catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 10 :: 2006.05.19 — 2006.06.02


Into Esther

Subscribe to the Jubilee 2006 podcast (RSS | iTunes) to download audio of this session and other sessions featured in this issue.


Lauren Winner 

It is just a great privilege and pleasure to be at Jubilee.  This is my first Jubilee.  I sort of feel like I've been at Jubilee before, because…many of my very favorite people are CCO people or Hearts & Minds people and I feel like I've been here vicariously, but it's nice to actually be here in an embodied way. 

I want to thank Saleem for that great introduction.  It's encouraging to know that he picked up and read Girl Meets God because I always feel the need to explain to people that I didn't pick that title.  All aspiring authors in the audience should know that you have no control over the titles of your books.  They're just sort of marketing ploys.  The marketing department picked that title and I argued with them for a very long time about it, but then I gave up.  My great concern, among many other concerns that I had about the title, was that men wouldn't walk into a bookstore and pick up a book called Girl Meets God, so it's nice to know that at least one did.  My publishers responded to that concern by telling me that 86% of the books in this country are bought by women, so they don't really care if men aren't attracted to your particular title or book cover.

We have about 30 minutes together this morning and I want to spend that time inviting you into a biblical text that I have been spending a lot of time with lately.  This last six or eight months I've been reading this text a lot and praying my way around it…for reasons that I'm not entirely sure I even understand yet.  It's a text that I'm trying to enter.  And that text is the book of Esther, which is a short book in the Old Testament.  It's ten chapters long.  Just out of curiosity—and I'll love you regardless of how you answer this question—how many of you have read the book of Esther?  And how many of you have not read the book of Esther?  So I'm going to assume that some of you lied and that was a generous description of how many of us have read the book of Esther.  It's not a text that we Christians spend a lot of time with.  Arguably, the entire Old Testament is not a text that we as Christians spend a lot of time with.  We seem to labor under the mistaken impression that the Bible starts with Matthew.  But Esther in particular, we don't spend much time with.  And I came to know Esther—as you heard from Saleem, I grew up Jewish—I came to know Esther as a child and as a young adult in a Jewish community.  So I want to summarize the book first for those of us who don't remember it very well and then suggest a couple of ways that this text speaks to us today.

So here's the brief summary.  Once upon a time there was a king and he was the king of Persia.  He ruled the entire Persian empire, which was massive and encompassed about twenty modern day countries.  And this was back in the days when kings actually had real power.  I think we look at monarchy as [being] like Queen Elizabeth II, and think what you do as a monarch is hold a little pocket book and appear at state functions.  But once upon a time kings had actual, real, absolute, absurd, crazy, awesome, awful, power and they could do whatever they wanted.  And this king whose name was Ahasuerus, King Ahasuerus wanted one day to gather all of his people around him—all of his men people, I should say—and have a great, multi-day drunken festival.  Scripture actually describes this party in pretty delicious detail: the colors of the hangings on the walls and it tells us that not only did people drink whatever they wanted at this party, but no two pieces of stemware, no two glasses, were alike.  So this was a decadent, drunken, ongoing party.  And at some point in this party, King Ahasuerus decided they needed little more entertainment, so he called for his queen, Queen Vashti, to come in her crown and dance before the gathered group of men.  And the commentators tell us that when we read, "Queen Vashti was called in her crown," we're to understand that to mean that she was asked to come in her crown and nothing else.  So she was asked to come do a little striptease in front of the King and his cronies and she refused to come.  And for her disobedience, she was banished and killed.  King Ahasuerus got very worried that if he couldn't control his wife, none of the men in Persia would be able to control their households and he needed to deal with Vashti decisively.  So off with her head, right? 

He needs a new queen. … He calls all of the women from the realm to enter an elaborate beauty pageant and they spend a year anointing themselves and prettying up.  A young woman who happens to be Jewish named Esther somewhat unwillingly goes to this beauty context because she is ordered to and she winds up being selected as the new queen.  She doesn't tell the king that she's Jewish.  This is the Babylonian exile—there are lots of Jews living in exile in Persia during this time—but no one other than Esther's Uncle Mordecai knows that she is in fact a Jew.  So she marries the king and they live happily ever after…except, not quite. 

