Sunday, November 8, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 5:38-42 & Esther 9:1-6
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Eight weeks down. Two to go. The story of Esther is almost complete. We’ve made our way to the month where Haman’s horrific plan is set to launch. You may recall from weeks ago that Haman and Xerxes cast lots – rolled the dice, if you will – to determine when his order would go into effect. Those lots bought Esther, Mordecai, and the Jews almost twelve months to find a way out of trouble. During those months, Esther risked her life to invite Xerxes to her banquets. During those months, she undid Haman’s plans. During those months, her uncle Mordecai became Xerxes’ prime minister. During those months, he reversed Haman’s orders, but word still had to spread far and wide throughout the empire – to well over a hundred provinces stretching from what we now call India to Ethiopia. For almost a year, those who bore ill will towards the Jews had time to prepare for their demise. In the nick of time, the new edict makes its way throughout the empire, and the Jews have precious little time to reverse course.

Because this story never mentions God, I find myself always glancing around its corners trying to see ways that God might be there, perhaps written between the lines. To me, it’s easy to read this story and see God’s hand at work in putting Esther into the position to be queen. It’s easy to see God’s hand at work in how the casting of the lots bought the Jews almost a year. And now, we can see it in how this reversal happens in our text today, where Mordecai spreads the word far and wide to nullify Haman’s horrific plans and to equip the Jews to defend themselves.

Surely, however, this faithful people were also praying. I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer in this season. For months we’ve been praying for a solution to Covid. Of late, we’ve been praying for the election and its aftermath. There are lots of things that we pray for all the time. Sometimes we get answers we were hoping for – a healing, a reconciliation, a new job. Sometimes it seems like nothing happens.

In high school I used to gather with some friends for prayer. There were enough of us doing so that sometimes those outside of our prayer group would take interest in what we were doing. At times they’d even join us. One of those whose interest was piqued came to a few of these prayer times, but then one night, she just blurted out. “I’m not sure about this whole prayer thing. Why do we pray that God would change things for us? What are the limits to our prayers? If I pray for a good parking space and find one, does that mean my prayer was answered?”

I’ve actually known other people in my life who had that kind of perspective on prayer. They’d share, “Hey, I was running late and needed to get my kids from school, but I just desperately needed my caffeine fix. I said a quick prayer, and would you believe it? There was no one in the Starbucks drive thru. It was a miracle!” Is that really how prayer works, and if it does, what does it say about a God who makes a way for you to get your Venti Frappuccino unimpeded but who doesn’t seem to lift a finger to help a starving community?

“The relationship between petitioning prayer and divine providence is a deep mystery,” writes Karen Jobes. “Do our prayers move God to change the sequence of events? Does God anticipate our prayers and providentially arrange [things] to answer them before we ask?”[1] Now, we believe in prayer. The Bible urges us to pray. There’s no question that prayer matters, but prayer is not a simple input/output situation. It’s not a straightforward activity where we know if we just use the right words, then things will go the way we hope they will.

I suspect that the Jews in Esther’s day were praying for deliverance. Far from Susa, where Esther and Mordecai are doing their part to save their kindred, thousands of other Jews were praying for an answer to their troubles. And it comes in the form Mordecai’s new directive that makes it ways to all the provinces just in time to reverse things. The Jews are now protected by the leaders in their communities, and those who show up to harm them are turned back. On that day 500 people who sought to harm the Jews die. The ten sons of Haman are rounded up. Their fortunes have changed dramatically.

Here’s where things get disturbing – at least for me – in the book of Esther. She and Mordecai have saved her people. Yes, some of their enemies have died because of this, but at the end of the day, King Xerxes asks Esther if she wants anything else. She responds, “If it pleases the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow to do according to this day’s edict, and let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.” Esther has moved from reversal to revenge. Now that she has power, she asserts it with brutal force on her enemies. Why would she do this? What does this say about her? Is she truly vicious?

