Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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From Where Does My Help Come?  [sermon]


(This sermon from was preached on July 17th at Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach, FL. The manuscript is below and the video from the 9:30 service is above.)

Last week’s psalm of lament and this week’s Psalm 121 are both what are known as “psalms of ascent.” You can see that in the titles that the authors have placed before the psalm. Most of the titles you will find in your bible have been added by the translators to make life easier for you when looking for a passage. The notes at the beginning of many of the psalms, however, are in the original text. They can be instructions for the worship leader, descriptions of the content, or other words or phrases whose meaning has been lost over time.  Psalms 120-134 are grouped together with the same title: A Song of Ascents. Scholars suggest that these psalms were used by pilgrims during the festival seasons as they travelled to Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself are on the highest hill in the area and so one literally must “go up” to Jerusalem.

Theses songs would be sung along the road and in services at the beginning of their journey and before they set off. Taken together the psalms are a mixture of different types and themes, but they are mostly short and easy to memorize. Psalm 121 is one of the most popular of the group as well as the whole psalter. It is a psalm of unqualified praise to a God whose protection knows no limits.

It begins with the beautiful question: I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? In the times of the Bible, there were lots of options to turn to for help. Every hill and high place in the area contained shrines and poles in honor and worship of a god for every ailment or problem. If you needed crops to grow, there was a god for that. If you wanted children, there’s a god for that. If you were on a journey, there’s a god for that. Whatever you needed help, you could look to the hills and find an assortment of gods to pray to and worship.

Things are not so different now. When we are in need of help we lift our eyes to the Hollywood Hills and find movie stars selling insurance and credit cards which will solve our problems. We read tabloid magazines and websites which while they may not solve our problems will at least distract us from them long enough to get us by.

When we are unhappy with our country or our community we lift our eyes to capital hill and pray that our candidate is elected or that our law is passed.

When we want to make more money we look to the hills of wall street, or we look uphill and see what job or position might bring us more success.

The psalmist looks at these hills, and knows that true help will not come from the tops of any of them. True help will only come from the Lord who made the hills and who created the rest of earth and heaven.

How often do we set our sights too low. We put our trust in people who promise to make things easier for us, who know a better way, a faster way. And then how slowly it takes us to realize our mistake.

Every election it seems like we all get a messiah complex for our preferred candidate. If our man or woman is elected then things will be better. Inevitably, when that person is elected we realize how wrong we were. As long as they have been doing polls, almost every president has seen their approval ratings consistently drop over the course of their presidency. Once they get into office the reality often fails to live into the rhetoric.

There is a saying, “Never meet your heroes.” So often we put people on pedestals only to discover that the more you get to know the more human you realize they are. Malachi is at this cute stage in life where he is almost sitting up on his own. He is soo close. I will often put him up on my lap and let him practice. He will push the boundaries and bend over and then pull himself back up. But if he goes over too far, my hands are on either side to keep him from falling too far. The other day, we were playing this game and I got distracted by something outside the window. Malachi leaned to far over and bumped his head on the arm of the chair. Fortunately it was not far and he didn’t even really notice, but it reminded me that I am not a perfect parent. I will not always be there when he trips or stumbles. At some point, probably around the time he is a teenager, Malachi will realize this as well. I hope by that point, he has come to learn that God is always there. God never sleeps or gets distracted. The seeming paradox of God is that the One who created the world also cares about each one of us individually. The God who orders the planets is also concerned with our path in life as well and asks us to follow where God leads.
As we know, even when we walk with God, bad things happen. The attack in Nice this week does not mean that God looked away and got distracted. Being in God’s protection means more than physical safety. As I was preparing for the funeral last Tuesday I noticed that Psalm 121 is one of the suggested psalms to be read in the service. Its assurance of God’s protection serves as both a comfort for the ones who are grieving, but also that God’s protection remains with the person who has died.

