If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, January 22, 2009

God is Our Ever Present Help: a sermon on Psalm 46

Ein feste burg is unser Gott. A Mighty Fortress is our God. In 1529, when the Protestant cause of the Reformation was wavering in the balance, Martin Luther wrote the hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God. His song was based upon Psalm 46, a hymn of God's enduring power. This psalm has provided assurance and comfort for many from generation to generation who have faced crises and struggles. It is a psalm I have often read to people when they are in the hospital enduring sickness or facing death. In powerful poetic images the psalm extols confidence in God, our refuge and strength in times of trouble. Luther has captured well the psalm's image of God as a mighty fortress.

Psalm 46 is a psalm of Zion, the city where it was believed that God dwelt and from where God rule. It was the place of the temple and Israel's military stronghold. But, this Psalm of Zion does not extol the security and strength of the city itself. The psalm reminds us that it is God in the city and not the king in the palace, nor the priests in the temple, who brings security, order, and peace to the world. Neither church nor state is our refuge and strength. God alone is our ever present help.

The psalm is structured in three parts. Verses 1-3 assure us not to fear, even when all of creation is collapsing around us. Verses 4-7 proclaim God's presence in Zion's midst, even when surrounded by conflict and catastrophe. In verses 8,11 God calls for peace among the nations. Each section of the psalm contains a confession of confidence in God, a reassuring refrain reminding us that God is with us and is our refuge and our strength.

God is our power when the world quakes. Psalm 46 opens with the assurance that God is our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble. There is no need to fear, even in the midst of cosmic cataclysm. The psalmist seems to paint a graphic picture of a catastrophic earthquake. Earthquakes are so powerful they would cause anyone to fear. I was scared out of my wits during the big earthquake in California in 1971. It measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. One morning I woke to a deep rumbling in the earth. My bed was bouncing across the wood floor. I could hear the house was creaking and moaning. Books were flying off the shelf. My mother was banging on my bedroom yelling at me to get out of the house. It was like waking to a nightmare. I prayed to God in fear. It literally felt like the end of the world.

There are times when the ground beneath us shakes and quakes and it feels like the end of our world. Figuratively speaking, the ground on which we stand may be understood as those things which provide us with what appears to be unshakable “security," our impenetrable nation, our clean bill of health, our steady job, our home sweet home, our friends and family, our social security payments, our retirement fund. These things make us feel safe and secure in the world. Then, something happens unexpectedly, like September 11 and we feel the insecurity that so many nations have felt under our military power and our own terrorism through nuclear threat. Or what happens to us to shake our security may not be something that can be measured on the Richter scale, but it may feel like a 7.1 quake in the soul. In a serious tone your child's teacher says, "I caught your child cheating on the exam." The boss calls you into the office and with eyes to the floor says, "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to lay you off." The letter reads, "Your Medicare benefits have been cut." The doctor walks into the room with a file and some x-rays and states rather stoically, "The test says its a malignant tumor.” Dark clouds gather overhead and we shiver. Waves of mortality and breakers of insecurity crash on our shore and we tremble. The mountains of our strength rock and reel and we shake in fear.

Sometimes the shaking of our securities may occur through a loss or change which may on the surface seem common or insignificant. It doesn't always take a major crisis to cause the ground beneath us to quake. One of the earliest memories of renowned theologian Teilhard de Chardin was of his hair being cut by his mother in front of the fireplace. The young Teilhard watched in horror as a lock of his hair fell into the fire, blackened and burned. To him, a part of himself had turned into nothing. For the first time in his life he understood that he was not indestructible. His young mind needed something permanent and imperishable to provide him with a refuge from the transitoriness of life. So he fixed his attention on iron. He soon discovered iron would rust. So, he turned to rocks, something stable. As Teilhard matured he realized there was no imperishable substance which offered a refuge from a world which decays and crumbles. This was the beginning of a spiritual pilgrimage for Teilhard to search for that Rock and Refuge which stands strong in a world which shakes and falls apart.

The psalmist assures us that God is our refuge and our strength. God is everpresent when our bodies fail us, our years pass into nothingness, and the vibrancy of life fades into faint memories. God is a mighty fortress where we can flee when our faith is being attacked by the swords of doubt and spears of misfortune. God is the Rock upon which we stand when the quicksand of human troubles would pull us under. God is our strength when life has wrung from us the last drop of energy we need just to make it through another day. God is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble.

God is our presence when cities and nations rage. The psalmist pictures the nations round about Zion as being in an uproar. Kingdoms totter. The earth melts like a wax candle. The world of politics and policies, of economics and ecology is teetering on the brink of disaster. You don't have to live in ancient land of Jerusalem to understand what this is like. Those of us old enough to have lived through a World War and the Depression know how nations and economies can stagger like drunken men.
We have seen rulers deposed and assassinated and allied countries in conflict. We have watched as the rule of presidents, congressional leaders, and even church leaders have stumbled and fallen. Many of us have watched the slow decay of our inner cities. White flight to the suburbs, segregation of races, unemployment, gangs, and violence flow like sewage through the streets and alleys. We have tasted the bitter waters of pollution from industry without conscience and smelled the fumes of a world burning up its resources without limits. Gazing at a world melting into oblivion we long for the city of God, whose foundations are sure.

