The Book of Esther
Nov 3, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Do you know the song “Baby Shark?” If you knew it before this last week, you are either the parent of a three year old or a Washington Nationals fan. Last week was baseball’s World Series which went seven games and was won by the Washington Nationals. The Nationals, or the Nats, as their fans call them, were the underdogs in the series; they were playing the strong Houston Astros who came into the series with the best record in baseball this season and with home field advantage. Bookmakers said that the odds of the Nats winning were 14-1. The Nats, however, had something the Astros didn’t; they had “Baby Shark.” Even those of you who don’t follow baseball may have heard the story of how, at the beginning of May, the Nats acquired the struggling Gerardo Parra from the Giants, and how in an attempt to get out of a hitting slump, he decided to try a new walk-up song when he came to bat, and while most players choose songs like, “Here Comes the Boom,” and “Iron Man,” he chose his children’s favorite song, a repetitive jingle called ‘Baby Shark,’ and how consequently, he broke out of his slump and began to hit, and how delighted fans started dancing and singing along with the song every time Parra came to bat, and how eventually this children’s jingle became the unofficial anthem of the Washington Nationals. In fact, if you’ve never heard the song “Baby Shark,” you can go on Youtube and see it performed at the Kennedy Center by the french horn section of the National Symphony Orchestra who played the song while dressed in shark costumes in honor of the Nats. (1) (2 It was also performed at the Washington National Cathedral on organ)
You may not be a baseball fan but for me, baseball has always been an apt metaphor for the Christian life because unlike other sports, baseball is a grueling daily grind. While football teams, for example, play a total of 16 games in a season, baseball players play 162 games, more if they make it to the post season, which means that every day from April through October, those players come to the ball park in heat, and wind, and rain, and sometimes snow, through injuries and fatigue, carrying the weight of family problems and challenges, sometimes on fire at the plate, sometimes struggling with disappointing failure, and regardless of what else is going on in their lives or in the world, baseball players have to show up every single day and give it their best. If that’s not a description of the Christian life, I don’t know what is. On All Saints day, we honor the saints of our church because those are the people who showed up every day — who remained steady in the work of faith no matter what was going on in their lives or in the world, whether they felt great about what they were doing or wondered if any of it was making a difference at all. They showed up every day, and they gave Christ their best.
If we are to be counted among the saints at the end of our lives, we too need to learn how to manage that daily grind without giving into doubt and fatigue. We have to learn how to remain steady at the plate, through our hot streaks and our slumps. We have to learn how to raise our spirits when we feel low, how to keep ourselves going when the odds are staked against us, and how to renew our hope even if we wonder whether anything we are doing is going to make a difference. How do we do that?
I suggest that we take a lesson from the Nationals and Baby Shark.
Everyone knows that baseball players are notoriously superstitious and Baby Shark is not the first talisman that a team has hung their hopes on but in the case of the Nationals, the song “Baby Shark” was more than just a superstition; it became representative of what the Nats had that enabled them to keep going in the toughest of circumstances, something that may have helped them win the World Series. The Nats had fun playing baseball. When a player got a hit, he would turn toward his teammates and pinch his fingers together like the jaws of a baby shark. If it was a double, he’d clap his hands together like Mommy Shark and for a triple, he and the entire team and the fans in the stands would scissor their arms imitating the biting jaws of Daddy Shark. When someone hit a homer, the shark was set aside for an all-out celebration: the team lined up in the dugout and after the player had finished his run around the bases, he ran through that gauntlet of teammates doing a dance of his own creation. Some players could really show their moves; others just did a shy wiggle down the line, but every one of them participated in that silly tradition. Two of the older players took it the extra mile ending their dances by throwing themselves onto the dugout bench as if they were seated in race cars, steering and vrooming together in unison like seven year old boys. The team played reggae music in the locker room, wore silly sunglasses bought from street vendors, and they became known for their group hugs, embracing one another after any good performance on the field. After game seven of the World Series, when asked his thoughts about the season, the shy and famously reserved pitcher Stephen Strasburg said, “Well, I’ve gotten a lot better at hugging.” Strasburg had just received a World Series ring and had been named the MVP of the series, but what does he cite as an accomplishment? Group hugs. The Nats took their work seriously and held one another to high standards, but at the same time, they also had fun. It is what got them through in the end.
