Our Refuge and Strength

Reformation Sunday, October 30th, 2016

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

When I was a kid and I first heard that the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” is based on Psalm 46, I was pretty skeptical.  Because there are, on the surface, a lot of differences and not a lot of similarities between the two lyrics.  A Mighty Fortress is all about, well, God as a fortress.  By contrast, there is not one mention of fortresses in Psalm 46.  The closest it gets is describing God as a “refuge.”  And I don’t know about you, but when I think “refuge” I don’t think “fortress.”  I think of wildlife refuges, where strict management of the local ecology gives a safe space for animals, plants, birds, and fishes, where they can grow and thrive in harmony.  And “refuge” also makes me think of “refugee,” of victims of violence and oppression forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safe to live.  A Mighty Fortress also spends quite a lot of time talking about the devil, who is nowhere to be found in Psalm 46.  The greatest similarity between the two lyrics is the part about the dangers of the world, the nations raging and kingdoms shaking, and God responding by destroying the weapons of warfare.

But A Mighty Fortress was never meant to be a direct paraphrase of Psalm 46.  A Mighty Fortress was Luther’s attempt at taking the feeling of the psalm—the sort of thoughts and emotions it evokes in its listeners—and expressing those through the vernacular of his day.  Psalm 46 is all about reassuring frightened people.  It faces head-on that there is evil and violence in the world, that there is destruction, that there are very scary things going on all around us: war! Natural disaster!  Nations crumbling!  There is no attempt to whitewash things or put on a Pollyanna-ish positive spin.  There’s some terrible thins happening.  But even in the middle of that, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how dark the day, no matter how many disasters shake the foundations of our world, we don’t have to be afraid because God is always with us.  The God who has been with our ancestors back to the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was with us through times of slavery and freedom, exile and homecoming, crop failure and bountiful harvests, and everything that life can throw at us, that God is our God who is with us and will always be with us.  Even though there is some terrifying stuff in the world, when we take the time to stop and breathe and clear our heads, we know that God is God, and he is going to be with us no matter what.

That is a very powerful message.  No matter what happens, we do not need to fear, because God is with us and will never abandon us.  It was a message that people desperately needed to hear in Luther’s day.  After all, there was a lot to be afraid of in the 1500s.  The economy was shifting, enriching some and impoverishing others.  This brought about civil unrest, rebellions and uprisings as poor people tried to strike back at those who were oppressing them.  And I’m not talking about protests and the occasional riot, here, I’m talking about full-scale pitched battles between armies numbering in the thousands.  As if that weren’t enough, the Ottoman Empire repeatedly sent armies up through the Baltic and into Austria.  While there was little chance they could ever set foot on Luther’s own native country, they were still a threat to his neighbors, and there was a widespread fear of them throughout Europe.  And as if that weren’t enough, social change was spreading quickly.  The very ideas of what a family was and how it functioned were changing.  The place of women in society, how people thought about sex, the role of family in the community, everything was changing.  Sound familiar?

All of this was spread and encouraged by new technologies like the printing press that made it easier for people to communicate and spread ideas quickly across great distances.  People were becoming more literate, and as they spent more time thinking and studying, old certainties on which their whole world was based seemed to crumble.  Morality was changing.  Some things that they had thought wrong and evil were being declared good, and vice versa.  People were changing what they thought about sex and intimate relationships.  Nothing could be taken for granted any more, not religion, not the family, not morality, not the economy, not the way society worked.  Everything that people had thought was a firm foundation was crumbling.  Sound familiar?

People were afraid.  People grasped at straws, they hopped on fads and bandwagons that promised to give them certainty in a world that seemed to be disintegrating.  They covered up their fear with anger and hate, blaming their enemies for everything they thought was wrong with the world.  In this world, where the nations were raging and the kingdoms were shaking and cities and countries were tearing themselves apart, Luther read Psalm 46.  And he asked himself, what image—what metaphor—could he use to help people see the strength and hope in God even in the midst of their world shaking and changing beyond all recognition?

