March 3, 2024

Psalm 22
Matthew 27:33-46

“Lament for the World”

There is a tradition in the ecumenical community in Saskatoon. Every year on the morning of Good Friday, hundreds of Christians gather to walk the Way of the Cross. They walk slowly, often singing Taizé chants as they go along like “Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom…”

They stop 14 times at various locations in the downtown area to read parts of the passion story. Leaders take turns carrying a huge wooden cross through the streets, enacting Jesus’ own walk of suffering and shame. They recount and remember the ways that our Lord was betrayed, denied, abandoned, arrested, tortured, mocked, and killed.

It is not a triumphant gathering that anticipates Jesus’ resurrection, but a mournful one that invites the worshippers to sit with (or walk with) the shock, horror, and grief of what human beings did to God who had come among us in Jesus the Christ.

When Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion he also sits with the grief. Matthew’s account doesn’t include Jesus asking God to forgive those who crucified him. He doesn’t speak comforting words to the criminals dying beside him or encourage his friends and family to take care of each other after he’s gone. Instead, Jesus suffers, he laments, and he dies.

It’s difficult for most of us today to imagine the physical pain he must have been experiencing – having nails pounded through his wrists and ankles and then to be hung up there, secured only by those terrible wounds. But as the Gospel writer tells the story, it’s not just the torture that seems to break his heart. Jesus is humiliated by the soldiers, derided by people passing by, mocked by the chief priests, scribes, and elders, and even taunted by the bandits who were crucified beside him.

After all of this horrific violence and mental torture, Jesus doesn’t do what some of the people were daring him to do. He doesn’t use his divine power to lift himself off that terrible cross and go straight up to heaven. He doesn’t even say “It’s okay. I’m God, and I can handle this.”

Instead, what we see in this account is the human side of Jesus. Being fully human, he felt the pain and anguish of what was happening to him, and like any one of us would do, he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

That line has led to many theological discussions and debates about whether God truly abandoned Jesus on the cross. Was he completely alone? Where was God when all this was happening? And why would our loving and faithful God allow it to happen when presumably God must have had the power to stop it?

Similar questions are raised when we think about the suffering experienced by many people in the world throughout history and in our own time. At times we wonder how God could allow the suffering caused by illness, injury, violence, hatred, discrimination, war, and so many other atrocities. And when we experience some of that suffering ourselves, we may find ourselves crying out to God with our complaint and all those difficult questions too.

What Jesus did on the cross, and what we may want to do as well is to lament. Lament is a form of prayer that was common in the Hebrew tradition in moments of suffering. The Scriptures are filled with laments to God from God’s people – raw cries of anxiety and turmoil in the midst of suffering. They are not tidy, polite prayers, but real emotional pleas to God.

Cole Arthur Riley, author and creator of Black Liturgies writes, “Lament is not anti-hope… Lament itself is a form of hope. It’s an innate awareness that what is should not be. As if something is written on our hearts that tells us exactly what we are meant for, and whenever confronted with something contrary to this, we experience a crumbling. And in the rubble, we say, God, you promised.

When Jesus lamented with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was uttering the first line of Psalm 22 that we read this morning. And this is not the only lament in the Bible. There are at least 19 Psalms of Lament included in the collection of 150 Psalms, there’s a whole book titled “Lamentations,” as well as parts of the prophetic books in which various prophets of God express their difficulties and suffering with complaints.

In other words, lament is a normal and natural part of living as human beings in the world in relationship with God. It doesn’t necessarily suggest that God has caused or willed our suffering, but it acknowledges that God does not seem protect us from the consequences of human sin in the world.

Because of human greed, hatred, and violence, we hurt and harm one another in body, mind, and spirit, and it sucks! And it is appropriate to get upset about it – to cry, and scream, and lament because this world is not as it should be. Our lives, and very often the lives of our neighbours near and far, are not as they should be.

As Jesus did, we want to ask “why?” Why is this happening? Why can’t things be better? Why have we been abandoned?

When Jesus cried out with that question, he used the language of Psalm 22. In one reflection on the text in “Illustrated Ministry” the author points out that “The Psalms are the songbook, and the prayerbook, of Jesus’ community.” Jesus chooses words straight from his community’s regular prayer to lament his very specific and real situation of anguish.

And Psalm 22 is not only a cry of complaint, but it is a dialogue between two voices. Two voices, perhaps within the heart and mind of one person. One of the voices is desperate, persecuted, nearly hopeless. The other is confident in the memory that God has always been with him and his people, and promises to always be with them.

“Here’s the beginning of the conversation:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

And then the other voice chimes in:
“Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.”

Followed by more lamenting:
“But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

And back to the other voice:
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

“Because the Psalms were Israel’s songbook and prayerbook, anyone who heard Jesus cry out from the cross would’ve heard not just the words he said aloud but, after that, this whole conversation. If someone sings, “Jesus loves me, this I know…” and trails off, maybe your mind continues with the next line, “for the Bible tells me so…”

“That’s what we can imagine happening here. Jesus cries out, and his words give voice to his sorrow, his loneliness, his pain. They also hint that all is not lost, that God, who has journeyed with God’s people through all of history, is still by their side now, even in the depths of despair.

“That truth doesn’t make the pain Jesus speaks from any less; it doesn’t erase it or take it away. But it does let us know that the pain and agony are one part of a larger, longer, unfolding story. It is a reminder that as far as Jesus felt from God – at this moment – this is not all that is. It doesn’t answer his question of “why?” – or any of the other myriad of questions that are asked – but maybe it answers a different question.

“What this Psalm answers, instead, is the question of “where?” – where is God? Where is our hope? Where is the love that every single one of us was born into, that promised to hold us forever? And the answer, even when all else is unknown, is always, “here.”

On Good Friday in Saskatoon, and in many other places too, Christians walk beside Jesus remembering his passion – his suffering and death. And at each station, they not only recount the story of Jesus, but also connect it to people who suffer today because of human sin, hatred, violence, neglect, and discrimination.

They lament on behalf of the poor, the sick, refugees, and those who are houseless in our cities. They pray for those who struggle with addictions or mental health challenges, people who experience racism or homophobia, and young people who come from broken homes. They remember people far away who live in the midst of conflict and war, and all who suffer from anxiety and stress.

And as the Christian community laments on behalf of one another and the world, we stand in solidarity with all those who suffer, proclaiming both that this is not the way it should be, and that we place our hope and our trust in the God who is here, today, with us.