There's this guy in the king's cabinet named Haman and he's very puffed up and full of himself.  He gets the king to issue and edict that everyone must bow down before him, Haman, whenever he passes in the streets.  One day he walks by Esther's uncle Mordecai and Mordecai refuses to bow down before him because it would be an act of flagrant idolatry.  Haman is ticked off and embarrassed.  In fact, haman has never really liked the Jews and he's sort of looking for an excuse to get rid of them.  [Mordecai's] refusal to bow down before him is as good an excuse as any so Haaman goes to the king and says, "There's this group of people living here among us who don't obey your rules.  Their ways are not our ways and it's going to be a problem for our empire.  So give me the authority to have them taken care of and I will do so.  I will have them all killed."  So the king assents.  He says, "Go, go take care of it."  You sort of get the impression reading the book that the king is not really paying that much attention.  He doesn't seem to be the wisest, most thoughtful royal governor that we can imagine.  He's somewhat arbitrary.

Anyway, through her Uncle Mordecai, Esther gets wind of Haman's plan to destroy the Jews and she heroically sums up all her courage and petitions the king to save her people and the king stays Haman's hand and indeed winds up hanging Haman on the very gallows that Haman had built to kill Mordecai.  The end.

Now there's a lot going on in this book that we won't talk about.  For example, I've always been very intrigued with the figure of Queen Vashti.  In both Jewish and Christian commentary, she gets a really bad rap.  I think she's quite cool.  I think it's really remarkable that she stands up against this desire to objectify her sexuality, but we won't talk about that today.  You'll have to come to the sex break-out session if you want to follow up on that thread.

Ever since the day of Haman's killing, Jews have celebrated a holiday called Purim.  This is a holiday on which Jews read the entire book of Esther and celebrate the events therein.  The Jewish calendar is not identical to the Gregorian calendar, so Jewish holidays seem to float.  Purim is in two weeks, two and a half weeks, so it's coming up upon us.  Purim is like Halloween and Mardi Gras and bunch of other stuff all mixed up together.  It's a holiday in which there's revelry and inversion and people all dress up. They wear masks.  When you go to the synagogue to hear the book of Esther read, you are instructed by the rabbis to shout and scream whenever you hear the name Haman so that his names gets drowned out.  You're also instructed to get really drunk on Purim, so drunk, the rabbis say, that you can no longer tell the difference between Haman's name and the king's name.  So it's a sort of topsy-turvy day.  In rabbinic tradition, they tell us that we won't…need or be inclined to celebrate holidays in heaven.  All of heaven will be a giant day of holiness so we won't have these various holidays—except for Purim.  Purim is the one holiday that we'll continue to celebrate in heaven.

I first learned something about the meaning of Purim and the book of Esther when I was about six.  I was living in Asheville, North Carolina with my family and we attended Temple Beth-Ha-Tephila—"Temple House of Prayer" that translates into.  It was Purim and all the kids were told to dress up and like every other Jewish girl in the country, I dressed up as Queen Esther.  I wore my mom's terry cloth robe and I think I carried a mop or something as my scepter.  We were invited at my synagogue to enter an art contest, to do some kind of artwork having to do with the story of the book of Esther.  I have the artistic talent of a tomato—I cannot draw, nothing.  But I got really, really, really into this.  I had this piece of white poster board and I drew all of the principal figures—Esther, Vashti, the king, etcetera.  For reasons not clear to me, I specifically remember that I had the wrapper of a Hershey's miniature Mr. Goodbar and I took the little silver foil and made a little crown for Esther.  I just thought this poster and I were the cat's meow.  It was great.  Did I win the child Beth-Ha-Tephila Purim art competition?  No, I got second place.  Brett Schonenberg won for his diorama. His diorama was great, but it was really obvious to me and to everyone else that his mother had made it.  I was just incensed.  This just seemed to me the utmost injustice. 

In hindsight, I think it's fitting that I learned about the utmost injustice in the context of the story of Purim, because the book of Esther, among many other things is a political book.  It's a book about power and how power is deployed in an empire and the way that imperial leaders use power somewhat recklessly.  It's also about how people living in exile in an empire are at the mercy of this reckless power.  Throughout the book, different people deploy power in irresponsible and one-dimensional ways.  The Sunday school version of the book of Esther is that Haman is a really bad guy and the king, Mordecai and Esther are all great and heroic figures.  But I think the king is somewhat more complicated than that.  Yes, Haman deploys power in a wanton and irresponsible, almost whimsical way, but he's taking his cues from the king.  There's a reason that the story opens with this scene about Vashti in which the king is also deploying his power in whimsical and irresponsible ways.  There are a lot of lessons about how power works in this story. 

