Today is the last of four sermons on beloved Psalms. Today’s is Psalm 46, surely one of the best known and loved. It is a Psalm of trust and confidence, often read at funerals and during times of upheaval in the world. Again, when I picked this Psalm for today I did not know just how relevant it would be.
“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.”
On this Independence Day weekend when we celebrate the birth of our country and give thanks for the liberties and opportunities we enjoy, I think this Psalm has much to offer us. This week we have experienced once again the sinking feeling that comes when the world appears to be slipping into chaos. We have the sour taste in our mouths from American men and women giving their lives, limbs, sanity, and tremendous amounts of money in the service of people who did not want it and do not honor it. For us who believe we live in the greatest nation in the world with the fairest system of government it is hard to believe that people everywhere don’t desire the same thing. And for us who have the greatest military in the world, it is hard to accept that we cannot make everybody sit in the chairs we tell them to sit in and get along.
After World War II the victorious superpowers drew lots of new lines on maps for countries and divvied up their “spheres of influence” in which they would make those countries sit in the chairs they were given. Look at how all those attempts to be in control have played out.
Russia gobbled up lots of the countries in its sphere of influence into the Soviet Union. Fifty years later that fell apart, allowing old ethnic hatreds to come to the fore, bringing wars and ethnic cleansings and new map lines and country names, many of them being old names. The Ottoman Empire was dismantled and carved up into countries like Turkey and Iran and Iraq and Syria and so forth with arbitrary lines that lumped lots of enemies together. This week a new state has been declared called the Islamic State, comprising parts of Syria and Iraq and calling itself the restoration of the Caliphate with the goal of regaining all of its old territory. We will soon be back to Iran and Iraq being mortal enemies and being tempted to choose sides by figuring which is the lesser evil.
And of course the PalestinianState was divided and a portion of it used to create the Jewish state of Israel, and this has been a never ending conflict. This week the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who had been hitchhiking in the West Bank were found near Hebron. In response, Israel has demolished the homes of two suspects, arrested 400 Palestinians, and hit Gaza with 34 airstrikes.
The earth is shaking, the mountains are quaking, the seas are roaring, and the future is very much in question. Normal human responses are fear and anger, and to try to cast blame on who is most responsible for our not being in control of the situation.
In response to all this the Psalmist says, “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter, the Lord utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
Next the Psalmist invites the reader to view the evidence of history: “Come, behold the works of the Lord.” What are the results we see from wars? “See what desolations he has brought on the earth,” that is the result. Sometimes it is necessary to go to war, but never without significant soul searching over the cause and the cost, because there will be desolations – of bodies, souls, and spirits, of families, of buildings and cities and countrysides. And we should be very humble about claiming God’s pleasure over our going to war. The Psalmist goes on to say, “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.” He does not indicate that this is done to one side or the other only, but to all. God says, “Be still! Cut it out! Know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” But we grasp for power. We want to be in control. We hate to feel as though someone else is in charge of our fate, because it makes us feel vulnerable.
And so we fight for control: spouses do it, parents and children do it; Lord knows, siblings do it, especially when there is an estate to divide; political parties do it; religions do it, even or maybe especially within themselves; racial and ethnic groups do it; and nations do it. What is left behind in every instance is desolation: scarred children, torched relationships, stalemated governments majoring in blame and excuses, seething nations. God is not served. “Be still! Cut it out! Acknowledge me as the one in charge and let me be your God!”
One of America’s great cultural achievements has been sitting in the Walt Disney vaults collecting dust since 1986 – the movie “The Song of the South.” They will not sell or re-release it because of the perception that it portrays an idealized version of slavery. What it actually does is show a slave, Uncle Remus, who is the smartest person on the plantation and has these wonderful, subversive stories which kept hope and humor alive for the slaves.
One of my favorite stories is about Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. It is about what happens when you try too hard to impose your control and your way of doing things on others. How many of you know this story? Hear this parable from the woods, this wonderful piece of Americana.
“Well now, that rascal Brer Fox hated Brer Rabbit on account of he was always cutting capers and bossing everyone around. So Brer Fox decided to capture and kill Brer Rabbit if it was the last thing he ever did! He thought and he thought until he came up with a plan. He would make a tar baby! Brer Fox went and got some tar and he mixed it with some turpentine and he sculpted it into the figure of a cute little baby. Then he stuck a hat on the Tar Baby and sat her in the middle of the road.
Brer Fox hid himself in the bushes near the road and he waited and waited for Brer Rabbit to come along. At long last he heard someone whistling and chuckling to himself, and he knew that Brer Rabbit was coming up over the hill. As he reached the top, Brer Rabbit spotted the cute little Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was surprised. HE stopped and stared at this strange creature. He had never seen anything like it before. “Good morning,” said Brer Rabbit, doffing his hat. “Nice weather we’re having.” The Tar Baby said nothing. Brer Fox laid low and grinned an evil grin.
