God is our refuge and strength

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Haiti Trip 068 October 31, 2010; Reformation Day
Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3.19-28; John 8.31-36
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from God, our refuge and strength. Amen.

    Change. Some people like it, some people don’t. Some are tired of the word do to political campaigns, some even fear it. “Some little children in smelly diapers run away from their parents avoiding the change that needs to happen (a joke of Ben Splichal Larson’s).” However we feel about change, it comes whether we like it or not. A friend of mine once said, “I have to be open to things changing, even if it is things I love.”
My friend’s words could not be more real to me, especially in 2010. As I have prayed over and pondered this week what I was going to say to you this morning, I realized that I could do no other than to be vulnerable and share my experience of Psalm 46.

If we truly believe that God’s strength comes in our weakness, then here is my witness:
    Some or most of you know that I was in Haiti with my husband, Ben, and his cousin Jonathan, when the powerful earthquake hit on January 12. All three of us were together at the home in which we were staying. In the chaos of the earth violently shaking, we scattered as two floors of concrete fell on top of us. It was terrifying; it was out of control; it was the end of the world as I knew it. In what still remains a mystery to me, Jonathan and I survived, and Ben didn’t.
    When Psalm 46 speaks of the earth changing, the waters roaring, and the mountains trembling, it is literal for me, and it is terrifying. At the same time, I recognize that it speaks a greater truth apart from a literal experience of it. Psalm 46 speaks to and names chaos, which we all experience in our lives. When the world around us as we know it changes, it is then that we realize we do not have control and we never did.
    It is no secret that as human beings, we like to have control. We have pension, insurance, and retirement plans so we have security if we make it to an age in which we can retire. In America we have the largest military budget of any nation in order that we can keep the citizens of this country safe and be a leading contender in the world for power. We have laws that attempt to control civil society. We go through 12-step programs in order to control addiction. Even hanging around two-year-olds and hearing the ever present word of, “mine!” we understand that we desire security, safety, and control over ourselves, those around us, and the things we own.
    Now don’t get me wrong, laws, retirement plans, safety, 12-step programs, etc. are good things, but when they create an illusion of control and security in our lives to a point in which we rely on them and not on God, it’s a problem. Psalm 46 says that.
    Today we celebrate Reformation Day. The reformation happened because of people in power who were trying to control the church and ultimately God. The reformation was a re-focusing on what really mattered and gave life. Martin Luther, the initiator of the reformation, discovered that what gives life is the very Word of God, and its power to create faith in human beings. The Reformation is a recognition that everything changes, except the promises of God. When all else gets stripped away, we are left with God, and somehow that is enough.
     I discovered the power of God’s Word in my deepest need and greatest sorrow the night of the earthquake. As I was lying on the cold, dirty, shaking ground, in a vacant lot with hundreds of Haitians, and realizing that my life would never be the same, the same passage from Romans kept repeating over and over in my head: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Rom. 14.7-8).” These words from Scripture sustained me that night and they still do. No matter what happens in life or in death, Ben, me, you, the Haitians, and all people, are the Lord’s. Period. And this is good news.
    Reformation is not about control, but a getting back to the basics of God’s Word and our deep need for God. It is about faith in the midst of an ever-changing world. It is about the solid ground we stand on, which is God and God alone. God is our refuge and strength. All else can, does, and will change, except the promises of God.
    Martin Luther says this about faith in the midst of trails and change:
                    "Many people have considered Christian faith an easy thing…They do this because they have not experienced it and have never tasted the great strength there is in faith. It is impossible to write well about it or to understand what has been written about it unless one has at one time or another experienced the courage which faith gives a person when trials oppress them. It is a living “spring of water welling up to eternal life,” as Christ calls it in John 4 (Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, second edition.  Ed. By Timothy Lull.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005,  pp. 392-393)." 
    So often in life we can experience and believe that violence, death, and evil are more powerful than God. It takes great courage and faith to read, say, and invite these words into our very being: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.”
In my conversations with you all I hear about change. Changing and aging bodies, changing jobs and schools, changing relationships and family dynamics, politics, elections, weather, ministry, church budget. The list goes on and on. Change can be very good and needed in our lives, and it can also disrupt everything in our world that we know and hold dear. To be human is to change. The question is: Will we build our own walls that create false illusions that change doesn’t affect us, or will we live in and through change, believing that God is ever-present and is our refuge and strength.
    Heart River and YCC are no strangers to change. Heart River is the definition of a reformation church, always evolving and moving and shaping right along with the students and staff at YCC. This is a powerful ministry of presence. You students and staff who choose to come to worship every Sunday, to sing, to read, to play instruments, to serve Holy Communion, to hear the Word of God, and collect the offering, are powerful witnesses to us of God’s work in your lives and ours. And you who come from outside the walls of YCC, are beckoned by the Holy Spirit to accompany, learn from, and be present with one another in this place. When we gather together, God shows up. When we leave this place, God goes with us. All things can change and move, but we will not fear because the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.
    We all know that life can be very difficult, and we also know the joy that can come with living. When I returned from Haiti after the earthquake, a seminary professor of mine looked at me and asked, “Renee, do you laugh?” I thought about it long and hard, and in my deep sorrow I answered, “Yes, I still do.” He raised his finger and said, “Ah, a sign of the resurrection!”
    There is no greater witness in my life concerning the resurrection and new life in Jesus Christ, than when I heard Ben singing from underneath the rubble right before he died, and also when one Haitian woman sang hymns from memory the entire night after the earthquake in the vacant lot. Powerful witness in death and suffering. As people of faith we witness to the promises of God in Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be present with us always, through change and even in death, and that one day all will know God from the least to the greatest. All things will be restored and made new.
For now, in the midst of our ever-changing lives we turn to God who is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear. We need reminding of this all the time, every day.