Sunday, October 31, 2010
Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen
St. Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter … the earth changes … the waters roar and foam, the mountains tremble with its tumult.” Sometimes, as in today’s psalm, it’s really obvious that some things haven’t changed in the millennia since our text was written. Today, the nations (particularly our own) are in an uproar. Rather, in many uproars over many things. Healthcare, immigration, taxes, sexuality, religion, schools, jobs, oil drilling … you name it, and somewhere there’s a heated debate about it. All sides are afraid of what might happen, and so they attack those who don’t agree with them. I’m sure we’re all sick and tired of the vicious campaign ads that seem to run constantly whenever we turn on the TV. It’s not just that this is an election season, either; there are several fundamental debates taking place throughout our country over where we go from here, and the road forward seems uncertain. Heck, sometimes the road that led us here seems uncertain. Our ideologies are clashing, and the economic model we’ve been using for the last half-century or more seems to be failing. Nor are we the only country facing such an internal schism: Mexico is plagued with riots and gang wars, France is currently struggling with crippling strikes and shortages, the Middle East is a hotbed of religious conflict as always, and many more countries could be added to the list.
It’s not just human-built society that is shaken, either. Just this last year, we’ve had massive, crippling earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, devastating floods in Pakistan, and droughts in other places. In the last ten years, we’ve had hurricanes and volcanic activity in numbers unprecedented in the last century or more. The effect of these natural disasters on humans has been devastating. The global hunger crisis of the last few years has only gotten worse. Everywhere we look it seems things are going to Hell in a handbasket. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms are tottering, the earth is changing, waters are roaring and foaming, and mountains are trembling. Whether that is literal or metaphorical for us—or both—things are a lot less sure than they used to be. It’s a scary time to live.
In times of trouble, when I’m worried or uncertain or afraid, I am tempted to retreat into my comfort zone, both mentally and physically. Lots of people do; it’s normal. Dealing with new things, with unexpected things, with different things is so much harder than sticking with what you already know. When things aren’t going well, I don’t feel like I have the energy to deal with new and different things, even if they’re good things. How many of you have felt the same way? In my case, my comfort zone is things I can understand, things I can control, things I can use my experience and education to predict and deal with.
The problem is, being in my comfort zone means I’m relying on my own abilities, my own goals, and (even when I don’t realize it) my own fears. When I retreat to my comfort zone I get so focused on what I’m doing, I can’t see what God is doing. Even when I think I’m taking God’s wishes into account, I’m only open to what I think God should be doing or asking of me. That’s the problem with fear—it makes me curve in on myself until I can’t see anything past it. When I try to make it my fears go away by ignoring them or pretending they’re not there, they get even worse. Fear chokes off the possibility of anything new, of anything God might do, and taints everything I see or hear or do or say.
That was a hard lesson for me to learn. Some of you may know this, but this is not my first internship. Two years ago, I was on an internship in another church that went very badly, for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons were my fault and some of them were not; some of them were nobody’s fault. A little over half-way through the year, things came abruptly to a head and I had to resign. I was devastated. I felt like my world was ending. God had called me to seminary, and then—when I was almost done—everything collapsed. I felt utterly alone, and there were times I didn’t believe I had any help or support. I got through it and learned a lot—grew a lot—in the process. One of the hardest things for me to deal with was the realization that I wasn’t putting my money where my mouth was—I was relying on myself, and not on God, particularly when things got tough. And I was a seminary student, in training to be a pastor—I knew better!
I was so sure that I knew what God wanted for me, and how I was going to achieve that, that I didn’t know what to do when my best efforts came crashing down around me. And then I was so wrapped up in my fears and insecurities and pain that I wasn’t allowing room in my life for God to be God; I wasn’t leaving room for God’s grace to do a new thing or help me grow; I wasn’t leaving room for God’s grace to send me on any path but the one I wanted. And while I’m capable of handling ordinary life on my own, when things are toughest and seem to be falling apart, I need help. I can’t do it by myself. I need God, and the times when it’s hardest to open myself up to God are the times I most need to do so.
