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.

Esther Part II

There is an ancient Jewish practice called midrash – a playful way of filling out a story by adding scenes and dialogue not present in the original.  The point of midrash isn’t to try and replace or contradict the original story, but to explore new ways that characters and themes of the story may have relevance in the present time.  In her book Caretakers of Our Common House, Carol Lakey Hess makes midrash with an imaginative encounter between Queen Vashti and Queen Esther, after the first queen has been deposed and before the second queen has made a decision of how to respond to the threat of her people being destroyed.  Hess imagines that although the women were quite different, and chose different ways of obeying their conscience, they were allies in their desire to preserve the integrity of their humanity.  So by way of revisiting the character of Vashti and introducing the character of Esther, listen now to this midrash:  

——————– (reading)

A little over two weeks ago leaders from the world’s most powerful nations gathered for the 33rd G8 summit.  Inside diplomats and heads of state worked with issues such as climate change, AIDS relief in Africa, global poverty reduction, and missile defense.  Pledges were made for certain relief efforts.  A non-binding statement was issued for addressing greenhouse emissions – 50% reduction by 2050.  Tony Blair called that statement a “major, major step forward.”  Outside the meeting was a gathering of demonstrators and protestors from around the world.  These groups used signs, costumes, and street theater to get their message across that they were not happy with what was and wasn’t going on inside the meetings.  One of these groups, Oxfam International, had a group of 8 people dressed up as the leaders of the eight nations with each having a long extended nose like Pinnochio.  Their message was that the leaders were continuing to lie about how much aid they were actually giving to poverty and aids relief efforts.  One sign showed the large letters G-8 with the 8 being an hourglass with the sand almost emptied from the top.  They were expressing that time is running out for the health of our planet and many of the world’s poorest and sickest people.

                The book of Esther tells of two queens in the court of the Persian Empire.  An empire that, at the time, ruled the entire known world.  Recently we took a look at the story of the first queen, Queen Vashti, in chapter one.  Vashti is credited with two actions, each giving an insight into her character.  Her first action was to throw a banquet for the women of the kingdom, an alternative banquet to the one that the king and his men were throwing in the palace.  Her second action was her refusal to come at the king’s command when he wanted her to dance and show off her beauty to impress his guests.  This refusal of hers sets off a firestorm of paranoia among the king and his advisors.  With a strong dose of satire the narrator describes the men plotting how they can save the entire empire from the dreaded event of other women starting to stand up for themselves in their own houses.  They decide they must banish Vashti from being queen and must send letters to every house in the empire commanding that the men be masters of their own house. 

Had Vashti been at the G8 Summit, she would have been one of those on the outside of the meetings, a strong voice of protest for the abuses of power and the hollow ring of the spin coming out of the mouths of national leaders.  She didn’t buy into the world the king was trying to maintain.  She refused to participate in a system where some were masters of the house and some were expected to submit all of their self to the will of that master.  So she protested.  She held banquets where women ate together and shared freely about their own concerns, and she refused to live under the status quo of her culture.

                But most of the book of Esther is about the second queen, one very different than Vashti.  A young woman who entered the Miss Persian Empire contest hosted by the king and got the kings vote as the most beautiful woman of the land.  She was the one who replaced Vashti in the royal court, someone the king supposed would be more to his liking of what a queen should be.  And in many ways, at least initially, she does seem to play the part.  Esther’s place, her personality, and her calling really, was to be one who would have been on the inside of the G8 summit.  Mingling with the heads of state, inserting her opinion and advice into the mix of policy proposals.  Having real power within a system that was corrupted and being a presence within that system to work for good.     

                During Esther’s reign the leading issue of the day was quite personal for her.  Haman, the arrogant second in command of the kingdom had convinced the king to issue a decree that the Jewish people should be wiped out, eliminated from the empire.  Their crime came from a man named Mordechai, who happened to be Esther’s uncle, who wouldn’t bow down to Haman when he passed by.  There is humor and satire throughout the book, especially around the arrogance of the king, his officials, Haman in particular, but this issue is a rather sobering one.  With memories of the devastation of the Holocaust still strong in our day, and with the recent genocide of Rwanda and the current events of Darfur, the efforts to wipe out or silence an entire people is not just a distant tale. 

So Esther finds herself in a precarious position.  She is on the inside of the power matrix, but unbeknownst to the king and Haman, she carries with her the concerns of the outsiders.  What is a Jewish Queen to do, an insider with an outsider’s perspective?   

                Maybe Esther did go to Vashti at night to get advice.  A sister to sister session of conspiracy to protect women and men against senseless destruction.  Midrash is a fun way of exploring where a story could have gone.  If she didn’t go in person she certainly went in spirit.  Looking for role models and examples of how to act with strength and integrity.  But the turning point in the official story that we have comes during a conversation between her and her uncle Mordechai.  It seems that the Jews only real hope is that Esther make a move that could very well cause her to be the first casualty of the slaughter – appear before the king unannounced and unrequested in an attempt to win over his favor and thereby save herself and Mordechai and all their fellow Jews.  For good reason, Esther is not exactly jumping to do this.  Mordechai’s closing words to her, however, present the argument that seals it in her mind that this is something she must do.  After describing the gravity of the situation, uncle Mordechai says to his niece, Esther, the queen, and I love how the NRSV phrases it, “Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Who knows?  Maybe winning the beauty contest was about a little more than just winning a beauty contest.  Who knows?  Perhaps you being in a position of power, a place of influence, on the inside of key decision making processes, maybe there’s some kind of broader calling at work here and now is the time to take all the gifts you’ve been given and use them for good.  Who knows, my niece Esther, your majesty, maybe all of my work in raising you since you were a young girl was so I could let you go to do your own work, and maybe right about now is when that work for you to do, that only you can do, has arrived in front of you.  For such a time as this.   

Esther’s response is resolute.  “Then Esther said in reply to Mordechai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day.  I and my maids will also fast as you do.  After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’

One of the most notable aspects of the book of Esther isn’t something that is in the story, but something that is missing from the story.  Esther is the only book of the Bible not to mention the name of God.  God, by name, is nowhere to be found in any of the verses and chapters.  The name of God does not come off the lips of Esther or Mordechai or the king, or Queen Vashti, and is not used by the narrator.  Everything that happens is credited to human agency.  There are plenty of chances for God to get at least an honorable mention.  The narrator could have said “But God gave Queen Vashti the strength to refuse the king’s orders.”  But the story just says, “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.”  Mordechai could have prayed that God would intervene and deliver the Jews from being destroyed, but instead he went to Queen Esther asking for her intervention, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  There could have been a short scene with Queen Esther getting a visitation by an angel telling her exactly what God wanted her to do, but there is no such scene.  She makes the decision that she will go before the king and ask that her people be spared.  There is no sign of having divine reassurance that everything will turn out alright.  She knows she is acting against the law.  She knows her life and all the Jews’ lives are in danger.  But she is still resolute in her decision.  She says, “if I perish, I perish.” 

The story of Esther carries with it an overarching theme of human responsibility.  As hard as it may be to swallow at times, we carry with us a responsibility for helping to shape our world.  Esther had a real decision to make, and her decision had real consequences on real people.  She had real power, and with that power she realized that she had real responsibility.  She had no guarantee of success.  But she did, at that crucial point, accept, in the words of Mordechai, that she had come to be who she was, where she was, for just such a time as this.   

I used to read a column in a weekend magazine called “Ask Marilyn.”  I haven’t seen it in the Enquirer Sunday paper, but I may be missing it.  Marilyn Vos Savant has one of the highest IQs of anyone alive, and people write into her column with all these math puzzles and word riddles for her to try and solve.  Of course, the ones she prints she has a 100% success rate, so it confirms that she is indeed brilliant.  But one time I remember someone asking her the question:  “In your opinion, what makes a person wise?”  A good question.  I was curious to see how she might think of the difference between between smart and being wise.  She answered in one sentence.  I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something to the effect of “A person is wise if they are able to interpret what are the most important issues of their own day and to act accordingly.”  “A person is wise if they are able to interpret what are the most important issues of their day and to act accordingly.” 

In this wise response, I hear the echoes of that phrase, “Perhaps you are who you are, having what you have been given, for just such a time as this.”   

                Most people never get the opportunity to have the ear of a king or to make it inside a G8 summit, but in this incredibly complex web of relatedness that is contemporary life, where we are all connected and where, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “what affects one directly, affects all indirectly” we all have the gift of responsibility of caring for what is most important.  Our families, our church community, our city, our earth, our small plot of land.  We are all on the inside of making key decisions about how our world is being formed.

It is our gift, our opportunity, our joy, to be given responsibility to live in such a time as this.  A responsibility that is ours not because God is somehow absent or silent or distant or uninvolved.  But because God is so present within us that it is our very hands that act as the hands of God in this world.  Our very bodies inhabited by the Spirit of creation who calls us to participate in continuing to create the world.  Co-creators with Christ whose love makes all things new.  The urge of Divine compassion, expressing itself through us, multiplying itself among us.  God may often be absent in name, but never in presence.    

                I’m not sure if it has come with having a baby, or from reading certain authors — or what it is that is bringing this about, but I am becoming more and more convinced that everything we do, no matter how small, is of great worth.  That pouring love into a small child, or planting your own herbs to eat and enjoy, or getting to know your neighbors, or making any kind of decision based on concern for the common good and not just self gain – that every time we accept that we are where we are for such a time as this – that this is the way hope is kept alive and the way we become truly human.  That positive change doesn’t primarily happen in a linear cause and effect way, but jumps out in multiple directions in unpredictable patterns.  The issues of our time are massive, but we need not wait on those with power to shape up before we can truly live.  “Who knows?  Perhaps each of us have great power each day to be the presence of God in our world.” 

Esther Part I: “Queen Vashti Refused…” – 6,10,07

A couple weeks ago I put out an invitation for people to share with me a story or passage from the Old Testament that has been meaningful to them in some way.  With the recent Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, the liturgical Christian year has come to an end.  From Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter our readings are dominated by the New Testament and specifically the Gospels through the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ.  But now, after Pentecost, we are in what is often called “ordinary time.”  Until the next Advent season begins, our worship times will center on the ordinary, or not so ordinary, life of discipleship.  Since we’re less tied to any certain particular theme, I thought we could explore some of the stories from the Old Testament that don’t get as much mention in a worship setting.  Of course, there are reasons why some of these stories don’t get much mention during a church service.  The Old Testament is full of people, mostly men, doing things that aren’t always exactly exemplary.  Not to mention that God is often portrayed as being the most violent of them all.  There are plenty of stories in the Old Testament where it is hard to find good news.  Last Sunday after the service I was talking with someone out in the forum area and she said that she had read my email requesting Old Testament stories but hadn’t responded yet.  The reason?  “I don’t like the Old Testament!” she said.  OK, fair enough.  I imagine she is not alone in not having much of a taste for this part of the Bible.  My goal is not to convert anyone to loving all things Old Testament, but I do hope to make some meaningful connections between these stories and our lives and maybe, just maybe uncover a few surprises with how these Scriptures can speak to us. One of the wonderful aspects of the Old Testament is that the story of humanity is getting told from the perspective of the losers.  This is a grand exception to way things usually get remembered.  Like the phrase “history is written by the winners.”  In the Scriptures, we hear the voice of the weak and the powerless and we come to know of a God who takes particular interest in them.  Instead of hearing the propaganda of the mighty ancient empires of the East, we follow the story of the lone wondering family of Abraham and Sara who leave the empire to become a different sort of people.  Instead of being in awe of the dominance of the Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire, we are in awe of a little band of slaves led by Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, who escape captivity and are given laws that command them to have compassion on the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan.  When the Hebrews set up their own nation and have their own king, we hear mainly not from the spin machine of the royal courts, but from the prophets – Amos, Hosea, Micah — who are openly critical of the injustice and lack of compassion in the nation.     The voice in the Psalms is almost always the voice of the one who has little power, surrounded by troubles and crying out to God.  When the nation is destroyed and the Jews go into exile, we get more stories of how a supposedly “defeated people” find their way and work to remain faithful to God in their new setting. There is a certain mentality that the Scriptures are working to form within us:  pay attention to those on the margins, listen to the voices of those with little power, when you stand with the most vulnerable, you are standing with God.  A couple of you have written back and mentioned the book of Esther as having significance for you, and this is where we’ll begin.  And we’ll begin with the beginning of Esther, chapter one.  You’re welcome to open your Bibles to the book of Esther if you’d like, on page 437 in the Bibles in the pews. Esther is a fairly late book and takes place after the exile while the Jews were living under the rule of a foreign king of the Persian empire.  Esther is one of two Old Testament books named for a woman, the other being Ruth.  The culture that the book of Esther came out of was highly male dominated, but the book begins with some satire on whether or not men have quite as much control as they may think.  In hearing this story we may want to have this question in mind:  What kinds of cultural expectations were there for women in this culture and how does the queen respond to these expectations?          Chapter 1: Before Esther even shows up, there is another queen who takes center stage:  Queen Vashti.  As the story begins, King Ahasuerus 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 everybody who is somebody would like to be.In verse 9 we get one of only two mentions of Queen Vashti.  A short, simple description.  “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.       Pause the story for a minute and think about some of our present day cultural expectations for women.  Queen Vashti had a whole host of cultural expectations she was expected to fulfill.  What kinds of expectations do girls and women today face?  In her book Caretakers of our Common House, Carol Lakey Hess addresses this question.  Under the heading “Women and Depression: Female Caring and Loss of Self she writes: “In her study of women and depression, Dana Jack found that when women try to fit into the roles of ‘wife’ and ‘good woman,’ defined by society as self-sacrificing… and oriented to the needs of others, they ‘run the risk of self-alienation and inauthenticity,’ precursors to depression.  In her tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless profound article, ‘Why I want a wife,’ Judy Syfers describes a moment of revelation she had one evening while ironing.  A friend who was looking for a wife came by, and it suddenly occurred to her that she too ‘would like to have a wife.’  Why?  A talented woman who had been dissuaded from graduate school by her male teachers, she visioned a wife who would pick up the pieces for her as so many wives did for male professionals.  She lists in detail all the caring duties a wife is expected to perform, ranging from good cooking to supporting her husband’s career development to nurturing the children to denying her own needs, (often while also holding a profession of her own).  Her list is striking because it so clearly captures the ideal.  Whether or not women live up to it, it is the standard by which they and others will measure themselves.  Syfers ends with the stunning questions: ‘My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?”End of quote.                  This captures some of the cultural expectations our society has for women today. All expectations point toward Queen Vashti accepting her role as commanded 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 in V. 12 we get the second of two actions of the Queen.  Her first was throwing a 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.  Period, no more details.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 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. Despite the satire and the subversive nature of this chapter, the spirit of patriarchy has stayed strong in how this passage has been interpreted.  Queen Vashti is usually made to appear to be a villain, not submitting to her husband, who is the king, by the way.  How dare she?  She is a dangerous figure who threatens those seeking to keep order in this world.  But more recently some are finding in Queen Vashti a true hero of integrity.  She has a strong enough sense of self to refuse to go along with the cultural expectations placed on her.  She is indeed dangerous to those who like the order of the world and would like to see it stay the same.  Queen Vashti is dangerous in the same way as the other people on the margins of history that Scripture recalls.  Dangerous in the same way the Israelite slaves were a threat to the power of Pharaoh; dangerous in the same way as Mordechai, later in the story, who would not bow down to the high official Haman; in the same way Jesus was dangerous to the religious authorities who sought to control the code of who’s in and who’s out.  Dangerous in the same way that Rosa Parks refused to go along with the order of the day, not moving from occupying a social space on a bus where she was not welcome.  The mentality that the scriptures seek to form in us calls us to pay special attention not to the will of the reigning monarch, but to those whose voices have typically been under the radar screen of power.   In Caretakers of our Common House, Carol Lakey Hess begins with this story about Vashti and holds her up as a model for shaping our imaginations of healthy womanhood.  She writes, “The loss of self for women is a quiet thing.  Had Queen Vashti disregarded her own feelings and submitted to the will of King Ahasuerus, the resulting loss of herself would have occurred ever so quietly.  No one would have noticed…obedience to husband, social convention, and other authorities is often thought more important than woman’s obedience to her inner call to integrity.”  She goes on to write about the opportunity for our communities to encourage healthy development of girls and women.  Having a daughter herself, she poses this question:   “Can caring families and communities of faith, specifically the church, make a difference in the outcome of my daughter’s development and in the development of other girls and women?” (p. 14).     Surely this is part of our mission as a congregation.  A place where girls can develop a strong and healthy sense of selfhood and a place, a place where the only expectations are that we all grow into a fullness of who God has created us to be, a place where women and men can learn not to be masters of a house, but in the words of Carol Hess’s book, “Caretakers of our common house”  Queen Vashti took an important path in her refusal to bow to the cultural expectations placed on her.  And so the guardians of the status quo took away her title of queen.  Hers is a path of courage and strength.  The rest of the book of Esther is about a woman of equal courage who took a somewhat different path.  Esther looked more like a traditional player in the scheme of things.  She entered the beauty pageant that they king hosted, and she replaced Vashti as queen.  And she is remembered as one who used her power to save her people.  So next time we look at Esther and her path.