Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
October 14, 2018
Texts:1 Samuel 21:8-15; Psalms 56 and 57
Some of us as children took refuge from a world we did not understand in books; others of us did it in music or art. They offered us more than a respite from a constrained world; they ushered us to places we could only imagine in our wildest dreams. Books did it with words, art with our visual imaginations, and music allowed us to soar into worlds unknown.
For women in the Middle Ages, the convent offered a refuge from forced marriages, especially when contracted in return for property or power. Daughters of fathers seek-ing power found convent life a respite from a world that would make them little more than bargaining chips. Al-though intended to be a refuge from the power politics of the day, the church often reflected those politics as bishops and popes struggled against the power of princes and kings.
We usually think of refuge as a place where not only have people fled but have found safety from the terrors of war and violence, but most places of refuge have also be-come places where people simply survive. Some are temp-orary, or at least, meant to be temporary; what were refu-gee camps in places like the Occupied Territories known as Palestine have become a kind of cities in themselves, housing people who will never be able to return to their point of origin.
We here in the United States have a mixed record regarding refuge. In 1939 the United States turned away the St. Louis filled with 937 Jewish refugees who were then returned to Europe where after docking in Antwerp, the passengers were divided between four European countries: Belgium, England, Holland, and France. Three of those countries ended up under Nazi rule and many were sent to places that still have the ring of horror: Auschwitz, Dachau, Golleschau. They died.
For a good part of his young life David was a refugee, fleeing the jealousy of Saul. Like modern refugees, he hid in caves, walked across barren lands, and sought protection from others. During this terrible time in David’s life, he put his trust in God, alternating between wishing for the deaths of his enemies and praying that they would only be de-feated.
We don’t think of ourselves as people who need to take refuge but in reality there are a number of things in this world from which we need to seek refuge. We may ask, what are those things? What overwhelms us so that we feel we have no room to breathe? Ultimately, that is what refuge really is: room to breathe – let’s call it spiritual space. We all need a place of spiritual space.
Spiritual space, that place of internal refuge, seems so very often difficult to find. Part of the difficulty – at least I think – is that we try had, perhaps too hard, to find something that more often than not, happens by serendipity. It’s a strange word, serendipity. We think we want it but we’re not quite sure what it is.
What is serendipity? The word was actually coined in 1794 by Horace Walpole, remembered not for his service in the House of Lords but as the author of the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Oranto. He had read a Persian story entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose main char-acters were always making discoveries by sheer accident and decided that English needed a word to describe the delight in finding something utterly unintentionally. Hence, serendipity!
Spiritual space is a bit like that, something we did not quite expect but, clearly, something essential, once it falls into our consciousness. If you are an internet junkie you can find all kinds of so-called ways to finding spiritual space. But it’s really not a matter of sheer discipline or desire as we read this morning’s Psalms, or David’s still trying to control the events around him, even through the God he calls on in his distress.
There are glimpses of spiritual space in these two Psalms: Grant me grace, O God, grant me grace, for in you have I taken shelter, in the shadow of your wings do I take shelter. But as for most of us, we vacillate between the deep spiritual space we have carved out and our demand for a recompense though not like David’s which called for death to his enemies.
Sometimes we seek refuge from what troubles us in one way but fall into it in another. The Psalms remind us time and again that God is our refuge in times of trouble. But what does that mean? Certainly not that God is a deus ex machina as in a Greek play suddenly appearing and transporting us out of our predicament as Medea was whisked away to the safety of Athens. Instead, I would argue, that it’s allowing ourselves the spiritual space to be open to God’s presence in our lives.
That, of course, is always easier said than done. We talk about giving ourselves the room to develop spiritual space but in the busyness of our lives, we neglect to do that. There are times that I feel so overwhelmed by the press of demands upon me that I want to shut down. I daresay that most, if not all, of us experience those feelings from time to time.
That’s the role of serendipity. It’s not a deus ex machina but the surprise of something unexpected that draws us back to what should be our center. It can happen when we feel the press of events around us that we cannot control. This isn’t what a simplistic “God is in charge” approach, but a willingness to open ourselves to the unexpected.
The two Psalms we read this morning speak of David’s trust that God will protect him and vindicate him in his battles with his enemies. However, David, even while fleeing to places of refuge did not just accept refuge and do nothing. During all the times he was fleeing from Saul, he also made plans for the next step.
David gathered forces and in the end prevailed. True, he paid a high price for some of his decisions as he sought to solidify his position. There are times we do have unexpected consequences of what we thought were our best laid plans.
Sometimes those unexpected consequences can give us the spiritual space we need not just to consider our options when faced with a difficult situation but also to think about how those options open us to a deeper rela-tionship with God and each other. The reason that I sug-gest our relationship with God is intertwined with our relationship with each other is that we are not hermits.
Even the old hermits – and the hermits were both male and female – who lived in the desert seeking what they con-sidered to be a pure relationship with God found that they needed community with another. In fact, their relationship with God deepened as they found that community.
Spiritual space, the place of refuge, actually is heightened by our alternative experiences of solitude and company. We live in community and some of us need to retreat to places of the mind, of the spirit for that spiritual space, that place of refuge so important to us as human beings.
If you think about it, consider the places or exper-iences that have offered you that place of refuge. The experience of the spiritual derives from the human urge to transcend self or the present moment and connect with something beyond our limited selves in some larger way.
As Christians, we do that by opening ourselves up to God through the life and vision of Jesus of Nazareth. We pro-bably have different views and responses to what that entails and that is what makes our faith energetic and exciting.
In seeking refuge from Saul’s jealousy, David calls on God in these two Psalms for more than physical pro-tection. He also asks for God’s grace and for the strength that God gives him to put his trust in God. How often when we are beset by the pressures that surround us we find we need that same strength to put our trust in God. And it’s not always easy to do that.
That is the role of serendipity – the unexpected opening to God that occurs when we least expect it. The serendipity of faith and trust – for that is what faith is – trust – can surprise us and open us to something we never expected,
Although we think of refuge as physical safety, which it certainly is, we should also consider the spiritual refuge we all need and through the grace of God are able to achieve.
Let us come to God in prayer: Ever-surprising God, be with us as we search for your presence in our lives and surprise us with your grace found in unexpected places. In the name of him who surprised us with love, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.