Quite a few years ago, there was a particularly striking story on the news in the aftermath of the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina. The story involved the medical staff in a New Orleans hospital struggling to care for patients when their facility no longer had electricity, water, food, or medicine available. In that horrible situation, several medical staff members gathered around a patient’s bed. They sang songs of faith and trust in the only one they felt they could count on in the midst of such a catastrophe. They shared the hymns that some of them had heard in worship services Sunday after Sunday throughout their lives, until the words and music had become part of their very being. In that storm-damaged hospital during devastation that was described as “hell on earth,” they found comfort and hope by singing together.
As Baptists, as Christians, and as people who grew up in the church, we all know the power of singing hymns. We sing because, as those medical staff members in that New Orleans hospital knew, singing is one of many ways we can cry out to God in utter despair and also in complete trust. Augustine once said that the one who sings “prays twice.” Sometimes our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs become our thankful prayers of trust and commitment and at other times they become our desperate prayers of abandonment and lament.
I’ve had friends in Nashville, in Atlanta, and here in Dallas who have had serious and difficult journeys with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. And one thing they found most comforting when afflicted with these isolating illnesses was the joy in singing. I have known many loved ones who sang to their spouses, parents, or grandparents. I have one friend from Atlanta who sang everywhere she went with her mother who had Alzheimer’s. She sang in the car on their way to doctors’ appointments and to the grocery store. She sang as they sat in the swing in the backyard. She sang as she got her mother dressed for Sunday church. She sang in the emergency room at the hospital when she broke her hip. She sang in the nursing home when her mother was there for rehab. And she sang in hospice before her mother took her last breath. While her mother found joy in singing old hymns, what my friend may not have realized was what a good gift singing was to the caregiver too. Singing those hymns during difficult days brought comfort and peace to both of their anxious souls.
And, I am sure that each of you has your own story to tell of how singing has allowed you to express your deepest fears and greatest joys. In fact, in thinking about this sermon for today, I realized that even Jesus himself probably knew the significance and power of singing. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that after Jesus and his disciples shared their Last Supper together before his death, they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. And, Jesus actually used his last breaths on the cross to sing. The words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” are song lyrics. They are the first words of Psalm 22, an ancient psalm of lament. And this song of lament pierced through the quiet and cold darkness on that hill far away. For you see, the contempt, the anger, the ridicule of the crowd had grown quiet. The taunts and the insults from the soldiers were all silent. It was Friday and darkness had fallen on Golgotha in the middle of the day. There was no sound, there was no sight, there were no supporters, there was no saving Jesus. It was an experience of pure and suffocating loneliness. And the centurion was alone at the cross, enveloped by that same isolation.
Then the darkness began to lift and the centurion looked up at the center cross, where this “King of the Jews,” this beaten and battered king without a kingdom, ruler without subjects, savior without friends was hanging. The centurion looked up at the face of this man whose head was crowned with thorns, not glory. He saw his cracked, dry lips move slowly and deliberately, with much pain, until a great cry was forced from his muted mouth. “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” And those onlookers standing round the cross heard this statement and thought Jesus was singing, singing a song from his childhood. It was a psalm the Jewish people knew from the day they were born, when their mothers and their midwives and their maids sang to them about the presence of God. And in that song, as the onlookers sang it along with Jesus, they got to the phrase, the verse in question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is yet another word of Jesus from the cross that is confusing, heavy, and full of mystery. As I’ve said previously, I’m not sure how this whole Trinity thing works and this complicated relationship of the Father to the Son. Why would Jesus need to ask God to forgive his murderers if he was indeed God hanging on the cross? Why would Jesus have the authority to bring paradise to the world if he wasn’t God in flesh? Why would a very human Jesus need to care for his mother when God’s community was so much bigger? And today, how was God absent when Jesus and God were intimately connected in relationship and in love and in the whole essence of self?
In other words, why did Jesus feel that God had forsaken him? Why did he feel abandoned? Because there was something very human in Jesus’ cry to God, right? Haven’t we all been there before, in the isolation of loneliness and in the pain of abandonment? Haven’t we all questioned where God is in our lives and in the world? I know I have. As we mourned the loss of life at the two mosques in New Zealand, I wondered where is the God of life and love and worship and faith that watches over God’s creation. I wondered the same thing when the same type of killer shot people in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in a church in Charleston, and here in Texas while fellow Baptists were worshiping in Sutherland Springs. I mean, shouldn’t God, even if God is absent in other places in the world, shouldn’t God at least be in houses of worship? Where was God when my friend found out he had cancer and died three weeks later? Where was God when flood waters destroyed poor communities throughout the US and resources were few and far between? Where was God? In all the moments in the history of our world where we have cried out for help and salvation, where God seemed distant, the only song we could sing was “My God, My God, where have you gone?”
Those are, of course, bigger questions than I can answer. And I’m ok with telling you as a pastor and as a lonely human, that sometimes God feels very, very far away. But what I do see in this story of Jesus’ fourth word from the cross, is that even when I don’t understand God, even when God is distant, I do have the life of Jesus where I can turn. I do have the cross where I can kneel. I do lean into the fact that Jesus would’ve had a hard time being the savior of the world unless he too experienced the depths of human sorrow and despair. Pastor Leighton Farrell agrees that “for [Jesus] to have avoided or escaped the pain, sorrow, anguish, and suffering that is so much a part of human experience would have made him less real to us. Jesus suffered. He had sorrow and anguish and pain that were just as much a part of his human experience as they are a part of our human experience. Because of this we know that we do not have to experience what he has not already experienced. His pain was as real as our pain. His cry of anguish was as real as our cry of anguish. His cry to God was a part of his experience of human suffering. As our life unfolds and as adversity enters into it, there are times when we feel that God has forsaken us.”
And that’s true, isn’t it? We come face to face with brokenness and sadness and pain and we wonder where God has gone. We want an illness to be cured, a loved one to not suffer, a friendship to not be ruptured, or a conflict to be resolved. But no answers seem to come and all we can do is cry out to God! And it’s in those moments that we must believe in a God who does indeed feel what we feel. And it is this God that forgave Jesus’s murderers, that brought thieves into paradise, that grew the family of God with the adoption of all of humanity into the care of the divine. And so, since we are the murderers who need forgiveness, since we are the thieves who need paradise, since we are the family members who need acceptance, we are shown in this fourth word from the cross that we are like Jesus and Jesus is like us… that we are so beloved by God that God feels every hurt and every pain and every loneliness that we feel. That is a God of love.
And we can turn to our holy text, our spiritual songs at times like these, the verses we have learned like song lyrics repeating in our heads. We can turn to Paul’s statement that “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Having these verses move through our minds and escape from our lips doesn’t mean that everything will magically be better, that nothing bad will ever come our way, or that everything will be perfect for us because we are Christians and good people. No, that is not what happened to Jesus and it won’t happen for us. As one commentator said, “We need to take the long view, to move beyond the present trials and tribulations of life, and to evaluate the present against the future. We need to take the kingdom view and not judge God’s whole plan by present events. This is what the New Testament means when it teaches us to bear our present difficulties with steadfast endurance, to stand fast in the face of adversity, to keep the faith in moments of despair, knowing that all the events of life are part of the creative purpose of a loving God.”
In essence, I feel like God is the most revealed in us and through us when God seems to be the most hidden from us. American essayist David Bentley Hart said, “Christ’s moment of most absolute particularity – the absolute dereliction of the cross – is the moment in which the glory of God, his power to be where and when he will be, is displayed before the eyes of the world.” God’s love is revealed in Jesus from the cross. And God loves us so much that God refuses to let our mistakes, missteps, and misjudgments, define who we are. Those things in our lives that have beckoned the silence and the absence and the loneliness are nothing compared to an ever-present, ever-loving God. Jesus cried out and said “My God” as a shout of pain we will never have to make because Jesus took the death and despair and abandonment upon himself and nailed it to the cross. Even in the midst of evil and hurt, we should know that we are claimed and reclaimed through the cross by a connected and present God. And that Jesus saying “Why me,” he was really saying, “Why not me. It has to be me.”
There’s an old newspaper article I heard about where a thirty-two-year-old man stopped to help persons injured in an accident on a major city freeway. Another car crashed into the cars that had already been in the accident and threw the man who had stopped to help into the path of another oncoming car. The man was seriously injured and spent several months recovering. He had a wife, two small children, and incredibly large medical bills. In the news article, the writer asked the man if he would stop and help again in a similar situation. The man replied, “Certainly.” He told the writer that he had thought time and time again about the accident and often he had asked, “Why me?” And then he said, “I thought one day, ‘why not me?’”
Church, we can’t change the trajectory of our lives. We will most assuredly understand hardships, heartaches, and hard times. We will experience the effects of discomfort, disconnection, and depression. We will feel utterly abandoned and fall back upon our songs and our scriptures to pull us through. And that’s ok. Because in this fourth word from the cross, we know that we aren’t really alone. Jesus went through everything we might possibly experience before us and conquered it all before us. We can go into this week changing the hurt and the hard words in our heads that say “Why me,” sift them through the filter of Jesus’s abandonment on the cross, and change the voice to say, “Why not me?”
Why not us, this week? Even in your weakest state, your most alone state, your powerless state, lift up your heads and embolden your hearts to go out into the world and bring hope to the hopeless. Change the sad song in your heart and remember the words of the writer of the Letter of the Hebrews who wrote, “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’” And God will not, just as Jesus will not, abandon you. Let us sing that song of joy this Lenten season that God is indeed with us, Jesus went before us, and that we too need to go out into the world and bring a vibrant hope that banishes all isolation. “Why me?” No, “Why not me?”