Guest Post: Esther, in Advent

On Sunday during a candlelit evensong, Markus Dünzkofer managed to cover the nature of religion and scripture, identity and ‘othering’, the environmental crisis, fear and power, and fasting and partying, all on the basis of a 2000 year-old story. I liked it so much that I begged it as a guest blog post: I hope you enjoy.

A few days ago I was called a “Socialist” on national TV. The person who labelled me thus was rather angered. And one could argue that because of something I had done he was justifiably infuriated. I would say, though, that his conclusions are not mine. But there we are.

I did wonder, though, why he used this particular word: “Socialist”. Was he trying to insult me? And if so, was he trying to link me to the murderous regime of Joseph Stalin? Eventually, I had this thought: Maybe he used the word “Socialist” to imply that despite of being a priest, I am a godless person. Because that’s what Socialists are, right?

Well, if that is true, we have a problem today, because this would make the biblical book of Esther, from which we have heard earlier, “Socialist,” too. The book of Esther is one of two books in the Bible that never mentions God. It is godless. And yet, is divine revelation. Intrigued? Well, let me tell you the tale:

The story begins with Persian King Ahasuerus, whose Greek name Xerxes at least I can somewhat pronounce, having a jolly in his palace. In antiquity this often was code for an outrageous orgy. Drunk with power and with wine, hormones and lust raging, Xerxes wants to show off his wife to his equally drunk and horny guests. It doesn’t need much fantasy to realise that the showing-off would have led to other things. Understandably, the queen refuses. Xerxes, however, is so outraged that he casts her out. A man must save “his face and his manhood,” right? So, there is need for a new wife.

Meanwhile, Mordechai, a Jew, who, together with his king, Jechonja of Juda, had been forcefully exiled to the city of Susa in Persia and now, at age 120 is working at the palace in Susa — this Mordechai comes up with a cunning plan. His niece Esther, who he took in after her parents had died and whose beauty captivated many, should be shown to Xerxes as a potential future queen.

And even though there was stiff competition from a number of women from the 127 countries he governs, Xerxes picks Esther and makes her queen. And did they live happily ever after? No.

Mordechai learns of a plot to kill Xerxes. Through Esther he conveys the plan to the king, who hangs the two assassins. Mordechai’s deed, however, is written into a dusty old book.

This is when Haman, the anti-hero of the story enters the scene. Xerxes appoints him prime minister. But Haman is full of spite, envy, vanity, and ambition. And when Mordechai, because of his religion, refuses to bow to him, he completely loses his plot: He convinces Xerxes to order a day of pogrom on which all Jews throughout the Persian Empire shall be annihilated. But the lots he casts to determine the date pick a day almost a year later. This gives the Jewish community time, and they use it to fast and to pray. Not what I expected!

During this interval Mordechai approaches Esther to intervene. And this is where we find ourselves in today’s reading.

It takes some convincing of Esther, though, because she is not out as a Jew at court. Eventually Esther does agree and comes up with a shrewd plan to influence Xerxes, a plan that involves two banquets and copious amounts of alcohol. I will spare you the details and some other subplots, so that the choir can get to their own banquet in time.

But Esther knows what she is doing and convinces Xerxes to change his mind. But it isn’t so easy. He cannot just revoke his original order – what has been written has been written. Instead, he allows for the Jews to arm and defend themselves on the day of the previously appointed Reichskristalnacht.

When others side with the Jews — after all they are now in Xerxes’ good books — it all ends in a bloodbath that would make our contemporary stomachs rightfully churn. It is pretty awful. And no, Haman and his house don’t survive. Ironically, Haman ends up on the gallows he’d built for Mordechai. The end.

We could have a long discussion about the heinous ending of this biblical book, and maybe that will be the content of the sermon in three year’s time, when we will read the text again. Let me just say so much:

This is not a historical account but a historical novella that builds on numerous experiences of pogroms during the Jewish exile. Mordechai’s age is but one indicator that makes the story factually unbelievable. And there are others. Historically, there was no massive bloodshed. It’s all a hyperbole.

We have to remember, though, that the story was written from the perspective of the oppressed, of an enslaved people. This it is a scenario far away from the comforts of our 21st century mostly middle-class comfort. Achieving justice back then did look different from the ways we pursue liberation from oppression. Yet, this is not cop-out. The book of Esther still entices us to confront oppression, even at the price of one’s own safety. If injustice is not named, even at times named provocatively, then those, who shy away from naming it, enable that very injustice – even if they are only bystanders.

But enough of this part of the story, because today I would like to focus not on the end of the book of Esther, but on two principles we find within the book: the principles of faithfulness and identity.

From the reading the book of Esther it is clear that Mordechai is held up as a model of faithfulness to the covenant that God made with Moses: He doesn’t bow to Haman, because that would violate the first and second commandments, which orient our worship to God alone.

