Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
May 17, 2020
Psalm 91 – John 14: 15-21
“On his right hand Billy’d tattooed the word love and on his left hand was the word fear,
And in which hand he held his fate was never clear.”
—Bruce Springsteen, b. 1947, American Singer/Songwriter, “Cautious Man”
Wendy Larmour sent me a video a friend of hers made early in the lockdown. Her friend, a devout Christian, was responding in frustration to an evangelist who has gotten a lot of publicity for asking that people send her $91 to indicate that they trust the promise of Psalm 91: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in the darkness…” (vv. 5-6). This psalm is meant to be an assurance that God is with us even, and especially, in the worst of calamities; but it has often been misinterpreted to mean that it’s okay to defy calamity, to walk boldly into needless risk, because God will miraculously protect you. Obviously, it’s the “pestilence” part that matters right now, since a pandemic is a perfect illustration of that quaint, old-fashioned word. “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you; no scourge will come near your tent.”
The specific verses that many point to as assurance of God’s miraculous intervention are 11 and 12: “For God will command the angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
In the video, Wendy’s friend points out that this exact verse is the one that Satan uses to tempt Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple (e.g., Matthew 4: 5-6). To this temptation—and she emphasizes, this is what the Bible calls it: A temptation—Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ (Matt. 4:7). She concludes with a warning to her fellow Christians to watch out for people like the Psalm 91 evangelist, who because of their misuse of Scripture play the role of Satan tempting us to do dangerous and unnecessary things—like relaxing our guard during a pandemic.
That temptation is upon us now, and in force. We are all tired of sitting around waiting; and beyond that many of us have lost jobs or income because of the economic effects of Covid-19. Many public figures, including prominent religious leaders, are saying, “It’s been long enough! It’s safe now, or at least safe enough!” As I’ve mentioned in other contexts, that is a perspective I don’t share, but I promise you that the session and staff continue to do our best to figure out when it is safe. We all miss gathering together. We miss worshiping together and fellowshipping in the narthex afterwards. We miss the handshakes and the hugs. I know that when we are at last able to gather together again, there will be a lot of tears and joy and laughter, and I look forward to that day. That day will surely come, and when it does, it’ll be a foretaste of the joy we’ll know when the Kingdom of God arrives at last.
Psalm 91 was written as a promise that God is with us and caring for and protecting us even in the most extreme of circumstances. The line about the angels “bearing you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”—the one that Satan tempted Jesus with—is actually meant as a reference to the Exodus, when the Lord led the Israelites out of slavery, into the desert, and at last to the Promised Land. At that time, God was described as a mother eagle who, when her young are ready, bears them out on her wings and then drops out from under them so that they start to fall and basically learn how to fly the hard way. But she is always there to catch them so that “you will not dash your foot against a stone.” In the same way God’s angels watch over us.
This is an image of tough love teaching us strength and independence through hard times. That’s why this is a word of hope in a time of pandemic. God is not abandoning us, nor have we abandoned God. We are growing into a new way to be ourselves in relationship to God and one another. But like the children of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years, it involves a lot of waiting and we get frustrated with it. This psalm assures us that putting our trust in God and waiting to see what God has in store for us is a good decision. The time of waiting leads to something new and gracious. But we have to trust God.
In our Gospel, Jesus’ disciples are, like us, trapped in a liminal time, a borderline time in between what was and what will be. They are caught between the “what was” of Jesus’ groundbreaking ministry, of which they were a key part; and the “what will be” of whatever may lie ahead after Jesus’ death. Like us they feel disjointed, confused, uncertain, disconnected. And fear. If they don’t feel it now, they soon will: they will be locked away in secret, “for fear of the Jewish leadership.”
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is giving them the antidote to that fear. The antidote is love: love of Jesus, love of God, love of each other. And by extension, love of others: neighbor, stranger, enemy. Love is the antidote to fear.
I am struck by this awareness. It was a commonplace in my own seminary training, for instance, to say that faith is the opposite of fear, and that makes sense: faith tells us that even though it doesn’t always seem to be true, nonetheless God loves us and the future rests in God’s good and loving hands. This helps ease our fears and anxieties by assuring us that God loves us. That is faith, yes. But the key element of that faith is love. After all, you can have faith—that is, believe that there is a God—and find no comfort in that at all. The Deists, for instance, many of whom crafted the United States Constitution, believed in God the Great Watchmaker, who created all things and then set it going like a watch on a Quartz battery, so that it’s always at work, but doesn’t need God’s interference or intervention. The Deist God doesn’t love us or hate us, but is largely indifferent to us, though the Deists might argue that there is a long arc toward justice and human rights that’s built into the way the universe functions.
So what makes our faith so critical and life-affirming is that we don’t have faith in just any version of God: we have faith in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the God of Love. It is because of love that Jesus can comfort his disciples by telling them that “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” In times like these, when we might well feel orphaned and abandoned by Christ, our faith is that this isn’t true. Jesus loves us too much to abandon us; and his love is from God, because Jesus and his heavenly parent are one. God’s love is Jesus’ love and vice versa.
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between faith and fear. The people who believe so firmly in Psalm 91 that they are willing to take risks in the coronavirus crisis and go shopping and eating out and socializing without any sort of protection or social distancing believe they are acting on their faith. I am in no position to judge their faith or how sincere it is, but I don’t advise what they’re doing and don’t view it as the best way to show your faith at this time.
But if we understand that the opposite of fear is not foolhardiness or even bravery, but love, then we realize that rather than daring the world to make us sick, our faithful response should be something quite different. Because love is the antidote to fear, one way you can tell if your faith is true is if it inspires you to love.
Unfortunately, we can all too often see how much fear is influencing us in the way fear causes us not to love. For instance, prejudiced mistreatment and assaults has led to hospitals and medical associations seeking protections for doctors and medical staff of Asian descent. This sort of thing is hardly unique to the present crisis. There were upticks in violence and hate speech directed at black people during the Ebola Crisis and against people of Middle Eastern descent after 9/11. All these attacks were not based on any legitimate concern, but on fear. Fear causes us to retreat into our most primal behavior.
In contrast, consciously seeking to act and react in love both demonstrates and enlarges our faith in a loving God. When we can find ways of acting generously to others, especially strangers, we are actually growing our own ability to love more fully as well as demonstrating our faith in a loving God to people who feel abandoned or orphaned by God. It can something as simple as showing patience with someone who is serving you when you’re tempted not to; giving the benefit of the doubt to the people who you think “just don’t get it;” or in these days being extremely conscientious about keeping 6 feet between you and others in the grocery line; as well as more proactive things like finding ways to serve the needy, the unemployed, the ill, the lonely, and others most affected by this virus and its fallout. Such conscious choices to affirm love in the face of fear shape or reshape our confidence in God’s love and presence with us.
In times of crisis, we must be on our guard not to allow our fear to shape our reactions. And the simplest way to tell if that’s happening is if we are identifying enemies for whom to blame everything. Sometimes it really is the case there are enemies to blame, but this really isn’t one of them; and even if there is some real culprit to identify, casting aspersions on people we associate with them is still an act of fear, not of love. In contrast, Jesus wants us to see that love is the opposite of fear. He teaches us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us; he teaches us to love, rather than fear, the stranger. Right now is the time for cooperation, whether between nations fighting the coronavirus or between me and my neighbor in making sure that we don’t infect one another or other people. In a real sense, the solution to the coronavirus crisis is love—love made manifest in doing inconvenient things like wearing masks and keeping out of crowds and keeping a safe distance even from our friends. But that kind of love will bring the solutions we need, because it will diminish the power of the virus and bring us to a place of health. Local communities need to identify those populations most at risk, who are often minority communities, and make a special effort to get testing and medical care to them, because for the sickness to be anywhere is for it to be everywhere. Love will bring the solutions we need.
Just as love is the opposite of fear, so is it true that love is the cure to the Covid-19 crisis.