Sermon November 15, 2020 (Psalm 123) Children's Sunday Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you know the story of the Little Engine that Could? Some of us will have heard it as children, but for those of us who are unfamiliar with it...
Basically it's a children's fable about a little train engine. She's only small, not very powerful, not very strong. And one day, just to get to the heart of it, it's her job to pull a big heavy train high up and over a huge tall mountain, so that everything in the train can reach a little town in need.
And she's scared and she's uncertain and she's afraid she's going to fail, but what she does is she just starts – and all the way up the mountain she says to herself "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can"
And lo and behold, she makes it. And the whole way down the other side to reach the little town in need, she says to herself "I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could!"
A great fable for children about determination. Those of you who are still engaged with children's books might know whether there's been an updated version that's a fable about resilience – where maybe she slips backward a few times but each time she manages to give it another go, which would be spectacular –
But even just as a fable about determination it's second to none. And I'm sure every culture has its own version.
There's even kind of a take on it in the Bible. In the Book of Psalms. Part of which we actually just heard – Psalm 123.
Which is just one piece of Psalms 120 to 134, which when taken all together in a row are what's called the Psalms of Ascent. Not assent like saying "yes" but ascent like ascending a mountain.
These fifteen Psalms of Ascent, 120 to 134, which are gathered together in the Book of Psalms as a series of psalms that the people of Israel would speak or sing on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That could be metaphorical – like a pilgrimage in spirit TOWARD a deeper connection with the holiness of Godness –
But often it was literal – like a literal pilgrimage up to Jerusalem. Ascending to the temple in Jerusalem, ascending Mount Zion, ascending to the Holy Place. So these fifteen psalms were like fifteen prayers that would be said sort of 'on the way' UP to Jerusalem.
It's still a feature, if you will, of pilgrimages today. Whether metaphorical or literal, there's a sense of traveling toward a goal, with pauses along the way for a bit of focus and a bit of prayer, so that over the course of the traveling we get more and more ready for the fulness of reaching the goal.
That's what the Psalms of Ascent were all about. These fifteen psalms that the people of Israel would speak or sing together on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And Psalm 123, early in the series, and it could hardly be more straightforward.
Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy, O Lord, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill.
And deep breath. And keep walking. Up up up to the Holy Place. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.
What seems to me most striking about Psalm 123 as a Psalm of Ascent, a Psalm of pilgrimage toward deeper connection, is its absolute simplicity.
I have to admit that when I opened up the lectionary readings for this Sunday, and clicked on the Psalm to see what it was, I actually wondered for a moment whether Psalm 123 was really that short! I literally double-checked to make sure. But it is!
Just four verses, and half of them are basically 'have mercy, have mercy, have mercy, for we've had more than enough and we've had more than our fill."
It's good to be reminded sometimes that there's actually no rule that says our prayers need to be fancy. When my Jack's kidney failed and had to be repaired in emergency, I never got much more articulate than "please take care of my baby, please take care of my baby" over and over again, and I'm pretty sure God understood why.
What we see in Psalm 123 as a psalm of ascent, as a prayer along the way, as a pause on a pilgrimage toward deeper – is that there's a place in the tradition of Israel that's part of our Christian tradition too for straightforwardness and for simplicity. So many of the other psalms are full of details! But what we see in Psalm 123 is that there's a place in our faith tradition for distilling all the complexity of this factor, and that factor, and the other factor, a place for distilling all the nuance of this perspective, and that perspective, and the other perspective – just into an essence that we recognize as BASIC.
Absolutely fundamental. Notwithstanding whatever complexity and nuance surrounds it. A piece that can't be let go of. Or we lose who we are.
I've watched over the past four years on social media as Americans of all faith and no faith have managed -- against a LOT of pressure -- to sustain their absolutely immovable grip on one of these pieces that can't be let go of or we lose who we are...
...and it was this. Four years at the border with Mexico of "but whatabout, but whatabout" it's a FLOOD of asylum seekers, or maybe those aren't REALLY their parents, or well they knew what would happen didn't they –
But there were Americans throughout who held an iron grip on the piece that couldn't be let go of or we lose what we are: "These are children."
It really should just stop all conversation. Never mind nuance, never mind complexity, there's no place for mitigating factors – sometimes it all just has to be the simple straightforward distillation of "have mercy."
Sometimes it all just has to be the simple straightforward distillation of "these are children. And children don't belong in cages."
We've been invited, in the United Church of Canada, by our Palestinian partners in mission, by Palestinian Christians, by Jewish organizations seeking a just peace in Palestine and Israel, to participate with intent as Canadian Christians in their work of incrementally healing what remains a catastrophic relationship on holy ground.
Its complexity, to put it mildly, is astronomical. At the present time it's absolutely soaked in political manipulation and political ideology. But trying to separate that somehow from the legacy of the history of last century, and colonialism, and antiJudaism, and the Holocaust – from the Balfour Declaration, to not recognizing the right of Israel to exist, to the PLO, to Hamas, to the Israeli military and its illegal occupations of Palestinian territory -- the complexity is astronomical.
And we've not done great in the United Church of Canada at navigating that complexity. To be fair, I don't think ANYBODY's done great at navigating that complexity, and at least since we're regularly in trouble with hardliners on both sides of the divide, we're probably not doing any worse than anyone else.
But it's a tough one. Except when it's not. Except when we're reminded by the simple straightforwardness of a Psalm of Ascent like Psalm 123 that there's a place in our faith tradition for pressing pause on all the complexity and all the nuance and just reminding ourselves of an essence that has to be basic.
Absolutely fundamental. Or we lose who we are. Children don't belong in cages. We already know that looking south at the US border with Mexico. Whatabout, whatabout, whatabout – no. These are children. It really should just stop all conversation. Children don't belong in cages.
So when Palestinian children are being arrested and held and imprisoned for long periods in Israeli prisons for throwing stones at the fully-armed Israeli soldiers occupying their territory and bulldozing their homes and orchards – just, no. These are children. And children don't belong in cages.
If we can't manage to say that really clearly as people of faith – whether as advocacy with our own government and its foreign policy or in solidarity with Amnesty International and our own mission partners on the ground – then we really do need to pray for that degree of focus, to push past all the compexity of the situation to that essence. Or we'll lose our grip on who we are. These are children.
Patrick O'Neill is a Unitarian theologian from New York who's reflected at length on restoring this essence to our faithfulness – this unshakeable grip on the well-being of our children, on their sacred fundamental worth in community, as essential to our faithful life as a global family.
And he's written in this regard about the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania: "among," he notes, "the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa [and] no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai."
And he goes on: "It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Maasai warriors: "KasseriAN InGEra," one would always say to another. It means, "And how are the children?"
"It is still the traditional greeting among the Maasai, acknowledging the high value that the Maasai always place on their children's well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, Sapati Ingera: "All the children are well."
"Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Maasai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. "All the children are well" means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young.
"I wonder how it might affect our consciousness," he concludes, "... to [have] to answer the question "and how are the children?" at the beginning of every encounter, every service, every meeting ... if every adult among us, parent and non-parent alike, felt an equal weight for the daily care and protection of all the children in our community, in our town, in our state, in our country, [globally]...
"I wonder what it would be like to [understand ourselves as accountable for] truly say[ing] without any hesitation, "The children are well, yes, all the children are well." "
It would start, I think, by hearing their prayer: have mercy, have mercy. And responding, of course "I think I can, I think I can." God being our helper. Amen.