“Faith and Fear” Reflections on Psalm 27 during the Pandemic

Happy Easter. The good news on this Third Sunday of Easter is that Christ is still risen. Hallelujah! But it’s a different Easter season this year, isn’t it?

When I first came to Pittsfield to be the pastor of the First Church of Christ in 1982, I was 33 years old. I soon visited some of my elderly shut-ins, and I recall one of them telling me about losing her brother to the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic. Many young men like her brother went off to the First World War to die, not from enemy bullets and shells, but from a world-wide flu pandemic that infected approximately 500 million people, or about one third of the world’s population, and killed about 50 million. She was part of the last generation to go through this. That loss was a lasting part of her story. And now this pandemic will be a lasting part of our story. Those of us who survive will never forget how it changed our world.

They say there are lessons to be learned from every crisis, but the question is always “will we learn the right lessons?” This crisis reminds us how interconnected our world is. The virus is no respecter of national borders. It doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It reminds us that we live together on a small planet.

In that regard it might be a dress rehearsal for how we deal with the inevitable challenges of climate change that we will face in the coming years. It also demonstrates the economic fault lines in our society, the vast inequalities of wealth and privilege between the rich and the poor. It demonstrates how dependent we are on low wage workers to provide us with food and services. It highlights how broken our system that delivers our health care. These are just some of the things we are learning. Will we learn the right lessons, our will we go back to business as usual after the pandemic passes?

And when will that be? There is so much about this virus that we don’t know and won’t know for a while. There’s a good chance that after the peak the disease will become endemic, as measles, mumps and polio were before we had vaccines for them. So, there is much about our future that is uncertain and much to be concerned about.

A question for us as Christians is how we will understand our story in light of the Christian story? What does it mean to be Easter people in the middle of a pandemic? Will we be people who live out of our faith, or will we be people who succumb to our fears? That is one of the challenges of the uncertain future that we face.

So, this morning I want to reflect on the relationship between faith and fear. I have been reflecting on this for a good part of my long ministry.

And I keep returning again and again to Psalm 27, which begins:

“The LORD is my light and my salvation;

whom shall I fear?

The LORD is the stronghold of my life;

Of whom shall I be afraid?”

It’s a good question. Of whom (or what) shall I be afraid? You may wonder why I keep returning to this question, and why this particular Psalm? The answer is that while the Psalm does not change, the world does. The world where the question “of whom shall I be afraid” is always changing.

There something to be said for revisiting an object. Did you know that in the 1890’s the painter Claude Monet painted over thirty paintings of the façade of Rouen Cathedral in Normandy. He rented space for a studio across the street from the cathedral and painted at various times of the day and at different seasons so he could capture variations of light and shadow on his canvas.

One of these paintings is here in Williamstown around the corner at the Clark Art Institute. Years ago, I was blessed to see a number of these cathedral paintings at the big Monet exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

I think Monet’s attempt to capture the truth of light in changing settings is a good analogy for how the church approaches the truth of scripture.

If we imagine Psalm 27 as my Rouen Cathedral, a subject I return to again and again, like Monet I find it doesn’t change, but the world around it does.

This is one of the ways I like to think about approaching scripture, as a long conversation the church has about the text and its everchanging context.

I preached on Psalm 27 after 9/11. I preached on it again both before and after the great Recession of 2008. And here I am in the Pandemic of 2020 preaching on it yet again. Each of these sermons has been different, although some truths remain. Each sermon has been a conversation with the text in its different context,

The church’s ongoing conversation with its Scriptures is a multi-generational one, so today to have this conversation about faith and fear I will enlist the service of John Calvin. I know Calvin is not in favor these days, but his commentaries on Scripture are full of faith and wisdom, so I’ve invited him to the conversation. His commentary on Psalm 27 is an especially wonderful piece of faithful reflection.

As we contemplate Psalm 27 there are some features we need to know about it. First of all, like Monet’s cathedral, it is a thing of beauty. It is poetry and prayer. It is worship and devotion. The superscription calls it a “Triumphant Song of Confidence.” That sounds like something we can use right now. And how about the idea of it being a song. We only have the words to the Psalms, but they were Israel’s songbook and were sung, perhaps in the temple.

In this particular psalm, Psalm 27, the Psalmist, who from now on I will call “David,” moves back and forth from declarations of great confidence, as in the opening verses, to lists of all the many things he has every right to be afraid of. And I really like this, because I believe that faith lives in the midst of our fears, don’t you? Calvin did.

Listen to what Calvin had to say about the passage “my heart shall not fear”: “When David declares, “My heart shall not fear,’ this does not imply that he would be entirely devoid of fear, — for that would have been more worthy of the name of insensibility than of virtue.”

In other words, David had every right be afraid of the enemy army encamped about him. Imagine it. He sees their campfires every night, he can hear their trumpets and drums, and he knows they can attack him at any time. I’d be afraid, too.

And Calvin goes on to say: “Under the terms, camps and armies, [David] includes whatever is most formidable in the world.”

