Image Credit: Jumonville Camp & Retreat Center, a mountaintop that is for many a sign of the faithfulness of God.
Scripture Reading: Psalm 125 (NRSV)
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time on and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not stretch out
their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
and to those who are upright in their hearts.
But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways
the Lord will lead away with evildoers.
Peace be upon Israel!
Having lived in Eldersville for just over three years now, I realize I’m still (and always will be) a newcomer. As I’ve gotten to know you and this community, I’ve been blessed to hear many of your stories—stories of growing up here, of significant moments of your life in this church, and accounts of how things have changed. I notice your love of this place often, especially in the way that I’ve been asked frequently in these three years, “how do you like living in Eldersville?” You want to know if I share the same love for this place that you have.
Compared with many of you who have deep roots in this community, I don’t know what it’s like to have one place that you can call home. As you realized getting to know me early on, the answer to the question “where are you from?” is a complicated one. Growing up in a Methodist pastoral family, my family and I moved to a new place just about every time I felt like I was firmly planted in the old place. I didn’t pick up on the ways that I could adjust to this itinerant lifestyle then. In my sophomore year of high school, I was the kid from out-of-town who just wouldn’t shut up about how great things were in the last town.
How ironic it is, that I would choose to put myself and my family in the same situation that I resented as a kid—being sent to a place without any clear idea of how long I would be asked to stay there. Were it not for the persistent call of God, I don’t think I would have made that choice.
What I can do, in the midst of my life of being transplanted from one place to another, is reflect and marvel in your commitment to your place and the people that make up this community. I do want to affirm that some in our church are, like Mallory and me, newcomers and even (dare I say) outsiders. Still, I recognize that the bedrock on which this church is built is the commitment to abide in this community, with family and longstanding neighbors. As a number of you have commented to me, “it feels like a significant part of our church is in the cemetery.” And it’s true—the roots of this church are deep. We’re still connected to the past, to the community of saints whose bodies may rest in the cemetery, but who in a real and spiritual sense still worship with us. That’s why, I realize, every part of this sanctuary is meaningful and treated as sacred—because it connects us with those who have gone before us.
As I’ve lived here, it’s amazed me that while some history is recorded and written down, there’s a more significant history housed in your long memories. Many of you remember, like it was yesterday, the way things used to be here. You know who used to live in each of the houses in town, even if you’re not sure who lives there now.
The story of Eldersville, both this congregation and community, is a story of abiding. As the word abide suggests, your story is one of remaining stable and steadfast in place. People and churches have come and go around us, but this church and many of you are beyond the point of having roots—you’re fixtures of the community, part of the topography of the land. As you abide, you tolerate all sorts of things, including pastors like myself who have no idea what they’re doing. You endure the erosion caused by time, mistakes, and greed. When the world around you has changed, you’ve remained steadfast and faithful, doing as you were taught: working hard and worshipping God.
As the first verse of Psalm 125 says, “those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.” Not only are you firmly rooted in this place, but you’ve endured all sorts of storms and haven’t moved! There have been years of disappointing harvest, declining industries that once provided work, times of conflict with neighbors, and all sorts of real and metaphorical storms that have caused trouble. Yet, you abide. Your love of this place and its stability leads you to do whatever it takes to make ends meet. You’ll endure any storm to maintain this community.
As Hurricane Florence pummels the southern East Coast, it’s amazed and disturbed me the number of people who have elected to stay in place, ignoring the warning to evacuate. Even as the experts warned of the danger posed by the wind and flood waters, some were digging their heals and bracing for the impact. I’ll admit, I don’t really understand. I would probably try to escape the storm with my life intact and let my belongings wash away. It seems hard-headed to me, but there really is something about having a stable foundation, a place to call home, even when you have to defend it against a frightening and dangerous storm.
If there’s any group of people who would understand this connection to place, it’s the ancient Israelites. Coming from a history of wandering and enslavement and wandering again, they longed for a place to call home and trusted in God’s promise that they would be given, as an inheritance, a land of their own. From generation to generation, that land would be blessed as a place for them and their children to grow. Whatever crisis befell them, God promised to be with the people. God would never leave them, nor forsake them.
That land, specifically the city of Jerusalem, is on a plateau surrounded by mountains. For the Psalmist, this was an obvious metaphor for God’s protection of them. “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore.” Sometimes people pray for God’s “hedge of protection” to surround someone. Well, Jerusalem had God’s mountains of protection, an immovable fortress keeping them safe. Between God’s appearance to important people in their history on the mountains and God’s protection of them with the mountains, it’s no wonder that they called God ‘El Shaddai, the God of the mountains.
Even after God’s people settled the land, we remember that it wasn’t easy going. They had corrupt leaders. They sinned against God, just as we do. There were times of famine in the land. Yet, they abided in the land given to them and God promised to protect them.
