May 24, 2020
This week I’m filming the sermon from another space that some of you may hold as sacred. Our family is here at Montreat in the mountains of North Carolina. I know that there are a good many in the congregation grieving that there won’t be any trips to Montreat this summer – for the youth conference or the Music and Worship conference. So I send greetings to you all from this place that many of you hold dear – in part so you know that it’s still here but also because I know this too is a place of deep memory.
And as it turns out – it’s also the kind of place where the scenery lends itself to the Bible reading today. Listen to this, the 46th Psalm:
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.
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;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Let me ask a question? Have any of you been having bizarre COVID dreams? I have.
I had one a number of weeks ago now, back when we were beginning to recognize that this wasn’t going away in a matter of weeks. At the time of my dream I could get my head around not gathering for Easter, but I still hadn’t given up on summer.
I dreamt that I was at some, generic summer camp. We were playing some sort of capture the flag like game that was a mix of Jedi Knights brandishing mops vs. Harry Potter wizards playing with brooms. My job in this game was to chase down my friend, Todd, who is I see once or maybe twice a year – usually, right here in Montreat. I was chasing Todd, but he was too fast and the camp was unfamiliar. So I climbed into this chimney, on the second floor. I remember thinking that when I get to the bottom of this thing I’m going to burst out of the chimney and completely surprise Todd. When I got to the bottom it was like I was in a fireplace and it had a roll up door like a garage. I waited for Todd, biding my time, and just as I rolled the door up – instead of Todd, it was two children who live in my neighborhood standing there with their arms crossed and all they said to me was “GAME’S OVER MAN!” That’s it. Then I woke up.
Now, I spent next to no time in Davie Hall taking psychology classes, but that dream didn’t feel too difficult to interpret. The summer I have come to expect just wasn’t happening. I was going to spend an awful lot of time right there at home.
Or think about it this way. I was walking on campus this past week and passed more than a few people wearing their baby blue cap and gowns, patiently waiting to take photos by the Old Well. I offered them an enthusiastic “Congratulations!” but I know this is not what they want or expected.
It’s not easy when something comes along and wrecks your favorite times or favorite places.
This is something that our Biblical forbears knew all too well.
The Psalms are a collection of writings, composed by a people inhabiting a small kingdom located right at the crossroads of many other civilizations. It was not uncommon for them to be caught in the crossfire of larger kingdoms marching back and forth in the dance of conquest.
And yet tucked in Psalm 46 there is this bold affirmation. God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble. God is in the midst of the city. It shall not be moved.
Psalm 46 is often included in the portion of the Psalms that are called the Songs of Zion. It doesn’t use the word Zion at all, but it draws on imagery that is consistent with Zion: the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. Zion is a complicated and sometimes imprecise symbol in Scripture. Sometimes it refers to a mountain. In other instances it seems to be a stand in for Jerusalem itself. Other times it alludes to a particular fortified stronghold. Though the meaning might shift a bit depending on where you are in Scripture, the one thing that remains consistent is that Zion is an important and treasured and holy place.
But there is one thing that sets Psalm 46 apart from the other songs of Zion. In the others, Zion itself is glorified and held high but the 46th Psalm makes a subtle but important distinction. It declares that the Lord is our refuge, not Zion itself. The Lord is a very present help in trouble. God is in the city and that is what will keep it steady. Psalm 46 reminds us to put our trust in a presence, not in the place itself. Very good.
The second thing that I find so interesting about this Psalm is the way in which it reframes power. It speaks of forceful chaos all around both from the natural world, the mountains shake in the hearts of the sea, the waters roar and foam, and from the political world, the nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter. There’s chaos on every side. And yet God is the picture of calm in the midst of it all. Psalm 46 doesn’t paint God as one who responds to force with even more force. Instead it speaks of God as the one who speaks and the earth melts. Be still and know that I am God.
This is incredibly challenging for us as a people who only know how to respond to force with more force. I wonder if we are going to have to learn to trust this a bit more in these days defined by the Coronavirus. Most often the threats we face are human-shaped and driven by an exercise of force. We can respond to those threats with an even bigger show of force. And therein lies the engine that drives so much of history.
But now we are facing a threat that will require a different kind of response – a more subtle response. Maybe being still is about the best thing we can do right now, no matter how much the nations or our communities or our economies are in an uproar. Oh, so good.
Martin Luther set this Psalm to music. Perhaps you’ve heard it. “A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” That’s the kind of hymn that begs any organist to pull out all the stops. The kind of hymn that Tom Brown has doubtlessly employed to shake the walls at 209 East Franklin Street. And yet, when Martin Luther first composed the hymn it was to be sung with nothing but a solitary lute as accompaniment. Huh, interesting.
Somewhere along the way this hymn became the musical equivalent of a triumphal show of force. And yet it is rooted in this Psalm that quietly affirms that our faith will endure, rooted in the presence of God who outlasts and outlives any and every threat. One little word shall fell them all. Be still. Be still and know that I am God. Amen.