Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mountain Maker

Mountain Maker

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
21st Sunday in Ordinary time, August 24, 2008

Psalm 121

I look up to the mountains;
does my strength come from mountains?
No, my strength comes from God,
who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.1

This is Eugene Peterson’s interesting and informative version of the first two verses of our passage in his translation of the Bible called The Message.

Think of the number of “Where were you when” stories we have in our lives. The older we are, the more we are likely to have. “Where were you when you heard the news...” about Pearl Harbor — about Sputnik — about the assassination of JFK — about the moon landing — about the collapse of the Berlin Wall — about the airplanes ramming the World Trade Center buildings? But there is a special variety of these “where were you when...” questions that have to do with natural, rather than human-caused, events. Where were you when you heard the news about... the collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi in Minnesota or the collapse of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco?

After earthquakes and eruptions anywhere in the world, we can count on the news outlets to run another set of stories interviewing seismologists about the prospects for “the Big One,” along the San Andreas fault or in the Pacific Northwest. It’s enough to make you want to stay home... as long as you don’t live on or near a hillside or by the ocean. Or anywhere, really. Folks in the plains states are terrorized by prospects of tornados, along the Mississippi it’s flooding, and on the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, hurricanes are the chief threat, and don’t forget tsunamis on the Pacific.

Then we come across this psalm with its affirmation that the one who grants strength is the same one who made heaven and earth — and continental shelves and fault lines and rivers and mountains. Remember the scene from The Sound of Music, where the family is escaping the pursuing Nazis who want to press Baron Von Trap into service in the navy of the Third Reich. It seems they are trapped and have hit a dead end until Maria exclaims “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help!” and of course they make their escape by way of those famous hills, the Swiss Alps. And a million misunderstandings of an otherwise straightforward scripture passage were thus launched.

Any pastor I know can tell stories of families who have come to them with this familiar and beloved old misreading of Psalm 121 for use at funerals. People often quote the verse from memory in the King James Version, as Maria did in the movie: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” And the reason they love this psalm turns out to be a somewhat misguided reason, that their loved one really enjoyed the mountains or the outdoors, so this has become a sort of culturally accepted psalm in praise of the beauties of the mountains. Problem is, that is not at all what this psalm is about, a realization that comes immediately to us if we read the punctuation of that first verse that more modern scholars have provided, as well as the words themselves. It is clearly a question, not a sentimental statement: “I lift up my eyes to the hills — From where will my help come?”

Seeing the hills, the psalmist doesn’t suddenly recognize the source of his help, but by this view of them was given to wonder what the real source of help truly is.

On January 31, 1940, Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont received the first Social Security check ever issued, in the amount of $22.54.2 Ms. Fuller, a legal secretary, had worked for just three years under the Social Security program before retiring. She had paid in a total of $24.75 in Social Security taxes – an amount that was nearly exhausted by that first check she received. Ms. Fuller wasn’t sure at first whether it was worth applying for this new government benefit. While running an errand, she dropped by the Rutland, Vermont Social Security office to ask what, if anything, she was entitled to receive. Years later she said: “It wasn’t that I expected anything, mind you, but I knew I’d been paying for something called Social Security and I wanted to ask the people in Rutland about it.” Stopping by the Social Security office that day turned out to be a very good move. Ms. Fuller started collecting benefits in January, 1940 at age 65. She lived to be 100 years old, and died in 1975. During her lifetime she collected a total of $22,888.92 in Social Security benefits — more than 1,000 times the amount she had paid into the system. Her story was common, among her generation of Social Security recipients. That’s the way the system had been designed. President Roosevelt and his advisers set up the system so that benefits of the first Social Security recipients would be paid for by the taxes contributed by their younger fellow-workers. When those workers retired, in turn, their benefits would be paid for by even younger workers, and so on it was to go. Many retirees, tearing open their monthly Social Security envelopes, continue to think the government is simply returning funds to them that have been held on deposit. In fact, if retirees live long enough, they too will reach the point Ida May Fuller reached just two months after her retirement — benefitting from the contributions of others. It was a way of everyone taking care of everyone and not just saying it was a matter of “every man for himself.”3

As the horde of baby-boomers — my generation — begins to stampede the Social Security system, we hear a lot about that system being in crisis. Mention it in conversation and you can almost feel the anxiety level begin to rise. I lift up mine eyes to the mountain of Social Security, from where does my help come...? Where can we turn for help? So many of the institutions of our lives, once considered inviolate, seem fragile, vulnerable. What is there to count on?