The biggest test to this promise of God to protect their place, their homeland, came as the larger nations that surrounded Israel and Judah sought to demonstrate their power and subjugate their adversaries. In 722 BCE, Israel fell to the Assyrians and was led into exile. Just over a hundred years later, Judah fell to the Babylonians as Jerusalem was ransacked. The human storm of war threatened their existence. They were led out of their land, no longer surrounded by the mountains. They wondered if they were even still surrounded by God’s protection.
We know the song since we learned it in Sunday School, “he’s got the whole world in his hands.” But sometimes, it doesn’t feel like God has us in his hands. With the storms of life raging around us, including the very real storm that has come inland from the Atlantic, we too question God’s protective power. We wonder if the whole world can really be in God’s hands if the storms are raging, and if they might even get worse. Some of us fear for friends in family caught up in the current storm. Other times, we fear the changes happening on a macro level to the place where we live—not just this particular land of promise, but the Earth, the environment God created for us.
What the Psalmist reminded God’s people in captivity and reminds us in our era of uncertainty is that “those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people.” We might say, noting our own land of promise, “As the mountains surround the Ohio river valley, so the Lord surrounds his people.”
The Psalmist gives us reason to hope, even amid turmoil because, look at the next verse, “the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous.” Essentially, wickedness will never permanently harm the righteous. Whatever may come, even when it seems like God’s protection has been removed, we can trust in the firm foundation of our Lord who is like a great mountain.
Whatever fears may be gripping our hearts and mind related to our place God’s creation—the fear of a changing and declining community, the fear of tumultuous storms, or even fear of the consequences of our effect on the environment, the Psalmist says, as we abide in the place God has made for us, God abides with us. We can trust the one who created us and holds the world in his hands because God’s love is firm and unconditional. God abides with us like the mountains. God will never be moved.
But the Psalm isn’t over. The Psalmist doesn’t give us an excuse to shut our eyes and plug our ears to the dangers that befall our home, our common inheritance: God’s creation.
The Psalmist declares: “Do good, O Lord, to those who are good, those who are upright in their hearts.” The Psalm warns us not to follow “our own crooked ways.”
More directly, we might summarize the message of the second half of the Psalm to us in two words: be righteous.
When we pray to God for protection from storms, for a bountiful harvest, and for any number of other things, we do so partly because we know it’s out of our hands. There’s only so much that we can do. Such things befall both the righteous and the unrighteous.
But it’s also true that we, as human beings, have an unprecedented level of control over creation in ways that would have been unfathomable a short time ago. We have chemical weedkillers that are used to ensure a better harvest, just as we have antibiotics that restore our health by killing the bacteria that make us sick. Not only can we witness the grandeur of mountains, but we as humans can tear them down to mine for coal. Likewise, we can not only examine the rock and mineral formations underneath us, but we can send pressurized water deep under ground to tap into the natural gas of shale formations and set up complex drilling rigs in the ocean to get oil. And I haven’t even mentioned the things we can do with atoms to generate immeasurable power.
All of these technologies allow us to do things that the ancient Psalmist would have thought impossible. We can, for instance, get in a plane and fly across the ocean and see Jerusalem ourselves. We can power lights, refrigerators, computers, and cars. And all of these possibilities create jobs for people to do, that provide for families like ours.
But these possibilities, this immense power comes with responsibility. Our impact on the world is so significant that some geologists have suggested we have entered a new age of the earth’s history, one in which we can impact, for good or ill, the creation’s geology, ecosystems, and climate.
Such an impact not only has the potential to change our world in gradual ways, but they change human lives in ways that can be more quickly seen. The misuse of chemicals or antibiotics can cause significant problems, even while they enable human flourishing. Natural resource extraction can pollute our water just as well as it can provide jobs and needed energy. Looking at Proverbs 22, all these industries can make the rich richer and the poor poorer, but they can also provide jobs that lift people out of poverty.
But on the macro, big-picture scale, the Biblical Proverbs are right, “the rich and poor have this in common, the Lord is the maker of them all.” And, we might add, the decisions of some impact the lives of all.
We all have responsibility for our actions, great and small. We have a responsibility to be righteous. Following John Wesley’s maxims, this means to do no harm to God’s creation, to do good (by having a positive impact on creation and on our neighbors), and to place our trust in God, the one who will never be moved or changed.
God has provided us with a wonderful place to live, our own promised land of sorts. We can trust in God for our protection—God will never abandon us. But it’s important that we exercise whatever power we have over creation wisely and with a concern for it’s impact on the lives of others.
I may still be an outsider to this particular corner of God’s creation, but in the big picture we’re all from the same cosmic address. We’re all residents of this planet, this home that God created for us. May we be good stewards of this place where we are planted. And in an age of fear, may the words of the Psalmist instill God’s peace in us as we remember that God is our trustworthy protector. Amen.