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Forsaken No More

Sermon - 3/08/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 22

The 22nd Psalm is the text for our reflection this morning.  It's a long Psalm, and I want to read it in its entirety because to skip over portions (as the lectionary does for this Sunday) robs it of some of its power.  So I would invite you to follow along with me in your pew Bible, or your own Bibles, and pay particular attention to the emotions that are conveyed in this Psalm:

1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
   and by night, but find no rest.

3Yet you are holy,
   enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4In you our ancestors trusted;
   they trusted, and you delivered them.
5To you they cried, and were saved;
   in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6But I am a worm, and not human;
   scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7All who see me mock at me;
   they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
   let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

9Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
   you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10On you I was cast from my birth,
   and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11Do not be far from me,
   for trouble is near
   and there is no one to help.

12Many bulls encircle me,
   strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13they open wide their mouths at me,
   like a ravening and roaring lion.

14I am poured out like water,
   and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
   it is melted within my breast;
15my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
   and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
   you lay me in the dust of death.

16For dogs are all around me;
   a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
17I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18they divide my clothes among themselves,
   and for my clothing they cast lots.

19But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
   O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20Deliver my soul from the sword,
   my life from the power of the dog!
21   Save me from the mouth of the lion!

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
22I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
   in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23You who fear the Lord, praise him!
   All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
   stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24For he did not despise or abhor
   the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
   but heard when I cried to him.

25From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
   my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
   those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
   May your hearts live for ever!

27All the ends of the earth shall remember
   and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
   shall worship before him.
28For dominion belongs to the Lord,
   and he rules over the nations.

29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
   before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
   and I shall live for him.
30Posterity will serve him;
   future generations will be told about the Lord,
31and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
   saying that he has done it.

 

Do you get the range of emotions that are conveyed here?  From the ultimate depths of despair to the highest height of exuberance.

Many have wondered about the cry of Jesus on the cross -- "My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?", that begins this Psalm.  Did he feel so abandoned in that moment on the cross?  Or was he quoting the 22nd Psalm for some purpose, alluding to the reversal of fortune expressed here in this Psalm as a way of fore-shadowing events to come?  Or could both be true?

On the one hand, you don't have to know anything about the 22nd Psalm to hear in that cry of despair the sense of abandonment that Jesus surely must have felt.  And on the other, when you do know this Psalm and you hear that cry, it adds so much to our understanding of the crucifixion.

I think many of you were probably aware that the cry of Jesus on the cross came from the 22nd Psalm.  But I suspect what most people do not know is that is only 1 of at least 5 allusions in the passion story (that story of the crucifixion) that comes from the 22nd Psalm.

For instance, when we read "all who see me mock at me", we hear the very same kind of mocking of Jesus in the crucifixion story.  And then when the Psalmist says (sarcastically) "commit your cause to the Lord, let him deliver", that same kind of sarcastic remark of derision appears in Matthew 27 when the people say to Jesus on the cross "let God deliver him now".  Then we see in verse 14 "I am poured out like water" -- what does that remind you of?  The sword -- the sword in the side of Jesus, and what comes out (according to the gospel of John)?  Blood and water pours out of that wound.  And then finally, in verse 18, "they divide my clothes among themselves, for my clothing they cast lots".  That is an event that is told in all 4 of the gospels, when the soldiers cast lots for the clothing of Jesus.

So, these repeated allusions to the 22nd Psalm that occur throughout the passion story of Jesus is a clear indication of just how important this Psalm was to that early Christian community as they tried to understand what the crucifixion meant.  And how it was possible that the Son of God, of all people, could suffer such a horrible, horrendous death.  And it was no so much, as often is claimed, that they saw in the 22nd Psalm predictions of those events, but rather they saw in the 22nd Psalm an interpretation of those events.

Telling the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus in light of what this Psalm says about God and God's relationship to human suffering not only helped those early Christians understand how Jesus could suffer such a terrible fate, it would help them understand how they to could suffer similar things.  And yet in spite of that suffering, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day, how they could still affirm the exact opposite of the cry of Jesus -- 'My God, My God, you have not forsaken me'.

And thus, the cry of the forsaken Jesus, the cry of everyone who has felt so abandoned by God, is the affirmation precisely that God has not abandoned us.  That God in fact is with us.  Because Christ has been there, Jesus has experienced that.  The cry of Jesus is a way of him saying 'I know your pain, I know what it is like to suffer because I have been there.  I have been to that place of total despair and hopelessness'.  Just as that old gospel song laments:  'nobody knows the trials that I see, nobody knows but Jesus'.

And even if that's not literally true, that no one else knows those trials, no one else has been through what you've been through, in that moment of suffering, it doesn't matter because you are alone and it feels as if God has abandoned you along with everyone else.

Those of us who have lived mostly charmed lives cannot begin to know what that is like, to be in such a place of total despair.  And to slowly, ever so slowly, to crawl out of that place.  But many of us, most of us I suspect, have had our own experience that comes close.  Extremely painful periods in our lives that enables us to empathize with anyone who is in that place, trapped in that kind of despair.

And so when we hear people (like in this Psalm) sharing their stories of pain and suffering, we are moved by them all the more because we can relate to them in some way.

I had such an experience at our State Capitol, Friday of this week.  I offered to drive a group of people up in our van for the lobby day of Basic Rights Oregon.  Basic Rights works for the rights of people around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.  And the primary issue they were working with on that day was a bill to create safe schools, to do something about bullying in public schools.  Both the Springfield and 4J school districts sent up a big group of students, and there were others from around the state.  The bill that we were lobbying on has been endorsed by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and many other religious groups and all kinds of education groups.

