Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A Little Travelling Music

The following is a sermon I prepared and delivered for my introductory preaching course, taught by the Rev. Dr. Dale Andrews at Boston University School of Theology.

The reading is Psalm 121.

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

3 God will not let your foot be moved;
The One who keeps you will not slumber.
4 The One who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
God will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.

There are many songs in the Bible, and I like to think that the book of Psalms is like the Bible’s greatest hits collection, an anthology. Who could forget Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”? Or Psalm 19, “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God”? These and others are rightly remembered as timeless expressions of praise of God’s loving kindness or God’s protection or God’s majesty. Within the 150 psalms there’s a particular collection of psalms, an album if you will, that scholars call the “Pilgrim Psalter.” It’s like a concept album in that all these songs have to do with pilgrimage. One of the “hits” from this album is Psalm 121, so well known that its first verse, too, has become its popular title: “I Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills.”

I think that if you put together a Top Ten list of the greatest biblical songs of all time, Psalm 121 would be up there with Psalm 23 and the Magnificat. And why not? Psalm 121 is the traveler’s song. This is the one you crank up on that long cross-country road trip. I presume you know Dr. David Livingstone, the famous Dr. Livingstone, the Scottish Presbyterian medical missionary. On the morning he left England for Africa, he prayed this psalm. But not only Dr. Livingstone. For 2,500 years Jewish, then Christian pilgrims, have sung its words. First, there were the Jewish exiles returning to the Promised Land from Babylon late in the sixth century before the Common Era. Then, for many generations after the exile, the Jewish peasants who now settled beyond Judea lifted up their eyes to the hills of Jerusalem as their caravans crossed the desert plains on the way to the holy city for the three great annual festivals. In the Middle Ages it would have been Christian pilgrims on the perilous way to Spain to venerate the relics of St. James at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Today Christians of all stripes who flock to Rome from the world over are likely to take comfort in the psalm’s promise of God’s watchful care and protection along the way. You need good songs when you’re on a long road trip. Psalm 121 is one of the best.

Like it or not, we who follow Jesus Christ are on a road trip, too. James Limburg says, “The call of Jesus was never ‘gather around me’ or even ‘listen to me,’ but ‘follow me.’ ” You can look it up, too: sure enough, the first thing Jesus says in the Gospel according to John is “come and see,” and the last thing Jesus says is “follow me.” Okay, so we’re going on a road trip. The only thing is, this trip is never-ending. We may take some rest stops, but we’re not stopping anywhere for too long. We are not settling down. Ours is a journey with God and back to God. We are not meant to make a permanent home here. Homeless or not, we are all wanderers with no set destination in this world. All these destinations are fleeting. And this psalm, Psalm 121, is about more than an occasional pilgrimage. It’s about the journey of life. All our life is a journey, and the psalm speaks to all of life. The Jewish know this; they have the custom of reciting Verse 8 when leaving home: “The Lord will keep your going out and coming in this time on and forevermore.” Christians know it, too; this psalm is a part of our liturgies. The Evangelical Lutheran Church uses it at baptisms and burials, and is it any wonder that we call such events rites of passage.

Remember that what we know today as the church began as a movement—hear that word, movement—called The Way. It would be more comfortable to stand still. It would be more comfortable to worship God from the security of home and church-house, centered, surrounded by friends and family. But God doesn’t stand still. From the days of Abraham through the Exodus, from Jesus’ itinerant ministry to Paul’s missionary travels, we have come to know God best in the journey. Like it or not, God has made us for rambling. Thank God we have a little traveling music. Here we have a classic, “I Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills.”

So how do we sing this song, Psalm 121? One rabbi, Jonathan Magonet, says it can be sung to a variety of melodies, either “jolly and rhythmic” or “solemn.” How do we choose? That depends on how you feel about road trips, I guess. You could sing it like a happy country-western shuffle:

On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is makin’ music with my friends
And I can’t wait to get on the road again

Or you could sing it solemnly, like the blues:

Well I’m so tired of cryin’ but I’m out on the road again, I’m on the road again.
Well I’m so tired of cryin’ but I’m out on the road again, I’m on the road again.

