Come home to Calvary
We are in the second week of a sermon series on call, looking at biblical stories to show how God calls each of us to particular service.
Today we’ll hear the story of Esther. And when I think about the world Esther lived in, and how sometimes it’s the world we live in too, I get tired. She has to participate in a high stakes beauty pageant because a king was super insecure and needy.
But we can’t run screaming to the hills, no matter how much we’d like to. Because we have lives to live in the middle of it.
So let’s rest here this morning, and be present with each other in this beautiful space for worship.
In an exhausting world, let’s be kind to each other.
And here’s “A Prayer for the Tired, Angry Ones” by Laura Jean Truman
God, We‘re so tired.
We want to do justice, but the work feels endless,
and the results look so small in our exhausted hands.
We want to love mercy, but our enemies are relentless,
and it feels like foolishness to prioritize gentleness in this unbelievably cruel world.
We want to walk humbly, but self-promotion is seductive,
and we are afraid that if we don’t look after ourselves,
no one else will.
We want to be kind, but our anger feels insatiable.
Jesus, in this never-ending wilderness,
come to us and grant us grace.
Grant us the courage to keep showing up to impossible battles, trusting that it is our commitment to faithfulness,
and not our obsession with results, that will bring in Your peace.
Grant us the vulnerability to risk loving our difficult and complicated neighbor, rejecting the lie that some people
are made more in the image of God than others.
Grant us the humility of a de-centered but Beloved self.
As we continue to take the single step that is in front of us, Jesus, keep us from becoming what we are called to transform.
Protect us from using the empire’s violence—in our words,
in our theology, in our activism, and in our politics—
for Your kingdom of peace.
Keep our anger from becoming meanness.
Keep our sorrow from collapsing into self-pity.
Keep our hearts soft enough to keep breaking.
Keep our outrage turned towards justice, not cruelty.
Remind us that all of this, every bit of it, is for love.
Keep us fiercely kind.
To tell the story of Queen Esther, I won’t read all 10 chapters of the book, but let me set the stage before I do read some of the story. The first queen in Persia was Vashti. And one the day king Ahasuerus, who you may have heard called King Xerxes, (who you may have seen very historically inaccurately portrayed in the film 300) wanted Queen Vashti to leave what she was doing to come before him so he could show her off to his friends.
And she said, “Nah. I’m good.” And the king didn’t like that answer. So he held a creepy beauty pageant to pick a new queen.
The king had an advisor named Haman. He’s the literal worst. He’s all about increasing the power that he has, and making sure everyone else acknowledges it too. He’s going to cause trouble.
There was a leader of the Jewish people who were living in Persia (now Iran) at the time. His name was Mordecai. And he was raising his orphaned niece, Esther. He entered Esther in the king’s beauty pageant. Our reading picks up there.
Selected verses from the Book of Esther
Now Esther was admired by all who saw her. When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.
When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry;
Mordecai gave a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for the destruction of the Jews, to be given to Esther, explained to her, so she could go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him on behalf of her people.
Esther told the messenger:
‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden sceptre to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.’
When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘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.’
Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace. As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor and he held out to her the golden sceptre that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the sceptre. The king said to her, ‘What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.’
Then Esther said, ‘If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet that I have prepared for the king.’ So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’
Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and 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. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’
Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’
Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. (The king had Haman hung.) On that day King Ahasuerus gave to Queen Esther the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews; and Mordecai came before the king. Then the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. So Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman.
Long before Esther’s time, the people of Israel and Judah (later called Jews) had been dispersed throughout the Near East by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Eventually the Persians absorbed nearly all of these lands into their empire. This story is set at the height of the Persian Empire, Xerxes ruled c. 518 – 465 BCE.
Some Jews had returned to Jerusalem after the exile. Others had stayed where they were and made a home in another land. I think it is helpful to remember that sometimes people end up in another land or country by choice. Other times by necessity, or even trauma.
We may wonder why they didn’t make the journey home with the others who went back to Jerusalem. Why would they stay where people like Haman try to have them annihilated?
I don’t know how your ancestors got to these United States. Many of mine came here from Ireland back in the 1800s, when there was a famine, religious conflict, and very little opportunity.
It’s a few hundred years later, and I’m doing alright. But History tells us that anti-Irish sentiment was strong when millions of immigrants washed up on our shores in the 1800s. Life had been hard in Ireland for my ancestors. It was still hard for them here.
The immigrant story is even more stark for people who came here enslaved from Africa, or fled the consequences of American wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq; or those coming across our Southern border right now, fleeing violence and destabilized governments in central America.
When we hear people on the news asking, “why don’t they go back to where they’re from?”, I hope we’ll remember we are all children of exile, even as some of us make it through with more privilege and opportunities than do others.
I love how the story of Esther intersects with our understanding of call. Because even orphaned, exiled Jewish girls like Esther have a call. Maybe we think, “God is calling other people. People whose lives are all figured out and fine. But I’m dealing with a lot right now and God wouldn’t be calling me.”
Esther is called while she’s a pawn in an awful system, where women are paraded around like cattle at an auction. Like Queen Vashti before her, who was tired and didn’t want to be their beck and call girl anymore, Esther is thrown into that world.
