Taking Refuge Psalm 23
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA October 15, 2017
On KQED one morning this week, a couple from Santa Rosa shared their story about the fires. Like many, they had virtually no notice, and fled their home in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They lost their home and everything in it. While still in shock, they felt lucky to have their lives.
What I found significant about their story was their honesty. “You want to blame someone,” the woman said. “But there’s no one to blame. The only thing you can do is keep moving forward.”
Like most of you I imagine this week, I have been glued to coverage of fires, communicating with friends and colleagues who are directly affected, seeking information about how to help. And while there is no one to blame, there are questions. How? Why?
Sometimes there are answers to the How and the Why—we know that winds contributed, we know that several years of drought followed by last winter’s wetness contribute, but often there aren’t answers to the questions of “How?” and “Why?” Throughout the ages, as our ancestors in faith encountered tragedy, loss, disappointment and suffering, they spoke their questions, shouted their anger, whispered their fear, sang their joy, to God. The psalms, or songs, captured all of these things, and while they are indeed human words to God, they are also instruction and guidance for the faithful, God’s words to us. For ages, the Psalms have been a refuge; when there is no clear answer to How and Why, there is still God.
In the Buddhist tradition, the three jewels of refuge are the person of the Buddha, the path of the dharma which is the way and the teachings of Buddhism, and the sangha, the community of the practitioners. When a person accepts Buddhist philosophy and seeks to make it a part of their life, they profess, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.”
For Christians and for Jews before us, the Psalms have reminded us of our places of refuge, assuring us with the overriding message of scripture that God is with us, that the path laid out for us through the scripture is sure and true, and that the community of the faithful will accompany us through all of life’s twists and turns. I take refuge in God who is always with me, I take refuge in the
scriptures and path of my tradition, I take refuge in the community that surrounds me with love and care.
Today’s lectionary Psalm is perhaps the best known of all Psalms, Psalm 23, which felt heavensent as solace in a time when comfort and assurance are sorely needed. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This week, my friend Ruth Harder who is here with us this morning, has been visiting from Kansas City where she is pastor of the Methodist-Mennonite congregation I grew up in, then called the Rainbow Sharing Community. The Methodists have, as they say, left the building, but Mennonite congregation carries on as Rainbow Mennonite Church. The story of how Ruth and I came to know each other is to me an example of the often invisible but sure web of connections we have through Christian community. Though we both have occupied the same congregational spaces and community, we did so at different times in history—I as a child in the 70s and Ruth as a pastor now in the 2010s. I wasn’t aware of her, and she wasn’t aware of me, but became aware of each other through the community of Christians; indeed we were connected, even though we did not know it.
At a gathering in New York a few years ago, I happened to sit down by a Mennonite minister working in the national office. We began talking. “I have some Mennonite roots,” I shared, and told him of my early years in Kansas City in what was then an ecumenical experiment of three denominations—Mennonite, Methodist and Disciples of Christ—working together in one congregation. He was aware of the Rainbow congregation and in turn shared with me about their great new pastor, assuring me that the work of witness and justice I connected with the Rainbow congregation was continuing.
Shortly after that, I received an email from Rainbow’s pastor, Ruth, learning that he had carried back to her the connection. We began a correspondence. Last summer I had the privilege and blessing of returning to that congregation at Ruth’s invitation to preach. The visit brought home to me the incredible web of connections of which I am a part as a member of the community of God. To be known, to be held as an essential point in the web, this is blessing beyond blessing.
Indeed if suffering is essentially an experience of isolation, then its antidote must be connection and deep relationship.
In this last week, we have seen and been aware of the ways in which the community of the faithful, not always known to us in all its dimensions but still ever present, has held back the ravages of suffering, that valley of the shadow of death, for many. In Santa Rosa, the First United Methodist
Church has become an evacuation center. As I shared earlier, Pastor Lindsey Kerr reached out yesterday and asked if Epworth could provide respite for the volunteers who have been working around the clock for the last 6 days, responding to the needs of traumatized. My sense was that the level of exhaustion, trauma, and sadness had not fully hit Lindsey until she stepped away for a minute to ask for help. I’m grateful that she knew she could count on this community; we are all part of an intricate web, empowered by the Holy Spirit, holding us and catching us in ways beyond our comprehension. I take refuge in the community.
Last night, giving examples of how people have cared for each other, shown up with miracles and graces, Lindsey wrote, “Indeed, the name of this city is ‘The Lord is Present.” In the midst of shock and grief, and the unpredictability of the fires, what has been predictable is God. The natural world can be unpredictable, people can be unpredictable, but God is always predictable. To the extent that God surprises us it is only because there is always far more for us to understand about God’s abiding presence, God’s comfort, God’s showing up.
One of the gifts of being back in the parish I grew up in last summer was being able to visit the parsonage I lived in from age three to ten. As with many things we knew from childhood and visit as adults, it was much smaller than I remembered! It actually is a pretty large two story house with full attic, but in my mind, it was HUGE! As I walked through the house, I remembered the interior doors, which were the paneled kind with the lines making crosses between the panels. As a child, these crosses seemed intentional, I believed that the church people had put them there to be an ever present reminder that God is always with us, going before and coming behind. I later learned that this was just one of many styles for interior doors. But that early experience of God’s constant presence remains. I take refuge in the Good shepherd, who is always with me.
As folks have shared their stories from the fires, one of the themes has been the manifestations of God. How has God shown up for you with presence?
This week Pastor Ruth shared with me the publication she and the Rainbow congregation wrote together on Psalm 23. She challenged the congregation to write their own versions of this classic Psalm, and we will hear two of these versions from Cathy and Caleb this morning. The original Hebrew words can of course be translated in various ways. In the third line, which typically is rendered, “He restores my soul,” “soul” is the Hebrew word “nephesh.” Nephesh can also be translated life or breath, but also sentient being. This week, as beings across the Sonoma and Napa valleys, even into the Bay area and Central Valley, fought for breath, we were reminded of the breath
of life that is available at all times. The breath of God, of our spirit and souls that gives us life. The scripture reminds us of this; I take refuge in the scripture and in the tradition.
San Francisco writer and activist Rebecca Solnit has written about the ways in which disasters can bring us back to our core. Not that they are to be courted by any means, but they open a window for us of our true nature—a nature that is connected, that seeks a purposeful path, that is loving and altruistic, that is deeply spiritual. In A Paradise Built in Hell Solnit writes, [after losing power] “In these disaster-struck cities, people suddenly found themselves under the canopy of stars still visible in small and remote places. On the warm night of August 15, 2003, the Milky Way could be seen in New York City, a heavenly realm long lost to view until the blackout that hit the northeast late that afternoon. You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears a reversion to the improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society. However beautiful the stars of a suddenly visible night sky, few nowadays could find their way by them, but the constellations of solidary, altruism, and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times…The loss of power, the disaster in the modern sense, is an affliction, but the reappearance of these old heavens is its opposite.”
Of course these old heavens haven’t so much “reappeared” as become visible. They were always there. A friend of mine who lives with his husband in Santa Rosa near the winery that has been in his husband’s family since the 1950s told of how his father in law was handling the loss of power and the loss of place. “He knows who and whose he is and where real power comes from.”
We have experienced a tragedy of significant proportion this week, but regularly life confronts us with experiences of loss, of shock, of destabilizing effect that call us to remember who and whose we are. To remember that refuge is always available. And in refuge, there is connection. There is peace. There is life. There is God. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.