Sunday’s sermon: Ultimate Power?


Text used – Esther 3

  • Continue with Esther’s story this week – funny little fictionally historical book in the OT
    • Been introduced to a whole host of characters at this point
      • King Ahasuerus – Persian king
      • Queen Vashti – banished after refusing to follow the king’s order
      • Palace eunuchs – special servants of the court who play a large role in day to day management and administration
      • Esther – Jewish girl (hiding her “family background and race”[1]) who so impressed eunuchs and King Ahasuerus that she becomes new queen
      • Mordecai – Esther’s cousin (like a father to Esther after her parents’ death)
    • Introduce final crucial character in today’s reading: Haman
      • Now, because this book of Esther is such a melodramatic book, I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but hear a soundtrack in my head as we read through this story.
        • Beginning feast/party scene = upbeat dance music pumping → fast-paced, solid rhythm
        • Vashti chooses to refuse king’s rude and degrading summons = suspense music → high string instruments and a dissonant sound (one that grates on your ears in all the right ways)
        • King Ahasuerus’ anger and Vashti’s banishment = loud, dramatic, explosive music → drums, deep and reverberating brass
        • Esther’s entrance = soft, light, melodic → flutes and mellow orchestra (think Disney princess or Peter’s theme from “Peter and the Wolf”)
        • Today’s part of the soundtrack – Haman’s entrance = villain music → ominous, forceful, minor key
      • You see, Haman is indeed our villain in this story. Every epic tale has to have a villain, an antagonist, someone who creates the conflict around which the story revolves. Enter Haman, Hammedatha the Agagite’s son.
        • Recently been promoted to position as one of the king’s closest advisors
          • Position that came with much power and public prestige – things that Haman obviously coveted and treasured
          • And there’s that overarching theme again. We talked about it in the first week and a little bit last week: POWER. Who has power? How is that power used? What kind of power is it really? Where does the ultimate power truly lie?
  • Today’s part of the story opens with the beginning of one of the major conflicts in the book of Esther: a clash between Haman and Mordecai. – text: All the royal workers at the King’s Gate would kneel and bow facedown to Haman because the king had so ordered. But Mordecai didn’t kneel or bow down. So the royal workers at the King’s Gate said to Mordecai, “Why don’t you obey the king’s order?” Day after day they questioned him, but he paid no attention to them. So they let Haman know about it just to see whether or not Mordecai’s words would hold true. (He had told them that he was a Jew.) When Haman himself saw that Mordecai didn’t kneel or bow down to him, he became very angry.[2]
    • Conflict = Haman’s thirst for power vs. Mordecai’s faith
      • Age-old story
        • England: Henry VIII, drunk on his infatuation with his mistress (Anne Boleyn) and the power of being the king, created his own church (Church of England) when Roman Catholic Church refused to grant him an annulment with his 1st wife, Catherine of Aragon → Power … versus faith.
        • More recent e.g. – emergence of “Confessing Church” during WWII[3] → Many of the Christians in Germany leading up to and during WWII belong to either the German Evangelical Church (Protestant) or the Roman Catholic Church, both of which could be called complacent in the face of Nazism at best, though many members of both churches – clergy and laypeople alike – openly supported the Nazi regime and ideology. But in the face of this growing movement of hate rose the Confessing Church, a church of resistance. “Its founding document, the Barmen Confession of Faith, declared that the church’s allegiance was to God and scripture, not a worldly Führer.”
          • Confession Church = persecuted to the point of eventually being driven underground
          • Most famous leaders: Martin Niemöller (spent 7 yrs. in concentration camp for his criticism of Hitler) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (executed for his role in conspiracy to overthrow Nazi regime) → Power … versus faith.
      • I’m sure we could come up with more examples, friends, but the point is that the clash between faith and ruling powers is not a new story, nor is it an anomalous one. → today’s Scripture reading – by order of the king, all are supposed to be bowing down to Haman but Mordecai refuses to do so
        • God to Moses on Mt. Sinai: I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me. Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the LORD your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.[4]
    • And not unlike King Henry VIII or Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, when Haman’s power is openly challenged, he reacts in a truly volatile and sweeping way. He tries to prove through the excessive exercise of his power that he is not one to be trifled with. – text: When Haman himself saw that Mordecai didn’t kneel or bow down to him, he became very angry. But he decided not to kill only Mordecai, for people had told him Mordecai’s race. Instead, he planned to wipe out all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.[5]
  • And so what does Haman do? Once again, as has become the pattern even this early on in the book of Esther, the easily-manipulated power of King Ahasuerus comes into play.
