You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
God will cover you with pinions, and under God’s wings you will find refuge;
God’s faithfulness will shield you.
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
Psalm 91, selected versesI thought this was going to be an easy sermon to prepare. Select a well-known psalm about trusting in God, throw in an inspiring story or two, and off we go. And, as so often happens when we allow scripture to speak to us, that’s not what happened. I really struggled with the text from Psalm 91 this week.
Psalm 91 is a song of trust and protection. In one scenario, the song is written by a king who has prayed to God and found shelter from his enemies. The king enjoys the protection of his god, from every kind of danger. No one will be able to sneak up and attack him at night; the archer’s arrows won’t reach him during the day. Thousands will die around him, but he will be just fine. The notion of a god that is on side of a particular political power does not give me any comfort or reassurance. In fact, it gives me theological hives.
So, let’s just ignore that scenario and imagine Psalm 91 is a song of personal trust. The psalm has an insistent declaration that if we trust God then no harm will come. Unfortunately, experience teaches something quite different. People of faith do get cancer, or heart disease and die from any number of illnesses. People of faith are crushed in spirit by acrid verbal attacks, broken in body and mind by physical and emotional abuse. People of faith find themselves a hospital or die as a result of all forms of violence. People who trust in God are living with poverty, lack of food and clothing, and experience starvation. What about little children who are afflicted with terminal cancer at age three? What about faithful Christians, Jews, Muslims, or others who lose their jobs in a bad economy and can’t find a decent job for decent pay anywhere? What about stalwarts of dedication to God who lose their homes in fires or floods or hurricanes or tornados? Where is God for people who dwell in the shadow of grace when and things like that happen?
Is the Psalmist correct here? How do any of us deal with the fierce curveballs which life hurls at us? Is it enough just to say, “God is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust”?
There’s another way to interpret Psalm 91. Ancient Rabbis encouraged the faithful to recite Psalm 91 over and over again in order to feel the presence of God. They called it an amulet psalm. Because we keep finding evil lurking around every corner, because diseases continue to plague those we love, because we can’t seem to stop stubbing our toes and tripping over the same problems and addictions, some people wrote the words of Psalm 91 on a tiny piece of parchment and literally wore it around their necks like a protective charm. It’s almost as if the words became a magic talisman to ward off evil and bad luck.
Maybe these words do offer some “magic formula.” It’s clear that whoever wrote these words really did believe that no harm could come to those who called upon God’s name. And that’s nice. Sometimes I wish I had that kind of faith. I wish that I really believed that magic words were enough -- that these words expressed my own deepest faith. I wish they offered me the comfort I need each and every time I stumble, or every time I hear about another cancer diagnosis, or each time another young woman cradling a baby to the church office to ask for rent money. I wish that I could offer these magic words to protect them. I wish it were that easy.
I like to think that our religious thinking has evolved way past the faith of whoever wrote the words of Psalm 91. I don’t believe that God causes earthquakes, floods, diseases and whatever other evil might befall us. But here’s the downside -- we’re not really sure where to put our frustration. We haven’t found an adequate shelter for our anger and our fear. We don’t know how to make God our resting place. Most of us don’t really know what it means to believe that God is a resting place, a home, that protective shelter where our fear and anger become something else. We are too busy to put all of our trust in God. For some reason, we have convinced ourselves that we can do it on our own. We don’t need any help. We’ve got all we need.
Here is what I am learning. In a world of random violence and deep pain, I don’t blame God for the bad things, but I do want God to keep protect from them. I want a refuge.
There are all kinds of other refuges out there that lure us with promises of safety and security. They look promising and secure. Remember the FEMA trailer debacle after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast? After the storm surge, residents of New Orleans and Mississippi had been living in their cars, tents, and partially gutted homes. FEMA came to the rescue with trailers. A shelter in times of trouble. Deliverance. After some time, residents of FEMA trailers began reporting breathing difficulties, persistent flu-like symptoms, eye irritation, and nosebleeds. Tests on a number of FEMA trailers by the Sierra Club showed some 83% had levels of formaldehyde in the indoor air at levels above the EPA recommended limit. Later, a federally-funded analysis reported that the toxic levels of formaldehyde in the trailers probably resulted from faulty construction practices and the use of substandard building materials.
It turns out some shelters don’t end up protecting us. It’s true of physical shelters, and it’s true of spiritual shelters as well. They might look good, but they are deadly refuges. Think of the places where we look for protection and security. The theologian Walter Breuggemann reminds us that the church in the U.S. exists in a market-driven, war-hungering, empire-thirsting environment. These are deadly refuges, and we in the church are tempted to turn to them all the time as ways to solve our need to feel safe.
What’s the alternative? God is our refuge, our true home, our best portion, our deep desire. The author of Psalm 91 wanted to convey something about how the life of faith works. To seek refuge in God is to place one's trust fully in God rather than self-procured means of security. Living in the shadow of grace is not about asking God to warrant a particular political agenda. It’s not about asking God for personal blessing as the world around us unravels. It’s not about finding the magic words that will make everything better. Finding refuge in God means accepting the Divine Spirit’s offer to be an emotional and spiritual safe place that cannot be broken by the stresses and strains of life. We do not have to trust in ourselves.
We all listen God’s promise: I will deliver. I will protect. I will answer. I will show. I will rescue. These are the words of a love song, sung by God to a battered yet hopeful people.
This week, I found some shelter in the poetic words of Hilary F. Marckx who has rewritten Psalm 91 for today. I close with this – let it be our prayer . . .
We have no conceptSources
of the many dangers
from which we have been delivered.
We complain and whine
when things go wrong for us,
but have we ever thought of the
assortment of attacks,
onslaughts, crazy situations,
dumb choices, fool-hardy ideas
we have been delivered from
through God’s ongoing,
ever-present, steadfast grace?
We think we know troubles,
but I shudder to think about
the bullets I have unknowingly dodged,
the harm that I,
in blissful ignorance, walked through,
safe and secure, held and protected by God.
Oblivious, we constantly drink of God’s Salvation!
This is something to consider
the next time
we think that God
Maybe there are a few things
we need to experience for ourselves
to know the fullness
of the grace God gives us.
Otherwise, how will we know gratitude?