Brer Rabbit tried again, “And how are you feeling this fine day?” The Tar Baby, she said nothing. Brer Fox grinned an evil grin and lay low in the bushes. Brer Rabbit frowned. This strange creature was not very polite. It was beginning to make him mad.
“Ahem!” said Brer Rabbit loudly, wondering if the Tar Baby were deaf. “I said, “HOW ARE YOU THIS MORNING?” The Tar Baby said nothing. Brer Fox curled up into a ball to hide his laughter. His plan was working perfectly.
“Are you deaf or just rude?” demanded Brer Rabbit, losing his temper. “I can’t stand folks that are stuck up! You take off that hat and say ‘Howdy-do’ or I’m going to give you such a lickin’!” The Tar Baby just sat in the middle of the road looking as cute as a button and saying nothing at all.
“I’ll learn ya!” Brer Rabbit yelled. He took a swing at the cute little Tar Baby and his paw got stuck in the tar. “Lemme go or I’ll hit you again,” shouted Brer Rabbit. The Tar Baby, she said nothing. “Fine! Be that way,” said Brer Rabbit, swinging at the Tar Baby with his free paw. Now both his paws were stuck in the tar, and Brer Fox danced with glee behind the bushes.
“I’m gonna kick the stuffin’ out of you,” Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move. Brer Fox leapt out of the bushes and strolled over to Brer Rabbit. “Well, well, what have we here?” he asked, grinning an evil grin.” (retold by S.E. Schlosser). The story does not end here, but that is enough to illustrate the point about the mess we get ourselves in with our desire to be in control and impose our will instead of trusting in God.
The Psalm concludes with the refrain, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” This is not ultimately a triumphalist claim. Mountains are shaking, the sea is roiling, nations are in an uproar and kingdoms are tottering. The promise is that God is with us in the midst of all this. And when every battle has been lost and there is nowhere else to go for safety, God is our refuge – the one who will still be there with us and for us at the end.
This is important for our faith because there is not always a happy ending. Tornadoes rip through towns and take the lives of Christians and non-Christians. Floods overwhelm the homes of the just and the unjust. Tragedies happen, wars happen, and God does not swoop down to lift the people of faith out. The desolation happens because of human pride and lust for power, not because it is God’s will and intention. If we find ourselves in such a situation we can be assured that God has not abandoned us but is with us and will never leave or forsake us.
Walter Brueggemann writes, “This psalm is a crucial one, given our cultural situation of dismay and anxiety. The disappearance of old structures and signals of cultural order causes us to experience the world as falling apart. A keen sense of God’s powerful protective presence permits us to experience and embrace even that disorder with freedom and equanimity. Much may fall apart, but we are not finally in jeopardy. God is faithful, God is present, God is powerful. Nothing else matters in the face of that sure reality.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, p. 350)
The first hymn we sang today was Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The hymn is based on Psalm 46 and it became the hymn of the Reformation. In challenging ancient practices of the church, Luther moved from the quiet life of a monk to being in the center of a firestorm of controversy and conflict. The nations of Europe were in an uproar; kings took sides and bloody wars were fought. Luther was called on the religious and political carpets, excommunicated by the church and had threats on his life. Psalm 46 gave him strength, and the hymn he composed based upon it he sang every day to remind himself.
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.”
This is the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when Nebuchadnezzar told them he was going to have them thrown in the fiery furnace if they did not bow down to worship his golden statue. They said, “Our God is able to deliver us from the furnace, but even if he does not choose to do so he is our God and we will not worship your statue.”
When chaos rises all around and fearful people are reacting against the feeling of helplessness by pummeling tar babies, people of faith are called to stand firm on the bedrock of faith. Here are today’s memory verses for such times, verses 1-3. “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.”
I’d like to close with reading Leslie Brandt’s paraphrase of Psalm 46 into modern day images and languages from his book Psalms Now:
“Our great God is still our Refuge and Strength.
He knows our problems and fears.
Thus we have no business doubting Him even though the earth is convulsed in tragedy or its human masses threatened by ethnic hatred, disease, drugs, crime, or abuse.
God continues to reign as all wise and as almighty as ever.
His eternal plan is not canceled out by the whims of human leaders or the freakish accidents of nature.
Nations will destroy each other. Civilizations will perish.
The earth itself may one day become a smoking cinder,
But God will not leave us.
He is forever our sure Refuge and Strength.
Just look around you; read the pages of history.
Refresh your flagging spirit with the reminder of His great feats throughout the ages.
And you will again hear Him speaking:
“Relax, stop fretting, and remember that I am still your God.
I still hold the reins of this world.”
God is here among us.
He continues to be our Refuge and Strength.” (p. 80)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
July 6, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church