Songs of Lament—A Good Friday Sermon

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” declares the Psalmist in sheer agony.  “Why are you so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”

Jesus himself utters these words from the cross according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, who go so far as to leave the cry in the Aramaic, Jesus’ native language. The language closest to his heart. “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

As Christians we have for a long time felt that such utterances were wrong, perhaps bordering on the blasphemous. We do not give voice to such things especially to God because God does not forsake us. God does not ever leave us. Even in the midst of trouble, God is there.  To declare otherwise, well, no true Christian would say such a thing.

But then I hear stories of ones made ill from the coronavirus. The beloved parent of a parishioner. The niece of another who’s in her third trimester. The hospital workers and the grocery store clerks, doing important and vital jobs and offering their lives for us.  We hear statistics that if we as a country remain under 100,000 deaths from this virus, well then we will have succeeded, even “won.” But each of those deaths is the loss of someone’s life: someone’s mother or daughter, someone’s grandparent or uncle. Someone’s child. A life snuffed out by a horrible disease. The utter loss is unfathomable, and it takes other grim statistics to jar us back to the immensity of current day. During the entire course of the Vietnam War, some 58,000 US soldiers gave their lives, and we’re hoping the loss of life during the next few months isn’t quite double that.

We’re not given specifics, but the writer of our psalm has been enduring some heart-wrenching trial. Is it any wonder then that she laments, “O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well but I find no rest.” The Psalmist understands.

You should know that Psalm 22 isn’t the only Psalm of Lament, as they are called. Actually, there are dozens of them. 42 of the 150 psalms in our Bible have been categorized as either individual or communal laments. We rarely read them in church when we gather for worship—Good Friday is one of the few exceptions—and yet, they are the largest genre—the biggest category—of Psalms that have been gathered together in the Bible.  

Usually in church we read Psalms of Praise, the ones giving thanks to God for all the amazing things of this world.  Like Psalm 104 which proclaims awe at the great leviathan—that amazing sea beast—which God created just for the fun of it.  Or we voice the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm likening God to a loving and generous shepherd.  We do not recite words like these from Psalm 10, “Why do you stand far off, O Lord? Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” Or these cries from Psalm 44: “You have rejected and humbled us…You have made us as sheep to be eaten… Awake, O Lord! Why are you sleeping? Arise! do not reject us for ever… We sink down into the dust; our body cleaves us to the ground. Rise up and help us; save us, for the sake of your stedfast love.”

Nearly every year when we come to Good Friday, we see it as a brief stopping point before we make it to Easter. For many, Jesus’ agony on the cross rarely merits more than a few moments of consideration as we ponder plans for Easter brunch or getting the house set for guests.  Or our attention turns to the reawakening world in the beauty of Spring, dusting off sports and fitness equipment that spent the winter dormant in the garage.

But this year is different.  And we’re unsure of what to do because it feels like our world is now a perpetual Good Friday, destined to repeat itself again and again.  Pastor Matt Matthews writes, “We are not okay with Good Friday or its services… We cannot sit with suffering long enough to learn from it.”  And yet here we are before that cross today, hearing the anguish of Jesus in a new way.  

Bishop Tom Wright wrote last week in response to this pandemic that Christians need to recover the ability to lament.  He writes, “Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Bishop Wright concludes, “The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments.”  God grieves with us.  God the Creator experienced sorrow when the people of Israel rejected him over other gods. The Son of God wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.  The Spirit groans for us in words too difficult to pray, St. Paul teaches us. The Godhead is not removed from the agony we face; God partakes in it too.

And so just like long ago at that cross when the stark cry moved the heart of God, so now the words being cried out are not in vain. God is in fact with us.  No, God does not wave a magic wand to make it all right, but God takes the worst that this fallen world of ours offers, and begins the slow work of redemption.  

We see it already in the love shown by nurses and doctors providing care each day, and by the hospital staffers disinfecting rooms. Or the grace of people in every community sewing furiously to provide masks to those who need them. We notice it in the ones checking us out at the grocery store, and the workers who replenish the shelves overnight. God’s slow work of redemption comes to us in the form of a takeout meal that a few weeks ago we would have hardly cherished, and in the calls from friends checking in on us.  The spring flowers have begun to bloom, birds make their chorus in the morning. God’s salvation has already been set in motion because God’s heart is breaking too.

I wish there were some other way. I wish we didn’t have to endure the pain of the current time.  But I do know how we can respond.  We can experience the depth of the grief around us and not feel as if we have to have pat answers, because there are none to be found. And we can also realize that we are not alone in our distress.  Jesus and the Psalmist indeed declare that God has forsaken them, but they do so to God. Their misery in feeling utterly alone gets directed to the Almighty One.  And God laments along with them.  God laments with us.  

So cry out to God.  Pray the Psalms of Lament to the Almighty One.  We needn’t fear God’s judgment for saying such things, for God always seeks to bring about new life from the depths of our pain and sorrow. God is with us.  And in time may we also join with the Psalmist who proclaims these words of future hope, “I will [once more] declare your Name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you.”  May it be so.  Amen.

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