So, though the names and faces of the powerful forces who hold the world in thrall will change, the truth of the Psalm remains. Calvin writes, “Although all men should conspire for my destruction, I will disregard their violence, because the power of God, which I know is on my side, is far above theirs.”

The Good News here is that the principalities and powers of this age, and any age, are ultimately subordinate to the power of God, though as the rest of Psalm 27 amply shows, they manage through their subordinates (in this case “the army encamped about David”) to give David and, with the necessary changes, us, plenty about which to be afraid, at least in the short run.

This faith in the power of God, as Calvin writes, is not the complete absence of fear, as in a more Eastern religious calm through meditation and detachment. No, the fears are quite real.

So, faith always lives in the midst of our fears, but it is that same faith that knows, as Calvin writes, “when the trial comes, our faith will prove invincible, because it relies on the power of God.”

And here the final power of God was finally made manifest in weakness, on a Roman cross.

Here on the other side of Easter we see Jesus’s cross as the victory of God over the power of the Empire, over the power of sin and death, over the power of anything and everything that wants to rob us of the fullness of life that God wants for us all.

Because in truth, we are all fearful disciples, still waiting for the promises to be fulfilled, still longing for the healing of our troubled world. Still praying for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We know that God’s work is not fully realized, and we are not always sure what God is up to. We see, as Paul said, “Through a glass darkly.”

But we do see enough. We do see enough in Jesus Christ to walk each day in faith, which is in so many ways, the opposite of our myriad imagined fears, as opposed to our real ones.

For I believe that there are two kinds of fears, and they are quite different, though it is often hard to distinguish between them, because they get all wrapped up in each other.

First, there are the real fears, as when David has an enemy encamped around him, or when we face a world-wide pandemic that kills people. These are real fears.

But there is also a kind of fear that is not real. It holds some kind of power over us, and it is not attached to a specific threat. This kind of generalized fear is not good for us. It makes us less than who God wants us to be. It robs us of dignity and courage, and makes us act in ways that are not worthy of us.

I am convinced that some of the nastiness in our public life right now is based on exactly that kind of fear.

Because this pandemic is something that none of us have never known in our lifetime. It has stirred up a lot of the second kind of fear, the unnamed and unknown fears about our future, and the future of our country.  It is true that there are real things to fear from it, like losing our jobs or our homes or our pensions. That is real fear,

But the second kind is different; the general pervasive kind of fear takes on a larger life of its own. It begins to eat us up, and attaches itself to every part of life. You could call it “existential dread” or “free-floating anxiety.” I call it “4 o’clock in the morning fear.”

Do you know what I am talking about? Do you know that kind of fear?  I suspect you do.

I know I do. I know it all too well. It is one of the big challenges I have been dealing with in my life since August 5th, 2000, when I suffered a catastrophic bicycle accident and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury.

And in the wake of that accident I suffered in both body and spirit. In sleepless nights I feared I couldn’t continue in my pastorate. That turned out to be true. I feared that I would lose my home. That turned out to be true. I feared that my family would stop loving me. That turned out not to be true.

And I was afraid of other things I can’t even name or know, which is how this kind of generalized fear operates. There is just enough reality in these fears to give them some credibility, but their power over me was larger than they deserved.

And so, I know that these are the kind of fears that can debilitate one’s life, and in some real way, they are the very opposite of faith, and so they must be dealt with.

But whatever they are, identify them, name them, and call their bluff, because they really have no actual power over you that you don’t give them. Prayer is a good way to do it. Bring your life with all its fears before the ultimacy of God’s holy love and name your fears. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” Paul promises us in Romans 8. Nothing. Not death or life or pandemic.

That is the Good News on which we can stand secure. Because in that final trip to Jerusalem that Jesus was waiting to make, and ultimately did make, he defeated the powers that threaten us, including our unreal fears, along with some other big things “that go bump in the night,” like death and sin.

Oh, we still sin, and we still die, and we will still be afraid, but the power has gone out of them. Because Jesus took them all to the cross with him, and there they died with him. And believing that is a good part of what makes us Christians.

For the real power in the world is the power of the living God, that we are called to live out of day by day, even in those fearful times when we can’t see it or feel it. Someone once said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” In other words, the ultimacy of God’s power and purpose trumps the impermanence of our fears.

This pandemic will test us, and challenge us. It will test what kind of people we are, what kind of Christians we are, and what kind of church we are. Will we learn the right lessons? I pray so. Our world will never be the same. But the living God who raised Jesus from the dead will remain from everlasting to everlasting.

As David writes to end his Psalm 27:

“I believe I shall see the goodness of the LORD

In the land of the living.

Wait for the LORD;

Be strong, and let your heart take courage;

Wait for the LORD.”

“The LORD is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?

The LORD is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?”  Amen.

