"Taking Refuge" - March 17, 2019

Psalm 31

            Everybody needs a place to regroup occasionally.

“When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now

When I come home feelin' tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so …”[1]

 Okay, that works for the end of a difficult day, at least for The Drifters.  Maybe you have a place like that (I hope you do): a golf course or a coffee shop, someplace where you can go to decompress or turn things off for a short while.  I say, “Turn things off,” meaning that you get away from whatever pressures might bend you out of shape.  I might as well say, “Reconnect you,” because sometimes what life’s ups and downs do is disconnect you from the things that matter.

             One of my old friends, who lives in Silicon Valley, went through a double mastectomy two years ago, with aggressive chemotherapy afterward.  As part of her healing, she began to do two things that have helped her immensely.  One is that she started spending every Friday afternoon, as she puts it, “Visiting with the redwoods.”  The other thing she does is that whenever she can, she walks a labyrinth whenever she is near one.  (She has some sort of app on her phone to locate them.)  It focuses her prayers, she says.  Those two activities help her to reconnect to what matters on a more-than-superficial level: to the earth and to God.  The word “religion”, by the way, comes from a Latin word that means to reconnect.

             It’s a part of our humanity that we need those places of safety.

             In extreme cases, it might be a matter of protecting our physical lives.  There is the familiar story about how Martin Luther, after he began to preach about how we are saved by faith in Jesus, and only by that, not by anything good works that we try to do or how pious we are, was hauled in front of Emperor Charles V.  Luther’s theology undercut the notion that it would be possible to get on God’s good side by making offerings to the Church, which was how the Vatican’s building plan was being funded with the backing of German bankers.  (Follow the money.  Luther’s preaching would mean less income for the Emperor, whom those same bankers were supporting as well.)  It was complicated.  Eventually it meant that this professor of New Testament Studies was being told face-to-face to back down by a man who controlled most of Germany, all of Spain and the Netherlands, Mexico and most of South America.  His response was, “My conscience is captive to the word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.”  He survived.  The way it worked out was that days later one of his supporters faked a kidnapping, and carried Luther off to a castle where he hid for over a year, translating the Bible into German while he was there.

             It was a place of safety, of refuge.  But the real safety, which he had declared before the Emperor, was in his relationship to God through Jesus, a relationship that he was not going to jeopardize.  The places that offer us security and a sense of peace do so insofar as they connect us to the real source of security and peace, which is the Lord.

 “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
   do not let me ever be put to shame;
   in your righteousness deliver me. 
Incline your ear to me;
   rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
   a strong fortress to save me.” 
[Psalm 31:1-2]

 Luther needed those castle walls to keep him safe, though even there he tried to disguise himself, just in case.  His sense of what God could offer him, though, was enough for him to paraphrase this Psalm in a way that we still sing.

“A mighty fortress is our God,

A bulwark never failing,

Our helper he amid the flood

Of mortal ills prevailing.”

            The time came when he had to leave his hiding place and go back to his work, and he knew that for the rest of his life he would be a target.  In some people’s eyes he was a dangerous character and a subversive and to take him out would be as good a thing as it was when the Seals took out bin Laden.  Even so, he kept that awareness that the security God offers us is an eternal security.  We have a permanent refuge which is not a place.  It is God himself. 

“You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
   for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, 
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
   for you are my refuge. 
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
   you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”
[Psalm 31:3-5]

 Again, it found its way into “A Mighty Fortress”:

“Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also.

The body they may kill;

God’s truth abideth still.

His kingdom is forever.”

        Since trouble does come in many forms, so do places of refuge.  If you are in fear of physical harm, thank the Lord that there are places and people who can offer protection.  Whenever there is an emotional challenge, I hope your own version of the Redwoods reaches out to you and says, “Come and rest.  Let us show you how to see the long view of things.”  I hope you have a place of prayer where you and God can speak fully and freely with one another.  Remember that you’re sitting in a place like that right now.  If you need space and silence, here it is, and not just on Sundays.  If you need to talk, that’s also fine.  If you just need to stare at the pretty colors in the windows or listen to the band playing from the field down the street, God may reach out to you that way, too.

            Most of all, though, when you need refuge for your soul, from despair or fear or guilt or shame or any of the things that assault your deepest being, there is the ultimate refuge, a person and not a place.  That is Jesus, who is not limited to one place or time and who hears whenever or wherever you call. 

“Love the Lord, all you his saints.
   The Lord preserves the faithful,
   but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. 
Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
   all you who wait for the Lord.”
  [Psalm 31:23-24]

[1] “Up on the Roof” by Carole King and Jerry Goffin.