Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the First Sunday of Lent.
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.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
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.
Our bodies remember distress.
Even if our minds don’t remember or keep track of anniversaries of painful events, our bodies do. You may not remember the date someone you love died, or left; you may not remember when the house fire was, or the car accident, or the overdose; and yet when that week rolls around you still feel sick, or listless, or irritable. Your body remembers, and sends out echoes of your past distress.
Trauma theologians put it this way: the body keeps score.
I don’t know how long it will take for the beginning of Lent to not send up echoes of those first weeks of pandemic—first the denial, then the fears, then the upheaval and grief. We are in a very different place today then we were two years ago—thanks be to God—but that does not mean everything is fine. Our bodies have tallied up high scores of pain and worry and anger and distress. And we have a lot of healing left to do.
Everyone from politicians to retailers has a vested interest in our return to normal being as fast and bouncy and amnesiac as possible. Forget all that was hard, get back to… well, mostly get back to spending money all the places we used to spend it. And I have nothing against a robust economy, but I am not called to care for the economy. I am called to care for the spiritual health of this community.
And I’ll tell you plainly what I see: a lot of hope in this congregation, and even more exhaustion. The stories you all have been telling me are heavy stories. You are carrying new burdens since March of 2020, many you picked up in secret and now bear alone. You are so faithful, and so dedicated, and—some of you, at least—are so burned out you’re basically crispy fried.
The word Lent comes from an old English word that means lengthening, referring to how the spring days lengthen during the season. It is a coincidence that lento, from the Italian, means to slow down. Those of you who read music may know the term—when lento is written above the staff, you have to take big breaths, and be prepared to sustain the notes. Lento means slow. Slow down.
It may be a coincidence, but I think the Holy Spirit has a sense of humor, and sometimes it shows up in the languages of the world.
So this Lent we are going to slow down. We’re going to take a look at our own wounds, our parched places, our burn marks, and be tender with them. We’re going to turn to God, our great physician. We’re going to ask for healing—for our souls, and minds, and hearts. We’re going to seek salvation—not just for someday later, not just eternally, but for the here and now.
Our psalm today ends in the voice of God, who promises, “With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.”
Salvation is another one of those words where I think the Holy Spirit shows her playful side. The word salvation comes from the Latin that means save, as in to keep or make someone safe who has been in danger. But this year I could not help but hear the word salve in it. Salve, meaning a balm or healing agent, comes from the Old English sealf. But right now, I think healing is what we need to be safe. When our souls are this weary, this tattered, this battered, we need to heal to experience God’s salvation for us.
The good news I have for you today—the best news, really—is that experiencing God’s healing is rarely about searching or doing or accomplishing, but simply not resisting. Simply letting our barriers down, and resting in the presence of God.
Have you made God your dwelling place?
That’s the kind of question a pastor asks. But I’m serious: is experiencing God the place where you can rest? Where you are safe? Where you leave the harshness of the world behind?
I’ll be honest. When I ask myself those questions, the answer is this: rarely. I have had moments—moments when I took shelter under God’s wings, when I trusted God so much that all fear left me. But those moments are few and far between. It will be my life’s journey, probably, walking back to God’s arms.
Our psalmist today has an incredible depth of spirit. They have known God’s presence as a refuge, a place where they are safe. They promise, in this love poem, that those who trust in God will be impervious to all danger, from human armies to tiny viruses.
“Because you have made the Lord your refuge,” the song goes, “the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”
This is the language of poetry, not prophecy. Surely the psalmist had seen many of their friends and family suffer evil, pestilence, even death. They must have known that God’s love, God’s presence is not a magic trick. Yet in the depth of their experience these are the words that burst forth: I have found my refuge in God. I am safe here. You will be safe here, too.
Most of us who are familiar with this psalm know it for two reasons: either we love the hymn On Eagles Wings, which we will sing in a few minutes, or because it is quoted in the gospels, when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, a text we read almost every year at the start of Lent.
Mark, Matthew, and Luke all remember how Jesus went out into the wilderness after his baptism, and how those wild days formed him for all that he would encounter and endure in his three short years of ministry. Luke says that Jesus was full of the spirit, led by the spirit into the wilderness, where the devil tempted him for forty days. In the final temptation, the devil sweeps himself and Jesus out of the wilderness and to Jerusalem, placing them on the very pinnacle of the temple, far above the crowds.
“If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
But Jesus knows better. He responds with another, more faithful scripture, saying, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
Faith is not a magic trick. God is not a mob boss we are paying off for protection. Jesus does not decline to jump because he has too little faith in God, but because he is too faithful; God is someone to love, not to test.
After all, the most Jesus’ most important companion in the wilderness was not the devil, but the spirit. It is the spirit who Jesus has chosen to spend time with, to get to know. It is the spirit he has allowed to fill him, to guide him, even to become part of him. Jesus is safe—safe from doing something so stupid as jumping off a building—because he knows the presence of God. He isn’t left wondering when the moment of crisis hits. He has spent his time getting to know God, and when a challenge arises, God is who he turns too. God is where he stays, safe and sound.
I don’t usually follow the show America’s Got Talent. But I was deeply moved this week by the story of one of the contestants, known by a stage name, Nightbirde. Her given name was Jane, and she was born just up the road in Zanesville Ohio. She was two months younger than I am now. We went to college about 45 minutes from each other, and graduated the same year.
Her funeral was Friday.
Nightbirde was a songwriter, a singer, a poet, a psalmist. She was a Christian—an evangelical Christian, and while there are attitudes within evangelical Christianity I disagree with, I marvel at how beautifully that tradition encourages Christians to get to know God for themselves.
Nightbirde was first diagnosed with cancer in 2017. She was declared cancer free; it recurred; she was declared cancer free again, it recurred again. She won a spot on America’s Got Talent, bringing her voice to the wider world, before withdrawing as her health worsened. She died a few weeks ago, surrounded by family.
It would be easy to look at Nightbirde and say her story gives the lie to the psalm; that God does not protect us, and that faith is a waste of time. But Nightbirde herself, in a blog post from her first remission, tells her story very differently. These are her words:
I have had cancer three times now, and I have barely passed thirty. There are times when I wonder what I must have done to deserve such a story. I fear sometimes that when I die and meet with God, that He will say I disappointed Him, or offended Him, or failed Him. Maybe He’ll say I just never learned the lesson, or that I wasn’t grateful enough. But one thing I know for sure is this: He can never say that He did not know me.
I am God’s downstairs neighbor, banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. I show up at His door every day. Sometimes with songs, sometimes with curses. Sometimes apologies, gifts, questions, demands. Sometimes I use my key under the mat to let myself in. Other times, I sulk outside until He opens the door to me Himself.
I have called Him a cheat and a liar, and I meant it. I have told Him I wanted to die, and I meant it. Tears have become the only prayer I know. Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset.
Call me bitter if you want to—that’s fair. Count me among the angry, the cynical, the offended, the hardened. But count me also among the friends of God. For I have seen Him in rare form. I have felt His exhale, laid in His shadow, squinted to read the message He wrote for me in the grout: “I’m sad too.”
This is what it means to take refuge in God, and to be safe. It is not always pretty; it is not a miracle cure. It is to know God so intimately, so deeply, so fully, that our body keeps score of God’s gifts, too: that our bodies remember the peace, the love, the whispered promises. To take refuge in God is to reach out for God with our hands when our minds our lost. To take refuge in God is to find healing when no one thinks it is possible.
This is how we will see our salvation. Not by earning our place in God’s arms, but by simply resting there.
This is how we will be safe.