“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.

15 Reasons I’ve Never Left (The) Church

In conversation with Rachel Held Evans’,”15 Reasons I Left Church” and “15 Reasons I Returned to The Church” 

As a 25 year old growing up in America today, I am part of a significant minority of people who have weathered high school, college, and young adulthood with consistent mainline denomination church attendance and membership. I’m not saying this as a point of pride, but rather out of a bit of surprise. Christ’s Church has been such a cornerstone to my life, that it’s hard to imagine my life without it, even for a short while.

Within the candidacy process (for ordination to ministry in the PCUSA) I was asked how I could know that God was calling me to minister in the church if I haven’t tried anything else yet. That question caught me off guard. But then I realized, I had tried other things. In high school I worked with the yearbook and newspaper and thought I might be a journalist because I like shedding light on stories people might not know otherwise. In college I studied film production because I like being enabling people to tell their stories and show what the world looks like from their point of view. The funny thing is God finds a way to use every bit of who we are towards ministry. I am a journalist through newsletters, bulletin announcements, directories, and websites. I am a film producer, sharing the stories of the church through film.

Through ministry, God enables me to be the best parts of myself.

So here are 15 (of many) reasons why I’ve never left The Church (or church):

1. A weekly corporate prayer of confession. There’s something beautifully vulnerable about standing in a room filled with people of all ages and life stages and confessing our brokenness to God and one another. Imagine going out to other places and relationships in your life and confessing this same brokenness. Imagine how the world could be changed if we all admitted our mistakes and the ways we create intentional distance in relationship.

2. A delightful 97 year old member of our church whose love for God and God’s church fuels every aspect of her life. Our weekly conversations about how the church can be strengthened show me that Church membership is not about showing up each week as if attending some performance. Membership is about being a part of things, actively engaging and participating in whatever capacity you are able.

3. 1 Corinthians 12: This passage reminds me how each of us has a role in doing God’s work here on earth.

4. Barbara Brown Taylor. Yes she is Episcopalian, and yes her faith journey has taken her back and forth from active participation in the Church, but the poetic honesty that she offers in every sermon and piece of writing have given me a resolute peace in God’s call on my life to be a minister.

5. Hearing the statements of faith of newly confirmed members. I first felt God calling me to ministry while I was in confirmation class in the 8th grade. Knowing the impact of confirmation first-hand, i delight in hearing where these new members are in their journey of faith.

6. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12This passage speaks in a direct way of the strength we have through unity.

7. Project Burning Bush. Sadly, this program has ended, but it’s 10 year existence gives me hope not only for the future of the church, but for its present reality. Throughout my time with PBB as both participant and staff, I met a great many wonderful people who genuinely delight in being the Church.

8. The community of Union Presbyterian Seminary. The faculty, staff, and students of this beautiful institution have taught me so much about what it means to be the Church. In agreement and in conflict, these people’s tangible passion for improvement strengthened who I am and what I am willing to fight for to allow God’s Kingdom to be manifest.

9. Matthew 18:20 Through our Church community and the relationships we share with one another, we invite God to be present among us. God shows up in the ways we care for one another.

10. Communion. In communion we are reminded of Jesus Christ’s great sacrifice for us, but also of the meal that he shared with His disciples in the Last Supper. We can be sure that this was one of many meals they shared, but this one was different. Before the meal Jesus knelt down in front of the disciples and washed their feet. In breaking the bread he introduced it as His body, speaking of how He could nourish them like no earthly bread could. He also spoke of how the wine as His blood gives life. He asked His disciples to specifically eat bread and drink wine as a way to remember Him.
When we join in communion we are making ourselves present to the events of this meal. I picture everyone in our congregation, sitting down with every other congregation, sitting down with Jesus and His disciples.

11. First Presbyterian Church of Muncie. I am grateful for my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee and the ways they have all blessed me throughout my life, but First Presbyterian Church of Muncie holds a special place in my life. While FPC Maumee has had the opportunity to get to know me through relationships with my family and by watching me grow up throughout childhood, FPC Muncie knew me only while I was in college. Still, FPC Muncie welcomed me heartily, welcoming me into their choir loft and into their relationships like I had been there for years. I will never forget how much a part of the Church I felt when being a part of that church.

12. Deuteronomy 31:6. This passage tells us that God will always be with us. Even if I did leave a particular church, I know that God would always be present with me. However, this passage is not about striking out on your own to worship God alone as you may please. This passage comes in the context of Moses speaking to the people of Israel as they are about to head into the promise land. They travel as a large group and are strengthened through their faith in God as they have experienced God in community. They could not have made it to that point alone and God never intended them to. God will never ever leave us or forsake us, but that does not mean that we should intentionally create distance between ourselves and those who are eager to help us have a relationship with God.

13. Funerals. When someone dies I know I often find myself thinking about what will be said about me when I’m gone. I think about how long I will live and the experiences that I will have throughout my lifetime. If left to my own devices I think I would probably spend more time thinking about how I’ve been affected by someone’s death than the effect they have made with their life. Funerals work to bring us outside of that, focusing on the greater picture: the comfort of our common hymns, scripture telling us of God’s plans for us in heaven, and proclamations of the promise of resurrection.

14. Church meals. Child development experts can tell us the value of family dinner. Eating meals together fosters healthy habits and relationships. The same can be said of church dinners. When we eat together we approach each other on common ground. We all need to be fed physically, spiritually, and relationally. Meals with our church family allows for that to happen.

15. Baptisms. My favorite moment of the baptism is when the congregation affirms their role in the life of the person being baptized. In baptism, the person baptized becomes a part of the church family. We all take on the responsibilities of discipleship and Christian education. We promise to nurture this newly baptized person as they grow in faith. Simultaneously we are reminded of how we have all promised these vows to one another. Being the Church means saying: “I am here to travel this road with you. I will know God better through God’s work in your life and you will know God better through God’s work in mine.”