Finding your voice: your No and your Yes | Coming of Age | January 29

Text: Esther

When do you stop being a child and start being something else?

It’s a question cultures around the world have found important to answer.  Throughout time, human groups have created practices and rituals to mark that otherwise fuzzy boundary between childhood and adulthood.  And it’s done for the benefit of the young person and the community.  We need to know together that the child has become something else.  Childhood was a time of dependence, of protection and growth under the careful and loving watch of family.  Adulthood is a time of independence, increased responsibility and leadership, a time when one will ultimately grow into being a protector, a caring presence for the following generations.

Our culture has developed a third category of development between childhood and adulthood.  Adolescence.  It’s a period of tremendous growth and formation when you are no longer a child, yet not quite an adult.  So the question for us remains: when do you stop being a child, and start being something else?

Our congregation has created its own Coming of Age ritual to mark this transition out of childhood.   We’re in the middle of it right now.  This year we honor the Coming of Age of Elise, Gideon, Stella, and Dakota.  We’ve been preparing for this.  You helped create parts of the service.  A number of us have written blessings and naming of gifts for you.  Those have been compiled in notebooks that you’ll soon receive.  You’ve been matched with a mentor who will walk with you in the upcoming years.

Our hope is that you can experience today as a marker in your life.  A boundary marker.  On one side of the boundary is childhood.  Today we celebrate your cross over into adolescence.

As people of faith who value the role of community, we recommit ourselves to being the kind of community in which your God-given gifts and personhood can flourish.  That is our hope for you and for ourselves.

And so – Elise, Gideon, Stella, and Dakota – here we are.  When we met together three weeks ago we talked about how we shape our worship services around scripture.  I gave you a couple different options for the scripture that you would like to shape this service – to place your own experience within the broader story of the Bible.  You chose the story of Vashti and Esther.

So for starters, something we didn’t talk about when we studied this.  Esther is a book in our Bible, but there is a character who regularly shows up throughout the Bible who isn’t in Esther.  Doesn’t have a speaking part, isn’t even mentioned.  That character is:  God.  Interestingly enough, the book of Esther doesn’t mention God.  This maybe seems like a basic criterion for making it into the Bible, but that’s not the case.  This suggests it is possible to tell a holy story, a story that gives us wisdom and insight, without mentioning the name of God.  Or, here’s another way to think about it:  Since God doesn’t have a speaking part, who will be God’s voice?  Who will act on God’s behalf?  Who, in the story, represents the ways of God?  That’s an open question that makes this story all the more interesting.  It’s a question that makes our own lives more interesting.

We’ve already talked about this story together, but I’m going to review it just to bring the rest of these folks here up to speed.

Esther, I believe, is best read as a comedy.  It’s full of exaggeration and hyperbole.  It pokes fun at power, especially a certain mold of manhood that takes itself, and its importance, way too seriously.  Feminists have seen Esther as a proto-feminist novel, with a message that helps both women and men be truer to our best selves.

The story takes place several centuries before Christ – so Jesus isn’t mentioned either! – during the reign of the Persian Empire.  It’s set in one of the major cities of the Persians, Susa, where numerous Jews lived.  The opening verses of Esther introduce us to a King – King Ahasuerus, the most powerful man in the world, who rules over 127 provinces, ranging from India, to Ethiopia – lots of territory.  He is sitting on his royal throne, and he decides to throw a royal party.  A very big party.  A very long party.  180 days.  A half year party, during which he displays the great wealth of his kingdom.  Impressive.

When this half year party is over, the king decides that he kind of feels like… having a party, and throws a banquet for everyone in the city, lasting seven days.  A week long afterparty.  The next bit goes into details describing the elegant décor and furniture.  White curtains, marble pillars, couches made out of gold, and drinks served in gold goblets and the one rule about drinking was that there were no rules.  “Drink to your heart’s content,” the king orders.  The king, and all the king’s friends,  follow this rule very well.  They get everything their hearts desire.  Impressive.

On the seventh day, the king is feeling fantastic.  He’s in charge of the known world, has partied non stop for over half a year, has indulged in everything his heart desires, and now wants one more thing to make this the perfect ending to the perfect party.  He commands his seven attendants, not just one attendant, but his seven attendants to go, bring Queen Vashti all decked out in the royal crown, and have her come parade her beauty to all the peoples.  A perfect ending to the perfect party.

But here’s the problem, and here’s where all that merry-making screeches to a halt.  Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.

Vashti refused.  Refused to obey this king who always gets exactly what he wants.  Refused to come dance in front of all his highly intoxicated buddies.

Queen Vashti said No.

The king is not impressed.  The king is enraged.  The king doesn’t know what to say or do.  He needs his legal advisors.  This is an outrage, this is despicable, this is surely…illegal.  “Oh yes,” assure his advisors.  “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.”   If other women find out about this, they’re going to feel like they don’t have to do everything their husbands tell them to do.  It could be chaos.  This is a national security threat.  We’ve got to do something.  So, the king and his advisors send letters to all the provinces, from India to Ethiopia, written in everyone’s native language, “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”  That ought to solve it.