Now, bullying, of course, is not an issue limited to lesbians and gays, transgendered and bisexual people, but rather minority students of all kinds.  Students of color, of different religions, of physical abilities, of personal characteristics, whatever the case may be, who are victimized and harassed precisely because they are different.  Recent surveys done in Oregon schools report that over 30% of students in high-school say that they have been bullied in the previous year.  And over 40% of students in middle-school say that they have been bullied in the past year.  And often this has serious effects, of course.  The most serious being even suicide.

At that rally at the State Capitol, we heard from two youth:  a 9th-grader and a 12th-grader.  Regardless of your feelings about the issue of homosexuality, you couldn't help but feel for these two kids as they shared their stories of harassment and humiliation because of their sexual orientation.

The senior reported that she had attended 4 different schools in an effort to find a safe place where she could learn.  The bullying became so severe at one of the schools, she flunked out.  Could not study, could not complete her studies.  And fortunately, with the support of family and friends, her parents who home-schooled her for a year so she could catch up, she reported that she was back on track and ready to graduate this Spring.

But it was the story of the 9th-grader that really touched my heart.  He spoke of the one experience that strikes terror in the heart of any young teen who is not yet comfortable in their growing, changing bodies:  gym class.  Often a difficult time for kids at that age.  And I related, immediately, as soon as he said that, because I remember my experience of gym class in 9th grade. 

Bear in mind that I was not always the fine-tuned example of human physique that you see before you today J.  Scrawny, 98-pound weakling, I had one experience in that class (wrestling) where the gym teacher assigned a 198-pound fullback from the football team ("Bruiser Brown") to this kid half his size.  Being the kid I was, with a sense of justice, I protested!  I said "That's not fair".  He looks right at me and says:  "Bruiser, you take Bryant".  I spent the next 45 minutes pinned on my back with this ton of whale blubber -- stinking, rotting whale blubber -- on top of me J.

My father, who always with such pride would fondly say years later:  "My son, the straight-A student, except for. . . . what class was that you got a B in?  Oh yeah, gym!".  It was not my best year.

So here was this 9th-grader, nervous as heck, speaking in front of this crowd, 300 people or so, Senators and Legislators standing behind him.  We had heard from the Secretary of State, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, all these dignitaries.  And here's this 9th-grader telling about the horror of gym class.  And I realized as he spoke that my experience was nothing compared to the humiliation he suffered.  In most graphic detail (I will not repeat today) he described the verbal abuse he took from his peers.  One student who openly called him a "faggot" in front of his gym teacher, who did nothing.  The bullying not always just verbal, suffered on 3 different occasions black-eyes.

And it struck me as I listened to this kid, courageous in his sharing of his story, that he knew better than I of which the Psalmist speaks:

I am a worm, and not human;
   scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;

for trouble is near
   and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me,
they open wide their mouths at me,
   like a ravening and roaring lion.

dogs are all around me;
   a company of evildoers encircles me.

And I just kept hearing the Psalm that I was meditating on, I was thinking about my sermon as I'm listening to these kids share their story of shame and humiliation.

I wondered, in the midst of that humiliation, contrary to what they may have been told about God's judgment upon them, that they too discovered, like the Psalmist, that God in fact did hear their cries?  And that the strength and comfort that they received from God is what gave them the courage to now stand up in front of all of us, and publicly share their story?  To speak out against the abuse and the shame.

In the middle of this Psalm, after the Psalmist has poured out all this pain and despair, there's this dramatic shift that occurs:

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

Though we're not told how.  Is it from some terrible disease?  Have his fortunes been restored?  Have his enemies been defeated? 

Or, does the reversal come from the new awareness that in fact God has not abandoned him?

For the Psalmist says:

For he [God] did not despise or abhor
   the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
   but heard when I cried to him.

 

This is then his salvation -- the awareness of God's presence with him.  That his affliction is not a sign of God's abandonment as he had once thought.  Or, as in the case of the so-called friends of Job, likely even told that he was being punished by God, and therefore should repent so that he can be restored to God.

And like Job, the Psalmist rightly refuses to believe that he has done anything to deserve such abuse.  And like those two youth in Salem, will not allow the affliction he has suffered to add to his victimization.  And dares to stand up in the midst of God's congregation and to praise God, for contrary to all appearances and presumptions, God has not condemned or abandoned him.  God is not on the side of his tormentors.  God is never on the side of tormentors.

And if God should come to the aid of one such as him, then there is no one who can ever be out of the reach of God's love.  Not even, the Psalmist says, those beyond death and those not yet born. 

So can you feel the power of this message?  And see why it became so important to the early Christian community when they were the weaklings of Roman society?  Religious freaks who are easy targets for scorn and abuse.  Blamed by Emperor Nero for the burning of Rome, driven from the protection of the Synagogues (which could provide some religious legitimacy), shamed by public officials for refusing to participate in pagan festivals.  Followers, it was believed, of a crucified criminal, they were easily scorned and abused.

And here, then, is that message for all victims of abuse, for all who unjustly suffer, who feel abandoned by God and everyone else:  God does not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted. 

Know that when you cry to God, God weeps with you.

When you've had enough, and find the courage to stand up and say "no more", God stands with you.

When you refuse to play the victim and you rise up above your affliction to be the victor, God shouts "Hallelujah!".

When you speak out for others too afraid or too weak to speak out for themselves, God speaks through you.

When you march for the rights of those who have suffered from discrimination, prejudice and harassment, God marches with you.

This is the good news proclaimed in the Psalm and embodied in Jesus.  Our God does not forsake the forsaken.  Our God redeems them on the cross of forsakenness.

And here, here, is that place where all people can come, throw down their afflictions, and stand together and say "We are God's people".

"We are forsaken no more".  May it be.

 


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