Around March every year, we get see Mordecai’s words lived out that the Jewish people “keep holy days, year by year, to remember when sorrow turned into gladness and mourning into a holiday.” On the Jewish Holiday of Purim, I get to see my little nephews and their cousins dressed as the foolish King, or the courageous Esther or that evil Haman. In the synagogues the story of Esther is read in its entirety, and people use noisemakers to blot out Haman’s name whenever it’s said, just as Haman had hoped to blot out the Jewish people. Minus the noisemakers, thanks to our readers, we got a taste a public reading of this story today. It is the story of how the most unlikely of heroines, in the most unlikely of places, overturns the corrupt powers of the day to save God’s people – but it has not been without its controversies. That the heroine is a woman –a seemingly non-observant Jewish woman — is bad enough. But then there is the fact that nothing is as it seems or as it should be – the king hides his foolishness behind his power and temper; Haman hides his trickery; Esther hides her Jewish identity. And hardest of all: Where is God? Apart from Solomon’s Song of Song’s, this is the only book in the whole Bible where God is not explicitly referenced once. It tells the story of one of the most critical moments of Jewish history, and in the face of this greatest of threats, God seems to hiding too – maybe even absent. What are we to make of that? Let’s pray:
Holy God, Do not be absent from us Grant us understanding, and open our hearts and minds, that we might see your face and your truth ever more fully. AMEN.
Where God is; How God works; How we know God’s presence… are questions that evolve through our lives, and go to the heart of our faith. They are some of the earliest questions we ask as children.
I was reminded of a story I was told by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who has been for a rabbi at Congregation Beth El-Zedeck in Indiapolis for nearly 40 years. She often gets question from the teachers at the synagogue and recalls one 3rd grade teachers who came into her office desperate one day with a list of questions from the kids that she had no idea how to answer. Questions like, “Where does God live?,” “How can God be everywhere at once,” “If we can’t see God, how do we know God is there?,” “Where in the world is God anyway?”
Sasso agreed to go to the classroom and decided that rather than give the children answers, she would give them a story: An ancient Jewish story of elderly man who attended the Syngogue every Sabbath and faithfully fell asleep for every sermon. One day, he woke briefly from his slumber to hear the Rabbi say, “God likes 12 loaves of bread.” Why God would want 12 loaves of bread the man didn’t know, he wasn’t awake for that part, but he said, “okay God, if that’s what you want…” and he went home and baked 12 loaves of Sabbath Challah Bread, and he brought them to the synagogue. Wanting to put them in the holiest place, he opened the ARK in the temple where the Torah and sacred scrolls were kept, placed the loaves inside and went home. A few minutes later, the synagogue custodian entered and stopped to pray saying, “Holy God, I don’t want to ask for much, but I am poor and my family is so hungry. Have mercy on us.”
And as he opened the Ark to clean it for the Sabbath and found the bread saying, “God, who knew you worked so quickly!” The next day was Sabbath again, and the elderly man eagerly waited as the Rabbi opened the Ark to bring out the Torah, and seeing the bread gone, he said in amazement, “Holy God, you ate my bread! Who knew!? Next time I’ll make it with raisins.” So the next week, the elderly man brought more bread, this time with raisins, and the poor man found more bread, declaring, “Generous God, This time with raisins!” and fed his family. And this continued week after week… until, one day, the Rabbi caught on to what was happening, and decided after some indecision that yes, he needed to say something.
And he told the men what he had witness, saying, you see “God has not been eating the bread; and God has not been baking the bread.” “But now” he said, taking their hands, “I must ask you both to do something far more difficult. You must continue baking, and You must continue receiving, because your hands, and your hands are the hands of God; (and at this point Rabbi Sasso asked all the children, and I invite all of us, to lift our hands) because Your hands, and your hands and your hands are the hands of God.”
God Works in mysterious ways. Rabbi Sasso and Esther point to an important way of understanding God’s presence in the world, I think.
Last week, Christy shared the story of those courageous and faithful women who protected Moses as a baby – God’s troublemakers she called them. Esther doesn’t seem far off from these women, and yet her story is located in a very different time and place. Nearly 1000 years have passed since Moses led God’s people out of Egypt.
