Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sanctuary: A Sermon on Psalm 91

Psalm 91
September 30, 2007

A funny thing happens to you when you become a minister. Actually, it started happening to me long before I darkened the marble cloisters of The Best Seminary in the World. People started asking me to pray a lot. You know, grace at the potluck supper, an invocation to open a meeting… things like that. And much of the time, I have to be confess, I ended up sounding a lot like Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Sister Act. You remember this story. She plays Deloris, a night-club singer on the run from murderous mobsters, and she ends up hiding out in a convent. When asked to pray on her very first night at the nuns’ evening meal, the brand new “Sister Mary Clarence” says,

Oh. Yeah. Yeah. I can... I can do that. Uh. Sure.
Uh. Bless us. O Lord,
for these Thy gifts which we're about to receive.
And. Yea. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food,
I will fear no hunger.
We want You to give us this day our daily bread...
and to… the republic for which it stands…
and by the power invested in me.
I pronounce us ready to eat.

To which all the nuns politely respond, “Amen.” You may have noticed that there is a snippet of a psalm hiding out in Sister Mary Clarence’s otherwise nearly incomprehensible prayer, the smallest fragment of Psalm 23. And if I had thought about it, back when I was a nervous public pray-er, I would have realized that all the prayers I could ever need were right there, in just about the center of my bible: the Book of Psalms. Every day, all over the world, people open their bibles and prayer books, and they pray the psalms. And there is a very good reason for that. The psalms present us with a panoramic view of the human condition. In the preface to his five-volume commentary upon the psalms, John Calvin says this:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men [and women] are wont to be agitated.

No matter the emotion we are experiencing… whether that be joy, rage, fear, doubt, sorrow, a sense of national pride, a sense of betrayal… no matter what it is, Calvin seems to be promising us, we can open the psalms and find that emotion mirrored somewhere. And this tells us something powerfully true and vitally important to the spiritual journey of every one of us: here scripture tells us that we can bring to God in prayer the people we truly are, with all our chaotic jumble of human emotions, and not merely idealized versions of people we are hoping and striving to be. The psalms constitute our invitation to get real with God. To get real. To be who we really are. So I invite you to join me as we enter the world of one psalm, Psalm 91, and explore this one snapshot of a very human relationship with God.

Imagine something with me. Imagine having a sense of confidence in the protection of God so that is complete, so thorough, that nothing could ever cause you to feel fear again. Imagine facing the challenges and even the dangers of life with a glorious sense of joy and peace and well-being. No worry, no anger, no anxiety can penetrate the mantle of peace that surrounds you. When you pray, the words of this psalm rise naturally to your lips:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

will say to the Lord,

“My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” ~ Psalm 91:1-2

This is the kind of assurance many of us are quietly hoping to find in our religious faith: something to equip us, to help us to meet the challenges of our lives in a way that is both confident and joyful.

Now imagine that you feel all these things even as your country has been invaded and you are living under the occupation of a hostile, enemy superpower. Imagine feeling this even though your political and religious leaders have been killed or carried away to far-off lands, your family has been split up because some of them have, likewise been carted off. Imagine feeling all this when your Temple, the place you call your religious home and that of your ancestors, has been reduced to rubble, despoiled, desecrated.

This is the exact situation of the writer of Psalm 91. This is a psalm from the time of the Babylonian Exile, when all the conditions I’ve been describing were facts of daily living. The leaders of the people had been carried off into captivity. Families had been torn apart. The Temple, so lovingly built by King Solomon, had been destroyed, its lavish appointments desecrated and scattered and taken into the Babylonian treasuries. The sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, the place that was believed to shelter the very presence of God, was no more.

And yet, some Hebrew poet/ musician was moved to write these words:

“My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
Those who love me, I will deliver;

I will protect those who know my name.

When they call to me, I will answer them;

I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.

With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
~ Psalm 91:2b, 14-16

How do we even begin to reconcile these disparate realities? On the one hand, we have the joyful confidence of the singer of the psalm. On the other, we have the terrible reality of the life he or she was faced with at the time of exile. And we don’t have to have lived in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar to have an understanding of exile. We have only to open the paper or watch the evening news to be reminded of very real situations of exile. Since 2003 as many as 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes as a result of the tribal and military conflict in Darfur. And there are other kinds of exile people experience… people like us… when we feel estranged from family, from friends, when we need to leave our homes, exile, even, from our own bodies, when we feel they have betrayed us through the processes of aging or disease. Terrible, painful things happen to good people. Surely the composer of the psalm, of all people, knew this. How is the lyrical joy and confidence of the psalm a possibility? How does one get from there… the world with all its cruelty and danger… to here… peaceful contentment dwelling in the shadow of the Most High God?

