Saturday, March 23, 2002

Hymns of the Heart (2)

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Psalm 91

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High…

Today the psalmist lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity. He speaks from his experience. He teaches, like a grandfather teaching a grandson. Spinning a fishing fly. Boiling the sap down in the sugar house. Watching a basketball game. Watching the sun set. Where and how do grandparents and grandchildren talk today?

In the North Country I knew where I could find my men in a mood to talk. In March between milking times you could find a circle gathered in the sugar house, generations gathered. The shadow of the roof made all seeing dim. The steam from the boiling tank made of the hut a sauna, a steam bath, a welcome warming in the frigid March air. There is something so purely and pleasantly sweet about the scent of the boiling sap. Have a donut, dip the donut. Drink the syrup. Fathers and sons talking…

I do not recall that they recited the Ten Commandments to each other. Our lectionary asks us to remember them today: Exodus 20. But I remember a kind of instruction in wisdom, a little of taught, most of it caught, in the weathered physical closeness of the long north winters. The hymnist of Psalm 91 is exuberant in his desire to pass something on. His is a hymn of trust, one of three such psalms (16, 91, 131), a “trilogy of trust” (Leslie).

It takes faith to say “I do”
It takes faith for babies, too
It takes faith with a terrible two
It takes faith for a teenager, too
It takes faith to make a move
It takes faith to get a groove
It takes faith to build a church
It takes faith to trust your worth
It takes faith to live, beginning with birth

This psalm is called by the Talmud, the “song against evil occurrences”. “Almighty and Most High” are old words for God—archaic, lifting up a sense of transcendence”. The ancients knew of night demons. Waiting through the night. The devil quotes verse 11 (he will give his angels charge over you). Matt 4: 11

Remember some of the features of the psalms:

  • H. Gunkel’s five types of psalms are: hymn, lament, royal, personal, thanks.
  • Writers need editors need publishers: all are present in the Psalms.
  • Rhythm, Parallelism (synonymous, antithetic, synthetic): these give the psalms their beat.
  • There are 93 citations of the Psalms in the NT.
  • The Benedictines recite the whole Psalter in a week.
  • St Patrick, it is rumored, recited the whole of the Psalter every day.
  • Calvin: “an anatomy of the parts of the soul”.
  • The 91st is a psalm of trust, like 46, with some didactic qualities. How fully does the writer appreciate, we might ask, the complexities of evil? We have an easier time seeing evil in others than we do in ourselves.

Given the snares, illness, night terrors, disease, noonday destruction, evil, scourge, wild beasts of this very day, it could be that a sober reading of the 91st psalm, a trusting hymn of a faithful heart, will sustain us this morning. In this psalm you are promised divine deliverance.

1. Deliverance from snares…

Our singer is a person of simple faith. He has one, and only one, word for us: “You are covered.”

I could make, as you could, many complaints about his hymn. He has a dangerously simple view of evil, especially for the complexity of a post-modern world. He has a way of implying that trust or belief are rewarded with safety, a notion that Jesus in Luke 13 scornfully dismisses. He has an appalling lack of interest in the scores of others, other than you, who fall by the wayside. He seems to celebrate a foreordained, foreknown providence that ill fits our sense of the openness of God to the future, and the open freedom God has given us for the future. He makes dramatic and outlandish promises not about what might happen, but about what will be. As a thinking theologian, this psalmist of Psalm 91 fails. He fails us in our need to rely on something sounder and truer than blind faith. He seems to us to be whistling past the graveyard.

And yet, for those who have walked past a graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a country now at war, for a world searching to match its ideals of peace with its realities of hatred, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden traps, unforeseeable dangers, and steel jawed snares of life, there is something encouraging about this simple song: “he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler”.

2. Deliverance from illness…

Our writer is not a philosopher. He is a musician, perhaps, but not a systematic thinker. He has one interest: getting by, getting through, getting out, getting home. So he does not worry about the small stuff. In fact, I have a sense that the psalmist is desperate. His song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead and risk and jump. You have made your assessment, you have made your plan, you have made your study, then you have prayed. Yet you see all the pestilence about you in homes and institutions and nations, so you wonder, is it worth the risk? You are not sure.

This hymn of the heart is one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident. Not certain, but confident. You can be confident without being certain. In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure. Faith means risk. Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith? Our writer is at that point, the point of decision. Once you are there, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away. It becomes very simple. Either God lives or not. Either God is in Christ or not. Either God in Christ touches us by Spirit or not. Either we move forward in faith or not. Choose. And the Psalmist wants his student or grandson or parishioner to choose in faith. So he urges: the shadow of the Almighty (old word for God)…refuge, fortress, shield, buckler. “He will deliver you from the deadly pestilence.”