There are many ways to interpret this final turn in the book of Esther. Some of them are positive, but as a Christian reader of this text thousands of years later, I shrink back at it. One Jewish interpretation “sees the Jews’ act of slaughter as the book’s ultimate irony. It reminds Jewish readers that they are no more peace-loving and gentle than anyone else.”[2] When presented with power, Esther and her people take the lives of 75,000 of their enemies, which should disturb us, particularly as we read this text through the lens of Jesus. His master teaching of the Sermon on the Mount speaks straight into this kind of revenge. “You have heard that it was said,” Jesus teaches, “‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” This is an ethic of life that seeks to turn enemies into friends, that seeks to absorb the violence of others and overwhelm it with kindness. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t look at another as threat, but rather that seeks to bring them into the family.

This is very different than the story of humanity, which is often one of our inhumanity towards each other. From Cain murdering Abel to holy wars, from genocide to nuclear war, humans are highly capable of destroying the lives of those with whom they consider their opponents. The Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the gulag by Josef Stalin for eight years for criticizing Stalin in a private letter. It is estimated that over 18 million people passed through the gulag, with between 1.5 and 1.7 million of them dying there. What Stalin in the Soviets did to other humans was evil, and it would be easy for Solzhenitsyn to hate them, yet he has the Christian perspective to recognize, in his words, that “the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart.” He had served in the Red Army during World War II. He knew the horrors of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. He saw the wickedness of the Soviet regime and of Stalin himself. The easiest move for Solzhenitsyn to make would be to divide people into the simple categories of good and evil. Of us and them. Yet, he sees that things are not that way. They are messy. All of us have the line dividing good and evil cutting through our own hearts. All of us are capable of immense good and of wickedness. All of us.

I’ve got to be honest with you. I like to finish my sermons by midweek. Before the pandemic, I often had a draft done by Wednesday. Covid has upended that schedule a bit, but usually by Friday morning, I have things more or less put to bed. Knowing this was the week of the election, I knew I didn’t want to start the sermon until Wednesday. Who knew if things would be decided? Who knew if everything would be calm or if there would be unrest in our country? Because I believe in the long arc of history and in the eternal words of God, I’m not the type who sits up late at night on Sunday wondering if the news needs to show up in my sermon – although there have been a handful of times that has been necessary. So, I wanted to look at what Esther would have to say to us as a church here in West Michigan during this time. Are there things that are timeless that could speak to us? And I think there are.

What one word most describes us today? I think that word is divided. We knew this going into the election. We know it to be even more true after the election that showed record turnout, which means that if you voted, over 70 million people did not vote for your candidate. People has strong opinions, and they are not easily reconciled. We know this because it has entered how we talk about ourselves, our country, and even our churches. It’s disturbing to me because it’s not the way of Jesus. I know so many pastors who have had people leave their church because the pastors weren’t preaching a particular political party line, as though party politics should determine what the Bible says and how we interpret it! That’s backwards! (I hope that’s not true here, but I suspect it is because of how on edge these times have gotten.) As Christians, a deep understanding of our Lord and Savior and the Word of God should shape how we approach all things in life, which includes our politics. This work of interpretation will sometimes lead to different conclusions. It’s a complex world we live in with many competing values. There’s no way we’ll all agree with each other about everything in life just because we’re Christians. There’s no way we’ll all vote the same way.

Which brings me to the heart of where I’ve been heading this whole time. Jesus is in the business of changes our hearts – our hearts where the dividing line between good and evil cuts – and when he changes our hearts, he starts the work of changing our lives. In the Jesus way, we no longer have enemies. In the Jesus way, we do all we can to befriend those who are different than us – not because our convictions don’t matter, but because they don’t matter as much as the people we encounter, no matter how different they are from us. Tragically, the story of Esther turns into one of us versus them, where revenge on enemies becomes the theme. The story of Jesus is a heavenly banquet where all are welcomed from every corner of life and from every perspective. The story of humans is that it’s easier to love your friends and hate your enemies. The story of Jesus is that we love our enemies and make them our friends. So, let us not be a people divided by politics. They matter, but people matter more. It is my deep desire that all feel welcomed at our church – this Christ-centered community of acceptance. May we be a part of the healing of this nation, even here in our quiet, little town. Let me end with Abraham Lincoln’s words from the end of his Second Inaugural Address, given during the divided time of the Civil War, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” As we strive to be at the heart of the community, may we be a people bringing healing and wholeness to the wounds of our nation. It’s part of what we do as people whose first allegiance is to Jesus.

[1] Jobes 208.

[2] John Goldingay, Esther for Everyone, 190.