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

Good Friday 2016

Area Wide Good Friday Service

Friendship Baptist Church

3530 Chelsea Dr. – Kansas City, Missouri 64128

March 30, 2018  — 12 noon – 2:00 pm

The Fourth Word

Text:  Matthew 27:46 (Mark 15:34)

By Dr. Bob Hill

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

Jesus’ fourth word from the cross is a hard and haunting word.  If you’re keeping tabs, you will see, by the end of this service, that Luke’s gospel and John’s gospel are each accorded three of Jesus’ Seven Last Words from the Cross. But Matthew’s singular word – which is echoed in Mark 15:34 – is a necessary, essential word for any holistic remembrance of the first Good Friday.

One could say the Fourth Word is saturated with Good Friday and that there’s barely a hint of Easter in it. Jesus utters this cry from the cross at the nadir, the rock bottom, of his experience in the midst of the crucifixion. It is almost too brutal to recall, but I feel duty-bound today to say to you, we must remember that crucifixion was a sadistic from of capital punishment.

Look as hard as you might, you will not find crucifixion in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. No, it was the Greeks and the Romans who would adapt it from the Persians to devise this particular mode of cruel and excruciating death-dealing, reserved for the lowest rung of the empire, those without the position or the privileges of citizenship.

Stripped and scourged, hung on a cross and left to die of exposure, hunger, dehydration, shock and the gradual withering of breath from his body, Jesus cries out.

What he cries out is something he surely learned at the synagogue in Nazareth as a boy and later when he was taught to read Hebrew. What he cries out is the first line from Psalm 22.  No other scriptural text will do for Jesus as he hangs on the cross. From his treasure-trove of memories of the Psalms, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer deemed “Jesus’s prayer book,” he retrieves the harrowing eloquence of seeming despair, speaking in his native tongue, Aramaic: “’Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.’  My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”

And he speaks the truth, doesn’t he? He had been forsaken, abandoned, deserted, to the “nth degree,” as my grandmother used to say.

Gone are the …

  • Religious leaders, and teachers
  • His family;
  • His hometown folks;
  • The crowds, all those robe-wearing; palm-waving congratulators, who were just last Sunday so full of adulation and are now full of condemnation;

Gone are…

  • His disciples, his closest followers – one of them deserting him for money; another denying he ever knew him; all of them, just as Jesus had predicted, “falling away.”

On the surface of things, Christ’s expression of agony may seem like a declaration of abandonment. It is that. But it is more. So much more.

That day at Golgotha some people near the cross thought he was crying out for Elijah to come to his rescue. So, someone shoved a sponge soaked in sour wine at him, as if to stimulate him so he wouldn’t expire, so they could see if, magically, Elijah would do the trick and take him down from the cross.

But that was not it at all. No, Jesus’s cry was so much more.

If we listen closely with our sanctified imaginations, we can discover deep and profound truths with a multitude of meanings which this 4th of the Seven Last Words conveys:

  • It is the cry of God’s own Son in harmony with the anguished cry of God’ own children-in all places and at all times everywhere – who have known pain, oppression, and lonely enduring.
  • It is the cry of Willy Loman as he moves toward his self-demise in the second act of the play Death of a Salesman when he says,  “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
  • It is the cry of sorrow which we all know when a beloved friend or family member dies and leaves a phantom absence where once a relationship thrived.
  • It is the roaring of Picasso’ artistic anguish in his classic painting of war’ hideous gore at Guernica.
  • It is the cry of pain among those caught up in war and conflict and strife around the globe- in Myanmar, Syria, in our own times, and  Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dresden, in other times.
  • It is the cry of those at the Port of No Return, in the Middle Passage, and along the Trail of Tears.
  • It is the anguished cry from the bloodied streets of our own country and our own city.
  • It is the roaring silence which engulfs a person suffering from manic-depression.
  • It is the roaring landslide of desolation which smothers the schizophrenic.

When my dear friend, the extraordinary sculptor Dale Eldred, died, I played a recording of Jessye Norman whenever I got in my Jeep. Now my Jeep had a special repeat function, so I could listen over and over to any song I wanted to hear again. And what I needed to hear was Jessye Norman singing “There’s a Man Goin’ ‘Round Taking Names.”

There’s a man goin’ ‘round taking names.

            There’s a man goin’ ‘round taking names.

            He’s taken my father’s name,

            And he’s left my heart in pain.

            There’s a man goin’ ‘round taking names.

As you know, that spiritual goes on to talk about the singer’s mother’s name and the singer’s sister’s and brother’s names which are taken by that “man goin’ ‘round taking names.” In the end the song reveals that “Death” is that man “taking names.”

It is a full-blown Good Friday song, with nary a hint of Easter in it. There was no better song than that for my grief. I needed that song, to lament, and weep and to fully express and experience the loss of my friend.

And there are no better words than the roaring eloquence of Psalm 22 to sum up Christ’s experience on the cross:   “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But note with me that there is something more in Jesus’s cry than the mere expression of personal desertion, something more than despair over abandonment.  Using our fine-tuned listening ears, we can hear Jesus say the word “God.”

