Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Psalm 71: 1-6
Message: Refuge in All Ages
Have you ever felt alone, left out, forgotten, unloved? My guess is there is not a person here who can say “no” to that question. We all have felt that. My mother taught me a song when I was a child. She said she sang it when she was a child whenever she was feeling particularly lonely, unseen or unloved. Maybe you’ve heard it. It starts out, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m going to the garden and eat worms. Little slick slimy ones, big fat juicy ones, I’m going to the garden and eat worms.” I googled that song in preparation for this sermon and found not only is the song still around there are so many verses I didn’t even know about! And of course, when she shared that song with me, it made me laugh, thinking of my own composed and strong mother as a child singing this song and contemplating eating worms.
However silly or lighthearted the song might sound, it touches on a very real human experience of pain, of isolation and feeling persecuted, and a very human need, to be loved, seen and appreciated, secure. Though these feelings that begin in the earliest stages of life can be assuaged—hopefully not by eating worms—they are feelings that resurface throughout life, they can show up in particular ways at different stages of life—maybe in middle school the sense of aloneness is related to peer group dynamics, or later in adulthood these feelings may manifest because of a dynamic in a primary relationship with a spouse or partner. They can manifest as a result of a loss of a loved one, or sense of purpose in trying to find or land a new job, or as a result of a conflict one finds one’s self in, not being able to see the way through.
In our scripture today from Psalm 71, the writer, who is believed to be King David, is writing at the end of his life, and it sounds like he’s having a “nobody loves me, everybody hates me” moment. In spite of his long life of accomplishment, his large circle of friends and acquaintances, his spiritual community and his attempts to be a faithful leader, he is concerned that he is surrounded by enemies who seek to do him harm. And so the Psalm begins, “In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me. Incline your ear to me and save me. Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me, for you are my rock and my refuge. Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel. For you O Lord are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.” What beautiful words of both need and assurance, seeking and finding, human frailty and divine love.
One of the important things to know about Psalms, as noted last week when we talked about Psalm 19, is that Psalms are often written in a particular structure that helps to emphasize the point of what is being expressed. In Psalm 71, it is a structure that couples a request for help with a statement of trust. This coupling is repeated two more times in the whole Psalm as the Psalmist goes names his feelings of insecurity, then names different points throughout his life when he has needed God and God answers. Hear these words from verses 17 and 18, “O God, from my youth you have taught me and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.” We get the sense that the Psalmist is looking back on many years and in spite of feeling insecure and lonely at that moment, he has no doubt about where his refuge lies, and where it has always been.
This week I had the privilege of sharing communion with one of Epworth’s elders, who was born into a strong Methodist community in Iowa. We reminisced some, and realized we had both been a part of what was called Institute, a week-long camp of discussion, singing, fun, learning and growing for Methodist youth from across a whole state conducted on the campus of the state’s Methodist college. As an Iowan, his Institute was held at Simpson College where Rev. Dr. Jan Everhart who preached at Epworth a few weeks ago was a long-time professor, and mine, as a Kansan, was held at Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas. These “Institutes” brought together hundreds of youth each summer, a refuge in a time when we were facing choices about who we would be in the world, what we valued, and how we would act in ways consistent with those values. The timeless wisdom of the scriptures, interpreted in the light of issues of the day, and perhaps more importantly the issues that we cared about provided us a fortress and foundation. I remember the most popular session at my Institute theologically deconstructed cursing, and the arguments presented by one of the younger clergy in our conference, a man not much older than many of us, have stayed with me to this day.
As this Epworth elder and I sat talking, I looked around the living room at the many reminders of a life anchored in the refuge of faith. One thing in particular we talked about were the Methodist hymnals on one of the bookshelves. He had the Methodist hymnal from 1935 and then the hymnal that came after that which dates from 1968. He said he grew up with the hymnal from 35, and I grew up with this one, published in 1966 as the Methodist hymnal, then renamed in 1968 with the merger of the Methodist Church and the United Brethren Church to be the United Methodist Hymnal. It struck me how different those moments in history were—one the midpoint of the great depression, the other a period of great struggle and some progress for civil and human rights—different but still times of great need. And yet in both of these moments, and throughout history, the hymnal, as a repository of expressions of our faith—our needs, our hopes, our longings, our praise, our trust—provided refuge for the faithful in those times. This hymnal, the one I grew up with, was my mother-in-law’s hymnal. It has prayers and bookmarks in the pages, the back cover has pasted in it the benediction song her congregation sang at the end of each service: “May the Lord, mighty God, Bless and keep you forever.” So much refuge contained in this one book.
