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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
December 04, 2022
Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
When we decided to use the Narrative Lectionary for our Sunday readings, we knew there would be readings that aren’t included in the Revised Common Lectionary – the one we used for decades. Surprisingly, this part of the book of Esther, does not show up in that lectionary and it’s probably the most familiar part of the story.
And it’s also the middle of the story, and how we get to it is important. So, I’m going to give you a very brief recap. The key players are: Esther; her cousin, Mordecai; the king; and the king’s top official, Haman.
Esther was a Jewish woman who became queen of Persia after the Persian queen was removed for refusing to do something the king had asked her to do. On the advice of Mordecai, Esther did not reveal to anyone in the palace that she was Jewish.
One day, Mordecai was commanded to bow to Haman and Mordecai refused. Haman was irate at being so disrespected and wanted to kill Mordecai. But instead of that, he convinced the king to order the deaths of all the Jews in the Persian empire.
And more than that, the order stated that the deaths were to be carried out on a specific day by ordinary Persian citizens. Not by the military or officers of the king’s court.
By the time we get to the part of the story we read today, almost a year has gone by since that order was issued – it needed time to get to all of the areas of the empire – and the date of the executions was approaching.
The Jews in Persia felt completely overwhelmed, and they wore sackcloth and laid down in ashes as a sign of mourning. Mordecai was in mourning, too, but he wasn’t lying down. He was actually doing all he could to draw attention to the situation and raise awareness about it.
We don’t know what Esther had been told about what was going on, whether she understood the gravity of the situation. We do know that she was in a position of privilege and, initially, she played by those rules. She didn’t want to risk her life by going to the king, not even if it meant saving her people.
But Mordecai knew that her privilege wouldn’t protect her forever, and that it was better for her to risk it while she could do something instead of holding onto it and having it taken from her later.
And his words, “…who knows…perhaps you have been put here for such a time as this?” got her attention. And she acted; not by herself, but in solidarity with her people.
God is never once mentioned in the book of Esther. But God is present all through it. It’s God who gave Mordecai the courage to protest as loudly as he did; and it’s God who gave Esther the courage to act on behalf of her people.
Haman’s actions were Anti-Semitic, and what he ordered was genocide.
When we think of genocide and Anti-Semitism today, we tend to think of WWII and the Holocaust – and as things that are in the past. But both have been repeated in various ways throughout history. And Anti-Semitism hasn’t gone away; in fact, it’s getting louder again.
Pastor Elizabeth Rawlings, who served here, reminds us that “Anti-Semitism isn’t just hating Jews. Anti-Semitism is embracing conspiracy theories that the Jewish people are secretly in control of everything – [that] they are the reason for whatever evil people want to ascribe to power. It’s claiming a historically marginalized group of people has secret power so that they can be scapegoats for all our problems.”
Scapegoating people, buying into conspiracy theories about groups of people, holding stereotypes and prejudices, and making blanket statements about a group of people – all of that leads to dehumanizing them. And it happens more easily than you think it does.
Once a group of people has been dehumanized, they aren’t seen anymore. They become somewhat of a blur. And when that happens, it becomes very easy to believe the negative things people say about them – and eventually not care whether they live or die.
It’s what happened to the Jews in the story of Esther; it happened to them again during WWII in Europe. And with current rhetoric, there’s the possibility it could happen again in this century.
I recently finished watching the Ken Burns documentary The US and the Holocaust on PBS. Have any of you seen it? The third and final episode concludes the documentary with a commentary on the political unrest and Anti-Semitic rhetoric that has happened in the US over the last five-ish years, including 2022. And it’s sobering.
It isn’t enough for me to stand here and tell you all of this. It isn’t enough for us to be here this morning and contemplate the past while we pray that it never happens again. Because the truth is that genocide has happened since WWII – not to the Jews, but to other groups of people.
The truth is that other groups of people have been targeted by hate groups, and that Jews and other groups are being targeted by hate groups. It isn’t enough for us to just know that. We have to do more, we have to do better.
And it starts with saying, “That’s wrong” – actually saying those two words out loud when we first hear the hate speech or learn of what a hate group is doing. Because it is wrong. Hate speech and the actions it promotes go against God and who God is and the world God wants for us.
Speaking out against hate takes guts. Even when we know it’s the right thing to do, it takes guts. A lot of times, people are afraid to speak because they’re afraid of the reaction they might get; they might lose their job, or go against their family or friends.
But to not speak against hate lets it take root. To not act on behalf of the people who are dehumanized by it puts them at further risk. It puts our whole world at risk because when the hate takes root, it makes it easy to forget that our humanity is interconnected.
But when we speak out, we bear witness to God. We bear witness to God’s presence and God’s action and God’s faithfulness to humanity. We bear witness to the courage God gives us to speak and to seek the welfare of others – not just in this season, but always.
When Esther goes to the king to plead the case of the Jews, the order to kill them is rescinded and there’s great rejoicing. But then there’s vengeance as the Jews kill the people who wanted to kill them. That’s wrong, too.
The season of Advent is a time of waiting, and the temptation is to wait passively and just let things happen. To not speak; to not act on behalf of others. But Advent waiting is different – it’s a posture of leaning forward, recognizing that all is not right with the world and discovering how we can participate in the change that needs to happen. The change that brings the arrival of God’s kingdom into our world.
There comes a time when each of us must act for the sake of another person – or group of people. Knowing that is at least 90% of being ready for it.
We may or may not be fully prepared for the moment when it comes; we may or may not actively save someone’s life; we may or may not risk our own life. But there comes a time in each of our lives when God will call on us to act for the sake of others.
It’s just a matter of when.
Advent waiting teaches us to be ready at all times, so that we can take action when the time comes. As people of faith, it’s part of what God calls us to do. And God gives us the courage to do it. Thanks be to God! Amen.