Sermons

Sermon: Monday, April 30, 2018: Texts for the 5th Sunday after Easter

Text: Acts 8:26-40

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Pastor Erik with the (future) Rev. Leah Fowler doing street outreach in his signature summer clerical shirt that earned him the nickname “Baby Blue Priest.”

I spent the summer after my first year of seminary doing street outreach with runaway, homeless, and street-dependent youth in Atlanta in neighborhoods like Little Five Points, Midtown, the Old Fourth Ward, and downtown; but this phone call that I got on my very first cell phone (a flip phone) from an anxious mother didn’t come until the summer was over and I was back in school the fall of my middler year. I was walking back to my car after a morning of classes when the phone rang. Those were the days when I still picked up for unknown numbers. I answered expecting it to be someone from school, instead it was a woman who immediately asked who I was.

I told her my name, Erik, and wondered if she might have the wrong number. She said she’d gotten this number off a business card she found in her son’s bedroom. The card had my name and phone number and the name of my summer project, “Street Chaplains.” She wanted to know what it meant, street chaplain, and what I’d been speaking to her son about. I wish I could have taken a page from the recently terminated Congressional chaplain and replied, “hospital chaplains pray about health. Congressional chaplains pray about Congress. Street chaplains pray about the streets.”

But, the truth was, I had no idea what I’d said to her son. I’d spoken to hundreds of people over the course of the summer. I’d trained a handful of my classmates in the basics of safe, ethical outreach, work I’d done before going to seminary. Together we’d gone out in pairs, day after hot summer day, talking to every young person we found. We’d ask them if they had a safe place to sleep, or if they knew someone who didn’t. We handed out these business cards dozens of times every hour, and every once in a while we got to have a meaningful conversation with a young person experiencing homelessness. I didn’t always get people’s names, and I rarely remembered the ones I did get. So I really had no way of connecting this caller with a memory of her child.

The easier thing to do would have been to explain all this quickly and get off the phone. The summer was over, after all. The project was finished, the final report written and turned in. The subject of this conversation was in my past. To reopen the topic would be to make space for a detour on my way to the day I’d planned for myself. Except this woman had my number, and I still had the phone and this call.

I could hear something in her voice, a question she wanted to ask and an answer she didn’t want to hear. So I asked if her child was alright. She said, “I think he’s gay,” and I could tell from her voice that this thought brought her no joy. 

I remember wondering what my duty was in that moment. Did she deserve to know that she was speaking to a gay man? Should I make that clear so that she could decide how much she wanted to say, or not to say? But I didn’t. Instead I told her that I’d met lots of LGBTQIA+ (well, I probably said “gay and lesbian”) kids out on the streets, kids who’d run away from home or been kicked out. Youth who’d been humiliated. Youth who’d been denied justice. Youth led to the slaughter. I didn’t say that last part, that’s from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And, because the business card said “chaplain” on it, she felt free to ask me; more than that, she wanted to know what I thought the bible had to say on the topic of gay and lesbian people (though I’m sure she said “homosexuals”). So, like Philip, I was invited to help interpret scripture.

graffitti artI do remember one of the people I met that summer. I’d been outreaching in the Little Five points neighborhood on a scorching hot day. I was wearing cargo shorts, a baby blue short-sleeved clerical shirt and collar, and carrying an over the shoulder bag in which I’d packed business cards, bottles of water, a social services referral guide, condoms, etc. and I’d just purchased a soft serve ice cream cone to cool me down. Then I spotted this boy, almost a young man, no more than seventeen. He was tall, thin, white, all angles. I made it a practice to talk to anyone who looked twenty or younger, but he’d seen me scoping him out and he spoke first. Spinning on his heel to confront me at a stoplight that had just turned red, he unleashed the kind of fierce fury that’s hard for anyone over twenty to sustain. He came at me hard.

“What are you looking at, preacher man?” I told him my name, explained what I was doing, and asked if he had a safe place to sleep. “People like you are the reason I don’t. ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.’ That’s what the priest told my parents. So Dad showed me ‘tough love’ by kicking me out and telling me not to come home until I’d manned up. So excuse me if I don’t give a shit.”  By now the ice cream had melted and was dripping down over my fist, but I couldn’t find anything useful to say. The boy just kept going, delivering his final blow, “Is your church ready for this homosexual?” My next words were pathetic and inadequate to the wounds this child had just revealed. I’ve never forgotten him, or his question.

