A Sermon about Esther, Sexual Violence, and Speaking Out

Content note: This has been an especially hard week in national news, between the Bill Cosby verdict and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. It has been especially difficult for our siblings who have experienced sexual violence and have had to be subjected to reliving that trauma in the swirl of endless headlines. I see you, I hear you, I believe you. Period. If you need to reach out to a safe, qualified, trained sexual assault counselor, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1.800.656.HOPE (1.800.656.4673).

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
30 September 2018 + Lectionary 26B (Pentecost 19)
Esther 7.1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22

The book of Esther is complicated. As it opens, we find the ancient Israelites living in exile in Persia. On the one hand, there are elements of satire at work. Very quickly, we learn that the king of Persia has a bit of a temper and is time and again proven to be inept and oblivious:

  • Early on, when he summons his first queen  (before Esther) to join a party he’s throwing and she refuses, he consults seven advisors to decide, ultimately, to banish her from his kingdom.
  • Later, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, overhears an assassination attempt on the king and quickly intervenes to stop it — all the while the king remains oblivious to the plot against him and about who saved his life.
  • Yet again, when the king signs off on his second-in-command Haman’s decree to kill all the Jews in Persia, there’s no real evidence to suggest he actually knows what he’s signing.

Time and again, the book of Esther satirizes the  supposedly powerful king and portrays him as inept, oblivious, and just not a great ruler, undermining his very legitimacy.

Throughout all of this, however, another more significant figure emerges for whom the book is named. Not long after Esther becomes queen to replace her now-deposed and banished predecessor, she hears of Haman’s plot to systematically murder all of the Jewish people living in the empire. In light of this imminent danger to her and her people, Esther becomes convinced, albeit reluctantly at first and with great risk to her own life, to act, to speak out, to try to change what the powers-that-be are about to do. Even so much as approaching the king, her own husband, without being summoned was an offense that could have gotten Esther killed — rendering her efforts pointless and changing nothing. Up until this point, the king has no idea that Esther herself is even Jewish. But still, Esther risks everything.

The book of Esther highlights a woman who speaks out against injustice and violence when it is neither prudent nor expedient to do so.

Were it not for Esther’s bravery, nothing would have changed. And there was probably never going to be a more prudent or well-timed moment for Esther to speak out before it was too late, either.

From his jail cell in Birmingham, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his now-famous letter addressing his fellow clergy who were concerned his civil rights activism was “unwise and untimely.” In response, King writes, “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”

Indeed, the call to speak out against injustice and violence cannot wait, well-timed or not.

Were it not for the first Montgomery bus boycotters and the civil rights movement spearheaded by Dr. King, we might have never broken through the evil of segregation.

Were it not for the drag queens and transgender women of color at Stonewall in the 1960s, we might have never seen the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Were it not for the first women who boldly and with great risk spoke out about their experiences of sexual assault and those after them who have said #metoo, we might never have had a heightened awareness about the gender-based harassment and violence experienced by people of all genders.

I have to acknowledge that, regardless of politics, this past week has been exceptionally difficult and triggering for our siblings who have experienced sexual assault and violence. On Thursday alone, the National Sexual Assault Hotline reported an unprecedented increase in call volume. It is no small thing to overcome the fear of coming out, out loud, as the victim of sexual assault, and yet there are those who will do everything but just believe their story: She should’ve said something earlier… That was 30 years ago… We knew about this for months and you’re just bringing it up now?… Think about the person you’re accusing… You’re destroying his character…

No wonder over half of all acts of sexual violence go unreported — when the victims have to put up with questions, excuses,  blame, and even accusations against their credibility or recollection of events (“are you sure?”).

Today, the story of Esther offers hope. The story of a woman who, despite great risk to her own life, despite the very real possibility of being dismissed, speaks out against injustice and violence is a story we need to hear. This is a story that says I believe you. Period. This is a story that encourages us to speak up and speak out against injustice and violence, that gives voice to victims, even when it’s risky or “not the right time.”

When we read the story of Esther, it’s also surprising to discover, for a book of the Bible, God is never once explicitly mentioned. And yet, I am convinced God is present nonetheless. This is a story not of God’s apparent absence, but just the contrary. Indeed, it’s Esther’s faith that compels her to speak up.

This is a story of seeing God in hidden, unexpected places. This is a story of seeing God alongside those who suffer and certainly with those who dare to speak out against injustice and violence, despite great risk.

This is very crux of our faith: We proclaim a God who made us all very good, in God’s own image, and we proclaim a God who laments at the ways we hurt each other and tarnish that image. We proclaim a God who is with us even and especially in those dark places because we proclaim a God who became one of us, who suffered as we suffer, and who, ultimately, overcame the power of evil to bring new life and healing.

Thanks be to God.

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