Tuesday, July 21, 2009

help. stay away.

I was in conversation with a friend over lunch, a member of our church, and I mentioned that I had preached, I realized, over 250 sermons in my time at Providence. I confessed that sometimes I felt like I was running out of things to say. He did not miss a beat. You can preach it again”, he said as he smiled, “we probably won’t remember that we’ve already heard it.”

We are focusing on the psalms this summer, and I have preached on a number of them more than once: Psalm 23, Psalm 51, Psalm 84, Psalm 139, and this particular Psalm, 121. We are traveling through familiar territory, hiking a path we have walked before, and maybe we will notice something new, or maybe we will forget that we have seen it already!

Our psalm begins, “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills. From where will my help come?” What a beautiful verse of scripture! I love the mountains. Some of the richest experiences in my life have taken place in the mountains: as a young boy our family sometimes took trips to the Smokies and my imagination was filled with the possibility of bears…some of my most important Christian experiences as a teenager were in summer camps in the western North Carolina mountains, being from south Georgia it was a magical place to be.

I was ordained at Lake Junaluska, just west of Asheville, our older daughter Elizabeth was baptized in the Memorial Chapel there, I think about vacations, going down Sliding Rock, standing on the top of Mount Mitchell, the fall colors, hiking portions of the Appalachian trail, renovating our cabin. It’s easy for me to gaze at the mountains and see God’s strength and majesty.

But when the Israelites looked at the mountains, they saw something different. Much of the pagan worship in ancient Palestine took place on hilltops: spells, enchantments, fertility cults, priests to the moon and the sun. Folks went to the mountains to feel better, to solve life’s problems, to flee from evil. Call it the ancient self-help movement. Call it the “old time religion”.

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From where will my help come?” This is a good question, perhaps it is the question. Someone has observed that we should leave room for a significant pause between the first and second verses of this psalm. Most of us live much of our lives in this silence between these two sentences. Most of us are asking the question: where is the source of help, when is the help coming? Then the psalmist answers his own question. We don’t worship the creation; we worship the creator. We don’t place our trust in the mountains, but in the One who spoke the mountains into being. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

This psalm was a part of a small hymnal loved by pilgrims, known as the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120-134. Many of us have a hymnal within a hymnal, the songs we are moved to sing, and the Songs of Ascent spoke to these pilgrims who were searching, yearning for more. I think of the Bidding Prayer in the Service of Lessons and Carols, where we speak of those we love who stand on a distant shore and in a greater light.

These ancient pilgrims had it right: there had to be more. The best way to find what they were looking for was to make the journey. They would sing these psalms as they took the journey to that one special place.

Thousands of years ago people believed that there was one special place. Yes, every place was holy, every bush was a burning bush, all ground was holy ground, but there was one special place: Jerusalem. The pilgrims sang this psalm on the way up to Jerusalem, they were marching to Zion, the beautiful city of God. As they sang “I will lift my eyes unto the hills, from where will my help come”, they would remember, “my help comes from God. As these pilgrims were going up to Jerusalem they had truly found the place of help.

I think pilgrimage is easy for us to grasp. We all feel like we’re on the way to something.

We’re about to get married, or we’re about to get that job, or we’re about to have a child, or our child is about to start school, or go off to college, or leave home; we’re about to retire; we lived there a few years ago, now we’re here, in a few years we’ll be somewhere else, nothing is a constant.

We are pilgrims, we’re on a journey. And when you’re on a journey, life can be difficult, even treacherous. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo says to Frodo, It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The journey can be treacherous. The psalmist points to three potential dangers, and each corresponds to a promise:

Verse Three: *He will not let your foot be moved When you’re traveling on foot, you can trip, and fall and sprain an ankle, or you can fall off a cliff.

Verse Six: *The sun shall not strike you by day: When you’re walking in the desert, you can be burned by the relentless heat of the sun.

Also Verse Six: *Nor the moon by night When you’re walking at night, the ancient writers believed, you were in danger of moonstroke, we literally call this lunacy.

