Sunday’s sermon: The Replacements

Esther Mordecai“Esther” by Marc Chagall, 1960

Text used – Esther 2:1-5, 7-9a, 16-20

  • Recap → spending the summer preaching through the book of Esther
    • About the book of Esther
      • Found in OT between Nehemiah and Job
      • Written in the late 3rd BCE
      • Written as a fictional story within a historical framework
        • Could have happened
        • Plausibility lends itself to teaching a lesson
      • Only book in the Bible that doesn’t actually mention God … at all
    • Story so far
      • Met King Ahasuerus
      • Met king’s eunuch’s (special servants)
      • Met Queen Vashti
      • Week-long party with non-stop wine service → King Ahasuerus calling for Queen Vashti so he could show off her beauty to his guests → Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s beck and call → Vashti is stripped of her title and banished from the king’s site forevermore
      • And that is where we left it.
  • Today’s story:
    • Meet a couple more important characters
      • Esther (obvious … pretty important)
      • Esther’s cousin, Mordecai
        • Important character in Esther’s life – text: Mordecai had been a father to Hadassah (that is, Esther), though she was really his cousin, because she had neither father nor mother. The girl had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at. When her parents died, Mordecai had taken her to be his daughter.[1]
        • Also important character in the story → I’m not giving anything away here, but much will hinge on Mordecai, his quick tongue, and his cleverness. So stay tuned …
    • However, before we get to meet Esther and Mordecai, we first catch up with King Ahasuerus in the predicament that he has placed himself in. – opening verse = a little melancholy: Sometime later when King Ahasuerus was less angry, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what he had decided about her.[2] → “Sometime later.” I have to wonder how much later this actually is. Remember, when King Ahasuerus became so enraged with Queen Vashti, he had been drinking wine non-stop for a week. Even though wine back in that time period wasn’t as alcoholic as it is today … even though King Ahasuerus was also feasting and therefore wasn’t drinking on an empty stomach … even if he was the biggest man in the world with the highest tolerance, there’s no way that after a week-long party like that, his judgment wasn’t at least slightly impaired when he was persuaded to banish his queen forevermore. And “sometime later,” when we pick up the story again today, he remembers.
      • Heb. “remembers” = loaded word → layers of meaning including acknowledgment and confession and acceptance
        • Same word often used throughout psalms when people are crying out to God to remember them in the midst of turmoil
          • Ps 25: LORD, remember your compassion and faithful love – they are forever![3]
          • Ps 89: Remember your servant’s abuse, my Lord! Remember how I bear in my heart all the insults of the nations,[4]
          • Ps 119: Remember your promise to your servant, for which you made me wait.[5]
        • Word that carries consequence and solemnity and the weight of contrition and repentance → In this way … in THIS way … King Ahasuerus remembers what he did to Vashti, “what he had done, and what he had decided about her.” And I have to wonder what went through King Ahasuerus mind when the gravity of his situation finally settled on him.
          • Let me ask a question: As a society, have we finally come to this point? This point of remembering with repentance? We have become so numb to all of these horrific acts of violence – as desensitized and unmindful as a week’s worth of wine. As a society, have we finally come to the point of confessing with contrition and, more importantly, with consequent actions that we have an epidemic of gun violence in this country? That we have come to idolize “my rights, my rights, my rights” so highly that we have neglected to acknowledge the rights of those being gunned down with “my rights”?
            • Not a question I can answer today
            • Question that we can begin to answer as the church together
              • Image going around social media in the wake of the shooting in Orlando last week – simple black background with two short sentences: “Lord, have mercy. Church, have courage.”
                • Courage to speak up
                • Courage to speak out
                • Courage to speak words of “no” and “enough” and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”[6]
  • Continuing with today’s Scripture story …
    • King Ahasuerus is persuaded (again) to seek out a new queen – text: So his young male servants said, “Let the king have a search made for beautiful young women who haven’t yet married. And let the king choose certain people in all the royal provinces to lead the search. Have them bring all the beautiful young women together … so that he might provide beauty treatments for them. Let the young woman who pleases you the most take Vashti’s place as queen.” The king liked the plan and implemented it.[7]
      • Hold-over from last sermon: notice King Ahasuerus is again not coming up with any plans of his own – king’s power is molded and manipulated by those around him → suggests fallibility and inconsequential nature of king’s power when compared to God’s steadfast and eternal power
    • Impression that this plan has on me = almost cartoonish!
      • Cartoon from a few years ago: “The Replacements[8] – orphaned brother and sisters who mail-ordered a phone from the back of a comic book that allowed them to replace anyone in their lives with someone they think would be better → In true cartoon fashion, these replacements never end up working out the way the children intend for them to work out, and they discover that solving their problems is never as easy as a simple replacement. And this plan that King Ahasuerus implemented sounds like cartoon to me!
