Shelter of the Rock
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley
August 19, 2018
The foundation of Wartburg Castle was laid in 1067. It is still structurally intact and explored by numerous tourists today, living up to its name as a fortress. In 1521, the reformer Martin Luther went into hiding at Wartburg, after he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. The castle provided a safe haven where he lived while he translated the New Testament into German. But even in this fortress, he did not feel completely protected. According to legend, he continued to feel attacks by spiritual forces; one time so acutely that he hurled an inkpot at the devil to drive it away.
That story about Luther is one of safety and security on one side countered by feelings of danger and vulnerability on the other. It seems to captures some of the range of faith that is expressed within Psalm 27.
Psalm 27 begins with a bold declaration “The Lord is my light and my salvation; The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Then in verses 5-6, it speaks of being in hiding, of seeking shelter from God. At verse 9, the tone changes again, and sounds a bit anxious with “Do not hide your face from me. Do not forsake me.” And finally, it returns to strong affirmation in the last two verses, “I believe that 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!”
We have discussed many times the interplay of fear and courage as aspects of faith. This is yet one more time that the Bible says “do not be afraid”. But here, the image is not an angel,; there is not a focus on a message about a surprise or a mission to be undertaken. Here, in the middle of the psalm is the image of finding refuge, finding safety, finding shelter in God. It is that image I would like to explore this morning.
Shelter is a basic human need. Shelter, in a building or a tent or a cave, offers protection from sun or cold, rain or snow and predators. Most of us find shelter most often in the place we call home, which ideally is also a place where we feel emotionally safe and loved and cared for. We need shelter every day. We need shelter to return to when we have gone out to do something difficult or brave or important or ordinary. We need shelter most especially when we are ill or afraid or grieving or worried or lonely.
In Psalm 61, which we read last Sunday, the psalmist asks God “let me find refuge under the shelter of your wings.” And in Psalm 27, we hear, “For God will hide me in God’s shelter in the day of trouble;” There are some among us who find shelter directly in God. Well, I mean, they get as close to God as anyone can.
We remember that Moses did so. After he had followed God’s directions for quite some time, after he had talked to Pharoah on God’s behalf and led the people out of bondage in Egypt and saw them fed in the wilderness, after he had become so very angry at them for giving into their fears and building a golden calf to worship, after that when God had forgiven them and told him to lead them away from the place of their idolatry and on to the promised land, after all that, Moses had just one request. He wanted to see God’s face. And God reminded him that no human can look on God’s face and live. But even then, God sheltered Moses, placing him in a protected space in the rocks where God’s hand could cover him and keep him from seeing God’s face. Whatever the ancient Hebrews might have understood about seeing God’s face as a possible cause of death, we can resonate with the truth that humans cannot know God directly.
There are some who do get close though. Sometimes people experience God’s presence as overwhelming joy or a pervasive peace, a sense of being held or knowing that we are deeply loved.
Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician and physicist who lived in the 1600’s. He was also a devout Catholic. When he died, a servant found a piece of paper sewn into the lining of his coat. On it, he had written these words, “In the year of grace, 1654, Monday 23 November—from about half-past ten in the evening till about half an hour after midnight: FIRE God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the learned . . . Certitude, certitude; feeling, joy, peace. . . .God—let me not be separated from thee forever.”
John Wesley, the founder of what become the Methodist movement had a well-known moment which is often referred to his “Aldersgate experience.” His journal entry from May 24, 1738 reads:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where someone was reading [Martin] Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
I am amused that Wesley admits he did not want to go to that church meeting where he had such a profound encounter. Sometimes we have to talk ourselves into going to church. And sometimes, there is no place we would rather be.
You might remember the images from Syria on Christmas Eve 2016. There was a cease fire which allowed these Christians to celebrate Christmas together for the first time in five years. They gathered in a ruined cathedral, with the roof gone from bombings and open to the sky and the snow. They could have stayed at home or gotten together with friends someplace warm and dry. Instead, in the place that could no longer provide physical shelter, they sought spiritual refuge in the place where generations have known the presence of God.
Many people since Wesley have used his language about his heart being strangely warmed to describe their own encounters with the Divine. However, not all of us experience God in those mystical moments.
Some of us take shelter in the wisdom of those who practice the presence of God and share those experiences with us. The Apostle’s Creed speaks of the communion of saints. We share fellowship with other Christians across time and space by their writings. And so we learn from Pascal and Wesley, but also from Juliana of Norwich and Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen and Joan Chittister and a host of others.
We find spiritual refuge in mystical experience, prayer, music and worship and indirectly, through the spiritual experiences of others. God shelters us through other people. As the Irish proverb says, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
Psalm 27 also speaks about physical shelter. The writer wants to live within the temple for the protection it offers. I wonder how we might understand that? Some of us come to this building every week in order to receive the love and support of friends, as we share news of our lives, especially during the prayer time but also more generally. This is one kind of shelter a church offers.
But going back to the psalmist’s idea of dwelling in the temple – did you know that 44 people are living in 38 churches across the United States right now? They are at risk for deportation and so they live within the protection of the church walls, being supported and provided for by church members. Those 44 represent those who have made their sanctuary public. The authorities know where they are and could come for them at any time. There are an unknown number of people in secret sanctuary.
In the Central Africa Republic, a Catholic church is sheltering about 2,000 Muslim people. A 5-year-old conflict there has led to a Christian militia seeking vengeance on Muslim people. Armed men wait for people to leave the grounds of St. Peter Claver Cathedral and they incite others to violence. Church leaders accused of sheltering Muslim families are also being threatened, but the cathedral is committed to protecting the vulnerable.
There are many other stories of sanctuary and radical hospitality offered in the name of Jesus that we might tell if time allowed. We also know too many stories where those in need of shelter have been turned away or taken advantage of or abused. We need to attend to those stories, but I chose not to tell them today.
Instead I’m remembering that back when Moses wanted to be closer to God, he said, “Let me see your glory.” In response, God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” God’s answer is probably a clue about the nature of glory, that it resides with grace and mercy. And so I wonder if these stories of shelter and refuge are, in fact, some of the best ways we can see God’s glory. Maybe the signs of God’s presence are all around us, if we remember to look.
“The great lesson from the true mystics is that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends and family, in one’s back yard.” God’s glory passes before us every day.”
Maybe that is the source of the psalmist’s confidence, when he says “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” That is his declaration of faith, in spite of the lies, in spite of the violence surrounding him. And friends, we can also make that same affirmation -- we shall see the goodness of the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Amen.
 Marcus Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Contemporary Authentic Faith, (New York: HarperOne, 2006), p.46
 These words are attributed to Abraham Maslow. I have not found where and when he said them.