Sermon – “Seeking Refuge”
February 21, 2016
Last week, I was flipping through the channels one evening and was pleased to stumble upon a re-run of one of my favorite movies of all time - “The American President.”
It’s hard to believe it’s more than 20 years old already.
Despite its age, I was struck as I watched it again by how relevant the issues in the movie remain today.
For those who haven’t seen it, the movie tells the story of President Andrew Shephard, a widower, who is preparing for his re-election campaign and trying to get legislation he cares about through Congress. The President becomes romantically involved with a lobbyist which complicates everything and becomes a source of attack for his opponent, whose name is Bob Rumson.
Near the end of the movie, after refusing for weeks to respond to Rumson’s attacks, President Shephard takes the podium in the White House Press Room and gives one of the more memorable speeches in movie history … at least to me.
He says, in part …
I've known Bob Rumson for years, and I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.
It still is, isn’t it?
Human beings can be motivated and manipulated by their fears and anxieties and campaign consultants figured that out years ago.
So did marketers, didn’t they?
In fact, taking advantage of people’s fear has become such a commonplace tactic that there is now an acronym for it amongst marketing professionals – FUD. That would be Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. The term was coined by an IBM exec for the tactic taught to their sales people – it was used to make customers feel anxious or uncertain about buying a competitor’s product.
Fear, of course, is a natural instinct, so some amount of it in our lives is normal and healthy. In fact, we have to teach our children to fear, don’t we. We can’t tell them not to worry about strangers. Go ahead, take their candy, get into their cars. We don’t live in that kind of a world.
In fact, we live in a world with much more serious challenges.
Marc Schoen, a professor at UCLA’s Geffen (pronounced Jeff-in) School of Medicine, wrote an article recently about the “fear epidemic” in today’s world. He argues in his article that as we watch human tragedy after human tragedy play out in excrutiating detail on television 24 hours a day, we have a tendency to personalize and internalize the events as if they were happening to us.
In other words, we continually stimulate the fear centers in our brains even though we are not actually at risk.
“What's the downside of an out-of-control fear center?
For starters, significant inner turmoil: By virtue of inflammatory pathways, we begin to physically cook ourselves from the inside out, essentially burning up our inner organs, including our skin, and our brain.
Basically, aging is accelerated at a feverish pace.
On the behavioral/emotional front, we become hyper-vigilant, overly sensitive, lose our religious or spiritual faith, and begin to approach our lives in a guarded and defensive manner, while becoming more distrustful in our relationships -- at work and home -- and more prone to anger.
We make choices and decisions that are designed to protect our losses rather than further our gains. We become less tolerant of differences and find comfort typically in that which is familiar, while differences are viewed as threatening.
As you can see, our fears can be anything but protective in our lives.”
If this is the world we live in … what do we do? How do we prevent fear from damaging our health and undermining our faith?
The answer can be found in the text that Peter just read - Psalm 46.
Let’s read it again together. Listen for the strategy … (I’m reading from the New International Version)
Psalm 46, verse 1: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
The Hebrew word for trouble, used here means “pressed in, confined in a tight space.” You know the saying – between a rock and a hard place? That’s the kind of trouble the psalmist is talking about here and when that kind of trouble comes, we can live in our fear or take refuge in God.
Psalm 46, verses 2-3: Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its surging.
The upheaval the psalmist describes in these two verses is catastrophic. The waters roar, the mountains quake and fall into the sea.
Scholars don’t know for certain who wrote this psalm, but it is widely believed to have been written during the Neo-Assyrian empire – the 7th and 8th centuries BC when Assyrian rulers repeatedly waged brutal military campaigns against the Israelites. So regardless of who wrote it, we can understand why he had cause to fear – he lived in a world of great instability and violence.
And yet he writes he will not fear … why? Because God is our refuge.
Psalm 46, verses 4-5: There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall: God will help her at the break of day.
In addition to protecting themselves from invading enemies, every city in the Ancient Middle East had to ensure they had access to an adequate source of clean water.
In 2 Chronicles 32:30 we learn that among many other things that King Hezekiah did to strengthen the city of Jerusalem, he devised a brilliant project to provide water to the city even during siege. Just outside of Jerusalem, there is a small spring called Gihon. Hezekiah had that spring stopped up, then he built a tunnel through 1,749 feet of solid rock, through which the waters of the spring could flow. It’s known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, and is still in use to this day.
Here, the psalmist is reminding the worshippers that they had a constant, never-ending source of help in God. It is constant, like the Spring of Gihon (Gee-Han). It is deep, like Hezekiah’s Tunnel. It is fresh and clean, like the waters which flow through it.
And the psalmist is reminding us that we, too, can depend on God, even when the siege comes.
Psalm 46, verses 8-9: Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.
Now the war is over – the siege is done. The psalmist is calling us to remember all that God has done for us. Remember the times in our lives when we sought refuge in God, when our strength was gone, but we found strength in him to go on? Remember the times when we didn’t know what to do and God showed us the way. Remember when we felt lost, helpless or alone and God breathed hope into our soul. His love has always been sufficient, always present and always powerful. He will not let us down now either.
Psalm 46, verse 10: Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in all the earth.
In times of trouble, our first instinct is to try to fix it ourselves. I know this is my biggest faith challenge. The Hebrew word for “still” used here means “abandon, to relax, to stop striving.” It conjures the image of a soldier who puts down his weapons, lets down his defenses and relaxes his whole body because the fighting is over. Clearly, being still is an active form of faith.
But the psalmist calls us to do more than just be still – he also tells us to “know that He is God.” Know -acknowledge – that God is great, beyond all comprehension.
So how do we translate the psalmist’s words into action in our lives today … 10 centuries later?
If you were with us last week, you heard Pastor Jennie talk about our focus on prayer this Lenten season. In her sermon, she talked praying at times when we are overwhelmed with emotion. When we are angry, and we want to lash out. When we are hurt, and we want revenge. Prayer is that safe place where we can express the most raw, the most horrible feelings. The feelings that we would never feel comfortable sharing with another person.
This week, the psalmist reminds us that we can also take our biggest fears to God in prayer.
Not only can prayer keep our lines of communication open with God, allowing his power to bring us needed comfort and peace, but it is good for our health too.
Remember Marc Schoen, the UCLA professor I talked about earlier?
One of the solutions he suggests in his article for “managing your fear” is meditation and prayer. His research has shown that focusing the brain on something we’re appreciative of, something we love, we can turn down the fear center’s level of activity which reduces our anxiety and even lowers the blood pressure.
But even more important than the health benefits, naming our fears in prayer reduces the power they have to control our thinking, influence our decisions and prevent us from growing in our relationship with God.
Last week, Pastor Jennie warned you that we would be trying out different types of prayer practices. Some practices will connect with you; some won’t and that’s ok. But it’s very important to try different methods to find the one (or more than one) that works for you.
Last week, we tried out prayer as reading, using Psalm 32.
This week, let’s try a centering prayer.
A centering prayer is exactly what the name implies – a prayer to quiet the mind and make you more receptive to God’s quiet whisperings.
It’s not really designed for group prayer, but we can do it …
We start by choosing a centering word. Since we’ve been talking about fear this morning, let’s use the word peace.
Think about the places in your life where you need to feel God’s presence. Where you need God’s peace?
I’m going to repeat the centering word over and over throughout our silent prayer time. Each time you hear it, use it to bring you back to focus on listening for God’s presence in those places you just identified.
Ready? Let us pray.
The Lord be with you …