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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 06/19/2016

Next to best known Psalm 23, Psalm 22 is also well recognized in Scripture, and among Christians, probably the best known of the laments because of “verse one.” And what is a lament? Well, in a lament, a psalmist complains, asks God for help because they’re in some kind of situation that is ominous or grim. The person is complaining but at the same time, they’re often telling of trust in God and promising to praise God. A lament looks backwards, and it also looks forward: backward because the speaker knows that they can trust a faithful God, and forward to a time when they can once again give thanks for God. But that time is later – when their prayers are answered.

This morning we didn’t actually sing “verse one” of Psalm 22, but we know it from the passion narratives of Matthew and Mark, the words of Jesus at the ninth hour, crying out loudly on the cross:

  • “Eloi (Eli), eloi (Eli), lema (lhama), sabachthani (suh-bock’-then-I)”
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus Christ, fully human on the cross – stripped of his divinity. Jesus is calling out – a man alone and abandoned, suffering an unspeakable death.

As I look back on the events of the past week, I can’t help but wonder how many of the Orlando victims were calling out to God in the last moments of their lives and how many of their loved ones – spouses, partners, mothers, fathers, and friends – how many have been crying to God this week: “Why have you forsaken me?”

So much pain, pain beyond words.

In Jesus’ time, tradition had it that when the first words of a text – like a psalm – were spoken, it was a way of identifying the whole passage. So while Jesus speaks only “verse one” of David’s Psalm, the entire psalm is invoked, and this morning, we are hearing more of these words. The people in ancient Israel are very much used to praying words of lament and complaint, expressing helplessness by intensely summoning God, pleading with God. Psalm 22 begins by accusing God of abandonment and then goes on with an entire litany of complaints describing the suffering being experienced – social humiliation, shame, abuse, and physical turmoil. There is much more to Psalm 22 than the opening words.

And we enter into this psalm today at verse 19 – near the end of the lament where the speaker is appealing one last time to God: “do not be far away; your distance allows the sword and dogs and lions to be near; come quickly; deliver me from the power of the dogs; save me from the mouth of the lion.” Earlier verses tell us that this speaker is filled with disgrace, living in misery, his world in chaos. And yet somehow, he finds within, the strength and the capacity to call out to God, to actually demand that God listen and respond.

Demanding is a pretty strong approach. I think most of us would see this as taking a big risk before God . . . what courage . . . to lay bare what is felt so deeply in the heart.

For me, it begs the question: Do you feel comfortable complaining to God? … I know I don’t. I’ve come from a religious upbringing where it was expected that I praise God and give thanks; it’s definitely ok to ask that my needs be met or my family’s or the community’s. …  But complain or get angry? … Ask, “Why, God, why?” … That is way outside my comfort zone. Good Christians don’t protest or criticize or grumble, right?

Or do they? Is it time to re-think our view of complaining to God by taking a cue from the psalmists, the poets? We’re used to hymns of praise and thanksgiving; we know there are historical and royal psalms. But there are also numerous laments, many of them, laments that can be used by individuals and by the community. Scripture, and specifically the psalms, can help us understand that a relationship with God in a fallen world like ours, can include accusations and objections. As we make our way through life on earth, we’re in the midst of brokenness, sin, suffering and doubt. These are part of my reality and your reality, and, therefore, it makes them part of our relationship with God. God understands what humans have to deal with, and sometimes it is beyond understanding and accepting.

So if you want to lament as part of the community – lament about the horror inflicted upon the LGBT community of Orlando, do it. God can take it. If you want to cry out for individuals murdered, the names and faces of the victims we’ve seen scrolling on our television screens, those with entire lives ahead of them. Do it. God can take it. When you weep with the family members suffering pain beyond description, let God know how sad and angry you are. Do it. God can take it.

And later, when the events of this past week have faded from memory and we return to day-to-day normalcy, we realize we have no guarantees that our lives won’t be turned upside down by personal chaos or tragedy. When we are face to face with our own grief and suffering, remember that each of us has permission to complain and get angry over the hand we’re dealt. Remember then to speak out. God will be able to take it.

Will God answer as we wish, as we feel it best? Maybe yes, maybe no. But in prayer, our lives will change.

It did for our psalmist. In verse 22, there’s an epiphany, there’s a turning point, when the speaker suddenly sees and understands things in a new, clear way. There’s no more distress, but instead, only amazement and gratitude. The relationship with God has changed because some kind of answer has been given. We’re not sure what God has done – the psalmist may or may not have been rescued, but there is a response that restores the connection…

God, simply answering; this is enough. And as we read on, this response changes the psalmist’s life. … He goes on to be in community, rather than in isolation…There is no longer obsession with self, but praise for God. There’s generosity for others, solidarity for the poor.

Prayers, including even the most awkward and uncomfortable prayers of lament, help restore our relationship with God, and they change us: how we look at the world – and how we act in the world – for others – for our neighbors.

I realize that none of this helps answer the question of why unspeakable horror takes place, why one week ago our country experienced its largest mass shooting in recent U.S. history. The media is saturated with speculation, with plentiful opinions, and considerable political posturing. But beneath it all, there is no satisfactory answer as to why the people of Orlando experienced such extreme forsakenness that night, forever altering their lives and their community.

What we Lutherans do know and believe, however, is that suffering is not God’s punishment, it is not evidence of God’s disfavor, and it cannot be associated with our alienation from God. A faithful God remains with us. And Psalm 22 today can provide us with comfort. Yes, it begins with the gut-wrenching words, the deep abandonment of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But it doesn’t end there. In fact, it is just the beginning of the event that concludes Good Friday and moves us into the questioning and emptiness of Holy Saturday. We can look at the cross as a beginning of the end of the Savior’s earthly life: his crucifixion, his suffering and death. But we know there is much more.

Just as something unknown and mysterious takes place for the psalmist between verses 21 and 22 as he goes from crying out to expressing his joy, we remember the ultimate mystery of God in Jesus that has come to new life on Easter, death to life. On the cross, Jesus has called out, and God the Father, who is faithful, hears him and responds to the cry.

As Christians, we believe that God has not abandoned us, even though there are times when it feels like we are forsaken. The psalms help us see that when our circumstances are difficult, they are not new to God, and God has given us a way to reach out. We are invited to recognize our pain and take it to God in prayer, knowing that in the midst of our pain, and the world’s pain, God is with us.

Amen.

Vicar Terry Frankenstein

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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