Preaching Esther

When the preacher allows the biblical narrative to speak for itself, Scripture begins to take on new meaning. One example of this is the book of Esther. It is common to approach Esther in ways that fit into existing standards of piety. It is tempting to try to find individual virtues in Esther that affirm our presuppositions. What if sermons allowed Esther to speak for itself? What if Esther is intended to expand our ideas about God?

Preaching Esther is a corporate matter. When preaching Esther, it is good to remember that these people were once slaves in Egypt, became refugees in the wilderness, part of loose tribes in the Promised Land, became a monarchy, and then a divided nation. Through all of that, they were the people of God. By the time we get to Esther, they are exiles. First under the Babylonians and then the Persians. And somehow through all this, they remain the plan for all peoples on earth to be blessed.

Esther is about a people in exile. They are not living in the Jewish homeland. Just like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, Esther and Mordecai are surrounded by a people who don’t believe in God. Exile makes one wonder if God is really interested in what is happening when we find ourselves in unfortunate circumstances. Esther reminds us that the people of God only exist because of God’s saving act.

Christians have struggled with how to manage Esther. Martin Luther wished it wasn’t in the bible. John Calvin did not include it among his commentaries. No one in the New Testament quotes or refers to it. However, Jews have not shared these struggles. Esther is read at the Feast of Purim. When Esther is mentioned the crowd might respond “Blessed be Esther!” When Mordecai is mentioned “Long live Mordecai!” It is lively. It is like a Jewish Mardi Gras.

Perhaps it is best known for the times Haman is mentioned. At the mention of his name, listeners will make a racket with graggers and noise making instruments. They will hiss and boo and stomp. They will shout out “Cursed be Haman” and “May the name of the wicked rot.” Perhaps we should follow their lead and enter the narrative. Perhaps we should take seriously what it means to be a people in exile. 

The fact we find it where it is, the middle of the Old Testament, suggests it has something to say about God. Yet, in a book where God is never mentioned by name, we might be encouraged to talk about the ways God works behind the scenes. Esther may be for people who wonder if God is actually interested in the present. It prompts the question, “where is God in this text?” Certainly, the Jews in Esther are asking that question.

People are pretty good at noticing things right in front of our face, but is life only what is obvious? Is there anything going on behind the scenes? So, the night before Haman was to ask for Mordecai to be hanged, the king suffered amnesia? So, he asked for palace records to be read? So, he was reminded that Mordecai was never rewarded for saving his life? What is going on here? Is this just a pile of coincidence or could it be that Esther, a book that does not mention the name of God, is pulling us into a story where the main character is actually behind the scenes providing salvation for God’s people?

It is almost as if we read “The king couldn’t sleep that night… wink, wink.”


Preaching Through the Alphabet

Anna Carter Florence is writing a new book. Influenced by Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking and Whistling in the Dark, she is writing a book for preachers. As Buechner does in those books, she plans to work through the alphabet giving biblical and homiletical pointers along the way. At the recent Festival of Homiletics, she gave six examples of what she has been working on.

Though I have heard Anna Carter Florence several times, this was my favorite. Not only is her content interesting but her artistic style is helpful as well. These samples are only small snippets of what she shared for each letter.

Esther. (I am pretty certain that Florence has a special fondness for Esther). She points out that Esther is only found once in the lectionary cycle and suggests that is commentary itself. She adds that may remind us that chances for heroism only come around once in a while. Esther never asked for anything that happened to her in the story. But she did recognize her moment when it came around. Esther is not an optional story for us. That narrative is written into our life.

Fish. (She did admit that some letters of the alphabet were not as easy to arrive at a topic). Florence begins by saying some fish are sent to catch us. Jonah did not want to be a prophet and he did not want to go to Ninevah. (These aren’t bad things). But, the book of Jonah is insistent, when God calls it is time to go.

Laodicea. Lukewarm is not desirable. No one is drawn to lukewarm. A church with an allegiance to empire values has compromised. It is a lukewarm church. Jesus pleads with us to not corrode the gospel. We need these words. We are Laodiceans.

Caleb. Caleb participated in a forty-day mission to scout the land. Caleb is a voice against the majority. There is a need for a sane voice in the midst of insanity. We have to enter the narrative carefully because slaughtering Canaanites is not easy. As we enter, it is good to have Caleb as a guide.

