Friday, March 30, 2018

Why Have You Forsaken Me? (a sermon for Good Friday on Psalm 22)

I recently read a wonderful book called ‘Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved’ by Kate Bowler. The book is about Kate’s experience, as a woman in her thirties, about being diagnosed with terminal cancer - of looking at her young husband and her four-year old boy and knowing the chances are very good they’re going to lose her. It was written during the first year of Kate’s diagnosis – she’s still alive, thanks to an experimental drug treatment, but her diagnosis is still terminal. It’s a wonderfully honest and refreshing book; you will not find clich├ęs here! That’s what the title means, of course. So many of us have experienced this! We’re going through some time of deep suffering and some well-meaning soul says piously “Oh well – everything happens for a reason”, and somehow we just can’t find any comfort in that phrase; it just annoys us!

In one of the funniest chapters of the book, Kate talks about how she decided to take up swearing for Lent. Now, I’m a person who one year decided to stop swearing for Lent – I fined myself a dollar off my open stage beer money for every infraction – so I was intrigued by the idea that swearing could be a good Lent discipline! As I read the chapter I realized what she was doing: she was protesting against this need that Christians seem to have to dismiss death and suffering and give easy answers for everything. Her Lenten swearing discipline was aimed at those easy answers.

She talks about how she was out for coffee with friends one night and got so frustrated with this Christian desire to jollify everything. “This is Lent”, she said. “I’m dying of cancer – I’m staring into the face of death – and during Lent the church has asked all its members to join me there. We started out with an ash cross and the words ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return’. That sets the theme for Lent! But no one is willing to stay there with me!” And then she uses this wonderful phrase – probably my favourite phrase of the whole book: “Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent!”

Well, we’re not going to ‘Easter the crap out of each other’s Lent’! Today is Good Friday, and although all around us people have started wishing each other Happy Easter, we’re going to stay with the cross today. And one of the best ways of doing that is staying with our psalm, Psalm 22. Here are the first two verses:

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. (Psalm 22:1-2).

And then in the next few verses the mood seems to change abruptly.

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. (vv.3-5)

In other words, ‘There are all sorts of stories about how you worked mighty miracles to help our ancestors in the past; they trusted you and you saved them. So what’s the matter with me? Am I a worse sinner than them? Am I not really one of your people after all? Or are those stories just not true?’

‘And what have I done to deserve this?’ the psalmist asks. In verses 9-11 he talks about how he has been dedicated to God since he was born; ‘since my mother bore me you have been my God’ (v.10). He looks back on a life dedicated to the service of God, and asks himself if this is all the reward he gets. Why did he bother, if he was just going to be abandoned?

Which of us hasn’t felt like this from time to time? I think of people living with long-term, chronic pain who don’t seem to be able to get any relief. They pray over and over again; they lie awake at night, unable to sleep, doing their best to hold back the tears so as not to wake their spouse. They read stories about how God miraculously heals people, and they think, ‘Why doesn’t he heal me, then? Am I some particularly vile sort of sinner, that he refuses to help me? I always thought I was a Christian and a child of God, but perhaps I was wrong – perhaps I’m really nothing to God’. You see, the worst thing this sort of suffering does to some people is not to stop them believing in God, but to stop them believing in a loving God, and give them a monster instead.

Psalm 22 is a prayer for people who feel like that; it enables us to pray our experience, honestly and openly, before God. It’s the prayer of the person who suffers chronic pain day and night. It’s the prayer of the person who’s suffered some public disgrace and is afraid to show their face in public for fear of the ridicule they’ll encounter. It’s the prayer of the bereaved person who longs for some sort of sense of companionship from God in their loneliness, but finds only empty skies above.

And this is the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ (Mark 15:34). Jesus was a Jewish boy who would have learned the psalms by heart at a very early age. Now, in his hour of greatest need, the psalms gave him the words he needed to pour out his heart to the Father he felt had abandoned him.

The early Christians developed a new way of reading the Hebrew scriptures. They came to believe that Jesus was the climax of the Old Testament story; he was the one the whole story had been leading up to. And because they believed that, they loved to look for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament passages. Some of the hints they point to seem fanciful to us, but it was all part of their belief that Jesus was the true Word of God, the highest revelation of God to us, and that the whole story up until then had been pointing to him.