And I think that the lessons about power speak to us as 21st century Christian readers of this text in two ways.  We are simultaneously invited to read the book of Esther as an imperial people and as a people in exile.  As Christians, we have to scrutinize our own place in an imperial power structure and we live—unarguably, unavoidably in the United States—in an imperial moment.  And part of what we as Christians are called to do is to be savvy about the distinctions between God and the emperor.  We are called to, like Mordecai, be savvy about knowing whom we bow down before and refusing to bow down before the arbitrary powers of empire.  Now, in America, that savvy-ness might take many forms.  I think the most obvious form is that we as Christians can be savvy about bowing down before our current presidential administration's yoking of faith and imperial policy.  I'm sure George Bush's faith is quite sincere and I'm sure his yoking of his faith to imperial politics is quite sincere.  I'm also sure that we need to be very careful about how we're implicated in it.  That savvy-ness might come in remembering when our president tells us there is wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people, as he said in his 2003 State of the Union address, part of our savvy-ness about our imperial location might be refusing to join him in a song that says there's wonderworking power in the goodness of the American people and to sing instead there is wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb.

But I think that we also have to scrutinize the smaller ways that we deploy our whimsical power.  It's pretty easy after all to criticize George Bush—I do it, daily in fact.  It is harder to criticize our own displays of power in our own smaller empires, even if the empire is no bigger than our dorm room and even if the empire is no bigger than our own heart.  But part of what we are asked to do by the book of Esther is question our own imperial location. 

But Esther is also a story about exile, about being an exiled Jew, an exiled person of faith, and what it means to live in a place that is foreign, to live in a place where you are foreign, where you and your kinsman are aliens.  Esther is a book about how to live with your community in a place that is indifferent to you or hostile to you.  And although the book of Esther is named after just one woman, Esther, it is really a book about a community, about how a community survives in the face of annihilation and destruction.  The question before the Jewish community in Esther's Persia and the question I think before us as Christians today is, "Can God's people flourish when people around them are either indifferent or hostile to them?"  And the story of the book of Esther is that we can survive and indeed we can flourish.  And it is that survival, the survival of God's community, that is celebrated in the holiday of Purim.  The lesson of Purim is that we are not only saved alone.  We are saved as a community, as a body of people called out together.  And because we are saved together, we are joyful.  As the amazing pastoral theologian Eugene Peterson points out in his excellent study of Esther, joy is a communal experience.  It is hard to be truly joyful alone.  Indeed, to be both developed and expressed, joy requires a community and taken out of the context of the community of God, joy ceases to be joy.  It becomes just sensation.  It becomes just entertainment.  If you separate the holiday of Purim, in other words, from the community of the people of God, what you get is not a joyful celebration of community survival, you get just a drunken frat party that leaves you with a hangover in the morning.  We live in a society I think that has very little capacity for joy.  We have a lot of capacity for entertainment.  The more time I think we spend alone with our iPods being entertained for a few minutes, the less we have a capacity for real joy.  And it's worth noting that iPod entertainment is not a fruit of the spirit.  Joy is a fruit of the spirit. 

It is worth considering of course, what it means to live in a community like the community of joy.  It's easy to talk about community.  We all know that.  It's harder to do.  Community is profound, but it is also quite ordinary.  I am actually coming to believe that most profound things in the life of discipleship are pretty ordinary.  There's a story that I tell in Real Sex about a friend of mine—in the book, I call him "M".  That is not his real name.  M. became a Christian at the end of college and had had plenty of sex with people before becoming  Christian and has continued to have sex with people, although he's not married, after becoming a Christian.  This is something he really struggles with and he knows it's something that I've struggled with, so it's something that we've talked about.  And the story that I tell in the book is that he e-mails me one day and says, "Look, this woman that I met in a coffeeshop invited me to come over Friday night.  I really don't think she's inviting me to come play Chinese Checkers.  Why shouldn't I go just have this random sexual encounter with her?"  And I got this e-mail from him and it just seemed to me in the moment that he wasn't really asking for another lecture on Genesis and the epistles of Paul and what Paul has to say about fornication.  I just didn't think that was going to do the trick.  So I called him and I said, "M. I want you to not go on Friday night to this woman's apartment as a personal favor to me.  And I'm going to call you on Saturday and ask what you did."  Now, he could've lied to me on Saturday, but I don't think that he did.  And I also recognize that this is not an endlessly sustainable strategy.  I cannot ask him weekend after weekend after weekend for the rest of his life to not have sex as a personal favor.  But I think in that moment—and the reason I tell that story in the book—is that in that moment he and I were pretty profoundly community to one another.  Now, there are not very many people that I could've had that conversation with.  There are maybe three.  And the reason that I can have that level of community with M. is because there is years and years of very ordinary, boring "life-together" behind that conversation: years of going to the grocery store together, years of having open-door policies at each other's house and having dinner together a lot and picking the other person up when your car is broken and going to church together—just boring, boring, ordinary stuff.  But that boring, ordinary community is what makes it possible to have those racier and more interesting sex conversations or money conversations or prayer conversations—whatever they are.  So community is profound, but it begins in a place of great ordinariness. 

