Defiant Joy

Sermon Audio

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Text of Homily by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

Purim is a holiday in the strangest sense – a sense of joy that comes from fighting despair, from choosing to uplift and work for the order we perceive rather than caving to the chaos and injustice that are also everywhere. Just as God is nowhere mentioned in the story, Purim’s celebration is not located primarily in worship, as with the High Holy days, or at home with family and a ritual meal as with Passover. Rather, Purim is a holiday of acting out: where the Greeks had their celebrations of Dionysian frenzy, the Jews, little known, have one too: Purim is for drinking, eating, food fights, masquerade parties, and cross-dressing. In life, nothing is dependably as we might see it; Purim is, at its deepest levels, brave enough to honor that.

Some of us here this morning were raised to sing songs and eat hamentaschen —”Haman ́s hat” pastries — at this time of year; some of us were not. Regardless of how familiar we are with Purim ́s story and traditions, because we are human, we all know its themes: fallibility and courage. Purim is two days to do nothing but dance, eat, drink, and push every boundary in the face of despair. It offers us all an opportunity to remember that we are not the first to suffer, nor even suffering the worst this day, to honor our suffering and others ́, and still to renew our commitment to creation, to love, to joy, defiant joy, no matter what.

Just as in the Purim story, goodness, holiness, grace sometimes seems utterly missing from the equation of our lives. In such times we’re thrown back on ourselves and our own ability to carve out a path forward, even if we have to carve it out of rock. With joy we claim our lives in all their complexity and challenge; we claim our times, we claim this church, we claim the past and the present and the future, knowing that we can and will continue this journey of creation and revelation, claiming and reclaiming as long as it takes, as long as we live, claiming also again and again, joy as we go.

This is not a new lesson or belief, but is renewed in countless forms. It is in the resistance movement surging among progressives who will not lose or abandon all we stand for and have stood for in our regions and in our nation, even as we recognize that we too have much yet to learn and live up to. It is in the beauty and vitality of art, in Beyonce’s latest album “Lemonade” about what she has made from some of the sourness life gave her, even her, in recent years.

Remember those balloons, so limp and sad, holding all that makes us feel limp or sad or tight and angry these days? Sometimes, something takes our breath away – and not in a good way. Sometimes we are utterly deflated. Or full only of anger. But as we live and breathe, we cannot go on without taking breath back in, without taking in the air that sustains us, that expands us, that lightens and lifts us for another moment, another day, for living in this world and for not only living but for loving and for the audacity even of joy.

Go ahead and take your balloon back out of the bag now. These balloons – biodegradable by the way – were meant for more than to dwell in small dark spaces, small and drooping. They’re meant to be full of breath, known in Hebrew as ruah – which means also spirit. In Hebrew, the two – breath and spirit – are inextricably linked, as they are in English – inspiration, respiration –they are two sides of the same coin, to be filled with the breath of life, the spirit of life, all that animates us, that makes us alive, that makes our lives worth living. Inspiration, respiration are literally part of how we live and breathe.

Take your balloon out, and while you hold it, think about something that gives you joy, real joy, deep joy. Take your time. Find the joy. Think about it, and take a breath – a good long, long, deep, breath. Feel it fill you. Let it go. Take another, but don’t focus on the breath, focus on that joy, and now hold that breath. Take the balloon. Blow that joyful breath into the balloon. Take another and put it into that balloon. Blow up the balloon with the respiration, inspiration, that still, again, always, moves in you.

Put your joy into your balloon, your red balloon, color of passion and fire and light and energy, eye-catching and beautiful. When you are happy with how your balloon looks, full of your inspiration, eye-catching and beautiful, tie it up and seal that inspiration in your balloon. You can get help from someone near you if you need help filling or tying your balloon.

Hold your balloon. Look at it now. Look at each other’s balloons. Look at each other’s joy, so audacious and defiant and present. We have still much to grateful for, especially each other and the spirit and joy that moves always in and through us, funny, full, present and persistent. Now hold onto your balloons. We are going to do one more thing with them.  And in the meantime, may the spirit of Purim reside in you, present, persistent, defiant, blessed and blessing people. Amen.

Story Audio

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The Story of Purim

By Cathy Seggel, Director of Religious Education

I am going to tell a very old tale, one that helped people, long ago, make meaning in their lives, as all religions do. As Rev. Liz just told us, this legend from the Hebrew Bible reminded people to be courageous and brave. You will hear words about death and killing. I tell the story, now, as it was written long, long ago, not because I believe in killing, ever, for any reason.

Long ago, in the city of Susa, in the land that was called Persia, there lived a king named Ahasuerus. He was a cruel and heartless king, who was known for his extravagance and brutality. His lands stretched over 127 provinces, from India to Africa, and all who lived there feared him.

