Before we dive into Esther’s story, a word of caution. Ordinarily, the hero of a story is the person we might relate to the most, imagining how our own heroes are emulating similar actions and leadership in today’s context. Yet for many of us living in North America, with a fair amount of privilege and access to resources, we actually have more in common with the people of Persia and the empire.** So instead of hearing this story and wondering how it relates to our own journey, I’d like to invite us to imagine that Esther represents a hero of an oppressed and marginalized community walking beside us.
The question to keep with us as we move through Esther’s story is:
Who may be speaking up right now that we urgently need to be listening to?
Alright, let’s dive in:
Esther is an orphan, and part of a marginalized minority group. If children were at the bottom of the social order as we spoke about last week, you can imagine where an orphan child from a minority group was going to rank on that hierarchy. Thankfully, she had a cousin named Mordecai who could raise her.
Now Mordecai frequently sat at the king’s gate, which is how he learned about King Ahasuerus (A-has-u-erus)’s latest scandal. After six months of partying, surprise, surprise, the king was drunk. As a rule, this king tended to be more concerned with having fun than actually exercising leadership. In his drunken state, he demands for his queen to come to him at once. As she was in the midst of hosting her own gathering, she declined to come.
The king was outraged by Queen Vashti’s refusal. So much so, that he spoke to his lawyers about how the law might punish her. The lawyers suggested that not only had Queen Vashti offended the king, by not coming to him when called for, but she had also offended every male in the kingdom. For if Queen Vashti did not go to her husband when called, soon, other women would begin to disobey their husbands! While Queen Vashti kept her life, she was removed from her position as queen.
When Mordecai realized the king was looking for a new queen, he sent Esther to the palace and made her promise not to tell anyone she was Jewish. He promised to come by the gate each day to check on her. To be clear, he is trafficking Esther to be a child concubine, in the hopes that she might become the next queen.**
Esther was one of many beautiful young women who underwent a year of beauty treatments before they each were given an evening with the king. When it was Esther’s turn with the king, he loved her more than all the others, and made her the new queen of Persia.
For the most part, the king seems to focus his attention on whatever will give him pleasure in a given moment, while leaving the governing to his new prime minister, Haman. Here’s a shocker: the guy the king puts in a position of great power is greedy and lusts after more power and status. Which is why it should come as no surprise that the new prime minister actually expected people to bow to him whenever he passed by. And everyone did bow, except for Mordecai.
This deeply irritated Haman. When he learns that Mordecai is a Jew, he actually plots to kill all the Jewish people within the kingdom. Haman suggests to the king that there were a people scattered throughout the kingdom who were not keeping the king’s laws, and the best way forward was to eliminate these people. The king, spineless as ever, agrees, and a date was set for the ethnic cleansing of all the Jewish people within the 127 provinces of the kingdom.
When Mordecai overhears these plans, he exchanges his clothes for a sackcloth and wails outside the king’s gate. Through a messenger, he asks Queen Esther to speak up to the king on behalf of her people. This put Queen Esther in a difficult position. If she approached the king without being summoned, she could end up with a similar fate as Queen Vashti, or worse, she could be killed. Yet Mordecai pressed her on the matter:
“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For 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”
Queen Esther agrees to approach the king, and instructs Mordecai to gather the Jewish people and fast for three days. On the third day, Esther puts on her robes and approaches the king, who gladly welcomes her in. In fact, he was so delighted with her that he offered her anything she wanted. She asks for the king and prime minister to join her for a special meal the next day.
Meanwhile, Haman is just about done with Mordecai’s disrespect, and at his wife’s encouragement, he has a gallow built, and plans to ask the king to hang Mordecai. And that plan just might have worked, had the king not found himself tossing and turning, unable to sleep that night. He asked one of his servants to bring him the book of record and read it to him. And it just so happened, that the servant read about the time a man named Mordecai saved the king from two guards who had plotted to kill him.
When the king realized nothing had been done to honor this man, he sent for the prime minister so they might honor this hero. Yet Haman arrogantly assumes the king must want to honor him, and suggests offering the man royal robes and horses. You can imagine Haman’s horror when the king asks him to adorn Mordecai, standing there in his sackcloth outside the gate, with royal robes.
Alas. Later that evening, Queen Esther hosts the king and prime minister, and they have such a wonderful time that the king offers Esther anything she wants. Queen Esther answered,“If I have found favor in your eyes, O King, and if it please the king, give me my life, and give my people their lives. We’ve been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed—sold to be massacred, eliminated.”
(Esther 7:13-14 The Message).
