“WHAT DO WE DO WITH A SUFFERING LORD?”
And he cried with a loud voice, “My God, My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?” [Matthew 27:46]
WHAT, CHRISTIANS, DO WE DO WITH A SUFFERING LORD?
The Great Buddha died at the age of 80, after 45 years of teaching about enlightenment and detachment from suffering and desire. He had developed a great religious Order of followers. The Buddha accidentally died of food poisoning after a mid-day meal at a goldsmith’s home. Buddhist holy writ records the Great Buddha dying, as he began his enlightenment, beneath two beautiful trees, surrounded by devoted disciples, making a noble speech about the nature of death.
The Prophet Muhammad also died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 60. He died shortly after preaching a most memorable sermon on the Islamic brotherhood. At the time of his death Islam was on the way to unifying all the many Arab tribes under one theocracy. The great prophet of Islam died a wealthy, powerful and prominent man, with his influence extending into Spain, Persia and Egypt.
And because we live in an intellectually secular age, let me mention Socrates. (Born 500 years before Christ) Socrates is the father of modern intellectual inquiry and secular spirituality of morality and the soul. Condemned to death because he would not recant his commitment to free inquiry (the Socratic Method). So he chose to drink the poison hemlock (capital punishment for distinguished citizens). At 71 years of age, Socrates dies with a noble and stoic spirit, lying on a bed in the death chamber which was reserved for dignitaries; and he is surrounded by his disciples.
But what of the one we as Christians, call Lord? Our Lord, by contrast, dies in: -Public shame and mockery; -Deserted by all his disciples, except a teenager named John Mark, his mother, Mary, and a few weeping women; -He is penniless; -His travel and influence has been, at best, only a 90 mile radius around Palestine. -He dies in not in romantic splendor but in incomprehensible pain, shame and disgrace— on a rough hewn cross. -What we remember most of his dying is not a noble speech, parable or sermon—rather, in excruciating pain Our Christian Lord crises out , “E’Li! Eli! LAMA SABACH THANI”: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me—and then dies. -AND HE IS ONLY 33 YEARS OLD!
Yes, Christians, what do we do with a Suffering Lord whose dying moment lacks the serene dignity of Buddha, the eloquence of Muhammad and the noble resolve of Socrates? What do we who love him and claim Jesus as Lord, do with this human tragedy, this divine folly?
The Prophet Muhammad greatly admired and respected the stories of Jesus. He believed in the virgin birth, that Jesus was a miracle worker and a true messenger of God. He believed that Jesus would be a part of Allah’s judgment in the last days. But, he rejected the idea of Jesus’ passion and suffering on the cross. He could not accept that God would allow such a great and holy person to suffer so. Muhammad said: “They slew him not, nor crucified him, but it (only) appeared so unto them [for they had only a likeness of him]. “Allah took Jesus up unto himself. Allah [who] was ever mighty, wise”.
Saint Paul articulated for believers the Christian understanding; “…the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God….so we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block and folly to the world [Jews and Gentiles], but to those who are called [who hear his voice], Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” [Corinthians 1:18, 23, 24, 25]
Today, more than one-third of the world’s population looks to the man who was on the cross and find in his cry strength for their times of peril. Not a religion, culture or philosophy untouched by the fruits of his message and redemptive suffering.
Now, I believe God shares vicariously and passionately in all human suffering. But in Jesus God chose not only to share vicariously but to intimately and existentially experience the fragility and vulnerability of our humanity. As Christians, we believe that in Jesus, God not only has shared in the joys of humanity, but its fear, pain, loneliness, doubt and rejection—and finally, our death. In Jesus God came not simply to show us eternal life—as we celebrate on Easter Day; but on Passion Sunday—Palm Sunday we are poignantly reminded of the love and power of God in the midst of life’s tragedies. Our Faith is that we serve a God who, in Jesus of Nazareth, knows completely what it means to be human, the genius and the tragedy. As Isaiah prophesied, that just as Israel (the Messianic people), the Messiah would be one who has tasted of life’s debasement and despair.
“Surely, surely, he has borne our grief; and carried our sorrows. Yet [we did not understand) we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted” Isaiah ( 53:4)
Centuries later, believing the Messiah had come in Jesus, the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews picked up Isaiah’s theme and wrote:
“For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but [in Jesus’ life] one who in Jesus has in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. [So,] Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of trouble.”
So remember, when we come to God in times of trouble and tragedy — in private prayer or draw near to this Altar Railing, we can come with our fears, anger, doubts and distress — for God knows.
Passion Sunday comes from “Passio” Latin for suffering, vulnerability. I have talked about divine vulnerability to the human experience of suffering. But the truest vulnerability of our lives which Jesus shared was to evil and its horrors. In her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Yale theologian Marilyn McCord Adams writes that evil as vulnerability is a fact of life. “…we are vulnerable to predators, disease, and death”. [To survive, we must collaborate. But this makes us vulnerable to one another.] “For we human beings do terrible things to one another, sometimes deliberately, but also unintentionally…occasionally with carefully calibrated precision…[And there are the powers of Intelligence which gives us an advantage relative to other animals, but these powers are also limited and can not save us from our vulnerability and the horrors of life].”