I think one key lies in that word, “sanctuary.” When the psalmist talks about “living in the shelter of the Lord,” or “abiding in the shadow of the Almighty,” it is a reference to the sanctuary, the innermost part of the Temple, the place where God’s very presence was believed to reside. It was an ancient tradition that individuals fleeing danger were able to hide in safety in the sanctuaries of temples…there are stories in our own scriptures as well as in the history of Europe, and even, in recent US history, in which political refugees were hidden in the sanctuaries of churches, temples, synagogues. Remember that astonishing scene in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” when Quasimodo snatches the gypsy Esmeralda from the flames (and you know, the Romani people still live in exile all over the world, even right it our midst), takes her to the top of the cathedral, and cries, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” The holy place of God, it was hoped, was a place that no soldier dared to defile.

But soldiers become daring, and they dare to destroy holy places, and then believers look at the rubble and realize something. They realize that the holy place, the temple, or the church, the mosque, cannot hold the presence of God… it never could. They realize that the presence of God needs a more dependable dwelling place… and that dwelling place is, strangely, fragile, breakable human flesh. Paul says, in his letter to the church in Corinth, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

There is a praise song, 25 years old by now, but a perennial favorite all the same:
Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, Pure and holy tried and true With thanksgiving I’ll be a living, Sanctuary for you.

If our bodies are the sanctuaries of God, then we can begin to get a tiny glimmer of understanding about the confidence of the psalmist. We can begin to fathom why she or he can sing, “You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by day” (Ps. 91:5). We are taken beyond the realm of physical well-being and comfort to the place where Job arrives, when he says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God…” (Job 19:25-26). If the psalms are an invitation to get real with God, the writer of Psalm 91 has arrived at a place of real relationship. It is the deep maturity of one who trusts God, even while his or her flesh is failing. It is the knowledge that a God who inhabits human flesh is a God who will not fail or leave us, even when our flesh does. It is the knowledge that, holy and beautiful though our sanctuaries of stone and mortar might be, God chooses to live still more intimately with us, God is our refuge, even as we, mysteriously, shelter God within us.

There is another possibility of how the psalmist makes the move from terrible reality to joyful confidence. And, frankly, this is the one to which I cling. It is possible that the words of the psalmist are a kind of glorious attempt at self-help, self-coaching, self-talk. It is possible that the psalmist is just as frightened as any of us might be at the terrible circumstances of life in exile, as some of us are. But the words of this psalm are a vision of what might be, and as long as the psalmist can keep singing them, that joyful confidence begins to seep in, and eventually, claims the ground of reality.

One psalm. Psalm 91. One snapshot of a relationship of maturity and grace, or perhaps of one poet’s attempt to envision the joy that has fled and make it a reality once more. Maybe this psalm is part of the anatomy of your soul, maybe it tells your story. Maybe not. As I’ve already said in my newsletter article this month, I want to extend an invitation to you to join me in reading all 150 psalms through the month of October. It’s not as hard as it sounds: 5 psalms a day, one upon rising, one each at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and one before bed. Spend a whole day with psalm 119, because it’s mighty long. But throughout the month, I invite you, explore this treasure of a prayer book right in the middle of the bible. The story of scripture is our story. The prayers of the psalms are our prayers. The sanctuary of God is within us. Find the psalm that speaks to you, the truth of your life. Thanks be to God. Amen.


more cows than people said...

wow, mags. your struggle birthed a BEAUTIFUL sermon. thank you.

and thanks for the call today.

Mother Laura said...

Lovely...and very apropos for me as I am coming close to finishing a Sophia version of the Psalter. It's a little tiring but oh so nourishing to my soul.

Katie is currently in love with "On Eagle's Wings," Michael Joncas' setting of Psalm 91. The last many nights she has chosen it for her bedtime song and then again, recited, for her bedtime prayer--with improvised hand motions, yet. It's a joy to see her claim that deep in her little soul....

Grandmère Mimi said...

Mags that's beautiful. Psalm 91 is one of my very favorite psalms.

Now imagine that you feel all these things even as your country has been invaded and you are living under the occupation of a hostile, enemy superpower.

I thought you were speaking of another country - a present day country.

I love your idea of our bodies as sanctuaries of God. It's true. They are. In Corinthians, Paul says our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.