Psalm 27:1-5, 13-14
Luke 13:31-35, from The Message
For God will hide me in her shelter in the day of trouble.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Holy One is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.
How does it feel to hear those words in the wake of Friday’s mosque massacres in New Zealand?
Surely, the 50 Muslim worshippers who were killed by a white supremacist thought they were safe in their house of worship. As did the Jews killed last October by another white supremacist at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. And the African American Christians who were gunned down after welcoming a white supremacist to their Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
I can’t blame you if the trusting words of the psalmist ring hollow to you. And I won’t deny that, at some point on Friday as I mourned and raged and prayed over yet another deadly act of racist violence, I rued choosing (and publicizing) my sermon title so far in advance of Sunday.
“Take Shelter?” Yikes.
I thought, too, of the Langley family, and of all of us who are grieving the death of our dear Ken; of Cynthia Wade, and our dear Bob; of Carol Dick and Louise Harper and David Jean, and many others who are grieving loved ones—and how glib even the most comforting scripture passages can sound in moments of great loss and deep pain.
I have, let me assure you, no interest in being glib. I don’t for a minute believe that faith statements make everything—or anything—all better. Nor do I think that we are fools when we trust God’s goodness and power in the face of evil and injustice, suffering, loss, and death. We do, after all, seek security and try to protect ourselves in so many ways. We do, if you will, take shelter in all manner of things: technology, money, medicine, military might, privilege, following the rules, exercise and eating right, education, playing it safe, our own efforts to control, achieve, and defend.
And still bad things happen to good people. Still, bad things happen to us.
This morning on NPR I heard about a father in one of the Christchurch mosques, a man whose son was shot and who prayed over him as he lay dying. Again and again the father told his son, “God is sufficient. God his our protection. God is sufficient. God is our protection, . . .”
I can’t even.
The Lord is my light and my salvation, says the psalmist, the stronghold of my life—not if evildoers assail me or if a whole army of foes comes after me, but when.
God is our refuge and strength—not a back-up plan for the off-chance that something bad will happen, but the very reason we need not be afraid even when the world is falling apart, even when glaciers fall into the sea, when the waters rise, and the mountains shake, and the future of our planet looks bleak.
It is especially in those times that we need a shelter we can’t build, a resting place beyond ourselves, a security that comes from doing justice by reaching out to the marginalized and lifting up the poor, a hope that is built on nothing less that the Love that creates beloved community and conquers even death.
The psalmist seems to understand that the existential choice we face is not one of faith or doubt, but rather faith or fear.
We can spend our lives being careful because we are afraid of something bad happening; we can hoard what we have because we are afraid of not having enough. As a nation we can pour our resources into building walls and armies, militarizing everything from security guards and police forces to outer space.
Or: We can trust God and take care of one another. We can let fear govern our lives, or we can keep our eyes on the prize.
Some religious leaders thought they were doing Jesus a favor, warning him that Herod—the same ruler who had beheaded John the Baptist—was out to get him, too. But Jesus had no time for fear.
“You tell that jerk to get lost,” he says. “I’m not worried about him. I’m busy doing God’s work: casting out demons, healing the sick, empowering the oppressed, loving the lonely, turning things upside-down, creating a new realm, a different kingdom. And besides,” he adds, “I know what I’m in for. So I’m just going to do as much good as I can as long as I can.”
And then he remembers how hard it can be to do a new thing, how incredibly difficult it is to get us to give up the fear and anxiety we know for a way of being we don’t know and a peace we can hardly imagine. And then he is overcome with sadness over our defiant independence, our stubborn refusal to let ourselves be loved, by all the ways we reject God’s refuge and strength, the Holy One’s light and comfort.
“How often I have desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings,” he cries, “but you were not willing!”
I didn’t really understand this metaphor, I didn’t really get the image of God as mother hen, until I started watching the wild turkeys that sometimes hang out in my backyard. One day I looked out the window and saw that a mother turkey had dug a shallow resting place. And as she settled into that spot, seven little chicks burrowed into her side and under her wings.
How satisfied she must have felt, as they nestled up against her. How keen her eyes and ears must have been, alert to any threat. How clearly she would have done anything she could to protect them. What parent does not understand this feeling?
This is who Jesus wants to be for us, who God longs to be for us. And yet so often we spurn her offers of refuge and protection. Like a tantrum-throwing two-year-old, we want to do for ourselves. And so we go our own ways. And the next thing you know we are attacking each other or being attacked.
“The nightmare in New Zealand feels unfathomable,” a rabbi wrote on Facebook. “Except it isn’t. The hate that killed Muslims praying in Christchurch is the hate that killed Jews praying in Pittsburgh is the hate that killed African Americans praying in Charleston is the hate that killed Sikhs praying in Wisconsin.”
And our mother hen of a God weeps.
Here at First Church we are fond of saying that we are God’s hands and feet. Well, perhaps we are also God’s mother-hen wings.
To take shelter is to take comfort, to take strength, to take hope, to take healing and restoration, to take peace, to take love.
The forces of hate and white supremacy are counting on us to be afraid. They are counting on us to build walls to try to keep other people out. They are counting on us to run screaming into our own corners and traditions and languages and religions. They are counting on us to take our fears out on one another. They are counting on us doing whatever we can to protect ourselves.
But the opposite of fear is not defense. The antidote to fear is not hatred or supremacy, persecution or segregation. We lose our fears of the other when we come together as children of God, when we unite in our common humanity, when we take shelter in love. When we stop our striving and gather together in God’s goodness. When we let ourselves be loved.
Taking shelter is not a sign of weakness; it is an act of strength and courage, wisdom, surrender, and openness, interdependence, and connection.
For it is perfect love that casts out fear. It is love that comforts. Love that strengthens. Love that heals. Love that binds us together and makes us new.
Last October, after the hateful killing of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, many of us joined our neighbors at the Jewish Community of Amherst for Shabbat prayers. A few days ago, some of our neighbors at the JCA joined our neighbors at the Hampshire Mosque for Friday prayers. And this evening we all have the opportunity to stand with our Muslim neighbors at a vigil in West Springfield.
Be still and know that I am God, the psalmist echoes the Holy One.
Stop the killing. Lay down your assault rifles. Tear down your walls. Come together. Take shelter right here; there’s plenty of room under my wings.
You will see my goodness in the land of the living. Wait. Take shelter. Be strong. And let your heart take courage. I am busy clearing out demons and healing the sick. I am doing a new and glorious thing. Hang on. You’ll see.