Sunday, October 21, 2018

“Resisting Empire: Mordecai”

Esther 2:5-11
Sunday, October 21, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

A Wrinkle in Time almost never happened. Madeleine L’Engle’s now-classic novel, originally published in 1963, was rejected 26 times before someone finally said, “You know, I think we should publish this!” No one knew quite what to do with a science fiction novel, written by a woman, with a teenage girl as the protagonist. Publishers weren’t sure if the book was for children or adults. They didn’t believe children could handle a book that dealt with Evil head on...and they didn’t think adults would want to read a book primarily about children.

L’Engle said she never really understood the difference between books for children and adults, anyway. “People underestimate children,” she once said. “They think you have to write differently. You don’t. You just have to tell a story.” [1]

I loved this story as a child AND as an adult. Every few years I go on a L’Engle spree and re-read all of the books in the series. One of the scenes that still gives me chills is the scene where Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace arrive on Camazotz. They have gone to this alien world to rescue Meg and Charles Wallace’s father.

Shortly after arriving, they find themselves in an odd neighborhood. All of the houses look the same and, in front of each house, stand children who are bouncing balls and skipping rope. With a shiver, Charles Wallace notices that all of the children are bouncing their balls and skipping their ropes to the same rhythm. When one little boy accidentally drops his ball, his mother comes outside and quickly whisks the boy inside, hoping no one saw his mistake. The protagonists from Earth try to return the ball to him but his mother, visibly shaken, says, “Oh no! The children in our section never drop balls. They’re all perfectly trained. We haven’t had an Aberration for three years.” [2]

Charles Wallace turns to his big sister as they leave the neighborhood. “What are they afraid of? What’s the matter with them?” [2]

The people of Camazotz live in what biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman would call “ideological totalism.” A state where there is only one right way for everything. A society where creativity is muzzled and dissent is suppressed. This is a place of Empire. And Brueggemann has a lot to say about Empire.

Empire is the system where the primary goal of leaders is simply to maintain power. All decisions are made with the aim of consolidating, expanding and retaining power. The economy is one of “extraction,” Brueggeman says. A system where resources are taken from those who live at the bottom of society and ruthlessly sucked up into the upper echelons.

A place where Kings and those close to them throw parties that last for months on end. A place where slavery and abuse is rampant. A place where women must come when called. A place where children are ripped from their parents. A place where men must be “masters in their own homes.” A place where any dissent, no matter how small, puts authorities on high alert and can have grave consequences for those who don’t fall in line.

You may recognize Empire from the pages of the Book of Esther. You may also recognize Empire in places a little closer to home.

Walter Brueggemann speaks of the ways Empire demands absolute intolerance of alternative ways of being, doing, living. In a state of ideological totalism, there is only one rhythm guiding the bouncing of balls and skipping of ropes. Anything outside that one way regiseres as a threat. [3]

Brueggeman names that this intolerance is enforced by the militarization of many aspects of a society. Setting his sights on contemporary culture in the U.S. he cites the militarization of police and sports as symptoms of Empire among us. He says, “It turns out that the NFL is really the great military liturgy. And now at NFL football games, the announcer says, ‘Please stand, and place your hand on your heart.’ It's a kind of coerced patriotism.” [4]

It is the job of the Church, Brueggemann says, to walk in the ways of Jesus - that great prophet who imagined other ways of living, who acted out alternatives to Empire. But we have to know that if we take seriously this work of walking in Jesus’s ways, there will be consequences. Just look at Colin Kaepernick, Brueggemann says, and you’ll quickly see that “the system is ready to ruthlessly silence” anyone who refuses to stand on command, shut up when shushed, perform just so, skip rope to the right rhythm. [5]

Last week we explored the character of Queen Vashti in the Book of Esther. She was certainly one who refused to skip rope to the rhythm of Empire. This week we are focusing on Mordecai, who - quite literally - refused to bow to Empire.

After Queen Vashti is deposed for her refusal to perform for the drunken King, we are introduced to the character of Mordecai. The text tells us several important things about Mordecai by way of introduction. 1) He is a Jew, living in Susa...which means his is a religious and ethnic minority, 2) he is the descendant of those who were forcibly removed from their homeland during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia...which means he is the descendent of refugees, 3) he adopted his cousin, Esther, when her parents died...which means he has spent his life living in close proximity to and protecting an orphan. And you can’t read too much of the Bible without realizing that orphans often stand as a symbol for all who are cast aside and vulnerable.

