Saturday, April 4, 2020


This year we read the Passion according to Matthew,
     which pretty much tracks 
      the Passion according to Mark.
It’s providential we have this text in this hard time
     because it’s the grimmest, the hardest to face version
                 of Jesus’ death.

In Luke, Jesus forgives and reconciles people 
     from the cross until he dies peacefully saying,
     “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”
In John, Jesus entrusts Mary and the Beloved Disciple 
              to each other.
     He reigns from the cross like a Christus Rex,
     until he says, “It is accomplished,” 
     and gives up his spirit of his own volition.

But in Mark and Matthew, 
     there is no such beauty, no such healing,
     no such peace at the cross.
Jesus cries out, 
      “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Then he groans inarticulately and dies. 

This is a story of God’s absence.
God’s will is not done. His kingdom does not come. 
Faith is apparently disappointed.
The story that began with, “You are my Son, the Beloved,”
     ends with “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani 
     – My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The Passion is an archetypal story.
An archetypal story doesn’t happen just once.
It’s about the way things are.
The crucifixion happens over and over.

It happened in the 1955 murder 
      of Emmet Till in Mississippi
     and the 1998 murder 
     of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming.
It happened on 9/11 and in the Tsunami of 2004. 
It happens every day in hospital rooms and on the streets
     and whenever we are alone and cry silently,
     “Why have you forsaken me?”
It’s happening now in this pandemic.
When we are social distancing, we feel forsaken.

When we sing, 
     “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
     all of us can answer, “yes.”
We’ve all stood at the foot of the cross one time or another
We are there now. 

So what are we to make 
       of Mark’s and Matthew’s grim story?
So much rides on that question
     because it tells us what to make of the murders
     of Emmet Till and Matthew Shepherd.
It’s the meaning of suicide bombings, cancer, divorces,
disabilities, grief, and our present ordeal.

The 20th Century theologian, Simone Weil,
     taught us more about suffering 
     by her writing and her example
                 than anyone else in our time.[i]
She begins with a view of creation
     that runs opposite to our assumptions. Weil says,
     “The act of creation is not an act of power.
      It is an act of abdication. 
     Through this act a kingdom was established
                 other than the kingdom of God.
     The reality of this world is constituted
                 by the mechanism of matter
                 and the autonomy of rational creatures.
     It is a kingdom from which God has withdrawn.”[ii]

Those hard words challenge our faith -- saying God 
     is not taking care of us by controlling what happens – 
     so we want to turn away from those words.
Sometimes we experience God’s presence 
        as grace and mercy.
But other times we call on God to ease our pain 
or the pain of those we love
and there’s only silence.[iii]
That’s when we come up against what Weil calls,
     “a kingdom from which God has withdrawn.”
We feel as C. S. Lewis did when he said, 
     “The world is in enemy hands.”
And we echo the words of Jesus, 
        “Why have you forsaken me?”

According to Weil, God forsakes the world 
  in the sense of withdrawing power – not love but power --
  relinquishing his control so the world can exist.[iv]
God abandons the world in order to create it,
     to invest it with freedom and dignity,
     so that our lives and all history 
     are a truly unfolding story
     -- not just acting out the script of fate.

But if God isn’t controlling things here, what good is God? 
What difference does God make?
Of all the Gospels, Mark devotes the largest portion
     to this dark Passion Narrative.
Yet it is Mark who invented our use of the word “Gospel,”
     Mark who first called the Jesus story “good news.”
So where is the good news in this?

The good news is that God may not be here 
     in the way we thought, manipulating outcomes,
     but God is here in quite another way.

Philosopher D. Z. Philips says we purify our belief in God
     by recognizing God is not here
     pulling strings, fixing races, and stacking decks.
We have to set that notion of God’s presence aside
     to see God with us in a better way.

God is not here as a dominating power.
Like in the old Westerns, when God steps into our bar,
     he checks his gun at the door.
God isn’t calling the shots.

God comes instead in humility, 
      “like a beggar,” Simone Weil says,
     “like a slave,” St. Paul says,
     to share our experience – especially our pain.
That’s what the cross means.
God becomes so fully human, so utterly vulnerable,
     as to feel himself forsaken by divine power
     and cry  out in despair, “Why have you forsaken me?”

God is here alright but not in the way we expect.
The Omnipotent, the Father Almighty, 
          stands outside creation.
God is here as Redeemer and that looks entirely different.

Yale theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff says,
     “When we think of God the Creator, 
       then we naturally see the rich and powerful 
      of the earth as his closest image.
      But when we hold steady before us the sight
                 of God the Redeemer,
     redeeming . . . by his suffering, 
     then perhaps we must look . . .
     at the face of that woman with the soup tin in hand
                 and bloated child at her side.”

University of Tubingen theologian, Jurgen Moltmann,
     says that our belief that God is controlling everything
     in a beneficent way “ends on the rock of suffering.”
“But,” he asks “what begins on that rock . . . in the pain
     which cannot find a divine answer
     and atheism cannot abolish?”

What begins on the rock of suffering 
is a new relationship with God.
It is on that rock we meet a God 
not of power but of love and beauty
-- a God not to be feared, cajoled, or manipulated
     for our self-interest,
but a God to be loved for God’s own sake,
a God who chooses to suffer with us 
           lest we suffer alone.
That’s when the miracle happens 
     – the miracle of salvation
     not from suffering, but through suffering 
      – the miracle of love.
That love is our hope, our joy, and our liberation
     -- a hope, joy, and liberation no virus can touch.

In a place too dark for us to see,
     at a pitch too high for us to hear, 
                 our redemption is happening right now.
It may not happen in the way we expect, the world’s way.
We may want our egos patched up, 
      our worldly lives fixed, our agendas set back on track.
But that isn’t what God is up to. 

God is holding us with a redemption 
     so gentle we are not even aware of it.
Philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams says
     that our ultimate consolation happens through
     our relationship with God whose Goodness and Beauty
     overwhelm our suffering with joy and delight.

But how do we form that relationship?
Do we meditate and live righteously to become divine
     and meet God on that equal plane?
We don’t have that in us.
So God joins us where we are, in our pain.
God is so present with the hungry 
     that his stomach cramps,
     so present with the lonely 
      that his throat constricts
                 and he cannot call out of comfort,
     so present with the grieving that he cannot move.

God does not create suffering,
     but God makes good use of it. 
God makes of suffering a common ground with us. 
God meets us there. 
God transforms suffering into an occasion
     to know him and to befriend our fellow sufferers
     -- a chance not to overcome suffering 
                 with eternal joy in love.

[ii] Weil is implicitly drawing in the image of creation in The Kabballah. It is called zim sum. The image is that if God is everywhere, and God wants to create a universe, where can God put it? God has to withdraw to make room. This imagery means to say that God’s nature is love something that is not God. God is not a narcissist but a lover. So it is necessary for God to create a universe that is free, not a puppet, a universe where God is not calling the shots. God withdraws divine power, but not divine love. Which of us has not loved that which we cannot control? It is a vulnerable thing. 
[iv] The word “exist” actually means to be apart from. The “ex” is as in exit.