January 21, 2018
A week ago Saturday, at 8:07 a.m., residents and tourists in Hawaii got text messages on their phones and alerts interrupting their television programs telling them there was a “ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii.” “This is not a drill” the messages warned.
Alerts like this would be frightening at any time, but considering the current tensions with North Korea and the president’s hard-line, violent rhetoric, a missile attack is an entirely credible possibility. People who saw the message were terrified.
Suzanne Mulder’s family was on vacation in Honolulu when the alerts came through. “We grabbed all the food and water we had, the kids grabbed their stuffed animals and we headed to the lobby,” she said. “Kids [were] crying everywhere, no one knew what was happening. We made our way to an internal bathroom and huddled there with some other people.” There’s a video on social media showing children being put into a storm drain for safety.
Just imagine. It was 38 long minutes before emergency officials sent out the next message: “no missile threat or danger;” “false alarm.”
The incident in Hawaii is a very specific and intense example of the creeping terror and dread and horrified disbelief that I—and I know many of you—have been feeling over the past year, plus. It’s not just the lack of diplomacy and threats of international violence. It’s the racist rhetoric and policies, the anti-immigrant actions, the disregard for the environment, the privileging of the wealthy.
This, my friends, is not a drill. This is the actual world we live in.
And the political forces at work in the world are frightening and powerful.
And it’s not just the national policies. This past week our county commissioners decided to combine the mental health crisis center and jail funding on the same ballot item—essentially holding mental health services hostage to get people to vote for a bigger jail.
Political forces have power.
As do biological forces. The flu viruses and stomach bugs and bronchitis and . . . I think most of us have had some sort of illness in the past month. Some of you are struggling with long-term pain and illness. Despite the small size of viruses and bacteria and cells, these illnesses are terribly frightening and powerful.
And people in our lives have power over us. Our co-workers, our supervisors, our spouses, our children, our parents—in different ways they all exert power over our lives.
Have I mentioned money yet? That’s powerful, too.
These entities are so terrifying because of the power they wield. It’s their power that so often makes us feel powerless.
The writer of Psalm 62 knows this feeling of powerlessness. This morning’s reading began at verse 5, but if we back up to verse 3 we can hear the psalmist address the powerful, saying:
How long will you assail a person,
will you batter your victim, all of you,
as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
The psalmist feels like a leaning wall, a tottering fence. Can you relate?
But compare this image of the writer as a tottering fence with the images used in the psalm to describe God: a rock, a mighty rock, a fortress, a refuge.
In this psalm, we see the writer move from a place of despair to a place of hope. But that transition is not due to the writer’s own empowerment or self confidence. “My hope,” says the psalmist, “is from God.”
There’s an interesting little Hebrew word here in Psalm 62. (Full disclosure, I’m getting this part from an essay by Old Testament professor Rolf Jacobson—I don’t speak or read Hebrew. But if Rolf is to be trusted . . . ) The word is ‘ak, and it means “only, alone” and/or “indeed, yes!”. ‘ak appears in this 12 verse psalm six times. Which may not seem particularly impressive until you know that the word appears only 18 times in the entirety of the other 149 psalms. A full quarter of the uses of ‘ak in the psalms are in Psalm 62.
verse 1 For God (‘ak) my soul waits in silence. . .
verse 2 God (‘ak) is my rock and my salvation. . .
verse 4 Their (‘ak) plan is to bring down a person of prominence. . .
verse 5 For God (‘ak) my soul waits in silence. . .
verse 6 God (‘ak) is my rock and my salvation. . .
verse 9 Those of low estate are (‘ak) a breath. . .
In two of these verses, ‘ak is used in relation to people, to declare how insignificant they are. In the other four cases, the word is used to highlight God’s power. The double meaning of the word reminds us emphatically that it is only God who for whom we wait, only God who is our rock, and that it is definitely (yes!) God who is powerful and firm.
Somehow, the psalmist was able to shift from worrying about how powerful his enemies were to finding hope in the power of God.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence; for my hope is from God.”
That’s the move I want to make. Not to be naive and discount the powers of this world, but to truly live into the truth that real power, ultimate power, belongs to God.
And this is where I get stuck in my sermon. Because it’s one thing for me to tell you: God is all powerful, trust God. And it’s another thing for us to actually, in real live life, face the powers and principalities of this world with the full confidence of that they, who seem so powerful, are actually leaning walls and tottering fences; that God is our rock; that, as the Psalmist says, “power belongs to God.”
What does that look like? To trust in the power of God?
We catch glimpses of what that looks like in the life of Jesus. It looks like leaving your nets and following. It looks like disregarding political and religious niceties in favor of loving and healing God’s people. It looks like—as the Psalmist also notes—recognizing that we should not set our hearts on riches.
Jesus life also reveals that, sometimes, insisting that power belongs to God makes those who think they are powerful quite angry. It’s a risky endeavor.
Yes, Jesus gives us a glimpse. But still, what does it look like today—to let God be God?
- Like marching with thousands who are demanding a better path for our country?
- Like raising fearless children even if we are somewhat terrified?
- Like speaking and acting and voting on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society?
- Does it look like singing? And writing? And making art? And baking food? And building structures?
- Like healing and loving and teaching and living?
- Like showing up at church on Sunday morning even if you’re not quite sure why you’re here?
- Does it look like creating communities where we can be accountable to each other, where we can be brave and strong for each other; communities where we can remind each other that human power is ‘ak fleeting while God’s power is ‘ak true?
With all of the emergency alerts in our world today—some of them false alarms but so very many of them real—we cannot simply grab all of our stuff and cower in fear. We must, somehow, and with each other’s help, make the journey the Psalmist made. We must move from a place of despair to a place of hope, acknowledging that “power belongs to God”–that power belongs to God ‘ak.
And perhaps it will help just a little to remember the words that Jesus himself spoke to his disciples, those who had left their nets and followed; those who knew Jesus was in danger and were fearful even for their own lives. Hear these words spoken to them, spoken for us, this morning:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)