David A. Davis
May 28, 2017
I was driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike this week coming home from leading a retreat gathering for young pastors. After stopping for gas, I zipped into the store for a cup of tea. Music was playing over the sound system at a substantial volume. I couldn’t help but listen. It was hip hop song. As I was dipping my tea bag, something about the tune struck me. I kept listening and lingered there at the coffee island. The hip hop melody sounded familiar. A few measures later, I recognized it. Here was the main tune… It’s that little piano ditty that folks pluck out even when they have no idea how to play the piano! Some hip hop artist took that tune and made it into contemporary piece that people actually listen to. I stood there until the end of the song. It was definitely that same old, old tune. It sounded a whole lot different there in the Sheetz convenience store just off the turnpike exit in Bedford, Pennsylvania. I guess it all depends on how, when, where, you hear it.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble!” When you stop and think about it, the church sings, reads, hears Psalm 46 a lot, a lot of different places, a lot of different ways. Psalm 46 is sort of all through the hymnal. Psalm 46; the phrases, the verses, never far from the church’s collective tip of the tongue. “A very present help in trouble… We will not fear…God is in the midst… the nations are in an uproar… Behold the works of of the Lord…be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46.
Most often, I think, I read these words standing before you at a memorial service or over at the cemetery. Sometimes in part, sometimes as a whole. When surrounded by all the trappings of death and loss and grief, the song’s meaning could not be more clear. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear….” The psalm’s meaning could not be more clear. Neither is the need for God’s strength ever more clear. And so the church, you and I, we affirm and remind and assure and hope and nudge and cling and whisper and shout and sing. Psalm 46. We sing it over and over again in that time of trouble. Death’s time of trouble. God be our strength!
But then find yourself reading Psalm 46 at home in the morning after CNN has just told you of another earthquake, or hearing Psalm 46 in worship one Sunday after another hurricane somewhere. The song sounds different. “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”. The message is still about God as refuge and finding strength and stemming fear. Yet, when the powers of nature are shaking, the ears of the faithful attend to the psalmists words in a new way. Holding on through the darkness , through the night. The prophet’s promise for the shaking city of God. God’s promise for those besieged by creation’s storm. “God will help it when the morning dawns.”
Psalm 46. And when the nations are in an uproar? Psalm 46 plays again. When the Korean peninsula shakes. When the Middle East totters. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars” is how Jesus put it. Psalm 46 sounds different. Or as our nation pauses on Memorial Day to remember all those who gave their lives in pursuit of a lasting peace in the world, the psalmist words fall on the ear as more of a prayer, a plea. The psalmist sounds more like the prophets who sings about ending war and smashing weapons. Psalm 46 as the prophet’s plea. Like Isaiah, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2). Like Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5). Like Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mt 5). The psalmist’s words burn when the nations are in in an uproar. A prayer, a plea carved like a monument into the landscape of war. “The Lord makes wars to cease to the end of the earth. The Lord breaks the bow and shatters the spear. The Lord burns the shield with fire”.
Psalm 46. It’s all about where you are when you hear it. About 50 or so from our congregation are worshiping this morning on the annual Memorial Day family retreat somewhere down on the Chesapeake Bay. Corrie Berg tells they are gathering for worship on the beach right about now. I’ve never been there, but I can see them in my imagination, gathering for worship after nothing but a morning walk. And if they’re reading Psalm 46 this morning in worship, if one of the children gets up to read Psalm 46 in worship this morning, when she gets to “Be still and know that I am God” there’s going to be a collective sigh, a sort of grateful sigh for the time away, the beauty of the place, the gift of a retreat. “Be still and know that I am God” A centering prayer. A breath prayer with a few extra words. Words of the psalmist that feed the soul and waft over the listener craving even a moment, a slice, a whiff of stillness.
But notice that there’s not much stillness here in Psalm 46. Mountains shaking in the heart of the sea. Threats to the holy city of God. Nations in an uproar. Earth melting. Desolations to behold. The psalmist doesn’t seem to be on retreat when God’s voice comes, when God speaks, when the song shifts to the imperative; “Be still and know that I am God!” God speaks when the creation is in turmoil. God speaks when the very dwelling place of God is threatened by the forces of chaos and the kingdoms of the world are tottering far beyond the edge of violence. Far beyond, far from, far away from the stillness, God speaks. “Be still and know that I am God.”
Here in Psalm 46, at v.10, when God speaks? It’s a lot less like the Chesapeake, and lot more like Manchester, England where all those children and young people died in the bombing, a lot more like Portland where two men were killed as they spoke up to defend a woman on a train, a lot more like that desert road in Egypt where 29 Coptic Christians were killed by ISIS this week on their way to a monastery, In the aftermath of brutal of violence, and senseless death, and unimaginable grief. God speaks. To evil that forever threatens life in the peaceable kingdom, to the enemies of all that God intends for creation, to the powers of darkness so intent on conquering the good and obliterating the light, the voice of God comes in the imperative, perhaps with a shout, perhaps with tears, “Stop it! Stop it! Be still. Drop it! Enough already! Stop the violence. Put an end to the violence. Abandon the chaos! Turn away. Turn away from it all. “be still and know that I am God.”
The psalmist’s song number 46. Comfort in the face of death’s reality. Hope for the promise of the morning when the storm shall pass. A plea for peace in times of war. An affirming prayer of gratitude for a taste of tranquility. An urgent demand when humanity’s total depravity rises again and again. No matter how or when or where you hear it, it is the psalmist testimony to the endless, persistent, imperative grace of God.
Peter Gomes, one of my mentors in preaching, would preach to each graduating class at Harvard on the morning of commencement. More accurately, he would preach to those who chose to come to the morning worship service in Memorial Church on Harvard Yard the morning of graduation. It is that season once again of sermons and speeches and addresses like that. One year, Peter Gomes said this: “On these occasions, I worry that we are selling you… a bill of goods. Instead of preparing you for ‘success’, we should be preparing you to cope with failure when things don’t turn our right—whether it is your marriage, your job, your children, or your nation. We should all along have been inculcating in you not ‘modalities of thought’” Professor Gomes preached, “but capacities for endurance. Instead of breeding eagles we should have been breeding camels who will make it across the desert because they have what they require on the inside and will not quit.”
“Put your confidence in something that works,” Gomes proclaims. “It is God who will keep you when all else has failed you; and it is God to whom you will turn when you have exhausted all of the alternatives. It is God on whom you will call when you get that fateful diagnosis. It is God on whom you will call when the bottom drops out; and it is God on whom you will call when you pass through those seasons of doubt and despair, when life itself seems not worth the living and you cannot remember the last victory; and it is God on whom you will call with your very last breath.”
“Put your confidence in something that works,” says the graduation preacher.
“Be still and know that I am God,” says the psalmist preacher.
Every time we sing Psalm 46 around here, someone is being rocked by the world’s shake, overwhelmed by life’s uproar, or hanging on until the morning dawns. So together, we will tap our feet, and move our lips, count our rests, and find out notes, and sing it again. One generation after another.
Because “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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