Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 11, 2018
If you were a pretty, athletic, intelligent and gifted teenage girl, from a good family – and you suddenly found yourself paralyzed from the neck down but suffering unrelenting spinal pain – wouldn’t you think there’d be no chance of your having a decent life?
Fifty-some years ago, Joni Eareckson Tada was that girl. Today, she is a woman nearing 70 who, as she has for decades, radiates happiness and fulfillment thanks to the grace of God. When you hear the upbeat tone in her voice and see the light in her eyes, you know she’s living proof that there’s always a chance for a good and even joyful life if there’s a chance of God in it. Considering what she’s gone through, you feel sure she’s not just making happy talk when she says, “Christians have no reason to be miserable or pessimistic. There’s no room for gloom and doom when you’re a believer.”
There’s always a chance if there’s a chance of there being a caring God there for us.
Of course, we who hang our hopes on God understand there’s a chance we may be deceiving ourselves by having faith. Though we bank on God’s reality and loving faithfulness, we’re aware we’re wishing something to be true that hasn’t been proven. We’ve heard the arguments against the rationality of faith and we’ve struggled against doubt. We’ve been fooled before, and we may be fooled about God.
Yet, in the end we realize that it is at least as reasonable to hope in God as to doubt His reality and love, and we choose to take our chances with Him.
Obviously, however, it is one thing to believe there’s always a chance for us if we are, as Joni was, the innocent victims of a bad turn of events, and quite another thing to believe that if we are in a bad way by our own fault, if we have done ourselves in by our doing: say, by our physically unhealthy practices, relationally undermining habits and spiritually self-destructive choices.
Today’s Psalm refers to a time when Israel had brought upon itself great self-inflicted harm. The Psalm recalls that point in Israel’s history when its people had repeatedly rebelled against God wishes and left God no option but to love them with tough love – in this case to exile them into Babylonian captivity.
Yet, once their schooling in the school of hard knocks had done them all the good it could, God had mercy upon them. Out of His “steadfast love” which, Psalm 107 says, “endures forever”, He “redeemed” them, with the Psalm’s composer using the word that describes paying a price to rescue another person from a debt they cannot pay or a slavery they cannot escape. God had done that for His people held captive in Babylon and had gathered them back into the Promised Land, their true home. He did that though they had – “through their sinful ways” the Psalm reminds us – brought themselves to “the gates of death”.
Now, if God is merciful enough to redeem those who deserve what’s befallen them, there’s always a chance even for the worst of us, and for us at our worst, that God might redeem us from our self-created disasters.
And our chance can be realized if only we admit we have done it to ourselves and had it coming and dare to hope that God might do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Then, though we do live in a cause-and-effect world in which we reap what we have sown, God will, once the consequences have taught us all they can, disrupt that inviolable chain of cause-and-effect and in a miracle of undeserved kindness break the links in that chain to rescue us for a better life than we have any right to expect.
Now, those who have experienced such grace and have come to hope in its possibilities, God calls to show others that there’s always a chance with Him no matter how much our problems are of our own making.
A forty-something woman named Victoria Ruvolo answered that call.
About a decade ago, Victoria was driving to a recital when she approached a car heading the other way. It was driven by a 19-year-old named Ryan Cushing and occupied by five other teens. The six of them had just used a stolen credit card to go on a spending spree.
One of their purchases was a frozen turkey. On a whim Ryan decided to toss into oncoming traffic. The twenty-pound projectile smashed through Victoria’s windshield and crushed her face into hundreds of broken pieces. Amazingly, she survived. But she spent ten hours in an operating room while doctors reconstructed her face. When weeks later she went home, she still had had a tracheotomy tube inserted in her throat, and months more of painful rehabilitation to endure.
Victoria showed up at a hearing for Ryan’s sentencing. He was facing the possibility of 25 years in prison, and Victoria came to plead with the judge to be lenient. Allowed to speak in the court, Victoria at one point looked Ryan in the eye and said, “Despite all the fear and the pain, I have learned from this horrific experience, and I have much to be thankful for…Each day when I wake up, I thank God simply because I am alive. I sincerely hope, Ryan, that you have learned from this awful experience. There is no room for vengeance in my life, and I do not believe that a long, hard prison term would do you, me or society any good.”
In response, the judge gave Ryan only six months in jail. Victoria told Ryan: “I truly hope that by demonstrating compassion and leniency I have encouraged you to seek an honorable life. If my generosity will help you mature into a responsible, honest man whose graciousness is a source of pride to your loved ones and your community, then I will be truly gratified, and my suffering will not have been in vain…Ryan, prove me right.”
God punishes us for our good, and lets us suffer the consequences of our bad decisions. But He gives us mercy and second chances, on the chance we might decide to prove Him right for taking the risk of refusing to give up on us. He knows there’s always a chance as long as we might respond to the chance that He’s there for us and eager to redeem us.
May we embrace our chances while we still can, and hope that God will upon our repentance and faith redeem us, heal us and make us better than we’ve ever been before. And may we in turn become people who share that grace with others. Let us pray.