But one might ask: doesn’t exactly this refusal to bow to Haman get Mordechai into trouble? Isn’t Mordechai’s faithfulness the reason for the impending genocide? Well, you would say this only if you forgot that God’s plan for salvation is already in place. And through the faithfulness of the Jews, through their fasting and praying, God’s plan of salvation can take its course.

Fasting and praying. These are not necessarily activities we would choose. But I wonder how fasting and praying would empower our personal life and the life of our faith community? And I wonder what our planet would look like if we were to engage in more fasting and praying?

This reminds me of this year’s Lent, when we here at St John’s walked through the book of Jonah and challenged the church and society to repent from its unfaithfulness to God’s plan on matters environmental. And? Did we listen? Are we — like the Jews in the book of Esther — fasting and praying for God’s salvation and liberation both for us personally and for the planet? Are you?

And then there is Esther herself. Initially at court, she does not reveal her true identity for fear of rejection. And when she is faced with Mordechai’s charge in today’s reading, she fears her own death.

There is that little word: “Fear”. Fear of being known. Fear of confronting the powers of this earth. Fear of upsetting the applecart. Fear of being rejected. Fear of disappearing in the midst of strife. Fear seems to be everywhere.

I know what I am talking about, I have been afraid. I have feared the consequences. I have been so scared I could neither move, nor act, nor think, not pray, nor sleep. Richard Holloway once said: “Fear is the greatest enemy of the Gospel.” It is indeed a darkness that needs to be pierced.

When Esther reclaims who she is, when she embraces, who God made her to be as a woman and as a Jew in the midst of a misogynist and anti-Semitic environment, then God’s light is revealed. Identity is not a threat to our society, regardless of what that identity might be. What will eat up and destroy who and what God made us to be is fear:

  • Fear of the other, especially when the other is different.
  • Fear of losing comfort in order to support those, who have less.
  • Fear of having to give up something in order to save the planet.
  • Fear of looking like silly lunatics, when witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in prayer, in action, and in word.
  • Fear of celebrating our identity.

Fear is a powerful foe.

We are in the middle of Advent. And during Advent, we hear prophets raising difficult and provocative and maybe even fear-inciting questions. But the church must be faithful: she must be faithful to this prophetic tradition and continue to raise questions. And sometimes this might cause a stooshie.

We are in the middle of Advent. And in Advent we wait for that divine light that came into the world and that still pierces the darkness, the darkness of fear and any other kind of darkness — even the darkness of death. Our true, God-given identity is connected to embracing this light. And our identity is not connected to labels we throw at each other, nor to names by which we incite fear or exclusion — and this goes for all of us.

Our Jewish siblings commemorate the events of the book of Esther with the annual festival of Purim. And according to Jewish tradition, one should drink on Purim until you can no more make a distinction between arur Haman, which means “cursed be Haman”, and baruch Mordechai, which means “blessed be Mordechai”. Quite an alcoholic feat!

In the heavenly banquet we will also be drunk. We will be drunk with God’s love, so drunk indeed that we will longer distinguish between Greek or Jew, Male or Female, Slave or Free, young or old, outsider nor insider, gay or straight, believer or doubter.

All will be children of God — even supposed godless clergy.

 

Markus Dünzkofer is the Rector of St John’s Princes Street and is on twitter @homouusian.

You can find out more about the global interfaith initiative to “fast for the climate” at fastfortheclimate.org

Meterology, Alan Hemming, and Forgiveness

This guest post by medical ethicist and Church of Scotland minister Professor Kenneth Boyd was delivered as a sermon at Evensong last night. I have heard him preach many times before but this one seemed particularly worthy of a wider audience. I hope you agree.

‘Abundant rain’, promised by the prophet Joel in our first reading tonight, ‘poured down’ on Friday and much of yesterday, right on time, exactly as promised by the weather forecast on the BBC News website. The accuracy of modern weather forecasting, at least for the next few days, never ceases to amaze me. The science of weather forecasting, pioneered in 19th century Edinburgh by Alexander Buchan, Secretary of the Scottish Meteorological Society, has been of great benefit to humanity: it has saved countless lives by its warnings and it has assisted better planning of all sorts of future projects. It has of course limitations, as the forecasters themselves also warn: better and more accurate systems still need development to avoid tragedies like that on the Japanese volcano last week, or the fatal consequences of many of the extreme weather events increasingly related to climate change; but the scientific precision of modern meteorology is undoubtedly something to be grateful for; and an enormous advance, some might say, on the vague promises of ‘the early and the later rain as before’ uttered by the prophet Joel in our first reading tonight.

