Rev. Teri Peterson
presence stronger than fear
14 July 2013
Psalm 16, Psalm 107.1-3, 23-32, Isaiah 40.28-31
introit: Surely the Presence of the Lord
Eternal Father Strong to Save
illumination: Open My Eyes
Keep Me Lord
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’
As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.
Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink-offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands, from the east and the west, from the north and the south.
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Everyone is afraid of something. Whether our fears are irrational or thoroughly rational, whether they are grounded in a traumatic experience or are more about the unknown, everyone has them. Some of us are afraid of spiders, of flying, of snakes, of slimy foods, of sailing. Some of us are afraid of becoming irrelevant, of disappointing people, of making a mistake, of things changing too fast, of dying. Many of us are afraid of each other. Some of us have an eclectic combination of fears, and some of us pretend we’re fearless. But the reality is that everyone has something they are afraid of. It’s part of being human.
Plenty of people in scripture experienced fear. Right back in the beginning, when Adam and Eve were afraid to admit their nakedness and their wrongdoing, through David who was so afraid of his affair with Bathsheba being discovered that he was willing to stage an accidental murder, right on up to the disciples who hid in a locked room and Paul who tried to mask his fear behind righteousness. The Psalms are full of prayers that the things we fear will not overwhelm us, prayers for protection, and thanksgiving for things that went better than expected. These words thread through scripture, glinting out from every page like the one golden strand in a tapestry. Fear, and desire to be protected from it, is a universal human experience. And God has promised to hold us up, to be the shade at our right hand, to keep our feet from stumbling and our enemies from overtaking us. This promise is sure enough that the most common phrase in scripture is “be not afraid.”
Sometimes it feels like God is sleeping on the job, though. Things happen, life is hard, and we don’t always feel protected or even accompanied. Where is God’s protection when the shots ring out in the neighborhood? Where is God’s protection when the fire rages or the train crashes? Often we feel alone in the darkness, stumbling about looking for answers or crying for help. When fear overtakes us, it’s hard to see the presence of God and we end up trying to take matters into our own hands. We know that God often speaks in a still small voice, in the sound of silence, in whispers almost too faint to make out. When we’re worried about what people will think of us, how we’ll get by, whether we’ll survive the trip, what could go wrong, who that person is over there, then there’s no room for that still small voice. Fear feeds our idols—idols of self-sufficiency, of personal power, of self-righteousness. That’s the moment we need a voice like thunder—except even that might not be able to break through the cacophony of a fear storm, or a shame storm, or a certainty storm…or even a night of actual physical storm, whether the sirens sound for wind and rain or bombs and gunshots, they still signal danger that ignites that fear. Where is God’s still small voice, God’s loving presence, in those moments? Be not afraid does not mean don’t have any fear—that would be impossible. It means don’t BE fear—don’t let fear act for you. But it’s so easy to be overtaken and believe we’re on our own.
The psalmist and the hymn writers they have inspired continue to insist that whether we can sense it or not, whether we are aware or not, whether we accept it or not, God is with us. God weeps when we weep and laughs when we laugh. God will never leave us nor forsake us—we are held in the palm of God’s hand. What safer place to be?
In 1860, William Whiting reminded one of his students of all these things, but still the student was afraid of a sea voyage from England to America that he was about to undertake. No amount of talking could calm his anxiety. So Whiting looked to those scriptures—especially to Psalm 107, and wrote a hymn for the student to sing along the way. In it we sing of God’s power over even the mighty waves and wind. We remember that ever since Genesis 1.1, when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of an unformed creation, we have never been alone.
Over a hundred years later, a musician looked at some tasks he had ahead, and found that singing was his only hope of remaining centered enough in God’s presence to walk through it all. And he too turned to the words of the psalmist and the prophets, reminding himself that God’s palm is large enough to hold each one of us with care beyond our imagining, that God’s breath is enough to bear us away from the troubles that threaten to consume us, that our fear can never outweigh the lift of an eagle’s wing.
Still another poet turned to Psalm 16, praying for God’s help and security, reminding everyone who sings it that when we keep our eyes on God’s way, it’s hard to shake us. When we are grounded in God’s purpose and presence, we can’t help but experience God’s power.
And make no mistake: God is indeed powerful. God’s word creates and re-creates. God’s hand protects in unimaginable ways. God’s love defeats death.
That does not mean that we don’t continue to hope and pray for God’s hand to protect in ways we can imagine. But prayer is not magic, and even when we sing, and therefore pray twice, we don’t always get what we want or what seems right to us. Sometimes things happen that have nothing to do with our faith or with God’s action or lack of action. In other words: God does not cause or allow tragedy. God’s will is always for abundant life for all of creation—for people of every color, every age, every economic background, every everything. God’s will is always for justice, for peace, for hope, not for destruction or pain or suffering. Instead, God’s power is to be found in presence—never are we left alone, even in the midst of our distress. The passengers on the Titanic, who sang Eternal Father Strong to Save as their closing hymn on Sunday April 14, 1912, were not lacking in faith, nor were they being “allowed” to die that same day as they prayed for safe travel. Icebergs happen. But you can bet that they were not alone.
Fear is compelling. It feeds us messages about ourselves and others, but those messages are rarely the same as God’s message. It leads us down paths of injustice in the name of security, it thrives on our unexamined privilege, it keeps us in thrall to its vision of the world rather than God’s kingdom vision. Fear is powerful, but nowhere near as powerful as God who broke open the tomb, opened the eyes of the blind, changed the hearts and minds of the mighty, sent the Spirit to shove the church out of its hiding place. As Paul says, we are afflicted, but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, struck down, but not destroyed—for there is nothing in life or death, heaven or earth, power or principality, that can separate us from God’s love. Nothing. God’s love is more powerful than our sin, than our stupidity, than our idols, than our egos, than the ways we hurt each other. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Period. That’s power, right there.
When we say God is Sovereign, Lord of heaven and earth, powerful, the first thing that means is that we are not God. Much as we try, we cannot control the wind and waves. We cannot see into the heart of another, or understand every mystery. We can learn, and grow, and discover, but never will we be the ones with ultimate power. Which means that whenever we try to explain why things happen—why hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires? why evil, despair, hunger, injustice?—when we try to explain these things, we always fall short. We can only see through our own lens—our understanding is colored by our culture, our history, our experience, our education, our humanness. Not only can we not see the big picture, we’re looking at our slice of the picture with broken glasses. Which does not mean that we should ignore suffering or heartbreak or fear. But rather than looking for why things happen, or even for evidence of God’s plan, can we look for God’s presence? Only in God’s presence will we find God’s power, God’s justice and peace, God’s new kingdom. Only in God’s presence will we find the courage and strength to live a life worth of our calling—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, to be a part of a better way.
I have a songbook that has our closing hymn today on the same page as a hymn called “Lo I Am With You.” Now, I know that is probably because the hymn starting with K and the hymn starting with L go next to each other. But there’s something just right about it too. At the top of the page we pray for God’s presence, we remind ourselves to keep our sights set on Jesus—on his love, his life, his insistence on justice. And at the bottom of the page are the words “Lo, I am with you to the end of the world, when you leave self behind, in the struggle for peace, when you suffer for love, in the way of the cross, in the darkness of death…Lo, I am with you to the end of the world.”
God’s steadfast love endures forever—God does not grow weary or have heavy eyelids, but constantly lights the path of life and guides us as we walk. I can’t think of better news, or a better lens through which to view the world. Whether we are anxious or joyful, busy or lost, grieving or longing, let’s be on the lookout for God’s presence, and we might just find we experience God’s power in ways we could never imagine—power that builds a new kingdom, where every tear is wiped away, where justice rolls down like waters, where all God’s children are held in the palm of God’s hand together.
May it be so. Amen.