Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC Bangor, Maine
September 30, 2018

Courage for Community Esther 7:1-6, 9-10

Several years ago I shared this illustration with you:

It takes you by surprise. You get a phone call. Or maybe someone calls round to your house unannounced. You can tell by the tone of voice that this is something different. “Have you got a few moments. Can I talk to you about something?” You say, “Yes, of course. Why don’t we sit down?” Your heart misses a beat because you feel the intensity of the moment. And within a few seconds a new reality unfolds. Something deep down in your stomach starts to tell you: “This conversation is going to shape the rest of my life. This news affects me in a different way to the way it affects anyone else”.

Samuel Wells, “For such a time as this”

This is the way Esther felt when she received a message from Mordecai. Much has been written about this unique book of the Bible that has the name of a woman as its title and doesn’t mention God. It’s been said that “The short story of Esther is full of all sorts of things we find in the most entertaining movies; irony and intrigue, a thickening plot, clever wits and evil villains, royal splendor and a weak ruler, and, of course, the hero who rises to the challenge and saves the day” (Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Courage for Community”).

The plot of the story goes like this. Esther and Mordecai are living in Persia, in the town of Susa, one of the four capitals of the empire. The time is 475 years before the birth of Christ. A hundred years before, the Chaldeans had overrun the Jewish people and took them into exile in Babylon. Fifty years later, the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return home. But Mordecai and Esther do not leave and remain with their fellow Jews.

But both of them discover that living as Jews in the center of the Persian Empire is a challenging business. We soon meet King Xerxes, also known as Ahasuerus in this book. Ahasuerus is the world’s most powerful man but a weak, impressionable leader.

As the book opens, the king is presiding over a drunken feast that lasts for six months. At the end of the festivities, Ahasuerus commands that his wife, Vashti, be brought before the guests to display her beauty. The king insists that Vashti wear her crown, and we are not sure if she is supposed to wear anything else! When the queen refuses and humiliates him before his guests, Ahasuerus dismisses Vashti and deposes her as queen.

It doesn’t take long for the King to miss his wife. The people of the court suggest a plan: “Why not have a Miss Persia contest and invite all the most beautiful girls to the capital to compete for the King’s affections? Ahasuerus likes this plan immensely and so women are collected from the 127 provinces of the vast empire. Among them is the gorgeous Esther, who has been raised by her Uncle Mordecai (John C. Holbert, “To Defend, to Destroy, or to Hope? Reflections on Esther 7:1-6. 9-10, 9:20-22).

Meanwhile the ineffectual king presides over a country with an unworkable legislative system. Once a law is passed, it can never be changed–even if the law is a terrible one. A courtier named Haman has been swiftly promoted as the prime minister. Haman is a bitter foe of Mordecai. When Mordecai refuses to bow to his greatness, Haman decrees that not only Mordecai should be killed but all Jews living in Persia.

King Ahasuerus and Haman remind me of a story that’s told about tomato growers. I know that many of you raised tomatoes in your gardens this summer. I am thinking about a story that’s told about tomato growers in Central California:

More successful at tomato growing than the tomato growers of all human history, they grew more tomatoes per acre than anyone ever had. But they did have one problem. That was to get their tomatoes into the salad bowls of Chicago and the fruit baskets of the Bronx unbruised, because a magnificent bruised tomato, in the hands of the tomato squeezers of the world, is only a bruised tomato. So they set agro technology to work and accomplished two marvelous things. First, they got a machine to pick the tomatoes while they were still yellow but very firm. Then they put the tomatoes on an assembly belt, passed them under a certain kind of light for seven seconds, and they came out a rosy red–a rosy pink, almost red. And then they devised a packaging such that you could put a bunch of tomatoes in a Styrofoam crate, and lift it twenty feet high above solid concrete, and also take a bumper from a Chevy pickup, lift it twenty feet high above solid concrete, drop them both, and the bumper would come off worse than any one of those tomatoes. Agro technology wins again.

But they had one problem. The tomato that the chef sliced into his salad in Chicago and the woman bought from the market in Boston didn’t taste the way a tomato was supposed to taste.

Louis Smedes, “The Journey to Integrity”

And that’s a big problem, isn’t it? Somehow in the midst of all that success in harvesting and packaging, the growers compromised the most important quality of all: the taste, what makes a tomato a tomato.

In the book of Esther, Ahasuerus forgets what it takes to be a king–or perhaps he never learned. But in any event, he compromises his integrity. He humiliates his wife Vashti and decides that marriage is just a game to win for his own pleasure. Because the king is so focused on himself, he is totally unaware when Haman convinces him to sign an edict to destroy the Jews. Haman has also lost the battle for integrity, because he becomes a truly cruel and manipulative prime minister. Like the tomato that doesn’t taste like one, Ahasuerus doesn’t act like a responsible king and Haman doesn’t behave like a moral prime minister.

