Before Esther Comes Vashti – 6/26/08 – Esther 1

This sermon was preached at the Central District Conference annual gathering on 6/26/08 and also at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship on 6/29/08

This summer at Cincinnati Mennonite we’re taking up a special offering. We’re asking people to carefully consider what portion of their government rebate checks they do not need to spend of save, and to give, generously, to this offering. At the end of the summer we’ll give away all of what we collect together, ½ internationally to the work that MCC is doing with the global food crisis and half locally, to the St. Vincent de Paul Society and food pantry in our Oakley neighborhood that we support. I’ve appreciated the letters and essays from conference and denominational leaders who have put out this challenge. Given the gracious gift of an economic stimulus package and charged with the mission of going out and spending it on consumer goods, we have put our own Holy Spirit spin on the situation and considered it a generosity stimulus package, with the mission of redistributing the wealth to those most in need around us and around the world. Since we have been told by the government that the money is best used when it is in our hands and not theirs, we are playfully taking this theory at its own word and deciding ourselves that the money is best spent on those who are struggling, for whatever reason, to meet their basic living needs.

This is a small, but significant act of discipleship. It involves a refusal to accept cultural norms as they are handed to us — to question what is being asked of us and to weigh this against what our faith asks of us. It also involves the creation of an alternative path. Asking how the creative energy of the Holy Spirit might inspire us make another way that is good news for others and ourselves.

These two dynamics, the holy refusal, and the creation of an alternative way, are central to what is going on in the story of Queen Vashti in the first chapter of Esther.

The book of Esther is in the same genre as the Genesis story of Joseph and the book of Daniel – Jews in positions of power in a foreign court. Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, and Esther in Persia, three of the dominant empires of the Ancient Near East. These stories are being told by a people who were in the process of discovering that their mission as a people was not so much tied up into them having and maintaining and defending a land of their own, but that the core of who they were called to be was something that was highly transportable, mobile – a blessing to all nations and a light to the Gentiles, agents of healing wherever they may be. The original doctors without borders. And that this God of theirs who ruled with justice and mercy was not just a tribal deity contained within a single culture, but was rather a cosmopolitan, multinational, borderless Spirit who was captive to no empire, and who called for right living and humility from all people.

As Mennonite Church USA we have been led recently to turn our attention toward the kinds of questions that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther ask of us. Many of us may still have ringing in our ears the powerful sermon delivered by Jennifer Davis Sensinig at the convention in San Jose last summer. She chose the Joseph story as a basis for challenging our denomination to recognize our place of power and privilege as citizens of a global economic and military superpower, and, to enlist in the mission of God’s mission that operates under the power of righteousness, justice, truth-telling, and peace. At the same convention delegates passed a “Resolution of National Identity” that asks us to recognize the “promise and peril” of “living in what many consider to be the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.” It extends the challenge and the question of what is required of us as Christ-followers in this setting, at this time.

I take it that the theme of this gathering is a part of our effort, as congregations of a regional conference, to continue to look at these challenges together – this time with Esther as our guide.

The story of Esther takes place while the Jews were living under the reign of the Persian Empire, 100, perhaps even 200 years after their exile out of Judah, into Babylon. Those first generations of exiles had spent much of their psychological energy in a state of lament and longing for a return home. They were victims of forced migration, displaced persons. The spirit of these early exiles is captured well in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down, there we wept, when we remembered Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

By the time we get to Esther, we are hearing from the great-great-great, great grandchildren of these original exiles. Like other empires before it, Babylon had come and gone, and Persia was now running the show. Many of the Jews had the opportunity to return home, back to Judah, because of a decree by the early Persian king Cyrus. Many of the Jews also chose to stay where they had settled, scattered throughout the Near East. They had taken the prophet Jeremiah’s advice to build houses and plant gardens and make a new home. They had learned to sing in a foreign land. And so the question that the book of Esther is addressing, is not “When are we going home?” but rather, “Now that this is home, how then should we live?” And not only “How should we live?” but “how should we live now that we are coming into positions of power in this superpower society?” Sounds oddly familiar.

Interestingly, the story of Esther does not begin with Esther. She’ll come along soon enough, win the king’s favor, and land right in the middle of a position of great power. But before this queen, we are introduced to another queen, Vashti, who occupied the same social space before Esther.

The order that we meet these two characters is important and allows them to compliment and fulfill each other. Before Esther, before one can faithfully be in the place of power, must come Vashti, who refused to allow the demands of the position to invade and colonize her humanity, and who created an alternative path in how she exercised her authority.

Let’s take a closer took at Vashti:

Esther Chapter 1: As the story begins, Ahasuerus, Sovereign of Persia, is throwing a serious party, lasting 180 days. And then when this half year of partying is over, he’s not quite ready to stop the festivities so he gives a large banquet for all the people of the royal citadel lasting seven more days. The narrative goes to great lengths to describe the extravagance of the events. It says in vv. 6 and 7 “there were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones. Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king.” This is definitely a hip party, the place where anybody who is somebody would like to be.

In verse 9 we get one of only two mentions of Queen Vashti. A short, simple description coming after the details of the King’s extravagant feast: “Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.” Vashti initiates an alternative gathering for the women.

Well, things are going quite well for the king. He rules the entire known world, he’s been partying for half a year, and it is now the final and climactic day of his seven day banquet. What will be the fireworks to put an end to these festivities? The king has planned this out perfectly. He has saved the best for last. All the beauty of his palace can’t match the beauty of his prize wife, Queen Vashti. He has planned for her to come out and parade her beauty in front of everyone, a glorious ending to a glorious event. He sends his attendants to fetch her away from her woman party to perform for the men. Of course, it is the expectation of everyone that she, the leading woman of the land, will perform as commanded — accepting her role as dictated by the king, submitting whatever desires she may have to those of her master. If he wants her to look pretty, she’ll look pretty. If he wants her to dance, she’ll dance. If he wants her to bow down to him, she’ll bow low and humbly.

But little did the king and his guests know that Vashti was a proto-Anabaptist. In V. 12 we get the second of two actions of the Queen. Her first was throwing a parallel banquet for the women. Her second action: “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.” She decided she wasn’t going to be what was expected of her. She refused, said no to the king and yes to a higher source of authority. Yes herself, yes to her community of women.

Well, this is not good, not good all. At the blink of an eye, or the absence of a batting of an eye, the king is enraged. This is outrageous, this is preposterous, this is… surely illegal. V. 13, he quickly calls together his sages who know the laws. Help, what can we do? My wife won’t obey my every word. She refused to come out at my command. My party is ruined. This is a serious problem.

Oh yes, quite serious indeed agree his advisors. The middle of V. 16, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.” The men put their heads together for proper damage control, to put out this potential wildfire of women across the empire not playing by the rules and standing up for themselves. Step 1, banish the queen and find another to fill her place. Step 2, quoting from V. 22, The king “sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”

Thus ends chapter one of Esther.

Clearly, Vashti is a dangerous person. Dangerous in the same way as the Egyptian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who refused to obey their Sovereign Pharoah and harm any of those Hebrew babies; dangerous in the same way as Mordechai, later in this story, who would not bow down to the high official Haman; in the same way Jesus was a threat to the religious authorities who sought to control the code of who’s in and who’s out; in the same way that the Anabaptists found it Christianly impossible to attach themselves with full loyalty to the demands of the state, and focused on creating an alternative community that lived under the law of Christ. Dangerous in the same way that any community in our time continues to refuse to be dehumanized and dispirited. Not being what is expected of them and taking their cues of identity from another source.

Vashti has cracked open a holy, at times dangerous, space in the midst of empire and invites anyone who wishes to dwell alongside her to do so.