    • When it comes to villains, Haman = sneakiest, most dangerous kind
      • Not physically powerful or intimidating
      • No staggering arsenal of weapons, gadgets, biological agents, etc. (think: all villains from Batman series – all need something extraordinary to combat the Dark Knight)
      • Haman = intellectual villain → smart, manipulative, weaves words and suggestions and devious schemes like a net before he pounces – text: Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “A certain group of people exist in pockets among the other peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of everyone else, and they refuse to obey the king’s laws. There’s no good reason for the king to put up with them any longer. If the king wishes, let a written order be sent out to destroy them, and I will hand over ten thousand kikkars of silver to those in charge of the king’s business. The silver can go into the king’s treasuries.” The king removed his royal ring from his finger and handed it to Haman, Hammedatha the Agagite’s son, enemy of the Jews. The king said to Haman, “Both the money and the people are under your power. Do as you like with them.”[6] → Can’t you just picture this scene? Haman easing up to the king’s side … speaking his despicable plan in low and oily tones … keeping the look on his face as innocent and insipid as possible … feigning great reverence and deference as he played the king like a puppet. “There’s no good reason for the king to put up with them any longer. If the king wishes, let a written order to sent out to destroy them, and I will hand over ten thousand kikkars of silver.” Haman even graciously offers to pay for his evil!
  • And so it is done. King Ahasuerus dismissively gives his nod of approval to Haman’s genocidal plan, the orders are written up, and runners take the notice to all parts of the kingdom, posting them for all to read and see. And Haman, as you can imagine at this point, is quite pleased with himself. – text: While the king and Haman sat down to have a drink, the city of Susa was in total shock.[7] → This whole portion of our story today is about power.
    • Haman’s power
    • King Ahasuerus’ power
    • And God’s power → Yes, even though it is subtly implied, today’s passage is all about God’s power. It is because of his unwavering belief in God’s power that Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman in the first place, and through the hatching of and early implementation stages of his evil plan, Haman is directly challenging God’s power.
      • Summed up more than 2000 years later by Lord John Acton (familiar phrase): Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
      • Weight of recent history behind Haman’s overinflated sense of command → Persian empire = MASSIVE and formidable!
        • Boundaries: covered everything from northwest corner up in Greece down to southeast corner in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over to southwest corner in India and up to the northeast corner in China → MASSIVE area
        • Army both fierce and powerful enough to conquer Egypt, great Babylonian empire, and a number of the Greek city-states → all formidable cultures in and of themselves (not easily conquered)
    • Current context – history threatening to repeat itself → those in positions of power throughout our government – local, state, and national – who are not only seduced by the power that they hold but who are trying, through manipulations and media soundbytes and smear campaigns and back-room deals, to bend the will of the people to their own
      • Personal gain (financial, political)
      • Result: gridlock and disgraceful state of politics today – uncompromising, finger-pointing, and completely ineffectual → politics = swiftly becoming little more than power for power’s sake
    • Reminder: Esther is a book in which not only does God not “show up” (actively intervene in some way), but God isn’t even mentioned – makes this back-and-forth power struggle all the more difficult because it’s implied → However, it is exactly this struggle that also lends a level of credibility and reassurance to the faith side of the book of Esther. Let me ask you this: When you feel like you’re struggling against some sort of power in this world – could be at work, could be at home, could even be within yourself – do you ever turn to God? For strength? For reassurance? For encouragement? For guidance? In this implied power struggle in the book of Esther, we find our own power struggles. We don’t usually have any tangible evidence that God is actively intervening in our own struggles … and yet we believe. We turn to God. We seek out God because we know we cannot do it alone. Friends, that’s faith – putting our trust in the One who is unseen, unheard, unaccounted for … yet the One who’s overwhelming power created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, the One who’s power to heal and love and redeem was incarnate in a humble carpenter from the dead-end town of Nazareth, the One who’s power rushed through the disciples in wind and in flame and in one unifying message in a variety of languages, the One who was and is and is to come, the One who’s power was so all-encompassing that it shattered the finality of death for all time when Jesus rose from the grave and tossed aside his graveclothes. So tell me, friends. Remind me. Reassure me. Who has the ultimate power? Amen.

