Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
July 8, 2018
Texts: Psalm 34; Isaiah 29:13-21
Asked about his early years in what used to be called “East New York,” or Brooklyn, Isaac Asimov told the story of how he, a skinny child born in the old Russian Empire managed to survive the tough kids he encountered in Brooklyn’s public schools. Realizing that his puny size would make him an easy target, he picked the largest and dumbest boy in his class and offered to do his homework for him if he, Isaac, could be protected from the others. Teachers were amazed at how the neighborhood tough became seemingly studious through his friendship with the young brilliant Isaac. Asimov learned how to take refuge through his wits.
Asimov was fortunate. His family had managed to get into the United States just before the Immigration Act of 1924 with its national origins quota system took effect which deliberately targeted immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, impacting Jews who were not seen as contributing to a “true” American identity. Although prob-ably best known as a writer of science fiction, Asimov was also a professor of biochemistry at Boston University and the author of numerous scientific articles. Coining the term robotics in a 1942 short story, he helped to develop an ethics of robotic science. Like many other immigrants of his time, he took refuge in books and learning, helping to create the America we now live in.
Each of us has a place or a thing of refuge. For some, like Asimov, it is books; for others, music or art, or a con-crete act in care for another or walking dogs. And in each place of refuge, like the Psalmist, we find ourselves at least temporarily delivered from the overwhelming sense of dread we sometimes have.
This Psalm traditionally has been ascribed to David when he feigned madness before a king so that the king would send him away. It is a Psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from an enemy, and David certainly had plenty of those. As one commentator observed, every thanks-giving is at bottom a report of a rescue. “I sought the Lord who delivered me from all that I dreaded” or in the words of another translator, “from all my fears.”
So, what fears do we have that we seek refuge from? Certainly, for many, it is the fear perhaps not of death but of not being remembered. Unlike Judge Wilson in 1776, who wanted nothing more than to be anonymous, most of us want not just some memory of our lives to survive us, but a particular memory. Perhaps it is this more than anything else that has created the increase in memoirs.
Freelance writer Rachel Syme writes that contrary to what many think, summer is the time we do most of our serious reading. And as she has grown older, she finds her refuge in reading memoirs because, as she wrote on her blog, it “pushes the mind to confront another’s actual lived experience, and, in doing so, reflect on one’s own.”
The memoirs that affect us most deeply are those of survivors, both from physical harm, such as caught in the West Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, or from psychological harm such as being the victim of internet stalking. The other kind of memoir tells of surviving the loss of a spouse or a child and often serves to give us hope that we could do the same.
There is, of course, the kind of memoir written to justify the choices one makes, politically, socially, person-ally; they want to make sure that some future historian writes from the memoirists’ point of view. They include everything from the sublime, such as Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation, to the ridiculous, The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received by the President who has more books under his name than he probably has ever read.
As we think about how we take refuge from what we dread or our deepest fears, this Psalm offers what one translator calls a “moving vision of hope for the desperate” for it recognizes the “the bleakness, the dark terrors, the long nights of despair that shadows most lives, and against this, evokes the motion of a caring presence that can reach out to the brokenhearted.”
Among the brokenhearted must be the 50 or so asylum seekers who were just deported from the United States without their children because the idiots who run the Department of Homeland Security have no idea where the children are. A report in 2011 stated that 5100 children in 22 states had been placed in foster homes and many were awaiting adoption after their parents had been de-ported because the government had never reconnected parent and child.
Imagine some official of this so-called government wrenching your child out of your arms to be placed where you would never see that child again. They would have to kill me first. And they have done exactly that – killing parents and children emotionally and spiritually.
The Psalmist plunges into the depths of despair and yet affirms that evil will kill the wicked. The power of the Psalm is its unremitting faith that the righteous will survive whatever is done to them. Could we be so sure? We cer-tainly have hope that in taking refuge in God that we will survive, perhaps even prevail.
We take refuge in so many ways in our lives. And the refuge we take often depends on the evil we fear and flee. One lawyer friend of mine does nothing but watch romantic comedies, even the stupid ones, because, as she told me, they are totally apart from the reality of her life: representing persons accused of some really heinous crimes, some of which involve children. And, by the way, it is the rare one who is an immigrant. Most of her clients were born here.
Then there is the DCF lawyer who spends her time removing children from homes with opioid abuse. Just like the immigrant children, most of these children have bond-ed with their parents and do not understand why they need to be apart from their parents even though it’s ob-vious the parents are totally incapable of caring for them. She seeks refuge by digging into rough areas to maintain trails.
How then do we seek refuge? The Psalmist offers advice: keep our tongues from speaking evil and our lips from deceit; swerve from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it. Sounds good, but as we all know seeking peace is easier said than done. How can we seek peace in a violent world? Or in a society where the language of racist hate prevails from the highest office in the land?
In a recent article in the New York Times supporters of the current president were interviewed and asked if they continued to support the president. Their responses were surprising because they believed that the opposition to current policies, especially on immigration, hampered the president from making America great again. Now, none of the persons interviewed had been hit by the tariffs like the auto and motorcycle workers in Kentucky and Wisconsin. And some of those workers blamed the manufacturers for moving, not the protectionist trade policies that are being implemented.
Although corporate America is run by the same demographic group that will be unemployed soon, it is not so sanguine. Various business organizations are scurrying about trying to blunt the effect of protectionism because they fear a recession as a result. And recession will only exacerbate the rhetoric we now hear.
However, James and Deborah Fallows, writers for the Atlantic in their book, Our Towns: A 100,000 mile Journey into the Heart of America, argue that there is a positive disconnect with how people live their everyday lives, accepting differences in small towns and large and their attempts to create community rather than to destroy it over against much of the support they heard for the cur-rent president. Polarization is national, they argue, while community is local.
So, is the way to create peace to focus on our local communities and to help them thrive, bringing people into contact with others? Is this a more viable way to “oppose” the polarization and hatred we hear on the national news? The Fallows argue that this is the way it works best.
Remember how twenty years ago people in the LGBTI community were almost invisible? As they became more visible and more people realized that the gay neigh-bor next door was not a child predator or had horns, the shift to not just tolerating but accepting a gay or lesbian neighbor became possible. Knowing someone who is in a disfavored category, such as a Muslim or Sikh, or an un-authorized immigrant, changes our perspective on the group as a whole.
There’s a reason that the hate and fear mongers maintain the abstract rhetoric. As long as Muslims or immigrants are not real people, then it’s easier to fear and hate. We don’t need to go to the Nazis or Hutu leaders in Rwanda. When people are reduced into abstractions, hate and fear are easy.
As Christians, people who follow the One who called out the political and religious leadership of his day for reducing people into abstractions, such as Samaritan or Roman, we must move beyond such thinking and language. It is very easy for us to use invective. I know because I use it from time to time. It seems that to stop the hateful policies we abhor and to create real community is the ultimate way to obtain refuge.
The Psalmist doesn’t tell us just to take refuge in the Lord as an abstraction but to depart from evil and do good. We must start by building bridges, listening and practicing friendly persuasion. It’s really not easy. I speak for myself here, but I have faith that ultimately good will prevail.
Let us come to God in prayer: We seek you, O Lord, and take refuge in the faith that our faithfulness to you will result in a just and peaceful world. Help us as we strive to be faithful to your call. In the name of him who offers us hope, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.