“Be still, and know that I am God,” the psalmist says. Amid all the storms and tempests of life, when we most want to withdraw into ourselves, to drown out the chaos with our own order and busyness, God calls us to stop, and remember who we are and whose we are. God is our refuge and strength, our help in times of trouble. Being a Christian, being faithful to God, doesn’t mean that the storms of life will never come or won’t affect us when they do. It means that no matter what happens, God will be with us, a sword and shield to guard us and a light to guide us. It means that when our own sinful and self-absorbed ways fall apart—as they inevitably, always do—God is with us, to forgive us and renew us and do a new thing in us.
“The days are surely coming,” God told Jeremiah in our first lesson, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Surely, Israel and Judah needed something new. Jeremiah was a prophet during one of the most troubled times in the Old Testament. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by Assyria, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah had been much weakened. Soon after, the mighty Babylonian empire was on their doorstep, and all the political and military stratagems Judah’s leadership could devise only succeeded in making things worse. There was nothing they could do to save themselves from slavery and exile—and the prophet Jeremiah told them so. (As you might imagine, he was not a very popular guy.)
All hope seemed lost. And yet, as all their schemes crumbled, God spoke to Jeremiah: God was going to do something new. Something that would transform them, and transform what it meant to be God’s people. God wasn’t going to just rebuild the old ways, the ways that had failed them. God was going to take the pieces of the old and re-make and re-form them into something greater. Their nation was trembling, the world itself seemed to tumble and fall, and yet even in the midst of their despair and loss God was with them. God was doing a new thing in them. The Lord of Hosts was with them; the God of Jacob was their refuge, as he is ours today in our time of trial. Just as God has always been a refuge and hope in times of trouble, and has always broken in to people’s lives to transform and renew them, to write God’s word on their hearts.
Today’s psalm, Psalm 46, was one of Martin Luther’s favorites, which is why it’s assigned for Reformation Sunday. You see, the world was just as uncertain in his day as it is today, and almost as uncertain as it was in Jeremiah’s day. Things were changing in the 16th century—the middle ages were giving way to the renaissance and the Enlightenment. Social mores were changing. Religion was changing. The structure of society and the economy was changing. There were revolts and wars. There was political and religious corruption on a grand scale. There was the threat of invasion from outside forces. Does any of this sound familiar? Like Jeremiah and the psalmist, Martin Luther knew from experience just how dangerous and unpredictable life could be. And like them, he also knew that it’s in times of trouble, that we most need to rely on God to guide and protect us. When it’s most tempting to close in on ourselves and fall back into our comfort zone is when we most need God’s presence to open ourselves up and lead us in new paths—even if they’re paths we couldn’t have imagined on our own. And when we hit rock bottom, when we have no other place to turn and can no longer pretend that we can do it all ourselves, that’s when God’s love and grace and mercy and refuge are our greatest gift. So after meditating on this psalm, Martin Luther wrote the hymn “A Might Fortress Is Our God” which we sang earlier this morning.
The message that rang so powerfully when Luther wrote it is still needed today. Things are uncertain. It would be so easy to retreat into our comfort zone, and it would be so much simpler and safer to allow our fears and our prejudices to guide our footsteps in the years to come. It would be easier, but it would not be faithful. And, in the end, it would leave us out in the storm without a rock to cling to.
God is our mighty fortress, our sword and shield, our present help in times of trouble. God is the one who breaks into our self-certainties and forgives all the many ways we have turned away from him. God is the one who claims us as his own in the new covenant in Jesus Christ, re-forming us as his own beloved children, instead of just papering over the cracks in our fractured lives. Come, behold the works of the LORD. Remember what God has done for our forefathers and foremothers. Remember what God has done for us, and see what God is doing for us still today. We live in a time of tumult, but God is in our midst, and God will not be shaken. May we rely on God’s promises, and not our fears. May we hear God’s call, and may God’s word be written on our hearts.