“Protected” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden

Psalm 91:1-16

Good morning! I have been continuing to think about trees this week — especially because I have a limb which isn’t doing too well. [Slide tree grid] I invite you to consider or re-consider which tree you are. If you were here last week, you might be the same tree, or perhaps you are a different one today. A couple people share their own tree images with me this week, and I LOVE that. So if you don’t see yourself represented in a tree image on this screen, it’s great to imagine what would be a better tree for you.

The purpose of this exercise is to acknowledge that we bring a lot more than just our intellect to worship: we also bring our history — immediate and distant — our experiences, our emotions, and even our projections of the future. This is true on any Sunday, but we are focusing on psalms, and the psalms open up a particular space for us. Their writers were frank and sometimes graphic about expressing their own emotions and situations. There are psalms which give us permission to speak our own pain or fear because there are biblical writers who have already articulated their pain and fear. Last week we noted that out of the entire collection of psalms — there are 150 individual psalms — more than 1/3 are psalms of lament; either individual or communal.

Rather than lament, Cary read a different kind of psalm for us — a different tree, if you will. Instead of brokenness and despair like tree # , Psalm 91 is a psalm of protection: tree # . Scholars identify 13 psalms as psalms of protection, fewer than 10%, but they are powerful. [Slide] Unlike the tree which was broken, this tree seems to be pretty sturdy, but it is either in the middle of a storm, or it is about to be. So here is a complicated reality: one which Christians must reckon with, and I know that some of you have wrestled with for many years. Psalms of protection begin as psalms of trouble. We don’t need protection when the skies are sunny and the winds are calm, we need protection in the middle of a storm. Maybe we didn’t see that storm coming, or it happened without warning, and we weren’t expecting trouble until it had already arrived. Even if we have faith in God and have been praying faithfully for ourselves and those we love, that doesn’t stop bad things from happening, and it doesn’t keep bad things from happening to us. Hurricanes still roll in, and Christians get just as flooded as anyone else. God doesn’t miraculously restore our electricity or stock our fridge with bottled water. We are underwater too. [Slide down]

Psalm 91 may be familiar to you because of the musical setting which we will sing as our final hymn, but it has resonance elsewhere, too. Psalm 91 is quoted in the New Testament in Matthew 4:6. The setting is the temptation of Jesus, following his baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus has been fasting in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, and is confronted by Satan. Now there’s a storm; no wonder this psalm of protection comes up. Here’s the thing, though — it isn’t Jesus who quotes Psalm 91, it’s Satan, the Tempter. Satan had started with trying to get Jesus to turn stones into bread: this was a physical temptation, since Jesus was famished, but it was also an economic temptation. Bread is worth a lot more than stones: hungry people would flock to a Messiah who could feed them in the wilderness. So Satan is trying again, this time with a spiritual, or religious, temptation. If Jesus would just do something dangerous or reckless and throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, God would have to save him: God could command angels to catch Jesus so he would not even hit his foot against a stone. Satan is quoting Psalm 91:12. Imagine how impressive that would be; how much credibility Jesus would get with the religious elite and anyone who likes a dare devil. Dare devil indeed. Jesus quotes scripture right back at Satan — Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So a psalm of protection is not an invitation to do reckless or dangerous things to prove that God will save us. You may be familiar with the rest of Jesus’ story: Jesus got into trouble, terrible, life-threatening trouble with the Jewish authorities, who took it to the Roman governor. Jesus’ arrest and death were imminent and he prayed to God, and God did not save him. Jesus was tortured and put to death. If God would not protect his own Son from an unjust government, how can we trust God to protect us?

God does not promise to keep storms from happening, or even to keep evil from being a part of our world. Nor does God say that although these things might happen, he’ll be sure they don’t happen to us. What God does promise is to be with us during the storm and to be waiting on the other side of whatever calamity befalls us. God promises to cover us under her wings like a mother hen covers her chicks when a hawk is circling, or to defend us from attack the way a trained soldier uses a sword and shield. I know some people in this congregation who have experienced terrible trouble — and I’m sure there are many troubles which I do not know about. God did not prevent that terrible thing from happening: I don’t have an answer for why that happened to you, or why it happened to you and not to someone else. But if you are here today, you are still standing, you have survived the worst of that storm, and you have experienced God’s care. Ps 91:15 says “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.” Storms change us: they tear off our limbs or tear out our hearts so that we can never return to the way we were before.

Last week I said that Psalms of lament articulate our experience: they give words to things we might be too angry or too fearful to say aloud ourselves. There are psalms which give voice to that experience. By giving our pain form and context, psalms can supervise our experience so that we can understand it and share it and begin to work and walk through it. Psalms of protection provide the next step; they give us the possibility to transform our experience. The way through a storm is to believe that God is with us now and will be with us in the future: this is especially important when we can’t imagine what the future will look like. This doesn’t deny or minimize the pain of the past or the devastation of the storm, but with God’s help we can survive the storm and find a different reality on the other side.

[Slide] Gail Vance posted this on Facebook this week with the caption “If being born again was a photo (tree)” Gail, I don’t know all the reasons why this photo spoke to you, but I can imagine some of them. New things, sometimes even beautiful things can come from tragedy and death. Not immediately, or even soon, but in God’s time and in God’s way. It takes faith to believe in the possibility of transformation, to wait for it to happen, and to see it when it comes. We are in the storm of a global pandemic. I think we have survived, but we have barely begun to assess the damage. There are lives which have been lost which we will never get back. And yet, in the midst of this trouble, God is with us. God hears our sorrow and our distress, God loves us, God cares for us, and God is working on our behalf. If we have faith and resilience, with God’s help, when this storm is past, something can emerge which will make us stronger and more faithful and prepare us for the next storm. [Slide down]

Life is not easy, but I believe that it is good. This psalm assures us that that God wants that goodness for us. God is our protector and defender, a present help in time of trouble. Whatever storm we are in, or have been in, God is worthy of our trust, and holds the future for us, especially when we cannot see it for ourselves. God is with us. Amen.