No Matter What

Sunday, March 18
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Focus Theme
No Matter What

Weekly Prayer
Steadfast God, you reach out to us in mercy even when we rebel against your holy call and prefer to walk in disobedience rather than in the way of your divine truth. Soften our hearts with the warmth of your love, that we may know your Son alive within us, redeeming us and raising us up into your eternal presence. Amen.

Focus Reading
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.

All Readings for this Sunday
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Focus Questions

  1. Is “undeserved” suffering more painful than the kind we bring on ourselves?
  2. Do you find it difficult or easy to forgive yourself?
  3. How do we praise and thank God in the midst of adversity?
  4. What does “divine creativity” mean to you, in your life?
  5. What makes us as individuals and as a church “radiate” with God’s love, especially during this Lenten season?

by Kate Huey

We’re familiar with the idea of the “Five Books” of the Torah, or Pentateuch (which is where it gets its name), but we may not know that the psalms are also divided into five books. This psalm begins the final book, which contains 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.

Suffering may be undeserved, unexpected, unavoidable, or it may be the consequence of things we’ve done and choices we’ve made. It’s 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 God 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 God 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 practically predict the consequences of our culture’s emphasis on success, consumption, and acquisition. For all of our many advances, however, 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.

In the midst of all this anguish, we cry out to God in our distress, and God hears us, no matter what. 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. Thomas Edward McGrath suggests in that case that we “consider 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.” 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. After all, God loves us and cares about our suffering, no matter what, whether we “brought it on ourselves” or not.

Praying for conversion this Lent

Lent, we believe, is a time to repent, to turn away in a new direction, 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) helps 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, who “rounded you up from all over the place, from the four winds, from the seven seas” (The Message). But that time in worship also offers us the opportunity to cry out to God, together, about our own individual and communal distress.

What are we as the Body of Christ doing about the suffering of the 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? According to Susan Marie Smith, the priest-physician William Beachy observed that “healing is not a ministry of the church but the ministry of the church.” 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 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.)

Poetry as prayer, prayer as poetry

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 is poetry, too. And we all know that poetry is not something to dissect or analyze, even though 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. She approached the psalms as poetry, which provides us with “images and stories that resonate with our lives.” In the season of Lent, from which we hope to emerge somehow better, stronger, more faithful, we might even say, “converted,” or even “transformed,” the psalms are helpful. Praying these poems each day, regularly and even throughout the day, has a certain power, and a certain power is needed 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, she writes, “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.'” If we have received grace, do we then reflect, even radiate, that grace in God’s world?

In her book, For the Time Being, 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.”  Healing or deliverance 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.

What if there were no one to sing this song?

Finally, Walter Brueggemann offers yet another approach, inviting us to “imagine a world without Psalm 107,” with “no one to sing this great song of thanks,” and “no recognition of the cry of distress that sets in motion the divine mystery of rescue? Imagine a world without cry, without the public processing of pain….” The cry of our hearts is not just a solitary one, but one that we share together in worship. Brueggemann suggests that right worship should avoid being “too happy,” but include as well that cry of our hearts, crying out in our doubt, our pain, and our need. 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.

Anne Lamott, 21st century
I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.

Mechtild of Magdeburg, 13th-century mystic
When I can no longer bear my loneliness, I take it to my friends. For I must share it with all the friends of God. “Do you suffer?” “So do I!”

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.