June 23, 2019

“There Is a River”

Psalm 46


We continue now with our series on the psalms. Today’s psalm begins with an interesting subheading. “To the leader of the Korahites, according to Alamoth.” “The Korahites” refers to the sons of Korah, who was a Levite priest, whose descendants were singers in the temple. So this was a named group of singers, like the Southern Oregon Rep Singers, etc. Then, “according to Alamoth” likely refers to a melody, as when we sing a hymn to the tune of a particular song. For example, the hymn we’ll be singing after the sermon, #329, which is another version of Psalm 46, lists the tune at the bottom right on the page as “Winchester Old.” If it were sung back in ancient times, the notation would simply say, “Alamoth.” The sub heading connects us a bit with worship in the temple. We have some similarities all of these centuries later.


Since this was a piece used in worship at the temple back in the 9th century B.C., it provided an understanding of faith to the worshipers who gathered there. Let us look closer at this psalm and see how it may help us understand our own faith today as well.


Beginning with verse 1 - God is our refuge and strength - This is a recurrent theme throughout the psalms and one we have spoken of often. God provides shelter and strength in time of trial.


The second part of verse one is an important one to remember, especially when we are struggling in life. It says that God is “A very present help in trouble”- not sometime down the road, but very present. An illustration of being a very present help in time of trouble. - A few weeks ago, Paula and I hosted her sister and brother in law up in Ashland. We took them out to Lake of the Woods and decided to rent kayaks. We made it out to the dock at the lake. While others were getting into their kayaks, I decided to try to get into mine without any help from a dock attendant. Not surprisingly, I ALMOST made it into the kayak, instead of flipping over right into the Lake. That water was COOOOLD! I shouted out my distress regarding the water temperature, and immediately, 2 guys came running, one the dock attendant and another just a Good Samaritan. They helped me right away, steadying the kayak, which allowed me to climb up out of the water and get situated into the kayak. We can think of God in the same way - a very present help in time of trouble. The next time you find yourself in a difficult situation, look for God and how God shows up to be a present help in time of trouble in your life.


Verse 2 and 3 tell us that catastrophe may strike, but God is there in the midst of it all. Whenever I read these two verses, my first thoughts are always of the Loma Prieta quake in October of 1989. Paula and I were attending a youth worker’s convention in San Francisco when the earthquake hit. Once the quaking subsided, we went outside to survey the damage. Across from our hotel, another hotel’s entire front section had collapsed, and a water main was shooting high into the sky over the wreckage. Some of the windows of our hotel had shattered, and there was evidence all around us of destruction. Someone had a radio with them and reported to us that the Bay Bridge had collapsed and that parts of Berkeley were on fire. It all seemed so surreal, so shocking. The earth changed that day; the mountains shook.


At times, life gets like that- things change unexpectedly. Life shakes around us and we lose our moorings and are in shock. When those things happen in my own life, I often think of this psalm, seeking help as my life around me is shaken to its core.


We didn’t know it at the time, but when my wife and I chose our song to dance to at our wedding reception, we wanted something that spoke of the strength of our love for each other. Our choice was Stand By Me, and the lyrics are very much like this portion of the psalm-


If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.


Is for me a reminder of both of our love and strength for each other, and also the sense that God stands by us when we have experienced those times of catastrophe.


This brings us now to verse 4. The Initial understanding of verse 4 - There is a river whose channels bring joy to the city of God, comes from the symbolic language used in the ancient near east to imagine and speak of the dwelling place of the gods. A stream was said to issue from the cosmic mountain where this dwelling was; it was a symbol that interpreted the mountain as the center of the universe and source of life. For the ancient Hebrew people, there was now but one God, and so they appropriated a bit of their former understanding of the home of the gods to explain the one true God.


But this psalm also points to an idyllic city, a place where God is at its center with this flowing river into the city of Zion. This image is also for us a glimpse of heaven and a glimpse of what God’s intention is for the world in which we live. Sometimes it can be the most challenging to imagine the beautiful new reign of God becoming real in our midst when we are confronted with the struggles that continue to pervade our world, as we read in the time of confession this morning. But Psalm 46 reminds us that God is more powerful and more loving than all of the difficult things in the world, by giving us a vision of a future where things are different. We pray for this every Sunday morning when we recite the Lord’s prayer, saying, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is praying for a future reality we envision on the earth, but do not as yet see.


