August 13, 2023
"God is our Refuge and our Strength”
Rev. Scott Landis
If you were reared in the Lutheran church, the hymn we just sang, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is more than familiar to you. Often referred to as the “Battle Hymn of the Protestant Reformation,” its lyrics, based on Psalm 46, were written by German Reformer Martin Luther to embolden the reformers as they took their stand against the alleged corruption of the Roman Catholic church at the time. Many, however, believe that Luther wrote these words after he witnessed the martyrdom of his friend who was burned at the stake in 1527.
But whether we are marching in protest to demand justice and transparency in ecclesiastical structures, or we are mourning a deep personal loss – words matter to us whether they come from our bibles or our hymn books.
Like so many people of faith, we turn to the scriptures in challenging moments to hear a word from God – to receive a glimpse of hope when so much seems lost. Psalm 46 is one of those passages. These words have brought comfort to me often when I have had nothing left but tears. Whether read when life is going exceedingly well or when we simply don’t know where to turn, Psalm 46 forces us to pay attention and remember – we are not alone. God’s presence is always here.
The other evening, I was on a zoom call with United Church of Christ clergy across Maui. I have been with these colleagues a lot in my years on this island that has become home. When I first arrived, zoom was our only means of contact as we were forced to isolate and shelter in place – you’ll remember the “covid years.” Later we began meeting in person, in association meetings and on retreats, for lunches and other social gatherings. And life seemed somewhat normal again. But when we gathered on Wednesday evening I saw, once more, the faces of those trusted colleagues – all somewhat stunned – and we didn’t even know then what we know today.
We listened to reports from our conference minister. Learned about how parishioners can help through relief efforts, and various ways to contribute money. And we checked in with each other – sharing openly about our experience, our feelings, and our fears. One of our colleagues read these words of the Psalmist – words that I had read earlier in the day, and I began to feel the presence of holiness – of reassurance, as God’s word was revealed in new ways that seemed to speak directly to our circumstance.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.
I felt that same comfort earlier in the day as some in our ‘ohana gathered on zoom. Just to see your faces brought me hope. I felt that when I looked into the eyes of my ministerial friends as well. And I feel it today as we gather in this place seeking refuge and strength – in time of trouble – a place where we and others have gathered for nearly 200 years. There is a sense of permanence here, in knowing that this is our sanctuary. Like God, it is our refuge and our strength. A very present help in time of trouble.
Listen again to some of those words:
Therefore, we will not fear,
Though the earth should change,
Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though it waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains tremble in its tumult.
Because God is in our midst.
The Lord God of Hosts is with us,
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
We have all seen the destruction that the wildfires have wrought in our beloved home – a paradise we call Maui. Whether you have witnessed it firsthand, or looked at pictures, or have spoken with loved ones as they wept not knowing how they will survive all this.
We know we are not immune from hurricane, or tsunami, or fire but this has been devastating and may leave us completely bewildered wondering whether the Psalmist may have gotten it wrong. Where is God in the ashes we call Lahaina or upcountry?
I encourage you to look a little more closely. You may not see it right away but keep looking. Soon you will see a firefighter working tirelessly to subdue the flames, a nurse bandaging an open wound, a dollar bill being contributed by a child to buy some food, a church group packing toiletry kits for those evacuated to a shelter, a carload filled with groceries, rubber slippers, and clothes being sent to an unknown destination, hundreds of volunteers doing what they can to reassure and bring necessary aid, administrators working tirelessly to organize a relief effort the likes of which we have never seen here before, counselors helping loved ones relocate the lost or sitting with them when they are informed of the worst, a pastor holding hands with distraught parishioners as they pray for those who have lost everything. Even in the midst of total destruction – God is there.Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.
God is in the midst of the city, it shall not be moved.
We simply need to slow down long enough to notice these expressions of God – our refuge and our strength. We cannot see it if we are running from place to place trying to do everything or wringing our hands in fear or total despair, or if we have closed ourselves off in a protective form of isolation. The Psalmist invites us into a moment of calm amidst the firestorm. We are to,
“Be still and know that I am God.”
And continues. “I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.”
So, I invite you — here in this sanctuary — into a spiritual practice that I use regularly. Whether I am trying to fall asleep at night or am in deep distress, I use this deeply comforting phrase from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.” May it bring you some comfort today and help you see the presence of God no matter what the circumstances.
If you will close your eyes or shift your gaze to soften your view and listen as I guide you through these words of David.
“Be still and know that I am God.”
We will close now by singing verses 1 & 4 of #438 NCH – It is Well with my Soul.