So often we limit God’s activity and care to the life we know when in reality God moves and works beyond this life. In Jesus Christ God came into this world, experienced death, and then in the resurrection proved that not even death is the end of God’s work in the world. When Paul in Romans tells us that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” there is no caveat there. The original letter did not have a footnote with a list of exceptions. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. This total and complete love of God is beyond our ability to understand, but should encourage us along the way.

One article I read this week suggested that Psalm 121 was used to prepare pilgrims before they set off on their journey. The first two verses would have said by those who were leaving: “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” And then the rest of the psalm was then recited by those who were staying. These words from Psalm 121 would serve as a reminder to the person that God would protect them on their journey.

Travelling in ancient times was difficult and dangerous. The journey to Jerusalem was done entirely on foot without a plane, train, or car. Wild animals and robbers were a constant source of danger. An injury in the wrong place could leave you exposed to the elements, with heat stroke being a real concern. In the face of so much to fear, however, the pilgrim needed to be reminded of their purpose in making the journey.
The opportunity to worship of God at the Temple was a privilege that is difficult to even put into words. For some Jews it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As they prepared to set off and I imagine frequently along the way, they needed to lift their eyes again to the hills and fix their eyes on the hill of Zion.

As the ground became rocky, they needed to remember that God was with them every step of the way and would not let their feet stumble. As the sun beat down and sapped their energy, they remembered that God was their shade at their right hand protecting them day and night. As robbers threatened and animals howled, the remembered that God would keep them from all evil-real and imagined. Through the whole of the journey they needed to remember that the God they would worship at the end of their journey was the same God who was travelling with them along the way.

While we may not be going to Jerusalem, we are also on a journey. When the path becomes rocky, the sun intense, and the evil around us too threatening there is a temptation to look to the lesser hills around us for help. To seek out the hills that feel good at the moment, and will take less effort to climb. However, Psalm 121 is an encouragement for our journey. When we are afraid, we are called to look for help from the Creator of hills. When troubles come and evil threatens, we are to be reminded that God is with us, that God will shade us from the sun and protect us in the night. There is no aspect big or small that is not of any concern to our God. And when at last we reach our final destination, it is Psalm 121 that sends us off with the reminder that the God who is with us in this life will continue to keep us in the life to come. Thanks be to God.


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The Art of Faithful Lament

(This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church on July 10, 2016. The text was Psalm 130. Below is the preaching manuscript).

“I can’t believe the news today. Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away…” These words have been going over and over in my head this past week. They are the opening lyrics to the U2 song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. It is hard to comprehend the tremendous pain that has been reported over these past few weeks. Which is why I am so grateful that our psalm for this week is a psalm of lament.

When we think of psalms we often turn to the happy ones. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” “Oh Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” “Shout for joy to the Rock of our Salvation!”

But where do we turn in weeks like these? What about when we cannot make a joyful noise? What psalm do we sing when two young black men die at the hands of the very people who are supposed to protect them? What psalm do we read when one man’s hate kills 5 police officers who are modeling what it means to serve and protect? Where is the psalm to sing when every day this month there is an act of terrorism somewhere around the world?

The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile brought the wounds of racial injustice back into our national conversation. For those of us who have white skin, they served as yet another a reminder that still today the color of your skin changes the ways in which you are perceived and treated. The deaths of five police officers brought the tensions between police and their communities violently into focus.

Neither of these issues are new. But together this week they highlighted the continued brokenness of our society and our repeated failure as a nation to do anything to stop it. As my Facebook feed demonstrated this week, it is in times like these that we turn to the practice of lament. Out of the depths of our despair, of pain, and fear, we cry out to God.

The feeling of sadness and grief is not new to these times. The book of psalms contains more songs of lament than any other type. When our voices are weak from crying and we have no words to express our emotion, the psalms are God’s gift to us. They provide the words we need, and they show us a pathway through our grief reminding us that in the deepest pit and the darkest depths, we are not alone.

Psalm 130 is one of the best examples of this sort of psalm. The poet begins in the depths crying out to God. Begging for a listening ear. Something has happened. The psalm does not give us a description of the problem, but many people assume the problem has come the psalmist’s own sinfulness. As we all know, actions have consequences. Our sins and mistakes get us into trouble that is way out of our depth. However, there are also forces in our world, violence, fear, hatred, and evil which act beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend or control. No matter the cause, the helplessness which results gives rise to a similar plea to God.

Honesty is the key to lament. In verse 3, the psalmist reminds God that God’s very nature is to forgive the people’s iniquities. God has promised not to give up on us even though we turn away. Even when we find newer and worse ways to harm each other and turn away from God, God is faithful to us. When we look at our world and in our lives, God allows a tremendous amount of suffering to occur. We know that God has the ability to cure any sickness, to end any war. God can intervene in a dramatic fashion, come into our world and restore peace, end suffering, and make things the way they are supposed to be.

Scripture even tells us that this is what God will do at some point. We know that Christ will return and when He does, there will be no more crying and no more dying, but why not now? Why does God wait? What is the use in letting men and women, boys and girls die for no reason?. It doesn’t make any sense. I wish that I could give you a reason, but I can’t. Scripture doesn’t give us a reason for suffering. Scripture instead instructs us to wait, to hope, and to cry out to God.

An important part of lament is to cry out to God, to let God know that the things that are happening to us, to our world, are not right. The psalms and the prophets model for us the ways in which we are called to remind God that this is not all right. Our hearts are supposed to break for the pain of the world. Sadness and anger are appropriate responses to suffering. The important thing though is that we do not allow our emotions to turn us inward or to manifest themselves as hatred to others. Instead, we should direct our sadness and anger to God.

When we lament, we remind God that we expect better, that our world is supposed to be a better than it currently is. We also remind ourselves. We remind ourselves that the suffering we are experiencing is not what God intended. The racism, injustice, and brokenness of our world is not part of God’s plan. And we remind ourselves that God is present in our world, that God is working to make things right. That God is working to bring peace, justice, and wholeness to all of God’s creation. And as we live in the tension we are called to wait.

Holy waiting is not the same thing as waiting in traffic, or waiting for football season to get here. The Hebrew word for waiting here is an active waiting. It is a waiting that involves loving your neighbors who look and act different than you. It is a waiting that involves helping the poor, visiting those in prison, speaking for those without a voice. Holy waiting involves refusing to follow leaders who seek to divide us with fear, who push us into violence, and ignore the needs of the poor and the marginalized. Holy waiting means that we resist the temptation to fall into despair and instead ask God to give us the grace to live into hope, because holy waiting involves living our lives in the darkness waiting for the dawn to come.

The darkness around us is real. The issues we face as a society and as a world are big and complex, but we are called to be a people of hope; to live as a people who shine light into the darkness. Just like we know that the sun comes up every morning, we can be confident that God’s light will come into every dark corner and that God will overcome all the evil powers in this world.

And while we are called to have this hope for ourselves, Psalm 130 does not let us stop there. Verse 7 turns the psalm of personal lament outward into the world. “Israel, hope in the Lord!” Our community is struggling, our nation is bitterly divided, and our world is deathly afraid. We the church, the people of God, are called to be a different kind of community. We are called to be a place where all people can experience God’s love and hospitality. We are called to be a prophetic voice that stands with all people who are oppressed, marginalized, and mistreated in our society. We are called to be a witness that love is greater than hate, and hope is more powerful than fear. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, We know that to you all lives matter. You have created us and know us and love us all. However, we confess to you that so often all lives do not matter the same to us. We confess that we often care more about people who look like us, who act like us than those who are different. We confess that we contribute to the unjust systems around us both by what we do and by what we fail to do. We confess that when confronted with the violence in our world we choose to hide our faces and ignore the suffering because we can. Forgive us, we pray. Give us the grace we need to build bridges in our community. Give us the courage we need to enter into the suffering of those around us and listen to their story. And, give us the confidence to actively wait for your coming Kingdom. God of peace, be with the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille as well as those of Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Bret Thompson. Where there is conflict bring your peace, where there is fear, bring your comfort, and where there is hatred bring forth your love. Unite us together as a people saved by your grace and overflowing with your love. Amen.