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Sermon for a Service for Wholeness
(Lamentations 1:1-4, 12; 3:19-24; Psalm 22:1-5; Luke 5:17-20)
What does “forsaken” feel like? Abandoned, rejected, forgotten, misunderstood: these are some possibilities. Suffering a pain that strikes so deep into the core of a person that no medicine or therapy can touch it. Emotional anguish and spiritual desolation. No way out and no way back to the way things were before. Maybe it feels a little like this:
“… my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
These are the words of the psalmist who also supplied the words Jesus cried out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Was anyone ever more forsaken: abandoned by his friends, handed over to his enemies, dying alone in pain and humiliation. What forsakenness especially meant to Jesus on that awful Good Friday morning was that at the very moment he most needed God, God was nowhere to be found. At the very moment he needed his disciples with him, they had run off.
Sometimes we feel forsaken, too. When you’ve been robbed of your once-vibrant energy by a debilitating illness; when your love seems to have nowhere to go now that your most beloved person on earth has been taken from you; when you’ve suffered a trauma that you know will take years to heal, but your well-meaning friends can only offer pious platitudes and tell you it’s time to move on…you feel forsaken. It feels like a Good Friday world, and it is enough to make you say, “My God, my God, why…?” Why has God gone off to take care of somebody else, and left me to fend for myself?
“Forsaken” feels like being all alone – deserted by friends, forgotten by the wider world. Communities can feel forsaken, too: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become…,” we just read. The Lamentations poet is writing about the city of Jerusalem after the Babylonian invasion – she’s been deserted by her allies with her citizens left to starve. Jerusalem, once a proud and beautiful queen, is now a jilted and forsaken “city woman,” weeping “bitterly in the night.” Six times in Chapter 1 alone, we are told she has no one to “comfort” or “help” her. She can’t get anyone even to notice her suffering, much less care for her. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” the poet asks.
Suffering tends to be most acute when we feel all alone, when no one seems to care. There was a story in the Post last week about a homeless woman named Monica Diaz and her husband, Pete Etheridge. Since their affordable apartment building was condemned, Monica and Pete have been living in a tent near Union Station. Every time there is a city cleanup, the tent dwellers are forced to move and find shelter somewhere else, often forfeiting their few belongings in the process. Monica describes how hard it is to hold on to her dignity when she doesn’t have the means to take regular showers, fix her hair, get a decent night’s sleep or even get warm, and how hard it is to hide the fact that she is homeless from her boss and co-workers. The most painful thing to her is that she has become someone to “hurry past on the sidewalk.” One day she reaches her breaking point, becomes so frustrated that she has a meltdown. “I’m dying out here!” she says to anyone who will listen. “Acknowledge us! We’re human beings! Please, just acknowledge us!”[i] But no one stops to pay attention. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” Suffering is most acute when it seems no one cares.
In Luke’s story of the healing of the paralyzed man, the stricken man is not alone. His friends come to help him in his distress, literally removing part of the roof of a house in order to give the man access to Jesus to be ministered to. When Jesus “saw their faith,” we are told, he pronounced words of mercy and forgiveness and healed the man.
Healing, from anything, whether a physical illness or a trauma, has social dimensions as well as physical and spiritual ones. After the deadly attack on two New Zealand mosques last month, in which 50 people were killed and as many injured, there was an outpouring of condolences and expressions of solidarity from New Zealanders of every faith. At a Friday prayer service attended by 20,000 people and broadcast on TV and radio, the imam addressed the crowd, many of them non-Muslims. “Thank you for your tears,” he said. In other words, thank you for reaching out to our community, for acknowledging our pain and even entering into it, for letting us know that we don’t have to suffer alone. “We are broken-hearted, but not broken,” he said.
That desolate cry, “My God, my God, why…?”, that lament of forsakenness, is also a cry of faith. It is the cry of someone who knows where to turn in his anguish and trusts, even against all the evidence, that he will be heard.
When Jesus uttered these words, he was identifying himself with all the sufferers who had ever howled for God to come to the rescue and got no answer. Jesus continues to identify himself with these sufferers. If you are in a place of pain and you look around and can’t see God anywhere, look at the cross of Jesus and that is where you will find God. In the person of Jesus Christ, God’s suffering has been joined to our own.
Viewed one way, the cross of Christ can be an unpleasant reminder that God doesn’t act in our lives by eradicating all the evils that afflict us. Cruelty, neglect, and random suffering remain realities of life in this world, and some of us are unlucky enough to get more than the usual dose.
Viewed another way, the empty cross reminds us that God is powerful enough to transform the most hopeless situations. God does not offer a way out or a way back, but a way through. God can take our pain and transform it into something we can give back to the world: as greater empathy, deeper compassion, solidarity with other sufferers, a voice for the voiceless. And that is where the real healing begins, not just of our wounds, but the wounds of the whole world.
And for those of us who haven’t had to be in that place of forsakenness, there are things we can do, too, to help bring healing. We can listen, without offering advice, or judgment, or cheerful words meant to leap over the pain. We can hold a hand or offer a shoulder to cry on. We can pray. We can say, not that we understand, because we don’t, but that we want to understand. We can show that we are willing to be there as the other person finds his or her own way through, with the help of the One who has been there ahead of all of us. He continues to be with us and for us, when even the worst happens to us. We are not and shall not be forsaken.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
April 7, 2019
[i] Terrence McCoy, “This is not me,” The Washington Post, March 27, 2019, A.1.