Stunned, the king asked who would presume to do such a thing. Queen Esther tells him--a foe, an enemy, this Haman. The king, overcome with anger, storms out into the palace garden, while Haman throws himself upon Queen Esther and begs for his life. Yet when King Ahasuerus walks back in, all he sees is Haman on top of Esther, and he is consumed with rage that Haman would dare assault his queen, in his own house, in his own presence!
From there, things shifted pretty quickly:
This is not a disney-esque princess story. These are powerful leaders of empire, using their power, authority, and privilege to gain their most selfish desires. The king uses young women and alcohol in order to meet his every bodily need. The prime minister seeks to use his position to annihilate his enemy and plan genocide. Even the uncle, while hoping to gain some respect for his oppressed people, is willing to potentially sacrifice his cousin’s self-agency in order to get it.
Yet this young queen is smart, and knows exactly what these men want and crave. She plays them; using her bodily assets, charm, and wit to save her people. Her actions shine a light into the bleakest corners of their kingdom.
Queen Esther is one example of many unsung heroes, who are doing everything within their power to cry out on behalf of their people. To bring an end to injustice, prejudice, hatred, and oppression.
Who may be speaking up right now that we urgently need to be listening to?
How might we, as a people of faith, engage in the essential work of amplifying their voices?
* See Mary Joan Winn Leith’s commentary in The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Vision, edited by Michael D. Coogan.
**See Elaine T. James commentary at WorkingPreacher.org for more information on reading this book from this framework.
We heard the first prediction last Sunday in Mark 8; today we heard the second prediction in Mark 9; then the third and final prediction takes place in Mark 10. (8:27-33; 9:30-37; 10:32-34) In each instance, Jesus of Nazareth explains that he will be rejected by the religious authorities, undergo great suffering and death, and then will rise again. Why does Jesus keep bringing this up?
One possible reason could be to ensure the disciples clearly understand Jesus’ identity and purpose. When Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, they respond: some say John the Baptist; others Elijah; still others one of the prophets. They knew their leader was the messiah.
Yet not the messiah figure so many had imagined-- which was more of a warrior political figure. Jesus of Nazareth was a martyr messiah, willing to die for the sake of God’s dream.* Ready to stand against the power and privilege of the empire, against the narrow vision of religious authorities; all for the sake of the marginalized and oppressed, for the sake of God’s extravagant and radical love. Never has there been a messiah figure quite like this one, before or since.
Another possible reason for these predictions may have been to help the disciples better understand the meaning of discipleship. It is worth noting that in each instance where Jesus predicts his future, the disciples get kind of weird. They get critical, puffed up, and are jockeying for positions.
In other words, the disciples miss the mark. Their beloved is telling them something essential about who they are and why they have started this movement. We all know what it is like when a loved one does not hear something important. We are trying to tell them about who we are, and they get uncomfortable, afraid, uncertain, anxious, hoping to talk about almost anything else. Fear will do that to us.
And as fun as it might be to point at the disciples’ foolishness and laugh, let’s be real. We are cut from the same cloth, carrying our own set of insecurities, misconstrued beliefs, and self-interests.
None of this seems to surprise Jesus of Nazareth. He seems to have a deep understanding of how humans are wired. So in spite of the disciples’ awkward responses, Jesus maintains the mission, and uses each misstep as an opportunity for redirection. Naming precisely what all disciples, then and now, will need to face within.
Following the first prediction, Peter criticizes Jesus’ behavior. Ever the teacher, Jesus has a moment of directness with a particularly trying student, and says, Get behind me, Satan!
(An expression that teachers everywhere will surely want to adopt for their own use in the classroom.)
He then proceeds to use this as a teaching moment where he essentially tells them: You need to cast aside your limiting beliefs. Limiting beliefs are the thoughts and opinions which we believe to be absolute truths.* * They tend to have a negative impact on our professional and personal lives, by preventing us from moving forward.**
One of Peter’s limiting beliefs was that Jesus’ strength as the Messiah could prevent him from experiencing any real harm, let alone suffering and death. It was unfathomable that Peter and his fellow disciples might have to return to their former lives or continue the movement without their teacher. This limiting belief prevented Peter from hearing an important truth. Nonetheless, Jesus takes this opportunity to reinforce what it means to be a disciple. If we want to embody the core values of this movement, we must be ready to deny ourselves and follow the way of love. Letting go of everything we hold dear: our possessions, relationships, and yes, even our limiting beliefs; those ideas and opinions which prevent us from moving forward and growing as disciples.