[1] Est 2:20.

[2] Est 3:2-5.

[3] “The German Churches and the Nazi State” from the Holocaust Encyclopedia via The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum webpage., last updated Jan. 29, 2016, accessed June 26, 2016.

[4] Ex 20:2-6.

[5] Est 3:5-6.

[6] Est 3:8-11.

[7] Est 3:15.

A Litany Against Violence, A Prayer for Orlando

The Presbyterian Church of Oronoco, Minnesota

First Congregational Church UCC – Zumbrota, Minnesota

I’m sitting here trying to come up with something to say – some words of comfort, of defiance in the face of terror and evil and hate, of reassurance of God’s grace and everlasting love despite the staggering violence that occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL and all of the God-awful (and I really do mean God awful) words of hate-filled response spouted by other “pastors” in other parts of the country.

But I do not have the words.

And so I turn to Scripture: 7 Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. 8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. 10 This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. 11 Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us. 13 This is how we know we remain in him and he remains in us, because he has given us a measure of his Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the savior of the world. 15 If any of us confess that Jesus is God’s Son, God remains in us and we remain in God. 16 We have known and have believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. 17 This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love because God first loved us. 20 If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. 21 This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also. (1 John 4:7-21)

God is love, and love – not hate, not violence, not death, not fear – L.O.V.E. is from God.

To celebrate that love …
To send the message to the rest of the country and the rest of the world that love does indeed drive out fear …
To remind each other of the power and presence of that love …
To speak to that love for ALL PEOPLE …

We spoke the following litany and prayer in our worship service this past Sunday.

It focused on the violence done in Orlando, but also the other horrific and unacceptable acts of gun violence around the country. As we went through the litany, we lit candles to bring stronger and stronger light – the Light of the World – into the darkness.

So join us in our Litany Against Violence, our Prayer for Orlando (much of which came from the Right Reverend Stephen T. Lane, Episcopal Bishop of Maine)

A Litany Against Violence, A Prayer for Orlando
Opening Scripture: If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night,” darkness is not dark to you, O Lord; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike. – Psalm 139:11-12

Giver of Life and Love, you created all people … ALL PEOPLE … as one family and called us to live together in harmony and peace. Surround us – ALL of your beloved children – as we face the challenges and tragedies of gun violence – Aurora, Colorado; Charleston, South Carolina; Newtown, Connecticut; Littleton, Colorado; San Bernadino, California; Fort Hood, Texas; and, most recently, the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Light red candle.

For our dear ones, for our neighbors, for strangers, and for those known to you alone,
Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.


Merciful God, bind up the wounds of all who suffer from gun violence – those wounded and in need of your healing, those left alone and grieving, those who’s emotional scars have them living in fear and anxiety and distress, and those who struggle to get through one more day. Bless them with your presence, and help them find hope.

Light orange candle.

For all whose lives are forever marked by the scourge of gun violence,
Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.

God Who Remembers, may we not forget those who have died – more than 53,000 people just last year! – in the gun violence that we have allowed to become routine. We especially lift up the 50 people who lost their lives in Orlando just a mere seven days ago. Receive them into your heart and comfort us with your promise of eternal love and care.

Light yellow candle.

For all who’s beautiful, God-given lives have been cut short by gun violence,
Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.


