Tag Archives: Noah

Esther: Fate? Luck? A Story for Our Time – Esther 4:12-17, Romans 14:7-10, and John 14:25-27

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 17, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

Esther 4:12-17 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

Romans 14:7-10 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

John 14:25-27 [Jesus said to his disciples]  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

[sermon begins]

I went to a play called “Sweet and Lucky” about a month ago.[1]  Not your usual play in which you walk into a theater, sit down, and watch the actors on a stage.  “Sweet and Lucky” guides the audience in small groups, out of sequence from each other, across many rooms and sets as it tackles the idea of memory and how it works.

A relevant aside, I just found out last week that the show’s New York director, Zach Morris, is a confirmed son of the Augustana congregation. I mean that in the ritual sense.  Years ago, he affirmed his baptism in the rite of Confirmation here. His mother Maggie and sister Katelynn continue to worship here regularly.  Maggie handed me an article last Sunday about the play.  Funny how things happen like that and a connection can be seen only in hindsight.

And that takes us back to the play and why it may be at least loosely relevant to the sermon today.  At one point, an actor asked me if I believe in luck.  I said, “No.” She then asked if I believe in fate.  I said, “No…I think there’s an option that we aren’t able to understand.”  Just her luck that she got to talk with me, eh?  But her questions are onto something.  We are meaning-making beings.  Things need to mean something. If they don’t mean something, we’re stymied.  If they mean something terrifying, we’re still stymied.  We throw everything we can at situations to find some kind of answer to feel better about them. Whether it’s luck, fate, karma, God’s will, free will, or something else I can’t think of at the moment. Things happen and we start asking “why?” We want answers.  We are answer mongers and meaning makers.  When things happen, either we find answers or we make them up.

This reasoning out the “why” is the surface appeal of the Book of Esther.  Esther is an orphan 500 years before Jesus.  Not just any orphan, she’s descended a few generations from the Jewish people who were rounded up in Jerusalem and carted off into Persia by the king of Babylon. Esther is adopted by her cousin Mordecai and raised as his own daughter.[2]

Through a series of circumstances, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia, married to King Ahasuerus.[3]  She remains a Jew but this secret is kept from even the king himself.  Then comes Haman, second in power only to the king.  Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman so Haman plots to murder Mordecai, and I quote the Bible story here, “by giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews…”[4]

Mordecai catches wind of Haman’s orders to kill the Jews. What follows are a number of servant delivered messages between Mordecai and Esther.[5]  Mordecai challenges Esther to save her people. Esther argues back that the king could have her put to death if she shows up uninvited.  And then comes Mordecai’s message back to her, “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.”

Even Mordecai is looking for an answer to the “why” question while he’s looking for an answer to help his people.  The way he asks Esther to help implies that it is either her fate or God’s will or some combination of the two.  In the end, she resolves to help even through it could mean her death and she says, “…if I perish, I perish.”[6]

Esther’s story is cleaned up quite a bit for the G-rated worship musical the kids are preaching through this morning’s 10:30 worship. To get the full story takes reading this Bible book laced with dark humor and questionable outcomes. While reading, it’s engaging to wonder about your own life as reflected in Esther’s self-sacrificial courage, Mordecai’s righteous determination, Haman’s fearful self-preservation, and King Ahasuerus’ detached ignorance.

Esther’s story is meaningful and relevant to the current moment in the world. She begins in the royal court, a place of comfort tainted by episodic fear and indifference. Rattled by Mordecai’s truth, her acceptance of risking death has a self-sacrificial purpose – neither fatalistic nor nihilistic. She listens to him, formulates a dubious plan, and goes into action on behalf of her people.  And the parts of the story you just heard happen in only four short chapters with a little over half the book to go.

Mark George, my Hebrew Bible professor was asked why the stories in these earliest writings are the ones that remain.  Dr. George resisted pious or academic answers.  He said with high intensity, “Because they’re GOOD stories!”  He might have even had a fist in the air when he said it.  There was that much emphasis.  “Because they’re GOOD stories!”

They’re good partly because the stories they tell are about complicated people. Trusty Noah?  Read what happens after the flood when he builds a vineyard and makes wine.[7]  Faithful Abraham?  Lied about Sarah being his sister to save his own skin not once but twice![8] Biblical heroes are often as flawed as they are faithful.  That makes for good story.