We see Jesus carry this theme forward, into the conversations that follow his second and third predictions, where James and John begin by bickering over who is the greatest, and later wonder if they might position themselves at the right and left hand of Jesus. Their teacher redirects them, expanding what it means to be great.In this movement, to be great, is to abandon the pursuit of our own self-centered interests.To instead harness any power and privilege we may have to transform this world from the nightmare it is to so many, into the dream God created it to be.***
Sitting down with the twelve, Jesus,
“...said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” (9:36-37).
The reason Jesus uses the child as an example is because within their culture, children held the lowest possible social status. In asking the disciples to welcome children and be their servant, Jesus was essentially saying, Welcome all who have been pushed to the edges, those who are invisible and are suffering. Be their servants and friends. These are the people we are here to walk beside as we strive for justice and mercy. And not so we might take on some dysfunctional savior like role for the marginalized. Jesus wants us to use any privilege we may have to amplify the voices of the marginalized and to proclaim God’s dream for this world. Let it be a force of love that will shake this world upside down, and right side up again.*** In order for us to live this kind of radical love, we need to pay attention to our tendency of becoming preoccupied with our own selves, and instead look at the bigger picture of our families, communities, and world.
These predictions remind us of Jesus’ identity and purpose, and they teach us about living as disciples. Like Peter, James, and John, we are going to muck up and go sideways sometimes.
We get caught up in our fear and anxiety.
We get stuck by our limiting beliefs.
We become preoccupied with ourselves, and pay less attention to our neighbors.
We stand in safety with the empire, enjoying the plunder provided to us by our social status amongst the powerful and privileged.
We deny God’s dream, and hide under rocks.
To grapple with any of these challenges is to embrace the fullness of our humanity.
And I am pretty sure that it gives God great joy every time we try our best to live fully and faithfully.
To choose to walk in love, with God’s help.
To choose to persevere in resisting evil, with God’s help.
To choose to pursue justice and mercy, with God’s help.
To choose to respect the dignity of every human being and creation herself, with God’s help.
This week, I want to invite each of us to reflect on our experience as disciples.
Where do we find ourselves getting stuck the most?
Is it our Fear? Anxiety? Limiting Beliefs?
Our own self interests? Our power and privilege?
How might Christ be inviting us to grow and evolve as disciples?
What support and resources do we need to take those next steps?
* Richard A. Horsley, commentary on Mark (pg 1791-2) in the Fully Revised Fourth
Edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible.
***Adapting a phrase coined by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
Throughout the readings for this weekend, we have been admonished concerning speaking of things we know little about; closing the distance between our heads and our hearts. Much of what we have heard, however, clearly states that the distance between our heads and our hearts encompasses our tongues which get in the way of our ability to truly root our lives in love.
As we just heard in the last verse of Psalm 19, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The use of this prayer in connection with preaching begs us to wonder if even our proclamation of God’s word needs God’s forgiving, gracious blessing.
For me, however, it is the New Testament readings that give clear lessons on building up or tearing down God’s world. In James, we are reminded of the power of the tongue. As some of you know, I work with children with learning disabilities at the Discovery School at Four Corners in Greenfield. I am well aware of just how frequently I miss the mark when I am teaching a new concept to these kids. They let me know. And I know that in this time of COVID how important it is to build these kids up and help alleviate their fears. I am blessed to work with many people who take this challenge seriously, and we all try very hard to get it right. But James also assures us that while teachers are held to the strictest of standards, no one gets it perfectly right. We all make mistakes, and only a perfect human could completely control their tongue and life. Only Jesus always has the right words all the time. Jesus is the truth, and James’ letter is the message of an early preacher trying to help his flock understand the real importance of not just knowing the truth, but living it.
The distance between the head and the heart seems to be a theme in James. The head understands the idea of Jesus and his care for others, while the heart is responsible for the actions born out of the idea once it truly takes root in the heart and the soul. In between is the the tongue - the stumbling block between the head and the heart. As Eugene Peterson says in his translation of scripture, The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, “A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything — or destroy it!” And again Peterson tells us that when the tongue runs wild, “With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image.” It seems pretty unlikely in this excerpt that the heart will have a chance to create actions to match the the blessing given by the head. This reading clearly shows that while the tongue is a very small organ, it carries enormous power for either good or evil.
Most of us have probably seen this in our lives. Either in something we said or something said to us. Almost nothing makes me feel worse than saying something without thinking and watching another human being deflate before my eyes. That is the kind of destruction our tongues can do. And it takes time, repentance and true love in our hearts to try to mend that pain and rebuild trust. How much more amazing is it to watch what happens when we exercise the love God has put in our hearts to build someone up?
