“Refuge” / 1 Samuel 1:4-20 / 18 November 2018
It’s a wonderful old tale at the beginning of First Samuel. As is the case with so many Bible stories, an epic saga of grand universal scale has its humble beginnings in a homey, domestic scene: A wife feels insecure and sad because she can’t have children. Her husband adores her, but his other wife bullies her, and mocks her, and makes her feel like less than a woman. (I didn’t say it was a 21st century domestic scene: these “biblical marriages” meant polygamy!) But prayer is Hannah’s refuge. The question isn’t whether it “works” or not. Of course it works. For the text says that after Hannah spent a few hours praying about her sorrows, praying in the holy place at Shiloh, “Her countenance was no longer sad.” She took her burdens to the hallowed place, her escaps. She took her sadness and her fear to a place of refuge, and before she even got the thing she was asking for, she felt better, just for having been there, just for having asked. Do you have such a refuge in your life? How about this…are you such a refuge in the life of another? Does your home, or your personality, or your generosity, or your acceptance provide a real refuge, an oasis, an escape in the life of someone who needs it? Sometimes all it takes to become a place of refuge is an unexpected word of kindness, an understanding glance, a smile, a question of concern. Everyone needs a refuge, including you. And everyone can be a refuge, including you.
Refuge, asylum, sanctuary. The law of sanctuary was a venerable old institution in Western countries, going back to ancient times. The United Nations lists it as one of the fundamental rights of people to cross borders in search of safety. In Genesis, even the murderer Cain was given “cities of refuge,” places of safety where he would be free from punishment for his crime. Even if you’ve never read the book, you’ve probably seen the old black and white movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think there was even a Disney cartoon version of it back in the 1990s. The deformed bell ringer who lives in the cathedral tower in Paris, Quasimodo, rescues a gypsy woman named Esmeralda from the executioner; she was to be put to death for a crime she did not commit. He carries her inside that great church and declares, “I give her sanctuary!” And the royal police are stymied, because they have no jurisdiction in the house of God. It’s just like Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltraine when the Dukes of Hazard drive across the county line. That’s the end of his leash; he’s only got jurisdiction in Hazard County. He gets out of the police car and throws his hat on the ground. It’s like the headless horseman who cannot follow Ichabod into the cemetery because it’s hallowed ground. The innocent Esmeralda’s safe, out of reach, beneath the somber gothic arches of God’s house. Churches were safe places, “sanctuary,” even for the guilty back in medieval times. The sanctuary movement is still in existence in many churches along our southern border, where shelter is given to refugees and immigrants.
Perhaps you’ve heard the news out of Cameroon, the country where I made my home for five years. Most of Cameroon uses French as a common language, but there’s a small English-speaking zone in the mountainous region along the Nigerian border. This area of Cameroon has been neglected by the government for years, and now they want to secede to form their own nation. They’re calling it Ambezonia. A Baptist missionary, a father of eight kids, was shot and killed there by a separatist sniper as he passed by in his car. Seventy-nine students were kidnapped from a boarding school that, like mine, is run by the Presbyterian Church. There have been many more kidnappings since, all of them carried out by militant separatists. The great fear is that these children are being taken to those horrific guerrilla camps that existed in countries like Zaire and Sierra Leone, where they will be drugged, and deprived of sleep, and brainwashed into child soldiers.
The French-speaking government has responded with brutality. Whole villages have been massacred and razed to the ground. A full-blown civil war is being waged in the one country in central Africa that had always been stable. Cameroon always had a lot of crime in the big cities, especially against foreigners. But there was never any kind of war or civil unrest. Nigerians used to flock across the border seeking the peace of Cameroon. Now, in the strangest twist of fate I thought I’d never see, people are fleeing the other direction. We’re not hearing much about it in the news for two reasons: first, the US doesn’t really have much invested in Cameroon. It’s been a satellite state of France for decades. And secondly, because the Cameroonian government is telling the world that everything is just fine.
The ironic thing is that the mountainous, lovely English-zone was my refuge at one time. I lived and worked in the stifling heat of the equatorial rainforest of the French zone, at a school where French was the only language that was permitted. I loved it there, but I lived right on campus, and whenever people found the school offices closed, they didn’t mind coming by the house, even on holidays and Sundays. It was too costly to fly back to the States whenever school was out, so I got a little one-room apartment up on a mountainside in the English zone. It was a dank little place with only one window. There was no road to it; you had to follow a maze of narrow footpaths through cassava fields to find it, and God help you if you didn’t have a flashlight at night. But for $40 a month, I had a permanent getaway in a lovely spot where the temperature never rose above 75 degrees, a place where on a clear day you could see the peak of an active volcano to the north, and the shimmering silver ocean, far, far down the mountainside to the south. I became…not exactly a snowbird, but a heatbird, fleeing the equatorial heat whenever school was out. It was in a town called Buea, with festering old German colonial architecture, including a grand ornate palace, built in the 19th century for the German governor. In all its neglect and decay that palace looked like it might have Sleeping Beauty slumbering inside. It was truly a refuge for me. People there spoke English, a form of it. Apples grew in that cool climate; you could buy them fresh in the markets. The air was bracing and so much like home. No busyness, no hassles, a place of full escape. There was a band of three American women who lived there and worked at the university. They loved nothing more than to play Yahtzee in an open-air bar. They welcomed me with open arms. And I made friends of my Cameroonian neighbors.
There’s no traveling to Buea now. Civil wars are always the most brutal, and especially in Africa. What happened to the jolly woman who used to sell me apples? Is she safe? What’s become of my old landlord, who was always singing? My neighbors, are they okay? If they’re training up child soldiers, will this bloody, unknown war reach as far as the place where my own school was located? Will it affect my godson and his family, my students, and teachers, and friends from long ago? I don’t mean to make the tragedy of Cameroon to be about me. It’s not. The tragedy is for the millions people in English Cameroon who are being butchered by their own government. But…I never thought it would happen there, in my Happy Place. I always entertained a distant notion that maybe someday I could go back to find things as I’d left them. It was a refuge, and though no earthly refuge is forever, it sure is nice to have them. What place has been a refuge for you in this life of blessings and despair? Have you had a place, or maybe even a person, or a community of people that gave you sanctuary when you found yourself a stranger, or an outsider, or in need?
Hannah is all of those things in today’s beautiful story from First Samuel. In a primitive world where a woman’s worth was measured in children, Hannah is a stranger. She hasn’t been able to have children. And though her husband loves her all the same, as well he should, she’s inconsolable. It probably didn’t help matters that the husband clearly loves Hannah more than his other wife. Favoritism always creates rivalry. And so the other wife mocks Hannah for being childless. But Hannah has a refuge, a literal sanctuary from the woes of her life and the mockery of her fellow wife. Once a year, she goes up to the sacred tent where the ark of God’s presence is kept. This was the old holy place, called Shiloh. Long before the great temple was ever built in Jerusalem, the people of Israel prayed on a hilltop called Shiloh, in a portable shrine called a tabernacle. Now, I don’t want to get into the claim that Hannah’s prayer was answered. I preach on prayer at least twice a year, and today is not the day. Nor do I want to get into the fact that there is actually a bit of humor in the Samuel books, like when the old priest Eli takes Hannah for a drunken person. There are many lessons to be drawn from this rich story, which is one of the things that makes the Bible timeless. But the thing I want to think about for the most part today is the refuge that Hannah found at Shiloh: a calm respite from a world that judged her, an escape where she could lift her thoughts to higher things, a place where she could just be—tears, and sorrows, and childlessness and all. Everyone needs a refuge, a place to flee, a shoulder to cry on, a place to take off all the masks that we wear most of the time. Where’s your refuge? Who’s your refuge? Whose refuge are you?
A Protestant minister was wearing his collar, which we don’t often do, on his way home from a hospital visit. His wife was sitting in the car beside him, when a police officer stopped him and said, “Sir, you ran a red light back there.” But then the officer saw the collar, and being an Italian Catholic, he said, “Ah, Father! Well, everyone makes mistakes. You have a good day,” and he got back in the squad car and drove away. The minister’s wife said to him, “Shame on you. You know what he took you for.” The man replied, “I know what he took me for; I just wonder what he took you for.” That’s one of the things we need shelter from, isn’t it? People’s ideas about us, their judgments, their expectations. We need a refuge from the duties and demands of life. Like Hannah, some need a refuge from bullying, from a world where they only matter in their relationship to the powerful—in Hannah’s case, men. People seek refuge from their own powerlessness. Sometimes we need refuge from ourselves, and the thoughts and habits and relationships that we’ve settled into. Some of these things, though comfortable, keep us stuck. Our quest for refuge takes us to the Outer Banks, where we hope two weeks of sunshine can untwist all the tangles that we spend the year’s other fifty weeks making. Our endless need to escape the lives we’ve made for ourselves causes us to shop, or hoard, or seek adrenaline rushes. It might even push us toward religion. It takes us to bars, and parks, and online chat rooms, and the homes of friends. Some of these are good and others are not. If we seek refuge in the wrong place, then we might end up needing a refuge from our refuge! What is addiction but an attempt to escape the hardships of life, a cruel sanctuary that enslaves and dehumanizes the one who seeks shelter there?
Ah, but there are good refuges, true sanctuaries in this life of noise and motion. There are, well, literal sanctuaries—like this one—which I hope is a refuge to you. And there’s music, and poetry, and art, and mission work. There’s the Book of Psalms, and prayer, and solitude, and friendships, and physical exercise. Places and people can be a good refuge, but best are the ones you can take with you anywhere.
Why? Because Hannah’s refuge of Shiloh is gone. There’s nothing really left there but olive orchards. It’s on the dangerous West Bank, and has long been disputed as a holy site by Jews, and Christians, and Muslims. Much like Buea, you wouldn’t want to go to Shiloh now. Our earthly places of refuge perish, as do our people of refuge. They do not last forever. But while they are still within our grasp, they put us in communion with a calm and loving eternity that does.
It is said that every sermon should have a message for society, and for the church, and for the individual. To our society, the message of refuge is clear. Jesus says, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Furthermore, to a society in constant quest for refuge, I would say, “Come and get it.” This place is here for you. To the church, the message of refuge is also pretty clear. We must be a place of genuine welcome for every kind of seeker who walks through these doors, for we have all come here seeking refuge. And for the individual, well, two things: first, find a healthy refuge in your life, a constant escape that opens you to the presence and the power of God. Second, be a refuge, a safe place. Is there a child; is there an elderly person; is there a friendless one, someone misunderstood or unloved for whom you could become a refuge?
When Hannah came home from praying at Shiloh, the text says, “her countenance was no longer sad.” Her prayer hadn’t even been granted yet. She didn’t get her son just yet. But it was enough just to have been there, to be in a place where she was not judged (Eli’s comment about drunkenness notwithstanding). It was enough to pour out her soul to God and to the priest. Refuge was what she needed…far more than the thing she was asking for. Refuge. Find one. Be one. Amen.