Last year, I was invited to preach at a “Seven Last Sayings” service at Candler School of Theology, where I was completing my seminary education. This particular Lent was not even a year after the events at Ferguson, Missouri — the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests. In the face of the ongoing onslaught of violence against African Americans, the organizer of the service chose to have each preacher pair one of Jesus’s seven last sayings with the last words of an unjustly slain person of color.
I was assigned “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This saying was placed alongside the last words of Kendrec McDade, an unarmed, Black, teenage boy who was shot to death by police officers in Pasadena, California in 2012.
It’s going on 18 months since I preached this homily. Nothing much has changed in the national climate. Black people are still being unjustly killed — murdered — in communities all across America. As a society we keep looking for ways to justify it.
I’ve never published the full text of my sermon from this event. This week I decided that now is the time to do so. I recommend you take the time to listen to all the preachers. The homilies shared that day are as relevant as ever. The event is available on YouTube.
Kendrec McDade died with a question on his lips. “Why?”
“Why did you shoot me?” he asked the EMT who was attempting to save him as he bled out on the street, his young, black body pierced by eight bullets fired from two guns by two Pasadena police officers. Eight bullets. Eight holes. One for each time a 9–1–1 caller mentioned the word “gun” in a call for help he would later recant.
Eight bullets. Two Guns. One dead boy. One question. Why?
Kendrec McDade wasn’t the first to ask the question.
I’m reminded of another body. It was a also pierced. Not by bullets, but by cruel spikes driven into hands and feet by officers of the Roman law. Jesus’ body hung on a cross as blood oozed from his wounds and his ragged breath began to fail him. With a final rally of strength, with one more painful breath, Jesus screamed into the darkness that had fallen around him. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why, God? Why do boys and girls, young men and women, have to keep on dying? Why do their bodies have to be riddled with bullets over and over and over again? Why does society pay lip service to the idea that all lives matter and then prove otherwise by the count of the black and brown bodies left dead in the street?
Why? Why have you forsaken us, God? The darkness is forming around us and we ask, “Why?”
With every beating and every bullet, with every stop and every frisk, with every glance over a shoulder, and every heartless and unkind word I can hear a hammer falling on a nail that tears through flesh and bone and lands with a sickening thud in the wood beneath. I hear the hammer and I hear a scream “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why? Why have you forsaken us, God?
Where have you gone in our hour of trial? Where have you gone when a black boy lays dying on the pavement? Where have you gone when the grand jury says “No true bill” and another injustice goes into the books unimpeded? Why have you forsaken us, God?
My God, my God, where have you gone?
Where have you gone, God, when the darkness falls, when the cross hovers between heaven and earth and love itself hangs bleeding from a tree? Where, my God, have you gone?
Why have you forsaken me?
There’s a crucifix, it’s actually my favorite crucifix, that depicts Jesus’ sacrificial death in a very unique way. It’s called the Trinity Crucifix, and, instead of displaying Jesus on the cross by himself, this particular crucifix gives and artistic representation of the entire Trinity at the scene of Christ’s death. There’s Jesus, obviously, on the cross, and, above his head, the traditional depiction of the Holy Spirit as a dove. But the most interesting part of this crucifix is the way it depicts the first person of the Trinity. God the Father, on this crucifix, is behind Jesus, with arms wrapped around Jesus’ body and tucked beneath his arms. God the Father holds the Son up on the cross.
We ask “Why?” Why have you forsaken us, God? Where did you go?
And God answers, “I’m at the cross. I’m holding that boy as he dies in the street. I’m weeping with the momma who will never hold her son again. I’m in the courtroom when they say ‘It was justified.’”
The cross is God’s definitive statement of solidarity with those who suffer. In the person of Jesus Christ, God allows every milliliter of evil and suffering that humankind can muster to spend its full force on his body, psyche and soul. And from the cross Jesus cries out “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” God incarnate shares our dismay at the sheer brutal power that suffering contains. Suffering and evil, violence and death are so powerful they seem to overshadow even God. Everything lovely and beautiful shrinks and gives way, every particle of creation recoils in horror and cowers in terror at the gruesome spectacle of a broken body hanging, limp and lifeless, on a cross, of a black boy’s body bleeding his life away on the warm asphalt of a California city street.
“My God, my God,” we cry. “Why have you forsaken us? Where did you go?”
Jesus — the God who dies, alone and forsaken on the cross — shares our anguished groan, our dismay, and our rage as sorrow and love co-mingle in the tears that drip from his bloody face and mangled beard. Jesus Christ is God’s love incarnate, the flesh and blood that brings God’s love to humankind. He is the beaten and disfigured God. He is the God who suffers, who allows himself to be overwhelmed by suffering.
My God, where did you go?
If you want to know were God is, look no further than Kendrec McDade’s gunshot body lying dead in the street. If you want to know where God is, look into the bloodshot, weary, weeping eyes of a mother who will never see her baby boy walk through the front door again.
If you want to know where God is, look at the cross. God is there.