There are people in the world who believe that the Bible is boring. Some of them are taking a confirmation class right now; not at this church, of course, but somewhere. And to those people, I offer a counterpoint: the Book of Esther.
For those of you who don’t remember this story, a summary:
The Jews were conquered by the Babylonians and exiled from their homeland. Then the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians and, as we open our story, the Jews are living in exile in Persia.
Due to some palace intrigue, the King of Persia does not have a queen. He has beautiful women brought to him from all over his empire. And he chooses Esther, a Jewish orphan who is being raised by her uncle Mordecai. Esther keeps her Jewishness hidden.
And Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the King. Mordecai stops the plot, and his service is noted.
The king appoints a man named Haman as his viceroy. Now, Haman hates Mordecai, because Mordecai would not bow down to Haman, because Mordecai is Jewish, and he will not bow down to anyone but God. And Haman doesn’t just hate Mordecai, he hates all the Jews. He wants to kill all of the Jews in the Empire. And pays the king for permission to do this. And the king agrees.
So Haman casts lots to determine the date. On the 13th of Adar—so, sort of March-ish—the Jews will die.
Mordecai, of course, discovers the plot and goes to Esther—who, remember, has hidden her Jewishness—and implores her to help her people. But she is afraid. Still, she holds some feasts for the king.
Meanwhile, Haman decides to hang Mordecai and wants to go to the king for permission to do that. He even builds a gallows outside his house. But just before he shows up, the king is reminded that Mordecai uncovered the plot against the king, but never had a public ceremony to honor him.
So, when Haman shows up to ask about hanging Mordecai, the king absentmindedly asks him how he should honor his servant.
And Haman, thinking, “Oh, the king is going to honor me because I’m awesome,” suggests a bunch of crazy stuff. And then the king orders Haman to give Mordecai that honor!
The king and Haman go to one of the feasts that Esther is holding. Esther reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman plans on killing all of her people, including her. The king is furious and leaves the room. While he’s gone, Haman begs Esther for his life and falls on her in desperation. At that moment, the king enters the room, sees this, and thinks that Haman is assaulting his queen.
He orders Haman hanged on the same gallows he built for Mordecai.
Now, for some reason, the king cannot revoke a royal edict. The Jews are still in trouble. So he lets Esther and Mordecai write a new edict that allows the Jews to defend themselves. And they do. Tens of thousands of people attack the Jews… and the Jews kill them.
The Jews are saved, Esther continues as queen, and Mordecai becomes the king’s right hand man. And to this day, Jewish people mark this event with the festival of Purim.
How is this not a movie? And I don’t mean one of those bad Christian movies. You know the ones I’m talking about. I mean a good movie, maybe a sci-fi setting, Natalie Portman, Daniel Day Lewis, Ben Kingsley. We could have a blockbuster on our hands.
But I’m not a producer. I’m a pastor. And this is not just a political thriller story. It is a story about privilege and what we can do with it.
Esther did not choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it.
And I did not choose to be a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America. I was born. There was history and genetics and a whole lot of chance. And that was it.
And I really believe that most of us are in that same boat. Most of us sitting in this sanctuary today have some privilege. We didn’t choose it, but we have it.
When I’m driving down the highway and police lights come on behind me—not that that’s ever happened—I don’t fear for my life.
I have never imagined that I might have to pick up what I can carry and travel hundreds of miles to a new country where I might not be welcome… just to get away from the violence in my own neighborhood.
I have never been told to go back where I come from, or insulted for speaking the language that I speak, or mocked because of the way I dress.
In fact, because of who I am and the position I occupy in our society, I can be pretty confident that authorities will respect me, that power will work for me, and that—even if things go wrong for a while—there are whole social systems that are designed to make sure that things work out for me and people like me… alright enough… in the end.
And that doesn’t mean that I never have trouble, or that I never suffer, or that I didn’t work hard for what I have. It just means that I have advantages that not everyone gets. And that’s it.
I didn’t choose it. And whichever boxes of privilege that you tick, you didn’t choose it. That’s just how it is. But that doesn’t make us any less privileged.
Esther didn’t choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it. But that doesn’t make her any less the queen.
And the question for you and for me is, “What are we going to do with that?”
This is the choice that Esther faces. She can keep her secret. No one knows that she’s Jewish. Maybe she’ll survive and be okay.
But Mordecai doesn’t think so. He’s confident that help will come from somewhere, but, “Esther,” he says, “maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this.”
Maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this. Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time—choices that you made and choices that were made for you, things you controlled and things that you didn’t—put you here and now for a reason: to save us all.
In today’s reading—in the little snippet of this story that we heard—we get to see this choice. At one of Esther’s feasts, the king turns to her and asks, “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.”
That is the question of privilege. And I’m confident that none of us here have been offered half a kingdom, but the world asks us a question a lot like that one. Do we have a petition? Odds are we can get it granted. Do we have a request? Odds are we can have it.
At the very least, it will be easier for us than it would be for a lot of people.
And Esther answers, “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.”
And there’s a risk here. It’s true. If the king says no, she will perish with her people. But she knows that her privilege is her responsibility: “If it pleases you, give me my life and the lives of my people.”
And that’s good for Esther. She saves her people. To this day, Jewish people mark this event with a feast.
But it is not enough for us.
I am, if anything, more privileged than Esther. I don’t fear for my life. I don’t fear for the lives of my people, whatever that could mean. I cannot use my privilege for myself.
There’s this theologian, Basil. He is, hands down, one of my favorites. In one of his sermons, he asks his congregation why there are rich people and poor people, why there are haves and have-nots. why God has seen fit to distribute things unevenly.
His answer for why there are have-nots isn’t very satisfying. But his answer for why there are haves is beautiful: it’s so we can share.
I have power and privilege because there is injustice in this world. But God has arranged things so that I can share what I have. I can put my power and privilege to work for others. I can give to people in need. I can stand up for people in trouble. I can amplify the voices of those who go unheard. And that is a gift.
I don’t have to use what I have for myself. I don’t have to use it for my people, whatever that could mean. I get the honor of using what I have for this whole wide world.
Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put me in this place at this time—choices that I made and choices that were made for me, things I controlled and things that I didn’t—put me here and now for a reason: to save someone… anyone.
And maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time, put you here and now for the same reason: to save someone… anyone.
And maybe—just maybe—all of the things that had to happen to put us in this place and this time, put us here for an even bigger reason: to save someone… anyone… everyone.
And, yeah, that can carry some risk. But how much really?
Because the reward is so much greater: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to do justice and to love kindness; to walk with our Lord and our God.