Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
February 3, 2019
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from God,
the maker of heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot be moved;
the One who watches over you will not fall asleep.
Behold, the One who keeps watch over Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Holy One watches over you;
and is your shade at your right hand,
So that the sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
God shall preserve you from all evil;
and is the One who shall keep you safe.
God shall watch over your going out and your coming in,
from this time on and forevermore.
Psalms of Trust
It is a classic tale about the Pacific Northwest to say that we are one of the few places that has the phrase: “The Mountain is out today,” when suddenly the skies are clear and the clouds have lifted and before you is a mountain. And I can say that I know in my brain that the mountain doesn’t actually move, but when we have cloud cover even those great objects suddenly are absent for me. More than I would like to admit, through my own distraction or busyness or eyes on the road, means that there are times when I look up and am surprised to remember that there is a mountain there.
I was driving home on Wednesday when I heard a piping voice from the back seat say that the sky was beautiful and it took me a few turns before the car was facing in a direction where I could see the sunset, and Wednesday it was remarkably stunning. Driving home I was going to tell my spouse, Josh, to come out and see, but I pulled into the driveway and there he was on the ladder with a camera pointed to the sky and the mountains. And I didn’t know that a sunset could be news, but I saw everyone I know trying to post pictures of the sun on this one day when the sky was incredible, or just saying, “If you’re in Seattle, go outside and look up; face west and look up.” I know that in theory the mountains are always there; it’s not like they’re going to move on us. And yet, I require the reminder; it takes a community to say, “Lift your eyes to the hills and see always there.”
“I lift my eyes to the hills from whence my help will come.” The Psalm itself was likely referring to Jerusalem, which is on a hill, but it is calling us to remember God, the Holy One. And I wonder for myself at the God whose presence is of ages, of ancient days, who is so steady when I am easily distracted, who is even still when the clouds come and when they stay, for even when I look at the horizon and all I see is blankness, beyond that which I cannot see the Holy remains. And maybe in times when we forget or wonder or it seems unbelievable, perhaps we can sing the song to one another.
The Psalms are a book of prayers and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say whatever prayer you might be feeling, it’s in here somewhere. There are 150 Psalms in the book, songs to God made for community. I am struck both by how they are beautiful and how they are all remarkably human, for if you are reading them you find that wherever you are you aren’t alone. If you’re feeling grateful, if you’re feeling lonesome, if you’re feeling so angry that words turn to fire on your tongue, if you are feeling heartbroken and you don’t even know how to begin to pray, if you feel content or surrounded by grace, if your heart feels overflowing with joy, you aren’t alone there. Throughout our story of faith there has been someone who has been there, too, and someone has found the words to sing what might be held in silence in your heart.
The Psalms are not about a perfect relationship with God, as sometimes someone gets really angry and sometimes they then pray to God that their enemies might die already so they could wash their feet in their blood. And yet, that sounds like a very human thing to pray every now and again. The Psalms are not instructions for how to be perfect in faith; they are a testimony to peoples’ walk of faith. Frequently the Psalms start off with a longing for a God they feel is absent and then they bring a lament that God does not bring justice in a flash and then they remember that God is still God and proclaim thanks for blessings, and then back and forth again. Intense feelings can do that, like in the wake of grief when anger and shock and love and gratitude seem to follow one another like waves.
These Psalms were written for community. If you read in Psalm 121, it starts off with an “I”: “I lift my eyes to the hills from which my help will come.” And then it shifts to a second person, to a “you,” to say that God will not let your foot be moved; it says that God will watch over your coming and going forevermore. So even though it starts to make it sound like it’s just between you and God, it was written with expectation of a back and forth. Most of the Psalms are like this: they were written something like the litanies we use in worship, that there might be some for a leader and some for the community. This particular one was likely called a song of ascent because it was written for a pilgrimage. Jerusalem is on a hill and people would travel for the Holy Days, and so scholars look at this Psalm and think, “What if this was a song people sang for when they were travelling, for when they were on a journey together?” “I lift my eyes to the hills from hence my help will come,” and then a voice saying, “God will not let your foot be moved, even as you travel these paths. God will be with you in your coming and going for now and evermore.” And this is, in part, how we use them as well. This is a Psalm you might have heard most recently, perhaps at a funeral, as the grief of one person is not left to their own but surrounded, that it may be one person’s song that is filled with the echoes of us all.
And so we see in each of these prayers or the Psalms, we are not alone, but are connected to one another and to this history of faith that goes back and back and back as we as a community help us to remember who God is.
I’ve learned a lot about partnership through traveling. I’ve discovered that my spouse and I, in particular, when we are in a foreign place, across time zones, heat exhaustion and varying access to snacks, at least one time in any big trip each of us will hit a dramatic low point, often in despair at the world, its travels and whether we will ever, in the midst of the heat, find our way back to where we are staying or if we are doomed to wander as blood sugars plummet into a tumbling vortex of despair. We are profoundly grateful that to date our rock bottoms have been staggered: when one of us has lost all hope in our travels I have been very grateful that the other has been able to hold it together enough to be brave and capable, and very often before the journey is through the other gets a turn. I’ve seen this happen in groups where someone in the midst of illness or difficulty, somehow the rest of the group rallies for the things they cannot hold. I believe this happens as well in the midst of faith.
I heard a story in the seminary of someone who was in a heartbroken season of life, for whom it was even difficult to be in worship and how their brother took communion on their behalf, that every time he came forward to receive he did so with a prayer for her on his heart. A colleague of mine told a story of visiting someone with Alzheimer’s in its latest stages, so that eating and drinking was difficult, as she sat there with this man and his wife. She brought communion with her and on the way until it became clear he wouldn’t be able to eat, and so the wife reached over and ate her bread and his as well, receiving the blessing on his behalf.
I think of us here today as the church, and we’re around two hundred some in this room today, and I know there are those that are here hearing this Psalm today and hearing words that echo in your soul, as a Shepherd who guides us beside the still waters and restores your soul. And amidst our body I know there are those who are feeling heavy with lament or deep with anger or simply numb and uncertain. Know that you are not alone as well. If you cannot sing a Psalm of trust today, that’s okay, and if you can, I invite you to sing that song on behalf of others, because the Psalms of trust are not just for you and for God they are for us, as we who can hold this trust when it feels heavy, as we who can hold this hope if it feels hard to believe, as we who can hold this love in whatever grief may be carried among us, because we can do so because of the One who is so much greater than us, who will not let your foot be moved, the one who will not slumber, who will neither slumber nor sleep.
I have been following a story of a Dutch church that has been holding continuous worship services for more than three months. The Bethel Church felt moved to protect an Armenian immigrant family from deportation. According to one article, the family had fled Armenia nine years ago as the father had received death threats for his political activism. The family had first been granted asylum which was to expire this year and these children had grown up there for the last nine years: two daughters and a son. And the church, on behalf of them and on behalf of these children, decided to intervene and hold worship. According to Dutch laws, police cannot interrupt a worship service that is in process. So this was the church’s plan: they were going to hold worship around the clock. For ninety-six days the church was filled with prayer. Pastors volunteered to take shifts, preaching and leading prayers, musicians leading songs, people who came in to pray one hour after the next. For, in total, 2,300 continuous hours the sanctuary was filled with continuous worship until this week there was movement in the case and they decided it was safe to stop. 2,300 continuous hours of worship: for me it would be impossible. I would become tired, exhausted, irritable and fearful as my courage can waiver as the night draws long. But when we become the church, when community comes together with its highs and lows and gifts and burdens, how incredible at times that the community can somehow in part reflect the goodness of God, of God who does not slumber or sleep, God who does not let the sun harm you by day or the moon by night. I may need slumber and sleep, but the church, if we each in turn keep our hour, if we each in turn hold our praise, we can mimic this God who is like the mountain, always there, whether or not we can see it, whether or not we remember to look up.
And so, if you are in a season of clouds or of brilliance, sing the song on the heart today and trust that we can be the church together. For behold, we stand before the God of wonder, the Holy One who called the world into being and sent the stars spinning in the cosmos, the God of the mountains and the valleys.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2019. All rights reserved.