Pastor Adrianne Meier
29 October 2023, Reformation Day
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
God Is a Refuge
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.
Jesus said to the Judeans who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Fort building was essential to my childhood. Pillow forts, blanket forts, forts in closets or cabinets, forts in whatever giant box had landed on our doorstep or was liberated from the alley behind the Sears on the square.We had “forts” among the big-rooted trees in my grandparent’s windbreak forest. And I built at least a hundred forts on the landing of the steps, the perfect cozy spot. To be honest, I don’t remember what we did in the forts. The fun wasn’t really in having a fort, but in creating that little space, in having walls between us and the real world, in carving out a space that could, at least in our imaginations, have everything we’d dreamed of. I’m mostly in the fort stabilizing business now—less imagineering architecture, more structural engineering—and yet, if I’m honest, I still probably do a pretty good job of putting walls up between me and the rest of the world.I convince myself that the walls I put up are for “protection.” Protection against what, I wonder? My best answer is: vulnerability, sorrow, pain. We want our faith to be these kinds of walls—either to protect us from the bad things that can happen or to at least tell us why they happen because we think that will make them us hurt less.But it doesn’t work. Some fortress. When our walls come down, we hope and pray that our God may be a mighty fortress, but we are wise to remember that God also promises to be a very present help in times of trouble.
It is always tricky to read John’s gospel. I remember the summer when we were the church with the tents, worshiping outside. A few times, Beth Shalom’s religious ed was outside when we were worshiping. It was like we were singing to one another—songs of peace and songs to worship our shared God. But then there were times where we were reading John, and Jesus was positively trolling to the religious authorities—the Judeans, one translator reads; the Jews, says another. I knew about these problems, but when those words are amplified such that others can hear them, you sense their ominous danger. Chapter eight, the chapter we’re reading from today, is so terrible, in fact, that this is the only time we read from it. It is beautiful to know that the truth will set us free, but at what cost? Historically, Christians—Martin Luther himself— have used these very texts to justify violence toward Jews, Muslims, and Indigenous folks on every continent. We have used these texts to erect walls between us and our neighbors—confident, apparently, that we not only got it right, but that we are the new chosen people, to the exclusion of all others. We believe that these walls are the mighty fortress, the bulwark never failing, as the translation many of us grew up singing says.
We’ve erected walls and allowed ourselves to believe that we’re engaged in spiritual warfare to annihilate false belief about God. But that is completely unfaithful to both the hymn and the Psalm on which it is based. Our God is a refuge—a place to seek safety and shelter during danger—our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.
Over the last week, I have, and I know you have, too, really wrestled with competing accounts, opinions, even truths (though I would not capitalize that word) about what is happening in the Holy Land. I realized that I wanted to create walls based on data that gave me empirical distance from the conflict. I wanted to ignore feelings in favor of facts. And I had them: I knew— I knew—what had been happening in Israel and Palestine. I had studied it throughout my education; I had followed it on the news. I erected these walls around myself,prepared to triumph in my right-ness (I mean, why be righteous when you can just be right?). The trouble is, people I love and respect were telling me about their pain. They were telling me that all the “facts” where making it difficult for them to grieve. Our God is our refugee and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.
In truth, when we ensconce ourselves behind walls of our own making, we are what Luther calls “theologians of glory.” We look for the accolades of those who see our genius, our scathing wit, our right-ness. Luther says, in the Heidelberg Disputation, “the person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who understands the visible and the ‘backside’ of God seen through suffering and the cross.” And that is the thing, our call in this moment, our call as those saved not by our works, but by grace—by grace, which is a gift—through faith. We can express our opinions; we can write our congressperson to push for a peace that comes with equity and justice for Israeli and Palestinian. And this may be the very right things to do, but if we are not present with our neighbor in their pain, well, then we are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging symbol, as St. Paul said,if it is done without love.
Obviously, the council and I wrote to you a statement about what is happening in Gaza and Israel. One filled, I hope, with nuance but also reflective of the kind of radical-neighbor love where a Lutheran church opens it doors, even taking down its cross, in order that a synagogue may have a temporary home while it rebuilds after violence. The kind of love that stands in solidarity with a vandalized Islamic Center. The kind of love that recognizes we are on native land. That stands against white supremacy. The kind of love that says love is love is love. The kind of love that breaks down walls. The kind of love that is a mighty fortress. The kind of love that, at the call of God, is a very present help in times of trouble. Amen.