“refuge,” February 28, 2016

refuge

Responsive Call to Worship
We are called by God
commanded in Scripture
to welcome the alien—the stranger—
to care for them
remembering when our own ancestors were refugees—
fleeing danger and grief
in pursuit of a dream—
a dream of hope and possibility
of freedom from fear—
the freedom to live abundantly—
providing for self and others—
sustaining the dream
for those yet to come.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Psalm 46:1-3
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

Psalm 31:20
In the shelter of your presence you hide them
from human plots;
you hold them safe under your shelter
from contentious tongues.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Today we remember and celebrate John Duvall
in this the 21st year after his untimely death of cancer.
In part we remember and celebrate his commitment to this church
and to the work of God through and beyond this church—
by taking the opportunity, on an annual basis,
to remember him as one so very invested in our service ministry—
so very invested in our community
and its needs as our opportunity—
by taking a Sunday in February or March
as part of our ongoing commitment
to what was so important to him—
a Sunday we name the John Duvall Mission Sunday.

I was in touch with Cheryl recently—
told her the service ministry theme this year was “refuge,”
and that we were going to consider refugees on this Sunday
through the lens of our own experience with the Nadeem family—
with Gerald and his family—
through the lens of that part of their experience
they shared with us that is also our experience.
The world is, in truth, at our door.
Cheryl wrote back:
“Love the theme for the John Duvall Missions Sunday.
When we were at Seventh Baptist,
the rowhouses across the street belonged to the church (all but one),
and we used the houses to provide
free or inexpensive housing for refugees,
mostly Vietnamese at that time.”
The world has always been at our door.

So for the past couple of weeks,
I’ve been thinking of the word “refuge”—
and corresponding words like “shelter”—
and “fortress”—“rock”—“sanctuary.”

And to be honest, I don’t think we know what they mean.
Oh, we know their definitions, sure—
we know what they represent.
And yes, they’re integral to our scriptures.
We’ve read several of the verses today.
They are, in fact, so integral to our sacred texts
they have become integral to our hymnody.

These are words we sing—from “How Firm a Foundation,”
“What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”
“A Mighty Fortress”—
“Rock of Ages”—“On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand”—
and from “O God, Our Help In Ages Past”:
“our shelter from the stormy blast ….”
We have sung, too—our youth have sung more,
the song, “Sanctuary”—a word, “sanctuary,” inseparable from church—
some would say church building.
I would not. We would not, right?
Sanctuary is integral to what church is—how church is—
whether it’s part of a church building or not.

So why would I suggest we don’t know what these words mean?

Because we don’t need them.
Or don’t think we do.

These are all words that imply
a certain level of fear—
of desperation and danger.
They are a particular response to a level of fear,
desperation, danger—that is foreign to us,
and of which we do not wish any more intimate knowledge.

Except—
except maybe we knew something of these words—
a touch of their truth,
during the blizzard last month—
during the torrential downpours this past week.
Oh, and in the heat of summer.
Then we do have a sense of it, do we not?—
of what it really means to not only have a shelter,
but to know we need one—
a refuge,
and to have a sense of what life would be without one.

Because it’s an escape, isn’t it?—
from the intolerable—
from the unbearable—
from the unsurvivable.

Now it must be said—
let it be acknowledged,
I speak from a position of privilege.
We must confess, there are too many of us
in this country of ours,
who do know, all too well,
the fear and desperation
that lead to the longing for—the need for
refuge—shelter—sanctuary.

So let it be said,
the words we don’t understand
and really don’t want to understand,
and the people who do understand them,
all stand as invitation to us—
invitation, like fasting is invitation—
we’ve said it before—
to face one kind of hunger
to identify another—
to ask what is it for which I truly hunger?—
to identify that which truly nourishes.

I’ve told you before,
of my second year in college
in Charlottesville—
after having grown up in the conversation of faith—
in a family of faith—
having grown up in the church
with the stories and the hymns—
the praying and the affirmations,
this was another year of little to no church attendance.
Came the Sunday I went to University Baptist,
right there on Main Street.
Sat at the back, hoping no one would talk to me!
And noticed the communion table up front,
set up for communion,
and realized I was hungry.
I’m not sure I have felt that hunger that way since,
but I knew it that day—
knew what I was hungry for.

We are, for the most part,
those who eat because it’s time to eat—
rarely because we know true hunger.

Like fasting, these words of refuge
and shelter and sanctuary
are woven into our faith tradition
as reminder and as invitation—
to remind us of depths most of us have forgotten—
most of us do not know
day to day—
to invite us back to those depths.

We read these texts,
we sing these hymns—
to be reminded
that these words were once real to us—
that we were once the strangers—
the minority—
the others—
the excluded—
the left-out—
the despised—
that we once did need God
as shelter and refuge,
and then to be reminded
we have a responsibility
to those for whom these words are still real.

We need to be regularly reminded.
Such an important part of church is reminding each other.
We share a history here, we remind ourselves,
rooted in our experience as the people of God
and in God’s expectations of God’s people—
rooted as well, in our experience as the people of this country—
this country of immigrants—some long ago—
some less long ago.

There’s the command, amidst the commandments of Sinai:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien,
for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21),
and its parallel in Deuteronomy (10:19).

We are never to forget:
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor;
he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien …”
(Deuteronomy 26:5).

God is explicitly clear:
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you;
you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:
I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

Embedded in our story as the people of God—
constitutive to our identity as the people of God—
and explicitly named an expectation of our God:
we must consider what we have
that too many do not—
and not just as motivation for gratitude,
but as invitation from God.
What we no longer intimately understand,
the least of these do.
Jesus does.

It’s not necessarily that our own experience makes us open,
but that the stories of our ancestors should—
our ancestors in faith heritage and in national heritage—
that the being and expectations of our God should.
We share a memory—a story—
a tradition and history of openness and respect—
that transcends us—
a God who calls us to ever more transcendence—
which is the point,
in a culture that basically affirms nothing transcends us!

The stories of our ancestors
and God’s expectations of how we should be treating others now
not only reaffirm what we know
(that the world is always at our door),
but also pose the question: when there’s someone at our door,
what do we do?—how do we respond?—
reminding us always,
that long before someone was at our door,
we were at someone else’s.

And there can be no doubt here—
no ambiguity,
according to our texts and hymns—
according to the named expectations of our God,
the ones outside?—we are called to invite them in.
The ones left out?—we are called to extend our welcome.
The excluded?—we are called to include.
The unloved, and sometimes, the unlovable?—
we are called to love.

There’s another word—
a word of our sacred texts—of our hymns—of our God—
that I believe sums all of these words up—
refuge—shelter—sanctuary.
in that hymn, “O God, Our Help In Ages Past”:
we sing: “our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our— (eternal home).”

It is not our job to shrink that “our,”
but to welcome into it.
The church has too much claimed
as its question to answer:
who belongs here and who doesn’t?
That’s not our question to ask or answer.
We are simply called to welcome everybody in—
to offer good news—
to welcome everybody home.
May it be so.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Psalm 91:1-2
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’

Psalm 59:17
O my strength, I will sing praises to you,
for you, O God, are my fortress,
the God who shows me steadfast love.

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