This time, it was not the Egyptians, but the Babylonians who came, decimating the Jewish kingdoms. Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar led the army that rolled over the top of Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s Temple – The temple that at that time, was one place the Jewish people we sure God resided on this earth, and it lay in a heap. In one of the most devastating episodes in Jewish history (and that is saying something), the Jewish people were rounded up en masse and sent into exile – some of them, like Esther and Mordecai’s family ending up in Susa. When the Persians came and supplanted the Babylonians, some Jews were allowed to go back to Jerusalem, but many, many more were stuck, living in exile, an often persecuted minority, far from their homeland and the heart of their faith. They were stuck in lives and places were nothing was as it should be according to God’s promises. A place, we can imagine, where it was hard to locate God.
Some Christian authors, in particular, paint Esther as a princess, or worse, as some sort of loose woman. But when I read this story again, I could not help but feel for this exiled Jewish orphan. She was possibly as young as 12 or 13, when this capricious, volatile and incredibly powerful king ordered that all beautiful young virgins be rounded up, taken from their families and kept in his harem. What must this have been like for Esther? We are told that Mordecai was worried enough about her that he visited her outside the harem every day to see how she was doing.
And then, after the whirlwind of becoming Queen, she receives this devastating news from Mordecai – that he, and all Jewish people old and young; women and children were all to be rounded up and violently executed, annihilated, on day. By the end of the story she herself knows what we know all along – that she is smart and strong and courageous, but as we see her desperately sending messages back and forth to Mordecai, she seems like anything but. If she goes to the King without being called, she will almost surely be killed; if she reveals herself as Jewish, she will even more likely be killed; and yet she knows she may be her people’s only hope of salvation.
It is on this precipice of almost certain death at the hands of corrupt and violent worldly powers; holding onto the impossible hope that she might save God’s people, that the ancient Rabbis tell us Esther prayed – not just any prayer, but the words of Psalm 22, including. We can picture her:
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”
I am poured out like water
a company of evildoers encircles me.
O Lord, do not be far away!?You who fear the Lord, praise him.?he did not hide his face from me,? but heard when I cried to him
If we take this psalm as truly coming from Esther, in the first half of her prayer, she calls out to God, lamenting his absence; in the second half, she seems almost to be invoking what she hopes will happen – That God will reveal his Face to her.
In the text in this moment, we seem to see Esther’s heart change, her eyes opened in some way to the possibility that it is indeed she who is being called to serve as God’s agent – God’s face is not so hidden; perhaps we see the Face of God in Esther. “Who knows” Says Mordecai, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
IF some of these words of Psalm 22 sound familiar, they should. The Gospel writers don’t assign Psalm 22 to Esther, but instead to Jesus, in his last moments on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” are Jesus’ words as he faces death, hanging on the precipice of overturning the corrupt powers and violence of the world, to save ALL God’s people in a way unimaginable. Surely in that moment, even as Jesus himself seems to point to God’s hiddenness, we see God’s face clearly in the face of Jesus.
Jesus is not Esther; and Esther is not Jesus – but there is something to be said for God’s consistent choices of unlikely agents in the world — the exiled Jewish orphan; the poor Jewish carpenter. It seems you never know where God’s face may turn up; You never know who God has planted in just the place and just the right time to make a difference. –Where do we see the face of God today?
The story of Esther and the question of God’s presence in the face of suffering takes on new relevance in every age – every time we see innocent victims of corruption, and violence and hatred; whenever we face pain or uncertainty in our own lives or in the lives of those we love.
As Christians, of course, we add another lens these questions – a lens that has everything to do with the words Grace and Incarnation; with our Church’s focus last year on living as the Body of Christ; our call as Christians to live as Christ’s Face, and Voice and Hands in the world.
As we look at the suffering in the world today – close to home and across the globe. We can remember this story – remember that land of exile, where nothing was as it was supposed to be; where openly living as a person of faith wasn’t alway easy, safe or clear-cut; where it wasn’t always clear where God was and what he is doing, particularly in the face of suffering and mixed-up, often violent, political and social systems. We can look to this story of Esther, and find courage.
And as we call out in the face of all suffering, “My God, My God, where are you?” Perhaps we can look around and find the face of God, not hidden, but in the last place we might think to look – the face of the orphan, the refugee, the everyday person soothing the crying child or standing up to wrongdoing; yes… BUT even and most especially, the face in the mirror. Perhaps, it is indeed EACH OF US who, like Esther, however unlikely it may seem, are the ones God has put in just the right place, at just the right time, not to hide, but to LIVE with Esther’s courage and wisdom in this world that is not yet as it should be. Because truly it is our hands; Your hands and your hands and my hands that are the hands of God; And it is in each of our Faces that we may come to see the Face of God in the world.