Label Me Foreign

Chalice lighting

Stereotypes.jpg

Let this flame we have kindled
Draw us together in its sight.
Let us know one another as we are.
Let us see one another free from labels that bring hasty judgement.
Let us seek in each heart the worth and dignity we know to reside there.
Let us be together.

Reading: The story of Purim

Purim was this past Thursday. Jewish tradition – at the mention of the villain, make lots of noise!

In the third year of his reign, the King of Persia, Ahashverosh, decided to have a feast. It was on the seventh day of these festivities that the King summoned his queen, Vashti, to appear before him and show her beauty for the King's officials. Vashti refused to appear. Incensed, the King removed her as queen an ordered that she never again appear before him.

As time passed the King desired a new queen. To find a suitable wife, a contest was initiated among all the eligible girls in the kingdom. A Jewish orphan by the name of Hadassah lived with her uncle Mordechai. When the king's men came to her house, Mordechai said, "Don't be afraid. Go with them. Do not tell them you are Jewish. Tell them your Persian name: Esther. God will watch over you!"

Esther was kind and gentle and very beautiful. As soon as the king saw her, he chose her as his new queen. And all the while, she kept her secret. No one knew she was a Jew. Everyday, Mordechai sat outside the palace gate to wait for news from Esther.

One day outside the palace, Mordechai happened to hear two men plotting to kill the king. He warned Esther and the two men were caught and killed. It was recorded in the Royal Book that Mordechai the Jew had saved the king. Nonetheless, Mordechai’s courage was soon forgotten. There was no royal proclamation, citation or award.

Years later the King named a new chief adviser. His name was Haman.  Haman was a wicked and vain man who expected everyone to bow down to him. Mordechai refused to bow because Haman wore a medallion of an idol, and Jews are forbidden from worshipping idols.

Haman was furious. He went straight to the king to complain. "There is one nation," he said, "scattered throughout your kingdom, which is different from all other nations. They don't eat our food, drink our wine, or marry our daughters! They don't keep the king's laws and they don't work! Every seventh day they rest and they are always celebrating holidays. If you give me permission, I will destroy the Jews for you. I will even pay for any expenses from my own money!"

Achashverosh gave Haman his royal ring, to seal the orders and decrees. Anxious to do a perfect job, Haman wanted to execute his plan on the right day, a lucky day blessed by his gods and the stars. He cast lots to choose the day. In Hebrew, the word purim means casting lots. Then Haman sent out letters, sealed with the king's royal ring, to each of the 127 provinces in the kingdom.

"On the 13th day of the month of Adar," the decree said "you are to destroy, kill and slaughter all Jews, young and old, women and children, all in one day. Their money and property will then belong to you. This was the command of Haman."

When Mordechai heard of the decree, he ripped his clothing and put ashes on his head as a sign of mourning. He told Esther she must go to the king to try and save the Jews. Esther was afraid, for it was forbidden to come before the king without being invited. But Mordechai said, "Who knows if you have not been put in the palace for this very purpose? If you are silent now, help will come to the Jews from some other place, and you will perish!"

Esther agreed to appear before the King and asked Mordechai to organise a three-day fast for all the Jews on her behalf. After completing the three-day fast, Esther entered the king's inner court dressed in her most royal garb. The King inquired as to Esther's desires. Esther replied that she wished to invite the King and Haman to a banquet. After the feast Esther asked the King and Haman to return for another banquet the next night. Haman left the banquet consumed with self importance and pride, but these feelings were turned to anger when he saw Mordechai. Haman went home, and his wife advised him to kill Mordechai immediately, and Haman constructed a gallows.

That night, the King discovered that Mordechai had never been rewarded for saving him from assassination. When Haman appeared in the court, the King decided that his trusted servant should determine Mordechai's compensation. Haman, intending to obtain the King's permission to hang Mordechai, unwittingly answered the King's questions. The King asked Haman, "What should be done for the man the King wishes to reward?" Haman, believing that Ahashverosh intended to reward him, replied that the honoree should be dressed in royal clothing, ride upon a royal horse. And be led through the city streets by an official proclaiming "This is what is done to the man the King wishes to honor"

Ahashverosh agreed and instructed Haman to carry it out for Mordechai. Crestfallen, Haman followed the King's orders. Haman's daughter, mistakenly believing that her father was being led by Mordechai, dumped a chamber pot on her own father.

