Tuesday, November 4, 2014

“Friends and Family” - November 2, 2014

Text: Esther 1:1-9 (actually the whole book!)
(this is week one of a 3-week stewardship emphasis)
The Book of Esther is one of the lesser-known books of the Bible.  It reads as one continuous story.  Esther is unique in that God’s name is never mentioned, not even once.  That doesn’t mean that God is not a part of the story.  God seems to be all around the story, overlooking the action, but God’s name is not to be found.

There is a Jewish tradition that when the story of Esther is told, everybody hisses whenever the name of Haman, the villain, is mentioned.  We are going to expand that idea this morning and make this an audience participation sermon.  (We did this a number of years ago and as far as I'm concerned this is the only way to tell the story of Esther.)  There are several very distinctive characters, and when their names are mentioned, those of you assigned to one of these characters will respond appropriately.

The king of Persia is King Ahasuerus.  When King Ahasuerus’ name is mentioned, make a trumpet sound: du-du-du-DUH.

Some of you are assigned Queen Vashti.  She had the audacity to say no to the king, so when you hear her mentioned, cross your arms and say, “NO.”

Haman is the villain in this story.  When Haman is mentioned, hiss.

There are also heroes.  When Mordecai’s name is said, say, “Yea!”

And then Esther is likewise a heroine.  When you hear her name, respond with “Woo-hoo!”

Now we are ready for the story.

The Jewish people are in captivity in Persia.  The Persians have a great empire, stretching from India to Ethiopia.  Their ruler is King Ahasuerus.  The king loves to display his power and wealth, loves festive dinners and official functions, and loves all the protocol surrounding such occasions.  The most basic rule is that everybody has to defer to the king, so it’s no surprise that he loves it.

A huge 180-day celebration is held, concluding with a 7-day banquet.  Dieting was out and indulgence was in!   The scripture gives details of golden goblets and fine linens.  While this banquet is going on, Queen Vashti is hosting a separate banquet for the women.  On the last day of the banquet, King Ahasuerus commands his advisors to bring Queen Vashti to his banquet, so that he can show off her beauty to his guests.  Her response was, “NO--I won’t do it.”  She was tired of being treated like a piece of meat and wanted no part of the king’s drunken party.

After a 180-day celebration, it wasn’t good to end it all with the grand finale of the king being embarrassed by his wife.  And so an emergency meeting of the cabinet was held.  The problem was not national security or public health; the burning question was what to do about Queen Vashti.

Now a lot of people would say, “Here are some typical male chauvinist pigs.”  And you know what?  They would be exactly right.  One of the king’s advisors said, “The issue here is not simply the wrong that has been done to the king.  What we are really dealing with is the possible breakdown of life as we know it.  Queen Vashti has not only done wrong to the king, but to all people” (and by this he means all men).  “When women hear that the queen did not obey her husband, what is to keep other women from disobeying their husbands?  There will be no end to the trouble once women get it in their mind that they have rights.”

And so a decree went out: Queen Vashti shall never again come into the presence of the king.  Her royal position would be given to another.  A call went out for beautiful young women to audition for queen.  In Susa, the city of the king, there lived a Jew named Mordecai.  He was in the royal service.  His grandfather was one of the Jews taken from Jerusalem into captivity.  Mordecai had a cousin named Esther.  Her parents had died, and he had adopted her as his own daughter.  Mordecai suggested that Esther enter the contest—and she did.  She quickly won favor with those in charge and made the cut for the 12 months of beauty treatments.  (And you thought Miss America was a big production!)  To make a long story just slightly shorter, King Ahasuerus chose Esther to be queen.

In time, another character enters the story.  His name is Haman.  He had been promoted to vice-king—second in rank in the kingdom.  The custom was for everyone to bow before Haman as a sign of respect and honor.  But Mordecai would not do it.  He refused.  He should have known that people get in trouble for things like that, but it didn’t matter to him.  This custom was a part of pagan religion and not for a Jew.

Haman was furious.  In fact, it seemed to him too small a thing to simply punish Mordecai.  Having been told that Mordecai was a Jew, he determined to destroy all the Jews.

Now in all of this the king seems a bit slow, kind of a buffoonish character.  Haman speaks to the king and says “There are… certain people in your kingdom who have different laws, who do not obey the king and ignore the royal laws.  It is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.  If it pleases the king, may he issue a decree that all the Jews shall be killed.”

Now King Ahasuerus does not know that his wife, Esther, is a Jew.  (One gets the feeling they didn’t talk a whole lot.)  The king agreed with Haman’s plan.  They were to cast Pur (lots) to determine the day for Jews to be killed.

Mordecai found out what had happened.  He wore sackcloth and ashes and went into mourning.  The punishment did seem out of proportion—he wouldn’t suck up to a self-important bigshot and the result is, all of his people will be killed.

Mordecai asks Esther to intervene with the king (who still does not know that she is a Jew).  Esther says that it won’t work—a person cannot approach the king without an invitation--even if you are married to him.  She herself hadn’t seen him in 30 days.  The penalty on the books for approaching the king uninvited was death—and in this kingdom, one didn’t mess around with the rules.

But Mordecai pressed her.  He said, “Don’t think that you alone of all the Jews will escape death.  If you keep silence, relief will come from elsewhere, but you will perish.  Then he speaks the best-known words from this book of the Bible: “Who knows?  Perhaps you came to royalty for such a time as this.”

