By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Psalm 107

It felt like a punch to the gut to learn about another shooting in this country yesterday in El Paso. And then this morning while preparing for worship to learn about Dayton. And this follows less than a week after the tragedy in Gilroy at the Garlic Festival, which is very close to home. A member of our congregation had attended the festival the day before the shooting.

Lord have mercy. These are difficult times. What words of hope are there? What words of comfort in the face of loss and trauma?

I’ve found some solace immersed in the Psalms and reflecting on God’s steadfast love. In the NRSV the first verse is translated to include the word “steadfast.” It reminded me this week of a song I learned in childhood:

The steadfast love of Lord never ceases.

God’s mercies never come to an end.

They are new every morning, new every morning,

Great is thy faithfulness oh Lord,

Great is thy faithfulness.

As I learned about the Psalms I found out that “steadfast” can also be translated as covenant love or loving kindness. It comes from the Hebrew word “hesed.” Some of you may be more familiar with this word than me… I found that it is an active word. That it can mean giving oneself fully, with love and compassion. It can also be associated with courage and imagination.

The word “hesed” (chesed) appears in the Torah to describe not only God’s love toward creation, but the covenant relationship humans have with God and our love of others. Chesed is embodied when we love our neighbors as ourselves. One Rabbi that I read described “acts of hesed” as the covenant among people, the way to be in right relationship.

It also reminded me of the Indigenous spiritualities described in The Four Vision Quests of Jesus. Humans are not just receiving blessings and love from the Creator, they are also in active relationship, making sacrifices and giving of what they have. They knew, and know, they cannot receive Spirit if they are not also giving of themselves and their spiritual resources.

It is clear in our soul sick society that we lack hesed, this committed love for each other, for creation and a living relationship with Spirit. There is no shared covenant that values life and seeks the well-being of the other. Rather the dominant culture teaches us to live in fear and protect ourselves by any means necessary. This is a reality that denies the transforming power of Spirit and cuts us off from community and histories of resilience.

This is why we need the Psalms. This is why we need sacred texts that tell a different story. The Divine models this steadfast, committed, loving kindness to us, and invites us to practice the same. I think that Psalm 107 was a reminder to the Hebrew people along those lines. We heard the first nine verses read aloud, which make up the first stanza of this song.

According to scholars we can’t really date the Psalms to correspond with specific historic moments. They were the hymns of the people that were passed down over generations and adapted and edited before reaching the form in which we have them today. So they were recited and sung over and over again, I imagine, through many trials and tribulations and celebrations. They were a reminder to a vulnerable people of God’s great love and faithfulness no matter what was happening to them.

If you’ve read the entire psalm you’ll see there are four stanzas with the same structure:

There is a description of distress (vs. 4-5)

Prayer to God (vs. 6)

Details of deliverance (vs. 7)

Expression of thanks (vs. 8-9)

Let us thank God for this great love, the marvels done for all people.

Each stanzas is a reminder of God’s deliverance. Perhaps reminding them of their time in the wilderness or their deliverance from exile. In some cases their distress is of their own making and in other cases it is at the hand of oppressors. In each case God delivers them as they cry for help. They recognize it is the Creator who sustains them and liberates them. Their need for divine assistance is also their path to liberation. I’ll say that again, their need for divine assistance is also their path to liberation.

Let us thank God for this great love, the marvels done for all people.

I imagine the community reciting these words in times of trouble, trusting there was a Love greater than their fear and greater than their suffering.

I wonder in our lives, and the world right nowm how we would fill in the structure of this Psalm?

To being with the first part of the four part structure, what would be our descriptions of distress? Take a moment to think about how you would describe the distress in your own life or in the life of the world.

I’ll offer a few that have come to mind for me to get us started:

  • Some were seeking safe passage from violence and instead were ensnared by the border patrol and imprisoned.
  • Some were weighed down by economic exploitation and unable to support their families.
  • Some were displaced by mudslides and tsunamis due to a warming climate.
  • Some were the targets of racist attacks and stripped of the ability to worship God in safety.
  • Some were experiencing chronic illness due to polluted land and water.
  • Some were heartbroken by loss of loved ones.
  • Some were reeling from the pain of trauma.

I invite you to take a moment to reflect on how you would describe the distress…

[moment of silence]

Then as the Psalm instructs in the second movement, we offer a prayer to God. In each stanza the lines are the same:

They called to YHWH in their trouble, and God rescued them from their sufferings.

[Prayer for the distresses we have named]

Following the prayer, the psalm outlines how the deliverance happened. (vs. 7, 14, 20, 29-30)

This part is tricky, because there aren’t always instant fixes. I imagine when the Hebrew people were reciting this song, there weren’t usually easy fixes either. But in each case they recognized their need for God. They recognized that it would be the power of the Divine transforming situations of oppression. They recognized that God’s steadfast love could meet them in the most distressing circumstance. They remembered there was a spiritual power to which they could be connected. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, we do what’s possible and God does what’s impossible.

And then they thanked God. The fourth part.

Let us thank God for this great love–this steadfast love–this loving kindness… the marvels done for all people.

I wonder when they recited the word “hesed” if they also were reminded of their capacity to enact loving kindness, just as they were receiving that loving kindness from God.

I think in these days when violence is manifesting in so many way, that our call is toward hesed. Rather than retreating into fear and pain, we are invited to robustly love each other and be committed to each other’s well being. Giving oneself fully, with love and compassion. Hesed reminds us of the covenant with Divine Spirit. We cannot receive the Spirit if we are also not living with spirit and giving of ourselves.

It takes commitment and accountability to practice hesed. It is a witness that our world desperately needs. To live in this way is a marvel.

Let us thank God for this great love, the marvels done for all people.

Amen.