Just over 200 years ago, while crossing the Bitterroot Mountain Range in September of 1805, admittedly lost by his own account, facing the extra threats of early snow falling and a rapidly diminishing food supply as they struggled up trackless mountains strewn with fallen logs, their horses continually slipping and falling, William Clark wrote in his journal. “I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life. Indeed I was at one time fearful my feet would freeze in the thin Mockirsons (sic.) which I wore.” I wonder if, nearing the ends of their lives, either Lewis or Clark asked to have the 121st Psalm read to them or over them, in order to be reminded that the source of their help and strength came from mountains. I doubt it. On the contrary, I suspect they forever after saw mountains as barriers to be gotten over before their strength was fully used up.

It is interesting to me that after the 2nd verse of the psalm, the word “help” disappears, the driving question of where help comes from is replaced by who is the person of the helper, and the word help is replaced by the word keep. In fact, the concept of being kept by God is so important, that the term is used in one form or another 6 times in this short psalm. To be kept in the loving embrace of God is, in so many ways, so much more suggestive of the nature of God than looking only for help from God.

Because of that first verse, we may think of the psalm as a comment about where we may often turn to find help: in mountains/nature, in economic security, in our families. It turns out, though, that God is not so much our helper but our keeper, and that the important question is not where help is, but who is the helper who keeps us in view, keeps us from stumbling, keeps us in our going out and coming in from this time into forever.

The people of the Old Testament made pilgrimages up to Jerusalem for festival days like Passover, and I can tell you, they harbored no romantic notions about the hills or mountains being any kind of help to them at all in their lives or in their journeying. In fact, the most dangerous part of their pilgrimage was the trek through the dry mountainous terrain until Mount Zion with its Temple came into view. In the mountains, robbers lurked, unpredictable storms lashed them, wild animals waited for the cover of darkness to steal their provisions or their children. They made their way through the same hills about which Jesus spoke when he told the story of the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and was set upon by robbers who came out of those dangerous hills, took his belongings, and beat him, leaving him for dead until that now-famous good Samaritan came along to provide unexpected help.

No, the psalm the pilgrims sang as they made their way up to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount was a song of fright and even of terror. “I lift up my eyes to the hills, the perilous, daunting, terrifying hills with their thousand dangers, and as I do I wonder where help might be if I needed it.” The answer to their question comes to them as they come in sight of the Temple: “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth (and even the mountains themselves!).”

Have you ever found yourself in a place in your life where you wondered where your help was going to come from? The mute earth and sea that have swallowed millions of lives before you came along provide no answer, no response. And then you hear a sound. What is it? It is the sound of the arrival of those who have given their lives to God, who pursue their profession of helping the helpless out of a sense of calling from the God who keeps us, our going out and our coming in. It is the sound of ships and airplanes and helicopters and buses with Presbyterian missionary personnel, Red Cross professionals and volunteers, volunteer medical team personnel, and a thousand other organizations. I lift my eyes to the ocean that sent a tsunami and where is my help? My help comes not from the ocean, not from the land, not from the sky above or the earth beneath but from the Lord who provides, the Lord in whose name there are thousands setting aside and risking their own lives so that others may live.

A contemporary of mine shared a confessional prayer called “Confession of Who We Are,” apparently with the psalm in mind, which I want to share today in closing this sermon:

“Lord, we know help comes:
from care givers and counselors, treatments and prescriptions,
emergency squads and security officers,
nine-one-one, and self-help groups and social service safety nets,
planners and courts, diets and doctors,
congregations and families and friends.
Forgive when we forget, or never learn:
help comes in you, maker of heaven and earth; and of other helpers too;
and forgiveness comes in Jesus Christ our Lord.”4


Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 Eugene Peterson, The Message, © Eugene Peterson, NavPress Publishing Group, Colorado Springs.
2 Source: Social Security Administration,
3 Thanks to Carlos Wilton in The Immediate Word, for February 20, 2005.
4 J. Barrie Shepherd, Praying the Psalms, Westminster Press, 1987.