Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
September 30, 2018—Proper 21B
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
As legend would tell it, when Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first performed in 1913, the audience rioted. Something in the “dissonance in the score, the jerky movements of the dancers and the rapidly twittering sounds from the woodwind section” drove the audience into a frenzy.[i] And okay, the reports have clearly become exaggerated over time, and there was also an element of anti-Russian political sentiment that inflamed the Parisian audience. But still, the unexpected and discordant nature of both the score and choreography clearly unsettled the audience.
Humans have a natural tendency toward symmetry. Some more than others, but still, we like a certain amount of order. Our brains need to be able to categorize, or we become overwhelmed. So it is harder for us to listen to music that does not go where our brains expect it to go. It’s disturbing, and not everyone enjoys that disturbance, and none of us enjoys every instance of that disturbance. None of us.
So we all form certain expectations of what will happen. Which can easily become an expectation of what should happen. The danger is that we come to believe that there is one correct response to things, an appropriate reaction; and if someone does things in a different way, we suspect (we’re positive) that there’s something hinky. There’s something off.
It’s hard for us not to extrapolate from our own experience. To be convinced that there is one appropriate response to a particular situation: if this is your situation, then this is what you should do. If you don’t, then you’re in trouble. If you don’t, then we will look at you askance.
We like order. We like patterns. We like to think we know how things work … partly because that means we have slightly more control over things. So we think things are always true (this follows this). Or we think that they’re never true (as long as you don’t do this, then this would never happen).
Until, that is, we encounter a situation in which we suddenly realize that we didn’t know what the heck we were talking about. Because we hadn’t had that experience. Because we couldn’t imagine that situation ever occurred to anyone (not here, not in 2018). Because we couldn’t even imagine what that would be like (not for us, who have tried so hard and have been so lucky).
That’s not an accusation. It’s just true. If you haven’t experienced it, you have no reason to know, or believe, or get it. If you haven’t experienced it (whatever it is), your only opportunity is second-hand, listening to other people’s stories … and that can honestly be very difficult to incorporate.
Like, seriously difficult. Until a month ago, you would have had a hard time persuading me that denial had ANY kind of positive function in a healthy psyche. …… Huh. Sometimes you just don’t know, can’t imagine, until you actually experience something, what kind of reactions a person or a group of people might have. What might make sense. What might, in fact, be helpful in dealing with a particular reality.
You don’t know, which is a good thing to remember. A good reminder to stop and listen to the person who actually HAS had the experience. A reminder not to shut down at the thought of how YOU think you would respond. About how YOU think a person should respond, what you think would be the helpful, healthy way to respond.
Take today’s reading from Esther. This is a story that many Christians are less familiar with, in which the lovely and extremely bright Esther manages to persuade the King of Persia to save the Jewish people from destruction. It’s a story read in synagogues every year at the feast of Purim, and so far that all makes sense. But the festival is one at which costumes are worn, humorous plays are performed, and people are actually commanded by God to get so drunk that they cannot tell the difference between “Blessed be Mordecai” (our male Jewish hero) and “Cursed be Haman” (our Persian villain, who has orchestrated the edict condemning the Jews to death).
There’s an element of humor in this festival celebrating the evasion of genocide, and that might seem a little odd. There’s an element of satire in this whole book of the bible, which tells of a time (yet one more time) in which the Jewish people faced elimination and yet somehow survived.
It makes no sense, from the outside. And yet somehow, it can make all the sense in the world. As they famously say about so many Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” In the face of horror; in the face of a world that seems to be on fire, that may well be on fire, subversive humor might well be a helpful, healthful response.
It’s certainly an option. It’s apparently a BIBLICAL option, a part of the sacred story. There the Jewish people are, off in the Persian diaspora. The king has flown into an insecure rage when his queen, Vashti, refuses to parade her beauty in front of his drunken guests (that’s in Esther 1). He then does two things: he issues an edict that all wives in Persia must obey their husbands (seriously, that is some blatantly hilarious stuff there), and then, he begins to seek a new wife.
This doesn’t really affect the Jewish people until Esther’s uncle Mordecai manages to put his beautiful niece in front of the king, and she wins his favor. But then Haman begins to gain power, and resents the fact that Mordecai will not bow before him. What does he do? He bribes the king with a huge sum of money to declare an edict of death on the Jewish people.
It might have worked, but Esther and Mordecai had previously worked to save the king from a plot against him, and they eventually turn the king’s judgment against Haman, who is hung on the same gallows he had built for Mordecai. It’s a story of abuse of power, a story of arrogance and insecurity, a story of corruption and the narrow escape from destruction. And it’s immortalized in satire and commemorated with a drunken costume party.
Because sometimes that’s not a bad way to cope with a world that wants to destroy you. Sometimes that’s the only way to face into a power structure that has (and might always have) more power than you. You laugh. You point out how ridiculous and insecure it is. You revel in the small moral victories you win, and you hold fast (so fast!) to the moral values that bring you those victories.[ii]
Purim is a crazy festival that reminds us that sometimes satire can be the best response to a system of oppression, to an overwhelming power structure that threatens you with death. It reminds us that oppression is often rooted in insecurity, and victory over that insecurity will require confidence, integrity, and an element of subversion. It reminds us that even an overwhelming power structure does not always succeed. It reminds us, promises us that victories can happen, can upend the structure.
These are subtle victories. They are not the ones we are always looking for, or the ones we might expect to find in scripture. But they are there, to remind us of the wide and deep ways in which liberation might spring forth. They are the unexpected and disruptive harmonies. They are the challenging images and choreography of a new dance. They are the poetry John Green describes in his book, Turtles All the Way Down, about which he observes, “I like short poems with weird rhyme schemes, because that’s what life is like … it rhymes, but not in the way you expect.”
The Book of Esther rhymes with the experience of the Jewish people, but not necessarily in the way they might expect. And it rhymes with our experience too, challenging us to look beyond the expected responses and effects, to see what might be helpful, what might be healthy, what might turn out to be true. May it prompt us to seek multiple perspectives, to learn to view the world from a number of angles, so that freedom might become both more complex, and more visible. May it be so. Amen.
[ii] Cameron B. R. Howard, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3828