As for this mother waiting on the phone for me to speak, I honestly don’t remember what I said next. I just know that the passages I might have quoted and the interpretations I would have given were not what she was expecting. I likely told the story from Acts 10 in which Cornelius calls for Peter, who then has the vision of the sheet being lowered from heaven, filled with unclean animals, and the divine voice that challenges Peter’s received theology and established practice, saying “What God has called clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15) Or maybe I quoted Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We spoke for fifteen minutes, twenty at the most. When it was over, she didn’t ask to meet me or request to be baptized. I wouldn’t even say she left the conversation rejoicing over the good news I’d shared. All I know is that, like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, I never heard from her again.

In the book of Acts, the Samaritan mission (under the leadership of Philip, whose saint day is observed tomorrow) signals the beginning of the spread of the gospel beyond the boundaries of traditional Judaism. For that reason, this story has served as an entry point for a number of communities that have historically been marginalized by the kinds of Christianity practiced by the dominant culture. When the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss came here to preach last fall, to kick off our commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this was the passage he selected for preaching, reminding us that this African figure has been misrepresented and aspects of his history and identity erased down through the centuries; the presumption that he was an outsider on the basis of his African identity a willful forgetfulness that Israelite religion had made its way to Africa as far back as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and that this Ethiopian eunuch is not identified in the text as a Gentile God-fearer, but simply as one “who had come to Jerusalem to worship.” He could just as easily have been a Jew attempting to worship at the temple. The very fact that later audiences, that White audiences, felt the need to imagine him as an outsider on the basis of his national identity, with its roots in Africa, speaks to modern racial ideas and not the worldview of the scripture itself.

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The Rev. Dr. James Cone (1936-2018)

This morning I can’t help but think that these insights owe a great debt to one of the most powerful theological voices of our generation, who died over the weekend. The Rev. Dr. James Cone, author of books that shaped a generation of teachers and leaders in the church and in society: Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, The Cross and the Lynching Tree; teacher and mentor and guide. A man whose work reflected a holy anger at the disenfranchisement of black lives and disfigurement of black bodies, but will also be remembered for the warmth of his smile and the joy in his laughter. A fully human being, who we can imagine might have heard the desperation in the Ethiopian eunuch’s voice when he read aloud, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” and then asked, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Because, at this point in the story, the Ethiopian eunuch does not know about Jesus, so we can only assume that he hears something in this account from Isaiah that reminds him of his own suffering, which reminds us of our own suffering, which is why this figure has remained central to the theological imaginations of all who suffer and therefore to liberation theology as well. I imagine Dr. Cone stepping into that chariot with Philip and the eunuch and teaching us once again that,

Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism … The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering … Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity. (A Black Theology of Liberation, pp. 63-64)

What lesbian and gay, bi and trans, queer and intersex, non-binary folk and anyone else whose sexual or gender identity is not normalized by culture have seen in the Ethiopian eunuch is one who would have been excluded from the temple, Jewish or not, on the basis of his sexual or gender identity. As a castrated man, he was not allowed access to the temple under Deuteronomic law, he was a gender outlaw, scarred and defective, impure and subject to stereotypes. But the prophet Isaiah announces that God will “recover the remnant that is left of my people … from Ethiopia” (Isa. 11:11) and that “eunuchs who keep [the] sabbath” will be welcomed home and will receive “a name better than sons and daughters.” (Isa. 56:4-5) What is at stake for the Ethiopian eunuch, and for many queer exegetes, is not the authority of scripture but its interpretation. Is God the one who authorizes the exclusion from the temple, or the one who gathers the remnant and welcomes the despised and the rejected home? That is the kind of question that requires a guide, an exegete, a theologian. That is the kind of question that, depending how it’s answered, can either end a life or save one.

Black liberation theology set the table for the ever-expanding host of liberation theologies that have followed. My ability to find myself in this text owes a debt of gratitude to the work of James Cone and others who have helped me to know at the core of my being that at the very place where the world turns its back on me, God is with me, God is for me, God is on my side because God sides with the oppressed. And that, likewise, at any place where I would use the name of God to contribute to or continue the oppression of others, that is not true Christianity. It is White Christianity, it is straight Christianity, it is middle-class Christianity, it is respectability-politics Christianity, it is colonial Christianity, and therefore it is not Christianity. You and I, who have been baptized, have drowned to those lies. We rise from these waters as the children of God and joint heirs with Christ of a freedom that cannot be taken away from us. We are fully human. We are alive.

As we prepare to take our leave of one another near the end of another rich, full and difficult school year, pay attention to those who share the road with you. Listen for the phone call that threatens to take you off the path you’d set for yourself. Be prepared to give an account of the faith that is in you, in you, knowing that the right word at the right time can save a life. 