There are consequences for women who don’t behave. They get erased from the narrative.
But before Vashti disappears, she causes mayhem. The king was angry. But his advisors were even more worried. They said that if a queen doesn’t have to do what the king says, then every woman in the land will decide she doesn’t have to do what her husband says. Here’s a quote. “There will be no end of contempt and wrath.”
The king sent letters “to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.” (1:22)
I mean, you could also stop treating women like property. But if it is easier to translate and send letters to 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia, reminding people that men are in charge, by all means, go ahead. You don’t look desperate at all.
Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s disobedience the “first stand for woman’s rights.” Maybe so. In any case, it is a precarious world for these women who are pawns in other people’s games of insecurity and fear.
And Esther and her Uncle Mordecai were doing their best to survive, maybe even thrive, in this foreign, precarious land. But it’s hard when people like Haman demand that you bow every time they walk by. You can read of Vashti, and Esther, and Mordecai and think, ‘if you just keep your head down and do what the people in power tell you to do, you won’t cause trouble and you will survive’, but there are costs to being the well-behaved oppressed people.
Maybe the king’s anger is pointed at someone else at the moment, but are you really as safe as you want to be when someone else is the victim of oppression?
Vashti reached her limit and said no to the king. Mordecai reached his limit and refused to bow to Haman. Esther was trying to keep out of trouble, to stay well away from her breaking point, and Mordecai calls her on it.
‘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.’
We are in the second week of our sermon series on call, on how God calls each of us, and uses us to help the world around us. God calls us to use the particular gifts we each have in particular ways.
Which means we aren’t all called to the same service. Some of us are queens of Persia. Most of us are not. Sometimes our call is our vocation, meaning we get paid for it, or it is the primary focus of our labor. Oftentimes our call is what we do with the rest of our time.
Last week, we talked about how sometimes we hear God’s call through the voices of other people. And you can see that in Esther’s story too, as her uncle Mordecai calls forth her gifts. Maybe it is more accurate to say he calls forth her privilege and opportunity.
Not everyone lives in the palace. Not everyone has access to the king. ‘Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’
Privilege is a word that gets thrown around a lot in our culture and can be fraught with meaning. Here’s one definition of it, for our purposes today: “A group of unearned cultural, legal, social, and institutional advantages extended to a group based on their social group membership. Individuals with privilege are considered to be the normative group, leaving those without access to this privilege invisible, unnatural, deviant, or just plain wrong. Most of the time, these privileges are automatic and most individuals in the privileged group are unaware of them.”
When I say ‘we’re speaking from a place of privilege,’ I mean we are likely to underestimate how bad the problem is by default because we are never personally exposed to that problem. I’m not saying our lives don’t have challenges that we’ve had to overcome.
In this context, even though her presence in the palace was precarious because she was a woman in a world where men were in charge, Esther still had privilege. For her, it was proximity to power.
When you see your pastors in our collars, speaking out about housing at city hall, or for sanctuary at immigration court cases, or for reproductive justice, or for rights for people who are gay, lesbian, or transgender—we aren’t the only ones from Calvary doing that work, but our status as clergy gives us different access to power, a different level of visibility. For us to remain silent at such a time as this?
You may not be a queen of Persia and you may not have a clergy collar, but I invite you to consider your proximity to power. You may not be able to call politicians on their cell phones, but maybe you can send postcards to voters or attend school board hearings.
Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’
One interesting fun fact about the Book of Esther is that God isn’t ever mentioned. God is off stage in this story. And maybe that’s as it should be for people who are generations into exile.
Maybe we feel God is off stage in our story too. Did you notice, though, what Mordecai said to Esther? 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.
Mordecai may not mention God, but Mordecai has faith. We may not make it through this particular crisis if you keep silent, he says, but relief and deliverance for our people will come from somewhere.
Mordecai has faith that God is still working for the salvation of God’s people. Even when the people are in exile. Even when the Hamans of the world want their annihilation.
As the prophet Isaiah wrote to people like Mordecai and Esther, to people facing exile, God says:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa 55)
This doesn’t mean we can sit back and eat bonbons and trust that God will call someone else to do the work. It is a reminder that God is actively seeking goodness, and justice, and flourishing for creation. And we can participate, and do our part, to bring that goodness into the world. Or God will find someone else to participate in God’s work of beauty, joy, and justice.
For just such a time as this, God has created you exactly as you are, to do exactly what you can do. Thanks be to God.
 The prayer for the Tired Angry ones at the beginning of worship is from the book “A Rhythm of Prayer”, edited by Sarah Bessey. Prayer is on pages 73-74
 Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1878). Bible heroines: being narrative biographies of prominent Hebrew women in the patriarchal, national, and Christian eras, giving views of women in sacred history, as revealed in the light of the present day
 J Beal, 2009
Esther 3:5-6, 4:11-16, 7:1-6
5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. 6 Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.
11 “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”
12 When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, 13 he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
7 So the king and Haman went to Queen Esther’s banquet, 2 and as they were drinking wine on the second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”
3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. 4 For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.[a]”
5 King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
6 Esther said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”
Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen.