Walking Partner

March 12, 2017

Series: April 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: Psalms 121:1-8

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Tags: conversation, samaritan woman

 I had a colleague, a lovely Baptist man, who used to begin all his prayers by quoting the 121st Psalm in the King’s English, “I lift mine unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?”  I often heard it as a divine hill blessing.  Of course, that’s the opposite of what the Psalm is intended to do.  

 Psalm 121 is actually a critique of finding God in the hills, though allow me to provide some background before those of you who rightfully report to find God in nature storm out to hit the trail.  The Israelites were enemies with a people known as the Samaritans.  You may have heard of the Samaritans from New Testament passages such as Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  That parable is shocking precisely because the hero is not a Jew, but a Samaritan. One difference between the two peoples was where they worshiped.  The Israelites worshiped God in the Temple.  In fact, God was understood to inhabit that space, live there. The Samaritans, on the other hand, worshipped God on the mountain.  This Psalm reminded the Israelites where they found God.  As mentioned, this Psalm was a marker of their identity, stating who they were in opposition to who they were not.  That may sound awfully exclusive to you and me, but when you are a small group, a minority people, maintaining identity is important lest you disappear, assimilating into oblivion. 

This psalm was a pilgrimage chorus, sung by those making their way to Jerusalem. Having worked on pilgrimage for some time now, I know first-hand how a good song can get you through some of either the difficult, or simply mind-numbing portions, of a pilgrimage.  The Psalm was a prayer for divine direction and presence on the way.  When on pilgrimage, religious or not, one often looks for some sort of leading.

There are a lot of life lessons you learn on the supposedly artificial exercise of pilgrimage.  You learn to prepare – you plan, you train, and declare intention.  You learn to pack lightly, and quickly realize how little you truly need.  You learn the power of ritual which carries you when you don’t have it in you to go on, connecting you to a larger purpose.  You learn to rely on others, broken free at some point from the illusion of self-reliance.  Empowerment is one thing, and you find plenty of it on pilgrimage, but trying to do it all on your own is quite another.  Some of the greatest blessings come when you are broken down to the point you must accept help from another, and that’s when something so simple as someone else’s water or a shared piece of bread and cheese, a bandage or directions can become downright sacramental.  You learn to encounter grace and receive it, be it a temporary clearing in the sky from rain and the warm sun or finally a downhill segment.  You learn your own body, which is a grace in and of itself.  You push your limits and accept them at the same time.  You learn to delight in simplicity, lying in the shade, with your head on your pack and not a need in the world.  You learn that when the rest is over, you need a good walking partner from time to time, someone with whom you can sing, or talk, or with whom you can be quiet, someone who can lend a gentle hand to lift your pack just enough to make that hill manageable. 

Recently in my reading, I came across an account of walking the Camino by Catholic Sister Joyce Rupp, and she included among the many lessons of pilgrimage the requirement of getting lost.  Being lost encapsulates so much of what you learn – recognizing your own limits, reminding you of your dependence on others, challenging you to trust in the midst of the unknown, choosing a sense of adventure over fear.  Perhaps most powerfully, lost gives you the experience of found, finding your way, or having the way find you.  Have you ever had an experience where you were totally lost and through no explainable way you managed to get yourself back to where you needed to be?  It doesn’t have to be on pilgrimage.  I remember studying abroad in Germany in college, and coming home one night after public transportation had stopped.  I wandered, actually jogged, for God knows how long, through unknown neighborhoods, and yet somehow I found my way home.  How does that happen?  Are we being led?  Is God leading us?

The Psalm seems to say that we are protected on our journeys: 5The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. 6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. 7The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. It’s an amazing Psalm for the people of Israel to sing, they who had endured captivity when this was written, they who had generations pass away without tasting freedom, they who throughout history endured both captivity and exile. Yet, God keeps us safe…except when God doesn’t. 

We all know people who have suffered more than the sun by day and the moon by night.  You probably have heard my family pray here in worship for a young pastor, Scott Hauser, no relation except as a colleague, who looked healthy before a persistent cough led to a cancer diagnosis.  Just a couple weeks ago, after just a month with the disease, he died.  He was 37, and left four children behind.  Could I show you his picture?  (show pic) I know this is from the back—I’ll show you his face in a minute—but we love this picture.  It’s of him walking three of his children to school.  His fourth is only a baby.  Here they are looking back at the camera (show pic).  Where was God for him?  Where is God for his family? 

The way I see there are three possibilities with respect to the promises of this psalm.  Either it’s not true, it was true only for ancient pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem, or it’s truth is deeper than what appears on the surface.  You can tell where my beliefs lie.  Of course your foot will be moved.  It’s a pilgrimage psalm!  Of course the sun will strike you by day, and the moon by night (unless you only make pilgrimage to Seattle).  Of course you will encounter evil.  Those roads would have been dangerous to travel.  The question is do you encounter it alone.  Are our journeys aimless and in vain?  Are we destined ultimately to be lost? 

The Psalm says “No.”  You will be kept, maybe not kept safe, but ultimately kept, accompanied.8The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in.

Knowing most of life is lived in the going out and the coming in, this God promises to go the road too, every road. Some say God is on the mountain.  Others the Temple, and while this writer is clearly in one camp, they seem to be saying most of all, God is on the road.  Now is this further poetry, hyperbole?  We would like life to work out according to our plan, but when it doesn’t we have to decide what to make of it. 

Jayber Crow is a novel by Wendell Berry, and it tells the story of a man in a small Kentucky town some time ago. It journeys through his beginning as an orphan through his formal study of the Bible, his vocation as a barber, a gravedigger and church custodian.  He says this of life’s journey.

“If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line -starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King's Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led - make of that what you will.”[1]

This is Lent, when Jesus went into the wilderness to wander with only what he could carry. Have we so shrouded Jesus with lace and church that we don’t think he was afraid to face the tempter, face his demons?  Do we think it was easy for him to enter the wilderness disarmed, depending on God for his sustenance?  Or, do we think he came through because in the face of it all, in the face of all of it, he was led?  Jesus was able to journey with God as his walking partner.

I’d like to show you one more picture of Scott Hauser (show pic – splashing water from the baptismal font up in the air). This is him presiding over worship at the baptismal font.  I presume he didn’t know he was sick when this was taken, but do you think he would do it any differently if he had?  From those who knew him better, I can tell you that I don’t believe he would have changed his pose one bit, because his faith wasn’t based on some simplistic notion that nothing would ever go wrong, that no sun would strike him, that no evil would have been in his faith.  No, his faith was grounded on the trust that go would go with him on the road no matter where it lead.  Notice you can’t really tell in the picture whether the water is going up or coming down.  Blessing in this strange world flows in both directions.  Grace happens on the road, and so does death.  We get to see mountain vistas, and we travel through the valley of the shadow.  Resurrection comes at the end of the road, but in its own way, it also comes all along the way, knocking over the tombstones of the dead places of this world.  Of course God’s found on the mountain.  Of course God lives in the Temple.  Of course you don’t have to wait until you get there to experience Him or Her.

Scott, like so many, has walked on ahead, and the shape of the place we don’t exactly know where that path leads, but the only thing that keeps me from being lost is that feeling that I am led. Make of that what you will. Amen.


[1] Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow