preached by the Rev. Abigail Henderson at First Congregational Church of MN, UCC, on Sunday, August 29, 2010
Today is the first in a two-week series of “grab bag sermons.” For those of you who weren’t here, this was an idea that emerged from our shared worship with University Baptist Church earlier in the summer. Doug Donley, the minister over there, suggested that we invite the gathered congregations to write down a Scripture passage, theme, or idea for a sermon. We mixed up their responses and then Doug and I drew randomly. So this morning I am called to focus on verse 10 of Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Apparently, this request came from a UBC member, and she was rather disappointed that I drew it, instead of Doug!
There’s a part of me that would’ve been happy to give Psalm 46 over to Doug. Don’t get me wrong—I love the Psalms. I love them as poetry and as prayer. But give me a lamentation over a hymn of praise any day. Even from a young age, I identified more with Job’s angst than, say, Abraham’s steady hand. It wasn’t exactly that I felt God was out to get me; it was more that the reality of daily living always seemed to reflect a distant, hands-off kind of God—or no God at all. At least, not the kind of God I heard other people always talk about, not the kind of God I hear described in Psalm 46.
“God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble.”
These are beautiful words. But what do these words mean, especially when they can’t quite describe one’s own life story? Even looking at the images as metaphors, I can’t say they instantly hook me, not like the voice from the whirlwind or Jesus’ cry from the cross.
So. Even though Psalm 46 does not come to me naturally, I will preach on it—and I would even without the obligation of a grab-bag sermon series. It is my theology—as a person and as a minister—that I will not turn my face away from any part of our Holy Word. In fact, I think that our Word is Holy precisely because we are invited to wrestle with it, Jacob-like. There are parts of the Bible I will always reject—for example, those troublesome sections of Leviticus—but my hope is to allow the text to influence me, shape me, challenge me.
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
Oh, does this ever challenge me. As we have seen in this summer’s exploration of Sabbath in worship and practice, it isn’t easy to “be still.” To “be still” is downright countercultural. And in a way, Psalm 46’s command to “be still and know that I am God” is almost an oxymoron. According to this psalm, after all, God is all-powerful; God is bigger than shaking mountains, roaring seas, and warring nations. God breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns shields with fire—in other words, God brings about a radical peace that obliterates human instruments of power. If I were to encounter this kind of God, I don’t think I could possibly “be still”—I think I would shudder.
Martin Luther was someone who knew about shuddering. Many believe that Psalm 46 was his favorite. Indeed, it is the basis for his famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is our God.” The New Century Hymnal modernizes and changes much of the language, but Luther’s original text describes an epic battle between God and “our ancient foe” Satan:
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him
The “little word” is Jesus Christ, a warrior-prince whose victory over death-bringing Satan is absolutely certain. Now, there is good reason that our modern hymnal has transformed this language: such militaristic, black-and-white imagery does not mirror the values of a peace-seeking, progressive church.
But even as we discard Luther’s language, I find myself asking the question: why the intensity behind this particular piece of writing? The mind of Luther is about as distant from me as the mind of God; but his writings do tell us that our theological ancestor was not a fundamentalist, at least not as we understand them today. Indeed, when we hear Luther’s description of an epic battle between good and evil, we probably shouldn’t imagine it projected across an apocalyptic landscape like in “Left Behind,” the evangelical novel series about the end of times. Perhaps it is more useful to picture this struggle taking place in Luther’s own heart and psyche.
Because he struggled. The assurance of his hymn belies a human being who went through periods of profound spiritual conflict. He had a word for it, and it’s one that I can barely pronounce or explain: Anfechtungen. It’s hard for scholars and translators to convey the meaning of this term. In the context of Luther’s writings, Anfechtungen speaks to a sense of agony about one’s relationship with God. It speaks to the disconnect between biblical promises and lived experience. It captures a fear of being judged or abandoned by God. It captures a state of being lost.
According to Luther biographer Roland Bainton, Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress” in 1527. He had posted his “95 theses” ten years before, formally launching the Protestant Reformation—that profound, complex, bloody cultural movement that transformed Western Europe.
“God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; you utter your voice, the earth melts.”
Deep words. And not necessarily because they reflect exactly what’s going on, but because they lift up our greatest hopes. In Luther’s understanding, his spiritual despair could only be resolved by one thing: resurrection. And his vision of resurrection can be detected in Psalm 46, in its portrayal of a God who is delivering—and will deliver—the people from their own self-destruction.
I put it that way—is delivering and will deliver—because verb tense can be hard to determine in the Psalm’s original Hebrew. Our English translation, by and large, goes with the present tense fails to express the future perspective at work in the verses. The Psalm is walking a mysterious line between the already and the not yet. Maybe this line is the “still place” where we might come to know God. There is equal potential for hope and despair, and something—maybe faith?—send us teetering toward hope.
What I’ve been describing may be a little abstract—I’m trying to put words to experiences and feelings that happen in our inner worlds. That’s why I love the word “Selah” built into the Psalm we read today. Like Anfechtungen, it’s a bit difficult to translate. As Jean explained in her scripture introduction, many scholars believe it functioned as a liturgical direction. It’s like the little asterisk in your bulletin, asking you to stand as you are able. For us it’s a small gesture, but it has to do with performing the words with our bodies, inhabiting them, owning them. It has to do with paying attention with your whole self.
I know that I connect most with Psalm 46 when I am performing it. I don’t mean reciting it for a crowd or reciting it like a temple priest in ancient Israel. I’m referring to the time I read it at the request of a dying patient in the hospital. She wanted to hear those old, sweet words as she navigated her way towards death.
One of the themes of this sermon, and many of my sermons, is the fact that meanings of words are flexible, particularly in translation. That day, the room was very still as I spoke of God, our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Despite the imprecision of the language, as I said those words, I knew that them to be true; not because I detected God’s presence in the air around us, but because they were true, in some way, to her. Her reality blended into mine in that moment. These words about God eased one woman’s passage out of life; for me, it was as though the earth melted.
This experience was an instant in time that was fleeting for me; I have no idea what it felt like for the patient. But I know this: Psalm 46 belongs to her, just as it belongs to each of us, for us to claim in our own way—perhaps with the help of others, perhaps all by ourselves in our time of need.
“The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.”
May it be so.