Unanxious Heroes for Uncertain Times: Esther
Never more than now had Lexie wished that her husband was still alive. About a year ago, after his death, she worked to figure out a way how to open her hair salon out of her house. Customers would come, and she could keep an eye on the kids when they were not in school. And then COVID hit. Her work was deemed non-essential, but the money that came in from that work was pretty essential for their survival! Thankfully, she was eligible for the stimulus unemployment. But she was already starting to hear the pushback…”welfare queen, feeding off the government…” She was terrified to start bringing people into her home again, especially with a daughter with asthma. But if those pushing back on stimulus got their way, she wouldn’t have money for too long. It was times like this she wished her husband was in the room to help her figure out what to do.
Larry figured it was time to go to bed. 2:30 am. Never before had he felt so much like he was back in college, though those days were fifty years behind him! But since the coronavirus hit, time seemed rather irrelevant. He was up all hours of the night, flipping back and forth between the cable news stations, trying to feel as though he were not alone. Golf buddies. Sunday school class. Family members. He hadn’t seen any of them in weeks. In a few hours, his weekly Friday morning Perkins group was meeting…on Zoom. He tried it a couple of weeks, but it wasn’t really the same. So, now he was a ship at float at sea, not sure where he would land.
Lisa glanced down at the clock on her screen. Another hour spent on social media…how quickly the time disappears! But it was time well spent, not having to think about her family. Lisa was a part of the sandwich generation, and both sides of bread were mad at her at once! Her kids were more than done with sheltering in place, but Lisa was concerned that if they got together, they wouldn’t be able to social distance enough to stay safe. Meanwhile, on the other end, her parents were pressuring her to bring the kids up to see them. They were much less worried about infection than she was, and wanted to see the grandkids, “you know, I don’t know how many more birthdays we are going to have, and we would love to see the kids while we can…” As the numbness of the scrolling through her feed wore off, she felt more and more stuck. More and more guilty. More and more alone.
We live in anxious times.
But these are not the first anxious times for the people of God.
“It’s good to be the king,” thought Ahasuerus. He and the nobles that surrounded him had been partying for the last seven days. Later, writers would say he was “merry with wine.” Truthfully, he was drunk off his gourd. Seven days of partying with the riches of the kingdom at his disposal make one more than merry. But now, on day seven, the nobles were starting to get restless. Ahasuerus always felt anxious around his nobles, wanting to make sure they knew that he was in charge and worthy of his title. He had an idea. The Queen must appear. Then they would see her beauty and he would raise all the higher in their estimation. “It’s good to be the king,” he thought as his servants went to fetch her.
Queen Vashti laughed as she looked around the room at her own party. The women had enjoyed each others’ company for just as many days. There was laughter and feasting and fun for days, until the nervous servant appeared at the door. She hurried over to the side of the Queen and whispered in her ear, “the King requires your presence at once.” Vashti turned flush with anger and responded so that all could hear, “I don’t care if the King demands my presence. You tell the King that I am not his pet, nor his showpiece,” and dismissed the terrified servant to tell the King. Of course, the King was furious. He stomped around and removed her title and gathered his nobles and they made an edict: “every woman has to obey every word of their husband…always…because I said so.” Vashti was not stunned, nor embarrassed, for she knew that her self-worth came from somewhere deeper than her silly husband’s empty words.
Haman strutted through the streets on his way to the palace. He had recently risen in the courts of the King Ahasuerus, and was in fact made in the same mold. Everywhere he went, he expected all who saw him to bow in obeisance. In fact, he needed all who saw hi to bow in obeisance. Any time that someone wouldn’t bow, Haman got all red in the face, and he stomped around, and he ran to the royal guard and demanded that such and such person be punished for ignoring his authority. In fact, one man refused to bow and told Haman that his faith would not allow it. Haman went apoplectic. He got so angry that he reported it directly to the king, and talked him into making an edict that not only must this man be killed, but all of the people of his faith. The edict was signed. The date was set. That would teach them. Nobody disrespects Haman and gets away with it.
Mordecai was a good man. A follower of Yahweh, living in Exile in Persia, he carried a deep commitment to his faith. That faith caused him to care for others with a deep care and concern. Once he overheard two men plotting against the King. Even though he wasn’t a huge fan, he went straight to the authorities and saved the King’s life. And when his cousins died and left a daughter as an orphan, he took her in and raised her as his own. One day, he passed the noble Haman, but failed to bow down and worship him like he wanted. “Worship no other gods before me.” Mordecai knew the commandment. But Haman was furious that Mordecai nor his people would bow down to him, and so tricked the foolish King into signing an edict to kill him and all of his people. Mordecai knew he had done what was right. But he tore his clothes in grief and placed sackcloth around his shoulders to show his pain.
Hadassah knew something was wrong. Mordecai was such a genial man, and she owed him her very life. He had raised her, counseled her, shown her what it took to become a part of the King’s court and eventually Queen herself. By his counsel, she went by her Persian name—Esther—instead of her Hebrew name. “The King is no friend of Jews,” said Mordecai. But now, he sat in the street in sackcloth and ashes. Something was wrong. But like had always been the case, Mordecai would know what to do…
In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.
Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Indeed, these are not the first anxious times for the people of God.
In fact, we are in week four of a series that has looked at just that—the times and anxious moments of the people of God throughout Scripture. Slavery. Violent oppression. Exile. Unanxious heroes for uncertain times. Perhaps I should have done this before now, but let me explain a little bit what I mean here by anxiety. There is something that is considered clinical anxiety, something that happens in the brain, a physical manifestation. That is not what I am speaking about when I mean anxious here [Even though—commercial time, here—it is one of the things that we going to be talking about in a series next month as we discuss faith and mental health.]
Instead, anxiety in this sense is something a little different. According to psychologists who ascribe to systems theory, anxiety is the unease that is felt by individuals, families, congregations, even nations or globally. It is a yearning for homeostasis. When things are uncertain, there are some who go into anxiety mode, lashing out at others, trying to prescribe their behaviors or thoughts, or inversely hiding from others, unsure of how to interact in healthy ways. They yearn for Clarity of Situation. Clarity of Circumstance. If only everything was “normal,” whatever they mean by that, then I will be OK. When things get uncertain, a lot of us get anxious, according to this definition.
Edwin Friedman, who was a teacher in this school, has a great quote about this. He is speaking about leaders in particular, but I think it applies to all of us. He says this:
I want to stress that by well-differentiated leader I do not mean an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around…. Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.
See the comparison that he is making? He puts us on a scale on how we react in uncertain times. Some of us, those he calls “autocrats” respond to uncertainty by telling others what to do, by forcing them to make our life better. They need that Clarity of Situation to survive. If they don’t get enough credit or attention, they make a fuss until they do.
In our story today, it is pretty easy to see who our autocrats are. King Ahasuerus and Haman are exactly the kinds of autocrats that Friedman is talking about, aren’t they? They need others to notice them, to praise them, to be happy with them, to cheer them on. In Haman’s case, to literally bow at their feet. And when they don’t, they throw people of the throne, or make edicts to kill them and all of their people. They are what Friedman would call “anxious” in the most impetuous and despicable ways.
But look at the foil he presents. What he calls here a “well-differentiated leader.” Not someone who needs the world around them to tell them how awesome they are, but those who differentiate themselves from others. Those who have Clarity of Self. “Clarity of their own life goals.” Clarity enough to challenge injustice, even when it means losing a popularity contest. That is what it means to be a “unanxous hero.”
Again, it is easy to pick out these unanxious heroes in the story, right? Queen Vashti, who didn’t care if she upset the King, who knew who she was and held her head high. Mordecai, who didn’t need to bow down to some silly vassal, who knew his values, knew who he worshipped, and didn’t care if it displeased anyone. That doesn’t mean that these unanxious heroes cannot have moments of concern or grief. But their anxiety is tied to real problems, like the genocide of your entire people, not silly things like whether or not everyone gives you enough attention.
So, by the time we get to chapter four, the question is, “which will Esther be?” Will she have Clarity of Self or not? But this is the hinge on which the entire book turns. The story of Esther is a favorite for many of us, I think because it shows us how each of us, any of us, could be asked to serve God at any given time. Esther was a nobody. An orphan. A member of a minority faith. Even as a queen she was always at the risk of the whims of a king who could dispatch her at any time, and had already created an edict to kill her and her people. But the words of wise Mordecai become inspiration for her and for many of us: “who knows, perhaps you have come to this position for such a time as this.” You might know that the book of Esther never once mentions the name “God.” Some of the early Hebrew scholars rejected it as canon because of this fact. But it was included in our Scriptures because just because God is not named doesn’t mean God is not there. In fact, God is there throughout the book in the way that God is in our lives, guiding, challenging, inviting, empowering. No burning bushes or Temples filled with smoke. Just the quiet invitation by those sisters and brothers and prophets around us: “for such a time as this…”
Esther received the words of her cousin and thought for a long time. She could remain hidden and watch her family and people die. Or she could step forward, risking her own life before the king, in order to save her people. After a long consideration, she responded back to her cousin:
Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “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.”
And indeed, she did. She risked her life for her people, and went to the King. Through her patience and wisdom, she got a rash and arrogant king to reverse a rash and arrogant decision. And in the process, he saved the life of every Jewish woman and man and child. Her work is remembered by the people of God, a reminder that even in Exile, God is working to protect God’s people, through whatever means necessary.
I offered the COVID stories at the beginning to demonstrate how real people are caught up in real anxiety, real fear, real ambiguity. None of those stories have cut and dried answers. I was inspired last week as we read this passage in the Two-Way. For around the zoom room, faithful women and men named times in their lives when they, too, found themselves in the place of Esther. A need before them. A gift possessed. And they chose the hard path of risk, the path of accepting their own “for such a time as this.”
The question that comes to us is the same. This is our moment…will we be afraid to act out of our faith, afraid to speak the truth, afraid to be who we are called to be? Or will we respond as unanxious heroes…for such a time as this?