(a sermon for July 29, 2012, 4th in a series and based on Psalm 91, preached at the Canterbury United Community Church in Canterbury, NH, at a combined worship service with East Congregational Church UCC in Concord)
It was a few years ago on a blistering hot mid-summer day here in New Hampshire, not unlike a few we’ve experienced this year – luckily, however, my family and I were riding out that particular heat wave on the shore of a cool and crystal-clear pond at the foot of the White Mountains. Granted, this was a public beach at a state park where we happened to be camping that summer, and so we were sharing this experience with a few hundred or so of our closest friends (!); but that was alright, because all that really mattered is that get in the water and beat the heat!
However, as is also typical in this part of the world this time of year, late in the afternoon and seemingly out of nowhere a massive thunderstorm hit with a vengeance. The rain came down in sheets, the wind blew like crazy, there was thunder crashing and lightning flashing from every direction – and since the storm had come on so suddenly, everyone on that beach followed their first instinct, which was to find shelter and to get there fast! However, the only real place to get out of the rain was the bathhouse, a very basic (and extremely small) structure at the edge of the beach.
Well, you know the old saying, “any port in a storm!” That was us, friends, and for the next half hour or so, we were up close and personal with just about everybody who’d been on the beach. Actually, it was quite interesting, in that the women and children were sent into the inner parts of the building – both sections, incidentally – where there were benches and it was dry. The men, by contrast, being manly and protective men (!), were all huddled together in the entryway and along the eaves of the bathhouse – the wind and rain blowing the whole time and soaking us to the bone, prompting one of the men beside me to ask if this was what it was like for the men left on the deck of the Titanic!
Now, don’t get me wrong – as the storm raged on we were all very glad for any kind of shelter, and the storm did pass eventually; but I must confess, I came away from the experience convinced that I had just lived through a parable of biblical proportions, in which the central point was that there are certainly some forms of refuge much better than others!
The bottom line is that we all need refuge; as the old song goes, it’s a bare necessity of life! And there are many forms of refuge: certainly, the kind of physical shelter that keeps us safe from the elements – our homes, our vehicles, even a bathhouse at White Lake State Park. But there are places of emotional refuge as well, the places we go when our lives start to feel a bit stormy: a corner nook or or a private retreat somewhere in the woods. Or for that matter, maybe the refuge is found in the love of a caring family member or friend. The point is, we all have those places that bring us rest, security and peace – a refuge from the storm.
But what happens in life when all the physical and emotional shelters we seek are nowhere to be found; or worse, when the ones we cling to have been denied us or taken away? Not to sound all foreboding here, but where’s our refuge then?
I think, for instance, of those whose homes have been destroyed by flood or tornado or some other natural disaster; in just about every sense, where do they find shelter from the storm? And what kind of refuge is there for those who suddenly find themselves without financial resources, or who are reeling from the shock of a broken relationship, or have just gotten a horrible diagnosis from a doctor? In other words, what kind of security really exists when the world we live in is forever shifting beneath our feet? After all, as Richard Gelson writes, “we need to know what is left to us when we strip away – or have stripped away for us, voluntary or not – the varnish of all worldly vanities.” What comes to us when everything and everybody else is gone – that’s the refuge that really matters.
And that, friends, is what the 91st Psalm is all about.
You’ll remember that a couple of weeks ago we looked at the psalm the immediately precedes this one: Psalm 90, in which we’re given the rather humbling reminder that you and I are little more than the grass that fades away, and that like it or not, our days are numbered. Well, today we get the polar opposite of that; everything in Psalm 91 is about the strength, the presence and the utter reassurance of God in the midst of life’s utter chaos! This psalm is about spiritual shelter; about our living “in the shelter of the Most High,” and abiding “in the shelter of the Almighty,”
There is no lacking for powerful imagery in this psalm! We’ve got God as a “refuge and [our] fortress,” and because of him we will not “fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,” staying safe even amidst pestilence and destruction; that even though “a thousand may fall at [our] side, ten thousand at [our] right hand …it will not come near us,” because God and his angels will be right there to guard us and protect us from any and all harm, bearing us up “so that [we] will not [even] dash our foot against a stone.” It’s no wonder that long before we were singing “On Eagle’s Wings,” going back as far as biblical times, this psalm was actually sung as a worship song on the eve of battle, as a prayer for soldiers going to war.
