Sunday, March 23, 2008

Good Friday

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

One of the clearest memories of my childhood is of an occasion when my father was trying to teach me to swim. I was not quite eight years old and we were at a public pool. My father stood about five feet from the edge of the pool, held his arms out and said, “Jump to me. I’ll catch you.” I was scared. The water was up to his chest, which meant that it was well over my head, and I couldn’t swim. But I trusted him, I jumped, and he caught me.

I also trusted my father in several less dramatic and less conscious ways. I trusted that I would always have food in my stomach, a secure roof over my head, clothes on my back, that I would always be loved, and whenever I got myself into a jam, that he would be there for me to help me, and to make things alright. Few things are as beautiful to us as the trust of a child. Few things are as beautiful to us as an infant asleep on its mother’s breast, completely serene, completely content, completely trusting. And because of this, few experiences are as gut-wrenching, few experiences cause us as much grief and anger, as the betrayal of a child’s trust. We are revolted by the crimes of child abuse and incest, not only because of the acts themselves, but because the trust that children naturally place in parents and relatives is tragically betrayed.

Those of you who know me well have learned that I find in the game of baseball a veritable treasury of metaphors for life itself. Way back in 1919 the Chicago White Sox won the American League pennant, and were heavily favored to win the World Series as well. But they lost the World Series. Subsequently it was revealed that they lost on purpose, in order to keep an agreement some of the players had made with professional gamblers. It was fixed, and it became known as the “Black Sox” scandal. Several team members were eventually indicted and brought to trial. One afternoon when the day’s trial proceedings were over, one of the stars of the team, “Shoeless Joe Jackson,” was met on the courthouse steps by a group of young boys. These were boys for whom he had been a hero, boys who had placed their trust in him as an example of something they could aspire to. There were tears streaming down their faces as they pleaded with Shoeless Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, say it ain’t so.”

But, of course, it was so. Their trust had been betrayed.

All of us have been on both ends of that transaction; we have all had our trust betrayed, and we have all betrayed trust that has been placed in us. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know very little about what might be called the “psychology” of Jesus. Several different theories have been advanced over the years, but whatever conclusion we come to, we’ve got to remember that it has been the faith of the Church for two thousand years that he was really a man, in every way human as we are, yet without sin. He wasn’t just God in disguise, pretending to be human. All week long, we’ve been reading the twenty-second Psalm, the first verse of which Jesus quoted in his cry from the cross as recorded by Matthew and Mark. When the human being Jesus of Nazareth spoke these words from the cross, it was because that’s precisely how he felt: forsaken, abandoned, his trust betrayed. He had in every way been faithful to his Father’s will. He had in every way been faithful to his mission. Indeed, as those who stood at the foot of the cross mocked him, “He trusted in God, that God would deliver him. Let God rescue him, if he delights in him!” But now he’s abandoned, and betrayed. “Jesus, old friend, you’ve been had! You’ve done everything right—you’ve gone by the game plan. And where has it gotten you? Your hands and your feet have been nailed to a piece of wood. Your life’s blood is oozing out of you, drop by individual drop. You’re not long for this world, Jesus—and Daddy isn’t going to come and make it all better, is he?”

Say it ain’t so . . . say it ain’t so.

We’ve all had our crosses to bear this year, even this Lent. Some of you have faced serious illness, in your life or in the life of someone close to you. Some of you have lost loved ones to death. Maybe it’s not been a good year financially for you, and you wonder how you’re going to make ends meet, and worry about how you’re going to fulfill the hopes and aspirations that you have for yourself and for your family. Perhaps you’ve struggled with depression, and just wonder how you’re going to get through the routine tasks of the day that lies ahead of you. Some of you have been betrayed by someone you love. Some of you are in turmoil over a relationship that has gone sour. Maybe you are paralyzed by fear and by a sense of the purposelessness of your own life.

My friends, it is here, in our woundedness, that we get close to the heart of the mystery of the cross. It’s true, as Christians we have 20-20 hindsight—we know about Easter—we know about Reusrrection. And, From whatever information the gospel evangelists give us, Jesus did too. But at that moment on the cross, he was forsaken, he was abandoned, he wasn’t faking it. And in order to transcend his suffering at that moment, Jesus had to give up hope! I’d like to read to you a paragraph from a meditation by the late James Griffiss, who was a theologian and seminary professor:

How easy it is for us to be deceived about hope. What we want to believe is that God will work out everything for our good in the end. The way may be difficult; things may get bad at times, but in the end all will be well. And sometimes, indeed, it does happen that way, and we are deceived all the more. We even try to do it with Jesus himself. We interpret his death according to our own understanding and our own idols: God made it alright for him, so he will make it alright for us. And so we avoid the cross and what it says, for it is not too difficult to turn the cross into that which puts God to the test. “I am your son, your chosen one, surely you are not going to abandon me now.” We can imagine that Jesus might have said that, might perhaps have thought it, because we have said it so many times ourselves. ... The cross frees us from that temptation, and it is our only hope. ... The cross frees us from the sin of testing, because Jesus died there; it is the end. Nothing is left, nothing on which he or we can depend except the cross, and the cross offers us nothing, not even itself. It offers only the God who led Jesus there and who leads us there to be crucified with him.

These are hard words! If I understand what Father Griffiss is saying, it’s that before we can even think about attaining our heart’s desire, we must first give it up. Our job is simply to abdicate—to abdicate control over anything and everything that ... well, just anything and everything. Like Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac on a wilderness altar, we must abandon our impulse to control or possess anything, even ourselves. Before we can be delivered from the suffering we face, we must abandon the right to find our own way out. Our only hope is to give up hope.

For me, the most beautiful image of this kind of abandonment is found in the first moments of a human being’s life outside the womb. A baby emerges From the security it has known for nine months, where it has been nourished, and given food and oxygen through the umbilical cord connection with its mother. And then, right when that child sees the light of day for the first time, the cord is snapped. And there’s an instant between the time that source of life is cut off, and the child draws its first breath, where life itself hangs in the balance.

I believe that, as baptized christians, we are called to live in that moment—hanging in the balance—where we give up the hope, give up the security of everything we have ever known, and face God’s unknown future, silent before the mystery, ready to be taught how to breathe. Our trust in God is well-placed—don’t think I’m telling you otherwise—but it has to be a mature trust, one born of suffering, free of any conditions or qualifications. It won’t do to tell God we trust him, so long as he will promise to do this or that. Our trust must be simple and unconditional.

The Jewish writer Elie Weisel tells the story of an event that took place in a Nazi concentration camp. The authorities decided to publicly execute two inmates, one an old man and one a teenage boy. In front of the entire camp population, these two prisoners were hanged. The old man died quickly and, so it seemed, relatively painlessly. The boy, however, stuggled, and took a long while to die. As he hung there, writhing at the end of a rope, someone cried out in anguish, “God, where are you?!” He might just as well have said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in a moment of insight and illumination, another prisoner responded, pointing at the slowly dying form of the boy, and said, “There he is, there is God, hanging on that rope.”

Our God is, for our sake, a suffering God, a crucified God. That’s why we have crucifixes, so that in our suffering, we can see our crucified God, abandoned with us and for us. On this Good Friday I invite you, in the name of the church, to bring your woundedness, your betrayal and your betray-ing, and, with Jesus, give up hope. Come to the cross, be abandoned and forsaken with him, and him with you, that you may live.

Almighty God, whose most dear son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walkingn in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace, through the same, Jesus Christ our Lord.


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