Wonder Women of the Crown

Quick trivia question before we begin the sermon: how many books in the Bible? 66. How many of them are named for women? 2. We'll explore both of those books today and next Sunday: Esther and Ruth.

Esther 1:10-12, 2:17-18

Last Sunday we began our Wonder Women of the Bible series in Egypt, recalling the stories of the faithful women of the Exodus. Today we are jumping in a time machine several centuries, flying over the settlement of Canaan, the establishment of the Israelite monarchy, and the destruction of Jerusalem. Now, many of the Jews are servants of the vast Assyrian Empire. It's about 400 years before the time of Jesus, and we are touching down the Delorian in Persia.

The powerful king has spent literally months around the table of lavish feasts, surrounded by his nobles and dignitaries of the terrioritories of the empire. He's showing off his wealth; the lavish decorations of the palace, treasures stolen from conquered cultures. All of this was carefully designed and curated to feed the king's ego. The guests, who were told there were no limits on their consumption, were only too happy to comply. The king's queen, Vashti, held her own celebration-- one where women were allowed to attend. The king in a drunken stupor called for Vashti to make an appearance; he wanted to show her off like his other beautiful treasures.

The text says, "They were to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing the royal crown." Some commentators speculate the hidden meaning of the text to be wearing only her crown. Shockingly, Vashti refused to appear. She would not be exploited in such a way. Humiliated and enraged, the king banished Vashti. Why did he do such a thing? The text tells us:
This is the reason: News of what the queen did will reach all women, making them look down on their husbands... There will be no end of put-downs and arguments (Esther 1:17, 18).
Raise your hand if you are feeling sorry for the wealthy noblemen whose wives will not be toys for their husbands' eyeballs?

Anyway, now there was a vacancy in the palace, and the king's advisors have the idea to have an empire-wide beauty contest to find the next queen. Doing this, they say, will ensure the women of the empire "treat their husbands properly." So hundreds of teenaged girls volunteer, or are volunteered, for the competition. They are sent to beauty and charm schools in order to make the best impression on the king. Out of all them, somehow, the adolescent chosen to become queen is Esther. Unknown to the king, Esther is part of the Jewish community. Her cousin Mordecai, her only living relative, encourages her to keep her Jewishness a secret. Mordecai, on the other hand, was able to safely practice his religion, even refusing to bow to the king's most trusted advisor (and greatest financial supporter) Haman. Haman's pride is so damaged that he convinces the kind to kill not only Mordecai, but all of the Jews in the empire. The king agrees.

The story is a political satire, exposing the hubris of the powerful men of the empire where the Jews are enslaved. You know, much like how Pharaoh is portrayed in Exodus. The power of their wealth but insecurity for their own identity fuels their rash behavior. Interestingly, the Book of Esther was not considered holy scripture for centuries, because God plays no active role in the story. No plagues, no burning bushes, no divided seas. When Esther hears of the plot to kill the Jews she orders them to fast for three days, and she participates, but that is the only reference to any religious practice in the book. Mordecai assures Esther that salvation will come to the Jews "from another quarter," if she refuses to act, most likely referring to God, as in "Hey if you don't speak up God will find a way." But Esther finds her voice, and her people are saved. The victory is recognized by Jews every year at the festival of Purim, which takes place this year during the first week of March. The established festival of Purim, first mentioned in the Book of Esther, may be why the book is in the Bible.

The Book of Esther is the story of one murderous disaster avoided, but we know from history that the Jewish people have been oppressed over and over again, and sometimes they have not been able to escape the atrocities associated with hate. Well, we should know. Increasingly Americans are forgetting history: a recent Pew Research poll showed an alarming lack of knowledge of Americans about the Holocaust. Less than half of those surveyed knew that six million Jews were murdered by Hitler's regime, and less than half knew he came to power by a democratic election.

I felt the need to reach out to our Jewish neighbors in Sherman to offer words of solidarity and encouragement, to say that our congregation stands on the side of peace and justice and against hate and violence. I called the local synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth, to... do what? I wasn't sure. I planned to leave a message on the congregation's voicemail. To my surprise, the call was answered by Andy Faber, the president of the synagogue. Mr Faber has come to our congregation multiple times over the years to speak about Judaism; our church sends its youth learning the basics of faith to the Temple regularly, and we are always warmly received.

Mr Faber said the key to addressing anti-semitism and all kinds of hate is education and letting others see what is going on. He shared Reformed Judaism's motto: "Repair the World." He invited me and the church to the synagogue's community Passover Seder. I told him I would be there, and would encourage other Grace members to attend. He also mentioned several years ago the Sheriff's Department recommended the Temple should not post their service times on the marquee of the building to avoid any potential attacks against the community.

The FBI recently released hate crime statistics in America which are another cause for concern. Of the hate crimes reported in 2018, 60% were against Jews or Jewish institutions. Hate crimes against other persons are also increasing: nearly 50% of race based hate crimes target African Americans. Crimes against LGBTQ persons increased 6%, while crimes against transgender individuals increased 42%. Anti-Hispanic attacks grew 14%, the third consecutive increase over the last few years.

Esther is concerned about speaking out against the violence coming to her community because her newly-found place of privilege and power may be threatened. But her cousin Mordecai, who originally encouraged her to hide, says it may have been "for a time such as this" that she came to her position (Esther 4:14). She pleas with her husband the king for clemency for her people, and at the last second the Jewish people are saved. Likewise, those of us in places of privilege may not remain silent in the face of rising anti-semitism, race based hate crimes, abuse of LGBTQ+ persons, and forgotten history.

We learn from these Wonder Women of the Crown that our lives are more than our outward appearances. Vashti keeps her self respect by refusing to parade herself in front of a room filled with drunk men. Esther's beauty grabs the king's attention, but it is her selfless acts at the risk of her own safety that makes her special. And while the Book of Esther does not speak of a God who divides seas to save people, the God who saves shows up in the lives of faithful people in the story. This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp near the end of World War II. We must remember history, but also keep our eyes, ears and hearts open to what is happening to vulnerable people in our community today. Borrowing the motto of Reformed Judaism, it's up to all of us to repair the world by countering violence and hate with solidarity, peace, and justice.