Sermon: God, Our Refuge

25 November 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
November 25, 2007

Last Sunday after Pentecost

God, Our Refuge

Psalms 46 and 91
Colossians 1:11-14

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

You know I pray this prayer each Sunday before I preach, but you may not know why.  I suppose it’s a bit like a pitcher’s lucky socks – I’d hate to break a good habit.  But there’s another reason: we need to remember something very important about sermons – they’re not just about what the preacher says, they’re also about what God has to say to each of our hearts.  And that may be different for different people.  The Holy Spirit works that way.  In other words, this prayer gives your soul permission to do what it needs to do during my sermons – even sleep, or daydream, or doodle.  God reaches out to speak to us, to hold us, to heal us, in many different ways.  The point is, when we come to this meetinghouse on Sunday, we’re practicing a time-tested spiritual discipline – we’re putting ourselves in God’s hands and opening ourselves to what God has to say. 

This text from The Letter to the Colossians reminds us that God wants us to be strong spiritually – to live and grow in our faith, within the shelter of God’s redeeming love. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything…while joyfully giving thanks….”  This is the scripture printed at the top of your “fill in the blank” prayer insert, and I want to give you permission to begin your prayer during my sermon – if a thankful prayer occurs to you.  You’ll have more time to write during the prayers after the sermon, but in order to practice what I preach, you have permission to do what Paul suggests and “pray without ceasing,” including now.  After all, the point of this sermon is that the more time you can spend in the presence of God, the stronger your faith will be.  “God is our refuge and strength,” says Psalm 46, “a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear….”  This is a powerful promise!  God strengthens us, and takes away our fears.

My daughter had a school Humanities assignment recently where she had to do an abstract collage that showed all her worst fears.  So, over the hot glue gun, we got to talking about what really scares us, which maybe sounds like a better sermon topic for Halloween than Thanksgiving weekend.  But just a few nights before she had played a long, flashlight game of cops and robbers in our dark yard, and it had reminded me of a game I played when I was little, “No Bears Out Tonight.”  You know that one?  It’s basically hide ‘n’ seek – the “bear” hides, and the other kids go out chanting “no bears out tonight.”  When the bear leaps out to grab somebody, everyone runs screaming home to base.  All that loud singing, stumbling around in the dark, was to keep our minds off what really MIGHT be out in those dark woods behind my house.

It got me thinking, what songs and rituals do adults use to keep our minds off our fears?  It’s almost as if, for most of us in the United States, that’s what this time of year is all about – after all, why else would we hang bright lights on all our dark bushes?  ‘Tis the season for parties and feasting, football games and shopping, with Christmas carols playing in endless loop in the background.  In ancient church tradition, today is the last Sunday of the church calendar, as we begin moving deep into the longest nights of the year, at the very end of the fall. The lectionary texts of this day and the beginning of Advent in the next few weeks point to the Day of Judgment, the end of the world.  And yet, we are called as Christians to look forward with hope, waiting for the light of Christ to dawn.  People of faith are called to move together into the darkness with faith and courage, instead of taking up the vices of the rest of the world to escape – excessive shopping, drinking, eating, partying. But our faith tradition warns us that the brightness of the holiday season is artificial – underneath we are called to fight our primal fears and put our faith in God, our refuge, and in Christ, our salvation. We are invited to move deeper into the world of Spirit, into a time of self-examination, repentance, and discernment of where Christ is leading us next.  Sometimes we do have to “be still,” as Psalm 46 says, so that we can hear our “still speaking” God. 

Psalms can teach us a lot about prayer, about the way we are called to rest in God’s love and place our lives into God’s care.  Thankfully, most of us have not lived through as much suffering as the Hebrew people did.  The Psalmists had known terrible times of trial – as unfortunately, so many people around the world know today – fires, earthquakes, plagues, droughts, floods, and war, even military sieges of their cities, and generations spent in slavery and exile.  But I was thinking that many of us live AS IF we were under siege –commuting to a stressful job in the city, or just going shopping, cooking dinner, and getting the kids’ homework and sports practice done on time! 

