(You may watch video of this sermon here)
One of the criticisms that gets leveled at religious folks of various stripes is that we’re just conjuring up fantasies to just try to avoid coping with the harsh realities of life.
Now, that can happen, and that does happen, certainly, that people use beliefs about God to avoid facing in a mature way pain, loss, trauma, the bitter ends of things. We see this in ways people can use God to dismiss grief – “don’t cry, don’t be upset, they’re in a better place.” We’re seeing it these days in some of the ways some folks are in denial about this pandemic – you know, stuff like, we don’t need to do anything about it because God will just swoop in and deliver us – or those of us who are deserving – as long as we pray hard enough.
But it’s not fair to blame this on religion. For one thing, denial doesn’t require God. There are all kinds of things we can use. Human beings are imaginative creatures. And pain can be really hard. Anything can get used as an opiate.
But more than that, this criticism of religion, that we’re just trying to avoid coping with death, loss, absence, nothingness, is clearly out of touch with the actual lives and actual faith of actual people who are people of faith. It’s very condescending.
In my experience, people’s faith in God is actually all about being very honest and courageous about their pain and suffering, and the pain and suffering of others. I also find that people’s faith in God so often just helps people live more fully, not only with what’s hard about life, but also with all that brings joy and gratitude.
And if you look at the Bible, all of its stories and expression of people experiencing God, wrestling with God, yearning for God, generation after generation, it’s full of tough stuff, people experiencing God throughout all that life brings, in ways that can be profoundly comforting, and way that can profoundly discomforting.
Psalm 46, our scripture for today, is a psalm of comfort:
“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear …”
“… there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God …”
“… be still and know that I am God…”
But at the same time, this is psalm of discomfort. It confronts us with truly terrifying images.
The earth gives way. The mountains fall into the heart of the sea. Its waters roar and foam. The mountains quake with their surging.
The grasslands ignite. The forests roar with fire. The people flee as their homes succumb to the inferno.
The comfort here is not a cozy comfort.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” – Does not mean, “Don’t worry: By the grace of God you’ll be spared from trouble.”
I think of us in the west right now who have been spared by the fires, if not by the smoke – so far – who are nonetheless feeling really unsettled, the smoke is a big part of that, this unsettled feeling of just how close and catastrophic the fires are.
If we’ve been spared this time, we may not be spared the next. Right? Our imaginations immediately go there. And that’s okay – it is – we don’t need to hide from it. We can have courage to face this honestly.
The fact is climate change is real, and extreme and destructive weather events are escalating, as predicted and warned. But also the possibility of catastrophe has always been part of reality that we’re just wise to be real about.
It could be us, who suddenly loses everything. It could not be us. But it could be.
And, that would not be the end.
It isn’t the end, for those precious souls, so near to us, who are now living in the wake of such devastation. God is with them in their loss and grief, and in their work of survival, and resilience of the soul. God is with those who are there with them to help with that work. God is in the stirrings that urge one to help.
With God we can tap into a power that is beyond whatever destruction can be visited upon us.
That’s what Psalm 46 is showing. The psalm confronts us not only with the destructive forces of disaster and war. More than that, it confronts us with the truly awesome power of the Divine:
“Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall.
God speaks. The earth melts.”
“See what desolations God has brought upon the earth.
God makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
God breaks the bow and shatters the spear
God burns the shieldswith fire.”
And only then, when God’s transcendent power has left us without anything to fight with, totally defenseless, only then, can we
“Be still, and know that God is God.”
When we are still and know this almighty power, beyond all earthly forces, we can know the deepest, strongest peace, that abides, come what may. We find refuge, we find the ever-present help in times of trouble. This is not wishful thinking. This is about the true nature of reality. This is the wisdom that has been taught by the great souls, known and unknown, through the years, who know far better than I how tough life can be and how real God is.
Jesus was very clear and sometimes even severe about how important it is not to get too attached to our possessions and homes and status and even relationships. His early disciples left behind everything to follow him and seek God and God’s Realm. This was not an escape from the world and its cares. This was what liberated them for courageous acts of love.
But the wisdom is that it is good for us, good for our souls, good for our freedom to love God and to love each other, for us to practice letting go of the things that populate our lives, while seeking deeper connection with God. We can do this in prayer. Who would I be without this? Who would I be if that disappeared or was taken away? How would I know God then? Know love?
The fact is in the end we do lose everything – we can’t take anything with us when we leave this life. I hope and pray it’s not too soon or not to sudden for any of us. But the more comfortable we become with the reality of death and loss, the freer we can be from fear, and the freer we can be live simply and humbly, to live better within our means, and in better balance with the other lives with whom we share this earth, to live graciously and courageously, to live with love and gratitude for all we can enjoy for whatever measure of time we are given here.
I treasure you all. And I’m praying you stay safe and well. Keep the faith.