Stumbling and Standing Tall

There was a political cartoon in yesterday’s Seattle Times; perhaps you saw it. Two elephants dressed in Pilgrim attire are standing before the stake: wood piled high, a stake in the center. On this stake there is a sign: “Testify here.” And one elephant says to another, “I wonder why women don’t come forward more often?”


It has been a week. It has been a week for Professor Christine Blasey Ford, who had to relive what was clearly a highly traumatic and life-altering event in her life, who had to be questioned about it in public. It has been a week for Brett Kavanaugh, who is watching his long career in public service and his reputation be torpedoed over something he may or may not have done at age 17. It has been a week for victims of sexual assault, for whom this spotlight has revived their own trauma. It has been a week for our political parties, which are more divided than ever. It has been a week for our Supreme Court.


And in our reading from the book of Esther, it has been a week as well. Seven days of partying, and Queen Vashti has had enough. King Ahasuerus has been showing off his wealth to the officials and ministers and armies of Persia and Media for 180 days, as the story is told. Then the king throws a party for all the people in the citadel of Susa, and this party goes on for seven days. There are multiple references to how much everyone is drinking. Everyone except possibly the women, who are off having their separate banquet.


On the seventh day, the king sends for Queen Vashti. He wants her to wear her crown and be shown off, like a pretty trinket, before a party full of drunken and debauched court officials and others. Really, she doesn’t want to come? Why, whatever could go amiss?


And for sticking up for herself, she has to be put in her place, because she has set a terrible example for women everywhere. Why, imagine if all the women of the kingdom followed her example and refused to come when their husbands ordered them to! Imagine all those women taking it into their little heads to think for themselves, to disrespect their husbands. We can’t have it, I tell you! Queen Vashti must be punished!


And her punishment is to be banished forever from a silly, drunken, capricious, angry, lecherous, easily manipulated king. Really? You promise?


She stands up for herself and wins her personal freedom. Granted, she will no longer have all the finery, the room and board in the palace. But a part of me wonders if she might be okay with that.


Now, in case you haven’t read the book of Esther recently, let me remind you of the general outline of the story. With Vashti gone, the king holds tryouts for the position of queen, and beautiful young virgins are encouraged to apply for his harem. Esther, a Jewish orphan raised by her kinsman Mordecai, pleases the king most and becomes the new queen. Mordecai discovers a plot by two of the king’s eunuchs to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther, who tells the king, and the two eunuchs are put to death. Esther’s value to the king increases. Eventually, after more twists and turns, including a plot to wipe out all the Jews in Persia, the king asks Esther what she would like. She reveals that she is a Jew and asks that the Jewish people be spared. And the king says okay. Esther saves the day and is a heroine of the Jewish people.


So Esther follows the model of this independent Queen Vashti, but with a very different outcome. She is also brave in dealing with this madman, but with the help of her kinsman Mordecai she learns how to manipulate this foolish king for good—that is, to promise that the Jews in Persia and Media will not be wiped out but rather will be given leave to defend themselves. She wins not freedom but life, both for herself and for her people, the Jews.


The book of Esther is a story of many reversals. Here is one of them. Queen Vashti disobeys the king and is dismissed. Esther disobeys the king by speaking up when she should have kept her distance, but she is given audience and her request to spare the Jews from genocide carries the day. Esther stands tall, at great personal risk, and becomes a heroine of her people. She is the only woman given credit for a Jewish holiday, in this case Purim. And she does it by being smart and beautiful and compassionate, by using all the resources at her disposal for the purpose of saving her people.


The book of Esther is fiction, and it is set around the 5th century BCE. Why, then, does it seem so resonant and current this week? A woman who does not want to be in a room full of drunken men? Women being told to keep in their place, to be submissive to their husbands? Men allowed to drink as much as they please for days on end? It sounds similar to this week’s headlines.


When Esther hesitates to bring the plight of her people, the Jews, to the king’s attention, her kinsman Mordecai urges her to be brave and do the right thing, even at great risk to her own life. “Who knows?” he concludes, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14) Professor Christine Blasey Ford has stepped forward, at great personal sacrifice, for just such a time as this.


We are living in a time, my friends. A time when our president had multiple accusations of sexual misconduct before the election—and still won the election. When he bragged publically about his sexual misbehavior and his mistreatment of women—and still won the election. It reminds me of the king’s edict to keep the women quiet and submissive to their husbands. But we are living in a time when women are standing tall, speaking out, naming the people who have done them wrong. Thank God for those brave women. Thank God for Professor Ford and her willingness to come forward, even though she was terrified. It was clear to everyone listening that her trauma was very real.


As in Sandburg’s poem, Ford has been laid on an anvil and beaten into steel that will now hold up the cause of all who have been sexually assaulted. Whether Kavanaugh is ultimately seated on the Supreme Court or not, Ford’s testimony has already given many more women the courage to address their own trauma. The King County hotline for sexual assault has received triple the usual number of calls since Thursday.