King Ahasuerus wanted to show the world how wealthy and important he was, so he threw a party for 180 days. That is nearly half of a year! On the last day of the party, the king demanded that his wife, Queen Vashti, come join him. Queen Vashti was very beautiful, and the king wanted to show her off to his guests. Vashti refused. She was not willing to be treated like an object by her husband, only valued for the way she looked. The king was furious. He banished Vashti from his kingdom and said she was no longer his queen.

As time went on, King Ahasuerus decided he needed a new queen. Of course, he felt his queen should be the most beautiful woman in his kingdom, so he sent out a message to all 127 provinces to send their most beautiful women to the palace so that he could choose a wife from among them. The woman the king chose was named Esther, and so she became Queen Esther. Esther was an orphan who had been raised by her uncle, Mordecai. Esther and Mordecai were Jewish. Jewish people were not always treated well in Ahasuerus’s kingdom, so Mordecai told Esther to hide her religion from the king.

Mordecai worked as a scribe near the palace, and one day while he was working he heard two of the king’s servants plotting to kill the king. Mordecai immediately told this to Esther, who told it to Ahasuerus. “Oh, my lord and king,” she said, “My good uncle Mordecai overheard two of your servants planning your death. He asked that I bring you this warning.” The warning came in time to save the king’s life, but the king did not thank Mordecai or Esther for their help.

About this time, the king appointed a man named Haman to be in charge of all his officials. Everyone else who worked for the king now had to bow to Haman each time he walked by. But one person did not bow. He was Jewish, and his religion taught him that he should bow down only before God, not anyone else. It was not in his beliefs. Do you know who this was? Mordecai, Esther’s uncle!

When Haman found out that Mordecai would not bow down to him, he was furious. He was so mad that he wanted not only to kill Mordecai, but he also wanted to kill all Jewish people in all 127 provinces of the kingdom. Haman went to the king and said, “Your royal majesty, did you know there are people in your kingdom who will not keep your laws? I will have them all destroyed, if you like. In fact, I’ll even pay to have the job done.” The king did not care for anyone but himself, so he replied, “Do with the people as it seems good to you.”

So Haman wrote a letter, signed with the king’s name, saying that at the end of the year, all the Jewish people—young and old—were to be killed. All the Jewish people in the kingdom were terrified. Mordecai knew he had to do something, so he sent a copy of the letter to Esther and begged her to go to the king and plead for the lives of her people.

Esther was shaken when she read the letter, but she felt powerless. The law said that any person who went to the king’s inner court without being called for would be put to death. The king had not called for Esther in 30 days, and she was already worried he was angry with her. She was sure if she went to the king’s rooms without being called first she would be killed. But, Esther knew she must be brave and do her best to save the Jewish people. “I will go before the king,” she said, “and if I die, I die.”

The next day, Esther put on her royal robes and went to the inner court of the king’s palace. King Ahasuerus saw Esther, and to her surprise he was happy to see her! He called her forward and said, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? I will grant you anything, even half of my kingdom if you ask!” “If it pleases the king,” replied Esther, “let the king and Haman come tomorrow to a banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will tell you my request.”

When Haman heard he was invited to feast with the king and queen, he was very excited. How important he was! But then he remembered that not everyone felt he was important since Mordecai would not bow down to him. He knew he wouldn’t be happy until Mordecai was dead. That night, the king had trouble sleeping, so he asked his servants to read him a book. They read from the book of Chronicles, the record of the king’s reign, and they happened to read the part that talked about Mordecai saving the king’s life. That must be why he couldn’t sleep! He had never thanked Mordecai!

In the morning, Haman came to see the king to ask him about having Mordecai killed. Ahasuerus was glad to see him, because he wanted to ask his advice. “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” asked Ahasuerus. Haman thought that the king wanted to honor him, so he said, “For the man whom the king wishes to honor, let royal robes be brought, and one of the king’s best horses. And let the robes and horse be given to one of the king’s most noble officials, and let that noble official put the robe on the man the king wishes to honor, and let him lead the man on horseback through the city, walking in front of him and shouting, ‘Here is the man the king wishes to honor!’”

“Perfect!” exclaimed the king. “Go and take the robe and horse, just as you have said, and find Mordecai. Lead him throughout the city with honor!” Haman had no choice but to show this honor to Mordecai, the man he hated most. Then, still angry, Haman went to Queen Esther’s banquet.

At the banquet, the king said to Esther, “Now, my queen, what is your request?” Esther replied, “If it pleases the king, let my life be given to me, and the lives of my people. For someone has commanded that we all shall be killed.” The king was shocked. “Who has commanded such a terrible thing?” Esther replied, “It is this wicked man, Haman!” The king was furious. “What am I to do with him?” he demanded. One of his servants said, “At Haman’s house there is a gallows, the very one on which he planned to kill Mordecai.” “Kill him,” said the king. So they killed Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, and the Jewish people were saved because of Esther’s courage.