Understand, this psalm is not saying that in the refuge of the Most High, nothing will ever happen to us – in whatever battles and storms we face, there are injuries and casualties; and much as we hope and pray otherwise, the reality of life is that sometimes we get hurt. And it’s important to know that, especially where our faith is concerned: as a pastor, I have known people whose very faith in God proceeds under the assumption that they will be somehow always be miraculously and supernaturally protected from all the difficulties, struggles and pain of human life; but these are the same people who inevitably end up deeply disappointed and in a fractured relationship with God when the storms of life come …and they do come.
This 91st Psalm is not the promise that everything will always be good in our lives – but it is the promise that all will be well with our souls. It’s a reminder that of all the shelters we seek out in this world, the only true failsafe for hope comes to us from God. In fact, it is in the very midst of the storms of life that sometimes even unbeknownst to us, God is there: holding us close and giving us refuge until the storm has past.
An article in National Geographic a few years back described the aftermath of a raging wildfire that had engulfed much of Yellowstone National Park. On a trek up a mountain to access the fire’s damage, a ranger spotted a bird that had been literally petrified in ash – looking almost like a statue perched on the ground at the base of a tree. The ranger, who was actually a little sickened by the sight of this dead bird, took a stick to knock it over – but when he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried out from beneath the dead mother’s wings. You see, this mother bird, sensing impending disaster, had carried her babies to the base of that tree and gathered them under her wings to protect them, instinctively knowing that the smoke would rise and her chicks might survive the fire if she could keep them low and covered.
Imagine – the mother bird could have flown to safety, but she refused to abandon her babies; and even when the heat of the fire had singed her body, the mother bird stayed steadfast. Because of her willingness to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.
That’s how God is, friends! That’s what the Psalmist was saying when he sang, “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.” Whatever the disaster, no matter the struggle and difficulty of life, we are surrounded by the strong and tender presence of a Heavenly Father who stays with us through every moment of the storm. If I might quote another psalm, the 46th Psalm, “Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas …the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
These are actually two psalms I’m fond of reading at funeral services, particularly when the occasion follows a sudden or tragic death. That’s because when you and I find ourselves in a situation when our whole world seems to have crumbled at our feet with every one of life’s dangers are bearing down on us and helpless to do anything about it, we need to know that it’s the Lord who is our refuge; that it’s God alone who will see us through.
That’s the joy of this psalm, friends. But, in all honesty, that’s the challenge of it, too. I know that in reading these psalms, it’s hard sometimes for us to reconcile the promise of God’s protection with the terrible reality of life’s dangers – I mean, really, what does saying, “I will deliver you,” mean to the one who’s just lost everything in a tornado, or, for that matter, what does talking about how “no evil will befall you” say to the families of those victims of the mass shooting last week in Colorado? We cannot ignore that there are things in this world and life that are truly “wicked,” and bad things do happen to good people – but even in the midst of these dangers, God’s promises are real; because if God is with us then that evil need not consume us.
Maybe you saw the piece on the news this week on Pierce O’Farrill, one of the 58 victims of the Colorado shooting – he was actually shot twice but survived – and shortly before his release from the hospital (on Wednesday!) the reporters asked him what quite honestly I thought was a pretty invasive and premature question: if you saw James Holmes (the suspected shooter) right now, what would you say to him? But I was very touched by O’Farril’s response; he said, “Of course, I forgive him with all my heart. When I saw him in his hearing, I felt nothing but sorrow for him – he’s just a lost soul.” Wow! And as if that weren’t enough, he went on: “I want to see him sometime. The first thing I’d say to him is ‘I forgive you,’ and the next is, ‘Can I pray for you?’”
Now, I realize that this probably won’t be the reaction of most of the victims or their families, at least right now – and I am sure that even with his very heartfelt words, Mr. O’Farrill will also have a lot of healing to do, and our prayers need to be with them all for that healing. But here’s the thing – that healing is possible, because they will never be alone in the process. As horrific as all of this has been, and as difficult as the way ahead may be, as they move forward they will do so under the shelter of God’s wings.
We all know what it’s like to face a storm – perhaps not as tragic as this, but we all face storms nonetheless. And the storms of this life will beat against us with everything they have. And we may well be scared and shaken, roughed up a bit or even a lot. We may well be bruised and very sore, indeed – but we are safe, we are protected and we are loved – because we are under His wings, these incredible pinions that have never folded, nor collapsed, nor abandoned us.
In all these storms of life, let us call out to the Lord; that he might truly “raise us up as on eagle’s wings.”
Thanks be to God!
Selah! And AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry