sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
There are certain hymns that I hear in my head sung by a particular person.
Whenever I hear this hymn, I hear the voice of my college mentor, Mary.
Mary is an American Baptist minister, part of a clergy couple
that served one of the churches in the little college town where I went to school.
I remember her singing this hymn in church one sunday morning,
full voiced, with deep feeling, as if she meant every word.
I marveled at this, because I knew it wasn't easy to believe those words.
Mary's oldest daughter, Sarah, was 12 at the time,
and had been experiencing health issues for several years.
It started with something they called chronic fatigue syndrome
where Sarah would sleep 18 hours a day.
Essentially that was just a catch all diagnosis
the doctors didn't know what was wrong with Sarah
they thought it might be an auto immune disease, or perhaps lyme
Then Sarah stopped eating, and anorexia became the greatest danger.
She was hospitalized on several occasions, and her health was very fragile.
Throughout Sarah's middle and high school years,
with more doctors and hospital stays and months missed from school,
Mary hung on as best she could.
There were many times when she cried out to God, asking over and over,
Why? What good can possibly come from a young girl's suffering?
Will my daughter live to adulthood?
Her prayers for healing seemed to go unanswered.
She cried, Can this really be your will? If not, why do you not act?
It was as if God had abandoned Mary, leaving her alone with her daughter and illness.
These were the same questions that the people of Israel were asking,
attributed to the prophet Jeremiah in the reading from Lamentations today.
The reading is really a psalm, the literary center of the book of Lamentations.
Though this section seems full of faith, the rest of the book is a song of deep lament.
Thats because the unthinkable was happening:
the Babylonians were destroying Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was God's city, the seat of the temple where God was present.
But the Babylonians had defeated Israel's armies;
they had surrounded the city.
The siege was starving the people;
eventually the enemy would break through the walls
killing any resistors, burning buildings, and desecrating the temple.
It was as if God had closed God's ears to the cry of the people,
leaving the children God had chosen behind.
To me our reading for today is like Mary singing Great Is Thy Faithfulness.
The lyrics do come from this text
but more importantly, both were an expression of faith
in the midst of great uncertainty, confusion, and pain.
Both were an island of hope in a sea of despair.
The past two weeks we’ve had the murders of two pastors and their parishioners at a bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, on our minds.
It hits especially close to home for many Lutherans,
for Rev Pinckney and Rev Simmons were both graduates
of the Lutheran seminary in Charleston,
and the suspected shooter is a member of St Paul LC, an ELCA congregation.
It lays bare the sickening sin of racism, and the propensity to violence in our society.
And it happened in a church, as if no place is safe from hatred and prejudice.
Can anyone latch onto these words as a source of hope in the midst of all that?
Can anyone sing God's praises when the unspeakable happens?
The truth is sometimes we can't.
But it is important to know that these words were psalms of the people,
attributed to the prophet who witnessed their struggles.
They belong to a community.
Individuals in the community at any given time might have been unable to sing these praises
But together they could.
One person's faith lifts up another when theirs is faltering.
I saw that in Mary, too.
Throughout the years of Sarah's illness, Mary and her husband Steve were open
with their church about what was happening.
It never took center stage, but they welcomed the community's care and prayer.
Parishioners stayed with the younger two girls when Mary and Steve
were overnight with Sarah in the hospital.
They dropped off casseroles and baked chicken.
They pitched in when the house needed repainting.
Certain people were just good listeners.
And the kids of the church played with their other two daughters,
helping them just to be kids.
But most of all, Mary and Steve looked for other faithful people in the church.
There was Bob Thomas, a sort of local civil rights hero,
who had taken Dr. King's words to heart about 10am on sunday morning
being the most segregated hour of the week
and as a Black man pioneered the integration of Mary and Steve's church.
There was Mary Caronetti, who sewed and brought quilts to men in prison.
There were the members of numerous bible studies
who searched the scriptures for inspiration and hope.
And there were the members of the Baptist Peace Fellowship,
whose work in conflict resolution, disarmament, racial and economic justice
was a testament to their commitment and hope for a better world.
Mary and Steve looked to these folks to help them keep on going.
Other people's faith spurred them on, gave them strength when theirs flagged,
renewed their hope.
They were companions on the journey.
At our best, this is what we are for each other, too-- companions on the journey.
People who can reach out in help and caring, and sometimes just listen.
People who can share their struggles and the way God has been faithful.
People who can learn together,
work together on the prejudices and inequities in our communities
People who can remind each other of the riches of our scripture and tradition.
It may feel like we have been abandoned,
but in reality we are community
a family of faith
and the Holy Spirit lives in us, uniting us, so that we are not alone.
We're going to sing the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness together now.
Like our singing, the life of faith is not a solo act.
In fact, none of us sing these words of faith alone.
We need each other.
But together we can sing it.
Together we can praise God's faithfulness in all circumstances.
Together we can work for a more just and peaceful world.
Together we find hope for tomorrow in God’s loving promises.