So just in this brief introduction, we come to understand that Mordecai knows a thing or two about what it means to live as an outsider under Empire. When the King’s men come to round up all the beautiful young girls in the Empire to audition for the role of queen, Mordecai learns about another facet of living under Empire. His cousin, Esther, who he has raised as his own child, is taken from him. And there’s nothing he can do about it.

And so Mordecai does what desperate people craving justice often do….he shows up. Again and again. Coming as close as he is allowed to the power center of Empire,  we are told he “sits at the king’s gate” day after day. We are told that every day he comes to see how Esther is faring. And we are told that he gave her one piece of advice before she was taken from him: do not let anyone know that you are a Jew. Hide, he says. Protect yourself.

One day, as Mordecai is hanging around the palace he overhears two of the King’s guards conspiring to assassinate the King. Now, one might think that Mordecai, being an unlikely ally of the King, might just turn his head the other way and ignore the plot. Let it unfold as it will.

But….he makes a different choice. We are not told his motivations for intervening.

Perhaps he simply doesn’t believe anyone deserves to be murdered. Perhaps he is planning ahead and hoping to give Esther more bargaining power in the future. Or maybe he realizes that truth that so many resisters-of-Empire know: that evil forces do not simply reside in the person at the top. And the removal of one person rarely changes an Empire. It simply creates a vacuum for another person to ascend to the top….and that person is likely to come with many of the same problems as the person before. Empire has a way of perpetuating corrupt and careless leaders.

Mordecai is one who makes careful choices. Cautioning Esther to stay quiet about her identity. Saving the king’s life. Giving Esther one of the most inspirational pep talks of all time when their backs are against the wall.

But Mordecai is not some one-dimensional character in a fairytale, either. He makes choices that are fraught, too. His head is put on a literal chopping block when he refuses to bow to the King’s right hand man, Haman. If Mordecai had just bowed, just kept his head down, perhaps Haman wouldn’t have turned against all the Jews in the first place, right? It’s easy to question someone else’s motives. How many times have you heard someone say (or maybe you’ve even thought to yourself), “Well, I agree with with Colin Kaepernick is saying, but I wish he would SAY it in a different way.” Just as there are some who wish Kaepernick would stand, I’m sure there were many who were shocked and dismayed when Mordecai refused to bow.

Interestingly, the Book of Esther is not one of those books that gets wrapped up with a neat-and-tidy bow at the end. It is not one of those books where the “good guys” are blameless, either. Because what Mordecai and Esther do once they come into power is distressing. Rather than simply calling off the genocide previously planned by Haman...rather than simply protecting their people, they encourage massive revenge. Tens of thousands of people are killed at the end of this book - one side unleashing violence on the other. THAT part never gets read in church but you can read it yourself in chapters 9 and 10.

And so, the choices Mordecai makes as he navigates his position within Empire are not so easy to deify or vilify. They are as complex as he is. I am left puzzled at the end of this book….only not SO puzzled. Because I, too, have seen how living within the ways of Empire can breed hate. I know that a lifetime of fear can create the desire for revenge.
Into these places where the values of Empire seem to have the final say, I believe the Spirit is still whispering visions of another way.

The one we call Jesus came - following in the footsteps of so many prophets who came before - breathing new life into places where Empire rules with an iron fist.

God beckons us to imagine a different world. A realm of love, equality, justice, peace. A realm where the last are first...and no lamb is insignificant enough that she can be lost. A realm where no one is outside, because Jesus always sets a place for those we’d perhaps rather not dine with. A realm where children skip rope to the beat of their own hearts and no one lives in fear.

We haven’t made it there quite yet, but we see glimpses of it from time to time...and we continue to hold God’s vision in our mind’s eye. We continue to have a “sense of being otherwise” as Bruggemann would say. [6] We have not yet succumbed to Empire completely, and I believe we never will.

May it be so.

[2] L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. P. 103-106 in the Dell Publishing version, 21st edition.

[3, 4, 5, 6]

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