Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
February 4, 2018
Texts: Psalm 5; 1 Samuel 23: 15-29
We’ve all seen them, the photos of women and children, young men and old fleeing some kind of violence in their native countries. It almost doesn’t even matter whether they come from Syria, or Myanmar. The faces are the same, full of fear and anxiety, the images of women clutching children as they cross rivers and seas, men pushing boats to shore, desperate, all seeking refuge, either from a dictator bent on destroying his own country or from a military looking to eradicate a minority under the guide of fighting terrorism while a former Nobel laureate provides nothing but silence. And we see the same faces here from immigrants afraid of being separated from their children as they are deported.
All seeking refuge from war and violence, yes, but as the Psalm this morning so clearly states, we also seek refuge from ourselves, the most difficult refuge. Indeed, this Psalm speaks to the internal conflict we face as we seek to be faithful witnesses to the One who calls us to care for the refugee, the displaced, the homeless, and those destroyed by poverty and the terror within their own souls. For we also cry, as does David, that the Lord will hear our prayer as we plead our case and we hope that God will bless us if we fill our lives with acts of truth and justice.
Seeking refuge as David had to do many times, first from Saul, a King angered over the praise given to David or from his own son Absalom who led a revolt against him. But, the greatest refuge David needed was much like our own: seeking refuge from ourselves.
It is the most difficult refuge of all to seek – and to find. Troubled by the demands of the Gospel, we seek refuge in the explanations of why particular points in the Gospel just do not make sense in the modern world. Take, for instance, the command of Jesus against violence – of all kinds. How then can we support having an army or a navy?
Well, we say, get real. Those sayings of Jesus really do not apply in our modern world. Besides, we say, we do not do violence to others and it’s a bit ridiculous to ascribe the actions of a government to its citizens. That excuse might make sense if we were peasants in some third-world country, but we are not. The very foundation of our society and government here in America is that we are participants in the government, even if we disagree with its direction.
Which is the point, of course. If we disagree with the government, then it is our duty – no—our responsibility to state our objections and to act accordingly. As this psalm attributed to David says, “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousnessm . . . make your way straight before me.” When we are led into the paths of God’s righteousness, we find that there is no refuge from its implications and demands.
Those implications and demands are for our internal selves as well as our place in the world. This psalm tells us that we cannot hide within ourselves and that we must respond to God’s demands, God’s requirements rather than the ones we establish for ourselves.
The Anglican prayer known as the Collect for Purity puts it this way in addressing God: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid . . . Both the Psalm and the Collect tell us that we cannot hide from our internal conflicts, that we must move beyond taking refuge in ourselves, our own minds and hearts.
Taking refuge in ourselves is one of our greatest temptations. We bury ourselves in the demands we actually put upon ourselves rather than in the demands the Gospel puts on us. Now, obviously, this Psalm was composed hundreds of years before the Gospel was made plain to us by Jesus of Nazareth, but the force of God’s requirements for our lives is just as plain.
This is a Psalm that calls us to humility before God. David, a king with pretty much unbridled power, calls on God as his king, as his sovereign. In some ways, the language seems foreign to us, but the underlying truth should not. Here David acknowledges that in spite of his earthly power, there is a power greater than his, namely God. Certain temporal leaders could use a bit of that same humility.
This is not just a psalm that God hates evildoers and destroy those who speak lies. It is a psalm wherein David reminds himself of his own internal conflicts, and he had many, to be sure. In the same way, we struggle with our internal conflicts, although not the same as David’s, they affect us just as much.
Sometimes we think our internal conflicts from which we seek refuge are not so serious. However, conflicts over what often seem to be simple choices can grow into larger issues that affect our lives. Having faith in God’s steadfast love, as David puts it, gives us the strength to tackle our conflicts and to move on with our lives in faithfulness to the Gospel.
Churches and congregations, too, face choices and may find themselves in conflict, seeking refuge as well. A congregation may take a public stand on an issue that is non-divisive for itself but skirt around issues that are divisive. The question for any congregation is where it draws a line on action in the community as well as the type of action that needs to be taken.
As Christians, persons who profess to follow the One who came to lead the way, we are called to put our values into action, not just individually, but as a congregation. The question for us is how and where we do it.
Taking refuge in ourselves, burrowing into our comfort zone, so to speak, is an enormous temptation. Individuals do it. Organizations do it. Nations and their governments do it. It’s always easier to point to where others have not moved beyond their own comfort zones rather than facing our own comfort zone. I know that it certainly is easier for me.
A recent study indicated that most people in New Jersey did not think that the opioid crisis that is boiling over in many parts of our country and our state is a serious problem. This in spite of the fact that southern Jersey, the area around Camden, a city most of us, I daresay, have never been in, and the “bowl,” Salem and Gloucester counties, have a high number of deaths. True, most of the more than 1900 deaths in New Jersey in 2016, occurred in urban centers, but there is an increasing number right here in Monmouth County.
We take refuge from the truths that are right here in our own neighborhood. For us as Christians, we should be asking ourselves what is the role of the church and what can we do to help in alleviating the crisis. Obviously, by ourselves we really can’t do much, but we can join with other congregations in addressing this epidemic that is destroying young and old alike.
How do we put our faith into action? That is the question we face for sure. Yesterday I attended a conference at Trinity Church entitled “Values into Action.” Although I prefer the word faith, the import is much the same. The question for us becomes as Christians how we address such problems as systemic violence and the exclusion of certain groups from full participation in our civic life based on their ethnicity or religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
For, to be sure, such groups are excluded. As Christians we are challenged by people like Jose Antonio Vargas, the undocumented Pulitzer Prize journalist, and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, her study of racially based mass incarceration in the United States. As Christians we are challenged by the presence of homeless persons and families and the lack of affordable housing here in Monmouth County. As Christians, we must respond beyond our comfort zones.
This is where we take refuge – from ourselves and from the world. Yes, we do a lot: we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and at least put up homeless families through the Family Promise program. But shouldn’t we also be working for affordable housing and medical care? Should we not be advocating for more comprehensive programs for opioid addiction?
We seek refuge from the world because at times, as Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us.” Let us, like David, say, “You bless the righteous, O Lord, you cover them with favor as with a shield” and act on the care of God to create a world where by being faithful to the Gospel we can all live in faith.
Let us pray: We come to you, O God, from whom no secrets are hid, to pray for strength to bring our love to the world that surrounds us. In the name of him who sought refuge in you, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.