"Giving Esther Her Due"

Proper 21.B.21
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

It’s no secret that women tend to get short shrift in the Bible. Many years ago, I recall asking a group of folks in the church where I was serving at that time to name as many women as they could who were found in the Bible. Sadly, their list was pitifully small. I had difficulty understanding this and questioned them. They replied: “Well, women didn’t do much.” I told them about Naomi, Elizabeth, Anna and Ruth, about Sara and Deborah, about Hannah and Phoebe—and, of course, Esther. These were people they knew nothing about. With a bit of reflection their response made sense. In truth, they hadn’t heard of them. Why? Because, at that time the Episcopal and Roman Catholic lectionaries chose either to make verses in the appointed Sunday readings mentioning women optional or omitted them altogether. So, if you weren’t a Bible reader, but a listener at church on Sunday mornings, of course you’d conclude that women didn’t do much. The introduction of the Revised Common Lectionary remedied this—and we are all the better for it. Which is what brings us to the story of Esther for today. My hope, is that by the end of today’s sermon you might be inspired to read this short book of the Bible for yourself if you have not already done so—because it is an absolutely fantastic story.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters would agree—because each year on the feast of Purim the story of Esther is chanted in its entirety and celebrated with feasting and merriment. It’s a joyful holiday including almsgiving, sending food to neighbors and friends, eating delicious jam filled cookies called hamentashen—in the shape of the hat of the evil protagonist of the story. The holiday includes masquerades, plays and the drinking of wine, even in the synagogue. What’s not to love!

All of this is most remarkable for a book in the Bible in which God does not appear at all—actually, it’s even more striking than that—God is not even mentioned in the course of Esther’s narrative, nor is anyone depicted as praying to God, praising God, or so much as tipping their hat to the Almighty. What gives?

The story, for its own part, is simple enough. Boil it all down and what you get is that this is a tale about how the right people found themselves in the right place at the right time to head off a calamity (namely, the extermination of the Jews) in a way no one could have seen coming—through the bravery and determination of two individuals: Esther, and her uncle Mordecai. The lesson we heard today forms the high point of the drama.

The question for us this morning is—how did this book make it into the Bible—and how might it be relevant to us today? But before we get to this, here is a bit of historical background to the story of Esther.

This story takes place in the years following the Babylonian exile. After years of living in a foreign land, many Jews returned to their homeland. But there were some, a small number, who remained behind. Two of them are Esther and Mordecai. In the course of the story, Esther becomes queen of Persia, putting her in a position to help her people when under threat.

Esther becomes queen of Persia after the former queen, Vashti was dethroned, because she refused to dance for her husband’s friends. As time passed, the king began to feel lonely and regretted ridding himself of Vashti, so his servants suggest finding another queen. This leads to an empire-wide search, a beauty pageant, and the selection of Esther as the new queen. (by the way—no one, save Mordecai knows Esther is a Jew).

There are lots of twists and turns in the plot—and a great deal of peril as the Jews are threatened with genocide when Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, the king’s minister.

All of which brings us to today’s lesson where Esther, bedecked in bling, and no-doubt looking fabulous, rocks the boat and pleads for the lives of her people. And…if you’ll forgive a spoiler….it has a happy ending.

The Book of Esther a great story, but it’s not without its detractors, some of whom objected to its inclusion in the Bible. In fact, Martin Luther was so hostile to it that he once said: “I would it did not exist.” And Calvin, that theologian who had a lot to write and say about most everything scriptural, never wrote a commentary on it.

Think of the Book of Esther as a story about God’s hidden providence. True, God is never mentioned by name—there isn’t praying or temple attending in the story—but nevertheless, it seems difficult to miss the guiding hand of God throughout the narrative. Perhaps, in addition to being a rousingly good tale, it is also a lesson about how the Almighty works in unspoken and unknown ways. Think of it this way—God is present, even when God is absent. I like this interpretation. I believe it’s true—true in the story of Esther, and true in our own lives as well.

Recall, if you will, when it was revealed, that for all the incredibly noble work she did across so many decades, Mother Teresa also endured a protracted divine silence that never lifted, so far as we know, before her death. Early in her life she heard a call to work among the poor and—after that, God appears to have hung up the phone and said no more.

That might seem amazing to us. If God were to speak to anyone—surely it would be to a person as holy as Mother Teresa. But, then again, perhaps not. Really, is this so different from many of us in our lives? Sure, there are plenty of Christians out there who discern the voice and hand of God on a daily basis—but I think this is the exception rather than the rule. I think, for many folks, we labor on in faithfulness and only later—with the gift of reflection and hindsight (and sometimes the insight of others), can see how God was leading us all along.

Esther—in her person, and in the book which bears her name, may never have realized how mightily she was being employed by God for a greater good. Perhaps Mordecai didn’t have an inkling either. Perhaps they both were doing what they felt had to be done without having any idea they would be memorialized in holy scripture for their efforts.

Perhaps this is true of ourselves as well. There may be days when we might have no idea why we should be lifting our voices to praise God; but that does not mean that God is not working out the Almighty’s larger purposes in and through us and our words and actions. If this is the message of Esther—well, not only is it a pretty fine story for the reading—it’s Good and hopeful News for us. Certainly, it’s a fine reason for rejoicing and eating a jam-filled cookie as well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.