God’s Love is Steadfast

Sunday, March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Lent Year B

Focus Theme:
God’s Love is Steadfast

Focus 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

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 Matthews

While we may be familiar with the idea of the “Five Books” of the Torah, or Pentateuch, we might 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.

Suffering 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.

A song of distress

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.

The question of suffering

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 so easily say.

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.” 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–possibly–leading to greater generosity of spirit toward others.

Time in the wilderness and time together

Lent, of course, is a time to repent, to turn away, to begin again. Time alone 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 together 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 renders this in The Message, who “rounded you up from all over the place, from the four winds, from the seven seas.” This is indeed the God whose love is steadfast in every age. 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 various natural disasters on the sins of one group or another–an embarrassment for people of faith everywhere.)

The gift of the psalms

This psalm of praise 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 itÖit 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).

The work of divine creativity

In her beautiful 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 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 painÖ.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.” 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.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) along with reflections on the other lectionary texts, at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Thomas Merton, 20th century
“There is not an act of kindness or generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken, not a child’s prayer uttered, that does not sing hymns to God.”

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
“Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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!'”

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