These Psalms remind us that we do have a choice – we can say “no” to some things of this world that put our inner kingdoms in an uproar, that trouble the inner seas of our hearts.  We can say “no” to conspicuous consumption, to social obligations, or to unnecessary travel.  We can skip at least one tempting holiday event to just sit by the fire.  I encourage you to make an Advent “New Year’s resolution” and do something special to nourish your soul.  Reach out to others and make a quiet visit to a homebound neighbor.  Resolve to begin attending Men’s Fellowship or one of our women’s studies or Wednesday prayers or Faith Forum Bible study.  Or worship with us at our Wednesday Dec. 19th Advent Candlelight Vespers worship service.  This is a busy church, and we do have lots of fun planned for this Advent, but wouldn’t it also be good to schedule some intentional quiet time, just to be still and to know the presence of God?

Following a regular home spiritual practice is a rich part of our New England Congregational heritage.  Simple morning and evening prayers were once a vital part of the Congregationalist tradition.  It’s something we could all do.  All it takes is a few moments in bed in the morning – that’s when they would say their prayers of thanks – first of all, for having the good health it takes to wake up at all.  (I have a 98-year-old friend who likes to say that at her age, any day that begins with actually waking up alive is a good day!)  I’ve been doing this morning prayer practice over the Thanksgiving holiday, when I wasn’t in such a rush to get the kids on the school bus, and I’m going to set the alarm early enough next week to continue – it’s been such a blessing in my life. 

Congregationalist evening prayers were similar, but maybe a bit more challenging.  They could be done alone, or as a family.  You read some words from the Bible and sit for a time of silent prayer, examining that day’s events against the text.  Then, where there was a failure to live up to the scripture, you offer a prayer of confession and apology.  Now as busy as our lives are, I think that kind of daily devotion could be more difficult to schedule, but just imagine how it could foster spiritual growth and peace in our families, and among those who struggle to live in harmony together.

Right now, following these kinds of daily spiritual disciplines are more common among more evangelical Christians.  I saw a Bible church website that was claiming this kind of daily devotional as part of their faith heritage, which they linked to the Pilgrims, and I thought – now just WAIT a minute, that’s OUR spiritual heritage!  But how much do we claim it for ourselves?  It’s great that churches like ours are so welcoming to all kinds of Christians, including those who don’t worship every week, much less every day – that’s so much better than guilt-based religion. But let’s not sacrifice a life-giving spiritual practice like personal prayer in the name of tolerance.

If we could go back to a daily devotional practice we might be surprised at how much it would strengthen our faith.  Several of us are just that faithful in other habits, like brushing our teeth, or exercise – and we’ve seen how it pays off.  Certainly it might be more FUN to go to gym where no one pressures anyone to actually exercise, to USE your membership.  It might be nice to just stop in at the locker room lounge every so often and chat with old friends.  But you know that if you never actually do a good hard workout, or if you only do it whenever you feel like it, you’re never going to see any improvement in your strength, endurance, or flexibility.  Our church memberships are not so different.  In so many ways, you get out of it what you’re willing to put into it. 

If God is our refuge and strength, we would do well to take refuge in God and do some disciplined work to strengthen our faith. Being still may call us to do more than sit around and do nothing.  It may involve actually getting up and doing something different – like joining with others who’re working together to move closer to God.  For instance, just after the New Year, I’m launching a new a spiritual journey group during Faith Forum time on Wednesday morning and on Sunday evenings at 5, where we come together with a regular and intentional commitment to prayer, Bible study, and discernment of God is leading us.  I had a seminary professor who talked about discipleship as being willing to get into a little boat with Jesus and trusting him to pilot you on the voyage of your spiritual life.  You had to trust him to take you where you needed to go.  Too many of us, even some relatively active church members, choose to come to the shores of that stream seemingly only to watch the progress of others.  If you’re still hanging back from entering the stream of faith yourself – believing yourself safe on the solid ground of the shore, which is this world’s reality – I invite you to take a step into the living waters of life with Christ.

For today’s text reminds us that the only true shelter is in God, out there in the boat with Jesus. Do you remember, just after Christmas 2004, the awful tsunami that claimed so many lives along the shores of the Indian Ocean, in Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka?  It was caused by mountains that shook just like those in Psalm 46, “in the heart of the sea.”  And yet many fishermen out in the middle of it all lived to tell the story of the massive wave that rolled under them so quietly that it barely moved their boats.  The Psalmist writes, “therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  This world teaches us that only those solid things we can see and feel are real, and we should put our trust in them.  Things like money, our homes, and insurance policies, and well … things.  Our religious heritage teaches us to put our trust in things unseen – faith, hope, and love – in God in whom we trust.  May we be inspired in this coming season of Advent to seek God anew, to step boldly into the boat with Jesus and join the stream of our faith tradition.  “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. … The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”  Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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