Under God’s Wing by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity. Inspired by Psalm 27. Acrylic on raw canvas with digital drawing
Lord Prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true, with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary for you.
Sanctuary is one of the great modern Christian songs, sung by many kids, youth, and adults in worship and on retreat. It speaks of spiritual preparation, of a hope and dream that we will become the best vessels for God’s indwelling in the world. It is a promise to God that one day we will be able to we can carry the spirit of God with us.
But I do have some theological issues with the song. Whereas Sanctuary emphasizes the person’s promises to God, I believe the greater truths of the Christian faith are embedded in God’s promises toward us. God is the primary actor in our faith, and we are the objects of God’s love and tender mercies. Over and over again in the Old Testament and the New Testament, the prophets, the psalms, Jesus, and Paul all emphasize the steadfast lovingkindness of God, often in spite of the fallibility of our own all too human dispositions. Just like children should not have to protect their parents, we do not have to protect God. God is the one who protects us.
So yes, we should prepare ourselves to be vessels for God, but that is so we can be the people God wants us to be, and we can only do that when we realize that our relationship with God is one of warmth, stability, and unconditional love.
I think the greater prayer would be, Lord, I already abide in your sanctuary, pure and holy, pure and true. With thanksgiving, with my life I will honor you.
Our readings today are about the protection of God in the face of those who would persecute us. If you take a look at page 11 in your bulletin, you’ll see the artist reflections about the cover art, and I found it gave a new dimension to the artwork, and to the psalm as a whole.
Rev. Garrity tells us that scholars believe our psalmist may have been seeking sanctuary in the temple from some sort of persecution. This psalm is matter of life and death. Although we mostly don’t have laws of sanctuary that were common back in earlier times, perhaps today we can imagine a similar situation. Last week, in our Deuteronomy passage, the Hebrew people were commanded to remember that their ancestor they looked up to was a wandering Aramean- or to use a more modern translation, a Syrian refugee.
We can imagine the desperate plea of a Syrian or Afghan kid in a refugee camp in Greece or Iran, a Ukrainian child left with relatives in Poland as his mother and father return to volunteer to defend their homeland. We can imagine a family huddling together, stumbling together in a rambling prayer, alternately giving praise to their God, asking for God’s presence to be known, and asking for their enemies to fail in their actions.
I’m glad psalms like this are in the Bible; sometimes people take Jesus’ instructions on praying for our enemies and forgiveness as a way to “Tone Police” the way people pray. Tone Policing is basically when an outsider of some sort tells a group of people who have been wronged or feeling pain that there are only a few acceptable ways to react to their condition. That people aren’t allowed to feel anger, resentment, frustration, that there are only acceptable ways to feel or react.
The psalms tell us that all of those emotions are acceptable to God. We do not need to protect God from our emotions. God has literally seen it all, all of the pain and tragedy, and yes, all the bad and nasty things we do to one another, yet loves us anyways. Yes, God wants us to stop doing terrible things to one another, just as parents want their children to stop being little jerks to each other. But the point stands; we do not need to protect God for God protects us. God can take and hear our pain, our frustration, even our anger. God is our Sanctuary.
We can hear Jesus’ frustration in our second reading, from the Gospel of Luke. In this reading, the Pharisees come to Jesus and warn him that Herod is looking for him. Jesus’ response is what we might politely call a rant. He calls Herod a Fox, describes his work, and then turns his attention, at least in name, to Jerusalem. I believe that when he’s calling out Jerusalem as the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it, he isn’t talking about the city’s population really. He’s not talking about the artisans and farmers who made up 95% of the city. He’s using it as a stand in for the power brokers and especially the political and religious structures that harm and kill those that seek the truth.
One Commentator, Rodney Clapp, said to truly understand this, we might replace Jerusalem with Washington D.C., a modern retelling might be “Washington …is …the place where dreams of a new and more just world die.”
Yet Jesus’ response is that God wants to gather the children of God together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. I love this image of a hen for so many reasons. It’s a fiercely maternal and protective one, and it’s such a different imagery to ascribe to God. It’s not God as Eagle, a bird of prey, associated with the Roman armies as a symbol. Indeed, it stands in sharp contrast to Herod the fox, Herod the murderer who uses his power to oppress. God as hen is a provider, a comforter, a nurturer.
Yet we can still hear Jesus’ frustration, that angry sad feeling that a parent has toward a child that has traveled down the wrong path and will do so again. Rabbi Saul Lieberman puts it eloquently this way:
“The truly tragic figure in the Bible is not Jacob or King Saul, or even Job, but the Lord Himself, who is constantly torn between His love for Israel and His profound exasperation with them. The Lord, who in the optimistic and almost naïve glow of youth declares that the world is indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31), is so profoundly depressed over the moral corruption of the man He created that He says, “I regret having made them” (Genesis 6:7). How much cosmic agony in this divine attestation of failure! He drowns sinful mankind in a watery holocaust – and lives to regret it: “I will not continue to destroy the world on account of man, for man’s instincts are evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). The naiveté of God’s original optimism and the depth of His subsequent pessimism are transmuted into what one may call a divine realism. God now realizes that one cannot expect perfection from man, and that human corruption is something He will have to make peace with. Man is not totally good nor is he totally bad, he is simply human.“
For his part, Jesus ends with fatalism; for now, his work in Jerusalem is done. The next time the people of Jerusalem will see him is in the triumphal entry, which we will celebrate on Palm Sunday.
Thankfully, we also know that God’s frustrated sigh is not the end of the story. It is an important part of the story, but it is not the end of it. We know that the end of the story is God’s continuing love and solidarity with us through the cross and the resurrection. We know that despite our trials, our turmoil, and our tribulations, we live under God’s wings.