For 16th Century Germany, that image was the fortress.  Every city had a wall to protect itself from bandits, civil wars, and foreign invaders, so that even when armies did come marching up to their gates, their people would be protected and kept safe.  All the local people from all the towns and villages around could go to the city, where the walls and the local fortress would serve as a refuge from violence and destruction.  Everyone knew how that worked; they’d lived with those protecting walls all their lives.  God, Luther said, was like the greatest and best fortress ever, which can never be destroyed or damaged by any enemy, no matter how cunning or brutal.  So it doesn’t matter how much your world is shaken, it doesn’t matter who’s prowling outside your door—God is the fortress that keeps you safe, God is your refuge and strength, God is with us.  Always.

It seems to me that we’re in a time of change at least as great as in the Reformation.  Our economic system is in a time of chaos, as the old industrial system is breaking down and we’re not sure what will replace it.  We don’t need to fear an army invading, but there is plenty of violence in the world you can see any time you turn on your tv.  There is civil unrest, protests, and deep disagreements on how the country should be run and how justice should be administered.  There is deep social change.  Families are structured differently than they were a generation ago, and that change doesn’t seem to be stopping.  The way we think about morality is changing.  Some things we declared evil even ten years ago are being re-thought by huge numbers of people.  The role of women in society is changing.  Everything about the way we think about the world and ourselves seems to be up for grabs, and this is spread more quickly and easily by new technologies such as smartphones and the internet.

And people are afraid.  People are grasping at straws, grasping at anything that will give them back that feeling of certainty.  Sometimes they cling to old ways of thinking and acting; sometimes they cling to new fads and social bandwagons.  We feel threatened by a world that seems to have no sure foundations, and so we lash out at one another.  We don’t want to feel scared, so we get angry instead.  We feel threatened, so instead of talking and working out our differences or even just agreeing to disagree, we attack.  We don’t want to take the time to let our fears and anxieties out from the corners of our minds we’ve shoved them to, and so we don’t take the time to be still and listen to God, either.

In Luther’s day, the symbol of safety was the fortress.  What is our symbol of safety?  What do we count on to protect us and help make us secure?  Bike and motorcycle helmets, seat-belts, Kevlar flak jackets, blank vaults?  What else can you think of?  If you were going to put the message of Psalm 46 into a modern metaphor, what would you use?  What imagery best symbolizes God’s protection and security to you?

There have been times of great upheaval before.  Morals, economies, political systems, countries, technology, family structures—all of these have changed radically more than once in the 2,000 years since Christ, and probably will again.  If we put our trust in them, if we make them our foundation, we are left with nothing but broken pieces when times of transition hit.    There is only one foundation we can count on that will be stable and strong no matter what happens in this world.  There is only one refuge that will keep us safe from the storms of life, from the chaos and destruction that accompanies upheaval and change.  And that foundation—that refuge—is Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born to break the cycle of violence and death, to set us free from all the things that bind us—even the chains that we don’t realize are there.  That foundation is Christ, who suffered and died so that we might be forgiven and healed and restored.  That foundation is Christ, who is with us even as the earth shakes under our feet and the nations rage.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  God is our mighty fortress, our foundation, our stable rock in an unstable world.  May we learn to truly put our trust in him.

Amen.

Advertisements

What are you afraid of?

First Sunday after Advent, November 29th, 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus told the disciples: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” What are you afraid of? What makes you faint from fear and foreboding?

Seriously, what are you afraid of? Our culture spends a lot of energy on fear: whipping it up for political purposes, covering it up with anger and hate and partying and a whole host of other things. We’re afraid of terrorists, so we close our borders to refugees, despite the fact that we’ve never had a terrorist come to this country disguised as a refugee. We’re afraid of ISIS, so we’re suspicious of Muslims, despite the fact that white Christians commit most of mass murders in our country. We’re afraid of uncertain economic times and the fact that the middle class is shrinking and college tuition is so expensive, so we pressure our children to be perfect in academics and in sports so they can get scholarships and eventually a good job. And so the percentage of youth and young adults suffering from anxiety and depression has skyrocketed in the last ten years. We’re afraid of admitting America isn’t perfect, so we demonize and attack those who point out things we need to do better at. We’re afraid of change, so we never ask ourselves if any part of the change might be a good thing. We’re afraid of mass shootings, so we blame mental illness and loose gun laws to make ourselves feel better, but we’re also afraid of what our political opponents might do so we never actually try and figure out practical ways to prevent future attacks.

