Friday, March 25, 2016

A Forsaken God

What follows is a sermon on the Fourth Word for a community Seven Last Words service. Seven United Methodist Churches (with 6 pastors) came together to remember the crucifixion: Cokesbury Memorial, Presbury, Union, Union Chapel, Clarks, and New Hope Christian Fellowship UMCs. As usual, I wish I had more time to work on it...there are a few places that seem rough and not quite as pointed as I would hope. But the Holy Spirit spoke anyway. 

Scripture: Mark 15:33-39 (NRSV) 
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. (34) At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 

Let us pray:
Even from the cross you are our patient teacher. You turn to scripture when words fail. On this dark night, when words fail us, may the whispers of all our hearts and the words of my mouth proclaim your love for us, declaring in the words of the Psalmist that, indeed, God has done it! Amen.

A teenage boy, childhood memories undoubtedly filled with images of violence and a constant undercurrent of fear, stands at the border between Greece and Macedonia in a makeshift refugee camp. He holds a plain sign with these words written across it: sorry for Brussels.” But it is not an apology; it is a gesture of solidarity, for he, too, (better than anyone in Brussels) knows what it's like to be surrounded by bombing, to see the dead in the streets, to live in constant fear. And now he has escaped, only to find himself mired in a camp in which the “living conditions are poor, and children his age are suffering from dysentery, influenza and scabies. Food, proper shelter and clothing are also scarce.”1 And now he does not only have to worry about his own fear of death, but also that he has suddenly become the object of fear. He can see it in the faces of those on the other side of the border, hear it in the anti-immigrant rhetoric that seeps into the camp.

And I wonder if his words don't echo Jesus': “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
And then someone else somewhere else says the same thing. Maybe it's because they've heard of another terrorist attack, or another innocent gunned down, or another child taken away from abusive parents. Maybe it's because they have heard about another family or community member overdosing. Maybe it's after getting the diagnosis of cancer or depression or Alzheimer's. Or after losing a job or a baby or a spouse. Or maybe they are the sole caretaker of a loved one and are feeling overwhelmed. Or maybe they are facing abuse from a loved one and keep hoping they can fix them. The list goes on, but the sense of abandonment is the same. You have felt it too, being cut off from everyone around you, even if you, like the young boy with his sign, are surrounded by thousands of people. You know what it feels to say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Jesus' cry on the cross, the last words he says before his death according to the Gospel of Mark, is a familiar one to us, even if we are not familiar with the story of the crucifixion, and even if we aren't familiar with Psalm 22, which is the scripture that Jesus echoes in this cry. Mark's community, and Jesus' as well, would have known Psalm 22. Without reciting the whole psalm, that opening line gives us insight to the anguish Jesus felt. The psalmist goes on to say, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up...and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:14-15). This is the depth of despair Jesus felt on that cross. Many times we "theologize" the despair, labeling this as the only moment when Jesus was fully human and not fully divine. For surely God could not be so powerless. Surely God could not be so like us. 
Besides, we don't want a God who cries like we do, feels forsaken like we do. We want a God who swoops in to save us, who breaks down the barrier between Macedonia and Greece for that young boy, who flicks away bullets Matrix-style from the bodies of young black men, who cures cancer and rescues the abused. We want an awesome display of power, complete with fireworks, worthy of a big budget action film.

But in that way, we are more like the crowd watching the crucifixion that day than we are like true disciples. We often think of the crowd as being bloodthirsty, wanting to see suffering, wanting to get rid of Jesus and his blasphemy once and for all, but the Gospel of Mark shows a secret desire within the crowd for Jesus to win. “The crowd wanted to 'see' a miracle”--- as someone claims when they say, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” They wanted to see a God who comes to us, crosses split in two, guns blazing, Roman soldiers and abusive religious leaders scattered in terror. But what they see instead is the Human One, the Word became Flesh.2 Oh, we will get triumph and glory--- just you wait and see--- but it will not come as we expect it to come. Instead, Good Friday teaches us that God comes to us broken, feeling everything that we feel, even the very worst feeling any of us has ever had: that is, feeling forsaken by even God. That is incarnation. God does not just sample our emotions when God puts on flesh and dwells among us. God in Jesus feels what it means to be human to the very depths of how awful and frightening and lonely it can be.

So, even when we cry out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we are not really forsaken. Our God is beside us, knowing our pain intimately, crying with us, even when we don't realize it. Jesus is holding up that sign with the teenage boy, “Sorry for...” not as an apology for tragedy and hardship but as a reminder that he understands our fear and pain better than anyone.

