“From Where Will My Help Come?;” Psalm 121; March 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“From Where Will My Help Come?”
Psalm 121
March 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I spent this past weekend in my hometown in Ohio working on some wedding planning and enjoying a shower thrown by my best friend and her mother. It was a busy but good visit, unfortunately cut short by one of this winter’s many treacherous blizzards. My parents and I kept checking the forecast. There would be snow. It would hit my parents house. They might see anywhere from 6 to 12 inches. And so, I left a day early to get ahead of the storm, but there was still that lurking feeling, “what if the storm takes a different path?” “what if it hits when I’m in the traffic around Chicago?” “What if I need to find a hotel tonight for Bailey and me?” “What are the chances of find a pet friendly hotel last minute?” “What if I get in an accident?”

Slide02All of these “what if”s were circulating around in my brain as I set out that day. With that in mind, I certainly understand the questioning of the traveler in our passage today: “Where will my help come from?”

Slide03I made it back to Jesup safe and sound and the storm I avoided brought upwards of 6 inches of snowfall to my parents home, closing school there for two days. Like it or not, given all the information at hand, I made the right decision.

Slide04Our traveler in the Psalm today was not equipped with a GPS and hour-by-hour forecasts from the Weather Channel complete with radar map, but with prayers and blessings by the sending community.

Psalm 121 is in a very unconventional format compared to most Psalms as it is thought to be a conversation between a traveler and the traveler’s home community. This Psalm looks a bit different when we look at it from that lens:

Traveler: I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Community: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

Traveler: He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Community: The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Slide07This Psalm is a conversation, but it’s also a statement of faith. Even in the traveler’s uncertainty there is immediate affirmation of faith in God’s presence on the journey: “from where will my help come? my help comes from the Lord.” These phrases are back to back, as it almost said in the same breath. The traveler is simultaneously worried in personal circumstances and confident in our God who transcends all circumstances. There’s a beauty in the abundance of blessings offered to the traveler. While the traveler asks for help in a specific journey, a specific pilgrimage, likely to Jerusalem, the community blesses with confidence in God’s presence “keep[ing] your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” When we ask for a little, God responds extravagantly.

Traveling alone can be rather isolating, even fear laden at times when encountering inclement weather or gridlock traffic, but much more so if you’re traveling towards ancient Jerusalem. While I’m sure the traveler would have loved traffic updates from a smart phone or at the very least a guidebook with maps for water sources, he is blessed with more than supplication for the immediate needs, he is blessed with protection every hour of every day.

Slide08“I lift my eyes to the hills.” This phrase stuck out to me as I read through the text this week and the more research I read about it, the deeper this phrase effected me.

One possible reading of this text is that the hills could point to the hilltops around Jerusalem where the shrines of other gods were located. The affirmation that “my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth,” points to a God beyond any deities that can be contained to a hillside.

Slide09Another way this text was presented was that the hilltops were a frightening place with steep paths and rock formations that robbers would hide behind. When looking to the hilltop the traveler could’ve been filled with apprehension at the unknown hazards on the road ahead.

I’ve come to understand the text in light of all of these ideas. Yes, these hillsides are created by God, but they are also home to the distracting temptations of following other Gods. Yes, God carved out the mountain, but people have used those same beautiful formations to hide behind and inflict pain on those who wish to travel that path.

If you can’t see yourself traveling up through Jerusalem, perhaps you can find yourself traveling in other ways through your life. Through places and stages of life that bring you to both the beauty of God’s providence of creation and the temptations and hurt of this world.

Slide10While Psalm 121 is cast in the Bible as the Psalm of travelers, it has been applied more widely in the thousands of years since. It can be found in hospital delivery rooms and over the cribs of babies as way to affirm God’s presence during baby’s entry into and all through this treacherous journey of life. Hospital chaplains use Psalm 121 before someone enters the operating room, traveling through the fog of anesthetic and the uncertainty of surgery.