That’s the end of chapter one.  And that’s pretty much the end of Vashti, as far as this story is concerned.  She is dethroned, fired from queenship, and banished.

And all we really know about Vashti from this story is that, she said No.  She refused.

I asked you if you thought Vashti was a hero or a villain.  You said she was a hero.  You also noted that she would be seen as a villain by some, like the king.

The cool part about the first chapter of Esther is that it uses over-the-top satire to mock the kind of abusive power, prevalent throughout so much of history.  The kind of power which is so threatened when someone refuses to go along.  The sad part of this, is that for most of history, people haven’t gotten the joke.  Vashti has often been portrayed as a villain – assuming that the king was the good guy, and mysterious Vashti, was the bad woman.  So does the king speak for God, or might God be represented in the voice of Vashti?

In 1878 Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s disobedience the “first stand for woman’s rights.” (1878). (Bible heroines: being narrative biographies of prominent Hebrew women in the patriarchal, national, and Christian eras, giving views of women in sacred history, as revealed in the light of the present day. Fords, Howard, & Hulbert. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.)

A few years later, in 1895 Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti “added new glory to [her] day and generation…by her disobedience; for “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.” (1895). (The woman’s Bible: a classic feminist perspective. European Pub Co. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.)

One of the wonderful gifts of growing up, of entering adolescence and adulthood, is that you start to find your voice.  You listen to the voices of others, you learn from what others have said and done.  And, as you do this, your own voice starts to emerge – your own convictions and perspective, and the unique gifts that you have to bring to the world.  And one part of that voice, is finding your No.  Of all the things happening in this world, around you, in your lifetime, what are you going to say No to?  What are you going to refuse to go along with?

When you say No, you are in good company.  The banished queen Vashti smiles on you.  Your No in a situation of injustice or harmfulness could very well be the voice of God being expressed through you.

But there’s another important player in this story.  There is a vacancy in the queen department, and someone is going to have to fill it.  As it turns out, the next queen is a Jew, Esther, although the all-power, all-knowing king doesn’t know she is a Jew.

Esther takes a different path than Vashti, and we’re most likely more familiar with her part of the story.  She becomes one of the many young women in the king’s harem, his company of sexually available women.  Esther and these other women follow all the rules of proper cosmetic treatments and diet and dress, at the king’s command for his own pleasure.  And when it’s Esther’s night to be in bed with the king, the story says that “the king loved Esther more than all the other women…so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.”  Congratulations Esther.  And to celebrate?  The king throws a party.

The king “loved” Esther.  Esther isn’t like Vashti.  Esther is different.  Esther does what she’s told.  The King “loved” Esther, but we’re not told about Esther’s thoughts or feelings at this point.  Maybe she despised this role she was forced into.  Maybe she felt honored, chosen, and would have been content to be in that situation the rest of her life.  What we do know is that, for better or worse, she found herself in a position of power and influence, and she was presented with a situation where she would have to make a decision that would affect not just her life, but the life of her people.

A high ranking official in the king’s court, Haman, had a big enough ego that he felt everyone should bow down to him and when Mordecai the Jew does not bow to him, Haman convinces the king to destroy all the Jews.

Mordecai hears of this, and does the one thing he thinks can reverse the situation.  He pleads with Esther to risk her own life in order to save the lives of her people.  And his plea includes that key phrase which brings it all into focus: “Who knows?” Mordecai says to Esther.  “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”  For such a time as this.

Esther did not ask to be put in this situation, but it has come to her and she has a decision to make.  It was up to Vashti to say No, and it is up to Esther to say Yes, at such a time as this.  And she does.  And she’s pretty savvy about it.  By now she’s figured out that this king likes parties, so she’s sure to have a couple big banquets for him before she reveals her Jewish identity and her demand that her people be saved. Esther’s Yes ends up saving her people, and opening the king’s eyes to the plots of Haman.

Throughout childhood you have a lot of decisions made for you.  You’re going to eat this for supper.  You’re going to go to bed at this time.  No, you can’t have that.  Yes, we are going to church this morning.  Some of those things might not change much while you’re still living with your parents.  But as you cross the threshold into adolescence you are starting to find your own No and your own Yes.  What will you resist and not go along with?  What will you pursue?

One of the signs of moving from childhood to something else, is that you start making decisions not just on the basis of how they affect you personally, but how they affect those around you.  Those 19th century American women felt that Vashti had said No not just for herself, but for them as well.  Esther says Yes on behalf of an entire people, and on behalf of us, women and men.

It’s hard to find your Yes, and may never be perfectly clear.  But when you find your Yes, it will not just be your Yes, but it will be the Yes of God expressing itself through you.  You will become God’s hands and feet in situations where God’s name may not even be mentioned, but where God’s presence is experienced through you.

As your church, we believe that each of you is a gift from God, and that you each are being given a voice.  We will be beside you to help you find that voice.  And although only you can determine your own No and your own Yes, we pray with you that you will never need to be alone in living out either one.  Even though you may still feel like a child sometimes, you are now also something else.  We honor you and welcome you across that boundary.