They Came for Me
A meditation on the story of Esther
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop September 30, 2018 Grace Presbyterian Church
Whenever we read the story of Esther, which is also Vashti’s story and Mordecai’s story, and Haman’s story, and a weak king’s story, we must remember that God is never mentioned. Not once. We do not hear Mordecai lift his voice to God after he receives the news that the Jews are to be slaughtered. No songs of intercession or mourning. There is fasting. There is weeping. The kind of weeping that leaves you with weary eyes and an aching head. But we do not hear anyone cursing God or screaming to God. There is no begging. No pleading before and no praising afterward. When the decree to kill the Jews is lifted, we hear no prayers of thanksgiving.
It really is in some ways a very strange little book. It is a book in which God is very real, very present, yet invisible, unacknowledged. The only offhand reference we have to God’s power is when Mordecai sends this message to Esther: if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Relief and deliverance will come from anther quarter. A funny way to speak of God’s rescue, isn’t it? Another quarter.
Though talk of God, conversation with God is almost non-existent in this salvation story, that lack is more than redeemed by the courage with which the characters live out their faith. Let’s start with Vashti. Vashti is the queen who gets kicked out of the palace at the beginning of this narrative. Remember the reason? She refused to be paraded in front of the king’s drunken guests. Rabbinic interpretation (Esther Rabbah 3: 13 – 14) tells us that Vashti refused because the king commanded her to appear naked before his guests. Vashti’s courage is as vital an example to us today as Esther’s. Vashti refused to be abused, to be treated as if her body existed only for the pleasure of others. Midrash tells us that Vashti attempted to persuade the king by reminding him that even criminals were not stripped of their clothes before receiving punishment. She argued that if his friends approved her appearance they might kill him to take her for themselves, but he would not relent. She argued that if she did not please them, he would be a laughing stock, but he would not relent. Her logic and reasoning fell on deaf ears; his ears were too full of pride to be able to hear her. (The Storytellers Bible, CEB, p. 620) Though her punishment must have come with hardship, she gained her freedom. Vashti defended the sacredness of her own body, and that is holy work.
Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and guardian, boldly demonstrates the clarity of his faith. Today we struggle – and we witness others struggling – with how our faith calls us to live. What happens when our faith and politics collide? Or when our faith places us in conflict with those in power? Mordecai knew exactly what to do. Though the king had ordered that everyone should bow and kneel whenever his right hand man, Haman came strutting by, Mordecai refused. He didn’t refuse to bow just once. He refused to bow and kneel whenever Haman appeared. Imagine that scene: you have the “Very Important” Haman, followed by his servants. As he approaches a crowded street, the way opens before him. A wave of bowing, kneeling people make way for him. But standing erect, head and shoulders above the others, is the faith filled Mordecai. Unafraid to stay true to his faith, a faith which instructed him to bow down only to God. No law created by people could persuade him to kneel in homage to a man.
This decision to honor God’s law over human law would place his life in jeopardy as well as the lives of all the captive Jews. His weeping and wailing, was it over the decision he had made? Was his weeping for the lives of the innocents now slated to die because of his choice to stand? Had he known what Haman’s response would be, to set the wheels of genocide in motion, would he have made the same decision? I wonder…what would I do? If I thought the only punishment would be my own, could I stand? If I thought I could potentially bring disaster down upon the backs of my family, would I stand? Would I take the risk in hope that someone would stand up for me? Would I take the risk believing that rescue would come?
Vashti, who says “no” to sexual exploitation, and in doing so, asserts her truth that she is created in God’s image. Mordecai, whose faithfulness to God cannot be weakened by the threat of those who believe they wield power. And finally, Esther.
Esther is described as both compassionate and intelligent, tender and strong. Mordecai tells her it is “her time.” She was born for this moment. She didn’t have much of a choice. She could dare to enter the king’s court unbidden, at risk of death. She could stay silent, also at risk of death. Even if the King was too ignorant to discern her heritage, someone would have told him. She could risk death in order to save the lives of many, or she could preserve her life and witness the deaths of many. But what life would that have been for her? Silence was never a choice.
It is almost impossible to hold Esther’s story in one hand without holding the story of the Holocaust, or Shoah, in the other. I have often wondered how Esther’s story tasted in the mouths of the Jewish people imprisoned in ghettos and concentration camps under Hitler’s regime of terror. Did it offer them hope of God’s eventual rescue or did it leave them broken hearted, no Esther in their midst who could persuade and rescue.