How will you sing this song? Like some pilgrims, you might try singing it solo, asking the question in Verse 1 and answering it in the affirmative in verses 2 to 8, assuring ourselves of God’s providence. Or, you might do a duet with a loved one; some scholars suggest the psalm was written as a farewell liturgy, like a dialogue between the pilgrim about to leave for Jerusalem (verses 1 and 2) and a priest or elder who stays behind, sending him or her off with words of wisdom (verses 3 to 8). Or, you might do a group sing-along, like the ancient caravans of pilgrims, trading verses back and forth in call and response.

I think we could sing this song in any of these ways. If Psalm 121 is about the lifetime journey with God back to God, then it has to be any and all of these ways, because this journey is joy and sorrow, hope and fear, pleasure and pain, making music and crying, life and death and life again. We make the journey together and sometimes on our own. And God is with us all of the way.

But how should we sing it today? Well, today I feel like singing the blues. Let’s lift up our eyes to the hills. These are not just metaphorical mountains. The ancient psalmist had the hills of Palestine in mind. Yes, Yahweh, the Rock, dwells in the heavenly heights above those hills. Over those hills lie Jerusalem and the Temple. Those hills are symbols of hope. At the same time, there’s danger in those hills! You could easily slip and fall while ascending those hills. These were also the high places where the false gods were worshipped. Here bandits lay in ambush to terrorize wayfaring pilgrims. The hills represent the indifferent world, the uncaring world, the cruel world! You can almost hear the cry of Abraham, poised to slaughter Isaac on Mount Moriah, in the psalmist’s cry “From where will my help come?” Hear the creeping despair in the darkness that D.H. Lawrence voiced in his gloss on Psalm 121, a poem he titled “The Hills”:

I lift up my eyes to the hills and there they are, but no strength comes from them to me.
Only from darkness and ceasing to see strength comes.

Hear the cry of Zephania Kameeta of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia, who a generation ago suffered with his people under apartheid and the nation’s oppressive structures. This is how he reads the first two verses of the psalm:

I look up to the powerful of the world; will my help come from them?
My help comes from the Lord, who from my childhood took my weak hand in his strong hand and led me in his way to this day.

God may reside above the hills, but make no mistake: our help does not come from the hills! Sometimes the hills provide comfort, but usually they challenge us. How do you think the homeless and the poor sing this song? It’s not so easy to cross from the question to the answer, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” When a homeless person looks up to Beacon Hill at night from the freezing fields of Boston Common, starving and lonely, beset by drug dealers, lunatics, and violent prowlers, and asks “From where will my help come,” this is not a rhetorical question! Biblical scholar Karl Plank says the distance between the psalmist’s question of “my help” and the answer in God’s watchful care and protection is a profound one. Read between the lines of verses 1 and 2, and there’s a gigantic gap. What happens between the question and answer? What happens as we lift up our eyes to the hills? All of life, my sisters and brothers, all of life. The pilgrimage, the journey, the festival, the jubilee, the affliction, the struggle, la lucha, whatever you want to call it, is in there. Therefore, when we say our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth, we are not just stating some kind of fixed eternal truth about God, although this part of the psalm has entered the Apostles’ Creed. No, to say “my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” is to make a decision in faith that no matter what happens to us, God is our sure protection! Not technology, not progress, not our own strength, but the Holy One of Israel. Nothing else will avail the weary pilgrim.

Here is a poetic re-interpretation of the first four verses of the psalm by David Rosenberg:

I look up and find a mountain/to know inside/then light appears
Inspired from most high/My Lord, creator/of earth and sky
We shall not be moved/this power inside/never fell asleep
Over Israel.

