The Invisibility Cloak
25th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, NOVEMBER 14th, 2021 PSALM 16
I know what I want for Christmas. And frankly, it is not something I just want, I need it the way a fish needs water. I must have it. It is something that human beings have longed for for millennia, a holy grail that has captivated minds, inspired dreams, and stirred passions. It has unleashed the imagination of novelists and whet the appetites of military strategists. In the wrong hands it could be a force for unspeakable evil. But in the right hands its power to do good is limitless. It is the invisibility cloak. And it is real. No, really. The Material Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have created it. I don’t know how. Actually, I do: 50-nanometer-thick layers of magnesium fluoride topped by a varying pattern of tiny, brick-shaped gold antennas, each 30 nanometers thick… Blah, blah, blah. I’m not interested in ‘how’; I’m energized by ‘what for’. Think of the possible uses. You need never again buy a ticket for the train or the show or the game. Throw on your invisibility cloak, hop the turnstiles and you’re in. Even better, though, you could throw it over yourself when you don’t want to be disturbed and pretend you’re not there. This is why it’s on my Christmas list. All those moments when I wish the ground would open up and I could disappear – now my wish is within my grasp.
For me, the invisibility cloak would not be a means to illegal gain (well, not mostly) but a means of protection. Because for me, safety has always seemed more attractive than having free stuff. By the way, I also want to be a professor at Hogwarts, but I think that is beyond Santa’s power.
The poet in today’s Psalm gets me. “Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you.” He must mean it – these are the opening words of his poem. Protect me, O God! There’s some desperation there. When the first words of your prayer are Protect me, O God, you must be scared; there must be something threatening you, looming over you in the silent darkness of your anxious mind; whispering how powerful it is and how puny you are. ‘Protect me, O God’ is the plea of the anxious, the overwhelmed, the powerless. It’s the prayer of here and now – this season of global pandemic, of economic uncertainty, of social turbulence. ‘Protect me, O God’ is the prayer of 2021.
God our protector. As I meditate on that truth some images waltz through my mind. I see a vast impregnable dome like the ones in sci-fi movies – or a forcefield around the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek. A shield against attacks by aliens, zombies, or whoever else wants to eat your brains? Is that God the Protector? Is this what the poet has in mind when he cries his desperate request for protection? A cocoon where we can live our lives to the full, working, playing, loving, worshipping, in complete confidence that God will bat away anything that wants to harm us or make us suffer?
Another picture forms in my mind – this time of a castle high on a steep cliff, with towering walls, invincible ramparts, and a moat filled with alligators. I hear the Lutheran hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ ringing through the Bavarian mountains. Is this God the Protector that the poet is imagining? Can we stand untouchable on the ramparts firing flaming arrows at the marauders, pouring boiling oil on the invaders, untouchable in our security?
Or does God protect us like a hazmat suit, the kind we saw in the early days of the pandemic, before we learned about covid; the kind medics would wear for a radioactive incident or a spill of nerve agent? It’s unlikely that the poet was thinking of PPE, given that he lived maybe 3,000 years ago, but he still knew about infectious diseases. So, is that what he is imagining – God the protector against things that sicken us, things that impact our human bodies and our vulnerable minds? Does the presence of God in our lives mean that we can go about our daily business without being touched by stress and the chemical imbalances that cause mental illness?
God the Dome, God the Castle, God the hazmat suit? Well, as thinking, realistic Christians we survey our lives, and we know that our experience of God does not match these images. We get sick. We die. We stagger under the burden of suffering. Christians are still killed for their faith. We are tired of the daily struggle, weary of the weekly routines, heartily sick of the cycle of alienation. At this point of the pandemic, many of us are feeling deskilled, disconnected, kind of lost. We’ve succumbed to financial strains, relationship pains, and emotional drains. We languish beneath the never-ending worries of how we are going to make it through. We experience losses of every conceivable kind. How can this be, when God’s poet says this morning: “Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; You are my Lord, my good above all other. O Lord, you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot. My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage. I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not fall. My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices. For you will not abandon me to the grave, You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.”
