Sunday, 6 May 2012

For such a time as this - Esther's Story

It was a special day on Friday, sharing with Anne’s family as we remembered Richard.

There was something special in our service as Richard’s daughter Joanna brought the Judaism she has adopted as her faith into the service.  Her son Josh read a lovely prayer remembering his granddad in Hebrew, a prayer that had been prepared by the Rabbi of their reformed synagogue.

Joanna’s husband, Jeremy, drew the service to a close reading the Kaddish, that prayer that is said by a family member at every funeral service, a prayer I was familiar with from our Holocaust Memorial services in the synagogue and latterly in the town hall here.

Jeremy’s parents belong to an orthodox synagogue.  After the service, it was lovely to have an all too brief conversation with them.  Within moments we were talking of the tragedy of intolerance that has swept through the extremes of Islam, Christianity and of Judaism.  And of the need for tolerance.  Jeremy’s parents reflected on the way they lived in a neighbourhood with Jewish people, Muslims and Christians, all of whom were friendly with each other.  They went on to comment that even in Palestine and Israel down through the years, Jew, Christian and Muslim have lived peaceably together.  We bemoaned the current state of affairs.

We spoke momentarily of the synagogue here in Cheltenham – I recalled how moving it was to be in the congregation at the 160th anniversary celebrations when a Jewish historian and raconteur had spoken of the tragic history of Jewish people in these islands, and honoured Oliver Cromwell who was the one to permit Jewish people to return to these islands after hundreds of years of exile.  I commented on that strand of tolerance that was part of our Congregational heritage.  We firmly believe what we believe, but we respect your right to believe what you believe.

We were of a mind, how vital it is to seek out that toleration.

I told the tale of the two plaques of allegiance to Queen Victoria that had been taken down to be re-furbished.  The restorers discovered the names of at least two earlier monarchs under the name of Queen Victoria showing that the plaques were very much older than the Cheltenham Synagogue itself.

Then it was Jeremy’s father who said what I  had read and heard.  But it was strangely moving to hear it come from him … that they read a prayer of allegiance to the monarch in every Sabbath day service at their synagogue.

What’s interesting about that is the way Jewish people have down through the centuries had to learn how to live in an alien culture, tracing a fine line between maintaining their own faith and religious practices within a culture that is very, very different.

In some ways that Jewish experience is something that we too as Christians need also to learn from.  After all there is a very strong Jewishness to Jesus, to Paul and to the whole of the New  Testament which we lose sight of at our peril.

Nowhere is the art of juggling that commitment to your own faith and need to live within an alien culture more apparent than in the book of Esther.

It is set in a very particular period.  The Babylonian empire that had taken the Jewish people into exile had fallen to the Persian Empire of Cyrus.  The Persians allowed the peoples conquered by the Babylonians not only to return to their homelands but also to rebuild their religious institutions.  For the Jewish people that meant that the Persian empire supported their return to Jerusalem,, and their re-building of the temple.

The Jewish people remained under Persian domination until that empire fell and a Greek empire under Alexander the Great took its place, to be followed by the power of Rome.  And along the way there were moments of Egyptian and Syiran domination too.

The Book of Esther is set in the time of Persian Domination.   The political, cultural, feel of the book is at the time of this empire.  Events are recounted as a wonderful story and tale.  And it has a particular power.  As the book comes to an end an annual festival is set up, the Feast of Purim, which is specifically to commemorate the events recounted in the Book of  Esther.

Esther now is the fifth of those little scrolls each of which is read at a particular feast in the Jewish liturgical year.  The Book of Esther is read at the feast of Purim.

It is a wonderful tale of courage and conviction in the face of the powers that be and a prevailing culture that is hostile to the faith.  It is a tale to inspire us too as we seek to live out our faith in a culture that can so often be alien and hostile.

Esther begins in the court of King Ahasuerus who rules over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia.  The Persian empire is a major world power.  It opens as the king throws a party, a lavish banquet lasting seven days where the drinking goes on ‘without restraint’.  And at the same time his Queen, Vahshti throws another banquet for the women.

On the seventh day of banqueting the King in his drunkenness demands that Queen Vashti be brought to the men’s banquet so he can show off her beauty.  She refuses to come.  He is incensed, deposes Queen Vashti and writes a decree to every province decrying her defiance and demanding by the Law of the Medes and Persians, a law that could not be broken, that every man should be master in his own house.

When he sobered up and came to his senses King Ahasuerus began to regret losing such a beautiful consort as Queen Vashti.  He instructs his courtiers and particularly the Eunuchs, to seek out a beautiful woman worthy to take her place.

In the citadel of Susa was a Jewish man, Mordecai, from the tribe of Benjamin  who had been dragged from his home in Judah by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.  He had brought up a cousin following the death of her parents, whose name was Esther.

Mordecai arranged for Esthe to join the harem of the king so she could catch his attention, but he was careful to make sure her identity as a Jewish woman should be concealed.  The beauticians set to work and in due course, after cosmetic treatment for six months with myrrh and another six months with other expensive perfumes and cosmetics, her turn came to be paraded in front of King Ahasuerus.

She it was who won the king’s favour.  She it was who was crowned Queen in Vashit’s place.  Great was the rejoicing as a public holiday was proclaime in all 127 provinces.

Mordecai kept the secret of her identiy, and kept an eye on his adopted daughter now Queen Esther.  One day, he heard two of the eunuchs of the court of King Ahasuerus plotting to assassinate the king.  He managed to get a message of warning to Esther who warned the king and the plot was thwarted.  The king and his queen were saved.

There was a power struggle going on in the court of King Ahasuerus.  The one who came to power and gained promotion was as ever happens, someone not worthy of the power he craved.

Haman it was who gained power.

Mordecai had no respect for his underhanded dealings.  And when in his arrogance a decree went out that everyone should fall down and do obeisance to Haman, Mordecai refused.  Haman was incensed and determined to have him executed.  When he learned that Mordecai was  Jew he was not satisfied to execute Mordecai alone but determined to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of  Ahasuerus.

Can you see why the Jewish people should be so passionate about this story?  It’s one that has resonated with them down through the centuries.  The tragedy of the Jewish people is that this is a decree that has been made on their heads down through the centuries.  The tragedy of us Christian people is that too often from the Christendom especially from the time of Constantine onwards has been complicit in this anti-semitism.

How vital we stand with Jewish people in honouring this story, not just because of the way it helps us as Christians to have the courage of our convictions against a sometimes hostile culture, but also because it challenges us always to reject anti-semitism and be shoulder to shoulder with Jewish people as they together with us are drawn to that kind of insight and tolerance that our new-found friends on Friday were speaking of.   I would consider it entirely appropriate, however, in standing shoulder to shoulder with Jewish people who speak out against a particular political party or government in Israel.  Never let that kind of stand be confused with anti-semitism!

Haman determined on the destruction of all Jewish people in all 127 provinces of the whole Persian empire.

in the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur – which means ‘the lot’ – before Haman for the day and for the month.  And the lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.

Well in advance of that day Haman makes his move.

“There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laswsa are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.”

What a dark and sinister thing to say.  It is the justification for the state persecution of Jewish people down through the centuries.  But it is also the justification for the persecution of Christians in places like Iraq, Syria, Egpyt this very day.

The order goes out all over the Persian empire - on that 13th day of the twelfth month the day of Purim all Jewish people are to be annihilated.

Mordecai hears of the plan and is mortified.  He decides to do something about it and does just what his forebears the prophets of not that long ago had done.  He demonstrates his abhorrence of the plan in the streets wearking sackcloth and ashes.

Esther sees him and secretly finds out what he is up to and why he is making such a show of himself.  In an exchange of secret messages, she reassures Mordecai that she will be safe.  Mordecai is adamant, she will  not be safe, and in any case it is not about her safety.

“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 such a time as this.”  4:14

Wow!  What a statement.

Keeping silence is the worst indictment of all.  That powerful statement of Martin Niemoeller comes to mind.

They came for the communists and I kept silent because I was not a communist
They came for the Jews and I kept silent because I was not a Jew
They came for the trade unionists and I kept silent because I was not a trade unionist
They came for the gypsies, the homosexuals, the Catholics and I kept silent because I was not a gypsy, a homosexual or a  Catholic
They came for me and there was no one left to speak up for me.

Martin Luther King Jr

Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of bad people but the silence of good people.

The tragedy of silence.

“If you keep silence at such a time as this …”

No, Queen Esther’s time has come.  She has something she needs to do.

Queen Esther holds a banquet.  King Ahasuerus is so taken with her beauty that he holds out his sceptre – and Queen Esther touches it with her sceptre and he makes her a promise, “”What is it Queen Esther?  What is your request?  It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.”

Aren’t we familiar with such a promise as that from somewhere else.  Isn’t it was Herod Antipas promises his daughter – only to end up having to execute John the Baptist?  The echoes in that story of this story, make that story of Herod all the more contemptible and reflect how awful that Herodian regime actually was.

