel the real horror of what Haman proposed to do.
Well, unbeknownst to Haman, Mordecai was Esther’s beloved uncle. Mordecai met secretly with Esther, and he urged her to plead with the king for the life of the Jews.
Esther refused. Esther told Mordecai she could not even enter the king’s presence without permission. If she tried, she would die.
I can understand Esther’s refusal easily enough. Why take a chance when you can’t be sure you will accomplish anything anyway? It’s totally reasonable.
But that kind of rationalization can kill our souls.
That is why Jesus tells us we have to take up our cross and follow him. That is why Jesus tells us
we have to be willing to lose our lives to gain them. That is why Jesus tells us that if we try too hard to save our own lives, then we will lose them for sure. Because that way lies the loss of our soul.
Mordecai says essentially the same thing to Esther. Mordecai reminds Esther that she is a Jew.
And, in my favorite passage in the entire book, Mordecai tells Esther not to “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.”
Then Mordecai asks Esther the key question: “who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (4:13-14).
Mordecai trusts that God will do something. The question is, will Esther be part of God’s intervention?
We can ask the same question in language borrowed from our Presiding Bishop. Bishop Curry says that we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, called by God to join in God’s mission of changing this world from the nightmare it is for some into the dream God has for it. God is at work. The question for us is, are we part of God’s mission?
Back to Esther. Mordecai’s words were enough. As we heard in our reading, Esther enters the king’s presence. She claims her Jewish identity. She asks the king to spare her life and the lives of her people. She says, in effect, that she is a Jew and that she chooses to share the fate of the Jews.
And it works! The king relents, Haman’s plot is foiled, and Haman himself ends up dying on the gallows he built for Mordecai. Esther has saved her people. It’s a great story.
We can learn a lot from Esther’s story.
Esther was not a great saint. The first few chapters of the book make that very clear. Esther was just an ordinary woman. That is what makes her such a great model for us. We, too, are ordinary people. But we are called by God to follow Jesus Christ, and, like Esther, we are capable of great things, with God’s help.
When push came to shove, Esther had the courage to do what she had to do in order to help people who needed help. In the end, Esther was willing to lose her life if need be. And, because Esther was finally willing to be open about her people and her religion, she gained a freedom and a security she could not otherwise have had. For the first time, she could be open about her religious faith, and not worry about the consequences. Esther could live like the child of God that she was.
None of us are likely to be in a position to save an entire population from genocide. But, like Esther, all of us have moments when we are confronted with a choice. In those moments, will we do the right thing, even though it is hard, even though it involves risk? Or will we not?
In my own experience, those moments are often not very dramatic. Often they come in my daily life, when I am with family or friends or the people I meet as I go about my business. Suddenly I find myself in an exchange that is a little uncomfortable, something is said that I hesitate to let pass. In that moment, I have to make a decision. Will I play my part in God’s mission? Will I rise to the occasion, as Esther did?
Those moments may catch us by surprise. But the Christian life prepares us to face them. We pray, and we worship, and we serve, and we study Scripture, and we do whatever else we do to draw closer to God, to become a little bit more the kind of person God calls us to be, to root ourselves a little bit more in God’s vision for our world. Then, when push comes to shove, hopefully we are ready, at least more ready than we would otherwise be, to do the right thing.
I encourage you to take a minute to think back to the last time you found yourself in a moment of decision. Were you ready? If not, what spiritual practices might help you get ready for the next time?
My prayer for us is that we can learn from Esther and rise to the challenges when they come. In Jesus’ name. Amen.