I worked with a child once who seemed to be at the bottom of everyone’s care list. He was not sweet and lovable in the traditional sense. In fact he was more like a porcupine with quills ready to eject. I was bothered by the sense that he had given up on himself, largely because he thought everyone had given up on him. I watched him for signs of things that might excite him, and one day at recess I got my clue. Someone flew down Rt. 112 in a sports car that was bright red and very fast. His eyes lit up. I said, “Hey, do you know what kind of car that was?” And he was off - he gave me the model, the year, the kind of engine and the power it had. His eyes were alive and he seemed confident and clear. I picked up a book on cars over the next weekend, along with a couple of magazines on classic cars and fast cars. He was shocked that I had gotten them for him. I told him that he would need to read articles to me, and explain some things I did not understand. I explained that he was much smarter than I was at understanding how cars work. It seemed like I was watching him grow and transform before my eyes. We used car examples in math and we read car articles and wrote car stories in English. This was a child who needed someone to boost him up instead of tear him down. He needed to feel loved and appreciated; to feel like he was special and important. It was my job to show him how special he was, as we are all special in God’s eyes. I got a chance to ‘build him up in love.’
In the gospel, again the power of words is evident. First, when Peter tells Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” But even more powerfully when, as we just heard, after Jesus has been teaching his disciples quite openly about what is to come, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” Then, he calls the crowd to join his disciples, and he makes it clear that his way is not for the faint of heart. As Peterson writes, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat, I am…Self sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” While words are important, the gospel helps us see how important the corresponding actions are.
In our Bible Study, the third reading of the scripture is followed by the question, “What does God, in this reading, make be want to do and/or be?” This is an action question. This is the question where we ask ourselves to be accountable; to be willing to walk our talk; to understand that just saying that we are moved, or that we see God in this reading is not enough. We are asked what we are willing to change in our lives or ourselves, or what we are willing to do in order to follow God’s will for us more clearly. I asked myself that after reading the gospel. What God makes me want to do and/or be was pretty clear. God makes me want to be the be the best lover of His creation and people that I can be. I feel blessed to be working with children who need me. They are easy to love. But I also feel blessed to work with Steve in Emmaus Companions with folks on the margins. Sometimes they are less easy to love, but I always feel better when I spend my God-given love unconditionally.
Jesus does not give us an out. If we listen to his words, we must answer with our actions. He tells us to follow him. That is not a command to sit at home and read the bible, or even to just come to church on Sunday and go home feeling virtuous. We have a great responsibility in our lives as followers of Jesus. Are we willing to walk our talk? Are we willing to spend the love that God has put in our hearts?
And this brings me back to my opening thought from Ilia Delio, where she says that Teilhard held that God is at “…the depth and center of everything that exists. . . . Our nature is already endowed with grace, and
thus our task is to be attentive to that which is within and that which is without—mind and heart—so that we may contribute to building up the world in love. Every action can be sacred action if [it] is rooted in love, and in this way, both Christians and non-Christians can participate in the emerging body of Christ. . . .
Our lives have meaning and purpose. . . . We either help build this world up in love or tear it apart. Either way, we bear the responsibility for the world’s future, and thus we bear responsibility for God’s life as well.” (See footnote 1)
At the end today’s service, when we hear Heather say, “This service has ended. Now let ours begin.”, my plan is to go forth and spend God’s love lavishly on everyone I meet. What is yours?
1. Ilia Delio, The Hours of the Universe: Reflections on God, Science, and the Human Journey 1 (Orbis Books: 2021), 41–42, 43
So let’s recap. The first thing to remember about today’s narrative is the fact that Jesus had traveled into foreign territory, to the region of Tyre. It was a gentile region, a pagan region, not a place where a faithful Jew would travel without specific need.
And I think Jesus did have a need - he needed a break from the exhausting intensity of demand, rejection and conflict he had been experiencing among his own people.
Here’s what Mark tells us that he had been up to in the days and weeks before his sojourn in Tyre:
After feeding the five thousand, Jesus’ attempt to carve out some time for prayer was interrupted by the need to rescue the disciples, caught in a storm on the sea.
Landing on shore, (and virtually everywhere he went,) he was surrounded by crowds bringing those in need of healing.
His healing ministry was then, in turn, interrupted by conflict with the religious leadership, as he was repeatedly challenged over his disciples’ disregard of the Jewish Purity Law traditions.