We’re afraid of a lot of things, but we don’t want to face that fear, so we find all sorts of ways to avoid it. When I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety, I was shocked. It never occurred to me that I had it, because I never faced my fears, the things I was anxious about. They were always there, gnawing at my thoughts, but I didn’t want to face them. I buried them. And when my fears did come to the surface, well, I was afraid for good reasons! The things I was afraid of were very likely to happen—they did happen to me, and they were painful. So when I did manage to look at my fears, I still couldn’t see all the ways in which the fear itself was twisting me and tripping me up and trapping me. I spent so much time and energy desperately trying to pretend I was fine, that I was okay, that everything was going great and I could handle everything without help. Sometimes that meant isolating myself from the world and burying myself in stuff to keep from having to deal with the world. Some people turn to alcohol to soothe themselves, but my drug of choice has always been books. I weighed myself down with them, I used them as a distraction. Anything, so that I didn’t have to face what I was afraid of. Anything to distract me. Anything to keep my fears at bay.

People try to cope with their fears in a lot of different ways, and a lot of those ways are self-destructive, and many of them hurt those around us. We come up with distractions, bury ourselves in work or anger or drugs and alcohol or gambling or spewing hate or anything else that will keep us from having to face the darkness. In December, we turn to shopping and parties to fill that hole, as if having a perfect story-book holiday season will make everything okay, as if finding the perfect present and cooking the perfect dinner will make everything be peaceful and good and right. But if we aren’t willing to face our fears—to acknowledge that we are afraid—then we stay prisoners. We stay trapped, bound up, pretending we’re free while we run around like rats in a cage trying to pretend everything is fine and that if we just pretend hard enough, everything will be okay.

And then we try to use our faith to justify our coping mechanisms. After all, God couldn’t really mean for us to love those people, they’re dangerous! God couldn’t really mean for us to help those people, they don’t deserve it, and anyway what if we don’t have enough? God wants me to be happy, and so it’s okay to do whatever I want that I think might make me happy! It’s not like it’s really hurting anyone.

People have always been afraid. Because the world is a scary place, and always has been. Since the days of Adam and Eve, there has always been violence in the world. There has always been hatred and fear. There have always been people who lash out, taking their own problems out on those around them, creating even more problems in the world. There have always been natural disasters that devastate communities and bring suffering. Jesus talks about some of these in our Gospel lesson, in the context of the end times. He’s talking about things that were happening in his day—the civil war and Roman attack that would destroy the Temple in 70AD—but he was also speaking about the future, when this world ends and Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Scary things are happening now, and scary things will continue to happen. Even Christ’s coming—when all the evil in the world will be defeated once for all—will be scary. Our current social order will topple. All the powers of this world will be shattered. All the stuff we put our trust in will tremble and fall. This is terrifying stuff. And Jesus doesn’t try to hide or sugar-coat it. But on the other hand, he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on it. Because his focus isn’t on the scary stuff, his focus is on how we should respond.

Christ will come again. And in that coming, he will wipe away every tear from every eye. There will be peace, and justice, and righteousness. There will be no war, no violence, no abuse, no betrayal; there will be no injustice, no hardship, no natural disasters. Everyone will have enough and no one will have too much. There will be joy, and love, and peace, and we will be together with God. This is a promise that God made long before his Son was born in Bethlehem; this is a promise you can read many times in the Old Testament, including our first lesson. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” That promise is the coming of Christ. He came once already, as a child born in Bethlehem, to teach us how to live in love as God’s people, and he will come again to bring the kingdom of God, a new heaven and a new earth. That is the promise by which we live.

