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Psalm 130

Lamentations 3.1-26

Out of the Frying Pan

Second Sunday in Lent

This morning we’re going to be looking at some of the week’s reflections in this year’s UCC Lent Devotional, The Long Haul, which is a bit ironic, because I came this close to not ordering the booklet this year.  I would have consulted with the Deacons before doing so, but I’ve felt that lately, the Still-Speaking Writers Group has been off their game, particularly with last Advent’s devotionals.  And I know it wasn’t just me, because some of you voiced the same opinion.  But I’m very happy to say I think this year’s Lent edition speaks much better to what the human spirit needs to hear in these times, it inspires and encourages, and yes, still challenges, while at the same time taking us to places that stretch our faith and understanding.  This is what a good devotional should do.

There is a lot of good stuff in this week’s readings.  First thing last Monday morning Liz Miller, a newcomer to the writers group, observed, “there is quite a bit in the world, and my life, that is out of my control.”  Amen, sister – you can say that again!  Liz goes on, “There are forces that are too big for me to manage.  There are issues that need divine intervention and holy love.  There are problems I need to hand over to God because it is too much for any one person – or even any one church or community to solve on their own.”  And now that baseball is back, I can say her closing paragraph belts a home run:  “The most important times to call on God might be when I encounter a situation that is out of my power and in need of a higher power, whether it is ending oppression, enacting justice, or living in harmony with my enemies.  God doesn’t expect us to fix a broken world by ourselves; God only expects to meet us in our brokenness and take it from there.”  Thank you for that Liz, the words are tonic for the weary soul.  And while this was just Monday’s reflection, it somehow was already enough to get me through the week.

But there is more.  The very next day Quinn Caldwell picks up Liz’s idea that there is quite a bit that is out of our control.  He argues against the assumption that everybody’s current state of mind and of living is simply the result of the choices we make. But he reminds us that we are not a collection of individualized islands, rather we live in community, and community offers us options, not temptations, it allows latitude for righteousness, it teases hope out of hopelessness.  And Quinn reminds us at the end, “I have a role to play in your salvation, and you have a role to play in mine.”  No one has to go it alone.

Friends, it was two years ago this week that Covid 19 shut the world down.  Two long years, when in Liz Miller’s words, “There is quite a bit in the world, and my life, that is out of my control.”  And to paraphrase Quinn’s words, “I have a role to play in your health, and you have a role to play in mine,”  because we live together in community and no one has to go it alone.”  These have been two long years that leave us sorely tempted, haven’t they?  Let’s rip off our masks and party like it’s 2019, right?  But the World Health Organization has a word of caution:  not so fast – not so fast.  The organization is watching carefully as nations and states – including our own – are beginning to drop public health precautions, with the decline of the Omicron surge.  The WHO is counseling continued vigilance, noting that the western hemisphere, with less than 13 percent of the world’s population, has reported 63 percent of all new known coronavirus cases in the first two months of 2022.  As Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, phrased it, “This virus has fooled us every time.  That’s why they’re appropriately cautious.”  Or to put it in the vernacular, this darned thing ain’t finished with us yet.

And we’re still feeling it to varying degrees.  I was talking with Martha Krane the other day, the Director of the Montessori Circle of Friends School right next door, who was describing how much discipline has been an issue at school this year, far more than in previous years.  And we agreed it is very likely a reflection of the anxieties that parents and families are still feeling these days.  For just as we seem to be escaping the frying pan of a pandemic, the fire of war in Europe, not to mention the soaring cost of living, remind us these remain difficult times, and it is important to sit with this difficulty, this social discomfort a bit, to give it a name, and to say, No, we aren’t all OK, not yet anyway.  This is one of the reasons today’s – and for that matter, tomorrow’s – UCC devotions speak so directly to me.  Today’s takes its cue from the Old Testament book of Lamentations, thought by many to have been written by the prophet Jeremiah.  More than many, Jeremiah’s prophecies against both the court of King Zedekiah as well as against the priests at the Jerusalem temple, made him a target for persecution and arrest.  His woes are well-documented in the book of Jeremiah, and he is often called “the weeping prophet.”  Lamentations is a collection of Jeremiah’s woes and petitions before God, and we heard some very difficult words from the prophet this morning: 

