Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress;… -Psalm 107:6
(Preached on Sunday, September 17, 2017)
This Psalm we just read together celebrates the steadfast love of God. It tells the story of four groups of people: desert wanderers; those who sit in darkness and gloom; those who became sick because of unhealthy practices and behaviors; and those who “go down to the sea in ships” and nearly lose their lives in storms. The psalm is written from the viewpoint of the “rock bottom” places where the psalmist experienced no hope of survival, except for the grace and presence of God.
“Rock bottom” is a place well-known to the those in the twelve step movement, where there’s “nowhere to go but up.” It is also a place well known to us. The rock-bottom place is the coronary care unit, where a young, up-and-coming professional lies, hooked up the monitors. The view from a hospital bed is different from anyplace else; it is a place where time seems to stand still and stretch on for an eternity – where two days can seem like two weeks! The rock-bottom place is bereavement: when life-partner is suddenly gone, and nothing seems to be as it was. Life suddenly becomes a fearful place. New skills must be learned and lonely nights must be endured.
The rock-bottom place is imprisonment, of one sort of another. Maybe it is not literally time in jail, but a time when life is put “on hold,” nonetheless. Maybe a parent or spouse has become an invalid and we are called upon to become the primary caregiver. Or corporate downsizing has blocked career advancement. Or a storm plays havoc with life-plans and suddenly totally rearranges priorities, and schedules, and life comforts – like electricity, air conditioning, hot showers, communications and connectivity.
The psalmist tells the truth about human life. Troubles and heartache are part of the deal. Whether we’re raising kids, running a business, working for the government, or simply trying to “do justice and love mercy,” life sometimes is perpetually “one step forward, two steps back.” (It certainly feels like that when the electric power is restored after several days of sweltering heat and eating canned beans, only to then be lost for a second time!)
But the psalmist tells another truth – about God’s presence in human life. The psalmist reminds the people of Israel how God has fed them, freed them, and most of all, led them throughout their lives. You see, Psalm 107 is first and foremost a psalm of thanksgiving! From those rock-bottom places, the psalmist always returns the refrain: Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
This psalm was probably used in special rituals to celebrate the repeated experience of being saved from life-threatening danger, much as we have done today. The psalm calls on those who have experienced this salvation to offer their thankful testimony before the gathered congregation. By doing that we are reminded that God is always with us.
This is why we remember the stories of the Bible, the stories of faith and of the presence of God with the people. So that when we encounter those rock-bottom times, we will remember, God is with us. I trust that is part of the strength on which you drew these past two weeks as together we came perilously close to one of those rock-bottom times. And for some of us, perhaps it was such a time. I have heard stories of people who went through Hurricane Andrew and for whom this experience was much worse.
Part of what we can do is begin to gather our own testimonies of God’s presence with us in this storm, the way we saw that God was still with us and that God’s strength brought us safely through. I know for me, it was the blessing of a church member who offered me and another family the safety and comfort of her home, equipped with an automatic generator, so that even when we lost electric power during the storm, the generator functioned the way it was supposed to and we really only had a momentary blip of darkness because of that. That blessing included time with another family so that I did not have to ride out the storm alone. It reaffirmed for me the power and the blessing of community. Facebook provided another witness of a couple, young grandparents, who endured 8 days without electric power but who came to understand the experience as an opportunity to draw closer to each other in their relationship and to draw closer to God. Each day they found new blessings and new ways to be grateful, even as they continued to endure hardship. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
Christ Congregational United Church of Christ has certainly known the presence of God down through the years. We struggled to gain a foothold at our birth. We survived 40 people leaving the church upset with Rev. Tiemeyer in the late 1960s; and again survived about 35 people leaving upset with Dr. Kelsey in the late 1980s. We survived Hurricane Andrew and the decision to become an Open and Affirming congregation. And we are surviving Hurricane Irma. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
The Rev. Mary Willis, who served Christ Congregational Church as Associate Pastor for one year, beginning the week after Hurricane Andrew struck, provides one of our testimonies. She wrote to us a few years back, on the occasion of our 50th Anniversary and shared some of her testimony of her time here. She wrote: “My year as yoru Associate Pastor right after Hurricane Andrew was one of the hardest and most memorable of my life … The Hurricane’s aftermath was terrible, but it didn’t even begin to compare to the unkind and dishonest workers who followed in its wake. Maybe you remember that the church’s roof had to be redone three times before it could pass building inspection … Most importantly, I took with me the love and care and prayers of so many. What an amazing blessing you were to me that year when housing was impossible to find. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Many (and those who follow him – my own addition) has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20) I am especially indebted to Priscilla and B.J. for always letting me in, no matter when I rang their doorbells.” Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
Let me close with these words from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – a man who certainly knew some rock-bottom places in his life. He once shared in a sermon the following words: Now I say to you in conclusion, life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments o drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.
Yes, we have survived Irma, as we have survived many other rock bottom places. Let us always remember, no matter what rock-bottom place we descend to, God is with us – God will see us through.