A sermon on Esther given by the Rev. Teri Daily on September 25, 2021…
Every Christmas for fifteen years, when we celebrate Christmas with Dave’s family, two candles are lit and burn throughout our time opening presents around the tree. They remind us of Dave’s brother and mother who are no longer with us in body. Now we’ve added a third candle to remember Dave’s father. Every time Wilson comes home from wherever he may be, he knows orange Danish rolls will be waiting in the refrigerator and that one morning I will cook them for him. They were his favorite food when he was young, and my cooking them tells him how happy I am to have him home. For years Dave and I would meet each night on the sofa to watch the Daily Show. We began this ritual in North Carolina during an incredibly busy time in our lives – a difficult job for me with late nights and long hours of call, a dissertation on the verge of completion for Dave, and two young children to boot. This was usually the only time of day we could sit down together in one place. When the situation changed, the ritual remained; it told a story. I use my own life as an example because I have the right to divulge information about myself. But the truth is that I’ve seen rituals in many of your lives, too – we all have them. They tell us something about the story of our lives; they connect us to our history.
In our Old Testament reading for today, we see an instance where ritual is used to tell the story of the people Israel, of their life lived in relationship with their God. We only see a brief snippet of the story of Esther in today’s reading, but I’ll give a little bit of an overview. The book of Esther is set in the Persian Empire during the 4th or 5th century BCE – a time after the conquest of Judah and the exile. It was a time when the Jews were largely scattered, with many living outside Israel in what has come to be known as the Diaspora. Esther, a Jew, becomes a queen in the court of the Persian king, and the story of Esther centers around the role she plays in saving her people from genocide. Here’s the Cliff Notes version: Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, refuses to bow down before the king’s top advisor and right-hand man, Haman. And so Haman makes a plan to destroy all the Jews throughout the king’s provinces on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month.
Queen Esther tells the king about Haman’s plot and she pleads for the safety of her people. The king hears her pleas, and Haman and his family end up being hung on the gallows. The Jews go on to defeat all those who try to destroy them, and then they rest and celebrate. According to the story of Esther, these days of rest and celebration came to be remembered year after year in the festival of Purim; in words very similar to language of resurrection, these days mark the time that had been “turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday” (Esther 9:22).
The Jewish festival of Purim continues to be celebrated today. The book of Esther is recited publicly, gifts of food and drink are given to friends, gifts of charity are given to those in need, and there’s a big, celebratory feast. Purim is a time to reflect on what it means to live as a minority people, to think about who might be the marginalized people in our world today, and to reflect on whether or not we have the courage to risk intervening when confronted with evil today. But most of all, Purim marks a time when the Jewish people were saved from destruction, from genocide. It’s a story of deliverance for God’s people, a reminder of strength and perseverance in the midst of adversity.
Purim is just one of the numerous festivals that mark the Jewish calendar—Passover is a celebration of the Hebrews’ freedom from bondage in Egypt, and the Festival of Weeks marks the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, just to name a couple. The rituals that sprung up around these celebrations tell the story of a people and their relationship with their God. And, of course, we have many such rituals in Christianity as well – rituals that reflect who we are. At the Easter Vigil, as the darkness of the church gives way to light amidst bell-ringing and emphatic Alleluias, the story of Easter comes alive and the resurrection plays out in real time. Every time we celebrate a service of healing – and oil is placed on foreheads, hands are laid on one another, and prayers are said – we tell the story that God’s love has the power to bring healing to our lives. Each Sunday we invite all those present to receive communion – that invitation tells the story of how we see the radical hospitality expressed in the life of Christ, and it tells the story of this congregation and its history of welcoming others into its life.
But perhaps what we in the liturgical tradition know so well, is that not only do rituals tell the story of our history, but they also shape our present. They make us who we are today. So rituals both tell the story of who we are, and they make us who we are. Some of our rituals tell a story of love, abundance, and trust – and they make us become more loving, giving, and trusting people. Even if All Saints’ had a huge endowment that could meet all our financial needs, the ritual of steady and consistent giving to the church would still be important, because the habit of giving changes us – it makes us generous and thankful people. In this day of busyness and meals eaten on the go, it’s really hard to make time to sit down and eat together. But we know that the ritual of having meals together creates intimacy – as we eat together and share conversation, food for our bodies and food for our souls become one and the same. Kisses as we leave to go our separate ways for the day function as blessings; phone calls to family members and friends reinforce our interconnectedness, our oneness; a willingness to take the time to pray helps us learn to trust that we’re given all the time we need to do what we’re actually called to do. As we do these things over and over, they become the rituals that make up our lives. They make us more loving, generous, and faithful.
Some of our rituals, though, tell a different story. We don’t like to admit to having some of these habits or rituals precisely because of the story they tell. Sometimes I take my time shopping in the grocery store, looking at different brands and allowing other to go in front of me in the shopping aisles. But each and every time I get to the check-out lanes, no matter how relaxed I’ve been, I speed up for the last fifty feet, afraid someone might beat me to the shortest line. I’m probably not alone in this habit, but it doesn’t make me into a more gracious person. It tells a story of scarcity. More seriously, there’s the hazing that takes place in our fraternities and sororities, and more clandestinely in many of our workplaces. The story such hazing tells is one of violence, submission, and domination. And then there are the crowds that used to wait outside stores on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, trying to get a rebate item before the store sells out. Occasionally a man would be trampled to death in the rush. The ritual has largely moved online now and is more hidden, but what story does this day of mad, competitive shopping tell about our society?
We need order and ritual in our lives. We need rituals in our communities as well – they tell our story. The rituals that are life-giving and resonate with the gospel, they bring hope and help create the kingdom of heaven right where we are. The ones that paint a narrative that goes against the gospel – against what we know in our hearts to be true – well, those we need to change. And so today maybe it’s worth taking a step back and asking the question: If someone looked at the rituals of our lives and of our communities, what stories would they tell?