The journey can be dangerous. Along the way we stumble, we get burned, we go a little crazy. If we’re going to make the journey, Psalm 121 insists, we’re going to need some help. Now you would think help would be a simple subject. But it’s not. I once served on the board of a non-profit organization, and at our annual meeting I listened to the leader of an organization of which I was a part. The leader, at one moment, would say “help, help”. Then she would say, in the next breath, “back off, leave me alone, I can do this”. Help, back off. Help, leave me alone. Help. Stay away.

But as I share this I know there is some of that in me. Maybe you’ve been there, too. Most of us need some kind of help. But we also want people to think we have it all together. We pretend. If we’re men we’re singing “I did it my way”. And you women are singing “I am strong, I am invincible”.

Sometimes we do it our way, and we make a mess of our lives. Sometimes we are strong, invincible, but within we are crumbling. Sometimes we need help.

Our help, the psalm teaches us, comes from God. There is a wonderful image for this in the Psalm. The one who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. In the 44th Psalm the writer is involved in a litany of everything that has gone wrong, everything that is unjust and unfair, have you ever had a day like that, you just want to make a list of everything that is wrong with the world, with your community, with your family, with yourself. Or maybe you call a friend and get it off your chest, or you fire off an e-mail. Today we would call it a rant!

Well in the ancient world they had another name for it: a psalm! The 44th Psalm is a great example. This psalm describes a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day”. And in the 23rd verse of chapter 44 the psalmist says it bluntly: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O God!” While the mess continues to get more and more complicated, we wonder: Is God taking a nap?

We sometimes hear folks in the culture criticize God, or the idea of God, and maybe it is unsettling to us. Or we have that impulse ourselves, and we don’t know what to do with that, it is does not seem right or appropriately religious, somehow. If you are reading through the psalms this summer, you will know that the psalms have an ongoing argument with God, call it is lover’s quarrel, there is a healthy criticism of God in the psalms,

And yet in this psalm there is also a profession of faith. God is engaged with all of life, God is paying attention . The one who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.

Years ago I participated in a retreat with a very diverse group of clergy, men and women, black and white, liberals and conservatives. Among the group was a female pastor who had grown up in a very evangelical, almost fundamentalist background. Nothing in her tradition told her that it was okay to be a pastor, as a woman, and yet the Holy Spirit had overcome the rigidity of her community. Such is the power and mercy of God. Sometimes God even overcomes our own inflexibility!

We were reflecting on our spiritual journeys and she shared this experience. She said, “I had just given birth to our first child, a daughter. It was the middle of the night, and I was exhausted. But she would not go to sleep. And so I took her into the den and began to rock her. She grew calm, but in the quietness of the room I could also hear, from the nearby bedroom, the sound of my husband, snoring.

“And for some reason a verse of scripture came to mind: the One who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. I began to imagine that God had to be more than just male. This was very much opposed to what I had always been taught. And yet, in the moment, I wondered: what was God really like?” God watches over us, God helps us, all along the journey.

In the history of the Lutheran Church this psalm was read as the parents brought a child to the font for baptism: “The Lord preserve your coming in and your going out, from this time forth and forever more”. This is a psalm that is often read at memorial services, chosen by the family. Six times in this psalm we are reminded that the Lord is our keeper. God watches over us, from the cradle to the grave, from the infant who is held in her mother’s arms to the beloved who is placed into a casket or columbarium urn.

This psalm is deeply rooted in the orthodox belief of the church—the one who makes us also watches over us, it bears witness to the creation and providence of God. And yet it has always been true that our believing is linked to our praying. With pilgrims across thousands of years we ask the question: I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? These are words that we can preach and pray, again and again, because we forget, all of us.

Let us pray: O God, you are as strong as the mountains and as gentle as a mother who holds us close in the middle of the night. You are a mighty fortress; and you hide us in the shadow of your wings. O Lord, you are the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

O God, you are always with us, every step of the way: you keep our feet from stumbling, you neither slumber nor sleep, you watch our coming and our going, from this time forth, and for ever. You are our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. Amen.

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction.


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