3. Deliverance from night terror…

Now that war is upon us perhaps we are more direct about our night terrors. Perhaps it is providential to hear this psalm this morning. For today our hearts are heavy. We are a people drenched in sorrow and worry. We are a world at war, a nation under arms, a country which has initiated an offensive invasion. A fortnight ago we may have faithfully differed about whether such an action, considered in the light of the faith this psalm affirms, might be a tragic necessity, as many judge, or an unnecessary tragedy, as others assert. Now the action has been taken, the die cast, the Rubicon crossed, or at least the Tigris. People of good faith and honest heart can have, do have, and will have sincere difference of judgment about these difficult matters. Tragic or necessary? Tragedy or necessity? Especially in this great, expansive and magnanimous church, along a spiritual village green, there is space for many and multiple viewpoints. Here is the liberty which together we cherish, express and protect. Of course we shall continue to counsel and reason together.

As you know, I deeply regret that we as a country have taken the course we have taken. Our leaders have taken us into a new and uncharted territory of preemption. At a minimum, such a profound change in national policy deserves more earnest congressional and communal debate than it has had. Perhaps this will be the preemption to end all preemption. May it be so. But the spiritual consequences of such an action are at present unquantifiable, and leave us in a dark woods. The lasting consequences will be generations deep. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”.

What can we do but go forward as Christian people? Our psalmist is speaking just here to our immediate need. Fear not the terror of the night. Go about your discipleship: pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree, every one be convinced in his own mind. The night is not as terrifying as you fear…“You will not fear the terror of the night”.

4. Deliverance from noonday destruction…

It is in the heart of the psalm that I sense the singer’s desperation. There is an irrational side to his message. Thousands will fall but you will be spared. It will not help us to ask about the ethics of this promise. Nor will it help us to question the sense of destiny involved here. I hear this psalm in another way. I hear it as a father’s prayer, or a mother’s dearest hope. I cannot help but think that this psalm perfectly captures the hope, the visceral hope that is on the minds of our own parents of soldiers and sailors: Noonday destruction will not come near you! I pray that noonday destruction will not come near you!

Every so often I see notes pinned to the coats and sweaters of our daycare toddlers. This psalm is a note pinned to the shirt of a loved one heading into danger. When there is nothing else we can give our daughters and sons we want them to have faith. Faith to go forward, bravely, without being sure of what they will find at noonday. And we are passionately desperate for one hope: that they will come home. And we sing the song without any chords of doubt, because we want to admit none. We make no uncertain sound because we want our beloved to carry no worry, but to be armed with the confidence of the Lord. This is a battle hymn. It is the kind of song you sing to yourself when all about you there is mayhem. If I were a chaplain it is the kind of psalm I might give to a soldier to memorize by day and recite by night in the face of mayhem. “You will not fear the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

5. Deliverance from evil…

The teacher implores his student to make God his place of dwelling, his home. To rest in God, so that all else is secondary. Evil will not befall, or at least will not define, such a one. How can someone escape all evil? We know better. We know that evil touches us all. But this misses the meaning of the poem. The writer is praying! In the same way we pray, every Sunday. Deliver him from evil! Not from some, or most, almost all evil, but from evil! Religion is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of the head. As Wesley said, the mind is the bit and bridle, but the heart is the great horse, the mighty steed of faith. “He will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

“I will deliver him…”

Our psalm ends, as does this sermon, at the edge of a remarkable announcement. Like lightening flashing over a darkened sky, or like a burst of sunlight separating clouds, the voice of the poem shifts. God speaks directly to you, to the human heart. It is a shift devoutly to be desired. All of the speaking, from teacher to student and grandfather to grandson, all of the instructional lines are now interrupted, and on a grand scale, and on a profound scale. Like Yahweh addressing Job, the psalm ends with a divine word. It is a shift, yes, devoutly to be desired. It is what we hope will happen with every one of our children. It is what we hope will happen in every one of our worship services. Frankly, it is what I hope will happen in every sermon. All the rest gives way to…God. Now the fumbling voice of the teacher is replaced by a divine voice. Now the Lord speaks in the first person, and his word is a lasting joy: “I will deliver him…I will protect him…I will answer him…I will be with him…I will rescue him…I will honor him”

When we have nothing else to go on, there is something irreducibly solid, something strong and good--the divine voice in the faith of Christ--to which we may cleave and cling. Finally, this is what brings you to the pew and me to the pulpit and us to the church, the hope that something may be said and heard that is divine, saving, satisfying and true. In the silence that follows all our speaking, like the priestly verses that follow the human voice in this psalm, we may hear something that changes everything. “More I cannot give you than to wish you find your love…”

Our faith is in Jesus Christ. The New Testament recites the psalms more than any other Old Testament book, 93 quotations in all. In Mark, they all refer to or are spoken by Jesus. May his voice touch and heal your heart today.

“Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”
“Hosanna! Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
“The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This was the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
“The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under they feet.”
“One who is eating with me will betray me.”
“They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.”
“All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.”
“They gave me poison for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
“My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?"

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