And it also is usually imperfect.  Again, I refer to Eugene Peterson, who in his excellent discussion of Esther, notes that the Jewish community in Persia during Esther's day was not the most faithful community on the planet.  These people had been living in exile.  They were separated from their beloved, beloved land.  They felt alienated form God.  They were living among strangers with strange ways.  And although Haman said, "These Jews aren't keeping our ways," archeological and historical evidence shows that some of them were in fact entering pretty wholeheartedly into Persian ways of doing things.  They were blending their worship of the God of Israel with pagan worship.  They were not being flawlessly faithful to the God with whom they were in a covenantal relationship.

And yet, although they were far from perfect, God saved them from destruction.  And that for us is very, very good news, because if the Jews of Persia had taken on the habits and practices of Persian culture and had fallen away from their relationship with their Lord, can we not say the same thing about ourselves as the church in early 21st century America?  We are not a sterling example of fidelity to God.  We have taken on the habits and practices of our surrounding culture, sometimes to the point of idolatry.  And so the fate of the Persian Jews is good news for us because, as the book of Esther makes abundantly clear, they are not saved because of their own perfect righteousness.  They are not saved because they are a bastion of moral rectitude.  They are saved because God is generous and gratuitous.  They are saved because of his merit and not their own.

Now, I've been talking about God and what God did for the children of Israel in Persia.  But it's worth noting that God is not mentioned in the book of Esther anywhere.  It is the only book of scripture in fact in which there is no mention of God.  And the rabbis when they were canonizing which books made it into the Old Testament and which didn't, had a big debate about Esther.  Some of them said, "Why should we put this book in our sacred scriptures that doesn't talk about God?"  They also debated, for other reasons, the Song of Songs, but again you'll have to the sex session to hear about that.  The book of Esther obviously made it in even though God is not mentioned and there's something quite powerful in that fact.  God, though he is at work, is hidden.  There is a lot of hiddenness in the book of Esther.  Esther herself hides her true identity as a Jew from everyone but her uncle.  The text tells us…Esther didn't reveal her origins to the king.  So she's hidden.  And I have to say I kind of relate to that.  I've spent my whole Christian life in the rarified world of the ivory tower and many of those years in Manhattan where it's not really very cool to be a Christian and there are many moments where I really have not wanted to reveal my origins as a ransomed new creature of Jesus Christ.  There are times with my family where I have not wished to reveal those origins, my family who is understandably less than ecstatic about my conversion to Christianity.

Anyway, it is a theme of Esther that nothing is revealed and much is hidden.  In fact, I suppose one could choose to not see God at work at all in the book of Esther.  He's not mentioned.  One could read the entire story as a set of coincidences.  Vashti happened to decide not to go do a striptease in front of her husband's friends.  Queen Esther the Jew happened to be picked as the next queen, etcetera.  We can choose to read this story and our own story as a set of coincidences or we can choose to see that God is at work though he is hidden.

I for one am very thankful that this book that testifies to God's hiddenness is in sacred scripture.  The book of Esther, I think, asks us to sit in the space where God is hidden.  I told you earlier that I have been spending a lot of time with Esther and now I will tell you why I have been spending a lot of time with Esther.  I have come to a place in my life where God seems hidden.  It's not exactly a place of doubt.  It's not exactly a spiritual dry spell.  It's a place of God's removal, somehow.  He doesn't seem to be right next to me.  He doesn't seem to be speaking to me very loudly. 

