Our Refuge and Strength

Mark 6:45-52


In the burial service, one of the readings that is offered is from Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. There is a river, the streams where of shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God shall help her, and that right early….be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”(Psalm 46:1-5,10)KJV

Isn’t that a great Psalm? The Jews knew it. Jesus knew it. So did the disciples. It articulated the faith of the Jews that as the people of God, God was always with them, even in times of trouble. This is the Psalm that inspired Martin Luther on the eve of the siege of Vienna to write, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

Now I want to tell you about two friends I had twenty-five years ago. Their names were Jack and Ellie. Jack was an inventor who worked for an electronics firm. His mind was fascinated with the ways things worked. He had the curiosity of an eleven year old, and would gladly admit it. He was bearded and rumpled and was possessed by a weird sense of humor. We got along famously. His wife, Ellie, had managed inns and hotels and ended up as a supervisor at a major corporation here in town. She had jet-black hair and the posture of a Wagnerian Contralto. Jack and Ellie met at St. Andrew’s and fell in love. Subsequently they were married here. Both were very faithful. Jack had been reared an Episcopalian and Ellie had been reared Roman Catholic.

Ellie was in her fifties when she was stricken with cancer. I visited her regularly at St. Joe’s, where she was tended faithfully by the women of St. Andrew’s. Ironically, Jack came down with cancer, too. The disease spread more quickly in him, and he died before Ellie. Jack spoke to me of his faith and his firm belief that he was held in the hand of God and supported by the presence of Jesus Christ. After his death Ellie told me the following story:

On their honeymoon they sailed on Jack’s boat from Connecticut to Bermuda. Since his youth Jack was an avid sailor. He loved the mathematical problems of navigation and tried to explain to me the wonders of the sextant. Ellie was a sometime sailor, used to crewing but not an “old salt.” Several others crewed on their boat. In the midst of their journey, a violent storm broke out and lasted three days. “I was never so terrified in my life,” she told me. “It was absolutely awful. We practically did summer salts on the boat. The funny thing was that Jack was absolutely calm throughout the whole thing. He said that God would get us through this, and if He didn’t then God had a better plan. Not for a moment did I lose my faith in Jack. I trusted him completely. Of course I shared his faith in God, but not to the same extent as Jack. I was so glad to reach Bermuda, and we had a lovely time.” Ellie died shortly after she gold me that story.

For many years there hung in the old chapel a stained glass window dedicated to John and Elaine Lowdenslager, the real Jack and Ellie. John and Elaine are standing together holding hands. They were loved and remembered by the parishioners for their steadfastness and their faith. In more ways than one they stood together with God before the storm. God was their refuge and their strength, a very present help in times of trouble.

Now, The Gospel According to St. Mark tells the story of a storm in which the disciples were caught out on the water. They were terrified. Jesus passed by, got into the boat, and the storm passed. Here there are two miracles: the stilling of the storm and His walking on water. Scholars have tied themselves in knots trying to explain Jesus’ walking on water. There was a sandbar. It was an apparition. Jesus hopped from stepping-stone to stepping-stone. The story is a resurrection story read back into the ministry of Jesus. It is a miracle story similar to those of Buddha and Hellenistic Greek gods. Well, all those explanations make good doctoral theses. What we do know is that this miracle story follows right on the one of the feeding of the five thousand. So Mark is telling us that there was a divine human encounter, which the disciples did not quite understand. They were awed by the numinous quality around Jesus and by His incredible power. The story is about Jesus, not about the disciples. In Jesus, God is showing that God is present, the same God who has power over the heavens and the earth, as well as over the unclean spirits, principalities and powers.

My hunch is that this story about Jesus, which has parallels in stories about Elijah, Elisha and Moses, works like a midrash on Psalm 46. Now a midrash is an edifying meditation on an earlier biblical utterance, or the presentation of an episode constructed on the principles deduced from biblical material. (1)  In other words, Jesus has a parabolic function. By his miracles over nature, Jesus is showing that a new time is breaking in. Jesus is, from now on, for the Christian community the embodiment of God as our refuge and strength. In Jesus there is a center, a calm not only of the forces of nature and the forces of the spirits, but also in the chaos of our human lives. Mark is implying that the Christian can now say, “Jesus is our very present help in times of trouble. Therefore we shall not be moved.”

I want to seemingly digress for a moment. Some time ago I was at a conference in Pittsburgh. In a meeting specifically designed for support clergy (curates, assistants and associates) the question was asked, “How do we best fulfill our calling to the priesthood?” Some said that we had to be “authentic,” others that we needed to be “compassionate,” and some suggested that we needed to be organized and attentive to the tasks at hand. Finally a priest said, “I strive to be myself. It is important that I be focused and grounded and that I be the real me.” Everyone in the group of thirty clergy “oohed and ahhed.” This fellow had grasped the concept of the “self-differentiated leader.” (Ed Friedman, a rabbi and psychologist, years ago pointed out that in family systems it is important for someone to be well grounded and inner-directed.) Now I agree with Friedman. I think it is important that a person be in touch with who he/she really is. But the clergyman was just flat out wrong. You and I are called to grounded in Jesus Christ. We are called to say, “God is our refuge and our strength.” The story of Jesus’ walking on the water to save His disciples witnesses to God’s presence in Christ Jesus, “man divine.” The disciples were not saved by getting in touch with their inner selves.

You and I live in a world of social chaos (racial tensions in various parts of the world), political chaos (who really leads Europe or Afghanistan or Syria?), economic and/or financial chaos, and for some of us emotional chaos. I do not envy any of you for the responsibilities you bear. Most of you do a pretty good job. None of us bears up solely as a result of our grit and gumption. AA speaks of turning this over to a “Higher Power.” AA is on the right road. The road for the Christian is one in which the pilgrim, you and I, who are on our journeys of faith, ask for and allow God in Jesus Christ to help us. Neither you nor I walk on water. It is God in Jesus Christ who walks on water. It is God in Jesus Christ who “is our refuge and our strength.” As you move on in life, allow Him to be present more and more with you. Don’t simply try to “do better; try harder.” Allow your self to lean on God.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof…be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us.”

Not a bad thought for a Sunday in July. May we all come to the point in our lives where we can with confidence articulate such a confession of faith. –Amen-Fr. Gage.

1. (Dictionary of the Bible, p.578, John L. McKenzie, S.J. editor. Bruce Publishing, Milwaukee 1965.)