We are in another very challenging historical moment. People are exhausted from the loss and adjustments stemming from COVID. As we’ve pulled back from certain kinds of interactions, and lost many of the serendipitous moments of running into a friend and catching up, a sense of isolation, or even of not being loved, is real. And the grief in losing loved ones and relationships is real. And yet we, like the Psalmist, whether we are young or old or in-between, have experienced the grace and presence of God in a time of need. Maybe we didn’t recognize it in that way at that time, maybe we don’t recognize it in that way even now, but whenever something went right, and when you think about it, about a thousand things a day do go well, we just don’t think about them because they are not causing us trouble, or whenever someone showed up or offered a kind word or a sense of peace and presence came to us in a time of aloneness, this was God. In fact, you are all here this morning, because God beckoned you into a place of refuge!
Whatever our age or particular struggle in life, we can find refuge by following the example of our Psalmist—expressing our need, then following that up with an expression of trust. Naming need, proclaiming trust. Though our challenges in life change, this pattern doesn’t. Though we may imagine that challenges and problems would dissipate as we get older, the fact is that life actually gets more and more complex. And yet our place refuge and source of strength never wavers, and that source and place are God.
The writer Anne Lamott addresses this reality in her well-loved book Traveling Mercies with her trademark humor. She writes, “It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life [and I would insert here, “God and the church”] handed you these rusty bent old tools — friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty — and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”
You see, what Psalm 71 is trying to tell us is not just that God is our refuge, but that it takes a life lived in faith to access and recognize that refuge. Think about the Methodist youth Institutes both Tom and I experienced that were so impactful and formative to us. These places of refuge didn’t magically appear one week out of nowhere on the prairie. They were the result of a whole milieu of faithful individuals making commitments, showing up, reaching out, weaving a fabric strong enough to catch and hold generations of youth, strong enough to keep holding us in the grace and mercy of God at every moment in our lives. The refuge you’ve found and known is needed by so many others.
And so remember to name your need, and proclaim your trust. Know that God is with us as our rock and refuge not just at the different times of need in our own lives but throughout generations. May we give thanks for the one who gives refuge, and lead others to it as well. Amen.
Order of Worship
The Community Gathers... Prelude: "Cello Suite 1: Sarabande (viola)" J.S. Bach - Caroline Lee Welcome - Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking Gathering Music: "As the Deer" The Faith We Sing #2025 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno Prayer for Illumination - Melanie Green
Opening Hymn: "A Might Fortress is our God" UM Hymnal #110 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Albert Sammons, Jr. To Hear the Word... Scripture Reading: Psalm 71: 1-6 - Pat Bruce-Lerrigo Children's Message - Susan Jardin Anthem: "Sanctuary" by Eliza Gilkyson - Judy Kriege Message: "Refuge through the Ages" - Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking To Respond and Renew Commitment... Hymn of Response: "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry" - The Faith We Sing #2051 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Danica Elliott Prayers of the People: "Praise the Name of Jesus" - courtesy United Methodists of Greater New Jersey Annual Conference
If you have a prayer request or are interested in longer-term spiritual accompaniment from a Stephen Minister, please email email@example.com The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer) Our Creator (Father/Mother), who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom (kin-dom) come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom (kin-dom), and the power, and the glory forever. Amen. Offering Our Resources and our Energy Give online at www.epworthberkeley.org/donate or, send a text message with the dollar amount you wish to give to +1-833-276-7680. Offertory: "Sanctuary" The Faith We Sing #2164 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno Prayer of Dedication - Melanie Green To Go Forth with Love and Compassion *Closing Hymn: “Saranam” UM Hymnal #523 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Margot Hanson Sending Forth - Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking Postlude: "Fantasy in G minor" J.S. Bach - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special Thanks To: Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking Worship Leaders: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Pat Bruce-Lerrigo, Cathryn Bruno, Danica Elliott, Melanie Green, Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Caroline Lee, Albert Sammons, Jr. Guest Musicians: United Methodists of Greater New Jersey Annual Conference Video produce: Tai Jokela Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey Director of communications: Merrie Bunt Credits: Liturgy by enfleshed. Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.