Sermon preached on the Book of Esther
At the Presbyterian Women’s Circle Bible Study training
The Lay Institute of Faith and Life, Columbia Theological Seminary
When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. [Esther 4:1]
I used to be a fairly regular reader of Rolling Stone magazine. I’ve since abandoned it in favor of my newfound love for John Calvin (there’s less advertising in the Institutes, after all) but at one point—through Rolling Stone—I was able to keep my finger on the pulse of…something.
Exactly what I was keeping abreast of, I still don’t know. But—for the sake of discussion, let’s say it was pop culture—by which I intend to mean popular culture, mass culture, or what more verbose folks call the status quo. It’s a little bit of common sense mixed with a little bit of marketing mixed with our own little bits of post-20th century questions. And its chief pundits are precisely the 13-to-20-somethings who happen to be reading Rolling Stone.
And—by a fortuitous coincidence—this is also the age range of a certain young lady named Esther.
Rolling Stone, several years back now, ran a piece where they asked various rock stars, fashion models, and actors to comment on what was in and what was out. Most of the article didn’t stick with me—but one bit did. It was a comment by the rock singer David Bowie:
Spirituality is in. Religion is out.
What I took this to mean at the time was this: As a popular culture, we are comfortable with vague divinity—a sort of style of spiritual practice. But this popular culture gets uncomfortable when things get too specific.
Let’s take, for example, our own 13-to-20-something, Esther. (And here I ask you to keep in mind both the person and the book.)
At first glance Esther seems like many Americans. She’s had some hardships, but for the most part her life is privileged, and largely separate and protected from the outside world—the masses and their day-to-day struggles of living, commerce, and pain.
She’s comfortable with prayer—but when it comes to naming who she’s praying to, there’s some hesitation. Too exclusive, too religious. Similarly, fasting is cool—and if anybody questions you too closely, you can just say, “I’m dieting, summer’s coming…”
Esther is like us, and we are like Esther. Spirituality is in, Religion is out.
But then comes Mordecai.
Mordecai, it seems, couldn’t be vague if his life depended on it. If Esther’s prayer and fasting could be mistaken for new-agey spirituality, what are we to make of Mordecai?
This past semester I was in a class taught by Walter Brueggemann, an old testament professor here of not inconsiderable renown. During the course of that class we studied many themes, both major and minor, pertaining to the theology of the old testament, with a particular Brueggemann-esque sort of flair. If you’ve ever heard him speak or rather expound on a text, you know what I mean.
During this class he made a bold claim. He made many bold claims, actually, but this was one that stuck with me: Dr. Brueggemann claimed that one of the crises facing the Church – the whole church, today – is that we have lost the ability to lament.
And although Dr. Brueggemann did not say it explicitly, I am mindful of the kingdom in our story; the kingdom inhabited by—not just Mordecai, but an entire population now mourning, now in lament.
And at the heart of that kingdom, at its very center, is Esther (our 13-to-20-something, our pop-culture barometer) shielded from the outside, from the pain, by a gate through which those clothed in sackcloth may not pass.
If Dr. Brueggemann is right—if Dr. Brueggemann is right—then the kingdom in this story, with its protected inner sanctum, might be our kingdom.
In fact, it might be our church. Where those with real pain are turned away at the gate, because they disturb the peace of the banquets within—banquets which become increasingly buffered with pain-killers and political intrigue.
That is one choice—to have this local embassy of the Kingdom of God more resemble the kingdom of Ahasuerus. But this requires that those within hide who they really are: that they be spiritual, but not religious.
But we have another choice, another option: That is to let this local embassy reflect the one who is sovereign in the kingdom it represents. But this requires—not vagueness—not a guarded gate—but specificity and honesty.
The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom that guards the gate from those who lament.
This very table—the Eucharist table—is both a banquet table and a remebrance of suffering. The celebration of the Last Supper and the anguish of Christ’s Passion are both fully present here.
This is not the wisdom of popular culture. This is not the advice of Rolling Stone to its readers. We, like Esther, are faced—ever faced—with this choice: to be vaguely spiritual…
…Or to be specifically the Body gathered in the name of the one, even Christ Jesus, who opened the gates of the Kingdom to the tax collector, the harlot,
and yes, even the mourner.
Who knows? Perhaps we have been called to the kingdom for just such a time, and just such a choice, as this.
- David Dault