So what are we afraid of? Terrorists? Racial unrest? Losing our job? Losing a loved one? Being abused by a loved one? Cancer? A bad drought? The coal plant going out of business? America going to the dogs? What’s the worst thing that the world can do to us, anyway? It can kill us. And then what happens? We’re with God, and will be with God when he comes back to judge the living and the dead and re-create the world into the paradise he originally meant it to be. I don’t mean to belittle the very real suffering that we can and do face in this life—it can be horrifically bad, and some of you know that from personal experience. And our suffering in this life can really damage us, beyond the power of anything in this life to fix or heal.

But nothing can damage us beyond God’s power to fix and heal, and if that healing doesn’t come in this life, it will come in the next, when the Son of Man comes with power and great glory to shake things up and re-create them as God intends, full of goodness and love and life. That’s a promise, bedrock solid and sure, that the Christ who came once will come again, bringing God’s kingdom with him, and we will be healed and restored to the people God created us to be.

So again, the question is, what are we afraid of—and how do we respond to that fear. Because we have the promise, we know that no matter what happens in this life, whether our fears come true or not, God is going to win in the end. Nothing we are afraid of will win. The things we fear may win the game, but we already know who’s going to win the tournament. That’s not the question we face. The question is, are we going to let our fears dictate our response to the world? Are we going to let our fears control our actions and our lives? Are we going to spend our energy spewing hate and burying our heads in the sand and filling the gaps with anything that can distract us? And then try to use our faith to justify it?

When we get afraid, we tend to turtle up, hunching in on ourselves in self-protection, only emerging to fight anything that comes near. But that’s not the advice that Jesus gives. When you’re afraid, be on your guard! But not against the thing you’re afraid of. Be on your guard against the fear itself. Don’t let it weigh you down with worries and care, don’t let yourself hide get so caught up in avoiding your fears that you miss God’s presence. Because the Son of Man will be there. Stand up, raise your heads—no matter what the world does to you, you are not alone, and you will be saved.

May Christ help us stand up and face whatever comes, in the sure and certain hope that the kingdom of God is near.

Amen.

Fears and Expectations

Lent 4, (Year A)
March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Today’s lessons don’t seem to have a common thread, at first glance. Sometimes you can see very easily why the church decided to pair certain readings together. But I think there are two things that link the first reading and the Gospel, and those two things are fear and expectations that can get in the way of God’s work.

In the first lesson, the prophet Samuel had strong expectations about what kind of a person God is going to want as the next king. God told Samuel to go and God would tell him who. But when it gets to be time, Samuel isn’t just waiting for instructions from God. He sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab. And he thinks to himself, “That’s gotta be the one.” Eliab was the oldest son, he was tall, he was handsome, and he was just the sort of guy people want to see on a throne or leading an army. But no, Eliab wasn’t the one God wanted. God wanted the youngest son, the one who got left behind to take care of the farm while the rest of the family went out, the one who was a cute kid but still the runt of the family. David was not who Samuel was expecting. But God was using different judgment than Samuel was. Samuel was a prophet, but even Samuel needed to learn to listen to God’s desires rather than his own expectations.

The Pharisees in the Gospel lesson also had some pretty strong expectations about what God wanted. They had spent years studying God’s word, trying to figure out the best ways to incorporate it into their daily life. And they had turned those ways into traditions, so that there was only one right way to do things, and if you didn’t follow those ways, well, then, you weren’t following God’s Word. There was only one way to honor the Sabbath, for example; you went to worship and you studied God’s word and did nothing else all day but rest. Healing is work—just ask any doctor or nurse. So to the Pharisees, even doing something good, like healing someone, wasn’t honoring the Sabbath. Then along comes Jesus, and he heals a blind man on the Sabbath. Giving someone their sight is a good thing! And in those days, without things like cataract surgery, giving sight to the blind was something only God could do. But they thought that God wouldn’t work on a Sabbath, so therefore it couldn’t be an act of God. This gave them quite a dilemma: if it wasn’t an act of God, what was it? That’s why they spent twenty-five verses trying to figure out who Jesus is and what happened to the man born blind. Their expectations of who God is and what God was doing got in the way of seeing what God was actually doing among them.