One sports writer said, “Baseball clubhouses are, in a way, one big social experiment: Front offices throw together 25 guys from different countries and backgrounds, pay them varying amounts of serious cash, then pit them against expectations that can be met only by winning a title. They’re all together for eight months, if they are lucky, and see each other more than their wives and children.” Often, those teams get through the long season by focusing just on the work. Washington pitcher Sean Doolittle said, “I’ve been on teams where you get to the end of the year and say, ‘I never even talked to that guy…” But not this team. It’s something special.” (3) Through the daily grind of a long season, the Washington Nationals came to understand the importance of balancing tough work with laughter and fellowship. If you are going to make it through the long haul, the lesson is, you’ve got to make room for fun.
The Bible wouldn’t seem, at first glance, to be big on fun. There’s all of those grim stories of slavery in Egypt and wandering in the wilderness, and invasions by Amalekites and Midionites and Hittites and all of the other ites, and finally exile in Babylon with its flaming fiery furnaces. The history of the Israelites in the Hebrew scriptures feels like one long litany of suffering and oppression which is why the book of Esther is so important to the Jewish people. In this story, finally the underdog Jews whose odds are stacked against them, get the upper hand, and they do it through wit and unexpected plot twists. The book of Esther is a classic story of the trickster. Many oppressed cultures have a body of folklore in which the powerless are able to best their oppressors through their wit, tricking them and making them look foolish. The African-American slave tales, for example, of Br’er Rabbit outwitting Br’er Fox were thinly disguised stories of the slave getting the best of his master. Humor plays an important role in bolstering the spirits of those who are up again impossible odds because humor strengthens community and reduces fear and doubt. How can you dread an enemy when that enemy is revealed to be a fool? It is no coincidence that JK Rowling, a faithful member of the Presbyterian Church, had Harry Potter and his friends defeating the dreaded boggarts by using the Riddulous spell.
The Book of Esther was, and continues to be, a story that keeps alive the hopes of the Jews by revealing the oppressor to be ridiculous. Every year, at the festival of Purim, Jewish people rehearse the story of Esther with skits and silly costumes, with carnivals and noise makers, and whenever Haman’s name is mentioned, people boo loudly and shake their noise makers to blot out the sound of his name. The story of Esther is supposed to be absurd: the King of Persia is a besotted buffoon, his right hand man a caricature of evil, the Snidely Whiplash of Persia, and everything in this story is exaggerated to the point of comedy. What kind of hypercritical King would gather all of the most beautiful women in his Kingdom and then make them undergo a full year of cosmetic treatments before he would even considering looking upon one as a possible bride? How big a dolt was Haman that in the midst of being arrested, he made things even worse by accidentally assaulting the King’s wife? The Persians might have been the rulers of an empire, the story tells us, but watching them is like watching “The Three Stooges,” and it is the Jews, the lowly resident aliens, who are the grownups in the room.
The Jews were and have been through much of their history, an oppressed people, and the book of Esther was for them and continues to be for them a source of strength because it strips away the self-aggrandizing of the powerful and reveals them to be no more than human, ultimately powerless to quench the spirit of the faithful. Gerald Coffee, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said that humor was crucial to his survival during those dark days in prison.
“Laughter sets the spirit free through even the most tragic circumstances,” he said. “It helps us shake our heads clear, get our feet back under us and restore our sense of balance. Humor is integral to our peace of mind and our ability to go beyond survival.” (4)
I preach a lot about the gospel message of comfort and healing, and about its charge to give of ourselves to others, and about the call to discipleship. I preach a lot about the demands of the Christian life, and how we need to keep our hands firmly on the plow no matter how tough the road ahead of us might be. I am reminded today, however, by the Book of Esther that we cannot lose sight of the joy of living, and the laughter found in the fellowship of faith. We cannot be all work and no play, as if discipleship is one grim walk of suffering and sacrifice until we finally get to the blessed peace of rest. If you are going to make it through this long haul of life, you have to make room for fun. Environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl (‘Shoe-Tez-Caht) says, “Activism cannot be a serious thing anymore. That form of it is over. We have to start having fun with it. We have to start monkey-wrenching the [heck] out of the system in every beautiful, artistic, positive way we can think of.” (4)
The gospel message for you today then, is simply this: Go have a little bit of fun this week. Go laugh, go play, go do something that makes you smile, and find some people to share those smiles with, and if you can find a way of having that fun while also serving Christ, even better. The Christian faith is a long season and Christ expects you to show up at the field every day so if you are going to make it through victorious, you might just need a little “Baby Shark” in your life. Go therefore, into all the world, and have a little bit of fun.
2. It was also performed by the organist at Washington’s National Cathedral https://youtu.be/hSDqYypxfz8