Good theology saves lives.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 22, 2018: Fourth Sunday in Easter

The following sermon was preached at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hinsdale, IL in connection with their “Renewing Redeemer” capital campaign.

Texts: Acts 4:5-12  +  Psalm 23  +  1 John 3:16-24  +  John 10:11-18

Grace and peace be with you in the name of God’s beloved, Jesus the Christ, risen from the dead. Alleluia!

I am so happy to be with you this morning as we continue to worship in the joy of the Easter season, to rejoice in God’s power to bring new life to people and places left for dead. In my call as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago I am given opportunities to proclaim this divine reality on a daily basis, especially right about how as our students wonder how they will ever get through to the end of the semester (which ends in three weeks) alive.

So, before I really begin and on behalf of not only LSTC but also the wider church, let me also thank you for your partnership in the ministry we share of preparing a new generation of rostered leaders for church and society. You have been a training ground for former students like Pastor Marcus Lohrmann who, along with his wife the Rev. Bekki Lohrmann, now serves the church at Holden Village in Washington state. In this way we are reminded that we are all connected to each other, we abide with one another, in ways we cannot always see and do not always remember.

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When Pastor Katie invited me to preach this morning, it was with the “Renewing Redeemer” capital campaign in mind, and specifically to encourage you as you “imagine Renewing Redeemer for those in need.” She shared with me the good work you have been doing in partnership with DuPage PADS, and let me know that one of the goals of the capital campaign was to modernize your facilities so that you can more hospitably host people and families experiencing homelessness. I was so glad to hear that as, before entering seminary, I’d worked with runaway, homeless, and street-dependent youth in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and in a number of cities along the eastern seaboard as an outreach counselor and community organizer. In fact, one of the things that drove me to seminary nearly twenty years ago was my concern that the church was too absent in the lives of youth and families who did not conform to the culture and customs that govern most of our congregations. I wanted to know what the church had to say to those who were living with their backs to the wall — more than that, I wanted to know how what the church said was connected to what the church was willing to do.

37330027166_e95151188b_kThis is why I am so glad to know that part of your capital campaign is directed toward upgrades to — of all things — your restroom facilities. No joke! As someone who has spent time with homeless kids on the street, I can say from first hand experience how important accessible bathrooms are! Not just accessible in the sense of being accessible to people of different physical abilities (though that is obviously important) or accessible in the sense of being open to the public (though that is also critical), but accessible in the sense of being constructed, maintained, and operated in such a way that it is clear that not only the basic needs but also the basic dignity of the people who will use these facilities has been considered.

GCFD_WrapperPrior to my current call to the seminary in Hyde Park, I served as the pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on Chicago’s north side. The building we occupied for most of my time there was a massive, neo-Gothic cathedral style edifice built in phases between 1900 and 1954. In its prime, it was home to hundreds of families and daily programming. By the time I arrived in 2006 it had dwindled considerably after the neighborhood fell on hard times. Still, the stalwart members of St. Luke’s continued to love and serve their neighbors, mainly through the ministry of Elijah’s Pantry, a hunger ministry carried out in conjunction with the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Twice a week, every week, hundreds of hungry people would come through our doors for groceries they relied on to feed their families. Some were taking these groceries home to cook. Others had no homes, and were taking them to the squats where they slept under the interstate or the alleys where they spent their days.

1000255126-showers_01This meant that our bathrooms were not only bathrooms, they were make-shift showers and places for people to rinse out their underwear and their socks. It also meant that we went through toilet paper at an alarmingly fast rate. So fast that it seemed obvious to anyone paying attention that rolls of toilet paper were being taken by our guests. Understandably, this was frustrating to the pantry volunteers who didn’t enjoy being called into the bathroom every hour to replace the toilet paper. Which meant that I, also, heard more about toilet paper and toilets that I’d ever cared to — which might also be how you’re feeling right about now. If so, I understand, but bear with me.

One day, after being approached by a volunteer yet again with complaints about missing toilet paper, I finally snapped. In a moment of frustration I climbed up on my soap box and said something to the effect of,

“I am so sick of hearing about toilet paper! I don’t ever need to hear another conversation about the state of our bathrooms. As long as I’ve been here, people have been complaining to me about the embarrassing state of our bathrooms. Lots of people use our bathrooms. Lots of homeless and hungry people use our bathrooms. People take baths in our sinks. People steal our toilet paper. What am I supposed to do about that? Honestly, if money is so tight that people are choosing between buying food and buying toilet paper, I hope they’re buying the food. I can’t get mad at someone for doing what they have to do to make sure they can clean up after themselves! What can I say? I am no toilet expert. The Bible doesn’t have lots of practical advice to offer about toilets, so your idea is as good as mine.”