It also makes for something more than a good story.  It means that we have a shot at seeing our particular iteration of flawed and faithful in the pages of the Good Book.

Esther is no exception to Dr. George’s “GOOD story” category.  In the face of Haman’s treachery and King Ahasuerus’ indifference, Esther is challenged to save her Jewish people, putting her life at risk to do so.  But the reality is that while we aspire to Esther, we’re regularly caught in moves that smack of King Ahasuerus’ ignorance or Haman’s power grab.  Comparing Esther’s self-sacrificial resolve to Christ’s self-sacrifice may get us a little further.  Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is good for this comparison.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death on the cross is the inevitable outcome to his life-giving ministry.  Inevitable because the life he offers is one of mercy, freedom, and peace which is perceived as a threat by the people around him.  In his death no hand is raised against the people God so loves. Rather, Jesus is resolved to see it through. Resolve that ends in self-sacrifice on a cross.

Jesus’ resolute self-sacrifice means that Christians are neither nihilists nor fatalists.  Nihilists argue that life is meaningless. Fatalists argue that life is determined by an impersonal fate.  Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans reflect a Christian’s take on life – “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

Paul’s words are a confession of faith.  Not a faith that protects us against the struggles of life and death.  Rather, a faith that confesses Jesus’ resolve to make redemption and healing known even from the most difficult situation.[9]  And still we may not see the redemption and healing except for time passing and hindsight, if we get to see it at all.

The readings today from Esther, Romans, and John, offer slightly different perspectives on fear, death, and peace.  In John, Jesus promises peace as the One whose ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross is purposeful rather than nihilistic – gathering us around the tree of the cross, transforming death into life as well as our self-preservation and indifference into action for the sake of the world God so loves.


[1] Zach Morris. Sweet and Lucky, a collaboration between Third Rail Projects and Denver Center for Performing Arts Off-Center.

[2] Esther 2:7

[3] Esther, chapters 1 and 2

[4] Esther, chapter 3. Direct quote is from verse 13.

[5] Esther, chapter 4

[6] Esther 4:16

[7] Genesis 9:20-27

[8] See Genesis chapters 12 and 20.

[9] David Lose. “Faith, Forgiveness, and 9-11.”  Dear Working Preacher… September 4, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1595

To Do or Not To Do [OR Whose List Is This Anyway?!] Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22

To Do or Not To Do [OR Whose List Is This Anyway?]  Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 8, 2015


[sermon begins after these two Bible readings]

Exodus 20:1-17 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

John 2:13-22 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


[sermon begins]

I was early to the Worship Committee meeting this past Tuesday evening.  A couple other people were already there.  Typical of pre-meeting conversations, we meandered through each other’s lives, getting updates on home and work until stumbling into a conversation about calendars.  I was feeling thankful for having a cloud version on what I like to call my not-so-smart-phone.  If I need to put something on the calendar, it’s right there with me. This morphed into a virtues of electronic and paper calendars and then moved into the various ways we keep to-do lists.  One of us is all-electronic, one is all-paper, and one a hybrid of the two.

This conversation has me thinking about why we make lists at all.  In my world, there is one continuous list that I simply add to over time.  Things get marked off as done and added on to be done.  People get contacted, visits get made, articles get written, meetings get scheduled, and errands get run.  Lists are practical.  Things need to get done.  And lists are emotional.  People need to be remembered.

One of the all-time classic lists is The Ten Commandments.  Like many of our own lists, The Ten Commandments reflect something already in play long before the list itself was put together.  Different than our own lists, though, these are not 10 new things given to the people of Israel as if they have never heard them before or done them before.  Rather, they are a list of convenience. The Ten Commandments are practical.   A way to make the law handy to remember it.[1]   And The Ten Commandments are emotional.  These people in the desert need to remember God and for God to remember them.

Here’s where things get murky.  Remembering the list somehow turns into memorializing the list.  And memorializing the list cements it into a to-do list.  Not just any old to-list, but one given to us from an unpredictable, high-maintenance God.  And when we turn it into that kind of to-do list, the list turns on us.  Pretty soon, the list becomes more than a handy reminder.  The list itself becomes the very kind of idol we are warned about in the list.  Ironic.

