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Always Close

Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on Mar. 8 2009.

Psalm 22:23-31

So what do we do when “Peek-a-Boo,” one of earliest childhood games, turns into “Hide and Seek,” a game that later foreshadows our first painful trauma of being lost, a trauma that seizes us because we feel forgotten? The terror of abandonment expressed so honestly in this psalm taps into one of our earliest fears that we could go missing and no one would come rescue us.
 
Psalm 22 captures the thoughts of one caught in the crossfire between the experiences of doubt and faith. It’s about one that experiences tremendous doubt and yet one can still voice the orthodoxy of faith even if the affirmation of faith falters. First the doubt, then the surety … he careens back and forth in the form of a deeply felt, existential Q and A. The questions are painful while at the same time the questioner offers his own reassuring answers. In that dynamic sense of deep questions and searching answers we are alive in faith. It can be a painful (even threatening) way to live, but at least we know we’re alive. If abandonment is at the heart of the questions in the first half of Psalm 22, what help does he find that offers relief in the second half?
 
He did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I called him (Vs. 24)
 
Those who seek him shall praise the LORD (Vs. 26)
 
All the ends of the earth shall remember
And turn to the LORD (Vs. 27)
 
In the prayer, there’s both humiliation and supplication in the voice of the one praying. It’s a tapestry woven with threads of severe feelings of distress but also with strong proclamations of confidence. It leads us to ask: Can shaky faith be a word of confidence spoken bravely in a time of trouble? Does it help us to speak of answers in the darkness of the question? It is said that in times of deep stress, Martin Luther would make the sign of the cross on his forehead as we did on Ash Wednesday and whisper quietly to himself as if in the moment of his greatest need he required a reminder, “You are baptized … you are baptized … you are baptized.”
 
What is it you do that helps ground you in the faith while at the same time riding through the storms of pain or anxiety? How do you stay connected to the moorings of your faith while the storms rage fiercely around you? In moments like that, we become like little children who speak loudly into the darkness because we’re afraid. Maybe that kind of faith is the most sincere faith we can know.
 
            One of my friends said recently, “Every Sunday during Lent is a little like Easter. If that’s the case,” he went on to say, “today I’ve felt a little like I’m waiting for the tomb to open, letting Jesus out so He can minister to me again. Lent is hard work – at least the introspection part of it.” 
I
 
Psalm 22 re-emerges as the text used on Good Friday to describe the utter sense of despair Jesus felt as he hung suspended between heaven and earth on the cross of sin, sorrow, and suffering. Jesus exhales into the darkness of mid-afternoon a cry bearing the sin of all humanity as he felt the aloneness of being abandoned by God. Some of us may not have room in our theology for Jesus to experience the abandonment of God. Honestly, I think that’s fully understandable. We’re not given this picture of Jesus often and when we hear it for the first time, we can’t imagine it to be true. Some theologians soften the blow of the feelings of abandonment by calling it “the hiddenness of God.” We see Jesus basking in the light of God’s love and light. We watch Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love for the world and his complete embracing of all humankind. But we don’t pay attention to those moments when Jesus struggles with God about those “backside of the desert” experiences when the mystery seems to overwhelm the presence of God and the questions rise up and smack down the trite and simple answers we’ve heard since our childhood. What do we do in that moment of having our eyes opened?
 
Most of us know little of this in our own experience but it is a known reality for the mystics who wrote of this describing it as “the dark night of the soul.” It’s the sense of utter abandonment felt when one comes to the end of the journey and there seems to be no hope. It’s what one experiences when one is broken and all hope is crushed. It’s the despair of having no hope about the future.
 
            In the midst of the darkest time of WWII, the storm clouds finally broke and Allied forces retook the death camps. They “set free the captives,” as Jesus would say it and began the slow work of caring for those decimated human beings who were treated as though they were not human. In one of the camps in Cologne, Germany, the troops began the work of cleaning out the prisons where so many Jewish prisoners had been housed before they entered the gas chambers. Scratched on the wall one soldier found this prayer: I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I do not feel it. I believe in God, even when God is silent.

II
 
            Jesus understood the silence. He experienced it firsthand in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked the disciples to stay awake with him in prayer. It was a silence of deafening proportions on the eve before his time of suffering. But that was only the beginning for Christ understood the absence of God most acutely as he hung on the cross. The gospel writers all describe the strange, unexplainable darkness that symbolized God’s absence between noon and three as Jesus hung when the weight of human sin was hung on him. In the despair of that moment, Jesus cried into the darkness that had enveloped that hill and all those who stood on it the utter emptiness of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1, NRSV).
 
            Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel says that much of what the Bible demands of us can be summed up in a single word: Remember. Heschel recalls the German Catholic liberationist theologian Johannes Metz who suggests there are two kinds of memories. (1.) There are memories that simply make us feel good. They glide over all that is oppressive and demanding. (2.) But there are also dangerous memories because they make demands on us. They reveal perilous insights for us and they illuminate the nature of things. Metz goes on to suggest the most demanding type of memory for the Christian is the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We love the Jesus alive-in-love who wandered over the Judean hillsides caring for people where they lived. We love the Jesus who ate with people and who confronted the oppressive control of the Jewish religious leaders. We even love the Jesus who had the fire in his belly over making sure our actions were as sincere as our words. But the Jesus who submitted himself to suffering and dying for our sins is hard for us to handle.
 
 
III
 
            So if the silence of God is the question, what’s the answer? How does the psalmist come around to speak into the darkness with an answer in faith? Again, he calls on sacred memory to answer the question. “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,” he says. “And all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (Psalm 22:27, NRSV). We speak to the fears of the darkness by calling forth sacred memory and letting the power of the resurrection shine the light of God’s great faithfulness into the darkness of our fears. How is it we practice the spiritual art of re-membering? We do it in faithful re-enactments that take us back to those places where God was with us, active in history bringing about our redemption.
 
In the old historic village of Salem, North Carolina, there’s a 200-year old Moravian church in the heart of the town. The town is astir on Easter morning in the early morning darkness just before dawn to reenact and remember. Five hundred members of various brass bands begin playing from different points in the town and they all begin to move towards the Salem Square. Townspeople and others who’ve come to join them gather in that square as the bands approach. When the bands arrive, a hush falls over the crowd and at 6:00 am the church bell tolls and the Bishop emerges from the church and announces in a clear, strong voice, “Christ is risen!” and the people respond in one voice, “He is risen indeed!” The brass bands lead the people in singing, Christ is Risen Today and everyone joins in the singing. Then, in total silence, they walk in faithful procession to “God’s Acre,” an ancient cemetery, where all the graves are covered with flowers. Even the oldest graves, some of them dating back 300 or more years are decorated with forsythia, jonquils, tulips, azaleas, whatever happens to be in bloom. The service concludes there with more singing and remembrance of those who’ve died and now lie in fresh graves in the previous years.

            We’re on our way toward the day of Christ’s resurrection from the grave. It’s a day of joy and hope. It’s a day when the church calls upon the power of faithful remembrance. It’s a day when the world’s great despair is swallowed up in the hope of resurrection!