Quirinius is a Roman governor listed in Luke 2. Judea becomes the backdrop for incarnation, obviously incarnation had a lot to contend with. This is a historical context for misery. Quirinius is always among us. This affects everything. Still, Quirinius may have power but it is no match for God. Perhaps it is time for us to saddle up and ride toward Bethlehem where a star awaits but also Herod’s soldiers.

Ur. It is far from Canaan, but Genesis tells us Abraham left Ur in order to go to Canaan. Abraham was shaped by Ur and Haran, but was called to be a resident in Canaan. Some places seem nice to stop at and stay for a while, but even there we hear God calling us home. God brought us to where we are and calls us still. We are reminded this narrative is not about us as much as it is about God.

Chaplains for Caesar

Last year, I attended a preaching conference where Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker were invited to address those in attendance. We cannot fault the politicians for attending or for candidating (after all, they were both planning to run for the office of president). But we might begin to wonder why they were invited to a conference on preaching. I was reminded that in the early nineties I was in attendance at a conference for evangelicals where George H. W. Bush was invited to speak. We can try to convince ourselves that this is the business of the church but when honest we know what is going on here. Unfortunately, the state has mastered the art of placating the church in order to receive votes. While the church may think it has the ear of the state, I fear it is the state who has the church by the throat. The danger is we water down the gospel and preach sermons that sound like we are simply chaplains for Caesar.

William Barber II is tired of Puny Talk

William Barber II addressed the recent Festival of Homiletics. While it is sometimes difficult to determine if Barber is talking about the gospel or social justice (I suspect he does not separate them), I am in full agreement with his statement that conversations about democrat vs republican and liberal vs conservative are “too puny.” He claims to have a “left and a right hand.”

Barber looked out at a crowd of preachers and announced “You are the hope! Not the political process… You!” Amen William!

Preaching and Moral Imagination

Barbara Lundblad spoke to the opening crowd at the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis this week. The theme is “Preaching as Moral Imagination.”

For myself, the strength of this sermon was when Lundblad stated that we all know Luke 18 as a parable about prayer. Later, after pointing out that the parable mentions “justice” four times, she says “maybe Jesus thinks he is telling a parable about justice.” Even later, after pointing out the parable concludes with a question about faith, she asks “are we to hear this as a parable of faith?”

She goes on “Is this parable about prayer, justice, or faith?” If we pray without an interest in justice, are we even interested in the work of God? If we attempt justice without prayer, are we convinced we can accomplish it on our own?If we prayer for justice without faith, are we likely to give up too soon?

Lundblad’s gifts are evident as she immerses listeners into the text. She gives life to both the persistent widow and the unjust judge. She has us thinking that Jesus may have known a widow like this and a judge like that.

Then she asks if this widow could be a refugee shut out of the country, a drag queen dancing illegally in the streets, an African American not permitted to vote because she has no photo id.

While we may not know Lundblad’s purpose for selecting these examples as illustrations, it is obvious from listener response that many are pleased her description of justice sounds like the agenda of “progressives” in D.C. In case some of these preachers serve people who disagree with this message, she encourages preachers to be faithful to the agenda. Be faithful even if they encounter people who threaten to leave the church “if they hear one more sermon that sounds like politics.”

The fact is, to preach the gospel is to preach politics. This is unavoidable. But when Jesus came as King of the Kingdom preaching the reign of God, he did not come endorsing any brand of earth’s politics.

Any of us might be challenged to insert our own opinions and preferences into sermons from time to time. Our preaching must speak truth to the powerful, but it must never serve as a puppet to any arm of politics.

It is awkward and artificial to hear someone using an outside agenda to drive the text. May we be a people who allow the text to drive the agenda.



A Sermon for Good Friday

Did you ever have one of those days where everything seemed to go right? Things just fall into place? Good Friday was not one of those days. Instead, on Good Friday a cross had center stage and a brand of Roman execution that we call crucifixion. Crucifixion was intended to send a message “do not resist the powers of Rome.” Rome hoped the torture and humiliation would make the message clear – “Rome rules the world.”

Somehow, we have softened the cross by making it into furniture or jewelry. We have made crucifixion into a religious term. We talk casually about things that would have made our ancestors shudder. It was likely that every time Jesus mentioned the cross his disciples shuddered. Yet Jesus made it very clear that to follow him included a cross.

