The Source of Our Help



IGRC Covenant Keepers
January 29, 2013
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
President Obama honored the United Methodist Church recently.   He asked Adam Hamilton to deliver the sermon for the National Prayer Service. Lessons from Moses, he named it.  
The sermon included a famous King story about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  One night, bone weary from the work of the day, Martin received a threatening phone call.  If he didn’t cease leading the Boycott as soon as possible the voice warned, he’d pay for it along with his wife and children. Fear seized Dr. King like never before.  Dwelling on the death threat kept Martin up past midnight praying. If Martin abandoned his work and ran, his reputation wouldn’t be worth a nickel.  If King stayed, he’d risk losing his life and that of his beloved wife and their first child. Desperate, King reached out to God as he bowed over the kitchen table in fervent prayer. King “admitted that he was at the end of his powers…that he had nothing left…that he couldn’t face the future alone.” God refused to remove the bitter cup from his lips. Instead, King experiences the presence of the living God like he never experienced it before.  An inner voice admonished him to “Stand up for righteousness, Stand up for righteousness and God would be at his side forever.”   
Subsequently, Adam Hamilton admonished the President not to give up in the face of unstinting criticism and opposition.  Hamilton avoided mentioning one of the Obama’s greatest fears.  During his Presidency, death threats have increased 400%.  “When you feel your lowest, wait on the Lord,” admonished Adam Hamilton, “he will renew your strength so that you might lead this nation to knock holes in the dark.” Dare I repeat the same admonition to all of you?  When you are at your lowest, wait on the Lord so that you might lead this church “to knock holes in the dark.”                     
The psalmist offers the same message in 121. He reminds his audience that our “help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Let’s talk about “The Source of Our Help.”
When the psalmist composes and sings Psalm 121, he makes an assumption that usually gives rise to an “Amen, right on, ain’t that the truth or a headshaking affirmation.” To get through life period, all of us need help.  Choose any nomenclature you desire “rugged individualist, Lone Ranger, Bishop, most powerful country on earth; no man, woman, child, church or nation is an island.  Is this not extant in the psalmist  opening lines? “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help?” Hills speak.  Some hills come alive with music. Years ago, I remember traveling to Israel with my mother.   As we exit the bus one day, my mother points to some hills and declares with excitement “there are the Golan Heights.” The very sight of the Golan Heights brings sorrow and joy to Syrians and Israelis respectively. Both have a need to possess them in order to further the purposes of their country.   
The need for assistance dramatized itself repeatedly in recent travels to Chicago and New York. On the second leg of my journey, I flew to New York City from Chicago. The meeting planner sent a limo to pick me up at La Guardia. Beyond the perk, I had to trust that the driver was legit and would deliver me to the right destination.  He was from Pakistan.  Good work, meeting planner.
Making my way to the meeting of Christian Unity posed a greater challenge and heightened needs. It would be held at the Interchurch Center, nicknamed the God Box.  Home of various religious bodies, the Interchurch Center is remembered by its famous address, 475 Riverside Drive in New York City. It was over a mile from the hotel. No rides were arranged. We had to take the initiative and get to the God Box on our own. Our meeting planner shared three options on paper.
  • One, attendees were advised to take the number 1 train or subway Uptown, get off at 116th and meander to the God Box.
  • Two, attendees were instructed to take the M104 bus northbound. Start going South west on Broadway towards 94th Street, take the bus to W. Harlem 129th St. via Broadway, get off at 120th and head toward the Interchurch Center at 61 Claremont Avenue.
  • Three, walking attendees were directed to go northeast on Broadway towards 95th St. Stay on Broadway till they reach W 116th Street. Turn left on 116th and a right on Claremont, and you're there, a half an hour walk at best.
I ignored all three options. 
My need for safety and orientating myself with unfamiliar required that I partner with another attendee to get to 475 Riverside Drive. I and another Bishop hailed a cab. The next day, we walked with others. But I declined to ride the subway although we were provided with a Metro Card. When I return to the Big Apple, I have decided to use it. The card won’t expire until 2/28/14.