For a little help, let’s back up to Genesis, the first book in the Bible just before Exodus.  In the very first chapter of the creation story in Genesis, the very first command is given in the pre-sin Garden.[2]  Law was not an original idea first conceived for The Ten Commandments.  Law came before those commandments.  Furthermore, The Ten Commandments are listed again with a slight variation a few books later in the Bible in Deuteronomy.[3]  Terence Fretheim argues that The Ten Commandments seem “to require adaptation in view of new times and places.”

The quick summary in list form?

1)      Law came before The Ten Commandments in Exodus.

2)      The Ten Commandments started changing after they were written in Exodus.

Why does any of this matter?  It matters because we are in the 21st century trying to be faithful Christians alongside people from all walks of life, some of whom are fellow Christians.  And The Ten Commandments turn into an occasion of sin against God and neighbor as if their use keeps the high-maintenance God-of-our-imagination happy.  We sorely miss the point when we beat each other up using the Ten Commandments or, for that matter, beat each other up using Jesus or a bad decision or socio-political differences or religious commitments.

One way to keep The Ten Commandments in perspective is to see the larger story.  Two weeks ago, we were regaled with the covenant God made with Noah; last week, we heard about God’s covenant with Abraham; and this week we are treated to epic Moses moment of God’s covenant with the Israelites.  Each covenant God makes builds upon and includes the covenant that came before.  Do we ever once hear from God, “Okay, scratch that covenant, let’s make a new one that erases the old one.”  No, we don’t.  In fact, we hear reminders from God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  This history, these relationships, are an important part of each covenant God makes.  Not erasing the past and people.  Rather expanding to make room for the people here now.  With each new covenant, God ups the ante

Look at our Gospel reading from John today.  Look closely at it.  Who gets booted from the temple?  “Both the sheep and the cattle.”  That’s it.  “The sheep and the cattle.” The domesticated animals get booted.  Left in the temple are the undomesticated Jesus and the people.  This is no accident in the Gospel of John.  The sacrificial system is disrupted with the sending of the animals.  Jesus is the disrupter, anticipating the time when his death and resurrection would expand God’s covenant through Abraham and Moses to all people.  A covenant atoning for us today through the crucified and risen one.  One more time, God ups the ante again, this time with God’s very self in the person of Jesus.  When we sing in worship about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, this is who we’re singing about.[4]  The one who lets the sheep and cattle live another day, is also the one who gives us life through his very death.

Just a moment ago, I talked about The Ten Commandments being turned into an occasion of sin for us when we imagine a high-maintenance God that we’re making happy with us by following the commandments as God’s to-do list.  Here’s the twist.  WE are the high-maintenance ones.  To paraphrase an old movie – we’re the worst kind; we’re high maintenance but we think we’re low maintenance.[5]   God comes through time and again, with covenant after covenant.  The Ten Commandments is a short-hand list about loving our God more and loving other people more.  Really, God?!  We need to be reminded to stay faithful to our partners?  Yes.  We need to be reminded to explain each other’s actions in the kindest of ways?  Yes.  We need to be reminded to love you, God?  Yes.

People often ask me what I think God’s will is in many kinds of situations.  Here’s what I know for sure.  God wants us to love God and love each other.  That’s our to-do list.  To love God in spite our high-maintenance need to be certain and to love each other in spite of our high-maintenance need to be right.

The first words in the reading from Exodus today are words of redemption… “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” [6]

God’s to-do list?  To be your God.

To be your God in spite of all the ways you run away, hide from, ignore, and make fun of God.

To be your God by slipping into skin and disrupting the status quo through loving and healing you.

To be your God by dying because all of that loving and healing threatens your own to-do lists.

To be your God by living again and living in you.

[1] Terence Fretheim.  Commentary: Exodus 20:1-17 for March 8, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org

[2] Genesis 1:28 “Be fruitful and multiply…”

[3] Deuteronomy 5:6-21.  More from Fretheim: Verse 21 – “(W)ife is exchanged with house and given her own commandment, perhaps reflecting a changing role for women in that culture.”

[4] Craig R. Koester.  Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 84.

[5] When Harry Met Sally (1989).  Quotes from the movie:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098635/quotes

[6] Exodus 20:2 – More from Fretheim: “God’s own introduction to these words is important for an appropriate understanding: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Ten Commandments are not a law code, a body of laws that are meant to float free of their narrative context. This introductory line [is] about redemption…”