The Jewish people were far from home after being conquered by their enemies, the Babylonians, and carried off into exile. And even though the Babylonian Empire at the time felt impossible to overcome, too big to fail, it did come to an end. Empires sell a story of all-encompassing, never ending power. But empires rise and fall. The Babylonians who had conquered them were then conquered by the Persians; a king who ruled over 127 provinces all the way from India to Ethiopia.
But despite having dominion over a huge expanse of land, this king doesn’t come off as very secure. It seems like almost everything he does is motivated by making sure that everyone knows that he is a Very Important Person. The Book of Esther begins with a wild party that lasts 180 days and then a banquet that lasts 7 more. It was a guestlist that could have doubled as a Who’s Who; royal officials, military leaders, governors, all kinds of nobility. The palace was decorated so lavishly that it was honestly absurd. The wine was flowing and flowing.
At the height of the party the king asks for his wife, Queen Vashti to come. It was like, after draping the walls in the finest fabrics, lounging on gold couches, swimming in fountains of Cristal, and feasting on foie gras and black caviar, the final object the king wanted to show off was his beautiful queen. A trophy wife. A prop to parade around as further proof of his wealth and power.
The king calls for his wife. And she says no. She refuses. He could control the land from India to Ethiopia but he couldn’t control Vashti.
Like many powerful men with fragile egos, the king reacts with fury. He deposes her of her throne, and kicks her out of the palace. But that’s not all. The other powerful men at this boys’ club are so concerned that news will spread about Vashti, about a woman who dares to say “no,” that other women will have the audacity to say “no” to their husbands. Can you imagine? So the king sends out a royal decree, making sure the women know their place. It says, “Every man should be the master of his own house.”
Not much time has passed when the king begins to look for a replacement for Vashti. A new woman…really a new girl, a shiny new object, who would make him look good. The king rounded up all the beautiful, sweet young things and brought them into his palace for months of cosmetic treatments. In the book of Esther we are told about six months of oil of myrrh and six months of perfumes. Today we might hear about nips and tucks, augmentations and lip injections. The king was designing his new wife to his own taste the same way you might customize a car. And once everyone is draped in Chanel and sparkling with Tiffany’s, the king will choose which one of these shiny new objects will get to be his new queen.
Some preachers liken this process to a beauty contest. I will be more frank and say it was closer to bunnies at the mansion vying to be Hugh’s next wife, but with much less agency. Scripture says one by one, the girls were taken into the king’s chambers in the evening. They stayed overnight and went out in the morning. Then the king could decide if she would just be a part of the harem or if she was good enough to be his queen.
Esther was one of these girls. Her position in life meant that much of life so far had been done to her. She was taken to the palace, she was taken into the king’s chambers. She came from a taken people…taken from their homeland to be captive in a foreign land. Her parents were taken from her and she lived as an orphan under the care of her cousin, Mordecai.
The king put a crown on Esther’s head, taking her as his queen.
Esther, Mordecai, the Jewish people had very few options. When Mordecai told Esther to hide her identity as a Jewish person, she obeyed. They did what they could do to survive. Throughout this entire process, Mordecai came every day to the gate of the king’s palace to check on Esther. During one of these check-ins he uncovered a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai told Esther who told the king, saving his life.
After this, the king promoted a man named Haman to be his right hand man and commanded that everyone bow down to him. But Mordecai refused, citing his Jewish beliefs and his commitment to only bow to God. Haman, again like many powerful men with fragile egos, could not handle anything he perceived as disrespect and planned not only to kill Mordecai, but all of the Jewish people.
Mordecai and the Jewish people were filled with grief after hearing this genocidal plot. They had already endured so much as a people in captivity, in exile. And now Haman planned to blot them out. Mordecai and the Jewish people mourned, publicly. Esther heard that Mordecai was at the gate of the palace and came to him. It was then she found out about Haman’s plan to kill all of the Jewish people.
This moment is a turning point for Esther. Before, she had tried to keep her head down, to go along. Before, she felt powerless. Things had happened to her. But this moment clarified for Esther that, like Audre Lorde wrote, “Your silence will not protect you.” Esther had gone along because she felt like she had no other choice and because she thought it would keep her safe. But still, even after doing everything to please the king, even after closeting herself and her identity, she and her people were not safe.
