2018-3-4 “Praying As Fools”

“Praying as Fools”

A meditation based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

March 4, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

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                   Remember last week’s Psalm?  It began with “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”  Quoted by Jesus while he was dying and providing a model for us of how to pray when we feel so alone that God seems absent.  Today’s psalm picks up where that one left off.  With God’s steadfast love.  Through every season of each of our lives.  God is there with us.  Period.  And that presence—that ongoing ever-loving presence—is what the Bible calls “hesed” the Hebrew words for steadfast love. 

                   But as is often the case in biblical translation, the phrase “steadfast love” doesn’t begin to describe the “hesed” quality of God.  Think of hesed more as “loving-kindness” “kindness” or “love.”  Hesed is the central value in Jewish ethics and Jewish theology, as well as being a common description of God’s love for humanity.  Hesed is understood to be the foundation from which we—and God—acts in faithfulness.  So, if you see God at work in your own life—past or present—you can be assured that hesed is at the core of God’s actions toward you.  Whatever God does for you and with you and because of you is done from the foundation of hesed.  And, by extension, since we are created in God’s image, our actions to help make the world a better place, those actions are also to be rooted in hesed.  Loving-kindness.  Compassion.  Love that neither wants nor expects anything in return.  Love that is solely for the benefit of the other. 

                   In the traditional ethical literature of Jewish thought, hesed is one of the three primary virtures.  One famous Rabbi taught, “The world rests upon three things: Torah, service to God, and bestowing kindness.”  Another Rabbi stated, “The Torah begins with hesed and ends with hesed.”  When one is working and thinking and acting from a place of hesed, they: 

  • love God so completely that they never forsake God’s service for any reason
  • they provide a child with all the necessities of sustenance, and they love that child
  • they visit and heal the sick
  • they give charity to the poor
  • they offer hospitality to strangers
  • they attend to the dead
  • they make peace between enemies

Hesed, as practiced by humans, is a very tall order!  Hesed, as seen in God, is what we have come to appreciate and expect in the Divine!

                   So this psalm we’ve read today begins with hesed.    God’s steadfast love.  Let’s look at it once again on the screen.  From there, the psalmist reminds the people of God that they aren’t the only ones whom God loves.  People from east and west, from north and south, all of those are God’s daughters and God’s sons.  Often when the Bible is expansive like this, using hyperbole to make its point, we can understand that the scripture writer really really REALLY wants us to get this point.  God loves ALL people.  Just as much as God loves you.  That truth is as difficult to swallow today as it was several thousand years ago when it was first heard.  God doesn’t have favorites.  Not even Christians.  God loves the people who live in the north and in the south and in the east and in the west.  There is no place on earth where God’s hesed is not present.  That hard truth is followed by a lighter one. 

                   The psalmist calls us all “fools!”  Not fools as though we are intentionally dumb.  Fools in the sense of ignorant, limited in what we can see and what we can accomplish, but also fools in the sense of being light-hearted and maybe even a bit self-absorbed.  So the psalmist says we are fools because we bring a lot of our troubles on ourselves, then we cry out to God to save us, then God swoops in to heal and to save us, and then we start the same foolish pattern all over again.  Notice that we fools are not ridiculed for such foolish repetitive behavior.  No, rather, the psalmist returns to hesed—God’s loving-kindness toward all of humanity.  And the psalmist invites us to move away from our foolish patterning, and instead to thank God for saving us once again.  By doing so, we just might not repeat that foolish cycle again, or at least we might take longer this time!  Thank God for God’s hesed…thank God for God’s wonderful works toward humanity…thank God with your sacrifices…and tell with your words and with your actions and even with your singing, tell of God’s deeds with joy!

                   When I study these words of Psalm 107, it brings to mind a type of praying we usually understand to be for others’ benefit.  That is intercessory prayer…when we pray to God for the needs of another person.  Intercession has a stubborn quality to it.  We think of intercessory prayer like that parable of the woman who, late at night, went to the judge to plead her case.  She knocked on his door.  He ignored her.  She kept knocking.  The servants ignored her.  She knocked more and louder and kept banging on that door until her need was addressed. 

                   I think of the young survivors of the recent Florida school shooting.  The very next day, many of them were on a bus to their state’s capital, and within a week, some sat in the White House with our nation’s leaders.  These kids are not going to quit knocking.  And we shouldn’t either.  Whether we’re talking about reasonable gun control or peace in war-torn countries or safe drinking water for Puerto Rico or decent immigration policies for those who simply want a better life for themselves and their families. 

                   The psalmist today invites us to base our prayers in hesed…in loving-kindness, in compassion, base our prayers in love that cares for the other enough to go out of our way to work with them to improve their own situation.  In other words, to be that judge, but without the long wait and the loud banging on the downstairs door.  We can begin to be that embodiment of hesed simply through our prayers of intercession.  Intercession is prayer that pleads with God for the needs of others.  Intercession involves taking hold of God’s will—which we know from today’s psalm to be hesed—and refusing to let go until hesed comes to pass.

                   Yes, intercessory prayer is praying for others.  It is also loving yourself enough to plead to God for your own needs.  Let’s look at that understanding a bit more.  The word “intercede” actually means to intervene, which itself originates from two Latin words that mean “between” and “go.”  Now, as we’re thinking about prayer, we can understand that as “go-between” in the traditional sense of us standing between our loved one and God, praying to God on their behalf, and becoming a sort of bridge for God’s love to pass through us to them.  That is the usual understanding of intercessory prayer. 

                   But through those originating Latin words, we can also understand intercessory prayer as “between…go.”  Two separate actions of placing ourselves in prayer between God and our own needs, talking to God about those needs, and then putting our feet and hands to the work of “go…”  Act.  Move.  Do.  Get up and get going and become part of the embodiment of God’s answer to your own prayer.  This type of self-focused intercessory prayer is particularly effective, I think, when we are trying to rid ourselves of emotional pain or grief or when we’ve hung onto some wrong done to us far too long ago.  You know as well as I do that such hanging on to pain does more damage to us than to anyone else.  But such foolishness can also do serious damage to others.  So interceding, or praying between God and our needs to be pain free, and then getting off our knees and doing something about our situation, that is the kind of intercessory prayer that moves us beyond the traditional and into some new spiritual territory.  Between…Go…in that order!

                   Here, at this table each month we practice such praying…maybe not with prayer words per se…but certainly with our actions.  We say and we hear that, through bread and cup, God is present.  But we don’t leave it at that.  We don’t leave and go home after just hearing those words.  We get out of our seats, we walk a few steps, and we take and dip and eat.  Prayer for nourishment put into action by our own doing.  Between…Go…And in and through both our spoken prayers and our doing prayers—through them all is God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love, God’s loving-kindness, God’s compassion—urging us foolish, light-hearted folk on, to take and eat and become God’s-hesed-flesh-and-blood embodiments right here in San Diego County.

Amen and Blessed Be