Meditation: The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those nine words from Scripture are some of the most devastatingly familiar to us: familiar as the last words that Jesus speaks from the cross as recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Mark; familiar to us as the opening words of the 22nd Psalm which you just heard; and familiar to us, if we are really honest—and today is a day for honesty and hard truths—familiar to us because those words have passed many of our lips. Those times in our lives where we felt alone, hurting, abandoned, forsaken. The loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of our health, the loss of a sense that our world is in order when we look around the world and see the violence and the brutality, most recently in Brussels. My God, why?
Good Friday is a day to wrestle with these things, these hard realities. Beloved professor and preacher at Harvard, Peter Gomes, framed Good Friday in this way: that Good Friday is meant to be an interruption, to intrude upon our routine and to transform our routine. That from wherever we’ve come and for whatever we were doing, we have gathered at midday in this church to keep the three holy hours with our Savior on the cross. These three hours of struggle are not Jesus’ alone, far away and a long time ago, because we’re not here merely as voyeurs and bystanders, faraway. If we’re really honest, the struggle is ours—the struggle between an easy wrong and a difficult right; the struggle between our own sense of the good and the palpable sense of the evil; our personal struggle between sacrifice and selfishness, between what we want to do and what we ought to do. The story is our story, our struggles, within us and for us. By the suffering we are saved to live the life beyond the cross. Yet we can’t get beyond the cross without going through it. That is what we’re here to do. That is what we’re meant to do this day.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Over the centuries Christians have struggled with why that? Why Calvary? Why the cross? Why the crucifixion? Why those agonizing words from the divine son of God? And, of course, over the centuries, scholars have tackled this in various ways. Psalms scholar James Mays says that when we listen to those words from the 22nd Psalm which Jesus lifts up from the cross, that, in fact, in Jesus’ time it was the tradition that if you began a psalm, you were invoking it in its entirety. For example, if you said the words, “The Lord is my shepherd,” everyone would know that you were invoking the entirety of the 23rd Psalm. And, of course, in Psalm 22 the movement is between the voice of lament and trust in God—the God who hears our cries, the God who heals our wounds, the God who delivers, the God who restores, the God who reconciles. Jürgen Moltmann says, “no.” Jesus is, in fact, totally abandoned by God on the cross and that that relationship is only held together by the Holy Spirit.
Irrespective of how each one of us grapples with that story, in the story, it seems that at least two things are clear. At the crucifixion we encounter Jesus in his full humanity and when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he’s not crying out to some existential being out there. No. My God, your God, our God—it’s personal. It’s profound. He calls out to the one he knows to the depths of his being.
As I was thinking and praying and preparing for this day and for this homily, a painful chapter in my own life came back to me. For those of us who have the privilege of preaching, we know that sometimes things come back to us that we’d just as soon not remember, much less mention, and this was one of those. I tried to push it away and it kept coming back. So, reluctantly, I share this story with you with the hope that perhaps something in it will speak to you this day and be helpful.
Early in my marriage, my husband John asked me to attend a ministry workshop and worship in his hope that he would expose me to something a little more broad than this lifelong Episcopalian, possibly of the chosen frozen variety, had experienced in my lifetime; to broaden my experience of what it meant to be church. At the worship service, the preacher spoke very directly and very personally in a way that I’d never really encountered in a sermon before. I could tell that, along the way, she had lost John. But it felt like she was speaking personally, directly, to me. If you ever had that experience, when you felt that the word was meant exactly for you? What she talked about that day was how destructive and corrosive hanging onto the things that burden us and bind us can be and how they can prevent us from living into the life that God really intends for us. That when we hold on to feelings of unworthiness or shame or unforgiveness, being beyond even God’s redemption, that it can slowly but surely destroy us if we let it. What she encouraged us to do that day was to take whatever bound us to the foot of the cross to put it at the feet of Jesus, to lay it down and let it go.
And I knew she was speaking to me. Earlier in my life I’d done something about which I was not only not proud, but I was ashamed. And I’d held on to it for 20 years. It was pretty firmly entrenched and I’d never told anyone about it. But I knew after hearing that sermon that I had to tell John and I had to find some way to lay it down and let it go. I did tell John and he lovingly listened and encouraged me to do exactly that. At the time we had a small farm and we had erected a wooden cross not quite the size of the one in this mid nave but pretty close. And I took a symbol of that painful chapter of my life and we literally buried it at the foot of the cross. I laid it down and attempted to let it go. It wasn’t instantaneous; but I discovered over the course of a few months that while, yes, that memory is still a part of my life, that power, that that sense of shame held over me was gone.
In a few minutes we will be invited to go to the cross. I invite you, I pray, that if you’ve brought anything with you today that binds you, any brokenness, any sense of unforgiveness, any need for reconciliation, and healing and wholeness, that you take it to the cross, you lay it down, and let it go. You see, this day is about being saved to live a life beyond the cross. We can only get beyond the cross by going through it. That’s what we do today and that’s why we’re here. Amen.