He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High (sermon)

It is silent in chapel.

Every rustle is magnified in cavernous echoing walls of stone, the last bit of daylight peeking through stained glass windows. The noise of traffic outside dims, as people go home from work, have dinner, and begin to think about going to sleep.

Sleep is on our minds also, as we quietly shuffle into our choir stalls for this last service of the day, hiding a yawn or two with bowed heads.

And when the clock strikes 8:30pm, the superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist stands up. The rest of the monks and interns follow, beginning the last ritual of the day: compline.

We fumble for our office books, and begin to pray, to confess. Then we sit for the chanting of the psalms—words I now know by heart. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High * abides under the shadow of the Almighty. He shall say to the Lord, you are my shelter and my stronghold * my God in whom I put my trust”.

One of the things I learned while I was an intern at the monastery was that upon the death of one of the monks, one of the brothers, at the conclusion of the burial service was part of what we prayed each night. At the end of each day, and at the end of a brother’s life, is the singing of compline: “because you have made the Lord your refuge * and the Most High your habitation. There shall no evil happen to you * neither shall any plague come near your dwelling”.

And this tie between the ending of the day, and the ending of our lives, and how the brothers of SSJE live that out liturgically sticks with me, particularly as we begin the season of Lent. Our lives are begun and ended in Christ. On Wednesday, we began our journey into Lent remembering this very fact, that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. As T.S. Eliot says so well, “home is where we start from… (in our end is our beginning)”. (Four Quartets)

I find it very interesting that this first Sunday of Lent is dedicated to the themes we find in today’s lessons, exemplified in this excerpt of psalm 91. And I find it sort of ironic because I think we all have this sort of stereotype of what Lent is supposed to be, living in our heads. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Lent, I think often about penitence and fasting. I think about what I’m going to give up, or spiritual practices I need to be better at. I think of fish on Fridays as a child with my catholic aunts. In short, my own stereotype of Lent is that it’s a sort of time when I give up things or take on things that will help me be a better person and better disciple—a sort of glorified self-help season. Perhaps this is different from your conception of Lent, or perhaps you’re thinking “well, isn’t that what Lent is?”.

But regardless of our own stereotypes of this season, today’s lectionary manages to subvert it over and over again. Instead of immediately lambasting us about our sins and failings, we instead begin with a surprising amount of reassurance. Our collect prays: “Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save”. While we acknowledge the many temptations that assault us, there’s a confidence that God knows our weakness, and that we can find help and refuge in God. As the epistle to the Romans says, the Lord “is generous to all who call on him”.

“For he shall give his angels charge over you * to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you in their hands * lest you dash your foot against a stone”

Psalm 91 has long been used in both Judaism and Christianity. Fragments of text have turned up in archaeological sites like Qumran (where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found) and other sites from the ancient world—these texts don’t often look like what we’d see today in our BCPs—many of these fragments simply include the first letter of each line, and were likely carried around with an individual like an amulet, as a sort of ward of protection.

“You shall tread upon the lion and adder * you shall trample the young lion and the serpent under your feet”

In the fourth century, Augustine uses this psalm to encourage his listeners to hope, in a world of trial and tribulation. He says “Do no be afraid when you are thrust into tribulation, or think it means that God is not with you. Let your faith stay with you, and then God is with you in your trouble” (Enarrationes in Psalmos 342).

I don’t know how many times you’ve wondered where God is, over these past few years, months, or days. I know I’ve asked myself that question sometimes. It’s been a world of trouble, even for those of us who have been shielded by job security or healthcare access during this pandemic. And even now, we watch war and brutality around the world, seeing in just the last few months and weeks refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine fleeing home and country.

The lections this week don’t back away from the hard truth that it is difficult to be a human. They don’t offer answers that always make sense to us—the bible isn’t really interested in the post-enlightenment question we so often ask of why God allows suffering to happen in the world. But what scripture does offer to us is a promise of hope and life even when things seem at their worst.

And so we enter into Lent again, perhaps particularly mindful of our own mortality, and of the frailty of the things we rely on for security and sustenance.

And maybe the lectionary gives us what we really need this first week of Lent, a reminder not just of our own human mortality, but a reminder of the bigger and truer thing that we Christians believe: that God is our sustenance and hope, for all of us, for all time.

“Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver home * I will protect him, because he knows my Name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him * I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor”

So, at the beginning of our Lent, I hope you will take these words of the psalm to heart—keep them by your bedside, pray them throughout your day. For, as St. Augustine reminds us, “when anyone imitates Christ in such a way as to bear all the vexations of this world, hoping in God, and being neither entrapped by a bait nor broken down by fear, that person dwells within the help of the Most High.” (317).

May we dwell always in the shelter of the Most High, whether in life or death, enfolded in the arms of the one who, indeed, shows us our salvation and our hope.

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