It is helpful to reflect on the words Jesus spoke from the cross. Words that help us understand what it means to be a disciple. Words that help us find meaning in what happened. One of these words is “I thirst.” It sounds so rational. It makes sense. It sounds so much less religious than other words spoke that day. There is a danger of making more of this phrase than the story intends. There is equal danger to overlook any significance.

The gospel makes it sound a little more religious when we are told Jesus said this in order to fulfill an old psalm. Considering the day he was having we might suspect thirst is for real. At least we suspect it might come up before a desire to fulfill an old psalm. But John states clearly “so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said ‘I am thirsty.’” In fact, it sounds like Jesus is operating from some type of checklist. We are told “knowing that everything had now been finished and so Scripture would be fulfilled…” Jesus said “I am thirsty.”

In response he is offered a sponge of sour vinegary wine. While we might think about declining this offer – Jesus has already said that he must drink the cup offered him. And here on the cross he is determined to drink the cup even if it is full of sour wine.

Interestingly, this is not the first time Jesus gets thirsty in John. Fifteen chapters earlier we find Jesus near a well in Samaria talking to a woman and saying “give me a drink.” This conversation grows until we learn “everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give will never thirst again.” The more they talk, the less the woman seems to understand thirst. But the more she begins to believe Jesus is the one who can quench it.

We remember how the gospel began “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” Not too many verses later, we hear “And the Word became flesh.” Ever since that first chapter, we’ve been getting glimpses of “The Word was God” mixed with “The Word became flesh.” Jesus was God. Jesus was human. Perhaps that is most clear when he says from the cross “I thirst.” There is some irony here. The one who turned water into wine is now thirsty. We might start to wonder, can he turn sour wine into water?

People tend to take Jesus so literally in John’s Gospel. Nicodemus asks “how can I climb back into my mother’s womb to be born again?” The woman at the well says to him “You have nothing to draw water with and the well is deep.” Perhaps Jesus is not thirsty for literal water. The more we try to figure Jesus out the more the waters flow back and forth from literal to figurative. Maybe John wants us to ask if we are content with sour wine when living water is so readily available.

Maybe John hoped we might give up sour wine so we might enjoy what Jesus is offering. To follow the one who said I thirst is to follow one who knows the weariness of the journey. It is also to follow one who offers us living water, that we might never thirst again.

Maybe John wants us to ask ourselves what one who is able to turn water into wine is doing on a cross in the first place. What is someone in such command during his own crucifixion that he is forming a new family and thinking about fulfilling scripture doing on a cross? Perhaps John wants us to ask if Rome is really in charge. Does Caesar rule the world? Or is there something going on here on this Friday that is changing the order of things?

Crucifixion was intended to put people in their place but here the crucified one is going through some divine checklist and fulfilling scripture as if this is some moment of triumph. There is danger is making too much of this statement “I thirst” and danger of overlooking its significance. But in this gospel instead of mockery, darkness, earthquake, and a cry of being forsaken is a Jesus who is busy forming a new family and working to fulfill scripture. Who is really in charge around here? John wants us to know that it isn’t Rome. The statement “I thirst” is part of the story of the triumph that is the cross.

J. R. R. Tolkien, famous for writing about hobbits, elves, and dwarves, is credited with a word that is fitting for John’s story of the cross – euchatastrophe. It means “a fortunate disaster.” That is what John gives us on the cross. John talks about the cross as if there is something going on that is not visible to bystanders. John talks about the cross as if the world is changing on account of a crucifixion. John talks about the cross as if there is another surprise just around the corner. John talks about the cross as if it’s a victory.

 If this crucifixion is only what it appears to be, only what Rome intends it to be – let’s just skip Larry’s next song about the power of the cross and call Billy Joel up here to sing “Only the Good Die Young.”

It may be puzzling. It may be against the odds. We might not understand how it happens. But John’s Gospel turns the crucifixion into a moment of triumph. The gospel does not want us to retell a history. It does not want us to explain crucifixion. John has already given us an explanation – euchatastrophe! And what John wants is for us to believe.

This is true at the cross. There is a witness present who tells us that his testimony is true. He goes on to say that he writes this so that we might believe. John wants us to know that the crucified one who stated “I thirst” on the cross is the same as the one who offers to quench our thirst with living water that we might never thirst again. May we believe.