Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
My grandmother, who we called Marsie, I like to say was the first theologian I knew. Her faith was etched into her at a young age, and I have many of her old books in my office, wellworn and written by theologians such as Henry Nouwen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther. Her deep thinking, heartfelt compassion, and her faith while a large part of who she was as child of God, her faith was also developed in rebuttal to her childhood in Nazi Germany. Years before her Alzheimer’s and death, I interviewed her for a school project to document her experiences in Nazi Germany. She told stories of her business owning uncle who rallied against the Gestapo, to then have his store raided and destroyed. Of playing with Jewish friends one day and them not being home the next day. She told me about a cousin of hers who was in a mental institution with possibly schizophrenia and they can only assume that her lack of contact and eventual absence from the hospital meant death by concentration camp. She struggled to tell me the story of her mother painfully dropping her off at a rural farm in hopes of keeping her safe and having to work her hands raw alongside of a French POW. And throughout all of the interview, she, as an adult looking back on her childhood, reflected on her faith. A faith that pushed back against evil and somehow kept her safe, even if she knew others were not. A faith that taught her to love, to not hate her Jewish friends or that POW. A faith that glorified God to the fullest in dark times and also invited her to lean in close to God when it got too tough. Through everything she experienced, from air raids to the separation from her family her faith stood firm and she carried it with her throughout her life, embodying her love for God for her children and grandchildren. That kind of faith is hard to hold on to through trials and we know those who experienced much worse during that time, than my grandmother who used their faith as a beacon of hope and an act of resilience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an example.
And our story today is not much different with Esther and the character I will focus on, Mordecai, her cousin. They are two characters who embody their faith as a beacon of hope for those being persecuted, threatened, and abused. And Mordecai, our lesser-known character, the bit part of the story, is the man behind the scenes allowing grief to play a part in energizing change and then, supporting and up lifting a woman in power.
The book of Esther is set in the background of Jews living under the rule of the Persian Empire. In the first chapter, we are introduced to the court of Susa, one of the four capitals in the empire. The king is holding a glorious, regal banquet that lasts for 180 days! And while the king holds this banquet, his then wife, Queen Vashti, holds her own banquet for the women of the court. The king becomes drunk on wine and sends for Queen Vashti to show off her beauty to the court, but she refuses and vanishes from the story. We can all assume what happened to her. And so the king begins to look for a new queen.
In the next chapter, Esther and Mordecai are introduced to us readers as Jews, but no one else knows. Mordecai is Esther’s cousin who adopted her as a daughter and cared for her as if she was his own after her parents died. It doesn’t say how or why, but Esther is taken into the King’s palace and put in custody of the woman in charge of a group who will be judged for the next queen. Thus, Esther wins over the king and becomes queen of Susa. However, this is important, Mordecai asks Esther to keep her ethnicity and Jewish heritage secret. And that is where our text starts today.
It’s been five years since Esther’s coronation and a third character, the antagonist, is introduced to our story – Haman. Haman is one of the top officials in the court. A right-hand man to the king and welds power over everyone. Thus, there is an expectation for courtiers to bow to him, even though he’s not king. But Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman. This refute is not because of Jewish law or a general dislike for Haman. The root of the conflict runs deep and appears to be ethnic.
Mordecai is believed to be a descendant of Saul, Israel’s first warrior king. Haman’s family heritage is tied to Agag, the Ama-le-kite king, a notorious enemy of Israel and ultimately the demise of King Saul. And so there is historic, ethnic tension between these two men. One theologian compares them to the Hatfields and the McCoys, the Sharks and the Jets, the Montagues and the Capulets, Duke and Carolina. 1 Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman shows “exclusive reverence” only to God, not to Haman, nor the king. It represents, symbolizes, and embodies for all the courtiers watching that with true followers of God, there is a resistance to oppressive power. Mordecai disobeying the power of Haman is an act of civil disobedience. And so, Haman, after learning Mordecai didn’t bow down, is enraged! So enraged that he threatens to commit genocide against the Jews.
