Sunday, September 30, 2018

"let my life be given me, and the lives of my people"

Sermon Preached September 30, 2018 at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Albany, CA
Proper 21, Year B, RCL

“let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request.”

This morning our first appointed reading is from one of the few books in the entire bible named for and starring a woman, the book or scroll of Esther. The text tells the story of a strong and beautiful woman who stands up for herself and her oppressed people, saving their lives and overcoming their enemies.

The book begins with the King of Persia, in a scene reminiscent of the tv show Game of Thrones, throwing out his wife, Vashti, for disobeying his orders. Queen Vashti refused to be objectified and shown off at a 7-day men’s only drunken party the King was hosting. Harriet Beecher Stowe, called her action “the first stand for women’s rights”[i] and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti "added new glory to [her] day and her disobedience; for "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God."[ii]
The king decides at the encouragement of his staff to host a Beauty Pageant of sorts in order to pick his next wife. Mordecai, who works in the King’s citadel and raised his cousin Esther after her parents had died, ensured that she was among the women competing to be the next Queen of Persia. She’s favored by the King and becomes Queen Esther. Meanwhile, a new official named Haman is placed in charge of the citadel and demands all who work for him to bow to him, but Mordecai due to his piety refuses to do so. When Haman discovers this, he vows to have all Mordecai’s people killed and gets the King to agree to and fund the genocide. Mordecai begs Esther to do something. She requests that Mordecai and their people fast for three days after which she will go to the King and plead for their lives. Which brings us to today’s passage in which Esther says, “let my life be given me – that is my petition – and the lives of my people – that is my request.” She saves the lives of her people and the man who had sought to destroy them is executed on the very contraption he was planning to use on Mordecai. 

Resistance to patriarchy and women standing up, confronting the powerful and bringing about a change of fortune for themselves and those they love is our tradition, not just a part of it. Reading the Book of Esther felt particularly meaningful this week as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford courageously spoke of the violence and suffering she experienced as a teenager and as Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila confronted Senator Flake in the Capitol elevator. Wealthy, powerful, drunken, xenophobic men ruled the roost in ancient Persia, and their contemporary counterparts in Washington thank God are being challenged by numerous Vashti’s and Esther’s.
That is good news.

In today’s passage from Mark, Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to look inward within themselves rather than being overly concerned by the actions of others who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name. In this time of such profound consequence, for some of us it is easier to point out the wrongs and hypocrisy of others, and harder to look at the ways we ourselves have fallen short, failed to confront misogyny, been complicit in acts of violence or defended the powerful rather than the powerless. 

Esther said to the King, “let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request.”

May we, like Esther and all those within the #metoo movement, find the courage and the voice to speak our truths and to stand up to those whose privilege and power keeps them and us from living into our fullness.

My husband Matt is visiting family in Virginia this weekend and when I shared today’s readings with him, he reminded me of what a hero Esther is for the Jewish people and how her triumph is celebrated at the spring festival of Purim. In Matt’s mind, Esther’s story is forever linked with that of a Holocaust survivor, Arie Torner, who volunteered as an usher at Matt’s synagogue until he passed away when Matt was 14. Out of a group of nearly 1000 young men subjected to horrific experimentation by the notorious Dr. Mengele during the Holocaust, Mr. Torner was one of fewer than 20 survivors. On the day of Matt’s bar mitzvah, Mr. Torner, who was by then 70 years old, advised Matt, “speak loud and clear, so everyone will hear you.” Matt wrote later in a poem for the temple newsletter, “I know why he wanted me to speak up.” People of goodwill of all faiths recognize the deep importance of the notions of speaking up for justice and compassion—of remembering the past, and celebrating unity and the dignity of every person.

A recent article explaining why a major company’s CEO banned PowerPoint and bullet points from meetings and instead had employees read lengthy narratives and customer reviews, reminds us why sharing our stories is so important, according to the article in Inc. magazine by Carmine Gallo:

Anthropologists say when humans gained control of fire, it marked a major milestone in human development. Our ancestors were able to cook food, which was a big plus. But it also had a second benefit. People sat around campfires swapping stories. Stories served as instruction, warning, and inspiration.

Recently, I've talked to prominent neuroscientists whose experiments confirm what we've known for centuries: The human brain is wired for story. We process our world in narrative, we talk in narrative and--most important for leadership--people recall and retain information more effectively when it's presented in the form of a story, not bullet points.

This Sunday may we deepen our appreciation for the transformative power of story, the stories of Vashti and Esther, and all those who bravely step forward to speak their difficult truths of past abuses and violence to save their lives and this nation’s.

Esther said to the King, “let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request.”

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