- Zachary Helton
"Find Your Refuge and Strength," by Zachary Helton
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in times of trouble.
Therefore we need not fear, though the earth should shake,
though the cliffs break off and fall into the heart of the sea,
though waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of this city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
Our country may be in an uproar, the nations may totter;
yet the Voice of the Almighty is heard, and slowly breaks through hearts of stone.
The Beloved is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of God; how Love does reign even in humanity’s desolation.
God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; breaking the bow and shattering the spear; burning chariots and war machines with holy fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The Beloved is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Dear Northminster, I’m recording this on Friday afternoon, before the storm comes through, so I don’t know how things have gone, or in what state this reflection is coming to you. With any luck, the storm passed with no major damage. Maybe we even have power back by now! Maybe not. There’s no way for me to know, which makes this a difficult sermon to write. We’ll see how it goes. When we made the decision to postpone the Stricklin Lectures, a decision we weren’t really able to make until Thursday night, it left us with a bit of a void. What would we do for Sunday? What text might people need to hear? On a call with DH, I joked, “Any Bible verses about hurricanes?” In response, DH started reciting Psalm 46 almost like it was a reflex, like a memory verse. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. Though the earth should shake and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, we need not fear, for the God of Jacob is our refuge.” Poetry lodged in our unconscious mind to orient us in just such a moment, for we are all familiar with that moment that our earth begins to rock and reel, and that of which we felt sure begins to break off and disappear from sight. “Our country may be in an uproar, the nations may totter, yet the Voice of the Almighty is heard, slowly breaking through hearts of stone.” Even if the hurricane, proves to be nothing, though I know that’s an unlikely an optimistic scenario, these words still resonate deeply, for our nation does, indeed, seem to be tottering. So, into this fear, this uncertainty, this shaking of the foundations sings the paradoxically discordant harmony of Psalm 46. Now, I have heard, and, in fact, preached enough bad sermons to know what this psalm is not. “God is our refuge” is not a weapon to use against others when we don’t want to feel our own discomfort. This psalm is not to be thrown at suffering people along with a myriad of bad advice: “Oh, God’s got it all under control!” “You shouldn’t be afraid!” “God will take care of you!” “It’ll be alright!” “God won’t give you more than you can handle!” Such weapons are wielded by those too afraid of their own pain to tolerate it in others. They’re the words of one who wants to avoid suffering, not heal it. Such peace is fragile, and if any of these words have ever been leveled to you at a funeral, or at the death of your marriage, after your earth has shaken and your mountains fallen into the sea, then you know they are at best a band-aid and at worst a re-traumatizing and isolating rejection of your experience. This is not what Psalm 46 is about. In reality, our suffering, our pain, sadness, grief, worry, these are not feelings that can be avoided, but neither are they sensations meant to hold us hostage. They are no more or less than messengers, tapping us on the shoulder with an important message. They let us know something is not right, whether it’s with the world or in our heads, and rather than ignore them or attach to them, it is our work to listen to them, to understand them, so that they can then go on their way. To use a phrase like “God is our strength!” or “God will protect us!” as an excuse not to listen to those feelings is a disservice to yourself and a dishonor to God. Now is not the time to deny grief or fear. Now is a time to listen deeply to them, to understand their message, which is usually this: Go deeper. And I think that has much more to say about what this psalm is about. Let me ask you, Northminster, where is our refuge and our strength? What is our help in times of trouble? If we’re honest, wouldn’t we say it’s in money? In safe homes? In social standing? In a functioning government and access to reliable utilities and resources? On a good day, if we’re honest, these things are our refuges and the sources of our strength… but the psalmist knows what we seem to forget – what we seem to remember only after a disaster. And that is that those things are, without exception… temporary. It’s what Israel, a nation often on the losing and oppressed side of history, saw in a way that we, with our hedge of privilege, cannot see. It is the reason it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for us to enter the Kingdom of God. The truth is, despite all appearances, despite the stories we want to tell ourselves about permanence and safety… we are one bad day from the truth we want to avoid: Money dries up. Homes are crushed under trees. We fall from social grace. Our government is more fragile than we’ll admit, and our utilities are one strong gust of wind away from being lost. When these things are gone, when our foundations shake and our cliffs fall into the heart of the sea… here is the question we have to ask: what remains? The psalmist, it seems, has been there, like so many other spiritual masters, and they tell us that the answer is not “nothing.” The answer is God. Now, what “God” is, they can’t really explain, and neither can I. I’m afraid, in the end, that’s up to you to discover. You have to find what remains for you. Maybe it’s the community that surrounds you, the people in whose lives you’ve invested. Maybe it’s their grace and love. Maybe that’s God. Maybe it’s the stories you choose to tell, the meaning and redemption they lend you even in suffering. Then again, maybe these things, too, are gone, and your feelings bid you go deeper. Maybe God is your breath, the YH-WH… but after a time, maybe even that leaves you. What remains? Maybe God is pure presence… liberation from future and past. Maybe God is the peace beyond understanding we’re told awaits us after the realization of our impermanence, the peace that awaits us after we’ve given up on judgment and discrimination and we’ve learned to accept what is. I can’t speak for you, and I can’t tell you what “God” is for you. But whatever you find when all else is stripped away, when you’ve removed layer upon layer and arrived, finally, at a rocky foundation… that is your refuge and your strength. That is your resurrection. That is your present help in times of trouble. That is the immoveable Ground of Being upon which you stand when the whole earth shakes. That is the reason you need not fear. It is that which cannot be taken away, and it flows under all things, even this city, like a river whose streams make us glad. It is the constant, when nations totter. It is that which makes wars cease, breaks bows and shatters spears like twigs. It is that which can only be found when we muster the courage to stop running, to stop looking away, and to Be still and know. That is God. That is with you, in you, even now, whether you can see it or not. Fr. Richard Rohr teaches this stripping away with the language of this very psalm: Be still and know that I am God. Be still and know I am. Be still and know. Be still. Be. Northminster, may we take refuge and find strength in what is truly God. In times like this, and in the days to come, we will most certainly need it. Amen.
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
Where did you see yourself in today’s sermon? What are its implications for you, right now?
What is your refuge and strength? Will it really last?
What is “God” to you? Is this God truly a refuge and strength?
What feelings are currently asking to be felt in you? What might be their message?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the live chat, or to continue the conversation in the “Narthex” chat after the service.