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The Ascent Towards Home ~ Psalm 121 and Luke 18:15-17

I will never forget seeing it for the first time. The Edinburgh castle, that is. Driving north from England, through the border country – wild, beautiful and, frankly, a bit frightening, even in car – everything so green and lush and dripping – so quiet and empty – you begin to believe in wee Scottish fairies. You wouldn’t be surprised if there were still brigands with blue faces hiding up the glen. The clouds are heavy and you feel small.

And then you come over the rise of the treeless Pentlands hills and get your first glance of the city in the distance – you see Arthur’s Seat and the castle. I have come over that same ridge probably 10 times in my life now and always, there is an intake of breath; IT is still there. And the last time I took this path Deanne and the kids were with me and I even got a little choked up. Edinburgh is where Deanne and I met and we were so excited to show the kids where it all started!

I feel safer seeing the castle. I feel grounded knowing that I am drawing near. I feel a rush of energy – can’t wait to get close, the long journey is over – I am home. Even the first time I saw the castle I felt this way. All of a sudden your long trip becomes an adventure – there is magic and power to it. It changes everything. You are in a new location. Yes I have romanticized it – but it is powerful and evocative and real. I am renewed, even thinking about it now and telling you about it.

I read Psalm 121 this week and I sense that the pilgrim who wrote this beautiful psalm shared that feeling that I have when I begin my “ascent” into Edinburgh. Although in the psalmist’s time it was far more dangerous to head towards Mt. Zion. Even today it doesn’t take much to imagine the starkness of the desert surrounding Jerusalem – rocky, brown, no place really to hide from the killer-sun. Think of the “Good Samaritan” story – when a pilgrim was heading down the path and got attacked by robbers hiding behind the rocks.

This wasn’t a “oh, how beautiful” awe that you feel driving west on Rt. 70 the first time you see the face of the Rockies – with the kids in the back watching a video and the AC on high.

Coming out of the desert and lifting up your eyes and seeing your destination up ahead was more than a tourist’s excitement – it was seeing safety up ahead – this was your identity, this was your home. This location, this temple, this community defines you. Jerusalem – Zion, the City of David, the place where God has called his people. Seeing the city changes everything.

In confidence now, as the heart starts racing in excitement you get bold, you remember your faith: “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” You might not have felt that 5 minutes before – but then you look and see, you lift your eyes and it all changes.

“God will not let your foot be moved. God who keeps you will not slumber.” Such confidence, now that you are close; but you haven’t slept is three days. I can almost guarantee you that not 30 minutes before you were barely able to put one foot in front of the other – “Come on God, give me a little lift. Be present. Show me something.”

Now, with the HILL in view – you know you believed it all along: “The Lord is my keeper. The Lord is my shade, the sun shall not strike me by day.” That isn’t what you were saying this time yesterday when the mercury read 100 degrees in the shade and the night time was uncomfortable too.

Now, with the gates of the city up ahead and the robbers are not as frisky – you have almost made it – you proclaim: “The Lord will keep you from all evil, God will keep you safe!”

When you left your home heading for Jerusalem you really didn’t even want to go – but now it’s all good! You could do this every week “from this time forth and forevermore.” What takes the modern traveler 3 hours to traverse took the pilgrim of long ago four days or longer.

I love the psalms because they are poems, the language of the heart. They express what the gut feels at any particular moment but the head can hardly fathom: The trepidation of a big test the night before; the moment you see your beloved standing at the end of the aisle; the joy that comes when a grand slam erases a three run deficit, the confusion in your gut when you don’t know which way to turn, when you are faced with a horror to big to fathom. Sometimes psalms leave you stranded, because life is like that. Sometimes the psalms brim with self-confidence. Sometimes the psalms seem grotesquely self-righteous. But faith includes it all – faith points the way towards that which you give your heart to, what defines you.

Psalms set the tone for the imagination that is faith – the way we look at the world, the way we feel the world and our place in it. We all feel fear – what we do with it is the sign of our faithfulness. We all have doubt – it is what you do with it that defines your beliefs.

Christianity and the Western mind is so heady. I was talking to a very bright woman the other day and she expressed what so many people “feel” (which I think is ironic, kind of) – they “feel” like a hypocrite saying the creed that intellectually they do not agree with. Many struggle, maybe you do too struggle with that conundrum – what is faith, what does it mean to believe, to have trust.

In ancient Judaism, as I understand it, faith was less about intellectual proof – it was about emotion and identity. Faith wasn’t about the head, it was about the gut. Faith wasn’t defined as what you give your head to, but what you give your heart to.

I am all for the intellect – but the madness of emotion, and the longing of the heart, and the creativity of the imagination, and the hushed silence of the awe of mystery, I think is the foundation of faith – that leads the mind to discover.

Emily Dickinson whose poetic imagination and gift was not appreciated by the heady Calvinists of her time – wrote; “I dwell in Possibility, a fairer house than prose, more numerous of windows, superior of doors.”

What possibility do you dwell in? Where is your heart today? Where is your longing? To whom do you go when there is no one? Where do you go when you are languishing? What gives you that powerful rush of renewed hope when you lift you eyes? To whence are you on pilgrimage? What desert, what empty space, wasteland are you traveling through. Or have you lifted your eyes and seen, have you opened your heart and felt, have you stretched the mind and discovered?

This is what I love about Celtic theology, Scottish and Irish culture that we celebrate today – Celtic theology was deemed very dangerous by the more heady Roman church in the first centuries. The sense that the divine dwells in nature; hovers like a mist, lingers like humidity, ebbs like the sea, solid as a rock, silent as the tree, — still threatens most Christians. Most of us don’t like mystery, ambiguity – we want answers, so we can accept or reject. But sometimes poetry is more important than prose and all the time love and forgiveness is more powerful than fear and retribution.

Jesus had the Celtic gift, the poetic imagination to lift up the infant as the one who “gets” the kingdom. Infants don’t “get” anything (except their diaper changed and food). The mortality rate in the 1st century was very high. Children didn’t have much worth until they could work. Infants and young children were and are powerless. But Jesus laid it down, a new way of thinking – the worthless ones, the sinner, the lost, the wanderer, the whore, the tax collector, the infant, are your dinner guests in heaven (talk about “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”!). It takes a poet, a psalmist to think that big and that boldly. I don’t want to be with those people… oh, I AM one of those people.

A faith fueled by imagination is stronger and more powerful that a faith fueled by certainty. I frankly don’t care as much about your theology as where your heart is. Jesus didn’t preach a new dogmatic. He preached a kingdom that was brushing by and very present in the midst – imminent; right here and now.

As you ascend to the table today, lifting up your eyes to the cross from whence does your help come? What is stirring your heart? What is engaging your imagination? What causes you, like the psalmist to move from despair to delight, from the descent into fear towards the ascent of hope?

I know we dismiss “hope” as a word now – it has become politicized. But I have hope for this nation and for this church – for the future as we go forth together. We need as much imagination as we do knowledge these days – we need to yearn to be bigger, more inclusive and risk more not less.

You and I are made, after all, in the image and likeness of God and so imagination is very important, for it is by imagination that we co-create with God. It is with the psalms, the language of the heart, that we feel our way toward the mountain, towards the castle, towards the rock of our salvation, towards the lap of love that is ours in Christ, towards home.

AMEN.

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