In verses 3-4 the affirmation that God neither slumbers or sleeps is not just speaking of God’s steadfastness, but also comparing God’s infallibility to the other deities that dot the ancient Jerusalem hillside. There was a common believe among the neighbors of Israel that their gods either “slept” or died during winter months and came back to consciousness during seasons of growth and harvest. Our God who is maker of heaven and earth is not so fickle.

Slide11The maker of heaven and earthy is present in all experiences, keeping constant watch over all who travel through life. In this short Psalm God is referred to as the keeper of our lives six times! What does it mean to you to be kept by God?

Slide12What would it mean for you to believe that you are surrounded by this blessing of a community of confidence in God’s providence?

What would it mean for our world for us to be that community; to share with other the confidence we have in God’s presence in each individuals’ wilderness journey?

Slide13This season of the church calendar also has us in the midst of a spiritual pilgrimage, Lent. Lent acknowledges a time of wilderness, when Jesus went into the wilderness and experienced a time of temptation and threats of harm. In Matthew 4:1 we read: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In a parallel account in Luke 4:1 we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” As in our Psalm today it’s important to recognize that Jesus did not travel into the wilderness alone, but was filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

We will experience wilderness, times of fear and temptation, but we will not go into that wilderness alone. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, and surrounded by abundant evidence of the God who made heaven and earth.

Slide14When we feel lost it is good to look to the hills for affirmation of God’s providence, but we can also find that confirmation by looking down at our feet. God made the heavens and the earth, AND God made us. God crafted together our very beings and breathed the breath of the Spirit into our lungs. God is with your every step, your every journey, your every wilderness. May you hold fast to the promise that wherever you may go “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Amen.

“Having a B-Attitude,” Matthew 5:1-12; March 2, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Having a B-Attitude”
Matthew 5:1-12
March 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01My plan for today was to preach about having an attitude acknowledging our blessedness, an assignment that has proved to be both challenging and convicting. With this sermon still uncompleted yesterday afternoon, sitting snowed into my house stewing in frustration at this seemingly endless winter, I did not have exactly what you could call an attitude of blessedness. In fact, I was angry. Last night I had tickets to an event in Cedar Rapids that I had bought David as a Christmas present, thinking hopefully by March we wouldn’t have a problem getting around. And then it snowed, and snowed some more, and that plan just did not work. I was stuck at home.

SLIDE 2 - A Tree Full of AngelsSometimes when I get really frustrated I need to get out of my own mind for a bit and read the words of much calmer authors. I turned to a beautiful book, “A Tree Full of Angels,” by Macrina Wiederkehr and read these words, so very fitting to what I needed to hear:

She writes, “I always say that winter is my fourth favorite season. It is not first, to be sure, yet there is something in it that I favor. I need the scourging that it brings. I need its toughness and endurance. I need its hope. I love the way winter stands there saying, ‘I dare you not to notice my beauty.’ Slide03What can I say to a winter tree when I am able to see the shape of its soul because it has finally let go of its protective leaves? What do you say to an empty tree? Standing before an empty tree is like seeing it for the first time… “

SLIDE 4 - Sorrow She continues“…Are our lives so very different when we’re empty? When we’ve turned loose our protective coverings, is our beauty any less? In the seasons of life, suffering is my fourth favorite season. I could not place it first, yet like winter, there is something in it that has my favor. It is not easy to be praying about suffering while the sun is rising, but I try not to turn away from what God asks me to gaze upon. My sunrise is someone else’s sunset. My cry of joy stands beside someone else’s cry of sorrow. They are two seasons of the same life.”

Slide05When we only look at the world solely through our experience, through our own season it is quite possible to only see the winter, or only see our own season of sorrow or frustration. And as much as I did not want to admit it yesterday, that snow is gorgeous. The way it sparkles, the way it covers all the grit and dirt that has a way of mixing in. There’s a gentle beauty to ice frosted trees.