In 2017, serving as a hospital chaplain in Raleigh, I was jolted awake during my overnight shift to learn that a woman had died on the fourth floor. When I arrived at the room, her brother was waiting for me. He told me story after story of his sister, who helped plan the 1960 Greensboro sit-in. And this particular sit-in at Woolworths was not only planned by the iconic “Greensboro Four,” the four men who refused to leave the counter after asking for coffee, but also by African American women who sat down right beside them, along with women behind the scenes initiating, planning, and strategizing non-violent protests. The woman lying in the hospital bed in front of us was one of those planners. Women were the glue that kept the movement together. The Greensboro sit-in was a revolution, a catalyst to sit-ins all over the country and all by sitting down. Following their protest, 55 other cities sat-in at segregated counters, hoping for change. As John Lewis, a civil rights activist said about this day, “By sitting down, we were standing up.”
That’s exactly what Mordecai is doing for his people. Refusing to bow down, he was standing up to the abuser, to the injustice, to the brutality that his people will experience. The Hebrew words that describes this moment portrays Mordecai as “unbending and non-servile.” It’s less about Mordecai not following the rules expected around his behavior, and more about Mordecai not being submissive. And he continues in this way by an act of public protest after hearing that the Jews are the new genocide target. He tears his clothes and puts on a sackcloth and rubs ashes all over this body. This is a traditional act of mourning for the Jews. He then goes and sits in the heart of the city, crying a loud and bitter cry. He won’t be silenced. No, he will be heard in the crevices of the streets and the rooms high above the avenues. He is sounding the alarm for all to hear. He is forcing people to listen. To hear the fear, the helplessness, the official statement that defines the Jews public worth in the Persian Empire. These cries gathers Jews from all over to sit in the sack clothes, covered in ash and wail the same cries of grief to their cities and communities at large.
While the grief is heavy in this text, especially in the Hebrew, it’s also a start of hope, a glimpse of hope that solidarity, wailing together as a collective act of protest, will perhaps help overcome the crisis at hand. Every Jews was sitting in sackcloth and ash to stand up to the violence, except for Esther. Esther is still in denial and her ethnicity is still secret to the King and Haman. Mordecai and Esther exchange messages over the wall of the palace, challenging each other on what should be done and it’s Mordecai’s words and confidence in Esther and her leadership that changes the tune for the future of the Jews. Mordecai says to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For is you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews…Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”
Mordecai reminds Esther that she has more power than she realizes and there is a time and a place to use it. Now is that time. And it’s the same in our own community. And it makes you wonder, as Esther is called into action, reminded of her position in power how are we called into action? Where is our positions of power?
Homelessness in Charlotte is rising every day. I’m sure you see it with more and more people on the side of the road. And if you saw the statistics I posted in the Weekly Word a few weeks back. We had more children in our Room in the Inn Homeless shelter than any other year. Affordable housing, even with folks who have a steady job, is nearly impossible to find. And while food prices are beginning to drop, there is still a food scarcity among the most impoverished. We wail and weep about this issue. We grieve about it. But what do we do about it? Where can we be a part of a movement towards change and equity in such a time as these?
The LGBTQ community and women are experiencing discrimination and violence in our country and community, it seems like more than ever. With gun violence, there seems less and less places that are safe. And our reading and math scores are at a lowest in decades, especially among the African American community. It’s exhausting to think about and yet like Steve said last week, where is our privilege and power in this congregation to make a
Where are we called to stand up for the hopeless, to grieve alongside the helpless, to lift up the marginal voices and use our privilege and power to support one another in such a time as these? Where are we reminded that there is always more that we can do as a community to lift up and protect God’s people and God’s church? That this is a safe place for all people. And how can we be a voice of confidence in the layers of disparity? There is something we can always do. We can sit down to stand up. We can wail with the grieving voices so those in the powerful places have no other choice but to hear it? It might start with sitting in our sack cloths and ashes, grieving for the realities of this world. BUT in such a time as these, we can be church, the true definition of church, for the community.
1 Kandy Queen-Sutherland, Ruth & Esther, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Macon: Smyth & Helwys
Publishing, Inc., 2016, 273.