Sunday, September 27, 2009

For Such a Time As This: Sermon on the Book of Esther

It is so simple, yet it can be so difficult: telling the truth. For a long time, I hid the truth about myself. For a long time, I lived in fear that the truth would bring with it only danger, only sorrow. But in the end, the truth brought freedom, for me and for my people.

My Hebrew name is Hadassah, meaning myrtle. But I have a Babylonian name as well: Esther, Ishtar, like the goddess worshipped by those who kidnapped my people and took them into exile, the people who brought us here, long before I was born. I have two names, and I claim them both. I am a woman of two worlds. And that is why I began to keep my secret.

My story begins as another woman’s story ends. It was all the talk of the women at the well: beautiful Queen Vashti had been commanded to appear at a royal banquet by her husband, King Xerxes. The king was merry with wine, they chuckled to one another, and he ordered Vashti to appear before his banquet guests in her royal crown—and everyone knew that the king meant, only in her royal crown. At this, eyebrows were raised, and the women clucked their tongues in disapproval as they hoisted their buckets from the well. Proud Vashti refused, and so Xerxes deposed her and began his search for another Queen. The general consensus was that any woman who agreed to be the queen of Xerxes ought to be prepared for a life of such indignities.

My uncle Mordecai approached me for a dipper of water as I returned from the well, and he listened as I shared the gossip. My dear uncle had raised me from a child, ever since my parents had died. I saw a twinkle in his eye, and I knew him so well, I knew what it meant: despite the warnings of the women, this was an opportunity, not just for me, and not just for my family, but for my people. We were Jews. We were the outsiders, one of the tiniest ethnic minorities of the vast Persian Empire. We were strangers in a strange land, and we were looked upon with suspicion, even hate. Long ago we had been taken into captivity and exile… so long ago that many of us had been reared without the prayers and traditions and history of our people being taught to us. What would happen, we wondered, if a woman who was a Jew could find her way into royal favor? With my uncle’s encouragement I went and joined the throng, one of hundreds of girls to present themselves to the king for his consideration. But heeding my uncle’s warning, I kept the truth about my heritage a secret. No one would know that I was a Jew, not even those who would become my closest friends. No one would know, not even the man who was to be my husband.

What followed was a lengthy time of preparation. I do not know whether it was the legacy of having come after Queen Vashti, but we women of the harem were clearly intended to put our appearance before all else. We were schooled in beauty and deportment, we were treated with oil of myrrh and we were clothed with rich fabrics. At the end of our time of preparation, we were taken, one at a time, before the king. I never dreamed he would actually choose me, but he did. He gave a banquet in my honor and introduced me to the court.

Now, just as I took my place as the king’s bride my uncle performed an extraordinary service to him. Two of the king’s servants were talking carelessly at the gate to the palace, and my uncle was able to overhear that a plot was underway to kill the king. They spoke openly… perhaps the sight of an elderly Jew didn’t concern them… my people are often made invisible by the contempt of others. But my uncle’s ears were sharp, and before long King Xerxes was made to know that a good subject named Mordecai had interfered with a plot to kill him, and saved his life.

What shall I say about the king? He is devoted to me… that I can tell you with certainty. And I like to hope there is more to that than the blush of my cheek. I like to hope it is as much the conversation we make as my more, shall we say, decorative aspects. Is the king a good man? The Vashti incident notwithstanding, there is a kind of goodness about him, I suppose. But it is like the seeds that cling around the blossom of the dandelion. A strong wind can carry his goodness away, never to be seen again. In the case of the king, his continuing goodness depends very much on the company he keeps. And for a time, this king kept the company of Haman.

There are those, like the servants at the gate, who see my people and simply look right through us: we do not count, we are almost invisible. Then there are those, like Haman, who harbor a hatred for us that chills the blood. Haman was the king’s prime minister. He was trusted. He was respected. But he also had that dangerous kind of ego one finds in the world of politics. Haman wished, above all else, to be feared.

My dear uncle had an encounter with him that changed the fate of every one of us. Mordecai had taken his place at the king’s gate. I do not know why he favored this location, except that, perhaps, he liked to be near me, and to see whether he could hear about my comings and goings. As he came and went to and from the castle, Haman enjoyed seeing the way all the people bowed down to him… all, that is, except one: my uncle Mordecai. I do not know why he refused… our people usually show respect to rulers in this way. Could my uncle see through to Haman’s evil and murderous soul? I do not know. But for some reason my uncle would not bow, and Haman grew to hate him. As his hatred grew, he learned that Mordecai was a Jew… for my uncle did not hide his heritage, and no one in the palace knew he was my uncle. Haman thought it beneath him to vent his rage on one man alone. So he planned to kill all the Jews, throughout Xerxes’ vast kingdom. He proposed his plan to the king, all built upon a lie—that the Jews were not obeying the king’s laws. Upon hearing this, Xerxes did not hesitate to agree with his trusted advisor. The edict went out. All the Jews were to be killed.