But still, this song is not an easy one to sing. Don’t the promises in the last six verses of the psalm seem a little glib, the assurances too blithe? And these promises get greater and grander! God will not let your foot be moved; God will not let you slip and fall, because God is the guardian of Israel, and God never slacks off or sleeps on the job, unlike some of those other so-called gods the Canaanites and the Babylonians worshipped. In other words, God is our strength. The God who guards you is your shade, protecting you from the burning heat of the sun during the day and the mysterious power of the moon at night—the moon, whose rays the ancients believed caused insanity (hence the word lunatics). In the face of the elements, God is our security. This God who guards Israel also protects us from evil, meaning harm, calamity, and disaster. The Lord controls all of this. But that’s not all. God also protects our life from all harm: not just our soul, but also our existence over against death. God protects our life, and not merely our appetite, our craving, and our breath—God keeps our personal existence. In the end, God is our life.

How do we sing such a song in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires? How do we sing such a song in the midst of homelessness, poverty and violence; militarism and terrorism; racism, sexism, and heterosexism?

Let’s look at another pilgrim. We commemorate his pilgrimage every year. In fact, we just celebrated it again two days ago, so Jesus’ raucous entry into Jerusalem on the eve of the Passover festival must be fresh in your mind. We know what songs the disciples were shouting: Luke tells us it was “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” Matthew and Mark add a helpful “Hosanna” in there. Now, I happen to think that Jesus was singing a different tune. He knew the psalms, and while the disciples were ecstatic, maybe buzzing on a power trip, bellowing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” under his breath Jesus, who had more than an inkling of the dangers facing him, was saying soberly, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Was he already thinking about the Mount of Olives and the agonizing watch under the ominous moonlight, awaiting his enemies while his friends slumbered and slept? Or of Calvary and the withering heat of the sun? Or of the cross that would cause his foot to slip, then finally take his life, slowly squeezing his breath out of him as he hung upon it?

Nevertheless, there is something about this psalm that leads me to believe that its praises were on Jesus’ lips on the way into Jerusalem, in spite of the fate he knew awaited him. Five little words: The Lord is your keeper. They come from Verse 5 and provide the themes for the entire psalm. In this little psalm “Lord” appears five times; “you” or “your” appears ten times; and “keeper” appears six times. God does not merely dwell in transcendence above and beyond the hills. God is here, here with us. We are God’s, but God is ours. God is traveling with us, coming and going with us; making music with our friends, crying with us when we are alone; living with us and in Jesus Christ dying with us, yet wondrously keeping our life even in death and bringing us into new life. Never slumbering or sleeping, God keeps our going out and coming in now and forevermore. No other god but the guardian of Israel is doing this. No merely human power is doing this.

Jesus chose the unsettled life. He turned the world upside down, proclaiming the coming reign of God, the everlasting reign that unmasks worldly power, unveils privilege, and brings selfish pride to ruin. Jesus made the reign of God present to those living on society’s margins and denied it to those living in its center. Jesus could not do this of his own power. God was with him. Jesus’ pilgrim journey led him to the cross. But the Lord was Jesus’ keeper, and God kept Jesus’ life. And so with Jesus let us look to God our keeper for our strength, our security, and our everlasting life.

How do we sing Psalm 121? Listen to the song of one more pilgrim. Thirty-nine years ago tonight, the last night he was alive, he gave his final speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn.

It really doesn’t matter what happens now.... some began to ... talk about the threats that were out—what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers....Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain! And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord!

Do you hear? At the end of his long, weary road, Martin Luther King lifted up his eyes to the hills, and he saw his help in the coming of the Lord, his keeper! The Lord is coming, coming to meet us on our pilgrim journey. Brothers and sisters, let us lift up our eyes to the hills. Amen.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

There's a War Going On ... Is Anybody Listening?

I have a beef with The Daily Free Press, the student newspaper at Boston University.

Christian Activists United for Social and Environmental Justice, our social justice group at the School of Theology, organized a panel discussion titled "The Impact of War: A Community Conversation," held in Marsh Chapel on March 28. We invited five individuals from within and outside our School of Theology community, civilians and military veterans, to share their stories, their hopes, and their prayers very openly.

