Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, August 14
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
God of all the nations, you rescued your people out of the Red Sea and delivered Rahab from battle; you rescue the lowly and needy from injustice and tribulation. Surround us with so great a cloud of witnesses that we may have faith to live by your word in our time, courage to persevere in the race set before us, and endurance in the time of trial. Amen.
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim,
shine forth before Ephraim
and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might, and come to save us!
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your strong hand planted.
They have burned it with fire,
they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke
of your countenance.
But let your hand be upon the one
at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Sovereign God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
All Readings For This Sunday
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 or
Jeremiah 23:23-29 with Psalm 82 and
Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and
1. How often is "lament" part of your prayer life?
2. When has the pain of the community felt like your own personal pain?
3. When has God seemed absent in your life, or the life of the community?
4. How does this psalm, even as lament, express hope?
5. What, and who, needs to be "restored" today?
Reflection by Karen Georgia Thompson
Is it well?
In a few brief minutes of watching the news there are several contemporary reminders that all is not well. The news of the past weeks and months brought reminders of an economic downturn that has caused many to lose jobs, home, and financial stability. While there are indicators and indices that say we are on the road to economic recovery, many people are still "under-water" financially, grappling with the challenges of life in these economic times while taking care of the basic needs of eating, sleeping, and having a roof over their heads. They may be crying for God in their midst.
I watched as past reports continued with updates regarding the effects of the spread of oil in the Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The presence of these millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico has endangered life for a long time into the future. Pictures of wildlife covered in muck and videos of birds laboring to breathe as their feathers and nostrils were covered in oil were everywhere. Pictures of white sand beaches in stark contrast with the globs of oils remain in our memories. There too are cries for God's presence.
Most recently, we have been inundated with the loss of lives of our youth and young people. The massacre of children in Newtown, Connecticut, brought the sad reality of death and violence to the many families whose children and loved ones went off to school but never returned. They cried for the presence of God to be felt in their midst.
In Florida, the country watched and grieved once again at the death of Trayvon Martin. The outcome of the trial riveted the nation. Opinions were split and many were left wondering at the crisis in the judiciary system. In the midst of it all was a family grieving the loss of a child, a community grieving the loss of a citizen, and a country mourning the grief of long held prejudices. They too are crying for God to be present.
Where is God?
There are those who continue to grieve the loss of life that occurred at the beginning of the disaster in each of these situations. Those lives are not forgotten. Left in their wake are women, men and children wondering why their loved ones are gone? Where is God in the midst of all this? Creation cries out. People cry out. Our souls cry out, as we too wonder where God is. Does God not see? Does God not hear the cries of God's people?
After reading the words of the psalmist, I paused and looked at the world around me with new eyes, with a different lens that embraced the angst of the psalmist looking at the pain of a suffering community. The words of the psalmist bring to mind an unnamed truth, unpleasant realities that provide very few words to describe the angst brought on by community suffering. Has your heart ever been so burdened that you had no words to explain how you were feeling, and wanted to cry out in anguish?
Sorrow and loss in every age
Little is known about why Psalm 80 was written, but considering the context for the pain, suffering and hopelessness presented by the psalmist would help us understand how an entire community could think God is not present with them. There are those who speculate that the psalm was written in response to the war that brought about the destruction by Assyria of the Northern Kingdom of Israel more than seven hundred years before Jesus was born. Yes, war could do that to a people. The loss of their country and the occupation of the land by others could really bring about the sort of questioning and response that the psalmist expresses here.
But what if that were not the reason? What if we never really know why the psalm was written? Do we really need to know what caused the pain and suffering of the people and what would drive them to the place of coming together to beseech God's presence to be with them? What then do we do with this unexplained suffering and questioning of God?
I have to admit, I found places where I could understand the plight of the people. The psalmist recollects their past experience with God. God was present with them as they were liberated from Egypt. God was present with them as they sought a new home and made a new life for themselves. God was present with them as they found a place in a new community, a new territory and began to flourish as a community. Given their experience with the presence of the Divine in the past, is it no wonder they were confused with what they were experiencing in their present?
Vine-keeper and shepherd
As far as the people were concerned, God was no longer listening to them. This God that they understood and knew as shepherd, as vine-keeper, was absent. Truly, the God they knew could in no way, shape, or form be present and watch while they suffered as they were suffering. The images of God as shepherd and vine-keeper were images the people cherished. Both were caring, nurturing images. Both images evoked a tenderness and concern they were not experiencing. Where was God? Why was God no longer present? Why did God leave them to suffer?
"Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved" (vv.3, 7, 19). The cry for restoration occurs three times. The cry comes after the psalmist implores God to "give ear" and "come to save us" (v.1). The cry for restoration comes again as the psalmist states the people's case of suffering (vv.4-6) and the refrain occurs again at the end of the psalm (v.18) after the psalmist again points out the plight of the people. Oh that I could write a psalm or two, they would be community prayers, songs of communal lament.
I want to think the psalmist writes from a place of unrest and dis-ease brought about by the plight of the community. The burden on the heart of the psalmist produces this plea to the Divine on behalf of the people. I find that there are moments when my heart is burdened. There are times when what I hear and see make me want to cry out before God.
Where is God now?
I too want to know where God is amidst devastation of flood, famine, violence and industrial accidents. I too want to cry out asking for Divine intervention for communities that are broken in heart and wounded in spirit. I want to write my own words of lament to God on behalf of those who seek to understand and want to know: How can God be present amidst the hurt, pain and suffering of entire communities? I too want to cry: Restore us, O God! Let you face shine that we may be saved! In those moments I know my soul is not well. I experience a sense of loss, pain and even anger. My soul is not well. I want to know: Where? Where is God? Where is Divine presence?
The psalmist offers a place to question and wrestle with the juxtaposition of caring God and community devastation, shepherd God and injured sheep, vine-keeping God and broken vines. The psalmist does not end by naming an absent God who is uncaring, but instead rests in a hope that God who was deemed present in a turmoil-filled, change-driven past, can be counted on to be present in every situation.
The psalmist understands that life happens. The walls are broken down. The enemy is laughing. The people are eating bread of tears and drinking tears to full measure. The boar from the forest ravages the vine. The vine is vulnerable to all that can devour it. Return O God; take care of your people. Return O God; protect your people. Return O God; heal the brokenness of your people. Return O God, come back, help, save, restore your people. Do we dare write our own psalms of lament in our contemporary setting, where we live our lives now? Does our theology leave room for imploring God's presence on behalf of those who suffer?
Well with my soul
I must confess that I am the product of a Christian tradition that has left me with a long list of "old' hymns that come and go at will depending the occasion. Among my favorites is Horatio Spafford's "It is Well with My Soul." The first stanza of that hymn is familiar to many of us:
When peace, like a river, attends my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
The story is told that Spafford wrote the hymn following two major traumatic events in his life. The first was the Chicago Fire of 1871 which brought him to financial ruin. The second was the death of his four daughters who died at sea when the ship they were on with his wife collided with another ship as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It is said that Stafford wrote the hymn as his ship passed the spot in the Atlantic where his daughters lost their lives. I am of the opinion that this is Staffordís own version of the psalm of lament. Stafford does not question, he manages to find peace in knowing God is present even in his moment of grief and suffering.
There are those moments when we rant and rave and express the sickness that we feel when we view injustice and devastation in our world. When we cry out for justice on behalf of people and community because our souls refuse to be well amidst the devastation and injury we see that is the psalm of lament. After the lament, maybe, just maybe we too can sing, "It is well, it is well, with my soul," as we appreciate the presence of God with us in time of trouble.
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as the Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in the Office of General Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
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For further reflection
William Shakespeare, 16th century
"My grief lies all within,
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul."
Margery Allingham, 20th century
"Mourning is not forgetting...It is an undoing. Every minute tie has to be untied and something permanent and valuable recovered and assimilated from the dust."
Augustine, 5th century
"The desire is thy prayers; and if thy desire is without ceasing, thy prayer will also be without ceasing. The continuance of your longing is the continuance of your prayer."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, 19th century
"The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!"
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 20th century
"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear."
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