Twelve Scriptures Project
Texts #11, 12: Psalm 121, Romans 8:35-39
We have arrived at the end of the rainbow.
For the last ten weeks we have been pondering these twelves scriptures as foundational/ centering passages for our understanding of God and what it means to live a life of faith. Next Sunday the front will look very different as the sanctuary is prepared for the wedding of Rosa W. Even though we will be moving beyond these scriptures to focus on other things, I hope they will have a lingering presence with us in some way. Yesterday the church commissions had a retreat and had these scriptures in front of us while talking about the kind of future we want to live into as a congregation. And I wonder if there are other ways we can keep coming back to these passages, or to keep remembering the kind of foundation we have together. Remembering back to my few years of construction experience with Habitat for Humanity, having the foundation in place meant it was time for the rewarding work to really start, with lots of collaboration to help something take shape.
Psalm 121 begins this way: “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.”
There are a couple ways of interpreting these opening verses. One is that the Psalmist is looking for a sign of God’s presence, and sees the hills and mountains in their beauty and solidity as a sign of divine goodness, their largeness putting our own lives in perspective and reminding us that all will be well. I lift up my eyes to the hills and am reminded that God is my helper. This perhaps has become the most common interpretation. Us flatlanders of central Ohio have reason to be especially awed when we travel to the hills and mountains.
Another interpretation, a more ancient one, notes that this Psalm begins by saying it is a psalm of ascents, to ascend, one that was most likely recited when one would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, ascending the hills around it to enter the Holy City. It’s a Psalm for sojourners, travelers, pilgrims. The hills around Jerusalem were not known as being friendly to travelers, with the potential to come upon beasts or bandits around any turn. It was not an easy climb. If one were coming from the north and east, one could ascend nearly 4000 feet en route. A common route from this direction would have brought the traveler through the city of Jericho, and one of Jesus most familiar parables begins by saying “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” For anyone who would have ever made pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Jesus’ neck of the woods, Galilee, this would have been an instantly familiar scenario. Even if you make it safely up to Jerusalem, will you make it safely back, going down from Jerusalem to Jericho on the journey home?
In this reading, the hills are not a source of comfort, but the source of danger, the obstacle one needs to get beyond in order to reach one’s destination. The traveler looks out from the safety of their home in the village and says, “I’ve got to get on the other side of those hills, now how am I going to pull that off?” or, as the Psalm begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?” This is the prayer of Frodo Baggins and his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee on their epic journey, which you could spend an entire waking day watching if you were so inclined.
Without negating the first interpretation, what I like about this second one is how true to life it is. When we look out at the journey ahead of us, the thing we most often see isn’t how we’re going to get through it, where our help is going to come from, but the obstacles and the barriers through which we will certainly need help. The hills are easy to see, painfully obvious. What we don’t see, what remains unknown, is how we’re going to get through them. I lift up my eyes to this illness I will be living with: this cancer diagnosis, this injury, this mental health struggle. Where will my help come from? I lift up my eyes to graduate school, where will my help come from? Besides coffee. I lift up my eyes to this job transition, I lift up my eyes to retirement, I lift up my eyes to raising a child, I lift up my eyes to taking a risk in my career, I lift up my eyes to a really difficult conversation I need to have. Where will my help come from? We may not always phrase it liturgically, like a Psalm, but this is a question we live with.
The Psalm poses this question, and proceeds to provide an answer which is both definitive and completely open ended. “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” My help comes from YHWH.
This is where my rational brain kicks into full gear and isn’t quite satisfied. If God were a very large person able to reach down and lend a hand, one might be able to trust more easily that everything will go smoothly. But She’s not. God is not a person in the way that we are a person, God is not an object somewhere out there, neither does God seem in any way predictable, to help us in the way we think we need help.
I think of the story of Moses at the burning bush when the voice from the bush had asked him to go back to his people in Egypt, from where he has fled, and tell them that he is there to lead them to freedom. Moses is resistant at every point in the conversation and finally asks the voice to tell him its name, so that he can tell the people the name of the god who is leading them. The name the voice chooses, the self-selected name of the Divine is “I will be who I will be;” the Hebrew of which gets condensed down to the name YHWH, the unique name for God the Jews carry forward with them. Tell them, “I will be who I will be” has sent you. How’s the for reassuring? Translated over into Psalm 121, it would read something like this: “Where does my help come from?” My help will come from where my help will come from, Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth. Our help comes from the one beyond naming, the one with a thousand names, the Divine, the Source of life itself, the creative force that produces the very hills that have become a danger.