Slide06It’s a dangerous beauty, of course. We only need to drive down 20 to see the account of how many drivers’ lives this winter has already taken. It’s frightening to fishtail, to spin out, to try and find the edge of the road by the grooves of the tires of those who have come before you, or by aiming to drive parallel to the headlights coming at you. If you can avoid traveling at all in this weather I’d highly encourage safety over any other obligation.

We live in the promise that this winter will not last forever, even if it’s hard to believe it on a snowy March 2nd in Jesup, IA.Slide07I remember when I first learned that Australia was having summer when we were having winter. It blew my mind a bit. Also, I decided I wanted to perpetually chase Fall since it was my favorite season and also when my birthday happens. I didn’t quite get that two Falls did not mean two birthdays. But still, it made me think of the world in a whole different way.

SLIDE 8 - Upside Down ChurchI’ve had similar revelations while reading the Bible. Sometimes things just seem so completely upside down. Jesus tells us that in God’s kingdom, many of the value systems of this world will be reversed.

Favorite author of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor describes this in an interesting way—God’s Ferris wheel:

Slide09“Jesus makes the same promise to all his listeners: that the way things are is not the way they will always be. The Ferris wheel will go around, so that those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the worlds’ lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars. It is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel.”

I love this image, each of us having a chance to touch the stars. Each of us simply being on our own part in the journey, our own journey around the sun. I also like that Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of how this movement around the Ferris wheel is not one of judgment, rather that God our creator loves every one of us and desires goodness for all of us.

Lutheran preacher, Brian Rossbert spoke these words about the beatitudes:

“Instead of hearing Jesus’ blessings from atop a mountain as an encouragement to become meeker or poorer in spirit or to have more mourning in our lives, perhaps what those blessings were about, perhaps what Jesus was speaking about on the mountain was an invitation, an invitation to prayer and an invitation to take notice of where God’s blessedness had already arrived.”[1]

Slide11Acknowledging our blessedness is not about placing ourselves into a new context or into a new season, it is about recognizing the blessedness that already surrounds us. As much as being snowed in yesterday frustrated me, I can acknowledge even in the same scene, the same season that I am so blessed to have a house with a working furnace, food to eat, and Bailey to keep me company. I don’t need to be more meek or poorer in spirit, but Jesus reassures me even if I were, and even when I am, I am blessed. This blessedness may look different in seasons of meekness and spiritual poverty, but it is still there.

Macrina Wiederkehr in “A Tree Full of Angels,” continues saying, “there is something about suffering that is ennobling. I’ve seen it recreate people. I’ve seen the mystery of suffering unfold people in a way that is sacramental, giving them the face of Christ. I have watched people suffer and wondered…what it is that gifts people with the courage to suffer so well. What is it that makes some people able to embrace suffering in such a way that they are lifted up rather than crushed?…Why is it that some of us learn how to embrace suffering in a way that makes us beautiful? And why is it that some of us allow it to embitter us?”

Slide13Well known author, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a book called “The Irrational Season,” about the season of Lent, which we will be entering this week on Ash Wednesday. In it she writes, “I am too eager for spring… fields need their blanket of snow to prepare the ground for growing. In my heart I am too eager for Easter. But, like the winter fields, my heart needs the snows of Lent….Each one of the beatitudes begins with Blessed, and translated from the Greek blessed means happy….Sometimes I think we have forgotten how to be truly happy, we are so conditioned to look for instant gratification. Thus we confuse happiness with transitory pleasures, with self-indulgence.”

As each of us passes through our own seasons of life may we be ennobled to see the blessing God has for us and live into that hope. Amen.

“A Vagabond Song,” by Bliss Carman

“A Vagabond Song,” by Bliss Carman

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood —
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.

The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry
Of bugles going by.
And my lonely spirit thrills
To see the frosty asters like a smoke upon the hills.

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;
We must rise and follow her,
When from every hill of flame
She calls and calls each vagabond by name.