To hear this sermon as preached, press play below:
United Church of Jaffrey
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Such are the famous opening lines of Psalm 121.
I have chosen to preach on Psalm 121 this morning, because this psalm was a favorite of two people
Two people who have died…
But who remain very much alive in my heart.
Let’s talk, first, about Archie Coll.
I happen to know that this psalm was one of Archie’s favorites, because when Helen and I were planning Archie’s memorial service, Helen insisted, quite unequivocally, that this psalm, and no other, must be printed on the back of the bulletin.
Helen never told me what it was about this Psalm that was special to Archie. No doubt, it would have been good if I’d asked her about this before I started speculating about it from the pulpit…
But I didn’t ask her about it… and here I am speculating about it from the pulpit…
I hope you will forgive me Helen. I hope I don’t get it wrong. It seems abundantly clear to me why this was Archie’s favorite psalm.
Archie was a farmer.
And farmers – especially farmers who grew up when Archie did – were in the habit of looking about them,
When they look about them, Farmers don’t look only at their own land. They look at the land in the distance too – at the shadows of the clouds moving over the hills, at the thunderheads gathering at the horizon, or the wind moving through the treetops.
Farmers must be aware of the moving weather fronts. They must know about the phases of the moon, and, of course, they must know exactly when that sweet moment will occur, when the sun peaks over the horizon, and the night mists that lie at rest the shoulder blades of the hills or cling to the tops of the evergreens begin to slowly burn away.
The farmer lifts his eyes up to the hills,
And this, this is where his help comes…
His help… that pulls corn into the sky, ripens apples, and makes the milk drop in the udders of the cows… is the sun…
Nearest of stars…
During the many millennia of human history before any astronomical science confirmed the startling details of our sun, we humans already knew in the core of our bones that there could be no life without the light, the heat, the rhythm, the journey, of the sun.
The sun breaks through and banishes the darkness,
The sun gives meaning to all the shapes that were fearful in the night.
The sun warms face, hands, and heart.
In my mind’s eye, I see Archie, walking out in the darkness before dawn, and looking out over the hills, stopping, to watch the sunrise through the vapor of his breath…
I look to the hills, he might have said to himself,
From whence comes my help…
The other person for whom this psalm was important, was my father, Kosuke Koyama.
When he died in 2009, Ko – everyone called him Ko – left behind a vast collection of writings – books, diaries, sermons, and scholarly articles. My creative life, as a writer, and as a Christian thinker, has been shaped by the legacy of my father’s work.
Ruminating over Psalm 121 in an article entitled “The Ambiguity of History,” my father noted that the Japanese culture from when he came, was not a Psalm 121 culture.
In Japanese religious thought, help does not come from “the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
In Japanese religion, help comes from “heaven and earth.”
When, for centuries, people in Japanese villages looked for help, they did, indeed look to the hills. The spirits of their ancestors resided in these hills, and in the spring time, when it was time to plant new rice, these spirits were invited back to the village, to bless the newly planted rice paddies.
Psalm 121 tells us that we will get help from the Lord who made heaven and earth.
The Japanese people get help from heaven and earth.
To illustrate this difference in his article, my father tells this story:
I know an old woman who spent most of her life as a devout adherent of the Japanese cult of the fox. This is one of the most popular beliefs in Japan. The old woman became Christian in her early seventies, without knowing that the change would entail giving up the fox cult.
The day finally came, however, when she was convinced that she should reject her old faith, and she decided to remove the Fox temple she had built on her property. She prepared a small boat, placed the temple on it, took it to the open sea, and gently pushed it off into the waves. Since she was grateful for the spiritual help she had received all these years, she watched the boat disappear into the sea with reverence and gratitude. When I remember her story I am deeply moved.
In the monotheistic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is understood to be the creator of the universe, and for this reason, the divine is outside, or above, heaven and earth.
Our God is a jealous God. The one God, will not allow for the possibility of another God.
Ancient animist religions, like Shintoism, on the other hand, allow the divine to be part of, or within heaven and earth.
The fox is part of our world. The spirits of our departed loved ones are part of our world.
I, like my father before me, am deeply moved by the beauty of the story of the old woman giving up the fox deity…
And I don’t think I am alone.
Today, in our modern world, many people refuse to come to church. If they want a spiritual experience, they go for a hike.
They are put off by the jealous God who is so demanding.
Perhaps people, today, would prefer the fox deity.
Perhaps people today believe that their help comes not so much from the “Lord who made Heaven and Earth” but from “heaven and earth.”
Perhaps in a time of climate crisis, the vertical power structure that comes with monotheistic religion is a problem.
Maybe we would be better off simply worshiping the earth and the sun.
How do we Christians respond?
When I went to El Salvador, a number of years ago, with a group of students from Yale Divinity School, we met an old woman who spoke to us about Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Oscar Romero was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador during a time of terrible oppression, when the government and the military were brutally murdering their critics, and keeping all the wealth, so that millions of poor people were starving. Romero, who spoke up for the poor, was a great hero for the people of El Salvador. On March 24th, 1980, Romero was killed by an assassin’s bullet while he was in the act of serving holy communion. In 2013 I visited the little chapel where he fell.
Speaking of Romero, the old woman said to us: “When Romero walked the earth, here in El Salvador, Jesus walked the earth.”
Later in that night, when we students gathered to discuss the events of our day in El Salvador, this moment came up. Some of the students were troubled by the old woman’s words.
They felt it was sacrilegious to suggest that Romero and Jesus were on the same level.
It was during this conversation that I stumbled upon an idea that has become very important to my spiritual outlook.
I argued that we should confuse those we love with Jesus – that this confusion is a glorious confusion.
When Jesus asked us to love God with all our hearts and minds and body and spirit, he immediately added to it by saying: “and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus himself encouraged us to think of the love of God and the love of neighbor in the same breath.
I think of this glorious confusion, when I think about God and about the sun.
Are they different? We cannot have life without God. We cannot have life without the sun.
I think of this glorious confusion when I think about my father and about Archie – the benevolent spirits of our departed loved ones, who we invite back into our midst to give us wisdom.
A religion that enforces a doctrine is perilously close to becoming a political ideology. That is not the Christianity that will nourish us, in this age of climate crisis.
I think that Christianity – Christianity that is lived in the community benefits more from glorious confusion, then from strict adherence to doctrine.
So, today, when we gather to celebrate the solar panels that we have installed to collect energy from the sun…
Look to the hills…
Invite the spirit of our departed loved ones into your heart…
And feel the sunshine on your face.
Is this God?
I believe it is.