Our help comes from the Lord, but we never know what form that help will take, and most of the time, we don’t see it coming until it’s there, unexpected, a grace, seeing that our foot doesn’t slip on this rock, or that we’re protected around this corner. We can’t always get what we want. But if we try sometimes, we just might find, we get what we need – said another Psalmist.
On Wednesday I had lunch with Yasir Makki, who attended this church in the late 90’s and early 00’s and returned to his home in Sudan out of a sense of call to minister to his people. He’s been back in the US during August this year. We did not cite Psalm 121 in our discussion, but he is a person who has a strong sense of God as his helper and his guardian. He told me his story. He refused and fled from mandatory military enrollment in Sudan. Ended up in the US as a refugee. Found a community of support, part of that community being the Mennonites. Got a Bible degree at Rosedale and a Masters of social work at OSU and was making a pretty good life for himself here, before feeling called to return to Sudan. Even his dad in Sudan said it was a bad idea for him to return. His center that he has established teaches sewing skills to women. They have a home that houses political refugees from South Sudan. He oversees four churches and they have had meeting houses demolished by the government. He has maintained his Muslim identity, continues to study the Qur’an, but also identifies as a follower of Jesus in a country where converting to Christianity can be punishable by death. He relies on support from American churches. He’s hoping to open up a school because young people in his town don’t read and literacy has all kinds of implications about the kind of life that will be available to them. Many of you know the details and complexities of his story better than I do and hopefully I have these few details straight that I’ve mentioned. His help comes from where his help comes from. It comes from the Lord, he says with great faith.
We have paired Romans 8:35-39 with this Psalm. What if Romans 8 said this: For I am convinced that neither hardship nor distress nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril will happen to me if I serve God. It doesn’t say that. It gives that list, assuming they will happen, then says none of it can separate us from the love of Christ. I am convinced, Paul says, that these things are not cause for separation from that which holds me up in being. I am convinced that the hill to which I lift up my eyes cannot, will never, separate me from the love of God.
So here’s a parting thought. A parting thought for this sermon, but also a parting thought for this series. The thought for this parting thought came while pondering the final line of Psalm 121. That final line in that Psalm for sojourners says: “The Lord, YHWH, will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” So the parting thought is that in order to even begin our going out and our coming in – our Sojourner mobility – it takes a certain amount of groundedness in this love of God which Paul and these other passage speak about. Without this groundedness, without a trust that there will be help along the way, we don’t even set out on the journey in the first place. We stay in the safety of the village, the safety of the familiar, the routine, the comfortable. It takes faith and trust in something to set out and to be free enough to go out and come in as you feel so led.
I often tell couples in pre-marriage counseling that they definitely want to think long and hard about this commitment they’re making to each other, but not to think about it too hard or they’ll never do it. If you have to know exactly how everything is going to work out and where your help is going to come from at every turn, it’s likely you’ll never make the first steps.
The opposite approach would be our daughter Ila and her love of climbing. Rather than calculating anything ahead of time, she starts climbing up whatever is around to climb, until she gets stuck or can’t get down, at which point she just starts screaming for help, apparently convinced that help will always come her way. It’s worked for her so far. I lift up my eyes to the dining room table. I totally got this, or not.
One of the best things we can do in parenting and grand parenting and mentoring, seems to be giving our young people a sense of being so enveloped in love that they are able to go out and come in and take risks. Not completely protecting them from all harm that happens on the journey, but creating the conditions that enable the traveler to make the journey in the first place.
So what if the purpose of these foundational scriptures, these centering values, and the purpose of our worshiping life together, isn’t to give a certainty that everything will be alright, that no harm shall befall you, or to give anyone a blueprint for what their life should look like. But to instill in each of us the freedom of going out and coming in, from this time on, and forever more. A confidence in God as our helper, whatever form that might take, and a sense that we are utterly immersed in the love of Christ, such that the hills ahead aren’t a reason to avoid the journey.
Paul must have felt this in an overwhelming way to write what he does in Romans and to lead the life that he did. He knew nothing could separate him from the love of God, so he was utterly free to do just about anything that made this love more evident in the world.
So that’s it. It’s hard, but that’s OK. Our lives are not our own to protect. We are held in being by a love that surpasses our ability to understand and manage it. And the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.