But why did they cling so hard to their expectations? Why didn’t anyone in that community say, “Wow, I guess we must be wrong—maybe this is a sign from God that we need to rethink some things”? I think it was because they were afraid. There was a lot of conflict in Jesus’ day, and a lot of change. The Jews were pawns in a larger world. They were a conquered people, subject to the Romans, and the Romans made things a lot easier for people who followed Roman ways instead of Jewish ones. And charismatic leaders like Jesus kept popping up, each with their own spin on how Jews ought to live and worship. Other people called for rebellion against the Roman overlords. With the world changing around them, devout people like the Pharisees clung ever more tightly to their traditions and their ideas of what good and faithful people should be like. Their traditions were their anchor in a stormy world; their traditions kept them from being blown all over the place. Jesus was a threat to their stability—he challenged them by telling them that the traditions they clung to weren’t the most important thing God wanted them to be doing.

In this case, Jesus did something he’d done many times before, that always got people upset: he healed on the Sabbath. God told them to keep the Sabbath holy, and they were very strict about doing just that. They clung to their strictness as a protection against all the changes happening around them. And here Jesus is, publicly showing God’s power in a way that breaks their traditions about the Sabbath. If Jesus is right, that means that their traditions—the things that they cling to for stability in turbulent times—are going to have to change. So they’re afraid, and looking for any way they can to discredit Jesus and show that they were right all along. And they let their fear get in the way of seeing God. Their fear of change and their expectations of what God wanted got in the way of being God’s people. Their fear made them blind.

The parents of the man born blind were afraid, too. They were afraid that if they didn’t say what people wanted to hear, that they’d get thrown out. And that doesn’t mean they could just go on down the road to the next synagogue. It means they wouldn’t be able to go to worship anywhere, or go to any festivals or events. Put yourself in their shoes: can you imagine what it would be like to be thrown out of church? To not be allowed in to any community event? To know that wherever you go, people are talking about you behind your back, whispering about what a horrible person you are? It’s no wonder they were afraid. But they let their fear be stronger than their will to follow God.

Back to the story of Samuel anointing David as king. There’s fear in this story, too. At that time, Saul was king of Israel, the first king the nation had ever had. And although he’d started out as a pretty good king, things were starting to go downhill. Enemies were attacking Israel from the outside, and there was strife and deadly politics brewing inside. Nobody knew what was coming, and everybody was afraid. So God tells Samuel to go out and anoint the person who’s going to be the next king. Samuel says he can’t go because King Saul will kill him! He’s afraid. If Samuel followed his fears, he would stay put and Israel would be stuck with Saul as king. But God tells Samuel to go and worship with a religious sacrifice—a perfectly normal action for a priest—and God will tell him to anoint along the way. Well, Samuel decides to trust God despite his fears.

When Samuel gets to Bethlehem, the people of Bethlehem are afraid, too. Remember that things are very unstable, and so when they see Samuel coming, they’re afraid. Samuel is the prophet who put King Saul on the throne (and probably has his ear), and as a prophet he definitely has God’s ear. He can call down an army or the wrath of God. So when they see Samuel coming, the elders of the city came out to meet him literally trembling with fear. “Do you come peaceably?” they ask him. Imagine how relieved they must have been when Samuel said he came in peace and invited them to the sacrifice! I wonder what they thought and felt later, after the conflict between David and Saul put them squarely back in the hot seat?

In both the stories, people are afraid. And in both stories, people have expectations about God and God’s will that turn out to be wrong. In one story, people let those fears and expectations stop them from following God. In the other story, people follow God even when they’re afraid, even when God does something that surprises them. So my question is, which are we? What fears do we have that prevent us from following God? What expectations do we have that blind us to what God is doing in us and around us? And are we following them, or are we following God?