        • Vashti = not really working out so well anymore
        • Call in the replacements!
    • Introduces us to both Esther and Mordecai → Now, in the description of these two central characters, the author reveals that Esther and Mordecai are Jews.
      • Little background/history lesson: Babylonian exile in 597 BCE → all the important, powerful, intelligent Jews carted off to live in Babylon → roughly 60 yrs. later, Babylon conquered by Persian empire → Jews allowed to return to Jerusalem → But not all of them chose to do so. After 60 years, some of them had built lives where they were, so they chose to stay. Esther and Mordecai were two of those Jews living as the minority in a foreign land.
  • Now, when it comes to the book of Esther, let me give you a little bit of warning. We’re going to encounter things that make us uncomfortable, things that just don’t sit quite right with us. That’s just part of Scripture. Sometimes there are things that we’re going to have to wrestle with, and the last part of our passage for this morning is one of those things – last verse of text: Esther still wasn’t telling anyone her family background and race, just as Mordecai had ordered her. She continued to do what Mordecai said, just as she did when she was in his care.[9]
    • As a woman: don’t love that Esther “continued to do what Mordecai said” → Where’s her own brain? Where’s her own will? Where’s her own heart and sense of self and empowered identity?
      • Realization: imposing 21st ideals for roles of women onto ancient story
    • More importantly: whole idea of Esther hiding her identity as a Jew – “her family background and race” – doesn’t sit comfortably
      • Again imposing 21st knowledge and freedoms onto ancient story → We live in a society that proclaims equal rights for all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We life in a society that is hyper sensitive to individuality, to the point where there are a number of things that we don’t discuss in “polite conversation” (politics, religion, parenting choices, salaries, and so on). And yet …
        • Society in which there is still so much hate-speech directed toward LGBTQ community – even by elected officials[10] and pastors[11]! – that that hate-speech exploded into the violent act that we saw in Orlando last Sun.
        • Society in which people of color are routinely subjected to greater scrutiny whether they’re doing something as simple as walking down the aisle of a convenience store or driving a car
        • Society in which an entire religion has been so misconstrued and so vilified by the media, by public figures, and by certain presumptive presidential nominees that more than half of the American population has an unfavorable view of Islam[12]
          • Not a religion of violence
          • Not a religion that seeks to kill everyone who isn’t Muslim
          • Not a religion of intolerance and blind hatred
          • Statement  put out this week by the Islamic Institute of Minnesota[13]
          • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s statement – equating ISIS with all of Islam is like equating the KKK with all of Christianity
      • My point, friends, is that by our words, by our actions, by our legislation, by our sensationalized news reports, we tell people every day that they need to follow Esther’s example – to hide who they truly are in order to fit in, to assimilate as quickly and as seamlessly as possible for fear of being “found out.”
        • Jesus in gospel of John: I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.[14]
        • James: Brothers and sisters, don’t say evil things about each other. Whoever insults or criticizes a brother or sister insults and criticizes the Law. If you find fault with the Law, you are not a doer of the Law but a judge over it. There is only one lawgiver and judge, and he is able to save and to destroy. But you who judge your neighbor, who are you?[15] → As Christians, it’s not our job to run around pointing out all the perceived problems and missteps and sins in other people’s lives. It is our job to try to live like Jesus – a life of love, of compassion, a life of not shrinking the “accepted” circle but expanding it out to the margins … to those places where “proper society” refused to go. And a life that spoke out against intolerance, hatred, and fear. Lord, have mercy. Church, have courage. Amen.

[1] Est 2:7.

[2] Est 2:1.

[3] Ps 25:6.

[4] Ps 89:50.

[5] Ps 119:49.

[6] Is 2:4 (NRSV).

[7] Est 2:2-4.

[8]The Replacements (TV Series)” from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Replacements_(TV_series). Last modified June 8, 2015, accessed June 18, 2016.

[9] Est 2:20.

[10] Scott Wong and Mike Lillis. “Bible verse prompts GOP walkout after LGBT vote labeled a sin” from The Hill, http://thehill.com/homenews/house/281437-bible-verse-launches-gop-meeting-spurs-walkout. Posted May 26, 2016, accessed June 19, 2016.

[11] “California pastor praises Orlando massacre” from http://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/nation/2016/06/15/85917730/. Accessed June 19, 2016.

[12] Jaweed Kaleem. “More Than Half of Americans Have Unfavorable View of Muslims, Poll Finds” from The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/10/americans-islam-poll_n_7036574.html. Posted Apr. 10, 2014, updated Apr. 10, 2015, accessed June 19, 2016.

[13] http://www.islamicinstituteofmn.com/.

[14] Jn 10:10.

[15] Jas 4:11-12.

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