Six years ago my siblings and I met at my brother’s home in Louisville, Kentucky. Our time together reminded me that many years before I visited a Presbyterian church in that town. The pastor of that congregation was none other than the Reverend Jeb Stuart Magruder, of Watergate fame. While Jeb Magruder died last year at the age of 79, I still think from time about sitting in that pew and remembering back to the man who spoke into the microphone at the Watergate hearings, his head hung low. Listen to Magruder’s haunting admission to Judge Sirica: “Judge, somewhere along the line I lost my moral compass, and with it, the ability to navigate my life” (Bill Hybels, “The Character Crisis”).

During this past week, the American public has been absorbed by the hearings to determine Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve on the Supreme Court. After the Watergate hearings, Jeb Magruder served a prison sentence of seven months for his role in the cover-up. Magruder knew his life lacked honesty and integrity. He was like a tomato which forgot how to be a tomato. But to Jeb Magruder’s credit, he vowed to do something about it. The man decided to do the one thing that he had always wanted to do and that was to be a pastor. And so Jeb Magruder went to Princeton Theological Seminary and became an ordained Presbyterian minister. When I took my place in his congregation that Sunday morning, the Nixon White house and his life as a convicted felon were far away. What was in its place was a man filled with the grace and forgiveness of God.

Sadly, that was not the case for King Ahasuerus or Haman. Unfortunately, there is no turnabout, no coming to the senses for these two men. On the other hand, Esther wins the Miss Persia contest and becomes queen, and Haman’s terrible plan moves forward. At this awful juncture–with the fate of all the Jews hanging in the balance–Uncle Mordecai urges his niece to tell the king to stop this planned slaughter. The words that he uses constitute the best known passage from the Book of Esther: “If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place…who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

And so Queen Esther summons her courage and approaches her unpredictable, dangerous husband. He agrees to come to dinner with her and also with Haman. Of course, the grasping and clutching prime minister is so thrilled to be invited to dinner with the royal couple, he can hardly contain himself. But at the feast Esther reveals Haman’s dastardly plot to destroy the Jewish people. And while the king is furious, in typical fashion, he cannot decide what do. Ahasuerus rushes into the garden to try to think, while Haman throws himself on the queen’s couch. The king enters at that very moment and thinks that the prime minister is trying to have an affair with his wife. Ironically, the king orders Haman to be hanged on the 75 foot tall gallows that he had built to do away with Mordecai.

But the problem of the decree to kill the Jews continues, because once an edict, always an edict. Esther begs her husband to make another decree. The queen is literally putting her life on the line, as she cannot know what the king’s response will be. Esther says, “If I perish, I perish.” And so Queen Esther by using a mixture of courage and charm and contrivance and grace prevails, and the king issues a new decree. We are not sure if the law allows the Jews the right of self-defense or the right to slaughter all enemies at will, but the Jewish people are saved and live to see another day (John C. Holbert).

When he preached on this passage in 2009 at the Duke Chapel, Samuel Wells said this:

Don’t miss the fact that we have a mini-gospel here. The great King Ahasuerus, ruler over practically the whole world, is a clumsy parody of God. Mordecai is a kind of Adam, whose pride puts his whole people at the point of death. Haman is a kind of Satan. And Esther is a kind of Jesus, at the right hand of God, laying down her life for the salvation of the Jews. The whole story of Esther by the way is structured around ten meals, just as the Bible is a story stretched between the first meal of Adam and Eve, the Last Supper of jesus and the disciples, and the final heavenly banquet of the kingdom of God.

Samuel Wells, “For such a time as this”

I well remember visiting Jerusalem once during the Feast of Purim, which is dedicated to Queen Esther. Israeli school children love to act out the parts of this Bible story, and I recall seeing boys and girls running through the streets wearing masks of the king and queen and Haman and Mordecai. It is a true soap opera, but it is one that ends happily. The story of Queen Esther is beloved by the Jewish people because it is a story of hope.

But to return to the title of the sermon, Queen Esther’s story is fundamentally about courage. You may have heard about the philosophy class at Rice University, where the professor told the students to bring blue books for a test the following day:

On the test day, the professor said to the class, “Your test today is to write an essay on the topic,’what is courage?” The students began to write furiously. All…except one young man. He sat there quietly, thinking deeply for five minutes. He then took his pen, wrote the title, “What iscourage?” At the top of the page then wrote down two words…just two words, which comprisedhis entire essay…

The young man turned in his test and walked out of the classroom:

Most students took the full hour and filled all the pages of their blue books writing onthe subject, “What is courage?” That evening the professor telephoned the young man who had turned in the two-word essay…and informed him that he had given him an a-plus on the test…and that he would like to get to know the student better.

I suspect that you are already trying to figure out what those two words were…as I was when I first heard this story. The two words the student wrote in answer to the question, “Whatis courage?” Were these: “THIS IS” (Buckner Fanning, “What Love Is,” Trinity Baptist Church,San Antonio, TX).

This is. The young man didn’t just define courage. He demonstrated it. He acted it out. The student’s courage in the classroom is a reminder to us all that in the final analysis only you and I can exhibit our own unique brand of courage—for such a time as this.

I don’t know where you stand, but as I watched the Kavanaugh hearings, I was awed and moved by the courage of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Senator Jeff Flake. Neither of them knew that destiny would require them not to be silent but to be people of courage for such a time as this. May God go with them and with us all as we face the future together.

Copyright 2018 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty