Sermon for Sunday, 1st October 2006 at Saint Matthias’ Church
“So they hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai” Esther 7:10
One of the books we read in our parish book club was Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a book of both extraordinary beauty and hideous ugliness. Set in Afghanistan against the background of the rise to power of the appalling Taliban regime, it pulls no punches in its description of the atrocities carried out by the Taliban in the pursuit of their beliefs. It includes a graphic description of a man and woman being stoned to death in a football stadium during the half time interval at a match attended by many thousands. Khaled Hosseini’s words inspire a sense of revulsion at such a horrifying corruption of humanity.
I have similar difficulties when I read the book of Esther. It is an unpleasant account of an unpleasant time in Israel’s history, filled with conspiracy and violence. It is a unique book in the Bible in that the name of God is not mentioned once. It creeps into our Sunday readings once every three years, some people would think that was once too often.
The book describes experience of the Jews in Persia during the years they spent in exile in the Sixth Century BC. Haman, a powerful politician within the Babylonian empire has plotted genocide against the Jewish exiles. Esther the Jewish leader has gained the confidence of the king and is able to turn the tables on Haman. He is hanged and the Jews use the opportunity of power to kill thousands of their enemies, chapter nine says that 75,000 died. At the conclusion of our reading we are told that Mordecai wrote that these days should be celebrated each year with feasting and joy. This is grim stuff; imagine sitting down to a meal to celebrate wholesale slaughter.
Why read Esther? Because I think it brings us face to face with the realities of the world.
The Church becomes easily disconnected from the world. The world of people like Haman and Esther and Mordecai, the world that fills our television screens on the Six.-One News, the world that leaps out us from the world news pages of the ‘Irish Times’, is often completely absent from the thoughts of the Church.
I don’t have a problem with the Church being a place where people can retreat from the world, a place where they can find quietness away from all the noise of the world outside. There are plenty of times when Jesus goes off to find a time and a place for quietness and prayer and reflection.
But the reason why Jesus went off to find quietness was so that he could face the world with renewed strength. The Church seems happy to retreat into its own concerns and to avoid completely the realities of what is going on around. This is the opposite of what God does, in Jesus God moves from the detachment of infinity to become directly involved in the gritty reality of life in First Century Palestine.
Reading the book of Esther is good for us not because it inspires any uplifting or spiritual thoughts but because it calls us back to the reality of the world that Jesus came to save.
Esther’s story from more than two and a half thousand years ago deals with the themes of political power and intrigue, it deals with conspiracy and manipulation, it deals with racism and genocide, it deals with sex and violence. These are themes that confront us today every bit as much as they confronted Esther and Mordecai all those years ago. They faced a life and a world that was not pleasant, that was not friendly, that was not genteel, and they dealt with that world according to the standards and the beliefs of the time. Their response was to secure the hanging of Haman and to authorise a wholesale purge by the Jews against anyone who had been a threat to them. These were the standards set down in the books of the Law and found in the history of their people, this is how their forefathers had dealt with their enemies.
There would be many Christians who would agree with Esther and Mordecai. Go to the United States, there would be people in many of the churches there who would feel it was fine to see one’s enemy hanged and who would support the wholesale destruction of anyone who opposed them. They do it in more efficient ways nowadays, B-52 bombers and Cruise missiles are far more effective than swords and spears.
We might not agree with them, but the one thing they are doing is bringing their faith into direct confrontation with the realities of the world. There would be conservative fundamentalist preachers who would pick up the Bible and they would point out chapter and verse in support of what was happening. The chapter and verse might be from the Old Testament and it might be directly against what Jesus taught, but no-one could accuse them of shying away from reality.
As Christians we are meant to bring our faith to bear on the society in which we live. Jesus says in the Gospel reading that we are meant to be like salt, to preserve what is good and to keep away what is rotten and corrupt.
It’s easier to keep our heads down, to concern ourselves with our own business, with our own internal church affairs. The book of Esther is a sobering reminder that we live in an evil and corrupt world. As God’s people we are meant to respond. “Have salt in yourselves”, says Jesus. Be the people who guard against rottenness and corruption.
Next time you pick up the paper, next time you switch on the news, remember Esther.