Holding Fast


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

July 22, 2018

Texts: Psalm 36 and Psalm 37

      The old woman held fast to the banister as she climbed the steps. She no longer had the light gait of her youth, a time when she would not have feared slipping or falling down. But because she had heard about friends of hers now consigned to nursing homes due to broken bones from a fall, she went carefully step by step, holding the banister in such a way that she did not lift her hand to move up but instead slid her hand along the railing.

        She went up and down the stairs as little as possible. Coming down, she realized she had to hold fast in a different way. She couldn’t just let her hand slide down as it slid going up. She gripped and gripped hard. A fall down could surely kill her but she worried more that it would not but simply permanently debilitate her. And then others would control her life, the times she could sleep or eat, the times she could be outside. And if that happened, what would become of her beloved cat, the one who purred her to sleep every night and licked her nose in the morning.

        She had agreed to certain accommodations that her few relatives wanted. She now accepted the mobile meals but only at the door. She hired a neighbor boy to mow the grass. But she refused to wear the medical alert presented to her at Christmas fearful that should she use it to call for help a relative might decide she needed too much help and she would end up in the dreaded nursing home. She held as fast to her independence as she did to the banister rail.

She also held fast to certain ideals, the values she had been taught as a child. For people of her generation, they were the values of hard work and honesty beyond reproach. She bemoaned the loss of community and the shared values of caring for one another. She took her solace in reading, and she read everything she could find. Her greatest delight was in the Psalms, especially those that spoke of God’s steadfast love.

        The Hebrew word translated here as steadfast is hesed. It means a love based on covenant commitment; as one commentator put it, it is a love based on loyalty. We know, of course, that even love based on covenant and loyalty can fail in human beings; the divorce rate is certainly an indicator of how loyalty fails.

      There are many translations of the word hesed, some of which are based on secondary translations, such as the Latin Misericordia, which ended up as the word lovingkindness in a 1535 translation. But it is a stronger word than that. Robert Alter, the Hebrew scholar I have quoted so often, translates it as “faithfulness,” closer to the idea of steadfastness found in the text of Psalm 36.

       The Psalmist praises the Lord’s faithfulness, God’s steadfast love, which like the Lord’s justice, God’s righteousness, is as eternal as the mountains, and prays to the Lord that justice will be given to the upright and that the Lord will prevent the hand of the wicked from destroying him.

         The Psalms often combine prayer and praise in addition to reminding the Lord that God’s steadfast love is more than just a promise. The covenantal relationship we have with God requires that we hold fast to what God requires of us, beautifully put by the prophet Micah: To act justly and love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

        Psalm 37 tells us not to become angry over the seeming success of evil doers for as the Psalmist so nicely puts it, “they will wither fade like grass and wither like the green herb.” We are told to let go of wrath and forsake anger, hard to do when we see so much evil around us. But here I think the Psalmist is telling us to let go of the kind of anger that paralyzes us into inaction or even the wrong kind of action. There are times when we hold fast onto what is destructive to us and the cause of justice.

         Just as there is a difference between anger and righteous indignation, there is also a difference between holding fast and stubbornness, the reluctance to let go. Holding fast is more like persistence. There’s a word in Finnish that describes what is required in today’s world. It is sisu, the quality of courage in the face of insurmountable odds, the ability to figure out what needs to be done, and the persistence to do it.

       Sisu was of course the word that described the Finns as they battled the Russians in the Winter War of 1939. The words of a Time magazine article from 1940 describing this quality may give us an idea of what we need today: “a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting when most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win.” This is the quality we need to take on the forces of evil unleashed around us.

         This morning’s reading from Psalm 37 describes what those forces do. They lay plots against the just, those who practice righteousness in their lives. Although the language of their methods may date from ancient times, the effect is the same. The poor and the vulnerable are attacked by administrative decisions and proposed legislation, such as changing the definition of poverty to increase the rent that the poor need to pay in subsidized housing.

        To be sure, we all get tired. There are times when we feel we just do not have the psychological resilience to take on another crisis, to have a positive frame of mind when confronted with what is truly a barrage of upsetting change around us.

         We are concerned about climate change and the impact of rising sea levels, as we certainly should be – we are not even halfway into the hurricane season. Sandy struck in late October.

        We should be concerned about the rise of hate speech and white nationalism, and it is happening here in New Jersey. Posters for the neo-Nazi group known as “Identity Evropa” were plastered over Somerset County two weeks ago. New Jersey Spotlight pointed out the alarming rise in hate and bias crimes in 2016-2017. They occurred in areas as diverse as Warren and Middlesex Counties. Some were racial or ethnic, aimed at Blacks and Latinos; others were aimed at Muslims and Jews. Many occurred at schools, the perpetrators being juveniles but clearly reflecting the attitudes of their parents.

      Developing tenacity is not easy; holding fast to the important values of our Nation and society can be difficult. As we strive to hold fast, it is important to savor our victories, such as defeating – at least for now – the monster power line towers that would have run right through our community. This Psalm holds the promise of victory over injustice: even though we may stumble and fall, the Lord will sustain our hand and lift us up to continue to work for justice and mercy.

       Holding fast in the hope – the trust – that they will be sustained are, of course, the many immigrant women who have fled from violence in the Northern Triangle, the countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Told that they just need to sign that little piece of paper printed in English which in effect gives up on their claim for asylum and they will get their children back, many women have done that and found themselves deported without children because the government didn’t have a record of where they were placed.

        Holding fast in the hope and trust in their immigration attorneys who urge them not to give up on their legitimate asylum claims and who will be able to argue for and help them obtain asylum and get their children back, mothers brace themselves for a long fight mostly in detention. Let me explain how difficult this will be.

       In 1996, the old Esmor detention center had an uprising. Little wonder, for I personally witnessed detainees slammed against a wall and shackles so tight that a person could hardly move. I complained to the Court and was told the treatment was not in its jurisdiction. After the uprising, most detainees were shipped off to York County Prison, four hours from here.

       At that time, I represented a young Nigerian – this was 1996 during a terrible time of repression against people supporting the rights of the Ogoni, an ethnic group whose land was being appropriated by Royal Dutch Shell. The Nigerian dictatorship actually hanged 19 people including poet Ken Saro-Wiwa because they supported the Ogoni. My client was held for four years before finally getting asylum and freedom.

         Detention was really pretty awful. If you complained about anything, you were put in “administrative detention” – the euphemism for solitary confinement. And that hasn’t changed. Imagine yourself in a country where you don’t know the law, don’t speak the language – and my Nigerian asylum seeker was a college educated man who was ob-viously fluent in English – and you are being told, “Just sign this little paper and you’ll get your kids back.” How do you hold fast in the face of losing your children?

       Holding fast in the face of such odds stacked against you is incredibly difficult although, I have to tell you, some are willing to return to face violence and death if their children stay here with some form of protection. It is indeed a Solomon’s choice.

        Holding fast is what we must do in the face of such terrible injustice. We hold fast because we believe that God is with us no matter what. This is the true meaning of steadfast love. It is indeed the love that knows no boundaries that we may draw, national or otherwise. It is the love that enables us to hold fast to the call of the prophet Micah: And what does the Lord require of us but to do justice and love mercy.

        The Psalmist gives us God’s promise of accompaniment: the meek will inherit the earth and justice will be done.

        Let us come to god in prayer. You offer us your gift of your presence. Be with us this day and every day. In the name of him who is your Presence, Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.