God of Compassion, we give you thanks for first responders – for police officers, firefighters, and EMTs, and all those whose duties bring them to the streets, the lobbies, the malls and the homes where the horror of gun violence takes place day after day. Give them courage and sound judgment in the heat of the moment, and grant them compassion for the victims.

Light green candle.

For those who risk their lives and their serenity as they rush to our aid,
Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.


God of Open Arms, we pray especially for the LGBTQ community as they process all of the pain, frustration, anger, and anguish of being targeted by this most recent and horrible attack. Help us to reach out to our brothers and sisters in ways most helpful to them – to be ears to hear their cries of sorrow and outrage, to be arms to surround them in a supportive embrace or to hold them up in a moment of overwhelming emotion, to be voices lifted in solidarity as we speak out against such raw and volatile hate. Let ALL PEOPLE see your love through us.

Light blue candle.

For all our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who feel abandoned, targeted, outraged, vulnerable, and in need of comfort,
Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.


God of Justice, help us, your church, find our voice. Empower us to change this broken world and to protest the needless deaths caused by gun violence – Aurora, Colorado; Charleston, South Carolina; Newtown, Connecticut; Littleton, Colorado; San Bernadino, California; Fort Hood, Texas; Orlando, Florida, and so many more. Give us power to rise above our fear that nothing can be done, and grant us the conviction to advocate for change.

Light purple candle.

For your dream of love and harmony,
Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.

God of Life,
God of Justice,
God of Healing,
God of Love,
Have mercy on us all.

We pray for the LGBTQ community around the world, but particularly here in this country we call home, as together we confront this devastating act of terror – the worst shooting massacre in 126 years. Our hearts are broken. Surround us with your Spirit of healing, your graceful presence in the midst of grief.

Save us from hate, from prejudice, from the ways we turn away from you and from each other. Embolden us to follow Jesus in crossing lines of hostility and suspicion, building bridges between neighbors, religions, and regions of your world. Save us from the contempt that leads to violence, and also the contempt that leads – in the wake of violence – to an even more fragmented, segregated, polarized world. Make us a people of faith, not fear.

And above all, save us from that most banal form of sin – the sin of numbness and weak resignation. Save us from accepting this as “the way things are.” Come, Holy Spirit. Breathe in us, inspire us, and wake us up — so we might renew our participation in your making “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Have mercy on us.
Save us.
Breathe in us.
Awaken us.
And make all things new.

And today, more than any other day, make us instruments of your peace and hope which you promised would pass all understanding.

In Jesus’ name, we pray.

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 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, Posted May 26, 2016, accessed June 19, 2016.

[11] “California pastor praises Orlando massacre” from Accessed June 19, 2016.

[12] Jaweed Kaleem. “More Than Half of Americans Have Unfavorable View of Muslims, Poll Finds” from The Huffington Post, Posted Apr. 10, 2014, updated Apr. 10, 2015, accessed June 19, 2016.


[14] Jn 10:10.

[15] Jas 4:11-12.

