Forsaken by God: Susannah’s Story

[A Good Friday Sermon, preached by Sylvia Keesmaat at St. James, Fenelon Falls on April 15, 2017]

From the time that I was small, I wondered.

Oh, I knew the stories of old.
How God had chosen our father Abraham,
how God had called my people as his own,
people he would never abandon.

I knew the great stories:
deliverance from the slavery of Egypt;
the giving of the promised land.

I knew the promise of a king like David,
and the building of a temple where God
would come to live with us, his people.

I heard these stories from my mother
as we prepared food,
from my father as I helped him in the fields.

I even sang these stories
in the words of the psalms of old,
the songs of God’s faithfulness to God’s people.

But hearing and singing were no longer enough.

I had trouble believing these stories
because I couldn’t see them.

All I could see
was the violence and rubble of war.
Ever since I was a child, all I had seen was war.

And with war,
had come hunger.
What the soldiers didn’t destroy,
they demanded,
to feed their horses,
their pack animals,

With war,
came fear.
Fear of being out alone at night.
Fear of children being taken
as fighters.
Fear of teenagers running off
to fight of their own free will,
looking for a better future.
Fear of rape,
when the soldiers came through the villages.
Fear of torture if we didn’t worship
the emperor.
Fear of crucifixion
for those of us who resisted.

Always fear.
Fear our daily bread.

Can you imagine why I wondered?
Why I began to sing the Psalms
that cried out?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

How else could we describe our suffering,
except by saying that God had forsaken us?

What else could it mean that we
cried out by day,
and in the darkness of the night,
but found no rest?

Did this not mean that God had abandoned us?
Is this not why our enemies could circle around us
like dogs coming in for the kill?

When we looked at our starving children,
and saw their ribs and collarbones
—why we could count their bones!—
when we were too weak to even resist those
who would take our last clothing
and divide it among themselves
when these things happened,
did this not mean that God had left us?
Abandoned us?
Forsaken us?

What else could it mean?

I had lived with this bitter truth,
the bitter truth that God had left us,
for many years now.

So many years,
that when the stories began about the new prophet,
when they said that God had come in him,
I didn’t believe it.

Just the delusions of the gullible,
those who couldn’t face up to the bitter reality
of God’s abandonment.

But then Judith, my neighbour,
convinced me to go and see him.

It was a hot day,
and we walked for a few hours
before we saw the crowds.
I had never seen so many people in my life!
The whole hillside was covered.
I couldn’t imagine even coming close
enough to see him, or hear anything that he said.

But that didn’t really matter.

A man showed us his son,
who had been blind, but now could see.
A woman born with a clubfoot,
was now straight and whole.
A man who had been possessed by a demon,
was now full of life and laughter.
Another woman, who had been possessed by a demon
ever since the soldiers had ruined her,
was now at peace.

So the stories went on.
But still we could not get close to the prophet.

And then there was a murmur through the crowd:
sit down, sit, in groups of fifty.
So we sat.
And men came around with baskets of bread and fish,
enough for the whole crowd.

Could this man really be God’s prophet?
For when God was with us,
there was food.
When God was with us,
there was enough.

After that day I began to follow Jesus
from village to village.
Just because I was curious.

I wanted to know if God had returned.
And sometimes I thought that God was among us again:
the sick healed,
the hungry fed,
our sins forgiven,
good news shared,
money shared,
promises of hope for the grieving,
the mournful,
and those who longed for God to come with justice.

But often I didn’t believe it was true.
How could God have returned
when we were still suffering so deeply?

And even though people said that this Jesus
was really one of us,
I had trouble believing that, too.

First of all, the stories were unbelievable:
that he had been born in a barn with animals,
and laid in the feeding trough, in straw,
for lack of anything better.
As though his parents had no home.
And that he had and parents had fled
as refugees to Egypt,
when Herod killed all the children in Bethlehem.

It is true that now he had nothing:
no home,
no place to lay his head,
except for the hospitality of others.
He was dependent on hand-outs for food,
or people inviting him to their homes for a meal.

He also had to be careful of the Jewish leadership.
He had to keep his head down near the Romans.

But, even if this was all true,
it was also clear,
that Jesus had never felt that God was absent.
He always had a sense that God was with him,
providing all that he needed:
even shelter.

When had Jesus really suffered what we were suffering?
When had Jesus ever been forsaken, alone?

So things stood when the passover came.
I had gone to Jerusalem
because people had said that Jesus
was to start his revolution.
And when he did, God would finally become king!
And then we would know,
we would know
that God had not abandoned us for good.

It was a long and hot journey.
We had hoped to arrive early in the week,
but in the end we arrived at the eve of the passover.

I was staying with my cousin, who lived in Jerusalem,
who often hosted the family for the passover celebration.
She had told us over the meal
all that Jesus had done in Jerusalem that week,
and how the temple authorities were trying to hunt him down.
Everyone was hopeful that he would escape;
he had gone into hiding that very night.
As we lay sleeping in our beds,
at the 4th watch of the night,
we heard a pounding on the door.

“Jesus has been arrested! He is at the house of Pilate!”
Arrested! How could that be?
Had he, too, been abandoned by God?

We didn’t know what we should do.
We could join the crowds outside Pilate’s house,
but that would show that we supported Jesus.
Then we might be arrested to.
So we stayed in the house, and waited for more news.

Finally, in the late morning, we heard.
Jesus was to crucified on Golgotha.

At that I could stay in the house no longer.
I ran as quickly as I could, and joined the crowds
heading out of the city.

And there he was, nailed up between two other men.
He had been tortured.
He was clearly in pain.
And, unbelievably, he was still seemed to feel God’s presence,
for he spoke, and said,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

How could he do this?

How could he assume that God still listened to him?
How could he assume that God who listened had compassion,
even on his enemies?
Imagine asking God to have compassion on his enemies,
when God seemed to have no compassion on Jesus himself?

I just didn’t get this.

And as I waited it got darker and darker.
As dark as the dead of night.
The kind of darkness that makes you think
you will never see light again.
The kind of darkness that makes
you feel alone and comfortless.
The kind of darkness
where God’s absence is felt the most.

And then Jesus lifted up his voice.
And he prayed my prayer,
he prayed the words of the psalm,
the words that my people had cried
through the centuries,
the words that I had cried over and over,
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

And that is how I knew that he really was one of us.
That is how I knew
that the sufferings he carried were my sufferings,
that the grief he bore was my grief,
that the sins that held him on the cross
were the sins we had suffered from,
that his punishment
was our punishment.

That’s all there is to tell, really.

Maybe God had come to us in Jesus.
For, in the end, Jesus had experienced our loss,
our emptiness,
our grief at God’s absence.
He had not been spared the death
that stalks my people.

All I know is this:
As I walked the streets of Jerusalem.
As I saw the hungry, the sick,
those sleeping in rubble,
the children with their gaunt faces,
and the grieving women,
I saw Jesus.

I saw Jesus,
in the godforsaken whose cry he uttered on the cross.

Sylvia Keesmaat
Sylvia Keesmaat is a biblical scholar-activist whose passions are teaching the Bible, heirloom tomatoes, and permaculture. She explores radical discipleship and resilience on an off-grid permaculture farm with her husband Brian Walsh and a fluctuating number of people and animals.

Sylvia is the author of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, both co-authored with Brian Walsh. In her down-time she teaches part-time at Wycliffe College and Trinity College in Toronto.

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