Unity Lutheran Church
4 March 2020 + Midweek Lent 1
Esther 7.1-6, 9-10; 9.20-22
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
The story of Esther is a fascinating and complicated one. It’s not a story we get to hear very often, appearing only once in the entire three-year cycle of readings — and even then only a few verses cobbled together, as it appears in our liturgy today. In Jewish tradition, Esther takes center stage every year during the festival of Purim, which happens to fall this year on this coming Monday evening.
Esther is short enough to read in one sitting, but not quite short enough to read in one service, so here’s the CliffsNotes version: The story takes place a long, long time ago, when the Jews were living in diaspora in the Persian Empire. One day, the Persian king, Ahasuerus, throws a wild party, which quickly gets out of hand as the guests become increasingly intoxicated, and suddenly the king gets an idea: Let’s have the queen, Vashti, come out and parade herself around for us. Except Vashti isn’t about to have any of that…a decision that quickly gets her booted from the royal court.
Now King Ahasuerus needs a new queen, which is where Esther comes in. After a sort of convoluted beauty pageant, Ahasuerus falls for her and decides she’s the one. The key detail to know about Esther though: She’s Jewish. And Ahasuerus doesn’t know that…yet.
Not long after Esther becomes queen, her uncle Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate the king…a plot which is quickly squashed, and the king’s life saved. Then attention shifts once more, this time to Haman, who has just been promoted in Ahasuerus’s court. With Haman’s promotion comes some pretty nifty perks, such as requiring everyone to bow down to you. But Mordecai refuses. And Haman is pissed. So he does the first thing he can think of to get revenge: When he discovers that Mordecai is a Jew, he then plots a way to have all the Jews in Persia killed. A bit of an overreaction, but what’s a little hyperbole to make for an engaging plot twist?
When Mordecai finds out, he’s understandably deeply troubled and worried. But he has an idea: His niece, a Jew herself, is now a part of the royal court. She could go to the king to intervene and prevent this massacre from taking place. It would be incredibly risky for Esther to go to the king uninvited, but she’s willing to do it.
In the meantime, Haman gets riled up again, and this time plans to have Mordecai specifically killed. With plans set, Haman is pleased with himself. Things are looking up for him. He’s about to rid himself of this thorn in his side, and he’s just been invited to a banquet with the king and queen where there’s talk of someone being specially honored. Haman presumes it’s him (because he’s very clearly that full of himself), and so when the king asks how this person might be honored, Haman really plays it up. Little does Haman know that Ahasuerus is really talking about Mordecai, finally realizing he never recognized him for foiling the assassination plot and saving his life.
Then, finally, the moment of truth: Esther still has to foil Haman’s plot and save her people. So at the next banquet she hosts with Haman and Ahasuerus, she drops a bombshell: She’s Jewish. And: Haman is plotting to kill her and Mordecai and all their people. Ahasuerus is infuriated that Haman would plot such a thing against his queen and the man who saved his life, and he has Haman killed on the very gallows Haman had prepared for Mordecai. Finally, in some clever political maneuvering, Ahasuerus, Esther, and Mordecai work out a new plan to save the Jewish people, and all ends happily ever after.
There’s a lot that could be said about the book of Esther, but for our purposes this Lent, when we’re focused on what it means to be created for community, I think that this book does a really good job taking up the theme of community and what it means to be a part of a community. It’s clearly an important story for the Jewish community, even to this day, and I think it has lessons we can glean too.
We know that community gives us a sense of identity and belonging. And when we belong to a community, we have a sense of purpose and commitment to that community. It might even involve taking risks for the sake of our community.
Surely Esther and Mordecai took huge risks in their commitment to their community. Esther could have easily kept her Jewish identity hidden and let Haman’s plot be carried out. But looking the other way wasn’t an option for Esther. Her sense of identity and belonging drove her sense of purpose and commitment. Unlike Haman, Esther knew she didn’t exist for herself, but was a part of something larger, something beyond herself — a part of a wider community. There’s power to that kind of community and belonging.
What does it feel like to be part of a community like that? For me, it felt like becoming a member of Proclaim, a professional organization for pastors, deacons, and seminarians in the Lutheran church who identify as LGBTQIA+. At my first annual Proclaim Gathering four years ago, during opening worship, the liturgy included a litany naming significant events and ordinations in the history of our organization, with historic roots in a movement that accompanied and supported gay and lesbian candidates for ordained ministry at a time when the church wouldn’t officially accept them.
As the litany began, it named each person who was ordained extraordinarily and beyond. As the names of those present were read, each person was invited to stand and take hold of a piece of the ball of red yarn that was being passed around. The litany then continued into the future, naming seminarians, like me at the time, who would make up the future of the church. As the yarn was passed to me, I too stood. Soon, the whole room was connected with a single strand of red yarn. And I knew I belonged. I was a part of something bigger than myself. My call to ministry mattered because of those early risk-takers who had gone before me, who knew that this was a community worth fighting for.
I believe we all have a community like that — a community that gives us a deep sense of belonging and purpose. Maybe it’s this church, or maybe it’s somewhere else. Maybe it’s the families we’re born into, or the families we choose. Maybe it’s a combination of several communities. Are you thinking of that community for you?
When we say that we’re created for community, it’s no small thing. Community means we belong to something bigger than ourselves. Community means we have a sense of purpose and commitment to the people who make up that community with us. Community means being vulnerable and being brave and bold and taking risks for the sake of each other. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s a gift. We are created for community, created for each other, and we have the awesome and incredible calling to be a part of it. Indeed, just like Esther, we all have been called “for just such a time as this.”