So they took their cue from Jesus praying the first verse of this psalm on the cross, and they looked for other hints of his story in there. When they read the psalmist saying, ‘O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest’ (v.2), they thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God would take this cup of suffering away from him – and not getting what he prayed for. When they read, ‘All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads”’ (v.7), they thought of the soldiers mocking Jesus, putting the crown of thorns on his head and dressing him in a purple robe to taunt him. They thought of the chief priests saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him’”’ (Matthew 27:42). When they read ‘They pierce my hands and my feet’ (v.16 BAS), they thought of Jesus on the cross with the nails through his hands and feet. And they remembered how the soldiers divided his clothes between them and threw dice for his seamless outer robe, and they read, ‘they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots’ (v.18).

Old Testament scholar John Goldingay explains that this psalm isn’t a prophecy in the sense that someone wrote it thinking “One day there will be a Messiah and all these things will happen to him”. This is a prayer for Israelites to pray when they need to – it gives them permission to acknowledge their sense that God has abandoned them. But it’s also one of the most horrifying prayers in the Book of Psalms, so it’s not surprising that when the Messiah comes - and goes through excruciating suffering and a sense that God has abandoned him - this is the prayer that comes to his lips.

Goldingay goes on to point out a really important truth. Of course, Jesus wasn’t abandoned by God in the sense that God wasn’t present at the Cross. God was there all right; that’s why Jesus prayed to him! You can’t address someone who has wandered off out of earshot! God is watching as Jesus is executed; God is suffering as deeply in his spirit as Jesus is suffering. And maybe more. It’s hard to imagine the depth of agony involved in watching your son be executed when you could stop it. But God doesn’t stop it. God listens to Jesus asking, “Why have you forsaken me?” and does nothing. God’s forsaking Jesus doesn’t lie in going away, but in being present and seeming to do nothing.

So many people feel they’ve experienced that! They’ve gone through awful suffering, and all the while God was sitting in heaven, knowing what was going on, and doing nothing to stop it. How could he do that?

We can attempt to give a rational answer to this question, which is good as far as it goes. We can say, “God has set up the world in such a way that people’s decisions are really free. He doesn’t make wood hard when we build houses with it, but soft when people want to use it to hit other people. He wants to teach us to truly love him, and so he can’t compel us to obey him”.

All of which is true, but it tends not to help people who are hanging on the Cross, or being unjustly persecuted, or dying of terminal illnesses. They want a sense that God is with them in their suffering. Why does he seem so far away?

And that’s the difference the Incarnation makes. Of course, we’re limited by human language; we’ve been talking about Jesus hanging on the Cross and the Father as a separate entity altogether, watching on the sidelines. But St. Paul changes the language a bit: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three in one and one in three. God was not separate from Jesus on the Cross. Jesus is God, and in Jesus God was suffering too.

And this was not something that just started on Good Friday. Throughout the whole of Jesus’ life, he had been identifying with us in our sufferings. Think for a moment of the many and varied sufferings he experienced. As an infant he was the target of Herod’s death squads and had to run to Egypt as a refugee with his family. He grew up in a working-class family and experienced the same economic pressures we all go through. He seems to have lost his earthly father at a very young age, so he was no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He was misunderstood by his family – they even accused him of being out of his mind. He went through hunger, thirst, tiredness, and homelessness. He was betrayed by a friend, subjected to a mock trial, stripped, flogged and nailed to a cross where he died one of the cruelest deaths human beings have ever devised.

Crucifixion was a terrible form of death. The fact that the sufferer was suspended by the arms would force the rib cage open and make it very difficult to breathe; in fact, the only way to do so would be to push oneself up on the nail through one’s feet, and it is easy to imagine the unspeakable agony this would cause. Eventually the sufferer would be too weak to do this, and then death would come, not so much from loss of blood as from asphyxiation.

Jesus has gone through all of this, and God has gone through it in him. As the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are…’ (Hebrews 4:15). In Jesus, God has allowed himself to be subjected to all the pain and suffering that his creation experiences. And this knowledge that God has firsthand experience of human suffering can be an incredible comfort to us.

In 1967, at the age of seventeen, Joni Eareckson broke her neck in a diving accident, and she has been a quadriplegic ever since. For the first few months she was in the depths of despair; she was often tempted to abandon her Christian faith or even to attempt suicide. But she was not even able to kill herself, because she was immobilized in a Stryker frame with absolutely no control over any of her bodily functions.

But then one day it occurred to her that Jesus knew exactly how she felt. After all, when he was nailed to the Cross he also lived in constant pain and lost the ability to move. This realization was a turning point in her attitude toward what had happened to her. It was still a long struggle, but she no longer felt alone. She felt that Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’.

So we don’t have a God who is far removed from our sufferings. We have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer with us. We could even go so far as to say, we have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer at our hands. Humanity’s anger and hatred and rejection was poured out on God on the Cross. God knows what it’s like to be rejected, brutalized, tortured, and unjustly murdered. He’s experienced it from humans just like us.

Edward Shillito was a pastor in England during the First World War, and he was haunted by the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers returning to England with shattered bodies and traumatized minds. But he found comfort in the thought that the risen Jesus was still able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’. In it he talks about how a pain-free God is no comfort to those who are suffering. To humans who are scarred by the physical and emotional scars of trench warfare, only a God with scars of his own can comfort them. The last verse goes like this:

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,

And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

5 'Looks' of Holy Communion (a sermon for Maundy Thursday)

In the early years of the Christian Church there were all sorts of wild rumours floating around about what those mysterious Christians got up to in secret. One of the more persistent rumours was that they were cannibals. “Haven’t you heard? When they get together they eat someone’s body and drink his blood!” If we find that a ridiculous rumour, that’s because we’ve had two thousand years to get used to the idea! If you were hearing it for the first time – “Eat my body…drink my blood” – you’d be freaked out.

So what does it mean, this special meal that Jesus gave us? I suspect that very few of us could clearly explain what we believe about it and what we experience as we share in it. Many Christian teachers have tried to find ways to help us grasp it. One that has been a big help to me was something I read years ago in a little book by a theologian called Griffith Thomas. He said that it’s helpful if we think of the different directions we’re looking in as we share Holy Communion together. There are five of them.

First, we’re looking backwards – back in time, that is – to the Cross. Paul says:
‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”. In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me”. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
So Holy Communion is all about Jesus’ death; we ‘proclaim his death until he comes’.

Why do we need this reminder? Because the Cross of Jesus is where we see most clearly the amazing love and grace of God. The Cross is where human rebellion against God reaches its lowest point: God comes among us himself, as one of us, in the person of his Son, speaking nothing but truth and sharing nothing but love. But, as John’s Gospel says, ‘people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:19). So we reject God, we condemn him and whip him and nail him up on a cross to die.

But what’s God’s response? Not judgement or vengeance, but forgiveness. ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’. On the Cross Jesus demonstrates most clearly what has always been God’s character, even though human ideas have sometimes obscured it: grace, mercy, forgiveness. We have a God who loves his enemies, and that’s the heart of the Christian Gospel. So we need this regular reminder – this dramatic reenactment at the Lord’s Table as the bread is broken and the wine poured out – so that we don’t forget the way Christ’s body was broken and his blood poured out to embody the love of God for the whole world.

We had a parishioner here once at St. Margaret’s who used to look at the cross whenever he received communion. It was very vivid to me. I would place the bread in his hands – ‘The Body of Christ, broken for you’ – and he would say ‘Amen’, and then look up at the Cross while he was eating the bread. I’ve never forgotten that.

So first of all, we’re looking backwards. Second, we’re looking forwards, to the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus gives his disciples the bread and wine at the Last Supper, he says, “I tell you, I will never again drink from this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).

The idea of the kingdom of God as a great feast was very common in the time of Jesus, and it often appears in his parables. He says the kingdom is like a wedding banquet that we’re all invited to – and the invitation list is wider than we often think. He says, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

Obviously we’re speaking in symbolic language here – when you think of the millions of saints who have gone before us, it’s hard for me to imagine a banquet table big enough to seat them all! But this small gathering tonight, this little taste of bread and sip of wine, is a foretaste of the fellowship we’ll share with all God’s people when his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. So we’re not just looking back to the Cross - we’re also looking forward to the future, when God heals the world of evil and sin and we’re all joined together around his table as members of his family.

Third, we’re looking upwards, to Jesus, asking for his daily help. We’re asking him not just to be far away from us at the Father’s right hand, but also close to us – as close as the food we eat.

