March 31, 2019

Psalm 22

Why Have You Forsaken Me?                                                                     

Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church                  

As we continue our Lenten series, we come this week to a very ancient form of prayer found in the collection of early writings known in our Judaeo-Christian tradition as the Psalms, the prayer of lament.

If the words we just heard sound at all familiar to you, it is likely because all four Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, draw on the imagery found in this Psalm to paint their picture of Jesus’ final hours on earth.  We hear this psalm echoed in those who mock Jesus as he hangs on the cross taunting him with questions about where his God is now and in those who cast lots for his clothing.  And in Matthew and Mark’s versions of the crucifixion, Jesus actually quotes Psalm 22nd as he hangs on the cross, his death looming before him, they are his last words.

For me, it’s this use of the psalm to describe Jesus’ experience on the cross, that has helped me to understand God not as one who causes suffering, but as one who intimately knows and is with us in our suffering.  If Jesus, the one whom Christians say embodies most fully the presence of the Divine in human form, knows what it is like to feel forsaken by God, then God knows what it is to feel the depths of human suffering.

But before any connection was ever made between this psalm and Jesus, this psalm would have been known and prayed by our Jewish ancestors within their community of worship.  So in the same way when I say the words “The Lord is my Shepherd” many of you can automatically respond “I shall not want” (and at least some of you could keep going and recite the entirety of the 23rd Psalm), within the Jewish community, when the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are said, there are those who would respond by saying “Why are you so far from helping, from the words of my groaning?  O My God I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”  This would be true for dedicated Jews in our day and age, and certainly true for ancient worshipers whose practice was to memorize the psalms so they knew them by heart.

It’s worth it for us to look at this psalm for its’ merit aside from its’ connections to Jesus.  If we do that, if we see it purely as prayer of lament, we might begin to find connections between these words and our own life of faith.  At the least, we will find some instruction for how we might pray when we find ourselves in the depths of our own suffering and despair.  Because what’s true about all of our lives, is that if that hasn’t already come in our lifetime, what will come is some experience of the kind of suffering that makes us feel socially and spiritually disconnected.

The first thing to say about this psalm and about other psalms of lament, of which there are many in our bible, is that it gives us permission to rant at God, to pour out our anger and sense of disconnection.  To yell into the abyss “I cry and cry and cry day and night and night and day but you do not answer me!”  “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax: it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death – I am as good as dead and you do not seem to care.”

When we are in that kind of despair, there is catharsis in simply getting that kind of emotion out and there is safety in directing it towards someone other than our friends and family.  In this grasping at absence, there is also a grasping of presence. (I can’t tell you how many times I have encouraged people to let loose their anger at God because God can actually handle it.)

But a lament is not all about ranting at God.  If we return to the psalm, we notice that there is a pattern to this individual’s lament.  They rant and then they remember. After the first rant, the psalmist remembers that his ancestors trusted in God.  They cried to God, they were saved, they were not put to shame.

One of the most powerful things about being part of a faith community is that we don’t have to rely only on our own faith.  When my faith is weak, I can lean on the strength of your faith.

Years ago I had a friend who was trying to get pregnant.  She had numerous miscarriages and so there came a time when she was pregnant once again and she said to her community of support.  “I’m sorry but I can’t bring myself to hope that this baby will be carried to term.”  She was too vulnerable, too worn out by grief to open herself to the possibility of new life once again.  And so those of us who knew her and loved her well said “don’t worry, we will carry the hope for you.  We will pray for you and pray for the baby.”

I’ve seen the same thing happen with people who thought they couldn’t overcome an addiction and with others who thought that the torment they were experiencing due to painful memories of the past could never be released.  In each of these circumstances they needed to lean on the faith and strength of others until they were able to gain their own faith and strength.

I don’t think there is a single human emotion or experience that someone in the long history of our ancestors in the faith hasn’t felt or experienced in some way.  Although we have no idea what the circumstances are that have caused the writer of Psalm 22 to say “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we do know that there is something about evoking the memory of the faith of their ancestors, the memory of the community of faith, that helps them to embrace the reality of their present moment.

Great question for us to ponder today is who are the models of faith that you draw on or could draw on in your own times of suffering?  They might be actual people or communities of faith or they might be the words of scripture, biblical characters or the words and melodies of hymns that have been sung across time.

Last year when I was on restorative care leave and feeling isolated from all of you, holed up in my bedroom lying on my recovery bed, I found myself drawn to songs of faith.  I would sit for hours searching you tube for golden oldies like Great is Thy Faithfulness and songs from the Iona community and chants from Taize that have imprinted themselves on my heart and soul over the years because they were passed onto me from former generations.   It was my way of drawing on the faith of my ancestors and on the faith of all of you who have influenced my own faith through your courage and trust and your faith.

After the psalmist remembers the faith of his/her ancestors they return again to their despair: “But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.  Commit your cause to the Lord, they say, let him rescue you if he delights in you so much.”

The sentiment is akin to the old “why do bad things happen to good people.”  It’s the old “where is your God now?” question that comes up when people think that the measure of God’s presence in someone’s life is directly related to the circumstances of their lives.

When the psalmist starts to spiral down into this pool of doubt and self-loathing, he draws himself back up by remembering his inherent value as a human being. “It was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.”  Now, the strength he leans into is no longer the faith of others, it’s the strength of his own personal experience of God’s presence and what he knows in the depth of his being to be true about himself.

To be able to access our own belovedness in moments of challenge and affliction is possibly the most powerful tool that any of us have in our prayer toolkit.  To be able to remember our inherent worth when we are being criticized or even betrayed by others, to remember we are loved in those moments when we slip into wondering if we have done something to deserve whatever catastrophe or illness has befallen us creates in us the kind of resiliency that allows us to endure and even thrive in the midst of any kind of suffering and struggle.   Sometimes, if we are fortunate, that memory will come to us automatically in those moments.  For many of us, because we are surrounded by so many messages that cause us to question our self-worth on a day to day basis we actually have to train ourselves to recognize our belovedness even in the best of circumstances.

That’s one of the reasons we gather week in and week out in this place, to train our souls to recognize our beauty, our worth and our value as part of God’s beloved creation.  So that in times when all of that is being questioned or times when we are afraid, we will be quick or quicker to remember.

Finally, something to note about Psalm 22 is that there is no mention of God’s response to the writer who cries out in despair.  Yet there is a very distinct change in mood and theme about three quarters of the way through indicating that something has happened, that a positive response from God is believed to have been received.

For me this speaks to the way that sometimes, prayer, in and of itself is enough to extend the horizon of the present moment.  When we lift our voices in prayer, no matter what the circumstances may be, we relate the moment we are in to something larger, longer and more enduring.  When we do that we are often able to gain a deeper trust that we are not alone, that God’s goodness is stronger and more enduring than anything we might be experiencing in the present moment. When we chose to pray the words of someone who also knows what it is like to feel abandoned, afraid and isolated, if nothing else, we feel the companionship of a fellow pilgrim.

Perhaps that is why it is said that Jesus chose Psalm 22 to recite from the cross.  Few things comfort us more than the presence of someone who can identify with us.  In our own moments of suffering, grief and despair, may we too be given the gift of lamentation and remembering.