That said, it cannot escape notice that the scientific precision found in meteorology is also to be found in the science of ballistics, which is concerned with the launching, flight and exact landing of projectiles, and which at present therefore is of great relevance to the armed forces of our own and other nations who are pouring down a different kind of rain as they attack from the air the IS militants in Iraq and Syria. The historical and political reasons for this conflict are greatly complex and in their effects deeply tragic — not least this last week, in the murder of that truly good man Alan Hemming from Salford. But even deeper than the historical and political reasons for this conflict, is that darker side of human nature, against which the human goodness of Alan Hemming stands out in such contrast. The goodness of this ordinary man, simply desiring to help others in need, as he travelled with his Muslim friends, to convoy medical and food aid to refugees in Syrian camps — that goodness stands in stark contrast to the near madness of the desire at all costs to dominate and subjugate others, so cruelly and callously demonstrated by the words and actions of the IS militants. And that near madness in turn also stands in stark contrast to the rationality of the sciences which provide the weapons with which the rest of the world may be able, at least on the most optimistic scenario, to geographically contain that madness.

What these current events remind us of then, is what we still lack: a science of human nature and relationships, a science with which to guide the ballistics of the human heart into the ways of peace, justice and the gladness of which the prophet Joel spoke in our first reading, when the inhabitants of the land ’shall eat in plenty and be satisfied’. How long ago was that written? Nearly two thousand five hundred years ago; and yet after all that time, and even with the more recently rapid advance of so many sciences, the land of Israel and Palestine of which Joel spoke seems no nearer, and perhaps even farther away from that long deferred peace and plenty. Even now, we have no science of human nature and relationships, to put all these things right.

But is that correct? We do, of course, have what are called the human sciences, of psychology and social science for example, and also of historical research and political science; and all of these have important insights to contribute to our understanding of human nature and relationships, insights based on non-partisan analyses, which if we attend to them may help us see through the more extravagant and unsubstantiated claims of politics, the market, ideologies and religions. But of themselves these analytic insights may not be enough to guide us and the world to a better place of peace and justice. As well as these scientific insights, we need a science of a deeper and less academic sort: the word ‘science’ at root simply means knowledge, and the kind of knowledge we need is self-knowledge – which is precisely what our second reading tonight tells us about.

‘Do not worry about your life’ Jesus says, but ‘strive first for the kingdom of God’. What does this mean and is it even possible? To get a sense of what Jesus meant, I think, we need to remember that he also is quoted as saying that the kingdom he spoke of was not a visible earthly kingdom, and that it was ‘within you’ and ‘among you’. The kingdom of God, in other words, is a way of living with and relating to one another and ourselves. It is a way of living and relating that is not disturbed and disfigured by fears and anxieties, especially those fears and anxieties that derive from seeing and valuing everything and everyone mainly or even only from our own point of view. Defending at all costs our own interests as we conceive them, and maintaining at all costs our own self-image, can lead to a very untruthful view of the world, since clearly there are other people in it. And if we find means of power over others, either as petty domestic or workplace tyrants, or as IS militants, we may become infected in different degrees by that near madness I mentioned earlier – the near madness of a secret desire to assuage our own fears and compensate for our own inadequacies by trying at all costs to dominate and subjugate others.

How is the kingdom of God different? Above all because it is the kingdom of forgiveness — a way of living with and relating to one another and ourselves that frees us from the need to maintain those appearances that can lead us into the absurdities of pride or the depths of despair — a way of living and relating that humbly and happily accepts that we are all in this together: God-forgiven first, and then slowly self-forgiven sinners, but thereby also given strength enough and courage enough to get through and wherever possible get over whatever causes our current fears and anxieties.

To strive for the kingdom of God is to strive against all those self-deluding and defensive reactions, moods and habits which render our view of the world untruthful — to strive against them, above all by holding fast to a deeply felt conviction that living goodness is at the heart of all things, including the human heart of each one of us, and that even our smallest efforts to love our neighbour as ourselves contribute to the coming of the kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

That may still seem a small thing in the great scheme of things, on the war-torn littered beaches of the world, where ignorant armies clash by night. And it will still be the task of generations well beyond our own to enter more deeply into that conversation and communion of faiths which also is needed to contribute, in global terms, to the coming of the kingdom, on earth as in heaven. But the kingdom of God and forgiveness, Jesus says, always is now open to us to strive for; and if we do that, striving for the kingdom of God each in our own different and particular way, as Alan Hemming from Salford did in his, with his Muslim friends, that will be our best way of paying tribute to him and to all the saints of God, who have fallen, fighting the good fight of faith and forgiveness. May they rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Professor Kenneth Boyd. Sermon delivered at Evensong in St John’s Episcopal Church Edinburgh on the 16th after Trinity. Readings Joel 2, 21-27; Matthew 6, 25-33.