Shaping the Future


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

September 2, 2018

Texts: Esther 2:1-18; Psalm 45

        In the movie Sweet Land Inge is a mail-order bride who comes to rural Minnesota to marry Olaf, a Norwegian bachelor farmer. The problem is that she is German. Anti-German feelings still ran high in America at that time and the local Lutheran pastor refuses to give his blessing and marry them.

        Told from Inge’s perspective to her grandchildren the day of Olaf’s funeral, we learn that as they come to love each other and work together to get a good wheat harvest, the small town – and the pastor – finally ac-cepts her and agrees to marry them. Based on the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” this beautifully made film tells us how love crosses boundaries to shape new futures.

        Some lovers who try to cross boundaries are not so fortunate, of course. In May 1993, Bosko Brkic, a Bosnian Serb, and Admira Ismic a Bosnian Muslim were shot by a sniper as they tried to escape Sarajevo where their love for each other was seen as ethnic betrayal. He died instantly, and Admira reached over to hold him as she lay dying from a second bullet that had hit her.

The bodies lay on the bridge for eight days until finally removed and now are buried together in Lion Cemetery that holds thousands more victims of the hate stirred up by Milosevic that shaped the future of a broken Yugoslavia.

         Marriages in the ancient world, at least among kings and queens, were quite different, of course, who often married based on little more than a desire to shape the future of a kingdom or empire. In the story from the book of Esther, King Ahasuerus is looking for a new queen, one he expects that would be more com-pliant with his drunken demands than was Vashti, and he chooses Esther based on her beauty unaware of the fact that she is a Jew.

          The king here Ahasuerus has been identified by some scholars as Xerxes I, who ruled Persia for thirty years from 496 to 465. The Greek historian Herodotus, a contemporary of the period, wrote that Xerxes had an affinity for women as well as wine, built a magnificent palace in Shusan, and ruled a vast empire all the way down into Ethiopia. Following his defeat in the Battle of Salamis, as Herodotus also wrote, Xerxes I retreated to his harem, created from the beautiful women he plucked out among the subjects of his various captive nations.

         He also placed heavy taxes on his subjects and special sanctions against the Jews, as mentioned in the book of Ezra, which some scholars connect to Haman’s decree. Ahasuerus like many people in power was flattered to the point of wanting everyone to bow down to him above any other form of loyalty, such as to God.

         Psalm 45 stands out as an anomaly among the other psalms in that it is clearly a wedding psalm, possibly written to encourage one of the many women brought to Solomon as he solidified his empire’s bound-aries through brokered unions with daughters of various petty rulers. Some scholars, however,  believe this psalm was written for the marriage of Ahab and Jezebel, a union with disastrous consequences for the northern kingdom of Israel, but then its inclusion in the canon of Psalms makes almost no sense at all.

          Although the language of this Psalm seems to be little more than buttering up a king who already thinks he is the be all and end all, it shifts to instructing the woman who is to be the new addition to his dynastic ambitions to forget her father’s house and to embrace the new ruler in her life. The reference to Tyre makes it clear that the bride is a Canaanite woman, most likely a worshiper of one of the foreign gods decried by the prophets.

        Like Esther, this woman will help shape the future of an empire filled with peoples of many nations, wor-shiping many different gods, and trying to survive as they are tossed about from ruler to ruler. So what is it about this particular Psalm that makes it worth reading in our day and time for it certainly reflects an attitude toward the way women are to behave in a time long gone.

         It is, first of all, a Psalm of inclusion. The Psalm does not just encourage the daughter of Tyre to be bound only by treaty but by relationship. The princess here is a foreigner, to be married to not just a king but a man. She is encouraged to stir his passions, to have him love her, not just consummate a diplomatic union.

        This Psalm reflects the many nationalities and peoples bound together in an empire with loyalty to a ruler, just as we as a Nation are bound together by loy-alty to an ideal. There is no “blood and soil” ideology either in the Psalm or in the story of Esther. There is in the latter, to be sure, the hatred of Haman for the Jews because they pledge their loyalty to God rather than to a narcissistic egotist, as Haman demonstrated himself to be.

        One commentator on this Psalm noted the dis-comfort that both Christian and Jewish scholars have with the text because it “oozes with the importance of sex . . . in the context of loyalty, public responsibility, and personal stamina as vehicles of empire.” As a result, both faith traditions have attempted to sanitize with what could euphemistically be called ingenious interpretations.

        But neither the Psalm nor the story of Esther can be sanitized. They are about the use – and abuse – of power when a personage in a high position decides he wants what he wants without heed to the conse-quences. Ahasuerus, being merry with wine as the text puts it, wanted his queen to show herself and she re-fused. The king in the Psalm wants his bride, but not just as tribute, but as a woman to stir his passions. It’s worth noting that the classic paintings of Esther before the king shows her not as a modestly veiled woman, but as a woman stripped of whatever protection modesty would give.

        Both Esther and the woman in this Psalm as well as the stories of Jonah and Ruth force us to look beyond a narrow vision of who and what we are as a people. The daughter of Tyre is not just a sexual slave but is encouraged to become a willing partner in creating a broadened vision of who can constitute the people of God, as the ancient Israelites saw themselves.

         How can we use the story of Esther and this Psalm to shape a future that enables a culture of inclusion? In Esther, of course, truth wins out and the self-serving Haman is the one dispatched. The Psalm uses the language of lordship and master regarding the relationship of the daughter of Tyre and the king, but in preparing herself as the bride, she will bring the king around. She and Esther represent outsiders wanting to become insiders.

         These texts are part of the politics of inclusion. They tell us that we cannot just be narrow and inward looking. They tell us we must reach beyond what we once thought were our boundaries to shape a future not just for us but for others as well. Put in your mind’s eye the photo of earth taken from Apollo 11.

        That famous photo does not show boundary lines between nations but one earth, the one earth we have to live on. As one sign said in an environmental march, “There is no Planet B.” That photo shows the swirl of clouds over land and sea. It is truly one world. Perhaps this is the reason that this Psalm was included by old rabbis far wiser than I.

         The vision of this Psalm is reflected in the vision of the prophets, that the call of God to do justice and love mercy is not just limited to one nation or to only one people. Beyond the raw desire this young princess is supposed to elicit from the king, their marriage is to produce the sons who will rule over all the earth, in those countries beyond the narrow borders of the kingdom.

          This Psalm speaks not of military conquest but of the conquest of the heart that will extend the king’s rule, certainly a lesson for today. And Esther uses her position as queen to make her king Ahasuerus under-stand that his kingdom must be one of inclusion as well, one that excludes no one based on their creed or ethnicity.

         The lesson for us through these readings is the same: our nation and society must be one of inclusion, accepting the outsider. Our national motto “E Pluribus Unum” means out of many, one. That is who we are and what we should continue to be in the face of the divisive hate and fear being sowed in the fields by those who would destroy the vision of America.

        Let us pray: Holy One, who created humankind in your image,  an image that encompasses all the peoples of the earth, be with us as we strive to be faithful to your call for a more just and equitable society. In the name of him who extended his hand to all, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.