Sunday’s sermon: An Ominous Beginning

Esther Vashti“Assérus Chasse Vashti” by Marc Chagall, 1960

Text used – Esther 1:1-3, 8-12, 14b-22

  • I decided that since it’s summer, I wanted to try something a little different for sermons. As you all know, I’ve done a number of sermon series before, but I’ve never preached straight through a particular book of the Bible – front to back, cover to cover, end to end. Straight through. I thought it could make for an intriguing summer, so I started thinking about which book we could tackle over the next few months. → had to be …
    • Relatively short – btwn. various absences and other things (joint service in Aug., for example), it had to fit into 9 weeks  cuts out books like Genesis and Acts (too long!) but also Jude (too short!)
    • Something sort of interesting – something we may not have heard a lot from in the past  steered me toward the OT as opposed to the NT
      • Certainly stories in the NT that we aren’t super familiar with, but I think it’s safe to say there are more of them in the OT
    • And I wanted it to be something a little bit challenging – something that was going to make me think a little bit. And so I settled on … Esther.
      • Short … but not too short
      • OT book – last of the historical books (Genesis through Esther)
      • Book that we don’t hear often
        • Revised Common Lectionary: assigned series of Scripture readings for each Sunday used by a number of different denominations à goes through much of the Bible on a 3-yr cycle
          • 4 readings for each Sun.: OT, Psalm, Gospel, NT
        • Only bits of Esther that show up in RCL = a few short verses from chs. 7 and 9 – 1 little reading on 1 day in a 1095 day cycle … That’s all we get.
  • But there’s so much more to Esther’s story than just those few verses can tell! You see, Esther is this odd little book in the Old Testament that tells the story of Esther, Haman, King Ahasuerus, and Mordecai. It’s a captivating story of deception and intrigue.
    • Commantery description: It contains all the elements of a popular romance novel: a young and beautiful heroine; a wicked, scheming villain; a wise older father figure; and an inept and laughable ruler. … Beneath its lighthearted surface, however, the book of Esther explores darker themes: racial hatred, the threat of genocide, and the evil of overweening pride and vanity.[1]
  • Background for Esther
    • From intro to Esther in the New Oxford Annotated Bible[2]
      • “Esther is not a work of history but a historical novella, that is, a fictional story within a historical framework.”
        • E.g. – 1st verse of this morning’s Scripture: This is what happened back when Ahasuerus lived, the very Ahasuerus who rules from India to Cush – one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all.[3]  Sounds official. Sounds accurate. Sounds historical, right? Except that there was no Persian king known as Ahasuerus. There are a number of kings that this could be, but no one knows for sure. A fictional story within a historical framework.
      • Written in late 4th BCE
      • Hotly contested throughout the centuries  You see, Esther happens to be the only book in the Bible in which God is not actually involved on an active level. In fact, God isn’t even mentioned. Not one time.
        • Not fully accepted into Jewish canon of Scripture until 3rd CE – roughly 600 years after it was written
        • Protestant reformer Martin Luther wished it had never been written
      • So what does this ancient story of royal romance and political conspiracy have to tell us about our faith? That’s what we’re going to spend the summer figuring out.
  • Today, we get the story set-up.
    • Character introductions
      • King Ahasuerus
      • Queen Vashti
      • Eunuchs – typical servants of queens in ancient times because there was no need to worry about indiscretions/infidelity
        • Eunuchs = male servants who had been neutered, so there’s no danger of any inappropriate royal hanky panky
    • Also cultural introduction – story begins with dueling extravagant feasts and week-long celebrations (King Ahasuerus’ vs. Queen Vashti’s), endless supply of wine – “as much as each guest wanted,” and an intended showing-off of the queen’s beauty (and, by association, the king’s wealth in her jewels, robes, and other beautifying agents used on her such as perfumes, oils, etc.)
      • Introduces dual cultures: Persian (written about) vs. Jewish (doing the writing/initial reading)
      • Scholar: Through the description, we get a glimpse of the Persian character: ostentatious, showy, unbridled. This is in direct contrast to the usual Jewish values of modesty and self-restraint. Although disapproval is never directly voiced, the message is clear: Such opulence, while immediately awe-inspiring, hides an empty and probably corrupt core.[4]
    • Final introduction – two important themes that will run throughout book of Esther
      • Role/status of women
      • Power – the misuse and abuse of power, the shifting of power, implications of God’s power
  • The role and status of women is certainly not a new theme within the Bible. In fact, this theme is a bit of a roller coaster throughout Scripture.
    • Strong, powerful women of the Bible
      • Deborah[5] – only female judge who led a successful military counterattack against the Canaanite army in book of Judges