We were especially inspired by the attendance and participation of a young mother. Sarah offered valuable leadership to our work. Her three children came with her plus her husband, a pastor serving a church in the North Carolina Conference. He took care of their fraternal twins and a newborn, only three months old. Given her tremendous commitment, she could not have participated without the direct support of her husband. Relational nutrients were added to their marriage.
Like God, the meeting planner took care of some things well. All we had to do was glide along. Then, we were dropped like a hot rock and told to get to the God Box on our own. In this strange town, remaining in our rooms wasn’t an option. We were expected to attend the meeting. All of us found a way to get there. Some of us used the ideas printed. Others became creative. One or two called on the meeting planner. Some of us called on God. We needed and desired traveling mercies in the Big Apple.
God knows we need help on this ministerial journey. Taking care of children, financial challenges, the promotion of some peers and what feels like the demotion of others, sickness, ability to vision or the lack thereof, spending more time with computers than with parishioners, rarely taking Sabbath time, functioning like a Lone Ranger while fully aware that the Lone Ranger always had his Tonto, adrift spiritually and connectionally, our wants are piled so high that it hardly seems possible for any training event, Bishop, District Superintendent, awesome    presentation or prayers prayed adequate enough to care for our wants and desires. Are they supposed too? Haven’t we been taught to trust God above all else? Yet, some of our ministerial colleagues have arrived at this meeting feeling “lower than low.” I wonder if the songwriter felt that way writing these words, “Fill my cup Lord. I lift it up Lord. Come and quench this thirsting of my soul. Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more; fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.”
Fill My Cup provides an eternal segue. The best help we can get on earth comes from God not Dr. Witherington, the Bishop, D.S.’s, the DCM, family or friends. Why won’t we turn to God? According to the psalmist, turning to God bears fruit. Psalm 121: verses 1-2 re-iterates this truth -- a truth we know we need to make real in our lives. “I lift mine eyes unto to the hills, from whence cometh my help? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Do you want help; ask God?
Psalm 121, like 14 others, is called A Song of Ascents. Biblical Scholars said these songs were sung as pilgrims were ascending to Zion or Jerusalem, a city set on a hill.  I like the poetic description of its topography in Psalm 24. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” and who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and a pure heart.  Most likely the singing pilgrims in Psalm 121 were Jewish males. Deuteronomy 16:16 said as much. “Three times a year, all your males shall appear before the Lord at the place that he will choose: at the Festival of the Unleavened Bread-Passover, at the Festival of Weeks-where you have to pay apportionments, and at the Festival of the Booths-press grapes into wine.” Each Festival emphasized a variation of the same theme - God’s help.   With respect to Passover, nobody but God brought them out of a 400 year Egyptian slavery. God wanted them to remember that. With respect to the Festivals Weeks and Booths, God wanted his people to be sustained by food and drink. Nobody but God made seed and soil, sent sun and the rain, and blessed them with bountiful harvests. God wanted them to remember that. God did what they couldn’t do for themselves, i.e., saved them from slavery, fed their wives and children, inspired them to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord: to praise God in God’s sanctuary with trumpet sound, lute and harp, timbrel and dance.” They had to cry out “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
Another reason for seeking God’s assistance occurred while these men were in Jerusalem. By custom, Jewish men were given the responsibility of “appointing” judges and officials throughout the tribes and towns.” They had to find leaders who made just decisions - leaders who would not distort justice, show partiality, use bribes; leaders who were totally concerned with the Micah question “What does the Lord require of me? The fate and future of their towns and villages rose and fell depending on how their choices accomplished God’s will. That is precisely what happens when God puts us in a position of leadership in church or at home, in the conference or nation, the fate and future of our area of responsibility revolves around our faithfulness to the task. It’s one thing for the Bishop to ask you to lead God’s people. It’s a major thing for God to ask us to lead.       
For well over 22 years, I have read and re-read how to make appointments in the Book of Discipline. I’ve consulted with Cabinets, Pastors and churches through the hard work of D.S.’s, read profiles till I’m blue in the face. We’ve used a means of grace implied but not mentioned in the appointment making process. We have prayed earnestly that our discernment is correct. And the rest has to be left with God, the good, the bad and the in between. Nevertheless, the appointed and the appointers are better off when each has continually asked and depended on God to help them drink from the cup offered particularly when our hope for Yes is God’s No.
Within a stone’s throw of the Christian Unity meeting at the God Box at 475 Riverside Drive, old memories of some modern prophets came rushing back. One man is a tenured professor at Union Theological Seminary, a stone’s throw from 475. The other has long since departed April 4, 1968. Both of them received the strength to remain steadfast from God.
Troubled by the ongoing state of his own parents and people, his growing years in Bearden, Arkansas, his academic struggles at Garrett-Northwestern, Dr. James Cone wrote one of the most controversial Liberation Theologies of the late sixties, Black Theology and Black Power. Critics and pundits attacked him from every side. Faculty wanted him fired. His marriage went south. Undoubtedly, his health and well being were affected. Somehow, the Lord did not allow his foot to be moved…the Lord watched over him and kept him. Cone acknowledged the help of the Lord in preserving his academic career along with privilege of bearing the title of distinguished professor.
Dr. Cone’s trial by fire was a camp fire compared to a hundred fiery furnaces inspired by a man whose birthday we recently honored. Martin made a bold new step when he preached at the Riverside Church in New York City, exactly one year before he was assassinated. Riverside Church is located across the street from the God Box. For a long time, Dr. King wanted to take a public stance on Vietnam but he was very reticent. Seemingly, the world had informed Martin Luther King, Jr. that his specialty was Civil Rights not Human Rights. That day, King crossed the line. His speech Beyond Vietnam called the nation to task over an unjust war.
The media excoriated King as did numerous government officials. Many of his Civil Rights colleagues and friends followed suit. They accused King of abandoning the movement. Church officials joined the condemnation as well. Not swayed by criticism, Dr. King led his first Peace Demonstration. Civil and Human rights and so many other stances produced the decision to eliminate the dreamer. After they killed Martin Luther King, Jr. and laid him in a tomb, the world and the nation said he was right all along. They said Dr. King told the truth about the war- a truth some of his critics were afraid to express because they feared the crucifixion Martin experienced. The God that watched over Israel - the One who would not let his foot be moved, stood by him even as he died. Enough; let me close.
The other day, I read the sermon of a friend. It contained a poignant story. He attributed it to author Tom Long in a book entitled Testimony. Mary Ann Burn came into the world with a passel of birth defects e.g., a cleft palate, a disfigured face, abnormal feet. Plus Mary was deaf in one ear. Every year, students had to undergo the “Whisper Test.” It was a simple exam. Each child came to the front of the classroom. The teacher stood behind them and whispered “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” Mary had the greatest difficulty hearing. And the other kids laughed.  Mary was embarrassed and devastated. One year, the “Whisper Test” was administered by one of the most beloved teachers of the school. Dreading that moment, Mary’s name was called. She came up front and waited for another moment of ridicule.  It didn’t happen. Miss Leonard didn’t whisper “the sky is blue” or “you have new shoes.” She whispered “I wish you were my little girl.” Said Mary Ann Burn, “I waited for those words which God must have put into her mouth, those seven last words changed my life. “As a result, Mary Ann Burn became a teacher, a person of strength, beauty and kindness because her help came from the Lord ultimately.
God has sent his words, written on tablets of stone and human hearts to change our lives - to be the source of our help. When you’re at your lowest…when you want to quit, don’t forget the words of the prophet Isaiah in 43:1. “I have called you by name; you are mine. Don’t forget the word of Mary, God’s handmaiden. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit doth rejoice in God my Savior.” Don’t forget the last words of John Wesley on his deathbed “The best of all is, that God is with us.” Finally don’t forget the words the words of the psalmist. “The Lord will keep your going out and you’re coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” God is the source of our help. Amen.