Sunday, March 12, 2017

I Lift My Eyes to the Hills

This Sunday I'm in Worcester, at All Saints Church. It's the Second Sunday of Lent; the readings for the day can be found here. I really do love the Gospel reading for today; and for those interested I posted a sermon here three years ago (the last time it came up) that I preached at Christ Memorial Church in North Brookfield. This year, however, since I'm leading a discussion on the Psalms at All Saints on Thursday nights, it made sense to preach today's sermon on Psalm 121. 

I love Nicodemus! And if Greg will promise to invite me back three years from now when he makes an appearance next on the second Sunday of Lent 2020, I’ll mark my calendar for a return visit. But this year, since I’m teaching a three-week study here on Thursday nights on the psalms, this sermon has a secondary function: as a kind of “plug” for that class, as an invitation for you to consider the psalms as a part of this year’s Lenten journey. With this in mind… has been said that the one who sings, prays twice. The psalms are ancient Israel’s hymnal. As with our own Hymnal‘82, they are poems set to music. They are meant to be sung by both Jews and Christians for private meditation and in the midst of the assembly. The psalm that we prayed a few minutes ago is my own personal favorite in the entire Psalter, one that I have requested be used at my funeral. (Like everyone I love the 23rd psalm, of course, but, well, everyone loves and uses that one! I guess I’m enough of a contrarian to give the slight edge to 121.)

I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” First and foremost, I love a prayer that begins with a question. One can imagine a person who has come through some difficult time in life standing at the foot of the Alps or the Rockies (or maybe even Mount Wachusett) and looking up toward the heavens: God are you there? I know you are…will you help me? The person willing to ask this question is already more than halfway there. It seems to me that it’s when we think we have things all under control that we are most in danger. Conversely, the one who lifts her eyes to the hills and looks for help is ready to respond when it is offered, not unlike the guy who walks into a meeting of strangers and says, “I admitted that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable.”

So I love that about this prayer: a person who goes outside and asks a question. And I love it that the response is claimed with boldness: “my help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” The Creator of the universe loves and cares for me. And for you. And for us. And for all the children of the world. To believe that is to face any adversity with hope and confidence and to begin to live by faith alone.

Some of you may know the poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” I think it’s a close cousin to Psalm 121, and conveys the same vision:
When despair grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. / I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief. I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind starswaiting for their light. / For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 
The world can be a dangerous place. Even so, as another poet once put it, “this is my Father’s world…”  And God still looks and calls it good. There is a peace that comes our way just by paying attention, by considering the lilies of the field or paying attention to the place where the heron feeds or cross-country skiing on the rail trail or walking along the beach and listening to the waves hit the shore or lifting our eyes to the hills. When we do these things and I’m sure you have your own list, we are already on the mend.

Whatever has been troubling the psalmist (and let’s face it, that could be a long list too -  the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, changes happening in their congregation, fear about where their country is headed… ) any and all of these things can disorient us and make us wonder where our place in the world is. And then we lift our eyes to the hills and ask the biggest question of all: from whence cometh our help? This is what Lent is for, to encounter the peace of wild things. The wilderness itself responds to our question: our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. God is not asleep on the job.

It’s an Old Testament prayer. It’s a prayer that Mary and Joseph no doubt taught Jesus to pray. But it is a prayer easily adapted to the lips of those who claim this Galilean Jew as the Christ, for at its heart it is the claim of Immanuel. That is, it’s a claim of “God-with-us.” It’s a prayer about putting our trust in the God who is with us throughout life’s journey, a God who loves us with an everlasting love.

Now there is a part of me that wishes that was all there was to say on this subject. But there is another psalm—another prayer—that awaits us at the end of this Lenten journey and that will take us into the heart of the three holy days. It’s a very different kind of prayer, a prayer of desperation and of lament. It is also one of my favorites. It’s a prayer that Jesus himself also prays; in fact according to two of the Gospel writers it is the very last prayer he prays on this earth. It begins like this:

          My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
                    and are so far from my cry
                   and from the words of my distress?

