Frederick Buechner writes:
The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak … He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys … ‘Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”
We encounter the book of Esther once in the three year cycle of our lectionary. In it’s original form it doesn’t mention God once – though there are Greek additions to the story that talk about God and prayer to God several times. I read the bit that we get this evening several times over, trying to make sense of it. And I couldn’t because I realized that I had not actually read through the book of Esther in recent memory.
And so that’s what I did. I started at the beginning and read through. It is quite a book.
How many of you have read this short little book from beginning to end?
It’s easy to pass over, easy to miss and not very long.
So, for those of you, who like me, cannot recall this story – I invite you to get comfortable because before we can talk about what this passage says to us, we need to hear the story.
There was once a king called King Artaxerxes who ruled over all of the land from India to Ethiopia and who was enthroned in the city of Susa. He threw a banquet, which lasted for 180 days (approximately 6 months). He showed his guests all of the riches of his kingdom and then once that had ended he had a drinking party, which was also very opulent. On the 7th day of this, he summoned his wife, Queen Vashti, who was hosting a party for the women at the same time. The King wanted to proclaim her the Queen and to show her off to his friends because she was very beautiful, so he sent his Eunuchs to get her but she refused to come. This offended the King, so he turned to his friends and those in attendance and asked them what he should do. His advisors felt that she had not only offended the king, but those in attendance as well and they were concerned that if she could defy the king, then their wives could also defy them. So they persuaded the King to send out a decree to the kingdom that all of the women had to honor their husbands throughout the whole kingdom. So he did and Queen Vashti was no longer allowed to come into the presence of the King.
And the king calmed down and he forgot all about Vashti.
*I’m fairly sure here that we get this beginning just to show how ridiculous and opulent the king could be. How he couldn’t make up is own mind and relied on others to tell him how to run his kingdom and how easily he could be persuaded to make decrees that had huge impact on others while his just carried on.
After all of this, his servants head out into the kingdom to find as many beautiful young women as they could to add to the kings harem to help him forget all about Vashti.
One of the women they came across was called Esther. She was very beautiful and had been raised by a man called Mordecai after her parents had died. Mordecai was a jew.
Esther was brought into the Kings harem and quickly became a favorite of the King and he fell in love with her and married her.
But she never disclosed where she was from or that she was jewish.
Mordecai in the meantime, was serving in the kings court and the king’s eunuchs were angry that Mordecai was doing pretty well for himself and they were unhappy with the king – so they plotted to kill him (the King).
Mordecai learned about this, he warned Esther who then told the King and the plotting eunuchs were put to death.
After all of this was over, the king chose to promote another of his advisors called Haman to a very high standing and everyone in the court would pay homage to him.
Everyone except for Mordecai, the Jew.
This made Haman angry and as a result – Haman decided he would kill all of the Jews in the Kingdom.
So he cast lots to decide when this would happen and it was decided that on the 14th day in the month of Adar (which as far as I can tell is the month that holds 29 days so February or March ‘ late winter/ early spring)
And he convinced the King to send out a decree saying that this is what will happen.
Mordecai learned about this is and was so upset he tore his clothes and put ashes on his face and yelled for all to hear. Word of this spread to Esther who was also obviously upset. Mordecai persuaded her to go and speak to the king about this and plead with him to change his mind. Not sure what she will say or if the king will see her, Esther decided that she and her court would fast for three days and three nights and telling Mordecai to do the same and to ask the same of the jews in the city.
After the three days, she dressed in her finest clothes and made herself beautiful and went to talk to the king.
This is where we encounter the story in our reading today, with Esther eating with the king and asking him to spare her people.
Haman ends up hanged on the very gallows that he had prepared to hang Mordecai on and the Jewish people are freed from this decree.
The king then wrote another decree which allowed all of his subjects to observe their own laws and it said that the Jews could defend themselves should anyone choose to follow through on the previous decree.
And this is where the Jewish celebration of Purim began. In March.
And here we sit in September, encountering this text without any of the backstory, unless the preacher chooses to tell you, or you read it for yourself. I have left some bits out in order not to take up all of my time here just with the story – so I commend it to you.
But I wonder what this story evokes for you?
What questions do you have (besides why was this book left in scripture)?
When we tell our own stories, when we think about our own journeys in life, sometimes God is explicit, but often times not. Often we are left to search for where God is, in between the lines of our own story.
By virtue of this story being in the bible, I waited at every intersection for God to show up but unless you read the later Greek additions, which happen to be in my Bible, there is no mention of God or prayer at all. And yet it was included in our sacred scriptures.
This story is interesting for so many reasons, but some of the things that stand out for me are the fickleness of the king and the ways in which the people intercede. The thoughtfulness of Esther before acting – she took three days to fast and pray before she did anything else, before she spoke. And she asked he community to join her in the fasting – the preparation.
The reality that people get lost in their own power and forget all of the people that they impact by decisions that they make. That this happens all of the time.
I wonder how we affect ‘other’ in the decisions that we make. And I wonder whose we consider ourselves to be before all of the rest of the labels that we attach to ourselves.
What are the identifiers that we use to help us define who we are and so then how we are in the world? For example, I am a Christian, I identify as a woman or as a Canadian and as a mother. I almost never define myself as a wife – but would tell you that I have a partner. There are likely more ways that I could talk about myself. Esther does not tell the King that she is Jewish until it really matters for her to do so.
I bet there are many ways that you might describe you. All of the descriptors that we use tell a bit of our story. But at the start and before we are anything else, we are Gods.
So who are we and whose are we? And when you think through your story, where is God?
This story of Esther is an interesting one, it does sound pretty outrages, maybe a bit like a children’s story – but it also holds some truth. People really can choose to behave in ways that are dangerous or oppressive for others. God is not always evident in our stories, but that does not mean that God isn’t present. It means we have to pay attention and listen.
There are many ways that we can describe ourselves and tell our story – but always we are Gods first and if you tell your story with that at the beginning – I wonder how it changes what you see.
 Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (HarperCollins, 1982), 77-78