I am posting a sermon manuscript. I believe that sermons are meant to be heard rather than read, which is why I’ve never posted one before, and I don’t intend to post them in the future. HOWEVER, this week I made the strategic error of posting a Facebook status update prior to preaching:
At St. Andrew’s we have three services every weekend. Being a somewhat fallible preacher who has the tendency to wander off-text, at the 10 AM service (which was recorded) I did not work in all three references. Which was duly noted on my FB feed:
So, to set the record straight, and for the .25 of a person who is curious about how Ben & Jerry’s related to last Sunday’s readings… here’s the manuscript. And now I will post this link to my FB comment thread, and all will be well
Sermon for Proper 21B
September 30, 2012
The lectionary delivers us the Book of Esther only once every 3 years. The last time we read it was 2009; the next time won’t be until 2015. And this is all we get: just these ten verses. But that’s not because Esther isn’t important. Her story is read annually by those who follow Moses. Every year, Jewish people celebrate the holiday of Purim, which commemorates God’s work through Esther. It’s a huge party, the kind where it’s your religious obligation to drink heavily–the kind that we 21st century American semi-Protestants can barely imagine.
Esther deserves more attention than 10 verses once every 3 years–not least because her story is a perfect illustration of the gospel lesson for today.
Her story is set about 2500 years ago. It starts with an unhappy royal marriage. King Ahasuerus sends a message to his wife, Queen Vashti, to come to a party. She refuses to attend; we never know why. She is quickly deposed as queen, and the king goes in search of a new wife. What happens next could be a scene from The Bachelor: All the most beautiful women in the land are brought before the king, including Esther, one of the most beautiful of all Israelite women. Without revealing that she is bound by God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants, Esther makes it to the finals and wins the rose. King Ahasuerus makes her his new queen.
Like a Toddlers and Tiaras parent, Esther’s Uncle Mordecai is waiting at the palace to learn the outcome of the contest. While there, he overhears two men plotting to kill the king. As soon as Esther becomes queen, he reveals the conspiracy to her, and she passes it on to her husband. The two men planning to kill King Ahasuerus are investigated, found to be guilty and executed as traitors to the state. Of course, all this is documented in the palace records.
Esther is now queen, but there is a cloud on the horizon. Haman, one of the king’s top advisors, has noticed that her uncle Mordecai refuses to bow to him when he passes by. Haman figures out that Mordecai is one of the people of Israel. His religion teaches him to reverence God alone. So Haman decides that all the people of Israel, all those who worship God rather than the king, must die. He convinces King Ahasuerus to write an edict that on a certain day, his subjects must destroy, kill, and annihilate the people of Israel – young and old, even women and children.
It is a declaration of intent to commit genocide. Not the first such declaration made against the Jewish people, and as we know to our sorrow, also not the last.
No one inside the palace knows that Queen Esther is one of the people of Israel. Her uncle comes to her and asks her to help her people. He urges her to go to the king and plead for the deliverance of her people. But she knows that if she goes into the king’s presence without being summoned, she could die. At first she refuses, seeking to save her life. But finally she agrees, saying, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
It is at this point that the story of Esther connects with the teaching from Jesus for today: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… if your eye…, tear it out… ”
In this lesson, Jesus is teaching us what really matters. Jesus wants us to know that nothing matters more than loving God. Not even a hand, not even a foot, not even an eye is more important than a relationship with God. Not even life itself matters more.
When we reach out our hand for what we should not have, when our feet take us where we should not go, when our eyes look at what we should not see, that is sin. The word “sin” means missing the point: missing that we are created by God for God. We sin when our ego’s desires matter more than God’s desires for us. “But I want to!” is the cry not only of every two-year-old but also of every adulterer, thief, and murderer who has ever lived – and when I look at a pint of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk, it is my cry too. When we sin, we miss the point of our lives: to use our limited time on earth for good, for the glory of God.
Esther decides to live the will of God, even at the risk of death. She goes to King Ahasuerus and invites him to a party. That night, the king can’t sleep. What do you do when you can’t sleep? Read something boring! So he asks for the records of the palace to be read to him. Listening, King Ahasuerus discovers that the man who saved him from an assassination plot was never honored. He determines to give Mordecai the highest honor in the land.
The next day, he asks Haman for advice on how to honor someone. Fixated on his own vainglory, Haman thinks the king intends to honor him. He thinks of what he wants and says, “Let him wear the royal robes and a royal crown and let it be proclaimed, ‘This is the man the king wishes to honor!’” Fine, says the king, go do this for Mordecai, right away. Haman, whose hatred for Mordecai spawned a genocidal plot, finds himself leading Mordecai through the city square and honoring him as the man who saved the king.
At the party that night, King Ahasuerus says to Queen Esther, “What would you like? What can I give you?” She asks simply for her life and the life of her people, telling him that they have been sold to be destroyed. Ahasuerus asks who plotted her people’s death, and Esther points to Haman. By the end of the story Haman is swinging from the gallows on which he had planned to kill Mordecai, and the people of Israel are free to worship God in peace.
All this happens because Esther risks her life. She puts aside her fear for her mortal flesh. Though she is the highest woman in the land, she places her faith not in her position, but in her God. She demonstrates her love of God by boldly speaking truth to power, no matter the cost. This is our call as well – as James reminds us, our sins are forgiven, giving us the chance to begin again. We are to do as Esther does and more besides, remembering that Christ came for us, giving up his mortal flesh for our eternal life.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.