This Psalm is a kind of confession of faith expressing a profound trust in God. It begins with an affirmation of God’s protection; the worshiper takes refuge, finds shelter, flees for protection in God. We have a classic hymn that refers to God as “Our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”
The image here is one of shielding yourself against a hurricane wind… we know what that’s like. It is retreating to a place of safety where the powers of evil cannot harm you. When a tornado comes the family runs to the basement; when it is an earthquake you get out of the house, or you stand in a doorframe, I think. When it is war, you take refuge with the other refugees, and move to someplace far away from the fighting.
Where do we take refuge? Where do we find shelter when the challenges and assaults of life come at us? We all take refuge in something. Often it is determined by our personality. Some take refuge in anger and throw a temper tantrum; that’s the way they deal with the stress of existence. Others withdraw into themselves, sometimes even disappearing into literal refuges: a safe place. Some run away. Others may deal with stress by eating, or drinking, or self-medicating in some other fashion.
We may exercise; we may be consumed by sports on TV; we may go into our room and play really loud music to kind of create an aural barrier against whatever is assaulting us. We may get prescriptions for tranquilizers or anti-depressants.
Life has always been stressful. It is particularly stressful today. We live in a time of tremendous, cataclysmic, tectonic change. The economy, the climate, the family, the church, our nation, even our history… these are all changing. Much of the world today is nearly unrecognizable compared with what some of us knew 50 years ago. My 18 year-old son’s life is almost unintelligibly different from when I was 18.
I am not saying this is always necessarily a bad thing. A lot has improved! People don’t get lynched anymore. We’re not breathing DDT. Women have exponentially more opportunities. We have cable! We can watch movies on our phones!
But change itself is often disorienting and uncomfortable. It is actually painful and it makes us insecure because we don’t have any reliable sense of what tomorrow will bring.
Sometimes I would like to attach myself to “bedrock,” something solid and weighty that won’t move, that won’t shift with the wind or get swept away by the tide, something even a tsunami won’t budge. But even that image – bedrock – is somewhat unsteady because, as a geologist will tell you, even bedrock, the crust of the planet itself, is always moving.
Jesus tells us to build our houses on the solid rock of his teachings; and yet we see that even his teachings and the way we interpret them seem to be as changing and malleable as, well, rock.
So what does it mean to “take refuge” in God? Especially since we know that being a Christian and coming to church and praying doesn’t exempt you from any of these changes. How is it a “refuge” then? Where’s the “shelter from the stormy blast”?
The Psalm says, “I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.’” The Lord is our refuge. The Lord. God. Nothing else.
Sometimes we automatically make unwarranted assumptions. The Psalm does not say that God makes the storm go away. God provides a refuge in the storm, shelter from the storm, protection against the storm. We do not get to decide how God is going to be that refuge. If we think that “refuge” means “preserving things just as they were,” well, then I’m not quite sure what god you have in mind. For if we know anything from Scripture, we know that God does not preserve things just as they were.
If that were God’s agenda, the Israelites would still be in Egypt. The universe would still be nothing but the endless waters of chaos. The Messiah would never have come.
So we have to be deeply thankful that God is always entering our world to change, to transform, and to renew. And we have to realize that what God is doing is good. In truth, it is our only good, as the Psalm says. When we make the living God our refuge, we are affirming that we are only safe, secure, and protected when we are in tune with and riding along upon the changes God is bringing into the world. Indeed, we have to become ourselves the change God is bringing into the world.
Part of this change is a rejection of popular leaders who led the people after gods other than the Lord, and towards goals other than the establishment of God’s holy regime of equality and justice. These are the forces that want to keep things as they are, because they are benefitting from the present order of injustice and exploitation.
The Psalm rejects their blood offerings, which so often require the blood of the people, at least figuratively, and too often literally. They multiply the sorrows of others; therefore will their sorrows also be multiplied, in the end. They demand that we make them famous by talking about them… but the Psalm refuses to give them the attention they crave.
They need us to maintain their power; when we cease naming them they become irrelevant and powerless. When we do not let their names and images pervade our perceptions, they lose their hold over us. They are a distraction from our real work, which is following the Lord of love and living in God’s holy, forward- looking, change-bringing, transforming emancipated community.
The Psalm proclaims, against these principalities and powers, that: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.” Choosing the follow the Lord is not an arbitrary decision. It is not a matter of mere taste or sensibility. It is not just an intellectual, or aesthetic decision. Neither is it simply adherence to the traditions of our ancestors. We don’t choose our family… but we do have to choose which god we will follow.
That is, in choosing a god, we choose which world we will live in. Will we live in the world that is shaped by these other powers, invented by human beings, who serve to reinforce regimes of inequality, bondage, injustice, exploitation, and violence? Will we adhere to the values and practices and habits and relationships defined by Pharaoh, under whom the people were slaves in Egypt? Will we continue to have the many work to enrich the few?
Or will we participate in the values, practices, habits, and relationships of the Promised Land? That’s what the Psalm means when it talks about “boundary lines.” When the land was portioned out under Joshua, each tribe and each clan was given a fair share. These were gifts from God; they were not doled out by a king to his favorites. Neither did the people have to work for and earn their share in the open market. They each got a share, liberated from the grip of petty Canaanite tyrants, just for being a part of the people of God.
God’s intention is that the boundaries, that is to say, the portion given to each family or nation of the earth, be fair in the sense of adequate to support all the people living there. This is God’s will, the desire of the Creator: that we all have a goodly heritage, a delightful inheritance. The other gods were concocted and propped up to support hierarchies and social classes, with a few rich at the top, and everyone else down below. In the Lord’s plan, resources are distributed equitably. And when the distribution ever gets out of balance, they were to stop and redistribute it, according to Leviticus 25.
The planet as God made it can sustain all of us in abundance. What it can’t sustain is a small minority hoarding most of the resources, leaving the rest to subsist on what’s left, or starve. Taking refuge in the Lord means relying on God’s will, as we see it in Jesus Christ, that everyone have what they need. Those will little are given more; those with too much are strongly advised to share what they have taken.
To take refuge in the Lord, therefore, means to participate in changes like these. It means to be an agent of the transformation the God is bringing to life. It means choosing to live in God’s world, God’s Kingdom, God’s commonwealth of equality, and rejecting the inequalities and injustices inherent in the following of other, invented gods, gods who are just mascots for the ones calling the shots.
Taking refuge in God means witnessing to God’s revolutionary truth and living in a community where this truth is embodied in practices of sharing, healing, acceptance, joy, and service. To the rest of the world that looks like too much change too soon. The world prefers the illusions, fairy tales, and lies it has come to depend on to cope with or avoid uncomfortable change. The world would rather be sick and secure, than take the risks of transformation.
But those who love and bless the Lord, the God of love and liberation, find wisdom and knowledge. We find real security in participating in God’s changes. When we keep the Lord at the center of our attention, when we rely on the Lord Jesus and put his teachings to work at every opportunity, then, the Psalm says, we “shall not be moved.”
It means we shall not be diverted from our true direction and orientation. Our purpose and resolve will not be shaken because we know that what we follow is the true essence and trajectory of the universe. Justice, liberation, and equality are the nature of things; these values have been embedded into God’s creation from the beginning.
And if it has been embedded into creation, that means it has been embedded into us, into our bodies, which are parts of creation. It is interesting the way the Psalm recognizes this by mentioning body parts. We don’t get it in English because it’s been cleaned up. But in Hebrew, in verse 7, it literally says, “in the night also my kidneys instruct me.” English replaces kidneys with heart, because I guess the translators couldn’t imagine being instructed by their kidneys. (I know there have been times when my kidneys gave me very direct instructions… but that’s probably not what the text means.)
In verse 9, the word translated “soul” could even mean “liver”! My point here is to show that for this Psalm discipleship is far from being just a matter having to do with your head, your mind, your intellect, your opinions, what you think. God is with us in our very guts; God is part of our material makeup; God works through the cells and sinews of our bodies.
This is important because the Psalm proceeds to address the central threat and fear of death. If God animates and works through your physical body, then not even that dimension of us is separated from God in death. If God’s love reigns in our very organs, we can’t die.
This doesn’t mean we physically live forever, of course. But our mortal death doesn’t separate us from God or from our true selves in God. We are not given up to Sheol, the vague, shadowy Hebrew realm of the dead, much less a place of condemnation and extinction like hell. But our death is just another part of our transformation. It’s another change in God’s plan of renewal. It brings us closer to the truth, to God, to reality.
Our time here on earth is all about life! God is all about life! God shows us the path of life, the Psalm says. In God’s presence there is joy and even pleasure!
The Psalm realizes that it is the fear of death that is so powerful in our experience that it drives us to invent false securities. Fear is how the principalities and powers maintain their hold over us. Fear of death is what moves us to concoct gods and prop up leaders and do violence to each other, in a vain attempt to stave off death or substitute someone else’s death for our own. Fear is how empires keep their grip on us.
The fear of death makes death our master here and now. But the Lord is the God of life who reveals to us the path of life in Christ Jesus. And the path of life in this world has to be the path of change. It has to be the path of transformation. It has to have to do with the old world perishing while the new one, which is really the original, created world, is being born.
In our gospel reading Jesus talks about various cataclysms leading up to the fulfillment of time. But these do not represent the destruction of the earth. Jesus refers to them as “birth pangs.” Birth is the coming of new life! The emergence of new life is the point.
The reign of death has to be ended. But that’s just a side effect of a larger, more profound and powerful movement in which God’s new heaven and new earth, which is to say, heaven and earth liberated from the gravitational pull of extinction, emerge.
The God who is our refuge is the God of that movement from death to life. When God calls us to be disciples, God calls us to be this movement. God calls on us to be people who have turned their backs on the empire of death, and who are being reshaped, changed, transformed into participants in God’s kingdom of life. That is a kingdom characterized by equality, peace, healing, justice, welcoming, compassion, love, and joy.