Just a week and a half ago a hurricane hit our state for the first time in over a hundred years.
Like many of you, I grew up visiting our beautiful coast regularly. As a youth I often went to summer camp at Epworth By The Sea on St. Simon’s. It is a sacred place to me as I grew up in God’s grace under those old live oaks. But it is also special place to me as those oaks saw me not only grow in grace, but also just plain grow up from a child to a woman. I went from a scrawny girl away from home for the first time sleeping in a tabby cabin, to a teenager getting her first kiss on the Epworth pier during a youth weekend, to a young women attending her first ministerial retreat for Methodist clergy, all under the oaks of Epworth. That is a lot of life for trees and piers and tabby cabins to hold, but hold it all they did.
As a child my family vacationed in Savannah for a week every year. And then as young woman I returned to Savannah to serve my first church. Jason and I lived in our state’s first city for four years and through ministry and life I fell totally in love with that beautiful town and its people. On my Fridays off I would often meet Jason downtown for lunch and then spending the afternoon in Forsyth Park to read by the fountain and soak up the beautiful life that park holds. But occasionally on Fridays I would drive out to Tybee to take communion to one of our shut-ins in a nursing home there. After reading Scripture and praying and taking the bread and wine with my parishioner, Barbara, I would walk the beach and let the sand and waves carry the cares of my week away.
So the night that Matthew hit my beloved Tybee and St Simon’s, I was as sleepless and restless as Jacob long ago.
Would everything be okay? Would my friends and family on the coast be hurt? Would they lose their homes? Would the landmarks and touchstones I knew and loved so well survive? Would I recognize the world I woke up to tomorrow?
The fate of the Georgia coast was not the only thing that kept me up that fateful night. As the hurricane hit our coast, more chaos and scandal hit our nation in the storm that has been this year’s presidential election. As I drifted in and out of sleep the winds of the hurricane and the winds that have been whipping our nation merged into one big storm in my mind. A storm whose potential damage kept me wrestling with fear. I wish I could say as morning broke I was a changed woman. That I received a blessing. But our life is not always as quickly resolved as the Biblical narratives. I continued to worry and struggle for days even as we left for not the coast, but the Georgia mountains for our fall vacation.
On the way to our cabin I read over the Scriptures trying to find something that would speak to us all. Some word from God that would shine light on these confusing and changing times. So as I looked for comfort in Scripture as we crossed out of the Piedmont into North Georgia I came upon today’s Psalm. “I will lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.” And for the first time in days I took a good, deep breath.
I don’t know about you, but the mountains have always brought me peace. Something about their largeness and ancientness reminds me of God. Their constant presence reminds me there is a God much bigger and stronger and older than me that can do mighty things. And this God that made the mountains is with me still. Through my every day. Through our every storm. If God can make mud into mountains, surely God can handle the chaos in my life now.
The mountains were a sacred place for the Israelites as well. When people wanted to draw close to God they went up one of the Holy Mountains and miraculous things took place. Bushes burned. Laws were given. God was present in real ways. So I had always read this Psalm as one that offers us the mountains as a comfort. I will lift up my eyes unto the hills and then remember my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.
But after reading commentaries this week, I found Psalm 121 can be read another way. Psalm 121 is one of the Songs of Ascents, a group of Psalms that were prayed when pilgrims would travel to Jerusalem.
Now any journey is dangerous, but especially so in ancient times. One never knew what was lurking around the bend. So in this context I wonder is the mountain a comfort, or an obstacle on our journey?
This makes sense to me too. As much as I love mountains, there have been moments on what were supposed to be peaceful hikes that the terrain got tough and I was praying hard to God to “let not my foot be moved” for if my feet slipped on that windy perilous path I might very well plummet many feet to my death.
So is the mountain then a call to prayer for God to help us through the hard places in our journey? For setting out on any new journey brings fear and worry. For we know at some point the times will get tough. Unseen danger may arise. And we wonder on the pilgrimage if we will ever come back and find home like we once knew it again. For you see pilgrimages are times of change. Change for people and places and nations. And if you are like me you don’t want the things you have known and loved to change.
You lay awake at night wondering if you will ever see the live oaks at Epworth again or if the fountain at Forsyth park will stand. You just want something Unchanging you can hold onto while everything uncertain swirls around you.
As we were driving along Ga 400 and I was reading Psalm 121 another memory came to mind. I told you that during my time in Savannah one Friday a month I would go and visit my parishioner, Barb. Barb was not much older than I am now but she was quite sick. In fact Barb was so sick that we all knew she had already started the journey that will lead her from this world unto the next. As I visited with Barb every month in that nursing home by the sea, she would always ask me to read Psalm 121. I would read it from the King James and she would say it by heart along with me. “I will lift my eyes unto the hills, from whence commeth my help? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” And every month as we said these words together she would squeeze my hands with tears in her eyes and small smile on her face. I would often look at her and marvel that though so much had changed for her and so much uncertainty lay ahead, this Psalm brought her such peace. It was if she could see into the distance, see that last mountain to cross and look at it without fear because she knew. She knew she was not alone. The Maker of Heaven and Earth was with her. And no matter how bad and scary things got God would be helping her feet make every step of the way.
And when you know in your core that the God who made the mountains is keeping you and everything in this world in God’s hand, even the mountain slopes and the storms aren’t so scary anymore.
Because no matter what changes the journey will bring, the unchanging God will be with us.
Loving us, helping us, keeping us. And that is more than enough peace and strength to keep us walking on our way. Amen.