What was the purpose of our discussion? From my opening remarks:

It may seem curious to some of you that we need a discussion like this. Isn’t it obvious how war affects the men and women who serve, their families, and their communities? Sixty years ago we would not need a gathering like this, but these are unusual times. The talk of war is on everybody’s lips, but for many its actual presence is elusive, even invisible. The talk of sacrifice is everywhere, but few have felt what sacrifice is. In fact, some of us may have grown up without knowing any friends or relatives in military service. Whether we support or oppose one conflict or another, a veil has come down upon many of us. We don’t understand the impact of war.

Of course, many of us are preparing for ministry in communities dealing with the awful shocks of war. Therefore, there needs to be a conversation. I think this forum will benefit many of us who are simply cut off from the experience of military service and do not know how to empathize with those who have encountered war and its after-effects. There needs to be, where possible, a lifting of the veil, and an opportunity for many of us who have no idea what military service and its possible trauma are like to learn how to show empathy through the sharing of impressions and experiences. There’s a lot about the impact of war that people just don’t know or don’t find worthy of talking about, and perhaps this forum can become a source of graced enlightenment.

Tonight, from a common but multifaceted Christian and humanistic perspective, we hope to uncover the impact of war and the complexities of our responses to war.


The Daily Free Press sent a reporter to cover the event. I was delighted, until I picked up the newspaper the next morning. Here is the puny story the paper published on March 29:


And here is the even smaller story it ran the same day about student efforts to stop the Darfur genocide:


Meanwhile, the sports section that day was overflowing with copy about the women's lacrosse team. Here is the letter I wrote to The Daily Free Press in response:

To the Editor:

No offense to your newspaper, but it's a shame that you could devote two articles totaling 35 paragraphs, plus a "7 Questions" sidebar, to the exploits of the women's lacrosse team and only 12 and 13 sentences, respectively, to reports of student efforts to stop the genocide in Darfur and a theological discussion of the impact of war on our loved ones and our communities.

It's easier, I know, to sidestep these grave matters and narcotize ourselves with Anna Nicole Smith, "American Idol," and the Red Sox. Americans are living in a fool's paradise.

Here are my seven questions for your readers:

1. Whether we support or oppose the war in Iraq, do we as American citizens take mutual ownership of this war?

2. To paraphrase Lincoln, do we share the cost of caring for those "who shall have borne the battle" and for their widowed and their orphans?

3. Can we make necessary distinctions in the way we regard the soldiers who fight this war in Iraq and the civilians (most of whom never put on the uniform) who started it?

4. Do we enter Darfur and destroy the janjaweed? If we do, who goes? Who pays for such a military operation?

5. Do churches, synagogues, and mosques teach their social ethical traditions, particularly on the justification of war?

6. Do our churches, synagogues, and mosques actively promote diplomatic alternatives to war, teach how to wage peace, and defend the rights of conscientious objectors?

7. Men and women in the military who believe in God (or don't) grapple daily with issues of life and death, sin and guilt, and the meaning of their service. They need to be spiritually fed. Do communities of faith promote the calling of men and women to the ministry of military chaplain?

Students and faculty are struggling with these difficult questions in a way that doesn't boil down easily into headlines or 250-word articles.

As I explained to your reporter, the talk of war is on everybody's lips, but for many the war's real presence is elusive, even invisible. The talk of sacrifice is everywhere, but few have known what sacrifice is. In fact, some of us have grown up without knowing any friends or relatives in military service. Whether we support or oppose one conflict or another, a veil has come down upon many of us. We don't understand the impact of war.

For the record, the panel at Marsh Chapel included civilians as well as military personnel. Our panel featured a clinical social worker who spent five years counseling men and women traumatized by combat or sexual trauma while in their military service, and a theologian from the School of Theology who is well-versed in Christian social ethics. I wish your newspaper could have captured the flavor of all our panelists' stories and the reverential spirit in which their wisdom was shared.

Anthony Zuba
STH '08
Christian Activists United for Social and Environmental Justice


The Daily Free Press published the letter on March 30 but deleted the first paragraph and the name of our group at the end. I guess the criticism hurt them a little too much.