Esther knew that the king was a fragile, vengeful man whose ego depended on keeping up the appearance of complete and total power at all times. She knew what happened to Vashti who said no. And she knew that no one was even allowed into the king’s court, not even the queen, without invitation or permission. But Esther decided to break the law, to go to the king, even if it meant he might kill her in order to save her people. And, she said, “if I perish, I perish.”
Esther bravely went into the king’s palace. And he signalled to her to stay. But she did not immediately ask for protection for the Jewish people. She first invited him to a party. And then to another party. And when she finally tells the king that she is Jewish and asks for protection for the Jewish people, the king agrees. The king elevates Mordecai and destroys Haman. When Esther took action, when she took risks, she saved her people.
Today is Reformation Sunday, the day where we commemorate that over 500 years ago a German monk named Martin Luther pushed back against one of the superpowers of his day when he posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenburg Chapel. These theses were mostly made up of critiques of the way that the church at that time was exploiting the poor. And power responded the way that it often does…Martin spoke up on behalf of his people even though they put a bounty on his head.
Martin Luther is one of a great many reformers. There are stories in scripture, like Esther, or stories that make the history books, like Luther. But in every time and every place God has raised up faithful witnesses who have resisted empires of death and put themselves at risk for the sake of the people. In our Lutheran tradition we also remember people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was killed in Nazi Germany for attempting a plot on Hitler’s life. We remember living saint, Leymah Gbowee, who organized Christian and Muslim women in Liberia to end the brutal civil war. The Reformation reminds us that this is part of our heritage as Lutherans and as Christians: to speak truth to power, to take risks, to side with the people, no matter the cost.
The story of Esther reminds us of another part of our Lutheran heritage. One we often prefer to distance ourselves from or forget, especially on days like today. Esther is a story of the genocide of Jewish people. And Martin Luther’s antisemitism laid the foundation for the Holocaust, a genocide against the Jewish people so terrifyingly recent that there are survivors of its horrors that are still alive today. And as a white Lutheran preaching to you in the Chumash, Kizh, and Tongva land from the land of the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Peoria people, we have built our churches ontop of soil soaked with the blood of the ongoing genocide against indigenous people in this land.
We read stories of reformation and resistance and we often picture ourselves as the heroes. We imagine ourselves as cunning Esther, tenacious Vashti, or even a problematically white washed principled Martin. But as a white Lutheran today I need to ask myself…is that the role I am playing in this story?
Maybe I am not Haman, orchestrating the massacre of people for my own gain. But how often am I like the king? How often is it as a white person, that when one of my siblings of color pushes back or critiques me that I respond with fragility and defensiveness? How often do I hear “no” and lash out at the person trying to correct me or hold their own boundaries as opposed to stopping my behavior and repairing the harm that I have done? How often do I care more about saving face than righting relationships? How often have I treated people like objects instead of full human beings and siblings?
And how often am I like many of the other named and unnamed people in this story who stood by? How often have I heard about the persecution of others and thought to myself that the power that Empires holds is inevitable, that there was not much I could do, that the risk was too high?
Reformation Sunday is an opportunity for us to look at our ancestors in scripture and in our tradition and to decide for ourselves what kind of ancestors we want to be some day. Some day those who come after us will hear about the decisions we made. Perhaps you were made for such a time as this. When the story of the current ongoing genocides of our time are being told in the history books, will our descendants look at our stories and be clear that we put our bodies and our resources on the line for the sake of the people?
Taking risks in the face of injustice is terrifying. But the stories of the saints throughout history, the stories in scripture, remind us that God is with those who fight for what is right. The book of Esther doesn’t actually mention God explicitly once. The word “God” is not in scripture in Esther. But God is all over that story. Just like today, God’s work is often mysterious but it is ever present. God is working behind the scenes, inverting power, turning the world upside down and inviting us to be a part of it. God is on the side of those who suffer because of genocidal violence, God is with those that the world tries to erase or blot out. When we decide to be in solidarity with our siblings by resisting systems of oppression like antisemitism, islamophobia, colonialism, white supremacy it does not come without real cost.
But when we side with the people, the marginalized, the oppressed, God is with us and we are never alone.
Semper Reformanda, beloveds.
Thanks be to God.