Sheltering in God’s Strength—An Eastertide Sermon

If I asked you to name the fastest animal on earth, you would instinctively say, “the cheetah.” Indeed the cheetah holds the title of being the fastest land animal, clocking in speeds of up to an impressive 75 miles per hour. However the fastest member of the animal kingdom is actually the peregrine falcon which has a diving speed of over 200 miles per hour when it’s going after prey. Falcons soar up to a great height when out hunting, and then use the force of gravity as well as amazing aerodynamics to come barreling in on smaller birds, stunning them on impact. As the stunned bird falls to the ground, the peregrine spins around and catches it mid-air, taking it home for dinner.

One of my favorite hiking trails in Acadia National Park—the Precipice Trail—follows a steep exposed rock face up to the summit of Champlain Mountain, however it is often closed in the summer.  Along the route are a number of rocky outcroppings which provide shelter for nesting peregrine falcons.  The falcons instinctively return to the area where they were hatched in order to have their own chicks.  They make their nests on the precarious ledges tucked under overhangs, scraping out an area for their eggs. The park rangers don’t want hikers to disrupt the nests, and so close the trail during the nesting and hatching season. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about rocks and crags and shelters this week given our readings this morning. “In you Lord have I taken refuge,” writes the Psalmist, “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold.”  And Peter tells the early followers of Jesus that they are like living stones, so they can “be built into a spiritual house” with Jesus as the chief corner stone.  Jesus himself tells his disciples as they are gathered in that upper room for what would be his last supper that he was going to prepare a place for them, for in his “father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

Friends, sheltering at home is getting old. It’s not that I don’t love my family–I do very much. It’s just that the idea of hunkering down for a Nor’easter—which is how I approached this time when it first started—has now changed into holing up for the entire winter, if not much longer.  Additionally, we must do so while remaining physically separate from others. No friends over for dinners, no extended  family gatherings for celebrations like Mothers’ Day or birthdays. No coffee meetings or lunch at the pub. Just remaining home as we face the uncertainty that swirls chaotically around us.

In a virtual meeting with Bishop Alan this week, he commented on the toll this has taken. “When we first started,” he said, “I felt like I was hitting a wall once a week or so. Now it feels like I hit that wall every other day.” The stress is wearing us down, making us vulnerable, giving us weird dreams. And the horizon seems to be getting further and further away as summer plans get cancelled, and contingencies for the fall are put in place recognizing that everything can change.

I’m not sure what the Psalmist was up against when these words were penned, I just know that the writer lived in a world of hurt. “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. Incline your ear to me;  make haste to deliver me.  Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold;  for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me. Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me,  for you are my tower of strength.”  Clearly the Psalmist had reached that point where everything had come crashing down around her. Like a single mom trying to raise her children and getting a pay cut.  Or the parent of an adult child who’s fallen prey to addiction. Or the one who lost their job.  Or hearing the doctor deliver the diagnosis you’ve been dreading.  We reach that point where we just can’t anymore.  It’s just all too much.

Be my strong rock, O God, because I can’t make it any more on my own.

We’re often taught the opposite by our culture. That we have to keep it all together and be the strong who makes it through unscathed.  There’s a meme or 5 floating around about what a famous author or scientist or thinker did when they happened to be in quarantine themselves during a previous pandemic, and then asking us what we’re doing besides playing board games. I’ve heard comments about how we are likely gaining weight due to all the stress eating, as if we need to feel badly about that.  Or that your closets certainly have been organized by now, or a new garden started.  Or your kids have made significant progress as you both creatively homeschool and work remotely while simultaneously making fresh loaves of bread and gourmet dinners.  

Lord, I just can’t anymore.  Be a castle to keep me safe. Be my crag and my stronghold.

The realization for the Psalmist is that we cannot provide the shelter for ourselves.  We cannot make it through alone.  Peter makes this point too: we’re living stones, but Jesus is the corner, without whom the whole thing falls apart.  And Jesus himself tells his disciples that he’s going to make a home for his disciples in order to bring them there.  In each case we learn that we aren’t able to do this for ourselves: we must depend on God.

“You might be right, Phil,” you may be saying, “but how? How do I put my trust in God?”  My own tendency when things get out of control is to do one of two things: I either grab more tightly the things I think I can control in this life becoming miserable to live with, or, when that doesn’t work, I fall into a funk. It takes me a while before I finally wake up and realize that I’ve got to let go and trust in the goodness and mercy of God.  I do so by reminding myself that I’m entirely reliant on God.

The most ancient way of doing this is praying the Jesus Prayer. You likely know this prayer or some variation of it.  It’s simply this: “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me.”  It comes to us by way of the Desert Mothers and Fathers holed up in Egypt during the 4th century. They would pray that prayer using a prayer rope with knots tied into it so that they would know how many times to pray those words, be it 30 or 50 or 100 times at a sitting.  I gave a prayer bracelet to each of our confirmands earlier this year to help them pray that prayer to God more regularly.  “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me.”  

The repetition of it gets that prayer into your being, into your heart and soul and mind. It becomes a part of your breathing in and out, allowing you to slow down.  And it helps you declare over and over your dependence on God’s mercy and grace.  That you cannot do it on your own.  That you need to find refuge in the presence of the Almighty so that God can keep you safe.

I want to tell you this morning that you don’t have to go it alone. You don’t have to imagine that all this rests on your shoulders, that you have to be some sort of uber pandemic warrior who comes out of this on the other side able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Rather you can let your shoulders drop and your breathing become intentional, and you can reach out your hands to the one who created you and knows you better than anyone else in the world and shelter in the safe protection of God. God is indeed our strong rock, a castle to keep us safe. The Almighty One is our refuge, our crag, our strong hold. May we dwell ever in that place of safety. Amen.

Photo Credit: markkilner Flickr via Compfight cc

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