9/29/2013 God Is with Us

Ordinary Time (Proper 21)
Jeremiah 32:1–3a, 6–15; Psalm 91:1–6, 14–16; 1 Timothy 6:6–19; Luke 16:19–31

Most churches using the Revised Common Lectionary typically use the suggested Gospel scripture passage as a primary basis for preaching. The selections from the Old Testament and New Testament letters often bolster the message, although sometimes it can be a stretch to find points of commonality. The psalm for the day can usually be slipped into an order of worship (liturgy) without too much difficulty. This week my denomination’s worship office suggests using the psalm as the main preaching focus, however. If nothing else, it makes for a welcome change of pace, and it just might lead us onto a memorable path:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday…. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation. –Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 NRSV

Psalm 91 is sometimes referred to as the “soldier’s psalm,” and it’s not hard to understand why. It shouldn’t be restricted to that, of course, and personally I think it best not to try to tie this psalm to any one nation’s purpose (for some reason Americans have sometimes tended to do that). Combined with portions of Isaiah 40, the words of this psalm are most familiar to a lot of us as found in the song, “On Eagle’s Wings.”

If taken literally the words of the psalmist are, well, to be blunt: simply not true and represent a deluded theological understanding. Who among us hasn’t heard something along the lines of “If you’ll just accept Jesus as your Savior, then your life will be filled with blessings and protected from misfortune.” The actual experience of too many faithful Christians (and, in other contexts I suppose, Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus, etc.) shreds the truthfulness of that!

But what does that key word here, “refuge,” mean?

One place to start is with the Gospel account of the wilderness temptations of Jesus, particularly with temptation number 2. Recall that the Devil suggested to Jesus that if he jumped from the highest point on the Jerusalem Temple, God would send angels to catch him before he hit the ground. And wouldn’t that be an impressive sight that would, certainly, extend widely his fame and influence. But Jesus did not seek that kind of “refuge” in the wilderness. Ultimately, the refuge from God Jesus sought came after being nailed to a cross in the midst of incredible suffering and pain.

This isn’t probably too reassuring to us if we want to understand the concept of God’s refuge purely in literal, individualistic ways. And so it’s better to use the possessive pronoun “our” rather than “my” in this case. That God is “with us” not that God is “with me.” And that changes the whole equation.

The psalmist originally spoke to a people who were in a relationship with God. True, they hadn’t upheld their end of the relationship very well over generations and centuries. Many didn’t understand the relationship and thought they and their nation would be protected from all manner of harm as long as sacrifices were made in the temple. Some added the idea that everything would be fine as long as a descendant of David was on the throne. All that got them a seat on the riverbanks of Babylon where they complained about no longer being able to sing the songs of Zion.

empty_church_pewsWhat would be the 21st-century equivalent for Christians? Regular attendance at worship? When I was a kid (yes, it was a long time ago) that generally meant twice, maybe three times, a week to have your butt in a church pew. In polling surveys today “regular worship attendance” generally means at least once a month, although I’ve sometimes seen it expressed as three or four times a year–or less.

Maybe some think of it in financial terms, offering a tenth of their income (or increase) as tithing. But it could also mean regularly contributing to a church congregation or denomination–or maybe just a religiously based nonprofit doing good things locally or internationally.

Some lists of “religious faithfulness” include regular scripture study, prayer, and/or meditation.

I don’t want to discount any of that, but what does it mean to be in relationship with God? What are the expectations and the results? In short, what does it matter?

Those are the questions to get us started. I don’t have final answers for anybody else, because each of us is a unique expression of God’s creative love. And yet, in every instance the idea of a relationship with God cannot remain individual and personal; the “we” must be taken into account. We are to love God and love our neighbor. Our well-being and our future is tied to that of our neighbor. And so if our neighbor is hungry or homeless or hurting or suffering then, in a sense, we are, too.


About Rich Brown

Rich Brown is a writer, blogger, editor, and publisher. His most recent book is "Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile" (Isaac's Press).
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