In verses 8 through 11 God declares power over the nations and the wars and saber rattling. In a daring interpretation of wars throughout Israel’s history, the psalm points to the desolation of war and calls the nations to recognize the work of God. There was a lot of saber-rattling going on this past week between the United States and Iran. It appears for now that cooler heads have prevailed, but we shall see. In looking at this specific part of the psalm, Theologian James Mays says, “War is self-defeating; it brings about the destruction of those who practice it. In its terrible futility, it is a revelation of the power of God who seeks order and opposes chaos… There is but one power exalted over the earth and nations. Only One is God - the one whose work is the destruction of weapons and whose help is the refuge of those who recognize God.”


In verse 10, we are encouraged by the palmist to stop what we are doing and embrace the peace God offers. This is both a personal as well as national and global call. Be still! Cease our warfare, our noise, and clatter. Those moments of quiet, of peace and prayer in our worship service allow us to be still and know God is with us.


So, we can look for those sources, those rivers who make glad the city of God- those people and places that work for peace, which work for a world on earth as it is in heaven. Here is but one example in a place of real war and contention- the Holy Land today.


BBC News recently reported on this example. “You'd be hard-pressed to find a more accomplished musician than Daniel Barenboim, a celebrated conductor and distinguished concert pianist, who grew up in Israel and for the last seven decades has been performing with the great orchestras of the world. For many maestros, all that would be enough. Not for Barenboim. At 75, he's still at it and he's embarked on a second act: starting his own orchestra for young musicians from Israel and the Muslim world and taking on a subject that's as contentious as it gets: the conflict in the Middle East. His Jewish faith and love of music spurred him to this idea. His work has earned him Palestinian citizenship and charges of treachery from some of his fellow Israelis. But as we found out, controversy hasn't slowed Barenboim down. In fact, he seems to thrive on it.


Of all the orchestras Daniel Barenboim leads around the world, this might be the one that moves him the most. Some of the young musicians on stage are Iranian, Syrian, and Palestinian. Others are Israelis, all playing in perfect harmony, even as their governments threaten to destroy one another. It's called the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.


Daniel Barenboim Says, “The orchestra has been very often described as an orchestra for peace. Of course, it isn't an orchestra for peace. This orchestra is not going to bring peace. But we need to do it because, in the orchestra, we have equality. So when you create a situation in which there is a Palestinian clarinet player, who has a difficult solo. And you have the whole orchestra wishing him well and accompanying him, this is the only place where a group that includes so many Israelis wishes the Palestinian well and vice versa.


Miri Saadon, an Israeli musician was asked what it was like playing alongside Arabs, Palestinians, and Iranians. She replied, “I mean, sometimes I have this moment of, of like, "Oh, my God, we are Palestinian and Iranian and me. And just sometimes, I remember that you know, each of us is from such a different background. But we are actually a lot of things--very similar.”


Last summer, Barenboim took the orchestra to a fault line in the Middle East conflict, the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where he has another musical project. It's just a few miles from Jerusalem but sealed off behind a long security wall that snakes its way across the Palestinian countryside. Barenboim couldn't pass up an opportunity to speak his mind at the concert. “Jewish blood runs through my veins and my heart bleeds for the Palestinian cause.” The night belonged to the kids and to the music of Mozart, which spoke for itself.” As this orchestra and it musicians get to know one another, argue politics and make beautiful music, we see an example of the river making glad the city of God.



There are places locally feeding that river, making God glad as well. Here is but one of many examples, locally. It appears the county has finally approved a temporary restricted permit to OHRA (Options for Helping Residents of Ashland). A notice went out last week to the neighbors around the property of the former Baptist church on E Main, alerting them to the likelihood of a 7-night shelter operating from November-April. We now have the likelihood of this shelter coming to fruition, after so many years of piecemealing things together. We may finally have a secure location for a winter shelter to continue the kingdom building work we and others did last season. It is one example of trying to make earth as it is in heaven, helping people find shelter, dignity, work and the reclamation of their lives.


Yet the struggles remain. There are those places where the earth has changed, shaken and the mountains have fallen into the sea. There are places yearning for that river, where God’s love and justice and mercy rule. Our calling is to work for God to make “on earth as it is in heaven” more visible in our world today. There IS a river in heaven above. It is a source of hope for us, a glimpse of what can be as rivers of that living water appear upon the earth. May God be with us, using our hands, hearts, and voices to bring rivers of living water to those parched, dry places on this earth, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. Alleluia. Amen.

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