By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 27:15-50; Psalm 22
YouTube: https://youtu.be/ekYw0PN-Ag4 and https://youtu.be/dQWdjf6wVBI
When my husband and I were in seminary, Britt worked part-time as a nurse. He worked the 3-11 shifts. One evening while Britt was working, I decided I’d go out to dinner. I didn’t go anywhere fancy; the Ground Round. When I walked in the hostess asked me, “how many?” and it sounded odd when I said, “Table for one, please.” I looked around at the other tables; all couples or families. I enjoyed my meal and I didn’t feel insecure. It just felt a little odd. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who can’t stand to be alone. I once did a six-day retreat in an eremitical community in a remote area of Texas. I didn’t speak for six days… I know; hard to believe. And, aside from the dining room and morning prayers, I didn’t see anyone either.
Alone time is important. We all need it. But I think there are two times when it is hard to be alone: when we are celebrating and when we are suffering. In those two extremes, we need the company of others.
Today is a special day: “Palm/Passion Sunday.” During my childhood, the palms got an entire Sunday to themselves. But over the years, fewer and fewer people go to Holy Week services and so, perhaps for practicality, we fused the two to be sure no one missed out on the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. Personally, I like this fusion because it serves to remind us of the fickleness of those crowds in Jerusalem so long ago.
In the cinematic version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, there are three stanzas in the song “Hosanna.” On verse one, the throng sings, “Hey JC, JC, won’t you smile at me.” For verse two, it is “Hey JC, JC, won’t you fight for me.” And on the final verse, the frame freezes on the somber face of Jesus as they sing, “Hey JC, JC, won’t you die for me…” It was quite the parade that day in Jerusalem. The crowds were excited beyond belief, full of energy and anticipation. But Jesus; not so much. Jesus was the only one who knew how quickly that crowd would turn on him. They’d turn on a dime when they discovered he wasn’t going to do what they expected of him, deliver up a pound of Roman flesh. Their Savior became their scapegoat in quick order.
The Jewish religious leaders and the Roman authorities hated one another; but they were all too happy to work together to take down Jesus. Lucky for them, Judas was greedy and not very loyal. And the rest of his disciples were gutless, fleeing like a bunch of frightened school girls. According to Matthew’s gospel, Pilate’s wife has a troubling dream about Jesus, a bad omen. So Pilate tries to do that thing where people who have responsibility pretend they don’t. He makes a big show of washing his hands before he hands Jesus over to be beaten and crucified.
And so Jesus, hanging from the cross has been ditched by pretty much everyone: his disciples, the crowds who had gotten so much from him (food, healings, all kinds of miracles). He’s thrown under the bus by the religious establishment and the Romans. Everyone has turned against him.
But we can handle that, right? I mean, all of us have been betrayed; all of us have been rejected. But the part we find so hard to handle are those nine desperate words Jesus utters from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Now, growing up, I heard that God really did forsake Jesus on the cross because he took on all of our sin and God the Father just couldn’t stand to look at that mess… which, I have to tell you, left me feeling kind of ambivalent. It really didn’t paint God in a very good light. In Matthew’s gospel, these nine pathetic words are the only thing Jesus says as he hangs there dying. The climax of his messianic career; it’s all come down to this? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But those words are not original to Jesus. They are words he probably learned and memorized in Hebrew School. They are the opening words of Psalm 22.
If I were to say to you “I pledge allegiance to the flag…,” you would doubtless complete my sentence “of the United States of America.” If I began to pray “Our Father, who art in heaven,” you would join me, saying “hallowed be thy name.” If I said, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” you would continue “I shall not want.” There are certain things we memorize as children that lodge themselves deeply in our brains and we can call them forth anytime we need them. And that’s what Jesus does from the cross. And, while his dying breath is insufficient to recite the entire psalm, it’s not doubt lodged deep within him.
Psalm 22 is what’s known as a lament psalm. It’s a prayer for help; a cry for deliverance. And it is a psalm that seems to perfectly express all that Jesus is enduring.
In verse 7 of Psalm 22, we read, “All who see me deride me… they shake their heads.” Matthew tells us that those who passed by Jesus hanging from the cross derided him, shaking their heads. In the next verse the psalmist writes that those who deride him mock him as the one in whom God delights. Matthew tells us that at Jesus’ baptism, he was identified as the one in whom God takes delight.
In verse 18 the psalmist writes, “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” Matthew tells us that when they had crucified Jesus, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots. Like the psalmist of old, Jesus feels his life, his breath, ebbing out of him. Like the psalmist, he is surrounded by enemies who have rejected him and attacked his body. Like the psalmist, in that very moment of suffering, he feels forsaken and calls out to God. The psalmist pleads, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one [else] to help.”
But friends, that is not the end of the psalm. You see, lament psalms have a very specific structure. No matter how dark and discouraging, and distressed they may start out, they always – without fail – end with praise for God because although what the psalmist has been told and what they have been taught is not jiving with their current experience and reality; yet still, they trust because others have also suffered and been unjustly punished, yet they have endured and passed their suffering to proclaim the faithfulness of God. Despite their feelings of forsakenness and helplessness, they know somehow deep within that that feeling of forsakenness is not the end. It is a feeling and a very real feeling. But faith is more than a feeling. When Jesus hung on that cross, he began a psalm whose ending he knew well.
Its ending was praise to a God of life. The psalmist proclaims, “God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”
There are two times when we should never be alone: when we are celebrating and when we are suffering. And we are never alone in our suffering. Jesus entered our suffering; entered our world of suffering and brokenness and cruelty. Friends: we live in a world where suffering happens and often with no good explanation. God has given us free will; we are not puppets or robots.
Imagine how chaotic it would be to live in a world where God changed the laws of nature every time someone somewhere violated one. Furthermore, sometimes we, those around us, and even our ancestors have acted out of malice or ignorance in ways that injure ourselves, others and creation. So suffering is a part of what it means to live. But we are never alone in our suffering because God chose to enter our suffering through the incarnation of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus willingly assumed the human form and lived the human condition, including suffering and the feeling of forsakenness. While Christians often speak of Jesus bearing our sin on the cross, I am amazed how rarely we speak of Jesus bearing our suffering on the cross. We are never alone in our suffering.
And friends, despite the darkness of Holy Week, despite these dark days our world is facing right now, Easter is coming. Suffering is inescapable; but suffering is not the end. All suffering can be transformed into new life. That’s the Easter message. The empty tomb has vindicated the cross.
Friends: Christianity is not a denial of suffering. It is a trust that suffering is not the end. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed and frightened and anxious right now. Like Jesus on that cross, we may be feeling forsaken, abandoned and helpless. And if that is how you feel, tell it to God. Write your own psalm of lament. Don’t pull any punches; don’t hold anything back because God is big enough to take it.
The structure of a lament psalm is posted on Trinity’s website where we hope you will share your psalms of lament. The structure is this:
Friends, as our face to face worship has been canceled, I’ve been enjoying the rare treat of listening to other preachers online, especially my friend and clergy sister, Rachel Metheny. Last week in her sermon, she made a statement that has stuck with me. She said, “The worst thing is never the last thing.” Jesus’ worst thing, hanging from that cross, that wasn’t his last thing. It was followed by resurrection. None of us has ever lived through anything like this COVID pandemic before. In terms of global health and economic crisis, this is the worst thing. But it is not the last thing… because we are an Easter people.
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