May 17, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Psalm 91 and Psalm 121

Creativity Rising: From Where Will My Help Come?

Psalm One-Twenty-One is often remembered as a prayer for travelers. It was thought to be the song of the pilgrims crossing the desert on their way to Jerusalem. Hear its words of comfort: “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil…” (121:5-7a).

We remember, last year over sixty-eight thousand children crossed the southern border of the United States and came into this country looking for help. Although they came through Mexico, many of the children were coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Many of the children came without their parents. Girls and boys. Teenagers and toddlers. I try to imagine what that must be like, and I find my capacity to imagine this is too small.

Brothers and sisters, this is a problem for us. For one thing, the systems and structures designed to respond to crises are saturated and then some. Among lawmakers, and probably among us right here, there is no agreement on the best way to solve this. The Obama Administration set up a program to fast-track the asylum applications of the children from these three countries; they launched a PR campaign in those countries to discourage parents from sending their kids.[1]

Meanwhile, there were protests calling for a more compassionate and humane response. There were protests calling for stronger regulations and improved enforcement. Listening to the policy debates reminds me of the old Swahili proverb that goes, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass which suffers.”[2]

As much as this surge of children is a problem for us, it’s a bigger problem for these children. For one thing, the journey is life-threatening. People die in the desert trying to cross the border. They die from thirst, from the cold, from violence, from failed attempts to hop on and off of cargo trains.

Even if the children make it into the U.S. alive, they run the risk of being kidnapped by rings set up to extract ransom from any relatives already in the States. Even if they make it here alive and unkidnapped, many surviving children get shuffled into makeshift detention centers.[3] And yet for many of these kids, these risks outweigh the conditions where they came from. So what have they got to lose? No place is safe.

On this day we remember that many of our youngest sisters and brothers live in extreme danger. And on this day, we hear these words from Psalm Ninety-One: “God will cover you…Under [her] wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday…”(91:4-6).

It goes on to say, “Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you… God will command the angels… to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so you will not dash your foot against a stone” (91:9-12).

I think of these children, and I hear this prayer, and I want to look at the LORD our God and say “If only.” If only this were true. If only God rescues every person who dwells in his shadow. If only God dispatches her angels to every person in trouble, then surely no one would freeze to death in the desert. No child would get raped.

This Psalm is a prayer of fierce faith, and what good is our faith if it’s not there when we need it? When you’re really in danger, when we’re really in trouble, this is a good prayer to remember. Psalm Ninety-One carries with it an insistent urgency, the subtext that goes, “Come on, God. You had better come through from me. I can’t afford to lose my life and my faith in the same breath!”

And of course we love this Psalm’s breezy confidence and swagger: “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (91:7). No wonder this is exactly the prayer to cling to when we’re in trouble. “I will find my refuge in you O God, but you better protect me!”

If only that were the guarantee. Now the LORD is quoted at the end of the song promising protection to those who call on his name. But I will tell you, I’m not convinced God agreed to the terms of this arrangement.

Now maybe the problem is not that God breaches the contract to protect us; maybe this song was never meant to be a contract. Maybe the problem is not the danger, but could it be that our dreams of safety are actually too small?

Sing this Psalm, and it’s not like saying the magic words of protection. Sing this Psalm, and it might not summon all the angels on standby for the rescue operation. But it might do something even better. What happens in our singing is we remember to look at the LORD. In doing that, we remember our size.

I used to live in the Upper Perkiomen valley of Pennsylvania which is nestled in the Hereford Hills. Here whenever you would look out the window or look off in the distance, you could see the hills making a jagged edge along the horizon line. Looking at those hills is like leaning way back and looking at a whole sky of stars. Looking at those hills is like looking out on the ocean and seeing where blue meets blue.

Psalm One-Twenty-One begins like this: “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? From the LORD who makes heaven and earth.” Give this a try sometime, you’ll find it’s not about seeing the hills; it’s about seeing how small you are in all the universe. I remember how small I am, and how great is our God. No wonder our prayers of bargaining fall flat.

Lift up your eyes and see, safety is not the fullness of life. Rescue and protection are not the fullness of love. Don’t mistake a contract for a lullaby. Don’t mistake a well-armed body guard for the LORD. When we go out and look at the hills to see the LORD Almighty, the first thing that happens is we remember God is greater than we know. The second thing that happens when we look at God is we see each other.

One of my favorite Bible stories of rescue does not star a hulking angel wielding a flaming sword. It’s about two women who broke the law. Shiphrah and Puah worked as midwives in Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh when the Egyptians were oppressing the Israelites. The king issued an order to these midwives, that when Israelite women were giving birth, if the baby is a girl, they should let her live, but if the baby is a boy, they should let him die.

The Bible says the midwives feared God, so they decided to disregard this terrible law. When they were found out and brought before Pharaoh, Shiphrah and Puah lied. They told him that the Israelite women are too vigorous in giving birth; their babies are already born before the midwives even arrive. God dealt well with the midwives, and the Israelites grew and became strong as a people (Exodus 1:15-22).

Full disclosure, this didn’t stop Pharaoh. He went and launched another round of infanticide a while later, this time drowning the baby boys in the Nile. You’ll remember that Moses was rescued from this by his mother, his sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter.

These stories remind me that I don’t have to be the size of God in order to help with the work of protecting those who are most vulnerable. I don’t even have to be the size of Pharaoh. If only, I would do what I can. Sing the Psalm and remember how great is our God. Sing and remember there are children in trouble. If only we would remember to help them, to do what we can.

We can advocate for immigration reform that makes protecting children a top priority. We can support groups that distribute bottled water and blankets in the desert — not to condone illegal immigration, but to condemn the notion that it’s okay to let children die. We can take action to interrupt the networks of human trafficking by paying attention and making a phone call. We can join community efforts to prevent child abuse right here. Now we can sing this Psalm not as a contract we’ve made with the LORD but as a lullaby we will promise to our children.

Psalm One Twenty-One is remembered as a prayer for travelers, especially those pilgrims crossing the desert to Jerusalem. In Judaism, it is also remembered as a blessing for babies. It is common in Jewish households for this Psalm to hang on the wall of the nursery. [4]

God will  keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. From where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD who makes heaven and earth…

Here hold this baby in your arms. You will see the face of God. Amen.


[1] Stillman, Sarah. “Where Are the Children?” The New Yorker. April 27, 2015. pages 46-52.

[2] http://www.afriprov.org/index.php/african-proverb-of-the-month/27-2001proverbs/172-nov2001.html

[3] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/06/child-migrants-surge-unaccompanied-central-america

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2002

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