Sermon for Sunday 25 October 2015
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing”. We began worship this Reformation Sunday singing these words, words which must have made a lot of sense to a German priest and hymn-writer who lived in and around fortresses. Painting an image of God as a mighty stone building is completely understandable when you’ve literally sought refuge and safety from enemies inside a castle.
On the other hand, I don’t know much about castles and fortresses at all, except from Disney movies and fairytales. And as many times as I’ve sung Martin Luther’s famous hymn, I still have no idea what a “bulwark” is!
But today I do live near a mighty wall, 650 kilometers (403 miles) long and 8 meters high (25 feet). I live in a place where massive cement blocks are set in the middle of roadways, blocking patients from access to hospitals. I live in a city where a new “temporary” wall, 5 meters high (16 feet) was recently erected in just hours to divide two neighborhoods from each other.
|If the Wise Men tried to visit Jesus today, |
they would first have to get past the wall.
Walls and barriers and checkpoints are such a part of daily life in this context that I am hearing our beloved Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress”, very differently these days.
I have a hard time imagining the God of love and justice and mercy as a wall of any kind, for example. Not a castle wall. Not a city wall. And certainly not a separation wall. My God cannot be a wall anymore. My apologies to Luther.
It’s true, though, that the separation wall down the road is a god (little “g” god) for the people who must live behind, pass through it, or drive around it. The wall acts as a god for those who spend time and money protecting it, reinforcing it, and building new portions of it.
Anything can become our god when we begin to regard it as permanent, immovable, and capable of forming the boundaries of our lives. We humans have a long history of putting our trust in these false gods. We are really good at giving other people, things, ideas, or life events the power to define us and rule over us—especially things that promise to last forever, keep us safe, or make us happy.
But the truth is that everything we think is permanent comes tumbling down eventually. Everything, of course, except God.
The God of Abraham and Sarah,
the God of Paul and Mary Magdalene,
the God of Martin Luther and all the reformers,
the one true God is with us, and will be with us long after every single thing that is not god comes tumbling down.
This is of course the powerful message of Psalm 46, from which Luther took inspiration for his famous hymn. “A mighty fortress is our God” was his interpretation of “God is our refuge and strength.”
(Please open your bulletins and read Psalm 46 aloud with me once again)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains shake in the depths of the sea;
though its waters rage and foam,
and 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 the city; it shall not be shaken;
God shall help it at the break of day.
The nations rage, and the kingdoms shake;
God speaks, and the earth melts away.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Come now, regard the works of the Lord,
what desolations God has brought upon the earth;
behold the one who makes war to cease in all the world;
who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, then, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
In these few beautiful verses, the psalmist proclaims that when things seem to be falling apart around us, and things we thought would last forever are fading away, we have nothing to fear.
When the doctor says “cancer” we have nothing to fear.
When the bank account says “zero” we have nothing to fear.
When the document says “the divorce is final” we have nothing fear.
When the text message says “UN Security Update” we have nothing to fear.
We have nothing to fear, because God is with us. Four times in Psalm 46 the psalmist reminds us of this:
“God is ever present (even when we feel alone)”
“God is in the city! (Even when the city is in chaos)
“The Lord of hosts is with us! (even when we have lost our faith)”
And then, in case we missed it, the psalmist says it again:
“The Lord of hosts is with us!” Amen!
I’ll never forget the first time I read Psalm 46 and it became more than words for me. It was the 11th of September 2001, and I was sitting on the couch in front of the television, with my toddler at my side and my infant son in my arms, watching two tall towers in New York City crumble to the ground.
I watched for as long as I could bear, and then I turned the television channel to something the kids would like, and I opened my Bible.
I opened it to Psalm 46 – not by accident, and not by divine intervention, but because my spouse was a seminary student (and was assigned to lead chapel that morning) and therefore I knew it was the assigned psalm for the day. For the first time in my very privileged life, I read the words of this psalm and knew what it meant to say “the nations rage, and the kingdoms shake.” I knew what it meant to say “though the earth be moved.” But I also knew in my heart what it really meant to proclaim, “God is in the city. Therefore we will not fear.” These were the words that mattered as I held my sons tight and wondered what the future held for them.
Dear sisters and brothers, it felt like no accident that Psalm 46 was the appointed psalm for that Tuesday morning. And I must say that while I know very well that Psalm 46 is always the assigned psalm for Reformation Sunday, and Reformation Sunday always falls at the same time each year, still it feels like no accident that we are reading these words on this morning. In Jerusalem today we need to know that God is in this city. We need to know we are not alone. We need to know that there is a power at work in this city, and in the world, that is stronger than knives, greater than guns, higher than walls, and louder than any political spin, hate speech, or lie.
|A powerful statement found on the Separation Barrier|
Photo by Carrie Smith
And yes, the wall will fall, because a mighty fortress is our God! Amen!
|With Rev. Robert Smith and Rev. Mitri Raheb|
at a recent prayer gathering near the site
where the Israeli government is extending the wall
into the Cremisan Valley (on Palestinian land)
On Reformation Sunday we give thanks for the whole Word of God, through which we know that our refuge and strength is only in God’s righteousness, God’s justice, God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy.
We give thanks for Martin Luther and all the reformers who revived our love for the Word.
And we especially give thanks to God for Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh. On the cross God’s love for the world was shown to be greater than the world’s love of violence. And by rising on the third day, Our Lord Jesus said to the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb, and said even to death: “You are not god. You will never have the last say. The God of love, of peace, of justice and of life will always have the last word for all humanity.”
As you go out into the city and into the world today, I pray you will be strengthened and encouraged through the Word, through this community of faith, and through the bread and the wine. I pray you will go out knowing that the love of God in Christ Jesus surrounds you always.
And just in case the image of God as a fortress wall is as difficult for you as it is for me these days, I will send you out with an image from another famous hymn, called St. Patrick’s Breastplate. You are invited to repeat the words after me:
“Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” Amen, let it be so.