Greetings! We’ve had the blog on a bit of hiatus during a too-busy summer, so I am now attempting to catch up. This sermon is the second in the series we called “Summer with the Psalms,” for which we invited congregation members to share with us their favorite psalms and what was meaningful about them. Psalm 121 was chosen by Charlotte Brockway.
Have you ever taken a pilgrimage? Have you ever undertaken a journey to a place, one “officially” sacred, or one sacred only to you? Maybe it was an act of devotion, paying homage to God, or perhaps honoring someone or something important in your life? Right now our congregation has an official pilgrim on an ancient pilgrimage trail. David Still has been walking the Camino de Santiago Compostela through France and Spain for a month now. I’ve been following his Facebook posts along the way. One of his recent comments noted the difference in perspective seeing the world by walking on foot: “you get to see, taste, and smell your way along.”
I was reminded of pilgrimage I made some years ago, walking the Migrant Trail, from the U.S.-Mexico border to Tucson, Arizona. We walked those 75 miles through the Sonora desert in remembrance of the many undocumented migrants who have died attempting to enter the U.S. for work, and as a prayer for changes in the broken systems that have created these circumstances. I became vividly aware in my own body, mind, and spirit of the kinds of vulnerability such migrants face. The heat, the rocks, the thirst. I learned how vital it was not to overestimate my own abilities, supplies or equipment. On such a journey, no matter how prepared you are, something can always go wrong.
For me, it was my hiking boots. They seemed to fit well on short walks around my neighborhood. But not long after the first day’s walk, the blisters began appearing. Of course, unlike the migrants we were honoring, our group had a support team of volunteers with vehicles, who would pick up walkers in need of assistance. My need became obvious—to everyone but me! I was determined to hike every bit of the way, but my blisters finally overcame my pride and rode to the next stopping point. It was not easy to admit my need for help to myself, let alone to others.
The author of Psalm 121, on the other hand, is keenly aware of the vulnerabilities of travelers. This Psalm bears a superscription telling us this is a “Song of Ascents,” a clue to its context. It is part of a group of such psalms, and scholars suggest they were compiled as a kind of a hymnal for Israelite pilgrims “going up” to the temple at Jerusalem. Psalm 121 might have been used as a blessing at the outset of the pilgrim’s journey, much like we might commission someone going on a mission trip.
But since we may not currently be on an obvious pilgrimage, I think it will help us to enter this psalm and pray it with conviction if we get in touch with our vulnerabilities and our true need for help. This is not an easy thing to do in our culture of rugged individualism. How many of you comfortably ask for help? When help is offered, how many of you often refuse it?
To even come to the awareness of needing help can be excruciating for people raised with the notion that we must be independent and self-sufficient at all costs. But the truth is that on the great journey of life, all of us face fears, threats, and vulnerabilities every day. And there is a particular blessing in coming to awareness of our true powerlessness in life: we become more available to God’s power with, for, and within us.
So take a moment and think about a fear, threat, or aspect of vulnerability you or a loved one is currently facing. And then I want you to turn to your neighbor and share with one another a little about it. Go…How was it for you sharing such “personal stuff” with one another in worship on Sunday?
It’s telling how awkward this can feel. Even with our fellow faith-pilgrims in this congregation, even in this place and time a step away from the outside culture, where we are invited to show up before God and one anotherwith our whole, honest selves, many of us find it extremely uncomfortable to share from an experience of vulnerability or need. But now that we’ve done so, maybe our ears can be open to hear the statement of faith and the powerful promises of Psalm 121 in a new way.
I lift my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? This is the key question of the traveler, who would certainly have seen hills all around on the journey. Living in the Grande Ronde Valley, we resonate with the act of lifting our eyes to the encircling mountains. When she chose this psalm, Charlotte wrote, “A dozen times I have thought of this song when everything seemed to be going wrong. In most of the places where we’ve lived there were always pretty hills or mountains to look up to or climb and forget everything but the beauty of God’s nature.” The mountains and hills can certainly speak a message of our Creator God’s strength and abiding presence.
However, for the ancient Israelite pilgrim, headed to Jerusalem, the hills had another significance. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the “high places,” other than Zion, God’s holy hill, were the locations of shrines where idolatrous sacrifices to foreign deities took place. As Eugene Petersen has pointed out, the ancient Israelites had two chief locations they might be tempted to seek “help,” the fearsome gods of the high places or Yahweh.
We have the same choice. As one preacher notes, “Things haven’t changed much. We still look to the high places. Some climb the corporate ladder and aspire to the boardrooms on the 37th floor. Many look for help to Capitol Hill, to address societal ills… Huge numbers of people are star-struck by astronomical athletic salaries. And everyone with an IRA or 401(k) loves the Dow Jones and Nasdaq indexes, as long as they go up. The high places have their allure, and many place the trust of their life there.”[i]
But as the Beatles’ song goes, “Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!” the same is true for us. We stand in need of divine assistance, but not just any help will do.[i]
The Psalmist, looking over all the options, makes a powerful, clear confession of faith in God: My help comes from the Lord who makes heaven and earth. The help we need, the only help we can truly rely on, comes from the One who created the hills, the Creator of heaven and earth.
The remainder of the Psalm describes the character and the promises of this God. A foot-traveling pilgrim in rocky, steep territory needs help so that tired feet do not stumble. God will not let your foot be moved. In a desert landscape, sunstroke is an ever-present danger. Moonstroke—we might call it “lunacy”—was also seen as a threat. God is your shade at your right hand. The sun will not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
Ultimately the Psalmist moves far beyond the present pilgrimage, asserting God’s care over the whole of life. God is our “keeper,” one who protects, shields, watches over, and guards us at all times. God is like a watchman keeping guard over a city. But even more than a watchman, God does not sleep on the job! The Psalmist stands firm on the promises of God to keep and guard those who rely on him, not only from the dangers of desert travel but from all the evil we will face on our life journey, no matter what our comings and goings.
Now, by no means is this psalm a water-tight theological treatise, suggesting that those who trust in God will never experience harm. The psalmist is all too aware that “the wicked thrive unjustly.”[i] This psalm is a prayer of blessing, affirming faith in God and evoking God’s protection. It reminds us, as we look to and beyond the hills around us, to be aware of God’s steady, sheltering presence. Aware of our vulnerability and need, we are called anew to trust in the One who never sleeps but is always watching and caring for each step of our humble feet on this earth.
To close, I invite you to stand as you are able and repeat this affirmation: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” And now, I invite you to turn to your neighbors and bless them by making the sign of the cross, on their hand or forehead if you’re daring, saying: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore.”
Amen, and Alleluia!
[i] James H. Evans Jr., “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 56.