God’s Lament, God’s Love
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, April 2, 2021, Good Friday, “Learning to Sing the Blues” series.
Text: Mark 15:1-39
On this day we come face to face with the reality that the Good Friday story seems to be on a monotonous, torturous repeat from day to day, month to month, year to year, age to age. We come face to face with the reality that ours is not the first broken justice system. We come face to face with the reality that, from the beginning of time, even those who may be trying to honor their religion and their God can get twisted, can allow religious zeal to lead to violence. We come face to face with the reality that power and privilege are eternally, temptingly corrupting. We come face to face with the reality that ours is not the first human community who in moments of anxiety allow the better angels of our human nature to be overrun by more base, fearful, mob instincts. We come face to face with how easy it has always been to hide and hold our tongue just at the moment we should assert ourselves for the sake of what’s right. We come face to face with the age-old need to find a scapegoat for our own failures and fears.
The story of Jesus of Nazareth, betrayed, denied, unjustly arrested, tried, sentenced, and crucified is a real story that happened once upon a time. It is also a narrative repeated over and over in human history. The past year alone produced headlines illustrating every bit of the Good Friday story—more than I could name in a day, much less a handful of minutes.
This may lead some to wonder: what was the point? What difference does Jesus’ sacrifice make? If you’ve heard me preach on Good Friday over the years, you’ll know I don’t think the answer to that question is that Jesus was payment, pawn, or get out of jail free card, sacrificed by God to the evil powers of the cosmos. I don’t deny that a cosmic shift or shaking occurred the day Jesus was crucified.
It’s just that I don’t believe the shift happened by way of God intentionally killing the beloved son. I believe the shift happened through lament, solidarity, and unfailing love.
My research for our Lenten series on lament led me back to Elie Wiesel’s heartbreaking and important autobiographical book, Night. One of the most painful and oft-quoted passages in this story of life in the Nazi death camps is when Wiesel is forced to watch the hanging of two men and a boy. The men die quickly. The boy lingers between life and death for more than half an hour. Wiesel writes,
Behind me, I heard [a] man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows …”
This moment has been interpreted in a number of ways. “Some read the inner voice of Wiesel communicating the death of his view of God. As if to say—with the death of this boy so dies Wiesel’s belief in the God he once claimed to know.”
I believe this kind of suffering must affect our relationship with God, our view or understanding of God in some kind of way. And in the wake of the unimaginable suffering of the death camps, who could judge anyone for relinquishing any notion of a living, loving God?
But there is another way to read the response to the question, “Where is God?” To say God is “here at the gallows” can be received as a stubborn belief in a God who is with us in the midst of the worst suffering, the most unimaginable evil, a God who laments with us at the cruelty we inflict upon others and suffers from that cruelty to remain in solidarity with the afflicted.
Where is God on this Good Friday? At the U.S. border and in every jail cell with those treated as less than human. In the COVID wards and funeral parlors, the cancer treatment centers and in all the places where diseases ravage human bodies. God is in the hollers and the slums with people who are forgotten and dismissed. God is in the shelters filled with unhoused and battered siblings. God is in courtrooms with those forced to argue whether their loved one’s life truly mattered, where victims—even from the grave—are forced to become defendants, with all terrorized by the subtle and overt violences of white supremacy. God is with the slandered and the slaughtered. God is with every one of those robbed of their dignity, their voice, their agency, their choices and opportunities out of prejudice and hatred. God is with our Jewish siblings who have been the targets of hatred and violence because of perverse and prejudiced interpretations of the Jesus story and Holy Week—fueled and undergirded by a perversion of humanity called white supremacy and white nationalism.
God is there at the gallows, lamenting. God is there at the gallows, remembering what it feels like for life to drain out of a body of a beloved child.
This song of lament and remembrance is known by heart in the halls of heaven. It is an old, broken record playing again and again, a countermelody in response to the horrifying song of abuse and cruelty and dehumanization that Jesus’s life and death came to name and silence. Clearly, the effect of the first Good Friday is not that everything on earth was fixed up never to be broken again.
So…what? There is an unveiling that happens—a breaking open of something deeply true—a revelation of the worst and the best capacity of humanity.
At the cross we see all the suffering of humanity falling upon the truly human body of Jesus. At the cross we see how those with the power thought they could put a knee on Jesus, hold him down, thought the suffering and death of this nobody from the backwaters of Galilee would mean nothing, that it made no difference. But the suffering and death of Jesus—this culmination of all the hatred, violence, fear of humanity—reverberates eternally, immortally, a story, a moment, etched in the memories of creation. Its power is to show us our participation in the things that cause pain and death. If we’re paying attention, we can never again say “we didn’t know,” or “I can’t believe that happened.”
At the cross we also see the life-giving power of a love that is not just proclaimed but that is willing to enter fully into every human suffering to assure us that we are never left alone. That nothing we’ve done or that’s been done to us will separate us from God’s love. Jesus didn’t have to do this. How can a love like that not shake and shift everything in the universe?
Earlier in this Lenten season, in reflecting upon Psalm 22, quoted by Jesus in lament from the cross, I reminded us that Psalm 22 doesn’t end with words of forsakenness, but rather with promise. Even still, in the moment of true lament—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—the promise is not felt, not perceived, not in any way manifest. There is a nothingness, nothing but the pain of that moment and the absence of comfort or help. To understand the extraordinary moment we contemplate each Good Friday, I often return to these words of Simone Weil, “What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final. The soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, or at least to go on wanting to love, though it may only be with an infinitesimal part of itself…” On the cross, Jesus goes on loving in the emptiness and, through that miraculous love, spans the infinite distance between the nothingness of sin and suffering to touch again—or at least reach out to touch—the Love that in faith he believes will be there…if not now, then.
When all seemed lost, when God’s presence could not be felt, when sin and suffering tried to separate Jesus from the love of God, Jesus cried out in lament, remembering words that even in their desperation held on to a thread of hope…and continued to love. Jesus here, as in all things, shows us how it’s done, shows us how to live and how to die, shows us the Way.
Where is God on Good Friday? God is there on the cross, in the mercy of Jesus for all your sins, in the compassion of Jesus for all your pain, in the love of Jesus that will not let you go.
And that, beloveds, has the power to change everything.