Yes, the poet starts with a desperate plea for protection, but he quickly shifts gear and changes mood. He remembers the good times – when God did protect from evil, when life was pleasant, when it was summertime, and the living was easy. How hard it is to remember the warmth of a June evening when you’re chiseling ice off the footpath of a January morning?
Do you know that impulse to shake your fist at God? I do. I remember once raging in my living room, angry, resentful, holding God to his word. I held a Bible up to him so he could read it better; and I pointed at a verse in which he made some grand promise that his beloved would enjoy great blessings throughout their lives. That isn’t a metaphor – I did actually do that. I wanted to sue God for breach of contract. He’d caught me in a bait and switch scam. I had read the agreement, signed in good faith and God reneged on his side of the deal. A life free of suffering? A walk in the garden with Jesus? An afternoon nap in green pastures by still waters, refreshing my soul? My cup overflowing? Throw me that invisibility cloak.
Some Christians would anxiously defend God. They would say that at that time in my life I must have wandered away from God, removed myself from his protection and exposed myself to pain. “The reason you are going through this grim experience is that God is no longer protecting you, and he is not protecting you because you have sinned or you lack faith.” According to these Christians when you obey God, he rewards you with pleasant circumstances. And when you reject God, you reject his protection. Therefore, if you are healthy, wealthy, and happy you must also be holy and full of faith. And if you’re sick, poor, or sad you must be sinning or lacking faith. If you truly trusted in God, then you wouldn’t be going through this hard time. If you really had enough faith God would not allow you to experience this terrible event. If you prayed more, went to church more, believed more, then God would protect you from this illness, this death, this loss, this divorce, this catastrophe.
“O Lord, you are my portion and my cup; you who uphold my lot. My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; I have a goodly heritage. Because God is at my right hand, I shall not fall. My heart is glad, my spirit rejoices; for God will not abandon me to the grave. He will show me the path of life; in his presence there is fullness of joy.” How can Psalm 16 be true, in a world where everyone, including Christians, suffers. Does God actually keep his promises? Well, we can’t answer that question with words. In the face of human suffering, words are inadequate. In the death and suffering and poverty and loss and chaos of the pandemic words are futile. The answer is a cross. Some of those Psalm 16 promises which appear so out of touch, look very different when we read them in the light Christ’s suffering and death. When we read the Bible’s promises through the lens of the crucified God, somehow they don’t seem so out of touch.
We believe in a powerful God who can heal and deliver. God does restore sick people to full life, God does save marriages, God does change mourning into dancing. But we’ve all known times when God’s greatest miracle is not physical healing or an end to conflict, but the miracle of giving us strength to endure the suffering. As our Saint, Paul, insists: ‘God’s grace is sufficient for you: his strength is made perfect in weakness.”
So maybe that protection that God promises us is less like a dome, a castle, and a hazmat suit, and more like an insurance policy. Having health insurance won’t stop you getting sick, but it will help you when you are. Having auto insurance won’t stop you crashing your car, but it will assist you when you do. Making God your refuge won’t stop you falling ill; it won’t prevent your loved one from dying; it won’t place a magic dome over your life that repels all trouble, hardship and heartbreak. God will not give you an invisibility cloak when calamity comes calling. But when we have our hope in God, when these things strike (and, yes, ‘when’, not ‘if’) they will not destroy you; they will not rob you of your life in Christ; they cannot separate you from the love of God, or completely crush your spirit. Because the God who promises to protect us is the God who took on a frail human body like ours and died. He won’t cocoon us, but he will walk beside us. He won’t coddle us, but he will hold us. He won’t take away the pain before it has done its work, but he will heal our spirits, and even in our suffering we will know God’s health. He will not throw us an invisibility cloak; but he will lift us to our feet and give us the courage to stand. Psalm 16 is true. Our boundaries have fallen in pleasant places. On this Celebration Sunday, we focus on God’s lavish abundance and commit to following Christ.