He probably headed to Tyre to get a break, to recharge and renew his spirit. Entering the place he would stay, he asked that his presence and privacy be safeguarded; Mark tells us
He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.
But rumor of Jesus’ power had spread through even the pagan countryside. The daughter of a local woman, a gentile of Syrophoenician background, was suffering: she was gripped by an unclean spirit and could not find rest or peace.
It’s a measure of the mother’s desperation to help her daughter that she was willing to seek out the Jewish stranger, approach him, humble herself, and ask for aid for her child.
And Jesus’ answer was to dismiss her plea: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But the woman wasn’t to be deterred. Fueled by the passion of a mother’s love, she showed both determination and cleverness as she turned Jesus’ own words back to him: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And here’s the remarkable moment where the story pivots: rather than chastising the Syrophoenician mother for what could certainly be seen as inappropriate behavior, Jesus rewarded her persistence: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
When we come to this story, every “B year”in our lectionary cycle, I’m bothered by Jesus initial refusal to help the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, and it disturbs me to read what certainly seems to be Jesus’ egregious rudeness to the mother.
I think, however, that there are two things going on here. One is simply Jesus’ exhaustion, the depletion of his basic resources including his patience and his compassion, but the other factor at play is his initial understanding of how the woman’s request fit into his own mission.
When Matthew tells the same story, Jesus explains that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus’ starting point is that the mother’s request falls outside of his scope of responsibility: he already has more than he can handle in teaching and healing his own people, and just can’t take on the problems of the gentile community. The mother’s persistence, however, somehow causes Jesus to pause and reconsider.
And in doing so, he broadens his vision and extends his care to include someone who is NOT his responsibility.
I love the fact of Jesus’ capacity to change his position, to be affected by the depth of love of a mother for her daughter. Unlike so many public figures in our own world, Jesus allows himself to hear feedback, to reconsider, to change and to grow.
The Syrophoenician Woman’s moment of persistence in fact sparks a turning point in Jesus’ Gospel mission. The mother helps the one who is the Chosen, but who is still living into the fullness of the vision God set before him, and to live more fully into his call.
I am also tremendously reassured, somehow, that Jesus struggles with discernment of what is and is not his responsibility, with where he should invest his energies. It’s a question I think about a lot, and I expect that you probably do, too.
Recently I read a wonderful piece by Nadia Bolz-Weber about this very dilemma, and I want to share some of what she has written. (Many of you know Nadia Bolz-Weber; we read one of her books for our summer book discussions in 2019, and she was recently installed as the first “Pastor of Public Witness” in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.) Here’s how she describes the problem – and I warn you that I’m about to read a word you wouldn’t ordinarily hear in a sermon:
…when I check social media it feels like there are voices saying “if you aren’t talking about, doing something about, performatively posting about ___(fill in the blank)___then you are an irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM” and when I am someone who does actually care about human suffering and injustice (someone who feels every picture I see, and story I read) it leaves me feeling like absolute shit. I am left with wondering: am I doing enough, sacrificing enough, giving enough, saying enough about all the horrible things right now to think of myself as a good person and subsequently silence the accusing voice in my head? No. The answer is always no. No I am not. Nor could I. Because no matter what I do, the goal of “enough” is just as far away as when I started.
And yet doing nothing is hardly the answer.
Bolz-Weber offers us an analogy that I find incredibly helpful. She remembers an apartment she once lived in where trying to use her hair dryer when the stereo was on inevitably led to a trip to the circuit breaker panel to reset the breaker. The apartment, she observes, was just not wired to support both stereo and hair dryer on the same circuit.
And so with our own hearts and spirits, she suggests – they simply were not built to “hold, feel, and respond to ….every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet.”
Nadia encourages us to ask ourselves:
What is mine to do, and what is not mine to do?
What is mine to say, and what is not mine to say?
And then she offers us yet another wonderful analogy: “the world is on fire” she says, and we each have a bucket of water “to help with the fires.” We need to figure out where our water is going to do the most good, and throw it there. She also invites us to be “grateful for the people who are called to work on and respond to worthy issues that are not fires we ourselves are equipped to put out.” *
Jesus struggled as we struggle, facing the fires of the world. He got tired, as we do, and he had a whole lot more water in his bucket. One day in Tyre he decided that he could spare some water for the daughter of an unknown Syrophoenician woman.
May we not be overwhelmed by the fires, but rather, may we be blessed with true discernment of where to throw our water.
“If you can’t take in any more, there’s a reason”, essay published in “The Corners” newsletter, substack.com, August 17, 2021
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