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

Monday, January 30, 2017

God is Our Ever Present Help: Psalm 46

*Sermon at Salem Mennonite Church on Sunday, January 28, 2017

Ein feste burg ist 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 that I, in my days as a pastor, often read to people when they were 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. In his hymn Luther captured well the psalm's image of God as a mighty fortress, a bulwark against the surrounding chaos of a world on the brink.

Psalm 46 is a psalm of Zion, the city where it was believed that God dwelt and from where God ruled. It was the place of the temple, the treasury, and Israel's military stronghold. But, this Psalm of Zion doesn’t extol the security and strength of the city itself. The psalm reminds us that it is 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 and a reassuring refrain reminding us that God is with us and is our refuge and our strength.

God is our security when the world quakes. Psalm 46 opens with the assurance that God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present 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 cause everyone 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 creaking and moaning. Books were flying off the shelf. My mother was outside banging on my bedroom window yelling at me to get out of the house. It was like waking up 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. Metaphorically speaking, the ground on which we stand are those things which provide us with security: our welcoming nation, our rock steady church, our clean bill of health, our dependable job, our home sweet home, our reliable family and friends, our Social Security payments. These things make us feel safe and secure in the world. Then, something happens unexpectedly, like an earthshaking election, betrayal by our leaders, loss of privileges and benefits. And suddenly we feel the insecurity that many people of color have felt all their lives.

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. 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 it’s a malignant tumor.” Your sister calls you aside and tells you, “I overheard mom and dad say they are getting a divorce.” 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.

The psalmist assures us that God is our refuge and our strength. God is ever present 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, that mysterious bedrock of Life, is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in times of trouble.

God is ever present 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. Or just listen to these recent words from a pessimistic politician painting an apocalyptic picture of American carnage: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. We listen to these dark words from our new leader and envision an even worse future ahead of us and we quake with fear at a world on the brink.

We have seen leaders resign, impeached, deposed, assassinated, and countries go into economic free fall. We have watched as congressional leaders and even church leaders have stumbled and fallen. We have stood flabbergasted at wholesale lies whitewashed as “alternative facts” and pulled our hair over the blatant sexism, racism, xenophobia, islamophobia, and ableism that are being normalized. We have tasted the bitter waters of broken pipelines from industry without conscience and smelled the fumes of a world burning up its resources without limits, while rich CEOs and lucrative corporations line their pockets. With darkened vision we gaze at a world that seems to be melting into oblivion. Our hearts long for a better world, a city of God, as it were, whose foundations are sure.

It was St. Augustine who so eloquently wrote of The City of God. He put in sharp contrast the divine City of God and the earthly city of humanity. The psalmist contrasts the world where the "waters roar and foam," with a peaceful river that 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, this vision of the city of God opens our eyes to God's presence on the highways and byways of our own earthly cities.

To look at our world, our nations, our cities, with an eye only on the earthly, darkened city is to overlook God’s shining presence within 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 on the scales, righteousness rules the city council, the weak are made strong, the wounded are healed, the hungry are fed, and people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

We have seen the city of God in the faces of Native Americans fiercely protecting their sacred waters in North Dakota. We have caught a glimpse of the city of God in black lives that matter speaking the discomforting truth to power. We have been overwhelmed by a vision of the city of God in the faces of women and men and children in countless cities across this land and around the world speaking with one voice, crying out for dignity and justice and human rights, longingly marching toward the city of God.

The city of God is governed by what rabbi Michael Lerner calls the "politics of meaning,” 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, longing for justice and peace, and calling for the celebration of life in all its shimmering diversity.

The other day I caught a glimpse of what looked like signs on the doorway to this heavenly city. These signs are particularly poignant for me in light of the executive order that led to yesterday’s detention of Muslims at American airports. These signs were in an unexpected place; my grandson’s public Middle School. There were signs posted up and down the hallways where students walked each day. They read: We welcome all races, all religions, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all genders. We stand with you. You are safe here.

The gates of this city are open to everyone. 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. God roams its streets with sleeves rolled up. God is hard at work tearing down the walls that divide us, filling in the potholes of inequity, and checking the flow of its life giving waters, making sure its refreshing streams flow to all people. God is working at building a New Jerusalem, a New Washington D.C., a New Salem.

So, even though the nations rage and the cities seem to be crumbling around us, God, that mysterious bedrock of Life is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present 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. The carcass of buildings in Hiroshima, the flames of the L.A. riots, ashes at Ground zero in New York City all tell the tale of human folly. Our flood of handguns and semi-automatic rifles, stockpiles of nuclear weapons, FBI and CIA surveillance, and reliance upon our omnipresent US military bases around the world bear witness to our utter insecurity and our trust in human power to save us. Beyond the sands of Baghdad, above the explosions in Aleppo, and 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. 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. Be still….meditate….contemplate. Rather, in its context, the phrase “be still” is God's command to cease war, to stop the flurry of violence and destruction. "Be still! Stop the fighting, then you will know I am God." To know God is to end our strife and warfare. “Be still” is immediately followed by the truth that God is the one “who makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth.” God snaps the M-1 rifle in two. God disables the armored tanks. God obliterates the stockpile of nuclear weapons. "Be still," says God. "Stop your fighting and know I am God."

The cry for a world without war and violence is not simply the yelling of some radical protesters with their signs waving in the urban air or the rural whispers of a minority of pacifist 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’t 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 chimed in at the birth of the Prince of Peace singing, "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." God still cries out to a warring world, "Be still, stop the war and violence, and know that I am God."

For we, the people….of faith, do not ultimately trust in leaders who fail us. We do not ultimately trust in nations that teeter on the brink. We do not ultimately trust in weapons of warfare to keep us safe. We trust in God, that mysterious bedrock of Life, who with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in times of trouble.

This truth is worth singing. The psalmist long ago proclaimed this truth in a song. Martin Luther penned a hymn so that the truth of this psalm would ring from the rafters. Let us now sing with our voices and lives these truths of our God, a mighty fortress.

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 ever present 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 ever present 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 ever present help. 
God is our refuge and our strength.