( This was my first virtual sermon preached at First Congregational Church of Williamstown, Massachusetts on April 28, 2020. Photo: the Gloaming, R.L. Floyd 2019)

Fear or Faith? John Calvin on Psalm 27:3

 

After Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, John Calvin’s Commentaries were probably my most thumbed through books while I prepared for preaching over the years.  I gave mine away to a younger pastor friend when I retired, but was pleased to be able to find them on-line, albeit in an old English translation that is perhaps not the best.

Though Calvin is much maligned as a general grump and meanie in modern popular culture, his sermons and commentaries on scripture, quite to the contrary, are more often than not, full of faith, hope, and love.  Here is an excerpt (verse 3) from his commentary on Psalm 27, which is the appointed psalm in the New Revised Common Lectionary for this upcoming Second Sunday in Lent:

Though armies should encamp. He infers from his former experience, as I have already mentioned, that whatever adversity may befall him, he ought to hope well, and to have no misgivings about the divine protection, which had been so effectually vouchsafed to him in his former need. He had asserted this, indeed, in the first verse, but now, upon farther proof of it, he repeats it.  But when he declares, “My heart shall not fear,” this does not imply that he would be entirely devoid of fear, — for that would have been more worthy of the name of insensibility than of virtue; but lest his heart should faint under the terrors which he had to encounter, he opposed to them the shield of faith. Some transfer the word translated in this to the following verse, meaning that he was confident that he would dwell in God’s house; but I am of opinion that it belongs rather to the preceding doctrine. For then does faith bring forth its fruit in due season, when we remain firm and fearless in the midst of dangers. David, therefore, intimates, that when the trial comes, his faith will prove invincible, because it relies on the power of God.” (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 8, Part 1, translated by John King)

Good stuff, don’t you think? It still speaks today to our fears.  I especially like: “Under the terms, camps and armies, he includes whatever is most formidable in the world.” So though the names and faces of the powerful people who hold the world in thrall will change, the truth remains: “Although all men should conspire for my destruction, I will disregard their violence, because the power of God, which I know is on my side, is far above theirs.”

The Good News here is that the principalities and powers of this age, and any age, are ultimately subordinate to the power of God, though as the rest of the Psalm amply shows, they manage through their subordinates (in this case “the army encamped about him”) to give the Psalmist (let us call him David, as Calvin does) and mutatis mudandis, us, plenty about which to be afraid in the short run.

This faith in the power of God, as he writes, is not the complete absence of fear, as in a more Eastern religious calm through meditation and detachment.  No the fears are quite real.  So I particularly love this: “But when he (David) declares, “My heart shall not fear,‘ this does not imply that he would be entirely devoid of fear, — for that would have been more worthy of the name of insensibility than of virtue.”  Am I wrong to detect some dry humor there?  Calvin humor, who knew?

So faith always lives in the midst of our fears, but it is that same faith that knows “when the trial comes, our faith will prove invincible, because it relies on the power of God.”

Karl Barth on Calvin


I’ve been sitting on my back porch on this lovely June day reading Karl Barth’s 1922 lectures on John Calvin’s 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, Chapter 9, on “Christian Liberty.” I am preparing for The 25th Karl Barth Summer Session for Pastors sponsored by the Massachusetts Convention of Congregational Ministers, an organization founded in 1692. Calvin was chosen this year to commemorate his 500th anniversary.

I haven’t been to all 25 of them, but I’ve been to a great many, and have some wonderful memories of rich theological conversations with pastor theologians and visiting Barth scholars. Some of those scholars I have heard and talked with over the years have included Hans Frei, George Hunsinger, and Alexander (Sandy) McElway, just to name a few. This year’s leader is Dr. Clifford Anderson, curator of Reformed Research Collections, Princeton Theological Seminary. Cliff, my friend and fellow Confessing Christ blogger, was also the leader in 2006.

The format of the two-day sessions is a morning dedicated to the Barth readings, and an afternoon dedicated to a practical issue, contemporary or historical. In the case of this year we will ponder Nathaniel Ward’s Body of Civil Liberties. Ward was a Puritan minister, writer, and attorney, who compiled this code of statutes for the Commonwealth in 1641.

There are gems galore in Barth’s rich appreciation of Calvin. Here’s a small sample: “We must not view Calvin’s church of holiness as a catholicizing confusion of divine and human commands, at least not as far as Calvin himself was concerned, no matter what misunderstandings might have arisen among his successors. Calvin himself clearly saw the possibility of such a confusion. Under the pressure of the order and holiness that he found in God, he realized that order and holiness are incommensurable. They cannot be imitated on this side of the human sphere that is not to be confused with the other world, in the little city of Geneva that even at the pinnacle of his success he never truly regarded as a Jerusalem. With a certain resigned wisdom and grim humor, if we might put it thus, he spoke only of honoring God by bonds of humanity so far as this is possible seeing that we live on earth. Calvin did not fall victim to the illusion that gripped the Middle Ages and that has gained force again in the modern age, the illusion that there is a continuous path that leads step by step from an earthly city of God to the kingdom of heaven. For him the divine was always divine and the human always human.” (The Theology of John Calvin, by Karl Barth. Translated by Geoffrey Bromily. Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1995. P 201)