Suffering we can fathom and reason we call tragedy. Suffering we can not comprehend or understand, even when we know the cause or culprit, we call evil. Historically, we know about American Slavery, the Jewish Holocaust of Germany. But still the more we learn about these human horrors the less we understand why and how human beings can be so inhumane.
Today we see the endless revolving horrors in the middle east: Israeli and Arab; In Africa’s Rwanda: Tutsi and Hutu; in India and Pakistan — Christian and Hindu; and then there is our own horror of 9/11. Still the more we learn about these evil horrors the less we can reason how human beings can be so cruel, so inhuman, so merciless to other human beings. This is evil.
And in our personal lives, many of us have felt ourselves upon a cross, or suffered vicariously with those we love and respect as they are on their cross. It may be grave sickness and physical suffering. It may be standing in that fearful “valley of the shadow of death”. It may be abandonment or humiliating betrayal by a spouse or lover. It may be a child whose health or behavior is outside your power to save. It may be rejection by those you have trusted in the midst of humiliating personal or professional failings. What’s more it may be a feeling of being abandoned by God!
In the face of evil experiences we would like to be serene and detached like the Buddha or noble and stoic like Socrates. But in the midst of sickness, pain and suffering; of betrayal, abandonment and humiliating failure, in the midst of death and destruction, the human spirit cry out. Regardless of whether we are religious or secular—like Jesus, our humanity cries out. Like Jesus, in his hour of passion, the truly forsaken soul, abandoned and vulnerable to the horrors of human evil, not only cries out, “My brothers, My sisters, My love, My family, why have you forsaken me!”, but the pained soul of our being wants to scream, as did Jesus: “MY GOD! MY GOD! WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?”
Have you ever felt abandoned by God? I have. I remember well when I was Rector of a parish in great conflict, at home we had serious financial crisis. We had a child who had developed a serious addiction problem, and it was becoming public! Because of my fear, shame and anger, I began isolating myself. I felt alone and in despair, especially abandoned by God. I remember standing in my bedroom one day, exhausted with despair. I tried to pray, but all that came forth was a desperate scream “Oh, God!”; and I threw a shoe into the closet. For a long time I didn’t understand that behavior—throwing a shoe into the closet. But now I know that the closet represented to me that my God was hiding from me. God was safe in the shelter of heaven and I was on a public cross of shame and despair. And in response to that sincere prayer of pain and anger, I felt the arms of God’s comfort embrace my soul with the “peace that passes all understanding”. The problems were not solved, but I found strength and a friend for the journey.
Since then when I would see on television the tragedies of Apartheid South Africa, and today Palestine and Israel, or attended the funerals of children dead from street violence…it is the primal wailing, of mothers, fathers and wives and other loved ones, that I remember more than the macho railings and shaking of fists. This shaking of fists is the arrogant anger which believes the answer to evil is to mirror horror to horror. But deeper than macho anger is the deep primal moan of the Soul’s recognition that humanity is perpetually vulnerable to evil. Even those who perpetrate evil do not realize that evil serves no man, and they are themselves, eventually its slaves. God is our only hope for truth, healing, hope, justice forgiveness, peace. It is the scream of the soul, integrity of the primal voice, which speaks to God when all else seems lost.
Nadezhda Mandelstam, who suffered under Stalin’s Great Purge, watched her husband die slowly and brutally in a Russian labor camp. In her book, Hope Against Hope, she describes the human scream against suffering and evil as, “This pitiful sound….is a concentrated expression of the last vestige of human dignity. It is a man’s way of leaving a trace, of telling people how he lived and died. By his screams he asserts his right to live, sends a message [from the soul] to the outside demanding help and calling for resistance. If nothing else is left, one must scream. For the world to hear! For God to hear! Silence is the real crime against humanity.”
Our religion can provide a voice of wailing, a scream of faith! A wailing, a screaming to God that makes a claim of faith. Many scholars believe Jesus was drawing upon Psalm 22 to scream his grief: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring.”
But Christianity—taking it one step further—focuses on a Suffering Lord and recognizes in his scream, the scream of our souls against evil and against a God who seems absent. We recognize in the Lord of the cross, the God who knows our suffering will not abandon us. But even as God responded to the cry of Jesus, God will give us grace to endure, to forgive, to hope, until deliverance and truth have come.
In the late 1800’s, Joseph Scriven, a wealthy Christian Irishman, lost his health and was denied his career dream of being a military man. The night before his wedding his fiancee drowned. He came to America and there lost his wealth. He fell in love again only to experience the illness and death of a second fiancee. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a poem home to his mother in Ireland. The poem was later put to music:
What a Friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and grief to bear What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer. O What peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.
Are we weak and heavy laden Cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refugee Take it to the Lord in prayer Do thy Friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer In his arms He’ll take and shield thee Though wilt find a solace there.
IT IS THIS EMPATHY WHICH DRAWS US, BEYOND EVERY OTHER GIANT OF RELIGIOUS REVELATION, TO THE SUFFERING, ABANDONED MAN ON THE CROSS. It is at his cross that we come to understand: That the cry of the soul, even against God, is prayer which God hears.