“I am the one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath… who has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones… who has walled me about so that I cannot escape; who has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, God shuts out my prayer… He is like a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding… who has made my teeth grind on gravel and made me cower in ashes…”

Ouch.  We can hear the pain and sorrow in Jeremiah’s words, the feeling that God has abandoned him to his persecutors and enemies.  It is one of the reasons this passage is often read on Maundy Thursday, the night that Jesus himself was abandoned by everyone he held dear, left to face his own tormentors utterly alone.

The book of the Psalms has its own share of lamentations.  There are multiple types of psalms in the psalter:  psalms of praise, psalms of thanksgiving, psalms of wisdom, psalms of petition, but the type of psalm that is most prevalent is the psalm of lament, lamentations like the ones Jeremiah voiced.  Claudia read what I think is one of the most powerful and evocative of the psalms, Psalm 130, a true cri de coeur that laments the distance between the prayer and the divine:  “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord…  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchers for the morning, more than watchers for the morning…”  In the repetition of that line I hear both abandonment and despair.  Will the gap between the psalmist and God ever diminish?

And if we sometimes feel like the psalmist who prayed these words, if we sometimes feel like Jeremiah who was surrounded on all sides by people and circumstances that pursued him and threatened his life, well, our scriptures are telling us that’s OK.  Sometimes we are justified in calling God to account.  Why are so many dying of a disease from which there is proven prevention?  Why are hundreds innocent Ukrainian men, women and children dying in an unnecessary war?  How am I going to afford my gas and groceries and mortgage when costs are skyrocketing but income is flat?  “Lord, hear my voice, let your ears be attentive to my supplications!”  What do I do in the days when there seems to be little good news to be heard or shared?

Here’s the thing:  God knows our laments.  God hears our complaints.  It’s OK. You and I are living in anxious and difficult times.  And so we pray.  We pray with our souls, we pray with our voices, we pray with our hearts, we pray with our hands, we pray with our feet, we pray with our wallets, we pray with our convictions.  Because notice that, embedded in the laments of Jeremiah and the psalmist are bright beams of light:  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope,” Jeremiah proclaims.   “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  And from the 130th psalm, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope… for with the Lord there is steadfast love, and the power to redeem.  It is God who will redeem us from all our iniquities.”  Deep in the heart of lamentation is praise and confidence and hope.  As Kaji Douša writes in tomorrow’s devotion, “Maybe our souls are in the holding pattern of endless night, waiting, waiting as the psalm repeats for the dawn of a new day.  Or maybe all we see is daylight.  Psalm 130 reminds us that life will always include night and day.  But as [Psalm 139] reminds us, night is not night to God who is always, always awake with the response to our most fervent prayers.”

Rachel Skerritt is the first person of color to be principal of Boston Latin School.  She took the position in 2017, and announced her departure last week.  It hasn’t been an easy five years for her, particularly, like every other educator and most of us, the last two years.  But she puts it into a perspective that I find helpful.  Dr. Skerritt said,

“The pandemic has asked questions of all of us in different ways.  We have endured a two-year stretch of heightened awareness of the importance of physical and emotional well-being and a greater appreciation for the foundation that community and family provide as we weather great challenges.  Like most of you, I have been trying to do my best each day while also pondering the direction of my own life, keeping my responsibility to my family and to this… community at the forefront of my thinking.”

The next time I bring God a complaint or a lament – and I am confident that I will – I’m going to remember Dr. Skerritt’s wise words about the foundation of community.  Or as Quinn Caldwell wrote, “I have a role to play in your salvation, and you have a role to play in mine.”  God put us in each other’s lives, so that even when it seems like the heavens are silent, the God in you hears and understands the laments and complaints and the joys and victories I bring, and I pray the God in me hears the ones you bring as well.

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