Rock of Refuge

May 7, 2023

Series: May 2023

Speaker: Bethany Nelson


Today's Sermon


"Rock of Refuge"


Scripture Reading

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.  Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.  You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.  My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.

In her book, “An Altar in the World,” Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes about trying to figure out what to do with her life.  She remembers being in seminary, with not a single clue about what she would do when she graduated.  She began to pray about it, asking God to tell her what she was supposed to do with her life.  She prayed over and over again, but wasn’t discerning much of anything, until, she writes, “One night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, ‘Anything that pleases you.’

‘What?’ I said. ‘What kind of an answer it that?’

‘Do anything that pleases you,’ the voice in my head said again, ‘and belong to me.’”

She continues, “At one level, that answer was no help at all. The ball was back in my court again. At another level, I was so relieved. Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not whatI did but howI did it that mattered.”

Taylor then goes on to list a wide variety of jobs that she tried, saying, “Every one of them offered me the chance to recognize the divine in human form, inviting me out of myself long enough to engage someone whose fears, wants, loves, and needs were at least as important as my own.  Of course, they also gave me ample opportunity to act like a jerk, missing my purpose by a mile.  Yet even this turned out to be helpful, since recognizing my jerkdom is how I remember that is not who I want to be.”[i]

I thought of this story as I read this Psalm, because it sounds to me as if the Psalmist is describing what it means to belong to God.  For Barbara Brown Taylor, belonging to God means engaging with others in love and not acting like a jerk.  For the Psalmist, belonging to God is the recognition that God is the very foundation of his life, undergirding all that he is and does.  Listen again to some of these lines from the Psalmist – “Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress … You are indeed my rock and fortress … into your hands I commit my spirit … my times are in your hand.”  The Psalmist recognizes that whatever happens in his life – whatever he might do or be – he belongs to God.  God is his rock of refuge, always.

I find that when things are going well, it is fairly easy to put hope and trust in God in this way.  When life is good – my family is in good health, my job is solid, my hobbies are interesting, the weather’s great – of course God is my rock. Those are the times when we are moved to shout the chant – “God is good all the time, all the time God is good.”

But, though God is good all the time, life is not.  And when life gets hard, it can be more of a challenge to trust in God our rock of refuge. When life gets hard, we start to doubt, to question.  We get angry and frustrated.  We wonder why bad things are happening to good people.  That solid foundation starts feeling more like shifting sand. Sure, it’s easy for the Psalmist to declare, “You are indeed my rock and my fortress” when life is good.  But what about all the other times?

Here is where I find it curious that the suggested reading for today skips a bunch of verses.  The lectionary has us reading verses 1-5, and then 15 and 16. But a whole lot happens in the middle that I find very important to understanding these declarations of the Psalmist.  Let’s hear the part that we skipped earlier.  I’ll begin with verse 9 of Psalm 31.

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.

Whew!  This is not a person whose life is going well.  He is in distress.  There are enemies all around.  His body and very soul are grieving.  And how does he respond?  With absolute faith and trust in God.  Sure, he likely has a lot of other emotions toward God about the state of his life – frustration, anger, dismay, distress – any of these would be understandable.  But beneath it all, beneath all of the hardships he is facing, still he knows that God is his rock of refuge.  Still he knows that God holds his times in God’s hands. Still he knows that God’s face shines upon him.

You know who also had that trust in God?  Jesus. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus used his last breath before death to speak a line from this Psalm, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  Even on the brink of death, Jesus knows and trusts that he belongs to God. God continues to be his rock of refuge. In the midst of our deepest and darkest moments, God is with us.

I was reading a note to preachers about this Psalm, and it said, “The preaching task today is the idea of holding, being held, in a broken state, without immediate resolution.  The central dilemma is how to stay focused on holding and accepting fragmentation and brokenness without offering the trite assurance of ‘everything is all right.’”

Good advice!  Yes, God is our rock of refuge always … and everything is rarely all right.  The assurance is not that we will sail through life happy and carefree, but is instead that we will never walk through this difficult, challenging life alone. The Psalmist seems to have figured that out, continuing to place his trust in God in the midst of despair and distress.  Hopefully we can learn from and be inspired by the Psalmist’s deep conviction.  But it isn’t always easy to have that kind of trust in God.

I want to share in a brief meditation practice today, which I am hoping is something you can keep with you and practice again and again.  Something to help us remember God’s firm foundation in our lives.  Something to help us remember that we belong to God always.

When you arrived this morning, you received a rock.  I invite you to hold that rock in your hand.  Close your eyes if that is comfortable for you and take a couple of deep breaths.  (pause) Feel the weight of the rock.  Notice how solid it is.  Then take a couple more deep breaths.  (pause) Take a moment to ground yourself.  Allow yourself to feel solid and connected to the earth.  If it is comfortable for you, place both feet on the ground, rooting them so deeply into the earth that they may grow moss like the bottom of a heavy stone.  Take a few more deep breaths and simply be, rooted into the earth like a centuries-old rock. (pause) Consider the firm foundation of the rock in your hand and your feet on the ground.  Solid, strong.  Consider God’s presence in your life like that rock.  Solid, strong.  Take a few more deep breaths. (pause)  Remind yourself, I belong to God.  I belong to God, my rock of refuge.  Speak those words a few times in the silence of your heart. (pause)  Take a few more deep breaths, and then if you have closed your eyes, open them again when you are ready.

I invited you to take the rock home and return to this meditation when it is meaningful for you as a consistent reminder of God, our firm foundation.

Perhaps the best reminder that God is our rock of refuge, is this table, this meal that we will share together. This meal is all about remembering. When Jesus breaks the bread and shares it with his disciples, he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Whenever we share the bread and cup, we remember God’s love for us.  We remember Jesus’ care for his community.  We remember Jesus committing his spirit to God with his final breath, not as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of trust and faith.  We remember the empty tomb.  We remember that we belong to God, always.  Amen.


[i]“An Altar in the World,” by Barbara Brown Taylor, pp. 110-111.