Hesed

Lament happens when we experience suffering that seems inconsistent with God’s hesed, when the door to God’s presence seems locked and barred from the inside. When circumstances cause us to question God’s hesed, we invariably reach out through lament. And somehow, through the mystery of lament, we find it again. Which is to say we again find God.   And there we  experience the true character of God: “the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly-pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, furious love of our God!” 


 

Hesed – It’s not even easy to say…

Psalm 136; Lamentations 3:22-33; Mark 5:21-43

 

Note: It was suggested that the congregation read the Gospel lection for today on their own. We began this message by asking the meeting to respond by saying “…for God’s love endures for ever” after my reading the first line of each of the 26 verses of Psalm 136.  We stopped after verse nine.  It was to experience how the word “hesed” is used in the Old Testament. 

 

Translators have used a variety of words in their attempt to capture the complete meaning of hesed. In the 23rd Psalm we find it in the phrase ‘surely goodness and mercy will follow me…”  It is the word ‘mercy’ in that context. The 136th Psalm is a great place to compare translations.  The word is used in each of its 26 verses.  A lot of us are still quite familiar with the King James version.  It consistently translates the word as ‘mercy’. The New Revised Standard version chooses ‘steadfast love’.  The New International Version, which we have as a pew Bible, simply translates it as ‘love’ while the Amplified Bible goes to greater lengths and uses ‘ mercy and loving kindness’.  No one English word adequately embodies its full meaning.     One brave Jewish translator developed a convincing argument for translating the word hesed as loyalty.  He said that hesed is always mutual, it is only found in relationship.

 

 Jesus came to show us who God is.  He spent so many of his parables trying to define the character of God for us. It can only be understood as it comes alive in living relationships. At the heart of understanding hesed lies the notion that it is unmerited, undeserved, un-earnable. This facet of hesed is what the New Testament calls “grace.” The stories intertwined in our Gospel lesson today are examples of Jesus reflecting God’s essential character.   There is the daughter of Jarius, thought ill and then thought to have died and whom Jesus declared merely sleepy and then hungry, returning her to a distraught father.  Then there is the woman who courageously reached out to find healing for an affliction that not only left her weak and anemic but also denied to her any contact with her family and community.  What we find in these two stories are loving kindness, mercy, even an expression of that lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, furious love of God! In the Old Testament hesed is the defining characteristic of God. It is the key to opening the mysterious door to understanding who God really is. It helps us understand what Jesus meant when he said “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…” 

 

Frisco Kid is a 1979 Western comedy featuring Gene Wilder as Avram Belinski, a Polish rabbi who is traveling to San Francisco, and Harrison Ford as Tommy Lillard, a bank robber who befriends him. Avram arrives in Philadelphia from Poland en route to San Francisco where he will be a congregation’s new rabbi. An innocent, trusting and inexperienced traveler, Avram falls in with three con men who leave him and most of his belongings scattered along a deserted road.

Avram is determined to make it to San Francisco. He fends for himself on foot for a while, spends a little time with some Pennsylvania Dutch whom he takes for Jews at first and manages to find work on the railroad. While trying to spear fish in a stream (to no avail), he is befriended and fed by a stranger on horseback named Tommy. They travel together, make it through the snowy mountains, experience Native American customs and hospitality, and learn a little about each other’s culture.

The scene that came to mind while thinking about our text from Lamintations was the when Avram tries to explain to the Indian chief why God, who can make rain, won’t.

 

Chief:  “Yes or No, Can your God make rain?”

Avram:             “Yes!”

Chief:  “But he doesn’t?”

Avram:            “That’s right.”

Chief:  “But why?”

Avram:            “Because it’s not his department.”

Chief:  “But he could?” 

Avram:            “Yes.”

Chief:  “What does your God do?”

Avram:            “Why, he can do anything!”

Chief:  “Then why won’t he make rain?”

Avram:            “Because, he gives us strength for the suffering.

He gives us compassion when all we feel is hatred.

He gives us courage when we are searching around blindly like mice in the darkness. 

But he doesn’t make rain!”

After what musicians would call a grand pause there is a huge clap of thunder and the sound of torrential rainfall in the Indian village

 Avram:            “Of course, sometimes just like that he’ll change his mind.”

 

The Book we call Lamentations was written following the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred about 600 years before Christ.  Laments express sorrow, anger and pain but our section uncharacteristically brims over with hope. We hear that God’s loyalty and motherly mercies never come to an end.  Better yet, they are new and fresh each morning (v. 23).  One waits quietly for God’s victory on our behalf.  Consistent with Avram in the Frisco Kid movie, verses 27-30 urge us to submit patiently to suffering. The reason for the willingness to wait patiently is embodied in the text.  Yahweh will not reject forever (v. 31).  Yahweh does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (v.33). The bottom line is the abundance of God’s loyalty , God’s “steadfast love”. 

22The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” 25The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. 26It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. 27It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, 28to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, 29to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), 30to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. 31For the Lord will not reject forever. 32Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; 33for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. Lamentations 3:22-33

 

 

Within the two simple syllables of this indefinable word “hesed” lay all the richness of the grace and mercy of God. When circumstances cause us to question God’s hesed, we invariably reach out through lament. And somehow, through the mystery of lament, we find it again. Which is to say we find God again.  Lament happens when we experience suffering that seems inconsistent with God’s hesed, when the door to God’s presence seems locked and barred from the inside. Such moments are often signaled by our voicing the word “why.” Why am I sick?  why does my enemy triumph over me?  Why did my loved one die? God, if indeed you are defined by hesed, then why..?

 

One powerful description of the word from the Hasidic Jews is: “the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly-pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, furious love of our Father God!” 

 

The call of God for you and me is to continue incarnating hesed in our own lives. In the true Biblical sense of the word, we need to be an “hasidic” people.  The Prophet Micah said:  O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (6:8) As God promises to show hesed to us, we must return hesed to God. The Lord says He will promise to be faithful and devoted to us, and we must likewise be faithful and devoted to Him. As He is loyal to the covenant, so we also must be loyal to the covenant.

The book of Hosea speaks of Jehovah’s rebuke for His people when they failed to show Him hesed. The Lord charged Israel with spiritual adultery (Hos. 7:4). They had forsaken their covenant with Him. There was no hesed in the land. Their hesed had vanished like a morning dew. “For your faithfulness (hesed) is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away” (Hos. 6:4). They were fickle, unfaithful, and unloyal. God called them to show Him hesed. “I desire mercy (hesed) and not sacrifice and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (6:6). The Lord did not want their insincere and hypocritical worship.

 

This is true for each relationship in our lives: our spouse, our children, our kin, our colleagues, all of God’s creation.  Israel asked why God removed His hesed from them.  Jeremiah asked (16:10) “Why has the Lord pronounced all this great disaster against us?”  God gives the answer. “‘Because your fathers have forsaken Me,’ says the Lord; ‘they have walked after other gods and have served them and worshipped them, and have forsaken Me and not kept My law. And you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, each one walks according to the imagination of his own evil heart, so that no one listens to Me” (Jer. 16:11-12).

Lament happens when we experience suffering that seems inconsistent with God’s hesed, when the door to God’s presence seems locked and barred from the inside. When circumstances cause us to question God’s hesed, we invariably reach out through lament. And somehow, through the mystery of lament, we find it again. Which is to say we again find God.   And there we  experience the true character of God: “the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly-pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, furious love of our God!” 

 

 

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