Where is God?
by Louise Westfall
How quickly did the shouts of Hosanna turn into jeers of Crucify Him! The fear of religious and political leaders that Jesus was changing everything influenced the verdict of capital punishment. Disappointment that Jesus wasn’t the “messiah” everyone hoped for, turned into spitting rage. We must always acknowledge that Judaism bears no greater responsibility for Jesus’ death than that of all humanity. The whole world has failed to see God in the faces of brothers and sisters, and the very image reflected in our mirror. We have counted ourselves both too small to be deserving of God’s love and too great to need it. The cross casts its shadow upon us all. The reading today from Matthew chapter 27, is a scene from Jesus’ crucifixion, one that raises questions and protests and heart-felt cries that seem especially relevant as we live under the sentence of coronavirus. Listen for God’s word to us today.
[Gospel Reading, Matthew 27:38-46]
You don’t have to be a theologian to struggle with the question of God’s goodness and power in the face of suffering. In fact, the most meaningful language about it is spoken (or screamed or sighed) by people in pain. I had been a pastor for about five minutes before visiting a congregational family whose 14-year-old daughter had been injured in a motorcycle accident. She had been hospitalized for two weeks and her devout family had organized around-the-clock prayers for her healing. But she died. Her father simply could not reconcile a God who would allow this to happen with a God worth worshiping. (Personally, I’d say anyone whose child dies gets a pass). And let me say from the outset that there is no “solution” to the problem of unmerited suffering. Illness, accidents, tragedies both natural and human-made are part of life.
But I wonder if the crucifixion offers guidance about how to respond to these realities — particularly now as we struggle with whole scale death and the threat of death, stay-at-home orders, economic uncertainties, and myriad losses from minor to profound. In a Time Magazine essay this week, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright challenges an understanding of the God above it all, the One in charge of everything, unmoved by the troubles of earth’s people. The biblical witness points to a God who grieves and mourns over the predicament of the beloved community. The God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, the God of Jesus is a God who weeps at the grave of his friend, the God whose Holy Spirit “groans” at the weight of human suffering. The cry of Jesus on the cross, “why have you forsaken me?” is a stark expression of abandonment, but it is not a howl thrown into an impersonal universe, but is addressed to God, the One Jesus knew as Abba, loving parent.
So I wonder if first of all of we can allow our own pain to draw us closer to God –precisely because God understands. Rather than seeing God as a spiritual opioid to numb and relieve our hurts, can we hold fast to the God who suffers with us? When he preached the first sermon after his teenaged son’s death, the late William Sloan Coffin could affirm through tears that “the first of all our hearts to break was God’s.”
The crucified God is the God of broken things, who takes them up in loving arms and mends and restores and resurrects. The cross did not speak the last word.
And somehow, friends, I can trust in a God who weeps, whose heart breaks, a God who meets me where I am, be it in anger or loneliness or restless anxiety or absolute terror. A God who bears the full fury of my frustrations and stays with me, without so much as a single “cheer up, Louise, and have faith.”
And it is in that Divine presence, so often perceived as a “still, small voice,” or no voice at all, that something happens. The crucified God is the God of broken things, who takes them up in loving arms and mends and restores and resurrects. The cross did not speak the last word. The coronavirus will not get the victory in the long run.
So where is God? And what is God doing?
God was with Jesus in his darkest hour, when all hope was abandoned, when he felt most alone. God was with Jesus as his dead body was removed from the cross and sealed in a borrowed tomb. God was with Jesus on that great gettin’ up morning still to come, when what seemed like The End became the beginning of something wholly new.
Friends, God is with us in this unholy week of deepening illness, critical shortages, and unanswered questions. God is with us in our homes, as we strain to deal with new patterns of relationships, working and getting schooled (in more ways than one), as we miss the touch of a hand, the comfort of a hug, and the easy laughter of companionship in person. This is a hard time, but know that you are not alone. We are walking a road that God in Christ walked before us, that God walks FOR us, and that God walks WITH us, every step of the way. And in ways that may seem as unimaginable to us as they did to those first disciples, God is at work. In intensive care units and public policy offices and medical laboratories and food pantries and homeless shelters and Zoom meetings and phone call check-ins and FaceTime and live streamed worship and news briefings and temporary morgues, God is working. In a thoughtful Facebook post, one of our Central docs counseled to find your role in this crisis–reach out with help to loved ones and neighbors, sew, write, encourage, cook, connect, teach, pray. Remember the most vulnerable. This is how God works: through people, through Spirit, through deep, silent longing and blood, sweat, and tears, to transform all that is dying into a triumph song of life. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? —I’ve always heard the question from the African American spiritual as a call to would be disciples. Were you there? But maybe instead it is a prayer, a song of praise to the God whose response yesterday, today, and forever is a resounding YES.