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Sunday, September 25, 2016 |9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Our Refuge and Fortress
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
I built a timely room . . .
as timely as the body,
As frail, to shelter love’s eternal work,
Always unfinished . . .
The work of beauty, faith,
Eternally alive in time.
“The significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall has always seemed to me to be crucial” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, preface). That is how the Reverend Dr. Howard Thurman started his book Jesus and the Disinherited, a book whose origins began with lectures that he gave in the 1930s, eventually pulling them together and publishing them as a book in 1949. A book, by the way, that is as contemporary in our day and time as it was back when it was written.
Dr. Thurman’s thesis—how does the religion of Jesus impact those whose backs are always against the wall—became the primary frame through which he examined his Christian faith and its impact in the world. It was a focus, a frame, that Dr. Thurman had found missing in the majority of Christian theology at that time, in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet for Thurman, if one did not hold that focus as crucial, then one’s Christianity was “sterile and of little avail, . . . muffled, confused, and vague” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 11). The teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Thurman wrote, must be interpreted through the lived experience of those in our human history who are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.
While our text for today, Psalm 91, comes from what we call the Old Testament, Dr. Thurman’s focus can still guide us in our exploration of it. For example, since the shootings of Terrance Crutcher and Keith Lamott Scott in the past week and a half, I have been wondering again and again how does this psalm sound to those who still experience their backs against the wall, even today, in 2016? Since Charlotte is the city and culture I know most recently, I have been trying to imagine what it would feel like to bring Psalm 91 into the streets of Charlotte and to listen to it and pray it on the protest line, where so many of my North Carolina clergy friends reside these days and nights.
What does it mean to claim that “God is my refuge and my fortress; in whom I trust” when looking face-to-face with officers in riot gear and hearing the never-ending sound of helicopters circling overhead. How might it feel to assert that “God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler . . . and you will not fear the terror of the night or the arrow that flies by day” as you listen to the chants of protestors, the prayers of preachers, the orders of police officers, the horns of passing cars, the firing of tear gas canisters, and the breaking glass of windows from anger ignored for too long? What does this psalm sound like, promise, affirm, challenge for those whose backs feel against the wall and for those who have not ever lived with that feeling?
Lest we forget, the people of Israel had definitely lived with that feeling, and this psalm is a response to it. Though scholars disagree on exactly what date the psalm was written, this part of the book of Psalms is typically viewed as a response to Israel’s experience of exile. Dr. Brueggemann labels it as a psalm of new orientation, a psalm that unfolded in a season of hoped-for stability into which the people of Israel had finally entered after many difficult seasons of life in disorientation. Psalm 91 is a psalm of new confidence and renewed trust in God’s ability to be shelter, refuge, fortress, and strength, a psalm sung by a people who had just emerged from generations of living as outcast, backs up against the wall.
They had just come out of the time in their history when everything they knew had been ripped out from underneath them, their holy places destroyed, their families dispersed, and their communities decimated. As they moved from that stark space of exile and dislocation into a new space of flourishing and liberation, they started to sing this psalm. Psalm 91 celebrates that because of God’s faithfulness, even though their backs had been up against the Babylonian wall of domination and assimilation, the people of Israel had managed to survive. They had made it through. God had not failed them yet.
When we hear Psalm 91 that way, as an expression, an affirmation of the community’s bold trust and confidence in God’s protection and presence regardless of the circumstance, then the psalm itself takes on a spirit of protest and counter-testimony. With that spirit infusing its words, it’s actually not all that hard to imagine Psalm 91 being sung by people of all skin colors on the streets of Charlotte or in the sanctuaries of Tulsa or by the fierce moms’ group who camped out all summer long on an Englewood corner to keep it safe for the kids.
“OK,” the people of God sing through the verses of this psalm, “so we get knocked down. Because of God’s faithfulness, we will not be knocked out.” “OK,” the people of God sing as they come out of exile, “so our physical selves are subjected to captivity. Because of God’s faithfulness, our spiritual selves will stay free.” “OK,” the song continues, “so our children are constantly told by the dominant Babylonian culture that they are ‘other,’ nobodies, not important. Because of God’s faithfulness, we constantly tell them they are beloved, precious, and protected.” “You will tread on the lion and the adder,” the people of God sang to their children as they entered back into freedom; “the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.”
Dr. Otis Moss speaks of this kind of liberation moment as a “But God” moment. “You can try to take our life away from us, our hope away from us, our courage away from us,” the people of faith sing, “but God will lift us up.” Psalm 91 is a song of new confidence and renewed trust in God’s decision to be present with God’s people no matter what befalls them. “When they call to me,” this psalm has God singing in the end, “I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble; I will rescue them and honor them.”
It is a powerful song, this Psalm 91, a psalm that reminds us just who really does hold all of our lives, who offers us shelter and refuge no matter what is going on, who will not abandon us even when life is complex and the future is difficult to see. This psalm reminds us, as it did the people of Israel, of what Bill Coffin always preached: that our God is a God who gives us minimum protection but maximum support. It reminds us that no matter what may come, God is our ultimate ground of confidence, security, and hope.
