Sunday, October 14, 2018

“Resisting Empire: Queen Vashti Refuses”

Esther 1:5-12
Sunday, October 14, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away from here in time and space, but, perhaps not-so-very-far-away-from-here in spirit and sort, there was a King named Ahasuerus. He was kind of a big deal. The Book of Esther tells he us was king of the 127 provinces of the Persian Empire, stretching all the way from India to Ethiopia.

The Rev. Kaji Douša has this to say about King Ahasuerus:
You may not know his name, but,
oh, you know him.

The kind of man so
filled with entitlement that he would
order [his wife] to interrupt her important work and
Enter a den of drunkards with their ogling eyes.

The kind of man so accustomed to
accessing a woman’s body that
when she refused,

he was so overcome with rage that he
punished her brutally. [1]

This kind of man doesn’t only exist in long ago, far away places, does he?

Well, in those days, as King Ahasuerus sat on his big, important throne in his winter palace in Susa, he was still a baby king in some ways. Just three years into his reign. And the king was doing what those who rule Empire love to do….relax, throw a party, let the wine flow freely, invite all the important people, remind them of their place in the pecking order, show off.

And this...this was quite a party. It went on for, we are told, “many days, one hundred and eighty days in all.” After the six-month-long party, the King gave a second party for everyone in the citadel. And this was also a big party. “Drinks were served in golden goblets,” the text says. “Goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. Drinking was by the jug-full, without restraint.”

This party was a party just for men. We know this because we are told there was a second party next door, a party for women, hosted by Queen Vashti. That’s the important work that the King interrupted when he demanded her presence. She was doing her duty as host, welcoming guests into the royal palace.

So on the seventh day of this party, when the king is good and drunk, he calls together his eunuchs and orders them to bring the Queen to him. To the party with all the drunk men. To the party where there are, presumably, no women present. The king wants to show her off like the prize piece of property that she is. He even goes so far to tell her what she should wear for the show:

Her crown.

A brief word about how this is all supposed to work, because it’s not what most of us are accustomed to. The king had many women at his disposal. The Queen, yes, but also a whole harem of other women to choose from. These women, including the Queen, lived mostly in their own world, apart from the king and the minions of Empire.

The men they interacted with most often were the eunuchs - men who, for whatever reason, were found to be uninterested in stealing the king’s property, i.e. the women. The eunuchs acted as the go-between for these two separate worlds. And when the king decided he wanted to see a certain woman, his wife or one of his many other options, he sent a eunuch to fetch her.

The woman’s job was clearly defined. She was to say yes. Every time. No exceptions. In fact, I’m fairly certain the yes wasn’t even expected. Saying no was such an impossibility, such an unheard of thing, that yes wasn’t even required. When the eunuch comes for you, you fix your face and go to the king. That’s the only option.


The drunk king called for Queen Vashti, his wife, to show her off to his buddies. Wearing her crown.

And, the text says this: “Queen Vashti refused.”

She said no.

From her “no” flows the entirety of the Book of Esther, which we are going to be studying together for the next three weeks. Vashti’s “no” sets the stage for all of the “yeses” that Esther will be uttering soon...and we’re going to get to those in future weeks. But before we do, I want to sit for just today with this woman named Vashti who refused.

What happened after she says no? We are told that the king was enraged. I think we can all picture it, can’t we? For, as Rev. Douša pointed out, we’ve all known men like King Ahasuerus, haven’t we? We can see the creased forehead, the eyebrows knit together in rage. We can see the blood rising, the heart pounding, the sweat dripping as he slams down his cup, punches a hole in the wall, lets loose a string of words that I certainly won’t be saying from this pulpit.

We know what it looks like when a man who never hears no is told “no,” don’t we?

Interestingly, this big-little king….ruling an Empire so large, yet still so new to his job, seems to need a lot of advice. He does nothing on his own. He is the one with all the power, yet he is not a decisive leader with vision. He is a playboy whose only real goal seems to be making himself look good. Retaining his status as the head of his Empire is his only concern.

So he calls together his advisors and asks them how to respond. How to save face after such a public embarrassment. The advisors have a quick response (those who give advice to Kings seem to always know their next move). And what they want is to make sure this doesn’t get out of hand.

For, you see, Queen Vashti’s decision to refuse the king wasn’t just a little tiff between husband and wife. It’s seen as something far more sinister.

Because if the queen can disobey the king then we’re going to have a real problem here, fellas. Before you know it, every woman in the Empire is going to think that she can disobey HER husband. She’s going to think she can tell him to make his own sandwich. She’s going to start talking about consent and female empowerment and having autonomy over her own body.

This won’t do.

And not just because all the men want their wives to obey them. But there’s an even bigger problem that could be disastrous for the entire Empire and it’s this: once people from one oppressed group start questioning the order of things, once they start saying no, the whole house of cards is going to fall.

It may start with the women, but soon it’ll be the enslaved people working in the fields, the paupers without a penny to their name, the immigrants who don’t speak the right language or celebrate the right holidays. The last will be first, the first will be last. Before you know it we’re going to have a mass mutiny on our hands because:
Empire only works when people believe the lie that some people are worth more than others.

If a resistor takes aim at one form of oppression, it’s really an assault on the whole enterprise. Because:
Empire only works when interlocking systems of oppression support one another.

So the men tell the king that he has to act swiftly and decisively. “Send out a decree to the whole kingdom,” they say, “Let them know that you’ve done away with Queen Vashti and that all women everywhere must honor their husbands, high and low alike. Remind them that every man should be master in his own house. By doing so, you protect your own vast Empire.”

And so the decree is made. And we don’t ever learn what exactly happens to Queen Vashti. She is cast aside. There are real costs for resisting Empire, you know.

For the next two weeks in worship we’ll learn from two other characters in the Book of Esther - Mordecai, who works and strategizes behind-the-scenes with his cousin, Esther, who succeeds Vashti as queen. Both Mordecai and Esther and walk a tightrope as outsiders who suddenly find themselves with access to those who run the show.

Each resists in their own way. Each has something to teach us. Because, as the book of Esther reminds us, there isn’t just one “right” way to resist Empire. Pushing back against those who oppress, imprison, injure, manipulate, cast aside, is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise. Resisting successfully requires us to bring the fullness of our creativity and focus to the work at hand.

As we learn from Vashti, Mordecai, and Esther, may our ears and minds and hearts be open to the movement of the Spirit in this story from a long-ago-and-far-away place that’s not so unfamiliar to us after all.

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