On this July 4th weekend many Americans journey somewhere even if it is just across town to celebrate with a friend or family member. Soon some of us will make a journey in our cars on vacation. Others of us will journey in our daydreams or by reading a book. Summer is a time for the undertaking of journeys.
The biggest journey I ever undertook was a 21 day pilgrimage to Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Israel in January of 1994. That journey concluded with a three day stay in Jerusalem. I remember riding in the bus up the mountain to Jerusalem -- the city set on a hill. It had been a long journey -- nearly 3 weeks traveling by air, land and water. Finally our seminary tour group was approaching the city that I had dreamed of visiting since my days as a small child in a church school classroom. I remembered the Psalmists' admonition: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem."
Up ahead I could faintly see the lights of a city up on a hill. We were riding a winding road up to the mountaintop city. The bus seemed to shuffle and snort as it hauled a group of 35 students and faculty from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and our assorted luggage and dreams and visions up the mountain road to Jerusalem. The bus was heavy with anticipation and so was I.
We arrived in the city just after sunset and unpacked our bags at the Jerusalem Hotel -- a 3 star hotel in the Palestinian section of the city. Our accommodations had been made by Palestinians and our bus drivers and tour guides were all Palestinians. We used Palestinian tour guides because of the connection between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Palestinian Christian church. After dinner in the hotel a small group of us set out in the darkness to tour the Old City of Jerusalem. We were led by Dr. Dean McBride, an Old Testament professor at the seminary, who knew his way around town and knew how to speak Hebrew and some Arabic and even a little Aramaic should the need arise. The streets were nearly empty as we followed the small twisting roads paved with stone. On either side of the narrow street were high stone walls or apartment buildings or trade stores such as you may find in a city that is several thousand years old.
The most striking thing I noticed was the black graffiti on the ancient stone walls. The black graffiti was put there by Palestinian kids or young adults with phrases such as "Death to Israel" and "Palestine will arise" spray painted in black and red and green letters on ancient stone walls. I realized then that I was walking around a city under siege. I knew the country was at war when I had seen a group of several young and middle aged men in camouflage clothes carrying M-16 assault rifles at the Dairy Queen where we stopped shortly after crossing the border from Egypt to Israel. These men were not going deer hunting. They were Israeli settlers and they could use their guns on any Palestinian they encountered and not have to worry too much about the consequences. When I saw the armed settlers in Dairy Queen is when I started praying, "Lord Have Mercy." Lord have mercy on this nation at war. Lord have mercy on this band of pilgrims of which I am a member. Lord have mercy and keep us safe. Lord have mercy. That was my prayer on that journey.
Here in Psalm 123 we have an actual song sung by Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem some 2500 years ago when they journeyed to Jerusalem. What did they sing as they traveled together? What was the theme of the song? Lord have mercy.
You and I say the same prayer in a myriad of ways every day. For you and I are on a journey to a New Jerusalem. We journey not to the imperfect city of terrorists and military occupation. We journey not to the city torn apart by Palestinians and Jews who struggle for control. We journey not to any earthly city. We journey to the city that the Bible calls the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem has many names. Some call it heaven. Some call it the city over Jordan. Some call it the promised land. We are going there. We are on a journey to the New Jerusalem -- the city of God -- Mount Zion -- the New Jerusalem and on this spiritual journey we sing, "Lord, have mercy."
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Psalm 123 is the similarity in song between every group that is journeying to Jerusalem. Those who are journeying to Jerusalem sing the same prayer whether that prayer be sung in the Hebrew by Jewish pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem 2500 years ago; or sung in English by a seminary group from the United States, or sung by folks in this congregation who are traveling to the New Jerusalem, the song remains the same. What is the song? The song is a simple prayer. It's a heartfelt request. It covers the multitude of situations and complications that people on a journey may encounter. The words to the prayer and the lyrics to the song are simply this: "Lord have mercy."
Friends, you and I are on a spiritual journey together to the New Jerusalem. As we travel we sing the ancient and modern song of pilgrims: "Lord have mercy." Today, as we celebrate the 4th of July, our prayer for America is this very prayer: "Lord have mercy."
Let's close with the lyrics of Psalm 123 and offer them up as a prayer for our nation.
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
until he has mercy upon us.
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.
Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Psalm 123 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on July 6, 2003; 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time