September 26, 2021
Once again our lectionary gives us just a tantalizing snippet of a Bible story that deserves to be more fully known. Today we hear extracts from the end of the story of Esther. This is a book of the Bible that doesn’t explicitly mention God, and for that reason, like the letter of James, its place in the canon has long been disputed. But it’s a great story!
To fully appreciate the verses we read, you need to know at least the outline of the whole book. The setting is Persia, in a time when the Jews were in exile and many of them lived in the Persian Empire as resident aliens. Esther is a Jewish girl who is essentially trafficked into the harem of the Persian king and subsequently raised to the status of queen. She is beautiful, obedient, and careful to keep her Jewish identity secret. When her cousin Mordecai alerts her to a plot by two palace eunuchs to assassinate the king, she passes Mordecai’s message to the king, saving his life. As this tale of intrigue and conspiracy develops, we are told of ongoing tension between the grand vizier, Haman, and Mordecai, rooted in an ancient enmity between their ancestors.
When Mordecai refuses to give Haman the respect Haman thinks he deserves, Haman talks the king into unknowingly letting him plot genocide of the Jews across the empire. The news of the planned massacre reaches Esther in the harem and, as she hesitates to speak up, the message comes from Mordecai, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” God isn’t mentioned by name, it’s true, but surely the action of divine Providence is implied here. The story piles on the arrogance of Haman and the steadfast courage and resistance of the Jews.
At the dramatic climax of the story, which is where we came in today, Esther is at the height of her favor with the king, and she has dared to risk death by showing up uninvited in the king’s inner sanctum, in order to plead for her people. She reveals to the king that she is Jewish and that she and all her people are to be murdered on the orders of Haman. In a dramatic twist, the consequences for Haman turn out to be dire, as we have just read, and the Jews’ escape continues to be celebrated today in the feast of Purim.
All of today’s Scripture readings bring us face to face with cultural values and beliefs that we have, for the most part, discarded. The idea of hundreds of pretty girls, guarded by eunuchs and penned up in a harem for the king’s pleasure, is repellent to us. The thought that someone could be killed for showing up uninvited in the royal court is outrageous. And it goes without saying that we condemn genocide.
When we turn to the Letter of James, in the last excerpt we will read, we see an understanding of sickness as a spiritual affliction, rather than something purely physical. There is no demarcation between the physical and the spiritual: sickness is a manifestation of sin or demonic possession. James also uses words that have multiple possible translations, so “sick” could alternatively be “weak”; “save” could be “heal”; and “Faith” could be “Trust”. We also see that confessing sins is included in the prescription for recovery from illness.
When it comes to the Gospel, it’s helpful to know that for the Jews of Jesus’ time, a physical imperfection such as a missing limb disqualified someone from serving as a priest in the Temple – because physical disability was seen as a manifestation of sin. Only those who looked perfect were worthy to serve. Jesus uses the hyperbolic language of drowning with millstones and cutting off hands to illustrate vividly that, in the Kingdom of God, what matters is not your physical perfection or the state of your health, but the way you live your life and how you treat the “little ones” – not only children but all the last, the lost, and the least, in the world.
By telling the disciples that whoever is not against us is with us, Jesus flips the values of the Pharisees who were all about excluding those who didn’t fit from places of power and privilege. In the Kingdom of God, Jesus is saying, imperfection is welcomed and those who don’t qualify for worldly glory can find a home. This of course increases his conflict with the Pharisees.
Most of us are very good at putting on a brave face for public consumption. But I have learned over the course of my ordained ministry that the well-dressed, clean and tidy people I see in the pews each Sunday are dealing with all kinds of messy stuff: HIV, addiction, mental illness, tearing grief, guilt, anger, anxiety, and more. Clergy are not exempt. I doubt if there’s anyone in here, with any self-awareness at all, who believes they are perfect. But we hide those parts of ourselves, reluctant to ask for prayer, reluctant to show weakness or what feels like failure. And as long as we pretend to each other that we are just fine, we miss out on the kind of love and trust that Jesus calls us to as members of the Beloved Community.
So …. now I’m going to ask you to do something very brave. I want you to turn to someone sitting near you whom you don’t know very well – not your nearest and dearest – and tell them one thing about yourself that feels to you like an imperfection. Maybe it’s a physical thing, maybe it’s emotional or spiritual, maybe a fear or a bad habit. Don’t go into your life story or offer explanations – just one sentence is enough, starting with “I believe I am imperfect because …”. Allow the other person to share their imperfection. And when both of you have shared, simply say to each other, “God loves you anyway.” I’ll give you three minutes.
How was that? Not too painful, I hope. And, I hope I don’t need to say this, but what you shared with each other should remain between the two of you. Now, I realize that that exercise may not have changed lives, but perhaps you experienced it as a tiny spark of mutual love and encouragement, the kind of love and encouragement that we need to be sharing every day. I think that might be what Jesus meant by being salty: when we sprinkle a little salt of encouragement for each other, when we forgive each other’s vulnerabilities and imperfections, we make the world a tiny bit better and we contribute to the building up of the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community that Jesus came to create.
The story of Esther tells of a woman courageously stepping forward at considerable risk to speak up for her people, and so saving them from unjust suffering. Her story prefigures that of Jesus, who also spoke up courageously, at the cost of his own life and suffering, in order to offer the fullness of life to every imperfect but beloved child of God. Perhaps we too can dare to risk vulnerability and so do our part in offering abundance of life to one another and to all the world. Amen.