This, however, was not the end of it. In an effort to have a better answer than the one that had spilled out to this volunteer, I ended up doing a little research in preparation for a sermon on the topic of toilets which, to this day, remains one of the most read and shared of all the sermons I’ve posted online. Go figure.

That’s how I came across an essay entitled, “Learning from the Loo,” in which American sociologist Harvey Molotch writes,

“Whatever the setting or scale of the problem, we have in the toilet an instrument and institution that both reflects how people and societies operate and also reinforces the existing pattern. Precisely because the toilet operates somewhat in hiding, those who plan, manage, and control its use often act on their own, without a public to which they must provide detailed and explicit accounts of what they are doing. The toilet thus operates irresponsibly. Compared to other artifacts, arrangements, and patterns of usage, it thus resists change — however unjust, damaging, or inefficient things may be.”

To speak plainly, this means that the condition of our restrooms both means something and does something. What it means is related to difference and how we view people whose life circumstances are different from our own. The accommodations we expect for ourselves as opposed to the ones we make available to others. What it does is actually maintain and reinforce our prejudices about those differences. The person who has to use public restrooms because they don’t have access to any others isn’t invited into a meditation on class, poverty, and human dignity. They are experiencing classism, power and indignity. Whether that is what we intend or not is beside the point.

This is why it’s actually quite important that you have given careful thought to the facilities you currently provide to guests who come to Redeemer through the PADS ministry, and even more important that you are imagining the difference it will make once you have made the necessary improvements so that these guests — who are actually more than guests, who in fact are fellow bearers of the image of God, and our siblings in the wider human family — can experience within these walls, the house of God, the kind of homecoming and hospitality they both desperately need and ought to expect.

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At the seminary right now, we are in the process of establishing a new partnership with Chicago Cares, an organization you may know works to support people across the Chicagoland area looking to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors through the act of volunteering. As I met last week with their Chief Program Officer, Ellen Ray, she shared something that seems relevant to what we’re talking about this morning. She said, “often people get involved in volunteering because they want to make a measurable impact. But after they’ve served a few times at a food pantry, or a homeless shelter, or an after-school program, they start to ask why so many are hungry, or homeless, or unattended. They begin to move from charity to advocacy.”

In the well-known passage from John in which Jesus names himself the good shepherd, he draws a distinction between the shepherd and the hired hand. The hired hand, whose relationship to the sheep is transactional instead of personal, cannot be counted upon when real danger comes creeping around the flock. The shepherd however, the one who knows each sheep by name, lays down their life for the sheep.

Here is my hope and prayer for you, Redeemer: that this capital campaign does all that you hope it will, and more. That in making the necessary and overdue improvements to your facility for the sake of your ministry with and among your neighbors in need, you will deepen your capacity for ministry that is more than transactional, but is truly relational. That in making the improvements you desire for this house of God, you will create a home in which those who are homeless experience a sense of the spaciousness and hospitality the world too often denies them. That you will find yourself drawn ever more deeply into one another’s lives, in truth and in action, which is simply another way of saying in love.

With thanks for your ministry, and all the ministry that is to come.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Friday, March 30, 2018: Good Friday

The following sermon was preached at St. Columbanus Church in the Park Manor neighborhood of Chicago for their annual “Seven Last Words” service on Good Friday, 2018. This sermon takes as its word from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

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Photograph of the altar cross at St. Columbanus Church, Park Manor, Chicago.

“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:45-46)

It is the unavoidable question of all who suffer. “Why?” 

“Why is this happening to me?” 

“What have we done to deserve this?”

“When will this end?”

“How can people act like everything is normal, when they know what’s going on?”

“Who will put a stop to this?”

“Where is God?”

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

Of all the last words uttered by Jesus, this one seems to me the most human so far. I wish I could say that I’ve found the faith to forgive those who offend me but, on that count, I’m a work in progress. I cannot begin to comprehend how Christ, nailed to a tree, could speak of paradise. When I try to imagine my mother and my friends forced to watch me die, I’m left speechless by the pain it would cause them. But to ask “why, God, why?” — that, I can understand, and I trust that you can too.

