Outside The Box
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
The scripture passages that inspired this sermon were pulled from Esther, chapters 5 through 8.
We are currently in the midst of a sermon series on the 6 C’s of leadership. As I mentioned in a previous sermon, we sometimes think of leadership as being confined to politics or big corporations. But any of us can – and should – be looking for opportunities to lead because the world, the Church and the kingdom of God are in desperate need of good leaders. In my prior sermon, I defined leadership as a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task. Now, let me remind us that influence is not the same as manipulation or coercion. Leadership isn’t about getting others to do what we want. An effective leader has identified a task so important that they recognize its achievement requires more than what they can accomplish on their own. Trinity has a common task, our vision of “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” That vision is carried out through a multitude of ministries: our garden, Fusion, our coffee cart, Trinity Connect, our Caring Ministry, our Governing Board and on and on. So I hope, through this sermon series, to inspire more of us to become leaders not only in our families and our community, but also at Trinity since being a leader means we enlist the aid and support of others to carry out our common task of “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.”
In this sermon series, we’ve been focusing on characters from our Hebrew scriptures and the qualities their leadership styles reveal. Today we’re looking at Esther who reveals the leadership trait of creativity. Now, Esther needed to be creative if she was to lead because she was a woman in a man’s world. Women weren’t viewed as leaders in the ancient world. They were viewed as objects, as property and so, women needed, by necessity, to be creative in order to exercise leadership.
Now, before we get into the story of Esther, I need to give you a little background. Last week Pastor Monica preached on the anointing of King David. Under David, the 12 tribes of Israel unite in a strong, cohesive monarchy. But, David's son, Solomon, so embitters his subjects that, shortly after his death the kingdom is split in two. Later the ten northern tribes of Israel are conquered by the nation of Assyria. The southern tribes of Judah manage to hold their own until they are overrun by Babylon in 587 BCE. Babylon trashes Jerusalem and hauls the brightest and best of the Jewish people away into captivity. Now, no doubt, life in Babylon posed challenges for the Jewish people. But apparently, some of the Jews adjusted well to life in this foreign land. Later, when the nation of Persia defeated Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland. But some chose to remain in Persia. And that brings us to this morning's story. Esther is a young Jewish woman living within the vast Persian Empire. Now, if you dislike history and you’ve checked out, here's your summary: Once Israel was its own mighty nation. But, by the time of Esther, the ruling world power is Persia and Jewish people have been dispersed throughout the Middle East, including Persia.
And so the story begins…
The king of Persia is Ahasuerus. He is throwing a grand party for his officials and advisors and, as the party progresses and he becomes drunk, he sends for his queen – who is elsewhere entertaining the ladies in a more proper lady's fashion, we assume. However, Queen Vashti – for a reason we do not know – denies the king's request and refuses to appear. The king becomes enraged and consults his advisors about what he should do. They remind him that insubordination in the palace will result in chaos throughout the empire. So, if men are to remain in control of their households, Vashti should be properly punished. And she is. She is banished and a royal decree is sent out throughout the kingdom that "each man should be master of his own domain."
Scene 2: Some time passes and the king has grown lonely. New advisors suggest that he summon all the virgins throughout his empire. They are to be brought to the palace, where they will spend an entire year undergoing a regiment of beauty treatments. Then, one by one, they will have one night with the king and, whichever virgin pleases him most, will become the new queen. Now you can see why I say that women were viewed as property and objects and, if they were to function as leaders, they needed to be very creative.
Among the young ladies summoned to the palace is Esther. When Esther's parents died, she was adopted by an older cousin, Mordecai. Mordecai is already employed within the palace. And, for a reason we do not know, although everyone is aware that Mordecai is Jewish, no one seems to be aware that Esther is Jewish. Now Esther is, apparently, a lovely young lady, and, upon her arrival at the palace, the king's assistant immediately begins to favor her. He gives her the best food and the best cosmetic treatments. When it comes Esther's time to "audition," shall we say, for the king, he is delighted with her and she becomes the new queen of Persia.
Next scene… Now, the story focuses on Esther's cousin, Mordecai. Mordecai is a faithful servant of the king and, on one occasion, he uncovers a palace coup. He reports the assassination plot to the king, via his cousin Esther. Although the king is grateful, he fails to reward Mordecai for his loyalty… A fact which will become critical as the story unfolds.
Second in command to the king is a man named Haman. Now, don’t get lost in our character list here. We have the king, Ahasuerus; his new queen, Esther; her cousin and the king’s advisor, Mordecai; and the king’s #2, Haman. Now Haman thinks quite a lot of himself. Mordecai, however, is not nearly so impressed. While other palace employees bow before Haman, Mordecai does not. He refuses and such insolence drives Haman nearly mad with rage. And in his rage, he makes a rash decision. Since he knows that Mordecai is a Jew, he decides that he will respond to his insubordination by exterminating the entire Jewish population. This he can do, of course, only with the king's approval.
