Like a Bird to the Mountains

Like a Bird to the Mountains

The Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

March 11, 2018


Texts: Psalms 11 and  12

      They fled to the mountains, throusands of them, mostly women and children to the holy Sinjar Mountains. More than 40,000 Yazidis were trapped, by ISIS forces firing on them, after an assault on their villages. In August 2014 President Obama authorized air stikes enabling almost 30,000 to escape into Syria to be rescued later by Kurdish forces. U.S. citizen Yazidis here in the United States worries for their relatives are still waiting final approvals of reunification.

     So often through history, people have fled into the mountains, hiding from their pursuers in caves. During the U.S. sponsored conflict in El Salvador, the mountains often provided the only refuge as villages were bombed by the ARENA government. The mountains have also been a place from which armed revolutionaries have descended to change the course of history, as in Cuba.

     In Genesis, Lot is told to flee to the mountains and not to look back for the city wherein he had resided was to be destroyed. Rahab sends Joshua's spies to the hill country, or the mountains to hide from their pursuers in Jericho, and after three days, they were able to slip out of Canaan back to Joshua to tell him of what they had learned about Jericho. The mountains of Canaan were full of caves, easy for people to hide from pursuers, whether Canaanites or Romans.

      In Judges we are told that the Israelites who now were fighting for the land against the Midianites made dens and caves in the mountains so they could regain the land they had once conquered. Living without their livestock, the text tells us they cried to the Lord for help. The Lord reminded them that they had not kept their commitment but had "done what was evil in the sight of the Lord," the phrase indicating that they had strayed and worshiped other gods.

     When the kings Jehoshaphat of Judah Ahab of Israel summon the prophet Micah to tell them what will happend should they go to war over a portion of land, the prophet tells them that the people will flee to the mountains and be like sheep without a shepherd. Ahab, who was against summoning him because, as the text says, "He never prophesies anything favorable about me, only disaster," is furious and throws the prophet into prison with bread and water. This happens after Ahab's repentance following the death of Jezebel, but the words of Elijah came true: when he was killed in battle, the gods licked his blood as a recompense for having Naboth stoned so Jezecould have his vineyard.

     Mountains have been both a refuge and a staging place for revolution. They can be a challenge as well, such as Kilimanjaro or Everest. The mountains of Norway cut through with fjords are breathtaking. Our own Appalachian range and the more rugged Rockies draw people just to look at them. Many are so high that not even the birds can reach their summits.

     Some mountains are also so tall they seem to be closer than first appears. When I went to Seattle for a conference in 2000, I was transfixed by Mt. Rainer. It looked so close, so I decided to go see this mountain up close. Two hours out of Seattle, the mountain did not look smaller so I stopped at a gas station and asked the attendant how far it was to Mt. Rainier. "Oh, I reckon about three to four hours, maybe more." I had never seen a mountain of that size.

     The hills and mountains of Palestine and Israel are full of crags and caves, of danger and dens of safety. The Judean Mountains run north-northwest from the Sinai all the way into Ramallah. With an average height of almost 3,000 feet, they cut a broad swath through the center of the country with the Galilean plains to the west and the Dead Sea and the Jordan to the East. Over the centuries they have been used by thieves, rebels, and monastic communities.

     Each fall and spring, which really is coming–in just a few weeks!–over half a billion birds, more than 280 species, travel and find shelter in the hills and mountains of Israel-Palestine. They'll be heading north from areas as far south as central Africa to Nordic regions such as Finland and Sweden. The mountains are their resting places as they travel.

      There are also mountains of the soul with the places where we can hide and take refuge. Fortunately, we are not like the Yazidis who had to literally take flight just to survive. We do feel besieged, however, sometimes more often than not. There are times when like thke Psalmist, we feel there is no one who is godly and all we hear are lies piled on lies piled on lies. Like a bird fluttering about trying to find a safe place to land, we are not sure which way to turn. We look for the den, the cave that offers a respite from the world.

     Around us we hear voices of despair, politically, socially. Like the Psalmist we hear the voices of those who believe they are their own masters. Take a day, any day and we hear a cacophony of opinions from people who are con-vinced that they have all the answers to pretty much every-thing. And what we want to say to them is: Stop! Just stop.

     Life a bird to the mountain we seek refuge from the constant barrage of hateful speech from persons interested only in their power and authority. But power does not necessarily mean legitimacy as those in power would like us to think. Often it means nothing more than just noise.

     Unlike the earlier Psalms we have read, Psalm 11 does not address God directly but is rather the Psalmist's thoughts about the world and the evil the Psalmsist sees being done. The Psalmist here has confidence that the Lord will rise up against those who despoil the poor and make the needy groan allowing them to find safety. This Psalm addresses the response to the fear that arises from direct threats to both physical safety and the moral integrity of society. How can we just flee when the foundations have crumbled.

      This is a call to participate in the restoration of God's righteousness. As the Psalmist says, the Lord tests the righteous as well as the wicked. Although the Psalmist uses metaphor to describe the recompense the wicked will receive for the evil deeds they have done, it is our responsibility to repair the foundations.

      The following Psalm calls on God for help in repairing those foundations by partcipating in God's righteousness. The Psalmist paints a picture of a distrustful society, one where people simply do not trust each other and are always concerned that others do not represent themselves honestly. Actually, if you think about it, this is a description not too distant from our own society.

     It is not only in the political dialog that we find such distrust but in our social relationships as well. Groups do not trust each other. Various parts of the nation are pitted against other parts: south against north, the so-called heartland against the coasts, coal miners against clean energy, and now, steel workers against auto workers. The foundations of common and mutual interests have crumbled.

     How do we regain trust in ourselves, others, and our larger society? Theses are the questions that the Psalmist asks. How does God rise up except through our own efforts  to restore a society that believes in the greater good? We reflect the Psalmist's lament when we ask these questions. We usually consider a lament as despair, but it is also a sign of hope, for our lament to God reflects our faith that God's strength can and will remain with us as we repair the world.

     Over the last thirty years or so we have been told to only be concerned with our own interests rather than the broader interests of society as a whole. The whole approach of "me first" has been transformed into today's political rhetoric of "America first." Like the society of ancient Israel, we have become a society that gives heed to the flattering lips of a double heart, as the text phrases it.

      Moving beyond our self-preoccupation is difficult for the society around us encourages us to focus on our own interests. Whenever I go into the city I am always over-whelmed by the number of homeless I see on the streets. They sit in front of stores where people shop for $200 jeans not to mention other expensive items. The contrast is palpable–and distressing.

       But we don't have to go farther then areas in Monmouth County to see people who have no permanent place to live while others live in McMansions. The disparity between rich and poor is more than distressing. It is shameful. The poor are despoiled and the needy groan, says the Psalmist. The poor and needy are also the greatest users of opioids and other drugs which are used as a temporary lift from despair of their plights.

     As Christians we have a responsibility to address the crises we see in our midst. But we cannot do this just as individuals. We need to see what we can do as congregations and groups of congregations. The image of people flying as birds to the mountains is not just about people in physical flight but also about us in spiritual flight. The Psalmist speaks to our hearts when we recognize that our lament is both societal and spiritual, for, in reality, the two cannot be separated.

     Both Psalms we heard this morning close with an affirmation of God's concern for us. The Lord is righteous, sings the Psalmist, and our actions should reflect God's righteousness. Although vileness–what a descsriptive word–is exalted among humankind, we as the people of God can bring God's righteousness to fruition through our words and deeds. And God is with us as we strive to place the poor and the needy into the safety for which they long. Then shall the people be in peace as we watch the birds cross the mountains on their spring journey.

       Let us pray: We come to you, O God, for the strength we need to bring your realm of peace and justice to the earth. Help us as we consider the many ways that we can serve you and move our laments to songs of joy as we do. In the name of him who shzred your vision of right-eousness, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.