Sunday, September 27, 2009

Where is God Part 1

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

7 1So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." 3Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me--that is my petition--and the lives of my people--that is my request. 4For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." 5Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" 6Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

9Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." 10So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

9:20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor

This is the first week in which we take up the Reconciliation offering, which goes to support Reconciliation/Anti-racism efforts in our region and in the General Church. All over the country these funds help our church become less racist, less separated from itself along racial lines. One day we hope that the Reconciliation/Anti-racism effort will no longer be necessary in or out of church, that genocide based on racial differences will end, and that we won’t hear the kinds of accusations that we’ve been hearing tossed around in our nation’s politics recently.

On this Reconciliation Sunday I’ve chosen the passage from Esther which describes the hanging of a man who was about to perpetrate genocide and the resulting celebration by a people delivered from death. This reading is more appropriate than it might look at first. Not in a “What a perfect scripture passage” way but in a “This is exactly NOT the way we are supposed to be!” kind of way.

First – the most disturbing part of the story is skipped over. So Haman is hanged because he was an evil man and a festival is proclaimed. Yay! Evil is punished. But the committee that chooses the lectionary readings skipped about one and a half chapters in between those two events. Here’s the gist of the skipped bits.

9:1 Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day, when the king's command and edict were about to be executed, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain power over them, but which had been changed to a day when the Jews would gain power over their foes, 2the Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who had sought their ruin; and no one could withstand them, because the fear of them had fallen upon all peoples. 3All the officials of the provinces, the satraps and the governors, and the royal officials were supporting the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them. 4For Mordecai was powerful in the king's house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces as the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful. 5So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. 6In the citadel of Susa the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred people.
9: 16 Now the other Jews who were in the king's provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and gained relief from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder. 17This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness.

The Jews, saved from death, turned on everyone who was prejudiced against them and killed them all – 75,500 of them. And no punishment from the king – he approved, or at least, didn’t disapprove. He wasn’t a very compassionate or merciful sort of guy.

The very short version of this story which a lot of us would have learned in Sunday School is that the king had his first Queen executed because one time she didn’t come when he called so he could show her off to all the guests at one of his banquets after they’d all become drunk. Esther became queen after a competition of sorts between all the beautiful young women of the nation by following the advice of her uncle Mordecai. His advice included not telling anyone she was a Jew or that Mordecai was her uncle. She gained the king’s trust when she passed on to him news that two of his advisors were plotting to have him assassinated, which she’d learned from Mordecai. One day the king’s highest advisor noticed that Mordecai refused to bow to him as though he was king, and he was so angry about this lack of respect that he decided to have Mordecai killed. And not just Mordecai, but all those pesky Jewish captives in Babylon. And the king agreed. But Esther made a feast for the king which pleased him so much that he offered her anything she wanted, and that’s when she revealed that she, too, was one of the captive people and begged for their deliverance. And we know how the story ends. Haman is hanged, her people slaughtered everyone who was prejudiced against them and a festival was declared which continues down to this day.

A word about racism. In Esther’s day there was no such thing as racism as we understand it. Prejudice and bigotry over nationalism, cultural differences, and religion existed, but race wasn’t an issue until many centuries later when it was used to help justify European colonization of the rest of the world.

No, the problem here wasn’t racially motivated, or even religiously motivated. It was an issue of nationalism. Esther’s people didn’t assimilate into the Babylonian empire as they had been expected to. They always kept themselves separate and continued to pray that one day they would be able to return to Judah. This alone would have upset any king’s advisor. And then for Mordecai to refuse to lay flat on his face when Haman went past – well, that was that as far as Haman was concerned.

Second – where is God in this story?? If you read the book of Esther, you will find that God isn’t mentioned even once in the entire book! Not one time! So they can’t claim “God told us to kill 75,500 people.” This was something the Jews did all on their own with no heavenly direction and no one to blame. They were simply getting revenge on their enemies with the king’s approval. And although it doesn’t say I suspect they were taking out four generations of frustration at their exile on their captives as well. No reconciliation there. No forgiveness. No restraint.

God does not direct us to revenge. Not as individuals or as nations. “Vengeance s mine, says the Lord.” Rather than revenge, God directs us to reconcile with our enemies, with those who disagree with us, with those who are different from us in any way.

Reconciliation means “to cause to exist in harmony” and “to bring into balance”. We use the word reconciliation in our denomination almost as a synonym for anti-racism, but it is so much more than just not acting out on racial prejudice. It means living in harmony with each other. Just as a song has different parts, different tunes that all go together to make a beautiful sounding whole, so harmony among people must have differences as well. To be reconciled to one another doesn’t mean that we need to be all alike. It doesn’t even mean existing in total agreement with each other. To be reconciled to one another means living according to God’s direction. To forgive each other as we are forgiven by God. To love one another as we are loved by God.

It is in order that we all be reconciled to one another and to God that Jesus was sent to teach us, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

Before we knew Christ, before we understood his teachings, the Word of God, we could seek revenge. We could hate. But now that we are in Christ, we can’t do that any more. We can’t even hate those who hate us, but must find a way to reconcile, to live in harmony with even our enemies.

On this Reconciliation Sunday let us give not just our money, but also our hearts to the effort of reconciling ourselves to each other and especially to God. Let us make an example to all the world by living in harmony with our brothers and sisters, regardless of the differences or disagreements between us. Let us live in such a way that a slaughter like the one that took place in Babylon in Esther’s day can’t ever happen again. Let us live in the way Jesus taught us, that all the hatred and prejudice and feelings of superiority of one over another may be erased, that all the nations of the world may be reconciled and healed, in God’s name.

For the Healing of the nations 668

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