Search This Blog

Monday, November 11, 2019

Storms and Stillness

Psalm 46        Reformation 2019

Since the beginning of the history of cinema, film studios around the world have loved to make disaster films. In the last two or three decades with advancements in technology and computer assisted graphics and images, they have become that much more terrifying for all their realism.
On the big screen we have witnessed volcanoes and tornadoes, hurricanes and floods,  tsumamis and earthquakes. There have been deep impact events, meteors and asteroids crashing into the earth. All of these present lots of chaos and fodder for drama and for having your pants scared right off you. That’s the point. Events like these are terrifying, all the more so because there is nothing you can really do to stop it or control it. Here’s what I mean (video, scene from Twister, of twin sister tornados rising out of the water, cows flying past, and truck spun around helplessly - the image of the chaos from which we cannot free ourselves).
Aside from cows flying around, the scene depicts the chaos that exists in the middle of the storm--a particular type of storm to be sure--a tornado. But to me the deafening noise, the menace of the various elements of the twister, and the helplessness of the people in the scene--as well as their awe--are those elements that in real life are the cause of so much grief in life. 
Whether you look upon that scene as illustrative of what the inside of a tornado might be like (spoiler alert: I'm pretty sure the movie doesn't even begin to get it), or whether we view it as metaphor for the non-meteorological storms we witness and endure, I think we can agree that as over-the-top as that scene seemed as a dramatic event, that movie scene in so many ways describes how life in this world can be experienced. There are literal and figurative storms in our lives and in our world. I think about the times in my own life that I felt the absolute fear and fragility of being trapped in a swirling, malevolent storm in which I felt so small and incapable of changing the course of the storm or its destructiveness. 
I often feel like that when I survey the events taking shape in our world today and mourn the lack of humanity in our church family; or weep for the children who are growing up in a world deprived of safety or hope for the inheritance of a stable and healthy planet. 
I feel sorrow for the vast numbers of people suffering in the world today and for the increasing polarization occurring with so many of the world's societies-that distracts us from taking the meaningful steps to alleviate suffering and provide a good life for most of the world's citizens.
The author of Psalm 46 understood and named both the awesome power and creative genius of God, and the destructive elements that create havoc and heartache everyday.
This psalm is a favorite for many people because throughout the psalm, despite the chaos and destruction evident in the vivid details contained within it there is the insistence on the part of the author that no matter what befalls us, God is present, active, a real help, a refuge, our strength. It's a word of gospel we need to hear when we are faced with the reality of deep pain and suffering in and of the world.
This psalm spoke so deeply to Luther of God’s steadfast presence and mercy, God’s never-failing activity even in the midst of the worst troubles of our lives, that he based the hymn we sing this morning – that great Lutheran ballad “A Mighty Fortress” as we do every year on Reformation Sunday.
As we read through the psalm, what we observe in the first section is a movement between the dark forces of the created world resulting in vast brokenness. The brokenness is named and described, with vivid words that place you right there in the midst of the storm just as these disadter movies place the viewer right in the middle of the calamity; but the, God's presence in the midst of the fray is lifted up:
The earth is moved and shaken all the way from the tops of the mountains to the deepest parts of the sea with all the attendant devastation and destruction you can image, yet the psalmist declares that God is in the midst of it, a very present help in trouble.
As the trouble intensifies and affects not only the natural world but relationships between people and nations, still God is there. Despite the raging of nations and shaking of kingdoms, God speaks, and all that melts away.
The psalmist wrote this psalm during a time of the conquest and destruction and exile of Israel, when the entire world as the people of Israel had known it had been turned upside down, when nothing was as it should be. It was a time of great national and religious tragedy and suffering, yet the psalm declares God's faithfulness amid the upheaval. Yet even in the midst of that trouble, God is there. God is working. God is present. God is acting.
Martin Luther wrote the hymn during a time of upheaval in the world that tore all the established structures asunder. The church, especially, the center of Luther’s world, seemed to be under attack from dark forces that were leading it down dark and dangerous roads.
Where the church went, the nations followed. Life was hard. Vast numbers of people were overcome by poverty, disease, and death. Luther himself, who tried so, so hard to do the right thing yet faced deep opposition from inside and outside himself – who even had a price on his head - found in this psalm the confident voice of affirmation in God’s still presence.
Nothing was as it should be in his world and his concern for the church was great. So he wrote, among so many writings, the words of this wonderful hymn, based on the psalm. It is a song not only of praise and worship, but, just as the words of the psalm itself, written 2,000 years before, also a song of defiance; no matter what troubles and forces rise up, God is with us, protecting, rescuing, and preserving God's beloved people.
Our world today is no less broken. We face the devastation of the created world as nature still afflicts us with earthquake, storm and flood. We face the reality that some of those acts of nature are now intensified through our own sinful waste of resources and poisoning of the earth.
Nations continue to rage as wars rage and turn once vibrant cities and towns into graveyards and rubble. Violence transforms streets into rivers of blood and creates human refuse – refugees who turned away again and again with no safe place to rest, as Jesus himself was once turned away.
Our relationship with the creation is broken and our relationship with one another is marked by the sin that has always destroyed the bond between human beings – greed, lust, hunger for power, and disregarding the needs of the vulnerable and poor.
When we look around the world today, with our deep divisions and the horrific ways in which humans treat one another, with wars and threats of wars always on the horizon, with our persistent tendencies toward bigotry and entrenchment in systemic sin, we might be tempted to lose heart and lose faith.
Yet the good news persists. "Be still and know that I am God!" The creator commands. "The Lord of hosts is with us." it is declared. This persistent, present God is still acting. We need not fear even when the world around us is flailing and crumbling.
"Be still and know that I am God!" In the midst of troubling circumstances, some of which are even mentioned in the other lessons this morning, while the psalm points out and acknowledges the reality of our struggles and calamity without glossing over it, still it declares unequivocally that God still lives.
"Be still and know that I am God!" God, who is the source of our strength, God, who is never-failing.
God continues to be the refuge and strength for all the fearsome events, days, and nights of our lives.The Good News comes to us through God's eternal Word, spoken before the birth of Christ. Then proclaiming the Word of God among us - Jesus Christ, who came to free us from the sins we can never deny or break away from on our own: "Be still and know that I Am God!" 
Good news, indeed.