Sermon for the 18th after Pentecost, Sept. 30, 2012
Esther 3:1, 8-11; 9:23-28
Note: actually the whole story is the subject, but here’s a small excerpt for a bit of flavor:
3:1 After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him.
3:8 Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. 9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.” 10 So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. 11 The king said to Haman, “The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.”
9:23 So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.
9:24 Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur—that is “the lot”—to crush and destroy them; 25 but when Esther came before the king, he gave orders in writing that the wicked plot that he had devised against the Jews should come upon his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. 26 Therefore these days are called Purim, from the word Pur. Thus because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them, 27 the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year, as it was written and at the time appointed. 28 These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city; and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Where is God? (and is he playing dice?)
What in the world is God doing? It’s a vexed question. If God were busy preventing things, then whatever he prevented wouldn’t happen, so we would never know of it. If God prevented all the evil in the whole world, making this world perfect, still we would never know that he had done anything. Whatever is prevented from happening, does not happen. Nothing to see.
Is that what God does; prevent evil, at least some kinds of evil, from happening? When we look around at what does happen, it’s hard to imagine the kinds of things God might be preventing. Wars happen. Even genocides happen. Diseases, plagues, even pandemics happen. Accidents happen. Natural disasters happen.
In all of these, children are included, not excluded. People who devote themselves to doing good are not excluded. Religious people are not excluded. It’s actually quite hard to imagine what is left to prevent?
Albert Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” But does He?
The Age-Old Conundrum
Suffering and evil have always been the fly in the ointment for monotheists (“theodicy” is the technical name for the discussion). If God is all loving, all good and all powerful, surely he would want to stop evil as much as I would, but unlike me, he could actually get the job done.
This is not a new question. It did not take a Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or any of the new atheists to bring it out into the open. It has been on the table at least as long as monotheists have written down their thoughts. In the Psalms, the prayers of the Israelites, we read about 20 times the question, “how long?” as in Psa. 89:46:
“How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?”
This idea behind the question is that surely an all-loving, good and powerful God would do something about the situation I’m in; what’s preventing him?
Many of us have been involved in project of Reading the Bible in 90 Days. We are in the middle of the book of Psalms now, so we have heard that question many times already. We have also just finished reading two biblical books that were written because of this problem – the question, “what in the world is God doing?”: Job and Esther.
The Issue in the book of Job
Job is a long poem about a man named Job, who is righteous, but who suffers horribly. His animals die, his crops are destroyed, his children all die
tragically, and finally his own health breaks. He sits in the ashes, covered in boils, scrapping his flesh with a piece of a broken clay pot. His wife tells him to get it over with. She says: “curse God and die.” (Job 2:9)
Job has company. Four “friends” come and try to console him. Each believes that Job is suffering for his sins. How is this comfort? Well, it’s not, of course comforting to have people tell you that you are guilty. Except that, the only thing that might be worse than suffering horribly, is to suffer horribly and meaninglessly. If Job is righteous and does not deserve to suffer, but he suffers anyway, then what? God is up there playing dice with the universe? Or else, God is not up there at all?
Job’s friends are convinced that the way the God of the universe runs things is according to his “law of retribution:” everybody gets what is coming to them. Job suffers, therefore, he must have done something to deserve it. Otherwise, the universe would simply be chaotic. One of the “comforters,” Bildad, asks the rhetorical question:
“Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 8:3)
The Prologue to the story
Job is not told about the events that happen in the prologue to his story. We read that up in Heaven God is sitting there surrounded by the council of heavenly beings which includes one named “the adversary, or accuser,” or in Hebrew, “the Satan.” (nothing more is explained about him here at all).
Satan believes that “righteous Job” is only being righteous because it benefits him. He is living a rich, blessed life; of course he loves God. But remove all the blessings, Satan asserts, and Job will curse God. “Wanna bet?” Says God (in effect). “Yea!” says Satan. So the bet’s on. It’s a gamble. The outcome is as open and uncertain as, what? A roll of the dice, perhaps? Does God play dice with the universe?
The Issue in the book of Esther
Where is God? When we read the book of Esther, we never saw or heard from God. God is not mentioned at all in this book. We read a short excerpt today.
It’s a great story: the Jews are in Persia where they are still in exile, outside the land of Palestine (which is also not mentioned). The Persians, having conquered the Babylonians are the new landlords; the Jews are still the tenants.
Nobody seems to like Jews. “The are different. Might as well kill them.” That’s what the pretentious poser Haman tells the king, and he agrees. Haman suggests they set a day on which all the people can feel free to kill Jews. What day? They roll the “Pur” or we might say, “dice” to find a good day.
If you were an all-loving, good, and all powerful God, would you let this happen? Well, as it turns out, nobody prays for a miracle. No one cries out to God, like they did when they were slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt, all those years ago. God does not appear in a burning bush to call some new Moses type of person to confront the king. In fact God does not appear at all.
Only, this one incognito Jewish girl, an orphan named Esther, wins a national beauty contest, and joins the harem as a queen. This is one of a number of utterly unlikely, uncanny coincidences that fill this story.
God never shows up in this story, except maybe in the cryptic question that Esther’s surrogate father, her uncle Mordecai asks her:
“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esth. 4:14)
Where is God? The answer of the Jews in exile is “Who knows?” Is he up there playing dice with the universe? “Who knows?”
Plot Exposed: Reversal
But this time, it turns out that Esther is there, in the harem, as queen, for a reason. She exposes the plot against her people. Haman, the bad guy, gets all the evil he intended against the Jews back upon himself. Instead of being slaughtered on the day chosen by that roll of dice, the Jews are vindicated. The Jews remember and celebrate that day of deliverance in an annual feast, named Purim, for the Pur, the dice.
So, is it the case that whether people live or die is simply a matter of a roll of the dice? Does fortune or luck or fate determine the outcome? Or perhaps merely random chance?
“Hints and guesses”
“Hints and guesses” are the only answers given in Job and Esther. These are given to Job in the mystery of the unfathomably immense universe. These are given to Esther in the uncanny coincidences of an invisible, unmentioned God.
These are given to us in fleeting moments of awareness, evoked by un-asked for, unexpected triggers: sights, smells, sounds, suggesting a presence, an incarnation – as T.S. Eliot has written:
“For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” – “The Dry Salvages” from the Four Quartets.
Jesus, on the Issue
Perhaps this was what Jesus was getting at in the reading from Matthew:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin” (Matt. 6:26)
Can the birds of the air be, for us, hints that lead us to guess that there is a heavenly Father? Can the lilies of the field be hints that allow us to guess that love and goodness are at the heart of the universe?
And can we take from these hints and guesses, the courage to hope, the courage to trust, the courage to relax the worried, clenched, furrowed tightness of fear, and settle down into the arms of our Father in heaven?
This is the world that Jesus chose to live in. He trusted that his Father in heaven was not playing dice with his life, even if it meant that he, himself was not excluded from suffering; even from death.
This is the world that Jesus is calling us to live into. It is not a world of predictable blessings for goodness and curses for evil. It is not a world in which God’s ways are visible and reported on by the evening news.
But it is the world in which we are able to, and called to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” with the confidence that food and clothing and “and all these things will be given to you as well” as Jesus taught us.