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Pentecost 19 Proper 21B RCL   September 30, 2018

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Our first reading is from the Book of Esther. It is set during the reign of King Ahasuerus, better known to us as Xerxes I (485-404 B.C.) It was actually written around 150 B.C.

The story is in our Revised Common Lectionary because the RSV was created to let us read and learn about stories of women and other marginalized people in the Bible, texts which had not appeared in our earlier lectionaries.

All of our readings today give us good food for meditation, but I want to focus on the entire story of Esther, a courageous woman who saved her people from genocide.

Esther is a Jew. Several generations earlier, her ancestors had been taken from Jerusalem to Babylon during the Babylonian Captivity. Esther had been adopted by her cousin, Mordecai, when her parents died. They are now living in Susa, a city two hundred miles northeast of Babylon.

Mordecai is a minor official in the king’s court. He tells Esther never to tell anyone that she is Jewish. Esther is also part of the king’s court. She lives in the castle as a member of the king’s harem.

The story begins with the king throwing a party for all the leaders of the kingdom from India to Ethiopia. The party lasts for a week, and on the last day the king, who has had more than enough to drink, wants his wife, Vashti, to come in and dazzle the guests with her beauty. Vashti refuses. The king’s sages tell him that he has to take decisive action to discipline her, or all the women will stop obeying their husbands. King Xerxes dismisses her from her job as queen and holds what is essentially a beauty contest to choose a new wife.  Esther becomes the new queen.

Soon after, Mordecai uncovers a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther. Esther tells the king and saves the king’s life. The plotters are hanged on the gallows.

Then Haman, another of the king’s minor officials who is extremely anti-semitic,  and also has a huge ego and a very thin skin, receives a promotion. He becomes the king’s right hand man. The king orders all the other officials to prostrate themselves on the ground whenever Haman approaches. Mordecai refuses to do this. Some of the other officials ask why, and he tells them he is Jewish. The news reaches Haman. In revenge, Haman plans to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed. He convinces the king to issue a proclamation for this genocide, sealing the deal with a huge bribe of ten thousand silver talents.

Mordecai finds out about the decree, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and goes about the streets wailing. Soon all the Jews are in mourning. Esther’s maids and eunuchs hear about this and tell Esther, who sends a trusted servant to ask Mordecai what is going on.

Mordecai gives the servant a copy of the proclamation and tells him about Haman’s bribe. He asks the servant to convince Esther to appeal to the king and save her people.

Esther is terrified. She knows that the king has a law that you do not go to see him unless you are called. If you approach the king without permission, you can be killed. She asks Mordecai to tell all the Jewish people to fast for three days and pray for her.

With this prayer support, Esther does the unthinkable. She goes to the inner court opposite the king’s hall. She could lose her life for this. The king sees her, calls her into the hall, and asks what she wants. She says she wants to invite the king and Haman to a feast the next day, and at the feast she will have a special request of the king. Shortly thereafter, Haman sees Mordecai at the king’s gate, and Mordecai fails to honor  Haman. By the end of the evening, Haman has decided to build a gallows to hang Mordecai for his insolence.

That night, the king has trouble sleeping, so he asks for the book of records. He reads about how Mordecai warned him about the assassination plot. The king is reminded that Mordecai has saved his life. He asks what has been done to honor Mordecai and finds out that nothing has been done.

The next morning, the king asks Haman, “What should be done for the man the king wishes to honor?” Haman of course thinks the king wants to honor him, so he tells the king that the man should be given royal robes that the king has worn and a horse that the king has ridden, and a crown should be placed on the horse’s head, and an official should lead the horse carrying the honoree through the square of the city proclaiming that this is the man the king wishes to honor. The king tells Haman to go and do all of this for Mordecai.

Then comes our reading. We are at the feast Esther has arranged for Haman and the king. Esther bravely tells the king about the planned genocide. The tables are turned. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai and the king gives Mordecai Haman’s job as his right hand man.

Mordecai sends out a decree that the feast of Purim should be celebrated to honor the Jews’ escape from death.

Esther shows great courage in carrying out her plan. She risks her life and saves her people. She also shows deep faith. What a wise thing—to ask all of her people to fast and pray for her. Those prayers gave her the faith to approach the king.

Haman has great power, and he uses it to promote his anti-Semitic agenda. King Ahasuerus has even greater power, and this time he uses it to promote justice. This little story, only ten chapters in the Hebrew Scriptures, gives us a wonderful example of a courageous woman speaking truth to power and saving many lives. Thanks be to God for people of courage.  Amen.

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