Total Praise–Sermon 7-14-19

“You are the source of my strength. You are the strength of my life. I lift my hands in total praise to you.”

Note: As always, this is a working text, not a transcription of the sermon as preached in the context of a worship service.

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister

First Congregational Church of Granby

Sermon Series: My Favorite Scripture

14 July 2019

Text: Psalm 121

Total Praise

This summer we’re doing a sermon series called “My Favorite Scripture.” Today’s favorite Scripture comes from Nancy Rodney. She chose Psalm 121. Nancy first learned Psalm 121 as a student at Northfield-Mount Hermon School, where she met Rob, the man who would later become her husband. She learned to read the Psalm as I did when I was a child.

“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.”

The Psalmist is in a valley. Maybe it’s literal. Maybe it’s emotional or financial or political. Certainly it’s spiritual. She is surrounded on all sides, boxed in. Can’t move forward. Can’t move back. How many of you have been in this place? What does it feel like? How did you respond? 

The Psalmist responds by asking a powerful question: “From where will my help come?” This is a deeply spiritual question. It’s a soul searching question. It’s a question that arises from the gut when life lays you flat. It’s a humbling, maybe even humiliating question. I can’t get myself out of this mess. I don’t know about you, but I was taught from a young age that grown up solves his own problems. He doesn’t ask for help. It’s embarrassing. It shows you’re not self-sufficient. It shows you’re human. 

So I tried to fix myself. And you know what? It didn’t work. The more I struggled, the deeper into the valley I sunk. If you’re like me, you may have had a number of peaks and valleys in your life. I won’t tell you about all of mine. We don’t have the time. But I do remember the time my dad came out to the family. I was 21-years-old at the time and home from college for the summer. We were sitting at the table having Sunday afternoon dinner following church, which was our custom. Dad was drunk. He told my brother and me to stop horsing around. He had something to say. Then he said it. “I have AIDS. I’m bisexual. I have been all my life.” It felt like a meteor dropped from the sky and crushed me. My vision went blurry. My had ringing in my ears. I remember us kids getting up from our chairs to hug dad. The rest of the story I’ve had to piece together over many years. But that moment sent me into a valley that I would never have found my way out of without friends, family, mentors, and a lot of therapy. That’s the thing about the valley: you can’t pull yourself out. Someone has to reach down and rescue you.

But the world tells us to be self-sufficient, to put on a brave face, to pull it together, and when the pain and lonliness get too much, the world is more than happy to sell us a limitless variety of ways to numb out. Nancy tells me that when she was older, she gained a new, perhaps deeper, understanding of this text. This deeper understanding came when she made a group pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. During Nancy’s tour one of the pastor-guides explained that in ancient times locals would set up shrines to their gods on the tops of the hills. So that when the Psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” what she is seeing is all of these little shrines to the little gods with their little spheres of influence and their little areas of concern: the fertility god and the rain god and the river god and the sun god and the moon god and the star god and the god of this tribe and the god of that clan and the god of this king and the god of that city, each one shouting: “I will save you. I will make you feel good. I will satisfy you.” Or maybe they’re mocking you: “You’ll never make it. You’re stuck forever. You’re my prisoner now. Try harder! Run faster. Work longer.” When you imagine this text, what idols do you see dancing on the hills?

But then another voice breaks through the cacaphony: “My help comes from the LORD, maker of heaven and earth.” The valley didn’t break the Psalmist. It broke her open. Have you known someone broken by suffering? They become bitter and small and angry. They lash out at people or become depressed. It’s an incredibly sad thing to witness. On the other hand, perhaps you’ve known someone who’s gone through suffering, who’s walked through the valley, and come out on the other side kinder, gentler, whose spirit has been expanded. They use that suffering to connect with other people, to build up community, to heal others and bless many.

I think for example of Edith Wilhelm, whose ashes we will inter in the Memorial Garden following worship today. Edith and her family were refugees of Nazi Germany. They were immigrants seeking asylum. Edith was just a child. Yet this country welcomed her and her family and aren’t we at First Church of Granby grateful that our forebears welcomed immigrants and refugees because what a blessing Edith and the Wilhelm family was as is to this church. Edith took her childhood experience as a refugee and used it to welcome others. She was one of the founders of the refugee ministry here at this church, which welcomed other families to the U.S. and expressed Jesus’ ministry of compassion in profound, life-changing ways. This country pulled Edith and her family out of a valley. She turned that experience around and made her life about lifting others up.

What is we made that our mission focus at FCC Granby. What if we become the community that extended a hand. Not simply with charity. When my dad came out, I didn’t need charity. I didn’t want charity. I needed support. I needed encouragement. I needed people who would talk less and listen more. Don’t you think there are people in this community going through valley times? What if instead of spending so much time focusing on ourselves and the people in this room, we turned our focus outward, to our neighbors? What if we spend our time getting to know them. What if, instead of expecting them to come to us, we went out to them?

I think this church is going through a valley time. One person who came to worship last week after having been away for a while said to me, “It seems like things at the church are falling apart.” My answer, “Yes, we are!” How we respond will determine whether this time breaks us and turns us into a small, depressed, and resentful social club or whether this time breaks us open. We can use this opportunity to go to our neighbors and say, “We’ve screwed up. We havent’ been there for you. Teach us how to be the church you need.” And see what happens. Like all declining churches, we can’t climb out of this valley ourselves. We need someone to reach in and lift us out. And those someones are the people who are not yet members of this church. From where will our help come? The LORD. Where will we meet our God? In our neighbor.

Author: toddyonkman

I am a husband, father, author, and Designated Term Transitional Pastor of First Church of Christ in Saybrook (CT).

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