Victories Large and Small


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church April 29, 2018

Texts: Psalms 20 and 21

       In her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman looks at the challenges and small victories Foua and Ngo Caou, two Hmong parents have as they struggle to raise their epileptic child using the tradi-tional Hmong approach and treatment, much of which flew in the face of modern scientific approaches toward epi-lepsy. Their daughter Lia, born in 1982 just two years after her parents were resettled in Merced County, California, home to the largest concentration of Hmong refugees, began having epileptic seizures at the age of three.

       The local hospital was ill-equipped to provide services to the Hmong for several reasons, the first of which was a total lack of adult interpreters, children of parents being used as interpreters. Hospital staff also did not know what to make of traditional Hmong culture. The refugees had been told what their lives would be like in the United States and even with interpreters, they did not understand what Americans saw as medical treatment, for the Hmong, had a radically different view of life and used shamans, animal sacrifice, and herbal remedies.

       The struggles that Lia’s parents faced were different from those of the Psalmist regarding the type of struggle, not its dependence on powers beyond this world to provide strength and relief and victory.

        The two Psalms we read this morning form a single literary unit, the first half of which is the plea to God that the Lord answers in time of trouble and the second that the Lord has answered prayer and given victory. Although these Psalms dedicated to David the King concerned his need for victory over his enemies also seen as the enemies of Israel, the depth of feeling also reflects our petitions to God and desire to destroy our enemies, not physical ones, but the turmoil we often feel within.

       The beauty of the Psalms is while recognizing their cultural and historical context we can respond to the emotions they bring up in us. Indeed, how often have we asked God to grant us our heart’s desires or answer our prayers? And, when things turn out okay, how often have we thanked God because we believed whatever it was that we needed could not have been accomplished by us alone?

Psalm 20 is a call for the king’s victory in battle.

        In the ancient Hebrew context, a prayer for the king was a prayer for all the people. One Midrash, or homily, on the Psalms compiled by the rabbis around 200 CE, elab-orated on the overtones of “trouble” with examples of a woman in labor crying in pain. In this Midrash, Rabbi Yudan – a Midrash was always identified by the rabbi who told it – compared the woman groaning in pain the weep-ing and groaning of the Jewish people when the Temple was destroyed. The Midrash further stated that although others may take pride in chariots, we should take pride in the name of God.

        The rabbis commented that Psalm 20 was a Psalm of trust in God. The Psalm that follows, Number 21, is a Psalm of thanksgiving for victory over the king’s enemies, seen as enemies of Israel, the King being considered a symbol of the nation. The last part of this Psalm is seems bloodthirsty to us: making enemies like a fiery furnace, swallowed up with their offspring destroyed and wiped from humankind. How do we find any common thread with these sentiments?

       In the ancient world, the ultimate victory over one’s enemies was to wipe out their progeny, the possibility that the enemy might find revenge in the future. Scripture tells us that the Lord, the God of the ancient Hebrews who came into the land of Canaan, which was inhabited by others, commands the army of Joshua to kill everything in sight, including the oxen, donkeys, and cattle; in addition to being a form of ritual purification it was also a guar-antee that the conquered would not rise against the invaders.

       David the King was forever fighting against someone, some other tribe or city state. Israel from the time of Saul through Solomon was landlocked without access to the Mediterranean, and the much of the land to the east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan were controlled by other king-doms, such as Moab and Edom. Those kingdoms, including Philistia and Phoenicia, were also always impinging on the land of Israel, the Canaanites or what was left of them having either been wiped out or assimilated into other groups.

       However, trusting in God means more than asking for relief from whatever enemies we think we face, external and internal. It certainly means more than getting what we want for God is more than a big Santa Claus in the sky. Part of trusting in God means knowing God is with us no matter what happens to us whether it’s good or bad.

Sometimes that is really difficult because there are times when we struggle and only feel God’s silence. The ancient world, like the world of the Hmong, had answers to every-thing. To the Israelite nation, disaster was a result of sin and turning away from God from the time of the Israelites in the desert through the prophets who railed against the social sins of the ruling class. For the Hmong, disaster was the visitation of a dab, an evil spirit waiting to catch people in its grip.

         Our sophisticated twenty-first century thinking smiles at the mythology of groups like the Hmong, but much of what we believe is rooted in a similar kind of thinking found in the prayers of the Psalms and the railings of the prophets. What that means is that when we read a Psalm that expresses our own fears and hopes, we intern-alize it in such a way that it becomes transformed into a deeper meaning for our lives.

        These two Psalms are good examples of that intern-alization. We really do want to have our petitions and prayers fulfilled and we really do thank God for the many small victories and large we have in our lives. But prayers and petitions and gratitude are feelings that are not tied into ancient views of God. They constitute recognitions that we alone are not the masters of our fate, as an old poem from another time once said.

         Whatever victories we have, small or large, are not our doing alone. We are tied into families, communities, societies that not only impact how we live but also serve as a framework for how we respond to concerns, disappoint-ments, and, yes, disasters that overtake us from time to time. In some sense, that’s what trusting in God actually means – that we are buttressed by the communities we live in.

         The ancients had a vision of God as the Lord who directly intervened in their lives. The Lord gave victory and the Lord allowed defeat depending on whether or not the people and their embodiment the King was faithful. Calling on the name of the Lord – in other words, depending on God – rather than chariots and horses, symbols of material power determined the outcome.

         We probably consider our view of God or our faith in God as being more nuanced, but these Psalms as well as others speak to our deep need to feel the power and spirit of God in our lives, as an anchor holding a boat from drift-ing out to sea. The anchor of faith we have is supported by our experience in community with each other. And our faith grows as we are faithful, for even in a Psalm asking for military victory, we are told not to put our trust in things such as the weapons of war or, as Jesus put it, possessions that moths and rust consume.

         Clearly, as a society, we have put our trust in things rather than in and justice toward the poor, the disposs-essed, and others who do not share in our society’s wealth. And we continue to put our trust in instruments of power rather than in thoughtful approaches toward complex problems. Power is exercised in many different ways, whether we talk about military might or unequal treatment of groups such as minorities, LGBT persons, or the poor.

         As a community we’ve had a few small victories such as the decision of the administrative law judge on the proposed electric towers, but we know we can’t count our chickens before they hatch. We still await possible court battles. As a state, we’ve joined a consortium on gun violence, but Congress still dawdles. So we have small victories at this point. We do not only pray for the larger victories we hope will come but we work for them as well.

         In Lia’s case, after years of medication for her epilepsy, she had a grand mal seizure, one that doctors believed would cause her to die. The doctors and social workers returned her to her parents who removed all the tubes, and washed her carefully every day with their herbal baths – yes, and sacrificed a few pigs and chickens as well – but cared for her as no hospital could. She did not die but was permanently disabled and lived to the ripe age of 30. Not a small victory.

        What we learn from these Psalms is that faithful living, trusting in God rather than things can lead us to small and large victories.

        Let us come to God in prayer: We pray that you increase our faith in you and hold you to our hearts so we live faithfully, giving justice to the poor and the outcast knowing that all are your children. In the name of him who showed us how to live, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.