I remember where I was when I heard the news. I was in my chamber, with my serving women, embroidering myrtle flowers on a gown of rich fabric for myself. As the women shared the gossip my needle froze just as the tip was about to pierce the fabric, to create the fifth petal of the star-like blossom. Suddenly my hands were cold, and I knew I could sew no more that day. I rushed from the palace to the gate and fell on my knees beside my uncle.

I had never seen him like this. As I have said, I was raised without the rituals and prayers of my people. Mordecai had assumed what I have since learned to be the garments of one who is mourning, and begging God to intercede with rescue. Gone were his fine clothes, and he wore sackcloth in their place. His face and head were covered with soot, with ashes, and he wailed and prayed aloud.

Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
2From you let my vindication come; let your eyes see the right. ~ Psalm 17:1-2

Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit… my uncle could pray these words, but I could not. I was the queen. I had been chosen by the king, and he did not know this basic fact about me… he did not know the truth. He did not know that I was a Jew. He did not know that, by agreeing to Haman’s plan to kill every Jew, he had signed his queen’s death warrant.

I looked into my uncle’s eyes and I could see that in his prayers he was not only asking God to intervene: he was also asking me. I explained to him what I had learned from my long months in the palace: that one did not seek an audience with the king. One waited on his royal pleasure. Anyone who approached the king without his express invitation could be killed.

My uncle narrowed his eyes. I could see that he was not convinced by my protests. He spoke to me in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, hoarse from his hours of wailing and lamenting.

“My child, you believe that you can stay in the king’s house and remain silent. But I tell you, you cannot. You believe that your silence will keep you safe, but I tell you, it will not. The Lord Almighty will never forsake his people. But that help may not arise in time to keep your neck from being broken on the gallows. Who knows the ways of the Lord? Perhaps you have been placed in the royal palace for just such a time as this. Perhaps your presence there, a Jew in the king’s own chambers, is part of God’s plan of salvation for us.”

It is so simple, but it can be so difficult. And yet, once I had made the decision, the weight of fear was lifted. I returned to my chambers and once again picked up my needle. I finished the spray of white myrtle flowers on the purple cloth of my royal gown, and I dressed myself in it. Then I went to the king. It was time to speak the truth.

You know the rest of my story—how I invited the king to a banquet, at which Haman was also present. How I told the king that Haman was planning my death, and the deaths of my people. How the king’s rage at Haman led, not to those deaths, but to Haman’s own death. And then, taking his place at the king’s side was a Jew named Mordecai, my uncle, a good man who had saved the king’s life. Now I know that the king will continue as a good man; there is a good man at his side, advising him, counseling him, and seeing that he treats all his subjects well.

Every year after the harvest my people hold a festival in which we celebrate the fruits of all God’s gifts to us. There are four sacred plants we use at that time, to symbolize the four kinds of people who make up our community. One of these plants is Hadassah, the myrtle plant. Because it has a lovely fragrance, but it does not have a pleasing taste, myrtle represents those Jews who have good deeds to their credit, despite the fact that they have never studied Torah, God’s holy law. I am Esther, Hadassah, a woman of two worlds, a woman of the exile, who never learned the holy rites or words of my people. But I learned the hard and simple discipline of telling the truth. For a long time, I hid the truth. For a long time, I lived in fear that the truth would bring with it only danger, only sorrow. But in the end, the truth was all I had to save myself and my people. In the end, it was the truth that set us free. And thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: "Esther" by Minerva Teichert (1888-1976)


August said...

Wow. That's all I have to say. Amazing!

jsd said...

A beautiful sermon!

episcopalifem said...


Sophia said...

Oh, lovely, Mags. Esther's coming out is so clear in the text, and yet I never saw it this way before. This is so much the fruit of your own journey these past months....I wonder if your congregation could hear that?

Magdalene6127 said...

Thanks all! Sophia, I was quite nervous about preaching it, fearing that it might be seen as sort of sel-absorbed, as in, oh the bible's really all about my problems. But I couldn't, in the end, preach anything else. So I guess that's the Holy Spirit. (That, or my issues are STRONG)

LittleMary said...

this is a good one:)

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