So Haman approaches the king, dishing out half-truths designed to appeal to the king's ego and incite fearful self-preservation. He tells the king that these Jewish people are different; they have different laws. They separate themselves from other people and they disregard the king. Now, certainly the Jewish people were different and did have distinctive commandments that God had given them. But, they have been living peaceably among the other inhabitants of the Persian Empire and this Jew Mordecai has obviously demonstrated great loyalty to the king. Nevertheless, Haman's speech – and a rather large bribe – secures the king's approval for a day of slaughter. Haman may send out a decree throughout the empire that, on the 13th day of the month of Adar, it will be open season on the Jewish people. Anyone who may like may slaughter them – even their women and children.
When the decree is posted, Mordecai is devastated. He dresses in sackcloth and ashes and sits outside the palace gate weeping and fasting. Word of his behavior reaches Esther who, at this point, knows nothing of the decree. She summons a servant to approach Mordecai who relays the message of their impending doom. Furthermore, Mordecai advises Esther that she had better do something. But Esther is in a quandary for, not even the queen can approach the king unless she has been summoned. How can she do anything? Still her cousin Mordecai's words compel her to act. He says: "Do not think that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews… Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this." The task before Esther involves a life or death choice. She’s inspired to find a way to creatively step into leadership in order to save her people. Is she courageous and creative enough to find a way to influence the King to come to her aid and support her in saving the Jewish people?
Queen Esther must begin by taking the ultimate risk. She will approach the king unsummoned – a transgression punishable by death. Thankfully, the king gladly receives her into his presence. Such a bold move, he can only assume, means she has a request to make of him. And he invites her to make her request known. But Esther is creative. She does not reveal her hand too quickly. Esther's initial request is that she be allowed to prepare a dinner for the king and Haman.
Meanwhile, Haman continues to be incensed by Mordecai's failure, still, to bow before him and so, at his wife's suggestion, Haman erects a gallows on which Mordecai the Jew shall be hung to death come the 13th of Adar.
We're brought to another scene. It is night time and the king is suffering from insomnia. Wide awake in the middle of the night, he summons servants to bring him books containing the royal archives. If that wouldn't put you to sleep, I don't know what would. But the king is awake reading until dawn at which time he comes across the story of Mordecai who foiled a plot to assassinate him. King Ahasuerus notices that there is no record of Mordecai having received a reward for this good deed. About this time, Haman shows up for work. The king summons him and asks this question: "What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?" Haman, always full of himself, thinks the king is referring to him. So he suggests that the one the king wishes to honor should be clothed in royal garments and paraded through the city streets on a royal steed. Imagine how shocked Haman is when he is instructed to do just that for his arch-enemy Mordecai.
Haman returns home in disgust and shortly thereafter, is summoned for the royal feast with the king and queen. As they dine, Esther finally makes her request known. She wonders if the king might spare her people whose extermination is about to come to pass. The king, in his usual thick-headed fashion, wonders how this has come about. Duh. Esther points the finger at his right-hand man, Haman. Haman is seized with fear. The king, angry and clearly frustrated, takes a walk around the palace to clear his head. Meanwhile Haman, utterly distraught, proceeds to throw himself at Esther's feet and beg for his life. When the king returns he sees Haman throwing himself at Esther and assumes that he has added insult to injury by making a pass at the queen. Enraged, the king, under suggestion by a eunuch, has Haman put to death on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai.
And that, my friends, is the conclusion of this remarkable biblical tale.
Now a curious thing about the book of Esther is that the name of God never appears. Yet, the fact that God's name is absent does not mean that God is absent; for it appears that God has set the stage perfectly at each step along the way so that his chosen people will be preserved and protected, including raising up a very unlikely leader in this young woman named Esther.
As readers, we observe the inward struggle of this young girl in response to her wise cousin's challenge: "Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this." Who knows? Esther must determine where God may be leading her; her: a powerless young, foreign girl in a man’s world.
And then she must discern a way to creatively take the lead; to not simply sit on the sidelines and wait to see how things unfold; but to become a leader and an influencer determined to fulfill the task of saving her people. At the end of the day, she need only influence one person to join her. But the response of that one person, the king, presents a life and death risk for her. She is courageous for sure and clever. But, in order to succeed, she must be creative.
You know, over the years, church consultants have referred to what they call the church’s “seven deadly words”: “We’ve never done it that way before.” As Christians, we are often reluctant to be creative and bold and take risk; to think outside the box. Who knows if a new way of doing something has any chance of success? One definition of creativity is “the phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is formed.” Creativity adds value. Without creativity, we will simply do the same thing expecting different results. I remember years ago attending a workshop by Lyle Schaller in which he shared a story about a church in the early days of indoor plumbing. At a congregational meeting, a woman stood up to recommend they consider replacing the church’s outhouse with an indoor water closet. Several murmured their support of her suggestion, even though water closets weren’t yet being installed in churches. But then an influential member stood up and said, “We all know what people do in an outhouse. Do we want people doing that in the Lord’s house?” And with that one naysayer, members of that church were resigned to the outhouse for decades.
Friends: God’s first demonstrated attribute in scripture is creativity and we are made in God’s image. So, we must ask ourselves, “Are we willing to probe our God-given creative energy so that we might influence others in developing new and valuable ways to carry out our task: God’s purposes and Trinity’s vision?”
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