      • Ruth – greatest daughter-in-law of all time who leaves her homeland, her people, and everything she knows to follow her mother-in-law and ends up not only caring and providing for her mother-in-law but also contributing to the lineage of the Messiah
      • Mary Magdalene – woman who struggled with not just one but seven demons until Jesus cast them out of her[6]; chose to follow Jesus along with a few other women; remained with Jesus to the very end, kneeling at the foot of the cross (again with a few other women and the beloved disciple) even after all the other disciples had fled; was one of the first to the tomb to discover the resurrection and the first to spread the news
    • Flip side: oppressed and mistreated women of the Bible
      • Hagar[7] – Sarah’s servant who is first forced to give herself to Abraham to produce an heir (Ishmael) when Sarah is unable to get pregnant and later abused and banished for having that very same heir after the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac
      • Leah[8] – Laban’s oldest daughter; “the bride that nobody wanted;” Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah first before he is allowed to marry her younger, prettier sister, Rachel; continues to suffer resentment and mistreatment as she is able to bear Jacob’s children while Rachel remains barren
      • Hemorrhagic woman[9] who approaches Jesus for healing – powerful stigma of her bleeding disorder kept her shunned and isolated for more than 30 years, so much so that she felt she wasn’t even worthy of any of Jesus’ time, just a hasty and superficial brush of her fingers on the fringe of his garments
    • And in our Scripture reading this morning, Queen Vashti could fall under both of these categories.
      • Strong and powerful in her denial of King Ahasuerus rude and demeaning demand: [Queen Vashti] was gorgeous, and [the king] wanted to show off her beauty both to the general public and to his important guests. But Queen Vashti refused to come as the king had ordered through the eunuchs.[10]
      • Because of that assertion of power, oppressed and mistreated – after her refusal, eunuch to the king: “[The royal order] should say that Vashti will never again come before King Ahasuerus. It should also say that the king will give her royal place to someone better than she. When the order becomes public through the whole empire, vast as it is, all women will treat their husbands properly.” … The king liked the plan, as did the other men, and he did just what [the eunuch] said.[11]
  • In this interaction, we get a glimpse of one of the many places that faith is implied in Esther.
    • You see, King Ahasuerus has the power to dethrone his queen and basically banish her for the rest of her life. – powerful punishment because women had no way of providing for themselves in this society  If she had no other family to return to – no surviving male relative such as her father, a brother, an uncle, etc. – Vashti would have had to resort to begging on the street in order to survive. That’s the power of the king.
    • However, the idea to dethrone and banish Vashti didn’t actually come from the king. It came from one of his advisors! One of the eunuchs on his court.  regular occurrence throughout Esther – learn that King Ahasuerus is a high suggestible man, other people always telling him what to do
      • This implies that King Ahasuerus power is fleeing – that it is weak, that his rule is a sham because he’s so heavily influenced by those around him that he’s not really the one making the decisions. And in this implication of the king’s frivolous and phony power, the writer of Esther was relying on the reader’s knowledge that God’s power is greater.
        • Not subsequent to the suggestions and manipulations of others but omnipotent
        • Not fleeting as King Ahasuerus rule surely will be in the grand scheme of things
        • Not fickle or petty or vindictive like King Ahasuerus power
      • In contrast to King Ahasuerus, the God that the readers know – those who read it for the first time and we who read it today, is an almighty and everlasting God, a God of justice and mercy who gathers in those who have been tossed out by society.
        • Knowledge that we readers will need as we continue through the rest of Esther’s story
          • Injustices
          • Evil dealings
          • Violent actions
        • Knowledge that carries us through our days as well
          • Our own injustices
          • Our own day-to-day dealings that frustrate and hurt and anger and challenge us
          • In the face of all of the terrible things that we see in the world – war, oppression, starvation, abuse, neglect, bullying, poverty, and so much more – we carry with us the reassurance that God is stronger. God is compassionate. Unlike King Ahasuerus, whose only desire was for a good party and to impress his guests – whose need to assert his power and dominance ended up costing him his beautiful queen … unlike this vain and volatile king, God’s heart cries out for justice and mercy and care for all creation. Amen.

[1] Sidnie White Crawford. “The Book of Esther: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 3. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 855.

[2] “Introduction to Esther” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, 3rd ed. (New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001), 708-709.

[3] Est 1:1.

[4] Crawford, 880.

[5] Judges 4.

[6] Lk 8:2.

[7] Genesis 16.

[8] Genesis 29.

[9] Mk 5:25-34.

[10] Est 1:11b-12a.

[11] Est 1:19b-20a, 21.