October 26, 2014
In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks of September 11, we were a people in chaos. We were a people afraid. Even though I lived far away from where the attacks happened, and I had no direct connection with anyone who died on that terrible day, I still lived in a state of constant fear. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. In one clear, sunny morning, every illusion we had of being safe was shattered. On September 10 I could put my children to bed, lock the doors, and feel safe and non-threatened. On September 11 that disappeared. It hasn’t really returned. It’s no wonder then that in those days and weeks after the attacks, people across our country -- perhaps across the world – turned to God. Attendance at religious services went up in record numbers. Whether they attended a church, a synagogue, a temple, or a mosque, people turned to God looking for some comfort and reassurance in the midst of that nightmarish time of death and destruction. People turned to God, and from large services such as the memorial service held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. to smaller services of prayer and mourning in churches of all shapes and sizes, the psalm we read today was heard. Psalm 46.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
That was a time of trouble all right, so it makes sense that this particular psalm was read, heard, and clung to. One definition of the word refuge is “something to which one has recourse in difficulty.” The psalmist describes God as being our refuge, but this psalm also serves as a refuge of sorts. Post September 11 was not the only time that people have sought refuge in these particular words of poetry. Although I don’t have proof, it wouldn’t surprise me if this psalm wasn’t read after many national crises. Wars, attacks, assassinations – whenever trouble hovers like that proverbial dark cloud and chaos looms large, this is a go-to psalm. It is a psalm of refuge about a God of refuge.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
It is no accident that Psalm 46 is part of the texts for the observance of Reformation Sunday. I don’t know if its history or legend, but this was supposed to be Luther’s favorite psalm. The hymn he is best known for, the one that we sang in our worship today, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” is based on this psalm. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
I can imagine why this psalm was important to Luther. Certainly, he must have needed to lean on its reassurance. When you take on the church and its time-honored rituals, you’re going to need reassurance. You’re going to need a refuge. Although Luther and the other reformers weren’t fighting a war in the typical sense of the word, they were engaged in a battle of sorts. A fellow preacher wrote that while we are in denominations that are considered reformed, and we have a definite reformed theology, we are not called reformists. We are called Protestants, because our ancestors, both of the DNA variety and the spiritual sort, protested. They protested abuses in the church and in the societies in which they lived. They protested injustice. They protested social ills. They protested rites and rituals which seemed contrary to the gospel. They protested. The reformers that we remember and honor this day both reformed and protested. They actively engaged the powers and principalities of the church and demanded change. They protested for what they thought was right and true to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Yet whether we talk about the Reformation as protest or reform or both, it is exhausting. To demand change, to work for change, to challenge the powers that be, to put life and limb on the line for what you believe, it is exhausting. I admire the men and women who led the Reformation for many reasons; most notably they paved the way for the church we sit in this morning. But as I reflected on all that I know about the Reformation this past week, what I found myself returning to again and again, was their persistence. It was persistence in the face of persecution. It was determination in spite of the dispiriting circumstances they found themselves in. It was courage and conviction to say and do what they believed was righteous and just, even though common sense may have warned them otherwise. Doing all that must have been exhausting. Surely there must have been times when they were weary; weary in body, mind and spirit. They needed a refuge.
Reformers like Martin Luther needed actual, physical refuges. I told a dear friend that it amazes me that he lived out a natural lifespan. He should have been executed, and I know he came close a few times. So, yes, he must have needed places of refuge to hide and to continue his work. But he must have also needed a place of spiritual refuge as well. So we come back to our psalm. Listen to these first verses again.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
The physical world is in upheaval. The earth is changing. The mountains are shaking. The sea waters roar and foam. If the mountains weren’t changing before, they now tremble from the tumult of the seas. But in the midst of this physical chaos, for that is what I think is being described; there is “a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.”
Even though chaos and quaking and trembling and shaking is happening all around, there is a river of peace. That’s the feeling I get from that. It is a river of peace. It is a river in a city that cannot, be caught in the upheaval and turmoil happening all around it. It is the city of God. And God is in the midst of the city. Everything around it might be tumbling down, kingdoms, nations, and so on. But God’s city is a place of peace. God’s city is a place of calm. God’s city cannot be moved. It is a place of shelter and refuge. God is our shelter. God is our refuge.
While the reformers, the protesters needed physical places of refuge, they also needed a refuge of the soul, the heart, the spirit. That is what I hear being described in this psalm. The city of God isn’t just a peaceful destination; it is the place where God dwells. And in God we find our refuge. In God we find our strength.
As I said before, a refuge is something to turn to in times of difficulty. Looking around the world these days, it seems to me that we need God as our refuge more than ever before. Not since September 11, has the world seemed so unsettled. I feel this way. I know others have expressed this feeling as well. Looking at all the trouble in the world – wars, physical and ideological, epidemics, poverty, hunger, natural disasters and the disaster we’re making of nature – this psalm seems more needed than ever before. We need to find refuge in God. We need to take shelter in the peace of God. Our world feels so chaotic and unsafe, finding refuge in God seems the only way to bear it.
Yet even as the world seems unsafe, our own lives can feel unsafe, chaotic, and unsettled. Many of us live with an underlying sense of dis-ease. It is easy to feel that God is far away, from our world, from us. But the psalmist and all of scripture assures us that God is not far away or distant or removed. God is in our midst. So hear again these words of calm, of peace, of refuge.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though we fail to care for the earth we have been given, though wars over power and position are being waged and justified in God’s name. Therefore we will not be afraid, though violence invades our cities, our places of work, our schools, our homes. We will not be scared, even though so many of us don’t know when we will eat again or where we will sleep at night. We will not be anxious because money is tight and debts are high, because change is upon us and we don’t know what will come next. We will not give into our fears, because we trust that God is with us. We trust that God is here. We hold onto God’s strength and in God our tired souls find refuge. We will not fear because we are in God’s hands and God’s hands are good. Even though the world seems to be falling apart at the seams, the world is still God’s. Chaos and confusion can change that or change God. God’s city is the midst of us. God is our refuge. In God we do not hide from the terrors of the world. In God, we find the peace and the strength and the courage to go into the world, to proclaim God’s Good News, to be the instruments of God’s peace, to share through word and deed God’s reconciling love.
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear because God is with us and we are God’s. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen.