Sermon Seeds: No Matter What

Fourth Sunday in Lent Year B color_purple.jpg

Lectionary citations
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Additional reflection on Numbers 21:4-9

Weekly Theme:
No Matter What

by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)

We’re familiar with the idea of the “Five Books” of the Torah, or Pentateuch, but we may not know that the psalms are also divided into five books, and this psalm begins the final book, containing psalms of praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 107 is a good choice for the lectionary in the midst of Lent, when we live in keen awareness of the tension between suffering and the expectation of new life that Easter promises.

Kate_in_pulpit.jpgSuffering may be undeserved, unexpected, unavoidable. Or it may be the consequence of things we’ve done and choices we’ve made. It’s part of the human condition not only to suffer, but to cry out for relief, even if we’ve caused our own distress. This week’s reading, our third psalm focus text in four weeks of Lent, is a litany that repeats certain phrases key to the meaning of the whole psalm, and to the meaning of the life of worship, to the meaning of our whole lives. Reading the entire psalm and not just the selected verses from the lectionary, we hear the psalmist recount the distress of several groups of people, followed each time by, “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and [God] delivered them from their distress,” and a description of the wonderful works of God in response to a cry of human need. In turn, those who have been “redeemed from trouble” are called by the psalmist to thank God: “Let them thank the Lord for [God’s] steadfast love, for [God’s] wonderful works to humankind.” Those two verses appear four times throughout the psalm, illustrating what the psalmist was talking about when he began the psalm (and this Book Five of all the psalms) with a call to give thanks to God for God’s steadfast love that endures forever.

Suffering, of course, is a mystery much of the time, but sometimes it isn’t. In our scientific age, we have experts in all things physical and psychological (and most everything else!) who can rather accurately predict the consequences of our culture’s emphasis on success, consumption, and acquisition. For all of our many advances, we haven’t figured out how to live happy and wholesome lives much of the time. We work too much, eat too much, perhaps drink too much or take drugs or shop or even spend too much time gazing or listening to one electronic device or another. Our relationships are damaged, our experience of intimacy is diminished, and our health is weakened if not destroyed. These individual, personal sufferings are mirrored in the wider community, where injustice and greed fuel the distress of many more of God’s children.

“Well, they brought it on themselves…”

In the midst of all this anguish, we cry out to God in our distress. Today’s passage describes the suffering of those who have brought on their own suffering, “through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities.” Ironically, the very progress that enables us to predict consequences like illness and injury and dysfunction puts us in a position to judge those who are in distress. “Well, they brought that on themselves,” we say so easily. However, Thomas Edward McGrath reminds us that, “while some people have little margin for error when they choose unwisely, most of us have insulating margins of friends, resources, family, and sometimes dumb luck that protect us against the full consequences of our iniquities” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). In a way, we’re backing into gratitude, reflecting on the many gifts and blessings that insulate us from suffering the full effect of our mistakes, a different approach, perhaps, to Lenten self-examination, but also leading to greater generosity of spirit toward others.

Lent, of course, is a time to repent, to turn away, to begin again. Time in the wilderness, metaphorically or literally, and time in quiet prayer and reflection (one way to experience emptiness in an overloaded culture) help us to focus our thoughts and expand our awareness of God at work in our lives. Time in worship and learning, in hearing the story and joining in the song of praise and thanksgiving, increases our awareness of God at work in the lives of the people in every age, the God, as Eugene Peterson translates this in The Message, who “rounded you up from all over the place, from the four winds, from the seven seas.” But that time in worship also offers us the opportunity to cry out to God, together, about our own individual and communal distress.

What’s the church for, in a suffering world?

As people of faith, we have seen and heard of God doing great things, healing and delivering the people from slavery, from disease, from death. As the Body of Christ alive in the world that God loves, our Lenten reflections include the question: How will we participate in God’s mighty work? How will our congregations and the whole United Church of Christ, and each of us individually, engage in ministry that is healing for a world full of hurting people? Is church here just for me, for us only, or is the church the Body of Christ at work in the world, healing and delivering and making right the things that bring anguish and suffering? Or is the church (are we) too busy judging the sins of others who, in some subtle way or another, “deserve” what has befallen them? (We also can’t help remembering the efforts of religious voices who tried to fix blame for 9/11 or the tsunami of 2005 or Katrina on the sins of one group or another – an embarrassment for people of faith everywhere.)

This psalm of praise, however, is about just that: praise of God and thanksgiving for God’s steadfast love in every age. But it is a psalm, which means it’s not only a prayer, but, significantly, it’s poetry, too. And we all know that poetry is not something to dissect or analyze, although a little background may be helpful. While the psalmist sings of suffering and deliverance in a time and place long ago, we cry out today for God’s deliverance and mercy in our time of anguish and pain, and this poem expresses something deeply human, deeply faithful in our own spiritual lives. Kathleen Norris has written a beautiful chapter on praying the psalms in her book, The Cloister Walk. During her time in a Benedictine abbey, she learned to pray the psalms regularly and often, and that provided insight into their power much more than reading an excerpt here or there. “The psalms are poetry,” she writes, “and poetry’s function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives.” A friend of mine once returned from a worship conference, with his face so full of joy as he said, “We prayed the psalms for three days: what a gift!”

Poems and prayers

In the season of Lent, from which we hope to emerge somehow better, stronger, more faithful – we might even say, “converted,” and even “transformed” – the psalms are most helpful. Praying these poems each day, regularly and even throughout the day, has a certain power, and a certain power is required if we’re going to be transformed. How else to receive the gifts of God if we don’t open ourselves to them? Norris sees great value in committing to “being changed by the words of the psalms, allowing them to work on you, and sometimes to work you over.” We don’t need to waste time analyzing these poems, or even arguing with them; if we simply pray them, and connect with people long ago and right now, right around us, we can live with the questions, “dwell” on them, as Norris says. “The psalms are unrelenting in their realism about the human psyche,” she writes. “They ask us to consider our true situation, and to pray over it…it can come to seem as if the psalms are reading and writing us.” When we move out from reflection and emptiness and time apart, back into the world to be the Body of Christ, to participate in God’s mighty actions, we do so with praise. And Norris offers a lovely image for us as we go, reminding us that the Hebrew word for praise not only means that “but primarily means ‘to radiate’ or ‘to reflect'” (The Cloister Walk).

Annie Dillard offers a perspective on what God is about here, drawing on the thought of Paul Tillich: “For Tillich, God’s activity is by no means interference, but instead divine creativity – the ongoing creation of life with all its greatness and danger.” But Dillard acknowledges her own awe in the face of the mystery of God at work: “I don’t know. I don’t know beans about God.” Still, she writes, “Nature works out its complexities. God suffers the world’s necessities along with us, and suffers our turning away, and joins us in exile” (For the Time Being). Healing does not always take the form we expect (or want), but in any and every case, God is with us, “suffering the world’s necessities” with us.

Finally, Walter Brueggemann offers yet another approach, inviting us to “imagine a world without Psalm 107…without cry, without the public processing of pain….Imagine a world that has grown silent and cold of human pain. Imagine a world totally silenced, no prayers uttered, no hopes voiced, no hosting of the human condition and, consequently, no miracles of newness or healing.” The cry of our hearts is not just a solitary one, but one that we share together in worship. “For that reason,” Brueggemann writes, “our worship must not be too happy, too well ordered, or too symmetrically serene, for at the heart of our worship is asking in need, being answered, and being taken seriously” (Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church). What a radical concept, this acknowledgment of our need and our pain, especially in our culture of self-reliance and independence! Perhaps radical enough to lead to conversion, and transformation, in this season of Lent.

For further reflection:

Philip Melancthon, 16th century
“Trouble and perplexity drive me to prayer and prayer drives away perplexity and trouble.”

Victor Hugo, 19th century (in Les Miserables)
“Certain thoughts are prayers. There are moments when, whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees.”

Meister Eckhart, 14th century
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”  

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.”

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 20th century
“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (

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Additional Reflection on Numbers 21:4-9:

This exceedingly difficult text for the pulpit warrants a closer look and a different angle of view. A simplistic reading offers a God who temperamentally sends snakes to kill the very people that God has delivered from bondage, guided through the wilderness, and claimed as God’s own. That same God, definitely emphasizing the “all-powerful” in this story, turns “on a dime” once Moses prays for the people: God offers a solution to the snakebite epidemic in the form of a graven image, that of a bronze snake.

Fashioning this bronze serpent clearly violates the Second Commandment, and the image of such a vengeful God violates our belief in an all-loving God. Both are challenges to the preacher. There are fascinating historical notes here that may be helpful for a congregation not well-versed in the Bible, including the possibility that this story explains a later reference to Hezekiah’s purification of the temple by destroying Moses’ bronze serpent.

Forty years (or even one!) in the desert most certainly includes experiences of hunger, thirst, and danger from animals such as snakes, including poisonous ones. The possibility that the Hebrew people suffered from a rash of snakebites is strong, and, like so many stories in the Bible, this one may be an attempt to explain such a disaster. Why did the snakes attack us? It must have been all that complaining we did. In any case, the power of healing overcomes the grip of suffering and, more importantly, the sense of being lost in the wilderness and without hope.

Keeping one’s heart and mind trained on the gifts of God, even in a bronze replica of what has brought us pain, and living our lives in trust and humble obedience, are a path through any wilderness that lies before us, in any age and any place. This is Lent, and the themes of sin, repentance, and self-examination are certainly in the foreground of our attention. How and when do we recognize the consequences of our sins, the effects that our sins have on others, near to us or far away? What wilderness lies before or behind you, and how has God’s presence led you, and comforted you, along the way? God commands Moses to put the bronze serpent “on a pole.” In what ways have you and your congregation needed to “look up” from your sin or brokenness toward a higher goal, a higher value, a higher vision? When have you found healing and hope from the most unexpected sources? In what ways does this remind you of looking up, at the cross, a sign of the consequences of sin, but also of God’s triumph?

Lectionary texts

Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

O give thanks to God, for God is good;
 for God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Let the redeemed of God say so,
  those whom God redeemed from trouble

and gathered in from the lands,
  from the east and from the west,
  from the north and from the south.

Some were sick through their sinful ways,
  and because of their iniquities endured affliction;

they loathed any kind of food,
  and they drew near to the gates of death.

Then they cried to God in their trouble,
  and God saved them from their distress;

God sent out God’s word and healed them,
  and delivered them from destruction.

Let them thank God for God’s steadfast love,
  for God’s wonderful works to humankind.

And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,
  and tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy.

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

John 3:14-21

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors

Lent and Easter

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.

There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.