Another Story

Note: this sermon was preceded by a reading of the Purim story. For example, read the story here.
The congregation was invited to make a great noise whenever the name of the villain of the story, Haman, was mentioned!

Sermon

Every Jewish kid loves Purim. Not because of the story itself, but because a synagogue is usually a place where you have to be still and quiet – where you have to behave.  Purim is a joy because it’s the only time when you’re allowed to be as loud as you want!

Purim has more to offer us though… There are some fascinating themes in the Purim story. In a number of ways, it stands in contrast to the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.

For one thing, and Mary Wollstonecraft would have loved this, the real hero of this story is a woman – Esther. Through her courage and ingenuity, Esther manages to save her people from genocide. Female heroes are not unique in the Bible, but they are very, very rare.

The story is perhaps even more remarkable because of the one character that is absent. Unlike virtually every other bible tale, one key player does not appear: God. Not once does God come into the story to slay the enemy, lead the people to freedom, or even give instructions. It’s an oddity. 

Jewish scholars have speculated about this for centuries. Some say that this apparent absence is a message of God’s presence. The whole point, they argue, is that God is never absent – even when not explicitly named.  No one can really know what the ancient authors had in mind, but in many ways, this peculiarity makes Esther a more accessible story for us today. 

Today, we don’t usually see God dividing the seas, appearing in a fiery chariot, raising the dead and so on.  The kind of God that many of us understand and can relate to is a God more like the God of Purim. This is not a flashy, showy kind of God who performs miracles if we ask nicely enough.  This is a God who is present in a more subtle and yet more pervasive way – a God who is found in our courage, in our joy, and especially, in the inexorable journey toward justice. It is a God who makes miracles through us, rather than for us.

Purim is one of the Jewish holidays that is celebrated with great joy.  Among the many stories in the history of the Jewish people, this is one where the good guys finally win one.  After the destruction of the temple, the exile from the holy land, and the dispersion of Jews to foreign lands, here is a story where things are finally as they should be. 

It is a tidy story and justice seems to be served. Haman is evil. He wants to destroy the Jewish people, and he, himself, ends up destroyed by them.

We can understand, I think, why this is such an attractive story. In fact, it’s not that much different from a whole raft of popular films: You know the usual plot. We meet a good guy and we are shown how wonderful he is.  He loves puppies, babies, and helps the elderly cross the street. Then a villain is introduced and we quickly see his wickedness. He drowns kittens, uses lots of disposable plastic bags, and doesn’t swipe in on the bendy buses – also, he’s attached to some world-wide conspiracy to destroy all life, steal tons of gold, or give nuclear weapons to terrorists – something like that.  Soon, the villain gains some advantage over our hero and then, when all seems hopeless, the turnaround happens. Good defeats evil and everyone lives happily ever after.

It’s natural for us to like this kind of story.  We identify with the good guy and it makes us feel powerful to see him win. It makes us feel hopeful.  And one more very important thing, by dividing humanity into neat categories of good and evil, it makes our messy, complicated world seem orderly for once. Human beings – all of us, I think -- crave this kind of clarity.

You are probably familiar with the Kosher dietary laws that observant Jews follow. One of the most credible explanations for why these laws emerged is exactly this kind of inclination toward order. For example, a simple rule for sea creatures is that every animal that lives in the water should be a fish.  What about shellfish and crustaceans? They are from the sea but not fish. They break the category. They are not Kosher.

In the same way, animals with cloven hooves usually are ruminants – that is, they chew their cud. But pigs have cloven hooves and do not chew their cud.  Category breakers.  Not Kosher.

A similar logic explains why homosexuality is seen as dangerous – in the Bible and even today.  Gays and lesbians don’t fit the simple categories of men who love women and women who love men. Just like ham and cheese, they’re seen as not “kosher.”

Our desire to categorise and make order is everywhere in our lives: Us vs. them is how we are tempted to see the world. You have to be black or white – not something in the middle. You have to be posh or poor, sane or crazy, old or young, foreign or native, and with us or against us.  We draw boxes and put things in one or the other.  

To make an enemy, we simply need to identify them as other, as different, as “them.” When George Bush wanted to get people on his side against Iraq, it was this kind of rhetoric he used. They were not people with a grievance. They were not even just the enemy, they were the “Axis of Evil.”

This week, a very troubling story appeared in the news. It told of a mother and son who had been terrorized for decades by a cruel husband and father. The physical abuse went on and on and scarred both the victims physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives.

What this man did was evil. Was he himself evil though? We want to say yes.  We want to know that there are clean sharp lines between the good and the evil.  We want order.  The main focus of the current story though was that some small amount of understanding and peace had finally come to this dreadful situation. The mother and son learned this week that the stories their abuser had told over the years about his own brutal childhood were true. As a child, he had been sent to a now notorious reform school in Florida where severe beatings and sexual abuse were a constant part of life for the inmates. Dozens of children disappeared over the years and are now thought to lie buried beneath thirty white crosses on the school grounds.  

Perpetrator. Abuser. Victim. Innocent child.

Behind any story, there is always another story, and knowing that story helps us to begin to understand our connections – even in the most horrible of circumstances.

As you well know, Unitarians do not have a creed. There is no belief test to become a Unitarian. But, if we did have a creed, it would probably include these few words that are used on both sides of the Atlantic: the “worth and dignity of every person.” We believe that each person is precious, worthy of respect, and to be treated as such.

It is a demanding standard -- A category-busting statement of faith. Can we not divide humanity into good and bad? What about Haman? Your mind jumps to extreme cases…  What about Osama Bin Laden? Can you say his life has worth? Should we respect his dignity? What about Hitler? Pol Pot? Serial killers? The staff at a reform school that abused a generation of boys? 

Yes, even them. Not that dangerous people should be allowed to run around free and harm others, but even as we do what we must do to protect ourselves and others, we continue to commit to seeking and promoting the worth and dignity of all. And that means doing the very hard work of seeking to understand – of looking for the other stories.

The important point is not found in the extreme examples of mass murderers. It is that labels and categories create and deepen the divisions that disrupt the unity we seek. We build walls to protect ourselves from “them,” but our walls only make the distances larger and turn irritants into enemies. 

There is a unity among all things that some of us call God. 

In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is written that in creating the world, God placed part of God’s self into vessels of light that shattered and flung fragments of the divine throughout all existence. Life is sacred, but that sacredness is fragmented, divided, and dispersed. The call we must follow as people of faith is to set about repairing the world – uniting the sacredness within all things to create heaven on earth.

This work is not something that God can do for us, but work that we can do with God. When we listen for the other stories, we begin this work. When we hear and understand, the fragments begin to reunite. And when understanding turns to love, then our heaven has surely begun.

So may it be with you.
So may it be with us.