Now it’s difficult to say that one loves this prayer in the same way as Psalm 121. But I know that in my own journey, as perhaps in yours, there are times in our lives when we lift our eyes to the hills and we are not comforted. There are times when we do not know for sure whether or not God is with us, but it feels as if God is not. There are times in our lives, especially in times when we feel like we are traveling alone in the wilderness of loss, or addiction, or betrayal that we get lost and we feel isolated and we feel scared and it seems like we are traveling alone in the universe and that no one is listening. Not even God.

There is a word in Korean, for which there is no literal English translation. It's the word han, which is a state of soul that is about sadness, a sadness so deep that no tears will come. And yet still there's hope. I think Psalm 22 is a han kind of prayer. In the face of earthquakes and hurricanes and wars and rumors of war and acts of terror and in the face of divorce, cancer, automobile accidents and tragic loss it sometimes feels like the foundations of our faith are crumbling, and we lift our eyes to the hills and we ask for help and sometimes we hear—nothing. We experience the absence of God in those times when we most feel we need it. And we can infer that that must mean that God isn’t there at all, or doesn’t care, or isn’t paying attention.  Psalm 22 names all that. And sometimes Lent is like that for us, maybe this year it is like that for you.

Now there are some kinds of piety that don’t think we should talk like that, and especially that preachers never should. That we should be only optimistic and happy like that preacher out in Texas, Joel Osteen. There are some who say that the “absence of God” isn’t a real or legitimate experience. But I think our God is a God of truth and more than anything else I think preachers have to do their best to tell the truth, even when it’s hard. I know way too many people who have prayed this prayer at some point in their journeys, because life is very often not fair at all. And I take great comfort in the fact that Jesus prayed it, because if he could pray it then we are given permission to pray it as well.

So I am so glad to be part of a tradition that is comfortable with paradox. To be clear, Episcopalians didn’t invent this! Our Jewish friends have known this for a very long time. But I find it encouraging to be part of a community that includes both the 22nd psalm and the 121st psalm, even though they express very different experiences of God. And I find that incredibly encouraging because it covers the full range of this and every Lenten journey, which is of course patterned after our life’s journey. We live in an age that expects easy answers to difficult questions. We live in a “can do” world and an “either/or” world. And when that plays out in a faith community like this one, then God can become either a kind of “totem” who always keeps us safe or who, when absent, we don’t believe in anymore. But the truth is that we are part of a faith tradition that is richer and more complex than that, which is a good thing, because life is richer and more complex than that.  

As I read the Scriptures (and especially the psalms) I read them not so much as the answers to life’s questions as they are more like mile markers or signs along the highway that help us to better frame the right questions and then listen for a Word of the Lord in community. The Bible is more like a “never-ending story” that invites us into a “lover’s quarrel” with God. We are invited into these old texts and into this holy season of Lent to remember how to let go and let God. The wilderness of Lent is a place where we rediscover, by God’s grace, who we are, and whose we are. The wilderness of Lent is a place where we can learn to pray in new ways and become more attentive to where we are in the journey and willing to live into the questions rather than to recite easy answers. In taking this journey we discover the faith of Jacob, who wrestled with God. We remember the faith of Job, who refused to let God get off the hook too easily and in the end discovered that God appreciated his honesty more than his friend’s false piety. We find ourselves closer to the faith of Jesus, tempted for forty days and yet discovering the peace of wild things that open the door to new and abundant life.

I want to be part of a faith tradition that includes both Psalm 22 and Psalm 121 because that rings true to the way that I experience the world and the way that I experience God. Sometimes people who are living in that place of Psalm 121 come up to a bump in the road, and no one has ever told them it’s alright to learn a new prayer—to be angry with God, because God can handle it!  That there are times when we need to express those emotions of betrayal and loss and hurt. Sometimes, though, people get stuck and embittered and can’t find a way forward. They pray those first few verses of Psalm 22 for years and maybe even for decades, without knowing that even in that prayer of anguish the poet does reach a point where he cries out to God as Helper. And of course the very next prayer after that one is Psalm 23. By God’s grace, we practice singing these songs together in communities like this one so that we can draw on them as our lives unfold. On this day we are reminded to “lift our eyes to the hills” because there we, and others, have discovered that the maker of heaven and earth is there for us: Christ before us and beside us and in front of us and behind us and underneath us, so that we can keep on walking toward Easter morning. One step at a time. 

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