September 4, 2016 Sermon
“A Party of Giving”
1st Scripture Reading – Esther 1:1-9
1 This happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. 2 In those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 3 in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present, 4 while he displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred eighty days in all.
5 When these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings[b] and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones. 7 Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8 Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired.9 Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.
2nd Scripture Reading – Esther 9:20-28
20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. 23 So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.
24 Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur—that is “the lot”—to crush and destroy them; 25 but when Esther came before the king, he gave orders in writing that the wicked plot that he had devised against the Jews should come upon his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows.26 Therefore these days are called Purim, from the word Pur. Thus because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them, 27 the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year, as it was written and at the time appointed. 28 These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city; and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.
“A Party of Giving”
It seems fitting that we would end our sermon series entitled, “A Party Called Faith” with the book of Esther. I mean, it just might be the biggest party book in the Bible. The book of Esther begins and ends with parties.
Our scripture from chapter one details an extravagant party thrown by Persian King Ahasuerus. Our reading from chapter nine details the amazing party that is the festival of Purim…a festival celebrating how the Jews were once again saved by their enemies – and even though God is not mentioned in the institution of the festival or even in the whole book of Esther, the book clearly presents God’s hand guiding the actions that saved God’s people.
And in between these two parties – the feast of the king at the beginning and the inaugural Purim celebration at the end – another eight parties or banquets are described…so that in a book containing only ten chapters, ten parties are described. Pretty amazing, right? If Esther was the only book of our scriptures, we would most certainly get the sense that partying is central to our faith.
As we look at the book of Esther, and more specifically at the festival of Purim instituted in the book, we can learn one more very important element about this party called faith. But in order to do so, we must first consider the story.
The story of Esther is relatively simple. It is set in the land of Persia, after God’s people had been kicked out of the Promised Land and were scattered far and wide. The Persian Empire dominated that part of the world, and God’s people, by this time known as the Jews, God’s people were scattered throughout the Persian Empire. The King of Persia, named Ahasuerus, needed a new queen – his previous queen had displeased him and lost her position. And he started a kind of beauty contest to find a new queen. Esther, a beautiful young Jew, won the contest but kept her identity as a Jew a secret. In the meantime, a feud was brewing between the king’s right-hand man, a guy named Haman, and Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, who raised Esther and so was more like a father to her than a cousin. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow to Haman, and Haman’s hatred and general evil nature compelled him to trick the king into signing an order to encourage the slaughter of all of Mordecai’s people, God’s people, on a date in the near future. In order to save her people, Esther had a difficult choice to make: she could approach her husband, the king, without being summoned – which was potentially punishable by death – and reveal her identity as a Jew in an appeal for the king to save her people…or she could let Haman’s plan be completed and witness the annihilation of her people (with the hope that she would be spared because her identity as a Jew was a secret identity.) Ultimately, Esther decided to act with courage; she approached the king, revealed Haman’s plot, and saved the day.
Which brings me to Purim. A description of Purim I found reads: “Purim is a carnival atmosphere with special noisemakers used to drown out the name of Haman each time it is heard in the reading [of the book of Esther…which is read during Purim.] Children dress in costume, similar to Halloween, and adults are allowed to drink until they do not know the difference between Haman and Mordecai. Legend has it that Haman wore a three-cornered hat, so…” pastries with a long name that means Haman’s hat “…are a specialty of Purim.” The person describing the holiday suggests that all of the aforementioned features give Purim something other than a decidedly religious bent.
It’s a fascinating holiday. When I looked for images of Purim celebrations online, Purim looked like a cross between Mardis Gras and Halloween. But most of what it has become was NOT instituted in scripture. Not a big surprise; I mean, I don’t remember Christmas trees or Christmas lights or presents under the tree being instituted in scripture for the celebration of Christmas or anything about egg hunts being instituted in scripture for the celebration of Easter…but we do those things, anyway. But did you notice there IS one aspect of today’s Purim celebrations – other than a general call to celebrate – that was instituted in scripture?
“they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.” – Esther 9:21-22
Oh…I failed to mention in the description of Purim I offered just a bit ago – the practices of giving gifts of food to one another and making charitable donations on Purim continue to this day…and giving is the primary aspect of Purim that has a decidedly religious bent.
Which got me thinking…why does gift-giving accompany the celebration of Purim? Or, perhaps to pose the question more accurately, why is gift-giving part of the party…especially gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor?
I don’t know about you, but when I read Esther, the story of Esther’s courage doesn’t seem to include incidents of gift-giving or charity. What’s that about?
With some research, I discovered that there are two commandments here – one to give gifts of food to others WITHIN the community and one to give presents to the poor…wherever they are. Two types of gifts, and two reasons.
First, gifts of food to one another. Over time, the Jews have interpreted this command as a requirement for each Jew to send two types of ready-to-eat food to at least one FRIEND on the day of Purim. But, why give food to a friend? In the story of Esther, the evil villain Haman made a specific accusation against the Jewish people when he presented his evil plot to the king. Haman described the Jews as “a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of” Persia. Haman described the Jews as lacking unity and togetherness. As a result, the Jews interpret the command in Esther chapter 9 to give gifts of food to others within the Jewish community as a command that will strengthen the relational bonds AMONG the Jews.
