Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Laura Downton

Women's Herstories: 
Laura Downton

Laura is in her last year of theological studies at Princeton theological seminary.  Throughout her time at PTS she has been dedicated to lifting up women's voices and cultivating an anti-racist atmosphere at the seminary. Students at PTS have the opportunity to preach in Miller Chapel once during their senior year.  Laura's sermon on Queen Vashti from the book of Esther is magnificent, and she has allowed me to post it here.

Scripture Reading: Esther 1:10-22

Prayer: Challenge us, God who is Love, in this time of Lenten waiting & turning. May we hear Vashti's 'no' and in it somehow find our yes, with your healing balm. Amen.

Sermon: Her No Was Her Yes

     A refusal stirs through the years, the translations, the pages before us. Our text introduces us to a Queen whose words we are not able to hear. Yet in Queen Vashti's action, we hear a resounding, pealing, earthshattering 'no.' A blatant, glaring, unexplained, unapologetic refusal. Queen Vashti's 'no' comes in her refusal to obey the king's order that she come wearing her crown- and only her crown, to expose the beauty of her body to the King's palace officials. He has summoned her at an hour reserved for the concubine. 'Proper wives' have been dismissed for the evening and as the wine has continued flowing, Queen Vashti has been ordered to come. A complex matrix of honor and shame are hanging by threads wound tightly in the tangles of her next move of acquiescence or resistance.
     We can almost hear the palace walls shake with rage, dishes flying, glasses breaking as the king receives word that the Queen will not come when bidden.
     Queen Vashti's defiance has widespread consequence. Her refusal threatens not only the King's authority over her, but that of every husband in the kingdom. You see, her 'no' is so threatening, so upsetting to the order of the day, that a royal decree is necessary throughout the whole land that asserts that the man is to be master of 'his' household.
     What if word spreads to the women of the land? Vashti's defiance will be a model for the women of the kingdom.
     Queen Vashti's rebellion against being made the King’s toy comes at the cost of her crown, her status, her life as she knows it. Her story lays bare the consequences of confrontation of domination- the danger of refusal to be the object. The Queen is disappeared from the narrative. The danger of her refusal ripples out into a threat to the way power is wielded, held and denied.

     And we find ourselves encountering Vashti's refusal and denial – her resistance: here, now, in the middle of Lent.
     Lent is a time of taking stock. It is a time to pay attention, to move slower, and to breathe deeper. It is also a time to turn around, to change our course. It is a time to break with old patterns.
     It is a time when we remember the use of what can be two very holy words: No & Yes.
     We live awash in a flurry of demands that insist on our attention in the form of “yes” and “no.” Yes I will attend, no I cannot come to the phone, yes I do want another piece, Vote 'No!' on Measure 38. In any given moment, we may be confronted with a situation or person that impels us to offer our 'yes' or our 'no.' Sometimes these moments are merely trivial, but the sum of these decisions create our lives and shape the webs of our world.
     Yes to signing that check, no to listening to that person. 'No' to the man who asked me for money on the street again today, 'yes' to hearing her out even though it exhausts me.
     These demands are usually ambiguous and we miss their full impact until we step back and look at the shape of the patterns they reveal in our lives.
     We also operate with certain unspoken refusals – communal 'yes's, and 'no's'. These create environments in which we feel free to speak, or where we continue swallowing our words day after day. We communicate by what we choose to say, but we also communicate with our silence and neglected words when we offer a ‘no’ to theologies and persons that would stir us out of indifference. We too often offer a ‘yes’ to being lulled into complacency, pacified by shallow engagement and uncritical acceptance of the world around us.
     Our theological discourses, our political debates, the history books and newspapers we read or ignore, the corners of the globe we traverse or avoid, all coalesce to shape the “yes” or “no” we offer in our communities, our lives.
     Quietly, or not so quietly, the messages hang around us: no we will not talk about who has power in this conversation and who does not. Yes, we will listen to you because you speak English, but no we will not listen to you. No it does not matter if the money came from slave labor. Yes that word is sacred, no that word is too dangerous. Yes, we deserved this stolen land, no it does not concern us that one in four women are raped. Yes his words are authoritative, no her words are not.
     Refusals that upset and overturn relationships of domination come at a high cost as Queen Vashti reminds us. Often the cost is so high, we would prefer to not upset the status quo rather than face the upheaval of confrontation. For this reason, we may leave well-enough alone rather than risk the loss of our crowns, our position. Or maybe we are the ones who are keeping resistance silent?
     Where do the words go when they get stuck in our throats? Where do the burning words go that we keep silent, or that we silence with our denial about domination, racism, and subjugation? How long do they burn inside before they, deferred, turn to ash?
     My life has included a series of swallowed words, swallowed rage and consequently too often, swallowed boldness. I have coughed back more words that have died on my tongue than I care to admit: words raising questions, words of challenge, words of honest reaction, words that might compromise my position, and words that would boundary my safety. Words of risk and truth, of love and life.
     I have also been heard into speech by the love and challenge of many of the people in this room. We can hear one another into speech-but this hearing and speaking will likely demand radical breaks with old patterns.
     We live in a nation of prisons and wars turned into profitmaking industries, and of newsrooms and classrooms in which we make an object out of others, or in which we are made the object as a result of ethnic or sexual identity, gender, social class, or religious identity. This demands our holy resistance, our collective ‘no.’
     Returning to Queen Vashti's refusal, we also encounter her yes. A 'yes' to her humanity and value. A 'yes' to her power to resist-a holy defiance, a 'yes' to changing the game and its rules-or a 'yes' to starting an entirely new one. We have the same power to employ our 'no', and 'yes'.
     In this Lenten season of dispensing with and letting go, what are we still holding at the expense of the power and humanity of others? Is it not time to break with our collusions with the King and his patterns of speaking over-of silencing and glossing over voices that speak a holy no, as Vashti did in her refusal? Is it not time, in this Lenten season, to break with old patterns of using and violating each others’ bodies, labor, lands, and lives?
     Is it not time to offer our 'no', and in so doing offer our yes to the God of liberating love?
     How will we say our 'no' with Vashti?
     How will we say our 'yes' with her?
     How will you?

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