Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friday: Did God forsake God?

My third sermon. Perhaps my last, as I'm going to try out another parish closer to my new home. I don't expect other parishes are as willing to risk opening their pulpits to us lay critters. But it's been fun, and very educational for me, to do the research and put together a sermon that's both educational and inspiring for the congregants.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”

The first segment of these words from Psalm 22 are attributed to Jesus in Mark 15, which we heard on Palm Sunday, and Matthew 27. They don’t appear in today’s Gospel, for reasons I believe have more to do with what John was trying to say about Jesus than with any attempt to record the events of his crucifixion. But these are troublesome words, and they deserve to be understood, for the hope they convey to us today. Did God forsake Jesus, God’s Son? Did God abandon him?

Jesus’ crucifixion was grisly, and he didn’t take it well. Socrates died almost cheerfully, drinking hemlock tea. The Stoics died passively as the lions killed them in the Coliseum. At Masada, the Zealots died proudly. In the first century C.E., Rabbi Akiba, one of the earliest founders of rabbinical Judaism, is said to have recited the She-má while being tortured to death by the Romans (The Shemá is the prayer that begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One;” devout Jews recite this prayer twice each day). His was a death he welcomed, a death of freedom.

Jesus died a godforsaken death. He was impaled on a cross stark naked between two common criminals, bereft of all respect and dignity. He was greatly distressed and troubled in the Garden, the night before his crucifixion. He prayed, “Take this cup from me”! And his cry from the cross, from Psalm 22, represents, if not his actual words, his clearly intended expression. How are we to understand his cry? Was he really forsaken by God?

David’s Psalm 22 was written in the context of the God of Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. The text refers to, if you will, a contractual dispute: God has abrogated his covenant with Israel; he has abandoned me.

This distant God of the Covenant was not Jesus’ understanding of God. For him, God was much closer. He always referred to God as “My Father“. ”The Kingdom of God has come near,” he said more than once. This is a relationship not mediated through the covenant, the law of Moses, this is a direct relationship with God much more intimate, much less hierarchical, than that present in Judaism at that time. Jesus’ preaching was a direct challenge to the mainstream religious leaders. It challenged all their rules of how to gain access to God.

And God confirmed the intimacy of that relationship. At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, God is quoted as saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1). At his Transfiguration, where he met Moses and Elijah on a high mountain, God said “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (Mark 9).

Having this kind of relationship with God means that our sins can be forgiven right here on earth, right at this table! Back then, when epilepsy and blindness and leprosy were considered the wages of sin (and those who suffered epilepsy, blindness and leprosy were unclean, impure), this radical idea that our sins could be forgiven right now was electrifying.

Even in our lifetime, when being black or female or gay is considered sinful, or at least morally inferior to being white or male or straight, this idea is still new and fresh in some places. Jesus was crucified, in other words, because, among other things, he crossed the political and religious establishment in a critical way. He challenged their authority, on a very basic level, to lead the people of Israel.

And, as the Gospels say in several places, Jesus spoke with authority. So, he had to be eliminated. Destroyed. Erased. Dehumanized. Crucified. The judgment of slaves, deserting soldiers and paupers. In Jesus’ words on the cross, you sense they were successful. Jesus’ death was, or certainly appeared to be, godforsaken.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann says that if Jesus was abandoned by his God and Father and then raised through “the glory of the Father,” then there must be some conflict between God and God, some mystery in the theology of the cross which we cannot answer. Martin Luther was said to have sat at his desk in his study for hours on end studying the words, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Those who observed him said that he appeared to be as a corpse. Finally, he rose from his chair in exasperation and was overheard to say, and here I translate from the German, “God forsaking God! No [one] can understand that.”

I’m not credentialed in systematic theology (or, for that matter, in unsystematic theology), but I’m a close observer of politics in business and government, and I understand that sometimes, our personal perception is for us our only reality. Therefore, I am inclined to agree with the view of another German theologian, Rudolf Bultmann whom Moltmann dismissed, “We may not veil from ourselves the possibility that [Jesus] suffered a collapse”. Here, for me, is a Jesus who is not “pretend” human but fully human, fully able to experience despair and hopelessness and, at the point of an excruciatingly painful death, perceive that not just his disciples but his own Father in Heaven may have betrayed and forsaken him. Here is a man I can identify with, and who through his glorification by God, can identify with my own pain and hopelessness and despair.

Where do we believe God doesn’t go? Where are the places we believe God has forsaken? Prisons? Crack houses? Strip joints? Homeless shelters? Bathhouses? War zones? Terrorist cells? No. God Himself (or Herself) is there.

When do we feel godforsaken?
When we’re diagnosed with cancer? When we’re wheeled into the operating room for major surgery? When we show up for another round of chemotherapy?
When a family member dies from illness or accident;
When we are attacked, beaten senseless and left for dead;
When we discover our children’s college funds and our own retirement nest egg is ravaged by the economic downturn;
When our life’s work is ended abruptly by layoff or bankruptcy;
When friends or family reject us because of who we are or what we stand for;
When, through our own blindness and weakness we let addictions or prejudices weaken us;
When we hit bottom, when we turn around and find that God is “so far from my cry and from the words of my distress,”

When we feel, in other words, that God has forsaken us,

Then know that perception is not always reality. Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us, he suffered and died feeling godforsaken, but God never left him,and He has never left us. God is always present. Even if, as David says in Psalm 139, you “take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,” even there God will hold you and love you and want you to love and trust God. He will never leave you godforsaken.


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