Perhaps you are wondering at this point what the passage from Mark has to do with any of this. It will take me a minute to make the connections, but bear with me—we’ll get there.


The writer of Mark has Jesus say that if someone believes, and you cause that person to stumble in their belief, it would be better if a millstone were tied around your neck and you were tossed into the sea. That’s harsh. The point is, do not cut people off from their relationship with God. That is the worst thing you can do to someone. Jesus also says, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” If your hand has gangrene or cancer, cut it off.


You may have noticed a quiet story in the background of the news this week. It’s also a story of sexual abuse, this time by a pedophile priest, Fernando Karadima, in Chile. Pope Francis defrocked him. It took the pope a long time to do this, but ultimately he got there.


I like Pope Francis. He is a breath of fresh air. He doesn’t get all wrapped up in ego. If he realizes he’s made a mistake, he apologizes and seeks to make things right. The Catholic Church has certainly had problems with priests abusing children, and this has now been playing out for decades. You don’t cover up such a problem, which definitely puts a stumbling block in the path of people seeking to know God. Not just the victims but their families, others in the congregation, and all who eventually hear what the Catholic Church covered up and are so disgusted that they walk away from the Church completely. That is a case of a cancer out of control.


Cut that priest out of the church leadership the way Jesus says to cut off a hand or a foot or pluck out an eye. If a priest in the Church body is abusing children, don’t just move him to another part of the Church body to cause new infection there. Get him out of the body! Stop the infection! Do not put a child molester in a new setting to molest more children! After years of lawsuits and millions of dollars in reparations, the Catholic Church may finally be figuring this one out.

Because only then is that priest in a position to be open to grace and healing. Only then can the Church move forward on a path to recovery and wholeness.


And if you’re interviewing a candidate for a leadership position in the country, and what comes to light are stories from his past that suggest he is more like drunken, lecherous King Ahasuerus than you had imagined, what do you do? If there is a hint that he may treat women in life-damaging ways, does he still get voted swiftly into his position? Well, our voters have been known to do so. We may be on the verge of seating someone on the nation’s highest court who has that mark against his name. If he is not guilty, he deserves to have his name cleared before this moves ahead. If he is guilty, we should know that, too, before the vote. Thank God that there will now be at least a brief FBI investigation.


When a hand or an eye or a foot has cancer, you cut it off. You cut the cancer out. Or nowadays you zap it with chemotherapy and radiation. You see the problem and deal with it. That’s the only way to heal. When a person—any person, any gender—is assaulted or otherwise traumatized and never says a word, the trauma doesn’t go away. If that person wants to get on with their life and not be stuck forever in that trauma, they have to see it and deal with it. They have to cut off the hand or foot or eye, get rid of the cancer before it infects their whole life.


Let’s go back to where Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)


That seems harsh. But consider: Jesus is gathering followers and pointing them to a relationship with God. If the disciples do anything that causes those followers to disbelieve, the disciples have effectively cut off those followers from the most important relationship in their lives—the relationship with their Creator.


We cannot put people in leadership positions who will bring about the failure of the very ideals they are supposed to serve. We cannot keep priests who abuse children, because they become a cancer in the entire body of the Church. We cannot install judges on the Supreme Court who have been proven to show disregard for women. I am not saying that the accusations against Kavanaugh have been proven in court. This whole situation has become a huge mess. Perhaps the cancer is out of control in our political body.


We must raise the bar high for our leaders, both religious and political. We must hold them to account and expect them to be worthy of leading capably and with integrity. Anything less and they become like a cancer that must be cut out.


So how does any of this apply to you and me? For some, all this talk of assault brings up their own life-altering experiences of trauma. Or perhaps it surfaces memories of shameful things that they themselves have done to others.


Let me suggest, though, that we are like those disciples. It is incumbent upon us, as followers of Christ, to be honest, compassionate, loving people. When we make mistakes, as we all do, we must acknowledge them, apologize, and make amends as best we can. And then heal and move on. How many times have we heard of church leaders who were caught with prostitutes, or who got swept up in amassing riches, or turned out in other ways to be stumbling big-time? There are plenty of examples. And they make a mockery out of the words “Church” and “Christian.” That does enormous damage. It becomes a huge stumbling block to those seeking an authentic relationship with God.


So we have to do our best to be the counterexamples. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. But we have to keep trying to do better. We keep striving to stand tall, to live in the light of God’s abundant and grace-filled love, to heal, and to keep serving. Then maybe we, too, can be like Esther, in just such a time as this, prepared to risk great personal sacrifice for the greater good of her people. Tempered by trauma and trials, tempered, like steel, to stand tall. Amen.  



Related Information

Prospect Blog