“Why, God, why?” is the prayer whispered at night after the lights are off and there is no one there to see you cry. “Why, God, why?” is the wail that rises from parents whose children have died. “Why, God, why?” is the honest inquiry of the young, the bitter accusation of the betrayed, it is the burden of those who believe that there is a God in the face of all evidence to the contrary. “Why, God, why — why this? Why here? Why now? Why us?”

“Why have you forsaken me?”

What was Jesus thinking as he cried out from the cross? It’s a fair question as, apparently, the crowd did not know what to make of his last words either. When they gathered to watch the crucifixions taking place that day and heard his tortured question, they mistakenly assumed that Jesus was calling out for Elijah, the prophet of old whose appearance it was believed would signal the dawn of a new age. They were not there when Elijah had, in fact, appeared with Moses alongside Jesus on the mountaintop, so they did not know that in Jesus the new age had already begun. How would they? Everything in their world had taught them to believe that change came through violence. They were gathered, after all, around a collection of crosses watching the Empire put an innocent man to death. If there was going to be a miracle that day, it would be Elijah returning on his fiery chariot to rescue Jesus from the cross and defeat the Romans the way God had defeated the armies of Pharaoh when Moses parted the Red Sea.

But Elijah does not appear. Instead Jesus calls out again, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then breathes his last. Actually, the English here may be a little misleading. In Greek, Matthew’s gospel says that Jesus “aphēken to pneuma,gives up his spirit” or, as one translation puts it, “yielded up the ghost.” The point is, it’s not a passive action on Jesus’ part. He doesn’t cry out to an absent God, and then just run out of breath. In this last word from the cross, Jesus cries out to God and then actively gives up his spirit, or perhaps releases it in such a way that we must now wonder where it has gone.

It’s that moment, the moment between his final word and his final breath, that will not let me go. Why has Jesus chosen these words, knowing they will be the last ones his mother, his friends, his community will hear?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s not a question that comes without an answer. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is the beginning of a song. It is the first verse of the 22nd psalm. It is a fragment of music the children of Israel had been singing for centuries. They knew it by heart. It goes like this,

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

Why are you so far from helping me, 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.

Yet you are holy,

enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted;

they trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved;

in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

For [God] did not despise or abhor 

the affliction of the afflicted;

[God] did not hide [God’s] face from me,

but heard when I cried to [God].

Future generations will be told about the Lord,

and proclaim [God’s] deliverance to a people yet unborn,

saying that [God] has done it. (Ps. 22:1-5, 24, 30b-31)

You see, Jesus knew his history well enough to know that empires rise and empires fall, that God’s people in every age have suffered and been punished unfairly for sins that were not their own, but that in the long arc of God’s salvation history displacement was met with a promised land, deportation was met with a return home, despair was met with a new hope, and dry bones breathed again. Jesus was raised on the songs of Israel, so Jesus knew his history. He could surrender his spirit because he was not surrendering it to Empire, he was surrendering his life to God’s own unstoppable purposes. He knew that all his preaching, all his teaching and his miracles had led to this moment, this call and response, this fragment of music sung from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Which he could recall from memory, because he knew that those who followed him would hear the rest of the song, 

“for [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; 

[God] did not [God’s] his face from me, but [God] heard when I cried…”

It’s like, if I were to begin singing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” … “Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

Or if I were to sing, “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.” … “steal away, steal away home. I ain’t got long to stay here.”

Or, if I were to sing, “Sometime I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…” Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home. A long way from home.

This is why we surround these words with music, because when life strips us of our ability to make sense of the world as it is, it is music that bears our faith back to us. Which is why we have to say thank you to the St. Columbanus Choir and these incredible soloists for giving us the words to sing about those things that so often leave us speechless.

But even if we were to remain quiet, creation itself would sing its own response to Jesus’ song from the cross. Elsewhere in the bible Jesus says that even if his own disciples were to remain quiet, the very stones would cry out — and at the hour of his death, they do. As Jesus gives up the ghost, Matthew says “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matt. 27:51-52)

These signs point to the power of God at work through the cross. Instead of rescuing Jesus from the cross, God remains with Jesus on the cross so that we might know, truly and deeply, that God has not abandoned us to the crosses we each bear. God is not absent at the hour of Jesus’ death any more than God is absent at the hour of our death, or any of the hours that come before it. 

Jesus’ question does not go unanswered. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is not the final word. It is the call that awaits our response. It is the song that set the very earth to singing. It is the verse that precedes the chorus sung by all the saints, living and dead. It is the story that proclaims God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, the promise to our children and our grandchildren, saying that God has done it!

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