For two thousand years Christians have debated exactly what Jesus meant at the last supper when he said ‘This is my Body, broken for you’, and ‘This is my blood, shed for you’. Some have taken a very literalistic interpretation: the physical form of this bread and wine is changed ito the physical form of the body and blood of Jesus. Others have seen it as being symbolic – just as we need to receive our food and eat it, so we need to receive from Jesus the benefits of forgiveness he has poured out on us at the Cross.

For myself, I stick to the words of Jesus in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never been hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In other words, Jesus is as essential to my life with God as food is essential to my physical life. Just as food sustains me, so the presence of Jesus sustains me. If I’m feeling a deep spiritual hunger and thirst, then I need to come to him and believe in him.

Receiving communion together is one of the ways we ‘come’ to him and ‘believe’ in him. We come with empty hands and hold them out in faith; we receive the bread and wine, looking to Jesus; we eat and drink, and through these simple bodily acts our union with Jesus is strengthened. He lives in us by his Spirit, and his life in us becomes more real and vivid as we share his sacrament.

Personally, there are two prayers I find really helpful just before I receive communion. One is a traditional Roman Catholic prayer: ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and I will be made whole’. The other is a line from an old hymn I’ve known since I was a child: ‘O come to my heart, Lord Jesus – there is room in my heart for thee’. I use these prayers almost every time I receive communion.

So we’re looking back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there. We’re looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God where we will all be invited into the heavenly banquet hall. We’re looking up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger. Fourthly, we’re looking around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table.

We don’t eat this meal alone. We always eat it with others. This is not just about ‘me’ receiving ‘my’ communion; this is about our unity with others. Paul puts it simply and beautifully in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:
‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’.

We can see the lovely symbolism here: the Corinthian Christians meeting for the Eucharist in their little house church – small enough that one loaf of bread and one cup of wine is big enough. One loaf is broken and shared – one cup is passed around – and they who are many are one Body.

Which is why the reality of unity is so important. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that if we’re coming to give our gift to God at the altar and suddenly remember a quarrel we’re having, we need to go first and be reconciled to our sister or brother, and only then come back and offer our gift. The early church applied this to the Eucharist too. The sharing of the peace was not just an empty symbol for them; it was a time to go to the person we had something against and make up with them, before coming to the Table with them.

I remember years ago, in a small church, noticing that a man who always came up for communion had not come up that Sunday. I went to him after the service and said, “Is everything okay?” He replied, “I had a fight with my wife before I came to church today, and I just knew I wasn’t in a fit state to receive communion – I have to go home and apologize to her”. That man really ‘got’ the idea of Holy Communion as a call to reconciliation with one another.

So - back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there - forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God - up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger - around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table. Fifth and last, we’re looking into our hearts before we come, preparing ourselves for this sacred feast.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul talks about how the Corinthians weren’t taking the Lord’s Supper seriously. In those days it wasn’t a service like we do now – it was more of a pot luck supper, with prayers and teachings attached. But some of them were coming early and eating all the food, some of them were getting drunk, others were going hungry. What’s this about, he asks? And then he says, ‘Examine yourselves, and only eat then of the bread and drink of the cup’ (1 Corinthians 11:28).

So it’s good for us to have a time of preparation each week before we come to communion. Maybe we can get up a little earlier on Sunday and spend some time in prayer. Are there sins I particularly need to repent of and ask God’s forgiveness for? Are there people I need to call and apologize to – bad relationships to put right? Are there people I’m refusing to forgive?

When the Book of Common Prayer invites people to confess their sins before communion, it says it like this:
‘Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort…’
So the two issues that are flagged here are repentance and reconciliation.

I’m not saying we have to be good and holy and perfect before we can come to communion – of course not. If that were true, none of us could come! The BAS says, ‘God welcomes sinners and invites us to his table’. But, as someone once said, ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there!’ This meal together is meant to strengthen us and teach us to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. And so we prepare ourselves by repenting of our sins and being reconciled with God and with our neighbour.

So – let’s walk around this one last time! We look back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there - forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God - up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger - around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table – and into our hearts before we come, preparing ourselves for this sacred feast.

As the altar guild are preparing the water for the footwashing, let’s take a few minutes of silence to think about which if these five ‘looks’ speaks most clearly to us tonight, and what we can do to live into it more fully.