Should Anabaptism ever choose to have saints, we would have to name Vashti as a matron saint of the movement. Her one nonaction and her one positive action are two themes that run throughout our faith story and have helped define the core of our identity. And they fit well into our historical two kingdom theology. We know about refusal to return evil for evil toward persecutors, refusal take our primary cues for living from the dominant culture, refusal to participate in the military and take another human life in the name of national defense. We know about living in an alternative community with an alternative consciousness, creating new structures for service and stewardship and outreach, congregations and institutions for discipleship and faith formation. This is familiar territory, even if we haven’t always done it very well. These will always be a core challenge, absolutely central, for any community who strives to live faithfully.

But there is an even greater challenge at hand. Without leaving any of this behind, while still working to become better refusers and alternative community builders, we find ourselves already in a Post-Vashti situation. Unable to simply not participate. Whether we like it or not, we have moved beyond chapter one of the book and are looking squarely at what it means to live the other 90%, chapters 2-10. Esther in the place of power, confronted with all the ambiguities, questions, and struggles of conscious that go along with occupying that space. The young woman formerly known as the orphan Hadasseh and now known as Queen of Persia. Having tremendous responsibility. Being in a position of great power and having the task of living righteously with power without losing sight of her mission and calling, which comes from God.

Having developed the art of refusal, and after working to create the alternative path, what do things look like now that we are adding to Vashti the experience of Esther?

Fortunately for me, I’ve only been asked to speak about Vashti. I get to help us get oriented and introduce all the hard questions and then let Cyneatha and Chuck and Gwen provide some answers in the next couple days.

But aside from offering that Vashti must come first, that we must first learn from her before we can really take on the position of Esther, I do offer one other suggestion for how to move forward, that also comes from this evening’s text.

That suggestion is that we move forward with joy, playfulness, and even humor. These words themselves do not show up in the first chapter of Esther, but they are the spirit that undergirds the entire story. The author, whoever he or she may be, is laughing while writing chapter one. Satire, irony, hyperbole and flat out funniness characterize the way this story is being communicated to us. The overall story of Esther is one in which the very life on an entire nation is in danger, yet the method of beginning the story is one of humor. By humor we aren’t talking about shallowness, or an escape from reality. We are talking about a holy humor that looks reality straight in the eyes and declares that what it sees is the presence of God’s joy that speaks a more powerful word than despair.

Edwin Freedman talks about the sure sign of a system being stuck being when everyone is deadly serious. When people lose their ability to see humor in a situation, they lose their ability to heal.

Shane Claiborne tells about what he and his Simple Way community in Philadelphia have learned to do in their neighborhood whenever a serious fight breaks out amongst neighbors. As soon as he hears the shouts and screams of the fight on the streets he runs and gets his clowning gear, juggling pins and bottles of bubbles. The strategy is to go out on the street and upstage the violence with the playfulness of a circus act. The crowd is attracted to these strange people doing bazaar things on their street and lose interest in the fight. It works.

It’s our hope that our generosity stimulus plan at Cincinnati Mennonite is a part of this spirit. Playfully drawing attention toward the possibilities of how Christian community and discipleship can create hopefulness – doing the fresh and unexpected rather than getting caught up in the negative commotion. Playfulness provides hope because it places us within the joy of God for creation.

My own experience with the power of playfulness has made me see the words of Psalm 2 in a whole new light. “The kings of the earth set themselves against the Lord and the Lord’s anointed. The One who sits in heaven laughs. God will speak to them in wrath.” Perhaps the wrath of God against the evil of the nations is a deep cosmos-shaking-laugh that demonstrates the triumph of joy over despair.

The book Road Signs for the Journey that reports and interprets the findings of the 2006 denominational member profile offers the story of Jeremiah as a model for how to consider our present situation. Jeremiah is not exactly known as the laughing prophet. Without negating the place of the weeping prophet, let’s add the playfulness of Esther 1 to how we proceed.

As we learn from Vashti and Esther in our time together this weekend, as we continue to struggle with what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ in 21st century United States of America, it is my hope that we will not forget to laugh with God, now and forever, and thereby be instruments of peace and communities of joy.