Queen Esther  insists Haman and the King attends a private banquet just for the three of them.

Haman brags to his family that he is to attend a private banquet with the King and  Queen, but at the same time is incensed at the continuing protests of Mordecai.  Haman’s wife comes up with the solution.  Prepare a gallows fifty feet high and tell the King to have Mordecai executed on your way to the banquet.

Unknown to Haman that very night King Ahauerus cannot sleep.  He too is unsettled by Mordecai’s protests, but half remembers that Mordecai had thwarted an assassination attempt on hi.  He summoned trusted courtiers to bring the minute books of his court, the annals of the king.  There he reads for himself once again of Mordecai’s warning.  He concludes that giving Mordecai an honour is long overdue and that might stop his protests.

When morning comes King Ahasuerus is set to instruct Haman to honour Mordecai just at the very moment Haman is getting ready to ask the king to decree Mordecai’s execution on a fifty foot high gallows.

A head on clash between these two conflicting positions is inevitable.

What happens is that Mordecai is given the honour of a royal parade through the streets of Susa.  Haman’s wife is fearful for his future.

The parade over, the Banquet begins. Esther makes her request known to the King.  “O king, if it pleases the king, let my life be given me – that is my petition – the the lives of my people - that is my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people , to be destroyed, to be killed and to be annihilated.”

The king grants her request – Haman throws himself at the feet of Esther begging for clemency.,  The king thinks he is attacking his Queen, and, you’ve guessed it, Haman ends up on the gallows he had prepared fo r Mordecai.

So it is that Queen Esther saves the Jewish people.  Not only that but she secures their future by turning the tables on those who under Haman had been out to destroy them.

Mordecai is given a place of standing in the court.  A decree goes out from the King permitting Jewish people throughout the empire to defend themselves and giving them protection.

Mordecai went out from the presence of the King wearing royal robes of blue and white with a golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purpoe while the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced.

For the Jews there was light and glands, joy and honour.

Things came to a head on the very day that Haman had conspired to make the day when the Jewish people would be assassinated.

On that day the 13th day of the month of Adar the Jewish people gained their freedom, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feating and gladness.

And that day has become the day of the Feast of Purim ever since.

The Feast of Purim Inaugurated

18 But the Jews who were in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness. 19Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the open towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, a holiday on which they send gifts of food to one another.
20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far,21enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. 23So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.
24 Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur—that is, ‘the lot’—to crush and destroy them; 25but when Esther came before the king, he gave orders in writing that the wicked plot that he had devised against the Jews should come upon his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. 26Therefore these days are called Purim, from the word Pur. Thus because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them, 27the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year, as it was written and at the time appointed. 28These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city; and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.
29 Queen Esther daughter of Abihail, along with the Jew Mordecai, gave full written authority, confirming this second letter about Purim.30Letters were sent wishing peace and security to all the Jews, to the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus,31and giving orders that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons, as the Jew Mordecai and Queen Esther enjoined on the Jews, just as they had laid down for themselves and for their descendants regulations concerning their fasts and their lamentations. 32The command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing.
We need to take to hear the call to courage and conviction.  The courage to take a stand, to stand up for what is right.

But it is from this kind of story too that Jewish people have also learned to live with another culture.

The final three verses of a very short chapter 10 tell us what happened to Mordecai.

The ability to take your stand, stand up for what you believe and walk with a culture this is a message for us to take to heart.

10King Ahasuerus laid tribute on the land and on the islands of the sea. 2All the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honour of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? 3For Mordecai the Jew was next in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was powerful among the Jews and popular with his many kindred, for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants.

Where are we in our society?

Some would have us believe – among them George Carey, that we face this kind of persecution in our society.

I do not believe that to be the case.

There are societies where Christian people face this kind of persecution.  We need to be supportive of them and not keep silent but speak out.

But this is not a society where there is such persecution.  We must speak out, we must have the courage of our convictions. 

As Mordecai ‘sought out the good of his people and interceded for their welfare’ so too must we.

But we need also to work with what can be an alien and even a hostile culture and make it work for what is right and for what is just.

You could also argue that we have the opportunity often in our society to be as Mordecai ended up – and play our part within that society to shape it in the way it should be.  In a month when the Government has promised matched funding for all we raise in Christian Aid week as a way of using development aid we should rejoice at that and make the most of the opportunity it presents.  While at the same time taking a stand for the justice that is at the heart of our faith in our society too.

We must look to the Jesus who said,

46I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. 47I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 

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