It was St. Augustine who so eloquently wrote of The City of God, which he contrasted to the earthly city of humanity. For the psalmist the city of God is both the present earthly Jerusalem and the ideal, heavenly Jerusalem. In contrast to the world, where the "waters roar and foam," a peaceful river makes glad the city of God. God is in the midst of the city. It is God who makes its streets secure. When all we see are cul de sacs of injustice and dead end streets of beaurocracy, the vision of the city of God opens our eyes to God's presence on the highways and byways of our earthly cities.

To look at our world, our nations, our cities, with an eye only on the earthly, human city is to overlook the presence of God in the world. It can only lead to despair. We can catch glimpses of the city of God within our earthly cities. The city of God is where justice weighs heavy in the scales, righteousness rules the city council, the weak are made strong, the wounded are healed, the hungry are given their just desserts, and persons are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The city of God is governed by what Michael Lerner calls the "politics of meaning, II a reconstruction of "the world in a way which takes seriously the uniqueness and preciousness of every human being and our connection to a higher ethical and spiritual purpose that gives meaning to our lives." A river of life flows in the midst of this city. It quenches the thirst of those panting for purpose and joy in living.

The spires of God's city reach into the heavens, while its foundation is rooted in the earth. God is its maker and builder. Each new day which dawns illuminates the presence of God within this city, who roams its streets with sleeves rolled up and is hard at work securing its unstable walls, filling in the potholes of inequity, and checking the flow of its lifegiving waters. God is working at building a new Jerusalem, a new Dallas. So, even though the nations rage and the cities seem to be crumbling around us, God is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble.

God is our peace when strife and warfare blares its noise. In the final section of the psalm the poet invites us to come and see the things God has done upon the earth while the nations rage and their cities crumble. Ashes as Ground zero in New York City, the flames of the L.A. riots, the smoldering ruins of Sarajevo, the bomb infested fields of Southeast Asia tell the tale of human folly. Our flood of handguns, stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and reliance upon military security bears witness to our insecurity and our trust in human power to save us. Across the silent fields of Vietnam, through the ruins of Kosovo, beyond the sands of Kuwait, throughout the noisy halls of the Pentagon, God is shouting, "Be still and know that I am God! It is my reign of peace which shall rule the nations. I will be exalted above the earth and it is my kingdom which is to come on earth as in heaven.”

We have often taken the words "Be still and know that I am God" out of context and used it as a call to quiet meditation. Rather, it is God's command to cease war, to stop the violence and destruction. "Stop the wars, then you will know I am God." To know God is to end our strife and warfare. For God is the one who makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth. God snaps the M-1 rifle in two. God smashes the scud missile. God sets fire to the armored tanks. "Be still," says God. "Stop your fighting and know I am God."

The cry for a world without war and violence is not just the yelling of some radical protesters with their signs waving or the whispering of a minority of Mennonites. It is the roar of God above the raging nations. Be still! Stop the war and violence! You have heard this voice crying out, haven It you? You have heard it in the words of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, who proclaimed a day when swords will be beaten into plowshares, nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3). God's voice echoed in words of Hosea who spoke of a day when weapons and war will be abolished from the land (Hosea 2: 18). The advent angels chime in at the birth of the Prince of Peace, "Peace on earth. Good will to all." You have heard this same cry in the voice of Jesus, who said, "Blessed are the peacemakers," and "Love your enemies." God's voice continued to ring in the words of Anabaptist Conrad Grebel, who reminded us that the sword and killing had ceased with the true Christian. The call for peace could be heard in the words of A.J. Muste when he said, "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way" or Mahatma Ghandi, who said, "My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God and non~violence is the means to reach God." God still cries out to a warring world, "Be still, stop the war and violence, and know that I am God."

Even when creation trembles, foundations shake, nations rage, kingdoms totter, cities crumble, warfare blares, God is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble. This truth is worth singing. The psalmist proclaimed this truth in a song. Martin Luther penned a hymn so the truth of this psalm would ring from the rafters. Let us sing with our lives the truth of God, a mighty fortress, our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble.

A New Psalm 46
written by Leo Hartshorn

We need not be afraid,
though oil spills blacken the seas
and volcanoes spit ash into the skies,
though the ground beneath our lives
shakes and cracks,
though tornadoes of tragedy
rip up the roots of our world,
though the seas of chaos
engulf us beneath their waves.

God is our everpresent help.
God is our refuge and our strength.

The peaceful streams of God's presence
water the roots of our spirits
and flood the streets of our cities with joy.
God is always with us,
and comes to us in hours of darkness
as the dawning of a new day. Presidents and kings may cause
their petty skirmishes.
Dictators and regimes may topple
to the ground. But, when God speaks with hot breath the icy world melts.

God is our everpresent help.
God is our refuge and our strength.

Take a good look
off into God's future
and see the new world
made by divine hands.
That ol’ Peacemaker
has called a halt to all wars.
See, the rifles snap over God's knee.
Behold, God smashes
stockpiles of nuclear weapons with a mighty fist
and puts the match to a fleet of stealth bombers.
God shouts over the noise of battle,
“ Stop the fighting!
When the world obeys,
they will know me
as the God I am,
Lover of justice and peace.
When the world finally ceases
its warring ways,
then they will know,
I am their refuge and their strength.
I will be exalted
over all the earth.

God is our everpresent help.
God is our refuge and our strength.

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