So what, then, is the missiological impact of this text? That means, what claim might this psalm assert on our lives? As a people created in the image of such a God, what are we to do? Who are we to be? I believe this psalm asserts the claim that as a people created in the image of such a God, we are to purposefully bear that image of shelter—to intentionally reflect that image of refuge—out into the world for all people—with a particular Thurman-like focus for those who feel continually dislocated, those whose backs are against the wall. As a community of faith, we are charged to reflect the image—to live out the image—of God as shelter, refuge, fortress, strength into this place where God has put us.
One place I have seen that happen is at our Urban Farm. This past summer, after one of the Saturday cookouts at the farm, an event occurred that demonstrated to me the powerful way the Farm reflects a Psalm 91 image of God. As the cookout was beginning, people heard gunshots, an event in our city that is not all that unusual. But what struck me as unusual was how the families coming to the cookout reacted. I was told that instead of trying to get their kids back home as quickly as they could, the parents wanted to get their kids on to the farm property as quickly as they could. Now, I am sure that a variety of factors played into their decisions, but I also believe that one reason they wanted to get to the farm, even though its “wall of protection” is merely a chain-link fence, was because that farm stands as a shelter, a refuge for a whole variety of God’s people. Thanks to Chicago Lights staff like Natasha, Ben, Stephanie, Malcolm, and Jonathan, the kids and families and others who are a part of the farm’s life are fed both by the actual food grown on the property as well as by the community created on it.
There, in the middle of our city, grow trees and shrubs, flowers and plants. There, at the corner of Chicago and Hudson, built on the top of concrete, in the middle of a neighborhood full of beauty and pain, stand greenhouses and carefully cultivated beds of soil. From my own experience there and from the stories I am told, I know the Urban Farm is one way that we reflect the image of our God as shelter and refuge for all who need it.
I also see this image of God as shelter and refuge reflected through something as simple as our courtyard space, what we call the Garth. My office is located above it, so I get to look out and see all the people who are drawn to it. I’ve seen a man with long dreadlocks standing and singing hymns in a deep baritone, lifting up his music as an offering. I’ve seen Muslim women in hijab, taking pictures of their little ones by the fountain or eating lunch sitting on the steps. I’ve seen lots of T-shirted tourists with cameras and iPhones, fascinated by the architecture and the stark contrast to the tall buildings all around. I’ve seen people who look plain worn out and beat down; people who come to lay down their burdens for a bit; and people who want to just sit and escape the competitive consumerism of Michigan Avenue. Many people who stop by seem to just want a moment of peace before moving back into the hustle and bustle of our city.
To be honest with you, I can spend a lot of time staring out my window because I feel like I am getting a preview of the kingdom of God when I see the diversity of humanity drawn into that space. Something as simple as a courtyard serves as a faithful reflection of God as shelter and refuge, a fortress of sorts for those who need it, no matter what time or why.
Now, I realize I have just named two physical locations, and it might indeed be easier to imagine how an actual space can reflect the image of a Psalm 91 God. But this image is not just about actual space. We, as a community of people, are called to do it too. We are called to corporately reflect God’s shelter, refuge, and strength for each other and for our community by the way we treat each other and by the way we welcome the stranger as a part of the family. That is the harder task.
I know, you know, that we, as a faith community, still have work to do if we are going to fully live out the image of God sung in Psalm 91. Not all people feel like this congregation is a safe place for them. Not all people feel they would be welcomed just as they are. They wonder if they are too conservative or too progressive. They wonder if they have the right clothes or the right connections or the right education. Some wonder if they have the right skin color or the right language or the right job. I’ve heard some people wonder if our congregation’s reflection of God as shelter is truly big enough to authentically include them, to be a real refuge for them. They are not quite convinced just yet. That is what some people, including some of you, have told me. So yes, we still have work to do if we are going to fully live out God’s reflection of shelter, refuge, fortress, and strength for all who need it, including ourselves and those we don’t yet know.
And yet—or as Pastor Moss would say—but God is not done with us yet. Therefore we must constantly ask ourselves what is the image of God that we reflect in our lives, in our ministry, in our words? Do we reflect the image of a Psalm 91 God? A God who promises presence no matter what is going on. A God who is bound and determined to stick in there with us, with this world God created. A God who summons us to pay close attention to how we practice our Christian faith and how that practice or lack thereof impacts others. Is the way we live out our faith “sterile and of little avail, . . . muffled, confused and vague,” as Dr. Thurman would ask?
Or is the way we live our faith reflective of a God who cares deeply for all people, who offers shelter and love for all people—especially those whose backs are against the wall, who regularly feel disinherited and dispossessed. Do we reflect shelter, refuge, fortress, and strength for them—both in word and in deed? For each other?
Psalm 91 is a powerful song. It is a song to sing on the protest lines and in the sanctuaries, on urban farms and in a quiet courtyard. It is a song that reminds us God will fulfill God’s promise to be shelter, refuge, fortress, and strength. As a matter of fact, God already has. So the question then becomes how might we more fully reflect the image of this God in whom we ultimately trust? Amen.