I'm asked all the time why I became a Christian.  I find myself in the position often of giving interviews to secular reporters. … I think that's because even the most secular reporters realize that Christianity is an important force in American society and culture right now.  They feel like they need to cover it in their newspapers, but they think most Christians are really weird.  And because I have cool glasses and went to an Ivy League school, they think that I can, sort of, talk to them.  So I'm often interviewed by these secular reporters and they almost always ask me why I became a Christian.  And I have a stock answer and the stock answer is true.  The stock answer has to do with having a dream when I was in college about Jesus rescuing me from a kidnapping and knowing when I woke up that I was dreaming about Jesus and that the dream came from God.  And the answer has to do with reading a series of Christian novels and being overwhelmed by how intimately felt God's presence was in the characters' lives and knowing that God was not as intimately felt in my life.  And for a while after I became a Christian, God was nearer to me than my own skin, it seemed.  I knew very deeply what Paul meant when he talked about putting Christ on like clothing.  I knew in a sensory way what it felt like to wear Christ like a dress or a sweater.  And then, at some point, that sense left.  I don't know exactly when it happened and it sort of ebbs and flows.  It comes back, it goes away.  It's sort of like the way you love your parents.  Sometimes you really love them and sometimes you go visit them because that's what you're supposed to do.  Kind of like the way I love my husband.  Sometimes I really love him.  Sometimes I don't.

And if I were to be really honest with these reporters, I would tell them that the question they're asking is the wrong question.  They think they want to know why I became a Christian when I was 20, but what they really want to know is why I'm a Christian this week.  And I just have to correct Saleem: I'm not 30, I'm 29.  I'm very hung up on still being 29, so I just want to get that in there.  For another six months, I'm still in my twenties.  So what people really want to know is why I'm a Christian today and why I'm a Christian today, this week, this morning is not exactly the same reason I became a Christian when I was 20.  This week I am a Christian because of the power of the Church in my life.  And this week I am a Christian because this relationship with Jesus Christ has been a long, narrow road, both narrow and long.  It has been monasticism to me and it has held me more firmly in its grip than anything has ever held me.  And this week, I am a Christian because the book of Esther tells me that sometimes God is hidden. 

This is not a place that the church likes to spend much time, this hiddenness of God.  I think it scares us to death.  I think we are scared that if we allow people to name and experience god's mysterious hiddenness, they will somehow fall away from the faith or do something they shouldn't do.  And yet the presence of the book of Esther in our sacred, sacred, sacred, holy scriptures tells us that the opposite is true.  It tells us that part of God's dazzling dark mystery is his sometimes hiddenness and if we deny his hiddenness, we deny part of his mystery.  Of course, God's hiddenness is not the final word.  He may be hidden, but he is still active. 

We are currently at the tail end of the church season of Epiphany.  Epiphany does not get a lot of play.  It's the season that comes after Christmas and before Lent and most churches don't talk about it very much, but I think it's a cool and important church season.  Epiphany comes from the Greek word for manifestation or the Greek work "to show forth" and Epiphany is the season that the Church devotes to seeing who Jesus is.  Jesus becomes manifest to us in particular ways during the season of Epiphany and we in turn go out into the world and make Jesus manifest to others.  So this is why during Epiphany a lot of churches read the story of the three wise men coming to Jesus, both because the gifts the three wise men bring tell us each something about who Jesus is and because then the three wise men turn around and take the story of Jesus out into the world.  It's why most churches read the story of Jesus' baptism during the season of Epiphany because Jesus' miraculous baptism tells us something about who Jesus is.  And Epiphany is finally a season of light, of Jesus' light that allows us to see the light.  It is a season that recognizes implicitly that God is hidden and that invites us to rediscover him even in his hiddenness. 

Even as God is hidden, we are invited into the process of making God manifest to the world.  And that I think is one of the reasons we have gathered here together for this weekend.  We have come away from the hectic hustle and bustle of our daily lives, not because God is absent from our daily lives, but because sometimes, God is hidden.  And we, I hope, will return from this time together this weekend to our ordinary lives with a re-made vision, a vision that allows us to see God's presence and his hiddenness, that allows us to see the ways the Kingdome is here and not yet here.  And so it is fitting I think that we should consider Esther during this church season of Epiphany.  For it is Epiphany that beckons us to rediscover Jesus even when he is hidden.  It is Epiphany that beckons us to come and see Emmanuel, the god who is with us.  It is Epiphany that beckons us to come and see the babe in the manger. To come and see the living water. To come and see the one who is present in the breaking of bread.  To come and see the Alpha and the Omega.  To come and see the pearl of great price.  To come and see the Prince of Peace.  To come and see the resurrection and the life.  To come and see the Judge whose coming-again we await.  To come and see the author and finisher of our faith.  To come and see the Light of the world.  To come and see the One who sits at the right hand of the father.  To come and see the King of the Jews who is mocked on the cross.  To come and see the apple of the Father's eye.  To come and see the one we meet on the road to Emmaus.  To come and see the shepherd who searches for one lost sheep.  To come and see the one who is the Savior of the whole world.

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