Haman returned home, a bitter, broken man. But he had no time to brood. He had to be at the royal palace in time for the Queen's second banquet. Once again, the king asked, "What is it you desire, Esther? Why have you invited us here? Speak and it shall be done!"

This time, Esther spoke. "Spare my life," she cried, "and the lives of my people. We have been sentenced to death!"
"Death? Your people? By whom?" asked the surprised king.
"By an evil and wicked man; by your minister Haman!"
The king was so astounded that he marched out of the room to regain his composure. Trembling and fearful, Haman threw himself on the queen to beg for mercy. At that very moment, Ahashverosh returned.
"What?" he cried. "Do you dare to attack the Queen in my palace? Take him away and hang him!" he shouted. Haman was hung on the gallows he himself had built for Mordechai. And Mordechai became the king's new prime minister in place of Haman!

According to Persian law, it was impossible to change a decree stamped with the royal seal, so the king could not cancel the decree against the Jews. But Mordechai was given the royal signet ring to issue whatever new decrees he could think of to help save the Jews.

Now it was Mordechai's turn to send out a royal letter. It said: On the 13th of Adar, all the Jews in the kingdom would organise to defend themselves. On the 13th of Adar, Jews across the kingdom assembled and defended themselves. Thousands of their enemies were killed, including Haman's 10 evil sons who were hanged from a tree. Unlike the Persians who planned to take money and property, the Jews took no loot at all. On the 14th of Adar, they gave thanks to God and celebrated.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

Purim is a very different kind of holiday in the Jewish tradition. It's noisy, festive, and wild. 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, 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. I like that because it is empowering. It seems to me a message that human beings can bring about justice - can save their people - can right the wrongs. For once, it is a story that doesn’t say ‘be good and God will take care of it.’

Today, even many theists see God differently from the literal supernatural being of the bible. After all, we don’t often see God dividing the seas, appearing in a fiery chariot, raising the dead and so on.  The kind of God that many theists now 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. It is way of understanding God that even an atheist like me can appreciate.

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 new Routemaster 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. It’s easy: good vs. evil. By dividing humanity under such neat labels, 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 and Muslim dietary laws. One of the credible explanations for why some of the more puzzling of 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. So they are not Kosher. The acceptable fish label doesn’t include rule breakers like oysters. 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 Halal and not Kosher. The acceptable animal label doesn’t include rule breakers like pigs.

A similar logic explains why homosexuality is seen as dangerous – in the bible and even today.  Gays and lesbians don’t fit the simplistic majority labels of men who love women and women who love men. Just like ham and cheese, they’re seen as not acceptable.

Our desire to label 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.”

In the Purim story, we’ve got plenty of labels. The acceptable people are the Persians. The suspicious immigrants are the Jews. Women are beautiful and gentle. Men are strong. The labels of good and evil simplify and oversimplify: Haman is evil. Mordechai and Esther are good.

Behind any story, there are human beings with their own stories, their own needs, their own motivations and pain. Looking more deeply helps us to see beyond labels to understand the human beings they oversimplify.

At the core of the tradition from which New Unity grew is a belief that there is an ‘inherent worth and dignity’ to each person. It’s not to each group or belief system, it’s every person. Not only to nice people or people who work for social justice, it’s every person. It’s a label-busting, relationship-building, human-affirming commitment.

It is a demanding standard. Can we not divide humanity into good and bad? What about Haman? Can you say his life has worth? Should we respect his dignity? What about Hitler? Pol Pot? Serial killers? Child abusers? Sexual harassers? Donald Trump? Yes, even them. The challenge is to avoid simplifying the world into labels of us and them, Jew and Persian, good and evil. The challenge is to embrace complexity and ambiguity. The promise is a world of more love and more justice.

May it be so.

Closing Words

Let us go now with minds unclouded by suspicion.
Open to possibility.
Aware of our biases and our wisdom.
Let us go forward with hearts that are open
To the truths of others,
To the goodness within,
And to the love that unites and holds us all.