Author’s note: discussion that occurred during this teaching time was more than I could scribe while facilitating it. I have recalled, in Italics, the best I can do to remember the gist and direction of the dialog.
Scriptures: Esther 7:1–6, 9–10; 9:20–22
Let us Pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
This is one of our fifth Sunday services when we usually do something experimental. Sometimes it’s campfire songs instead of hymns or Biblical Storytelling instead of a sermon, or last time we did a group Lectio Divina on the scripture lesson for the day.
Today I’m going to ask you to engage in a little dialog in critical thinking with me. Our task is to analyze whether or not today’s contemporary cultural realities reflect any parallels to the time and place of the story of Queen Esther. First a brief background:
“Esther is set in the most secular and least holy of locales, Susa, in the far eastern sector of the Person Empire, [which at the time stretched from India, across the Middle East, over into both southeastern Europe and Egypt, then up the Nile into Ethiopia.] In this context we discover the people of God, fully immersed in the surrounding culture, its values and assumptions. The book of Esther contains no mention of worship, Torah, food laws, or distinctive dress … this is indicative of how God’s people had adapted to a new world.”
Let’s begin with our contemporary context.
What do we observe most closely throughout the course of the week concerning secular patriotic observances, sporting championships, musical festivals, celebrity obsessions, economic forecasts, or political maneuvering? Would you say these kinds of events shape the rhythms of our lives?
(Facilitate congregational feedback) (Nods, some brief word or phrase shared)
What would contemporary cultural sociologists or future anthropologists say in trying to make sense of “who and where we are” in the flow of life based on such cultural observations? Tell me some of your thoughts.
(Facilitate congregational feedback) Some expressed that our lives are divided, and this extends to families and communities, too.
In Esther’s day, the Persian Empire allowed for its subjugated people to continue in their religious practices, as long as it didn’t interfere with their governance. In fact, the Persian Empire assisted the Jewish people previously taken into exile by the Babylonian Empire, the Persian predecessor, to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. So they were allowed to observe their liturgical calendar. What part, if any, does our liturgical calendar play into daily life outside the walls of this church and its worshiping community?
(Facilitate congregational feedback) Discussion of holidays as adopted or high-jacked by non-liturgical calendars and the economy. Observation about our liturgical calendar having “peaks” of hope and something bright to look forward to throughout the year.
In light of our contemporary cultural observances held up next to our liturgical calendar, in your opinion, have we, as Esther’s people did in their time, adapted to our present cultural climate? Too much? Not enough?
(Facilitate congregational feedback) Some discussion.
Esther influenced the direction of Persian governance of her people, and effectively saved them from genocide. In our day, do you suppose being fully adapted to culture or influencing it is a good thing or something to be lamented?
(Facilitate congregational feedback) Some light discussion, mostly pensive looks.
Interestingly, this week’s reading for my doctoral studies required me to do some critical thinking about U.VA Professor and Sociologist James Davison Hunter’s essays in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. In class this week, I reflected that the term “Post-Christian” had been bandied about quite a bit by some of my classmates and some other contemporary authors reflecting on the state of “Christendom” today. Do you think that is an accurate description? Why or why not?
(Facilitate congregational feedback) In discussion, the congregation came up with the phrase “semi-Christian” instead of “post-Christian.” Observations of how beliefs and practices differed between generations followed. One Gen X, one Millennial were present to share their thoughts along with Boomer and Silent generation members.
If, as Christians, part of our witness is to make a difference in the world, is it really simply a matter of living our lives by a higher standard than a “post-Christian” (or semi-Christian) cultural norm that seems to surround us? What do you suppose would be the best way to influence culture more toward a Kingdom of God way of life?
Hunter suggests that our contemporary culture has reached such a state that if it is to sustain any changes, the only influencers that can induce it are the elite upper echelon of our culture employing all their power to make things happen.
What is your reaction to that? (Facilitate congregational feedback) In feedback, our Millennial shook her head, “No.” Others expressed some discomfort with that possibility.
It implies to me a top-down only ability to enact systemic change. (But now I am not so sure)
Let’s compare that back to Queen Esther.
She is a member of a subjugated race, the Israelites who had been exiled from their homeland under the previous Babylonian regime. She is a beautiful maiden collected by the King’s agents for his harem. She pleased the King so much she became the Queen instead of merely another concubine. For failing to follow the King’s command, her predecessor, Queen Vashti, had been dismissed. Living on the dangerous edge of being too forward in a man’s world, a moment came for Esther to name internal plots her relative and adopted father Mordecai observed. A second step soon followed: the successor of the previous devious plotters didn’t like Mordecai based on his religious practices. He hatched a plan to hang Mrodecai and all his people with him. Again, Queen Esther was able to navigate the palace and all its politics and this time save her entire people from genocide.
In your opinion, was this a “top-down” transformation or a grass-roots movement, or both?
(Facilitate congregational feedback) Some discussion
Was any real cultural transformation of Esther’s people long-lasting, however? Yes and no. Israel remained a subjugated people. However, her story is captured and remembered in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish festival of Purim was instigated, where:
“They feast at table, they give gifts of food to one another, and they bring the poor among them. This celebration is a remembrance of attempted genocide, their escape from it, and their continued life together in community.”
Fast-forward to the time of Jesus. Another Empire has Israel in thrall. It is so vast and large that it engulfed even Persia. There are no Israelite queens within the (Roman) regime at the time of Jesus to take a leap of faith forward. Instead, Jesus himself, Son of David, Messiah, gets caught up in the political shenanigans; but unlike Esther, he not only fails to deliver his people to political safety, but in fact is crucified, another version of hanging, really, which is what was supposed to happen to Mordecai and all the Hebrews before Esther’s successful political intervention.
Unlike what many of his contemporaries may have hoped for, Jesus taught a way of life, not a political rebellion or reversal of power-roles. He brought down the elite with his scathing words and lifted up the lowly with his caring hands – an “upside-down” kingdom reality that meant he taught those who were subjugated to reach out to one another with helping hands, resist the regime of the elite with their actions of mercy and kindness and love: in short, a loving community of solidarity.
This is your homework for this week: In what ways do you enact an “upside-down” kingdom with your life and witness? How might you/we/us increase our own influence as witnesses to the Way of Christ?
Oh Lord, there are so many ways to seeing the world, so many choices we can make. Help us to know the way to follow, that we might be examples for others, pointing the way to you. Amen? May it be so.
 Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., “Pastoral Perspective, Esther 7:1–6, 9–10; 9:20–22” in Feasting on the Word – Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0
 Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective, Esther 7:1–6, 9–10; 9:20–22” in Feasting on the Word – Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0