That’s one of the things giving does, isn’t it? It strengthens a bond between giver and receiver. And if there are a bunch of givers and a bunch of receivers, all that giving forges a huge network of strengthened bonds. The Jews believe this kind of giving within their number will yield a peace and harmony and unity to their community that can both prevent and heal fractures and divisions in the community.
Sounds like pretty good advice for the Church, doesn’t it? Actually, it sounds like pretty good advice for any group of people. If we in the greater Church, in general, and specifically within this congregation, spend more time giving to one another, we will form stronger relational bonds that will be help stave off difficult times before they manifest in large-scale division.
All that giving and the resulting goodwill…it sounds like a party called faith to me.
So the first type of gift is gifts of food to one another. The second type of gift is gifts to the poor. Over time, Jews have interpreted this command as a requirement to give money to at least two poor people – inside or outside the faith community – on the day of Purim, and the money given to each should be at least enough to purchase a fast food meal. And this money must be in ADDITION to the money a person is supposed to set aside for charity for the rest of the year. But, why give money to the poor…and why give EXTRA money to the poor?
In my simple summary of it, you may not have realized the extent to which the book of Esther is about justice – not court-of-law justice but God’s justice having to do with the relationship between the wealthy, powerful people of the world and the poor, powerless people of the world.
The evil villain Haman was a representative of the rich and powerful in the Persian society. Haman had money and influence with the king. And how did he use his wealth and power? To lift himself up. To force others to bow to him. To convince the king to exterminate a whole race of people simply because one man wouldn’t bow to him. But as a result of prayer and a focus on God, the Jews received God’s justice; they were delivered from the oppression of Haman into a joyous celebration.
As best as I can tell, that’s the whole point of giving to the poor on Purim – so that poor people in every place and time might experience the joy the Jews received when they were delivered from injustice to justice. According to one of the most influential Rabbis in Jewish history (the Rambam), gifts to the poor are given on Purim,“for there is no joy greater or more glorious than bringing joy to the hearts of the poor…”
And this reason for giving gifts to the poor – that there is no joy greater or more glorious than bringing joy to the hearts of the poor – it reminds me of one very important way in which we modern Christians are already invited into the party of God’s kingdom. Every single Sunday, in Christian congregations across the globe, including this one, worshippers are invited to give. We call it an offering. Some call it a tithe. And there are a great many reasons Christians are encouraged to give. Today, I want to explore in a little more detail the reason uplifted during the festival of Purim – to help make the SAME kind of difference for the poor of our time, the same kind of release from bondage, that was made for the Jews in Persia when Haman’s plan was thwarted.
But, y’all, WE, Christianity, the whole Church, can only make that kind of difference in aggregate when the people of every single congregation give enough to make a difference.
Before I say any more, I want to be clear about something: what I am about to share with you, I’m sharing it to help you experience the joy of making a difference, the joy of liberating the poor and the oppressed…I’m not sharing it in an attempt to produce feelings of guilt. Please, HEAR this.
I remember back when Susan and I received our first calls after seminary. We were called to be Associate Pastors of a fairly sizable congregation in western Missouri. Relatively quickly, we became friends with one particular family, whose most active family member in the congregation is a woman who I’ll call Ell. Ell and her husband had great jobs; they lived in a very nice house; they drove nice cars; and Ell volunteered countless hours a week to the Church and was in every way imaginable on fire for the ministries of that congregation. One day, she told Susan and I that she wasn’t sure if she was giving enough money to the congregation. No one had ever taught her how to give, she said. So we talked to her about the biblical reasons to give and what tithing was all about and how to work toward it. And we talked to her about giving to make a difference and to bring joy to others. And at the end of that conversation, she told us how glad she was that we talked about REAL NUMBERS…because her family had been giving $20 a week…and she knew her family could easily give SO much more.
One of the things I did with Ell in that conversation, I want to do with you now.
I’ve learned through my years in ministry that many people have never thought about how much money it takes for a congregation to make a difference…to make the kind of difference required to bring joy to the poor. I’ve met so many people who told me they give $5 a week…not because it’s all they can give but because they feel like $5 a week from every family is enough for the Church to do great things. So, let’s take a look.
In this congregation, in which our average worship attendance is around 90 people, let’s say those 90 people constitute 60 families. If each family gives $5 a week, that’s $300 a week. Not too bad. We should be able to do something with $300 a week, right? Well, that $300 a week becomes $15,600 a year. Hmmm. That won’t even pay the utility bills.
So…let’s increase that $5 a week to $20 a week, the amount some wealthy people like Ell’s family give. With 60 families, that’s $1,200 a week…quite a bit better. But over a year, that’s still just $62,400.
And while we should be able to do quite a bit with that….it’s just barely enough to cover our annual building expenses..and y’all, our building is paid for. There’s almost nothing left for helping people…and we haven’t even paid the staff yet. In fact, if an average of 60 families a week each gave $20 a week to the ministries of FCCGJ, we wouldn’t even be able to meet half the demands of our already bare-bones congregational budget for 2016.
Which brings me back to the reason for giving, the reason that has everything to do with this party of faith. Faith is a PARTY when we’re not just giving enough to keep our lights on and our doors open; faith is a PARTY when we give enough to make bring joy to those in need. Let’s have a party! Amen.