The Purpose of Dignity
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: esther, voice, queen, dignity
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost • September 26, 2021
Christ Church, Clermont-Ferrand
Text: Esther 4:14b: "Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."
The preacher today has a challenge, and that challenge is an embarrassment of riches. New preachers often make the mistake of thinking that their ask is to identify the hidden theme that somehow magically links together all he readings appointed for the day; but the simple truth here is that there is no intended relationship, no thematic connection, between the story of Queen Esther, the advice to church communities in the letter of James, and Jesus’s teachings about the spiritual discipline of getting rid of the things that get in the way of a deeper relationship with God.
Each one of these texts stands on its own, and each one of them provides more than enough grist for the mill of an eleven-minute Episcopal sermon. It is hard to choose, but it is necessary to choose.
And when the preacher is a man, and there is in the house other preachers who are women, the man is on dangerous ground choosing to preach on the story of the Jewish heroine Esther. But I am compelled by that story this morning, and so that is what you’re going to hear about, and it may be that after I’m back on the train and headed home my learned colleague will feel it necessary to provide a corrective note next week.
In the provenance of the lectionary we hear this story once every three years; but there’s something appropriate about our hearing this story today, because today, this year, is the next to last day of the Jewish festival of Sukkot. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are nearing the end of their seven-day New Year celebrations—for them, the year 5782. It isn’t always the case that Sukkot and our reading of Esther’s story always coincide; so when they do, there’s an invitation set before us to explore further.
If you don’t know the book of Esther, well, you should, and you could read it over lunch today. It’s a story filled with drama and great characters, and it has everything that a story for our day should have: Strong women, idiotically vain men, a patently sexist subplot, an oppressed people who have a profoundly good reversal of fortune, and, most of all, a victim who becomes a victor—actually, two of them.
We only hear a tiny slice of that story this morning, the denouement of the drama. It’s hard to make sense of how powerful Esther’s words are in this story unless you’ve read something of what led up to this moment. Esther is a Jewish woman, but her husband the king doesn’t know that; you might say that by our standards they had a brief courtship. People around the king competing for power and position have decided to win his favor by launching a genocide against the whole Jewish people—something we have known to happen in fact in living memory.
And the crucial moment leading up to the scene we heard this morning comes when Esther’s own uncle, Mordecai, who like all the other Jewish people will be put to death of this plan unfolds, sends her a message with these words: “Perhaps you have come to dignity for just such a time as this.”
What Esther ends up doing with her power and her position is what makes the story a moral teaching for us—and one that has endured in popularity down through the long years of the Jewish people. Esther has gone from being a person of no account to the queen, all because of something she can claim no credit for.
All along her rise to this privileged state she has hidden the fact of her allegiance to the Jewish people. Now her people are in trouble. If she takes a stand, she could lose everything. But if she doesn’t, her people will suffer.
Well—she takes a stand. She reveals herself to be Jewish, and she reveals who is responsible for the threat to her people. And, in the end, she saves them.
It’s a wonderful story. What on earth does it have to do with us?
Just this: We have come into a place of dignity. I know it often doesn’t feel that way. Like Esther’s people, most of us are exiles in a land that is not our own. And like those people, we feel vulnerable from time to time.
But if you pull your view back a little bit and see a bigger picture, if you look at the world beyond Clermont-Ferrand and the Auvergne and France and think of the whole world—well, when you see it that way, we are the fortunate ones.
We are the ones in the palace. Among all of the people on the planet, we are the ones who have dignity. Yes, we have worries, and yes, our worries are real and significant; but our privileges are tremendous when we look at ourselves within frame of all humanity.
Our worries are about things like: I wish our church were closer to the center of town. I wish we didn’t have to bring the water with us to flush. I wish we had more people here with us.
But you know, friends, all of us have the dignity of knowing we will have a roof over our heads tonight. All of us will have the dignity of enough to eat today. All of us have the dignity of work, or of activities that are fulfilling and rewarding.
All of us have the dignity of freedom to make choices about the rest of our lives. All of us have the dignity of being able to choose for ourselves what we will value, or what principles we will adopt as our rule of life, even though we may not even be aware that we have a rule of life.
For the last four centuries or so, our whole culture has been steadily and singularly focused on advocating and advancing the dignity of the individual. And we are the inheritors of that project, so much so that we can gather here on a Sunday morning to hear again the old story about Queen Esther in a parish where the priest is a woman.
Well, perhaps we have come into this dignity for such a time as this. Perhaps we have come into this dignity to speak in this moment, and not just to speak but to put at risk the very dignity that gives us a place to stand—as it did Esther. Will we?
In the United States, the name Esther became very popular in the twentieth century among one community in particular—the African American community. In the period after Emancipation but before the civil rights movement, African American women had a particular vocation in their communities to translate the dignity that had been realized by the end of enslavement into the further advancement of human rights for their whole community. They saw that they had come into their dignity for a purpose, and Queen Esther was a name that reminded them of this calling.
So perhaps we have come into our dignity in this moment for a purpose. In this moment when we seem to be living the warning of that old hymn, “truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.” In this moment when the poorest and most vulnerable in the world have little access to Covid vaccines. In this moment when governments across Europe are quietly taking steps to restrict or inhibit freedom of conscience. In this moment when thousands of people are trying to get out of their homelands and into safer places, people who once believed they could depend on us to defend their dignity.
Ours is a moment that calls for calm, clear voices advocating for the dignity of all humanity. Because, after all, that is something we signed up for, right in our baptismal covenant.
In a moment of decision, Esther is called upon to put in jeopardy a dignity she has come into without any particular deserving to stand up for the dignity of her own people-—and, indeed, for the dignity of all marginalized people.
And we, just maybe we have come to a moment of decision, a time in which we are being called to put in jeopardy the dignity we have come into, the remarkable gifts that have been bestowed so richly on us in a world where those gifts are distributed very unequally, to stand up like Esther for people facing degradation, and mistreatment, and death. To stand up, like Esther, for our own people—remembering that, for Christians, everyone is our people, especially the marginalized, the neglected, the lost, the un-dignified.
Gracious and loving God, in calling us in baptism to be your church you have given us a dignity that no power on earth can take away; in the moment of decision, when the dignity of others is forgotten, suffer not our trust in you to fail, and give us the courage that our covenant with you demands; through Christ our Lord. Amen.