We still want a God who fixes everything. Who overturns the oppressors, exchanges our pain for pleasure, and keeps the shadows at bay. The story, of course, is incomplete without Easter, in which we do find a kind of triumph and power.3 But for a moment, for tonight, I want us to sit with our incarnate God, God-with-us, and open our hearts to the one who knows our struggle completely. Because the point of Good Friday is not God's power. The point is God's presence. On Good Friday and every day God chooses to love us, no matter how vulnerable that makes God to us. Over and over again, God chooses love. What do we choose?

1Kathleen Wong, “In Wake of Belgium Bombings, Refugee Child Holds Up Sign That Says, 'Sorry for Brussels,'” 22 March 2016, News.Mic, accessed 23 March 2016,
2Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus, Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Mayknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2015), 390.
3Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, “Palm Sunday,” The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem ( New York: HarperCollins, 2006), location 2409 of 3342.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Color of the Wheat Fields

Today would have been the day considered safe to share the good news. Instead, I'm posting this and trying to remember the hope we felt even then.

I read Le Petit Prince to our baby as I miscarried. I read it in French, my tongue awkward with a language that I once studied so closely but now seems to be part of another life. Pétales, I say it in English, pronouncing the s and everything, before I stop and reread it with the accent aigu. I smile. Maybe my French is not so bad after all, I just have to fall into it. Besides, the baby doesn't mind. I'm just trying to let the baby know how much we love it, even though it was only with us eight weeks.

This is the first time I have read to our baby. I have known five weeks of the eight, but I did not really believe it. Even with the transvaginal sonograms--- I certainly felt what the doctor was doing to my body, but I thought I was looking into someone else's uterus, at someone else's baby. I was never sick, though I was tired, and I kept thinking the whole time that this was too good to be true. We had tried and tried to have a baby for over a year, and then finally around Christmas we conceived. We found out right before I was supposed to have surgery for endometriosis, and were ecstatic we could have a baby on our own. The due date was right before my 29th birthday, which also happened to be a good time to take maternity leave from church. It was perfect. But still, I was nervous. I did not touch my belly, did not read to the baby.

Now I believe it, now I whisper names when I am alone, try to figure out a way to make Sullivan-Harrington not seem like the world's longest last name, but it is too late. So I touch my abdomen tentatively as I read, until a cramp collapses my pelvis again. I continue plodding along in French, until my dog, who has been weirded out that I am talking so much but not to her, comes and sits in my lap. Her weight against my aching body feels good, the cramps haven't gotten too strong yet, so I reach over and hold her while I look out the window, letting the book fall to the floor.

I did not read the whole book before I let it fall to the floor. I skipped around, reading about unimaginative grandes personnes, and baobab trees that the Petit Prince does not like but I am obsessed with, and roses to fall in love with, and foxes in need of taming. That's when I start to cry--- reading about the renard:
So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near--

"Ah," said the fox, "I shall cry."

"It is your own fault," said the little prince. "I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . ."

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"But now you are going to cry!" said the little prince.

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"Then it has done you no good at all!"

"It has done me good," said the fox, "because of the color of the wheat fields.”
The next day, once we were home from the hospital, once we heard out of the mouths of doctors what my body had already known, Aaron and I held each other. We were angry and frustrated, but we also felt this strange peace. Because even though we never got to really meet our baby, this pregnancy still did us good. Because of the color of the wheat fields--- or, in my case, because of the way Aaron held me so tightly when I woke him up at 3am to show him the positive pregnancy test, and how he held me tightly again weeks later when I woke him up at 3am to take me to the hospital as blood poured out of me. Because of how green Aaron's eyes were when we lay in bed late in the morning and imagined what this baby would be like, and how I couldn't see what color they were when they were filled with tears beside my hospital bed. Because of how easy it was for us to pick our names for the baby, but when we knew we were losing it the only name that came was our Christmas baby. Because of how much we loved this baby, which was only a fetus after all, even when we knew its departure drew near.

Because this baby made us parents.This baby tamed us, not in the sense of stomped out the wild within us, but in the sense that it taught us not to be skittish around possibility. In fact, this baby taught us how to fall in love with possibility the size of a kidney bean, even at the last possible moment. So while we do cry, and will cry harder on the September due date, we are at peace. For this baby has done us good. And, if there is another baby, we will read earlier, believe earlier, and we will not be afraid (at least not too afraid). Because of the color of the wheat fields.