The Christian Century magazine featured an article on Rev. Martin Niemöller this past week. Even if you don’t recognize this German theologian’s name, you will know his words:
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The article in the Century describes a moment in November of 1945 when Martin and his wife, Else, stood at the entry of the crematoria at Dachau concentration camp outside Munich, gazing at a plaque. They read these words: “Here in the years 1933–1945, 238,756 people were cremated,” and leaned upon one another for support. Martin “had been jailed from July 1941 to April 1945. His years in Dachau had been preceded by four years of imprisonment in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He had only barely survived, yet here he was, and he could barely stand as he did the math. 1933 was when it had all begun. He wasn’t imprisoned until 1937. His guilt over his complicity overwhelmed him. He had originally stood with Hitler. It was out of this heartbreaking realization that he wrote the words for which he is so famous.
“He uttered not a word when the Gestapo arrested communists, socialists, and Jews—and not because he possessed a timid demeanor. He was silent because he believed that these groups were disloyal to Germany and anti-Christian.”
Niemöller was slow in comprehending that it was Hitler himself and the Nazi worldview that were the real threat to Christianity, and ultimately Germany.” He was not alone in his comprehension. “In the first half of 1933, some 20 percent of the 550 pastors in Berlin joined the Nazi Party, eager to participate in the movement for “one nation, one people, one church.” Pastors like Martin, believed that Hitler’s vision would be the completion of Luther’s reformation of the church. As the extreme racism of Nazi propaganda was revealed, and as the cross was bent to become a swastika, Niemöller awoke. He didn’t agree with what he saw as a “sugary Christian confection” (which sounds not unlike today’s “prosperity gospel”) that would entice people to the faith. He knew that Jesus’ way was a way of sacrifice and suffering, not of wealth and power. Neimoller joined with others, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in taking a bold and dangerous stance against the Nazi regime.
The article concludes with these words:
It is tempting for admirers to rationalize Neimöller’s earlier years by speaking in terms of a clean break between a young, imprudent man, on the one hand, and a mature, wiser man, on the other. But Niemöller was a 41-year-old father of six with two decades of professional experience when he applauded Hitler’s ascension to power. He was a middle-aged man who had read Mein Kampf and knew very well what Hitler stood for. And even after he watched Hitler abolish the national parliament, ban political parties and trade unions, and persecute his opponents, Niemöller refused to distance himself from radical nationalism and anti-Semitism—even on occasion after 1945.
Once the legend is stripped away, Niemöller necessarily disappoints us. But the imperfection of his moral compass makes him all the more relevant today. This middle-class, conservative Protestant, who harbored ingrained prejudices against those not like him, did something excruciatingly difficult and uncommon for someone of his background: he changed his mind. (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/martin-niem-ller-nazis-finally-came-him
God is very visible and very present in the book of Esther. God is visible in the risk taking and the steady, silent faith. This story preaches without prayers, without mention of God’s name. God is here in these pages, although theologian Frederick Buechner wonders if God wants to be present in all of these pages. There is a place where God is not…God is never the perpetrator of violence. God is never brutality’s instigator. Buechner writes:
“Unfortunately, the end of the [Esther] story is less edifying. Not content with having saved their people and taken care of Haman, Esther and Mordecai used their new power to orchestrate the slaughter of seventy five thousand of their old enemies. The whole unpleasant account is contained in The Book of Esther, which has the distinction of being the only book in the Bible where the name of God isn’t even mentioned. There seems every reason to believe that he considered himself well out of it.” (http://www.frederickbuechner.com/blog/)
It does seem that God leaves Esther’s story in chapter 8. God moves on to more peaceful ventures. And God wonders, “Who wrote the ending to this story? How did it not get edited? Revised? What will it lead others to believe about my nature and desire?” We must live out a different ending to this story.
To stand against the violence of this world. To stand against brutality and abuse, discrimination, and prejudice. To stand with God is to stand on the side of peace. What if we are called to be Vashti, and Esther and Mordecai, but to go even further than they, and offer forgiveness instead of revenge? What if, in our living, we could rewrite the ending of Esther’s powerful story to make it even more redemptive? Seventy-five thousand innocent lives destroyed because of one foolish man who was able to convince another foolish man to embrace domination and power instead of peace. Let us not be too late to stand on the side of God. Perhaps you have been called for such a time as this.
In response, I would invite us all to stand and affirm our faith together using these words:
If we remain silent, who will rise up?
If we close our eyes and turn our heads,
who will see the injustice?
If we wring our hands and shuffle our feet,
who will act with mercy?
What if we were called for such a time as this,
to see through different eyes and move to a different drum.
Creator, give us your strength, at such a time as this,
to lead distinctive lives, and see your Kin – dom come. Amen.