It’s been an intense week. On Tuesday, Bill Cosby was sentenced for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman. Two days later Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about her allegations of sexual assault against the nominee. On Friday, a sexual assault survivor cornered Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona in an elevator, begging him to listen to her story of being raped.
So many women have begun telling their stories of sexual assault. People I have known for years have been telling stories of being raped, some of them when they were children. I suspect many of you have been hearing—and perhaps telling—similar stories.
I’m glad so many people are telling their stories. Telling the story of one’s assault is a key part of the healing process…In many ways, though, it’s only the beginning. The process of healing from sexual assault is so complex and so intense and takes so long… It’s hard to take in just how much pain people are in right now. I suspect there’s a tremendous amount of pain in this room this morning.
So, what good news is there for us today? In light of all the pain that’s surfaced this week, what word from Scripture might give us hope?
I’m pretty sure it’s NOT the word we get from today’s passage from Genesis 2. Today is the last Sunday in the Season of Creation. We’ve looked at the planet, humanity, sky, and mountains. Today’s theme is animals. With everything in the news this week, I considered completely changing today’s worship service to focus on issues related to gender justice.
Then I read Genesis 2 and realized this story of origins in our Judeo-Christian tradition is a primary source of sexism in many cultures. This text has contributed to the diminishment of women for millenia. So, maybe it’s the perfect text to offer insight on this week’s events.
Once upon a time, God created a man. When the man got lonesome, God set out to make “AN help meet” for him. But instead of creating AN help meet, God created a bunch of animals, which seems kind of odd. If you say you’re going to create “an help meet,” why create literally every other creature on Earth first? What’s going on with that? Is it a literary device meant to create drama that leads up to the creation of woman? The cat wasn’t an help meet, the horse wasn’t an help meet, neither were the rhino, giraffe, ground grub, or peacock. But oh, finally, at long last! Here’s the perfect help meet (Drum roll, please)—woman!
Did you catch what the man says when God presents his help meet to him? “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” This one? This one, as opposed to the other ones…the other animals? Is that what the man is saying? That a woman is just another one of the animals?
The creation of human beings in Genesis 1 is exceedingly egalitarian. In Genesis 1, women and men, people of all genders are created in the image of God.
But here in Genesis 2? Man is created first, then his help meet is built out of his rib (Who in the world thought that up?), is presented as a gift to the man, and then is named by the man. Did you notice that the woman is completely passive? Every action that occurs is done to her. Yeah. I don’t think we’re going to get any good news from this text today.
There is one Scripture story, though, that has come to mind several times this week. The parallels with the process with Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony are striking.
Have you heard of Queen Vashti? Have you heard of Esther? Esther is the Jewish woman who saved all the Jewish people in 5th c BCE…She did it when King Ahasuerus needed a new wife. Because the Jewish people were oppressed in that society, Esther didn’t tell the king up front that she was a Jew. She kept that information under her hat until an opportune time.
Do you know how Esther became queen, why there was an opening for queen in the first place? That’s where Vashti—Esther’s predecessor—comes in.
Vashti was the spouse of King Ahasuerus. As kings are wont to do, Ahasuerus threw a BIG banquet for all his officials and ministers. “The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present, while he displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all.”
At the end of that six month long party, another party was thrown just for the people who lived in the capital city of Susa. At the palace, there were “white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones. Drinks were served in golden goblets, and the royal wine was lavished in accordance with the bounty of the king. 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.” At the same time, “Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.”
“On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded that Queen Vashti come before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold.”
Do you know what Vashti did? She refused. She refused to be paraded out like a piece of property, an object. She refused to wear the king’s crown. She refused the king’s attempt to diminish her and “put her in her place.” She refused to let the king name her.
How did Ahasuerus respond to Vashti’s refusal to do his bidding? “At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.” He immediately consulted his legal team. Here’s what they told him.
“‘Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, “King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.” This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!
“If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.’
“This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as was proposed; he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”
Vashti spoke her truth…and the people in power quaked in their sandals. Determined to prevent their own #metoo movement, they wrote and enacted a law against Vashti. Maybe they called it “Vashti’s Law.” Then look what happened—Vashti left the biblical scene for good. The title of the book isn’t Vashti, is it? No, it’s the Book of Esther.
A colleague who served as a religious educator at a synagogue in Milwaukee told me about teaching this story to a class of children. When they got to the end, my friend asked what the children thought. One girl said this: “Vashti was the only person in the story who told the truth.” And what was Vashti’s reward for telling the truth? She was written out of the story.
Do you see the title of the sermon listed in the bulletin? “Intersectionality, Ubuntu, and the Image of God.” On Wednesday, that seemed like a terrific title. Someday, I might even write a terrific sermon to go with it.
Here’s the title I propose for THIS sermon—“The Book of Vashti.” The Book of Esther is about a woman of some courage…but it’s also the story of a woman who played the game. She was selected by the king to be his queen based on her appearance. She tried to get what she wanted from the king by being a good wife and/or by deception.
The Book of Vashti is a different story. It’s about a woman who speaks her truth, who does not let others define her reality…it’s about a woman who will not allow herself to be diminished by others. The Book of Vashti—the Book of Christine, the book of every woman who has ever been objectified or abused or assaulted or excluded from full personhood by the laws of the land…These are the books we are writing.
These are the stories that are empowering us and that will empower girls and women for generations to come. The Book of Vashti, too, will be a story of origins—the story of how women of every color, every station in life, every ethnicity, every religion…the story of how women everywhere learned to speak their truth—in the halls of Congress, in the quiet of a therapist’s office, in the confines of an elevator…The Book of Vashti is the story of women learning to speak their truth to power and in the process becoming who God is creating them to be—beloved, strong, brave. The Book of Vashti is our story….the story of how we all became whole. May it be a story we tell over and over and over again.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2018