And so after three days of fasting, Esther approached the king in the inner court, where everyone was forbidden to go unless invited.  The king asked her to enter.  He asked her what she wanted and told her he would grant whatever it was.  (This was a good sign.)  Her request was for the king and Haman to come to a banquet she would give for them.  (The catering business was thriving in the city of Susa!)

Meanwhile, Haman is having a gallows built on which to hang Mordecai.  King Ahasuerus and Haman attend the banquet.  The king again asks Queen Esther her request.  Her response was, “spare my life and that of my people, for we have been sold to be killed.”  The king asked who has done this, and she replies that is was Haman.

The king left the banquet in a rage.  Haman remained and begged Esther for his life.  He throws himself on the couch where she is sitting, just as the king enters the room, and it appears that Haman is assaulting the queen.  That seals his fate.  Haman is hung on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai.  Esther saved her people.  On the day that the Jews were to be killed, the enemies of the Jews were defeated instead.  Mordecai became the second in charge in the kingdom, and the day of Purim, the day chosen by lot for the death of the Jews but which instead became a day of victory, became a feast day. 

(This ends the story, and you can now continue the audience participation part by attentive listening.  You’ve done a fantastic job, but we’ve probably had enough hissing and woo-hoos for one morning.)

What can we learn from this story?  We are starting our stewardship focus his morning; what does the book of Esther possibly have to do with stewardship?

First, what do we do when we are in a strange land or an unfriendly place or a situation not of our choosing?  Esther and Mordecai chose to make the best of the situation.  The Jews would have preferred to be in Israel, a home that by this time most of them had never seen.  But they weren’t.  They were in Persia, in captivity.  They were a minority people who practiced a minority faith in a faraway land.  Yet Mordecai and Esther chose to make the best of it.

The old saying goes when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  That’s far too simplistic.  When we are in the midst of tragic losses and painful crises, “making lemons into lemonade” has a pretty hollow sound.  And yet the idea of doing the best we can in a situation is sometimes all we can manage.  There are some things we cannot control, and we find ourselves in situations not of our choosing.  That’s the way life is.  Sometimes, all we can do is accept things the way they are and move on.

And this is a part of stewardship.  Stewardship involves using what we have been given, and valuing what we have.  Even our relationships.  Stewardship is valuing the people in our lives, seeing one another as brothers and sisters.   I love the words of Mordecai--you may be where you are “for such a time as this.”  Esther was in a unique position as queen. She had an opportunity to save her people.  Now it wasn’t a sure thing, and there was certainly risk involved, but for the sake of others, she took the risk. 

We may not be in Esther’s shoes, but each of us is in a unique position.  We all have opportunities that no one else has.  Many of us are in a position to reach a person whom nobody else has a chance to reach.  Some of you are teachers.  Some of you are grandparents.  You have a chance to impact children and youth in a way that no one else does.  Some of you are faculty or staff at the university, and there may be students that you have an opportunity to influence in a way no one else can.

Some of you may have a friend or neighbor or co-worker or family member who is hurting and you may be the one person God has put in their life for such a time as this.  Some of you make decisions that can impact large numbers of people.  Perhaps you are where you are for such a time as this.

Jack Casey told about his midterm exam week the fall of his freshman year in college, when he learned of his parents’ divorce.  He remembers:

My father came to see me...I had no idea he was coming...He told me about (the divorce), and we were both in tears, and it was a pretty big blow.  I had no preparation for it.  Wham!  I was right in the middle of midterms and taking a bunch of killer courses.  I had just gone through an emotional breakup with a girl I had been in love with for a year.  I was already in a situation that would stress out a lot of people I know...So this guy in my class who found out about it told me just not to worry about it.  He’d cover for me.  I had another friend drag me off to play pinball and tried to help me relax.  He had no idea what to do.  He had no experience with this type of thing...He was basically a lighthearted person, but when the chips were down, he was there.  Anytime in my life if I was really, really, really in a jam, he's someone I’d call.  I was touched by the fact that he knew the chips were down and I really needed him.

We may not feel qualified.  We may not know exactly what to do.  But sometimes, we are the one God has put in a situation.  Sometimes we are the only one.  God may have put you where you are for such a time as this. 

Strange as it may sound, Esther reinforces for us the truth that God is with us.  I say strange because God’s name is not mentioned.  Yet God is present.  Mordecai’s words to Esther were, “If you keep silent, relief for the Jews will come from another place.”  There was an implicit faith that God would provide.  God’s providential care is seen in the story of Esther and is something we experience on a daily basis.  When we are in strange lands, God is there.  When we are in scary situations, God is there.  When we face a great challenge, God is with us.  The Day of Purim, a day that was supposed to mark the Jews’ destruction, became a day of great celebration because God was with them.

Stewardship involves working together with the God who is always with us for the sake of our brothers and sisters.  We need to honor and value the relationships we have, the opportunities we have.  Stewardship is about money, it is about time, it is about talents, but it is also about valuing and loving friends and family.  And in fact, if we are poor stewards of our relationships, the rest may not make much difference.

Cell phone companies will offer a “Friends and Family” plan.  In fact, Sprint has what they call a Framily plan.

Following Jesus involves what we might call a Friends and Family plan.  But here is the deal: with Jesus, there is a whole new definition of family.  We are all part of God’s family, and our care extends beyond the inner circle around us to include all of creation.  It is a big family, but stewardship involves valuing all of those relationships, beginning with those right around us.  And who knows?  God may have put us where we are for such a time as this.  Amen. 

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