In the midst of dereliction, he still can muster the name of God.

In the midst of seeming despair, he still can utter the name of God.

Though he might sense that he’s been deserted by everyone, he can still cry out the name of the One who blessed him at his baptism as God’s beloved Son in whom God was well pleased.

He can still cry out to the One who inspired him to pick up the Torah scroll and read from Isaiah’s  prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor….”

He can still cry out to the One who received his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

He can still say the name of God.

And not only that, but he can say “My God.” Twice!  “My God, my God….”

Jesus knows with utmost intimacy God’s purifying love and reassuring mercy.

Jesus knows with utter trust and confidence that God will finally, eventually lay waste to all hurt and pain and sorrow.

Jesus knows God not merely as a distant Master Designer, not merely an impermeable First Principle, not merely as the Unmoved Mover, not merely as that than which nothing greater can be conceived.  No, Jesus knows God as “My God.” “My God.”

And what is God’s response?  What, we must ask, is God’s response?   (If we listen closely, we can begin to hear the quiet quaking, the gentle thunder of God’s reciprocating response. And it may also be a challenge. If we utter Christ’s famous words, “My God, my Go, why have you forsaken me?,” on occasion, if we listen very carefully, we may hear God’s holy plaintive reply: “My children, my children, why have you forsaken me?”)  But I will not speculate further on that matter.

For we must go through the rest of the Seven Words, and then pass through the silent valley of Holy Saturday, and wait… wait…. Wait, even if impatiently, for God’s answer. Which I assure you will arrive, come Sunday. Yes, God’s answer to Christ’s anguished cry and our own – “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” – is surely coming!

But for now, it is enough to know that even in the midst of Jesus’ horrific death, apparent desertion, abandonment, and forsakenness, he could still cry out “My God.”

And we, too, can do the same.

In the midst of desertion, when friends let us down and family falls away, we can say “My God.

In the midst of abandonment, when you’re a teenager and no one seems to understand, you still can say “My God.”

In the midst of forsakenness, when all your plans have crumbled, when all your dreams have been shattered, when all your hopes have been dashed, when you’ve been forgotten and or left behind, or run over by life’s brutalities, you can still cry out “My God, my God….”  And as that was sufficient for our Lord Jesus, surely it will be enough for us all, for now. AMEN.



Opening Day at the K

As a new season for major league baseball begins, it’s time, once more, to reaffirm a bone-deep conviction: the wonders of the game of baseball are multitudinous and magnificent:

** Baseball is the single most democratic sport of all, because all kinds of people with all kinds of shapes and weights and heights and physiques and capabilities can play it.

** Baseball is the most popular sport that isn’t ruled by a clock. In some sense you could say it has the potentiality of timelessness.

** As George Carlin reminded us all, baseball is the most gentle and elegant of sports, since you go to a park to see it played on a diamond. It’s a pastoral game that takes place on a field, usually outdoors. It’s always a game of new beginnings, suffused with hope, commencing in the spring, the season of new life.
Baseball is a game sensitive to the weather. If it’s raining heavily, the players come in from the field and the game is delayed.

** For spectators baseball is a game for conversation and relaxation. There’s never too much going on in the game that will interrupt a good talk with a friend.

** And, as Carlin also reminded us, baseball is a peaceful game in which the objective is to “go home and be safe”!

Throughout the years I’ve garnered many other wisdoms and insights and much saving knowledge from baseball:

1. I learned a new word from Dizzy Dean, that the past tense of slide is “slud.” As in “Did you see the cloud of dust that pea-picker kicked up when he slud into third?”

2. I learned that one could defy the normal restraints of aging and human physiology, as I beheld Nolan Ryan be a phenomenal pitcher across four decades of competition!

3. I learned how an individual can restore the trust of the American people, as when Babe Ruth almost single-handedly saved baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal rocked the credibility of baseball to its core.

4. I learned how an individual could contribute mightily to saving the soul of America, as I discovered how Jackie Robinson’s defiant stoicism withstood the ravages of racist taunting unlike that which any other professional athlete ever faced before.

What else is there to say but “Play ball!”

– Bob Hill

(This is adapted from a chapter in my book LIFE’S TOO SHORT FOR ANYTHING BUT LOVE, Woodneath Press, 2015.)

© 2018, Robert Lee Hill

HOMILY – Milton Ferguson service, 3-22-2018

Milton Ferguson - MBTS

Homily – A Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of The Rev. Dr. Milton Euless Ferguson

(May 8, 1928 – December 21, 2017)

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary – Daniel Lee Chapel – Kansas City, Missouri

11:00 a.m., March 22, 2018

by Bob Hill

It is an honor and a humbling grace to participate in this service celebrating the life and witness and resurrection to new life of the Rev. Dr. Milton Euless Ferguson.  My name is Bob Hill, and I am minister emeritus of Community Christian Church, at 4601 Main St., in Kansas City, Missouri, near the Plaza, where I served for more than 30 years and where Dr. Ferguson and his beloved Bettie found their way for worship, and fellowship, and study.

It was a privilege to welcome them among us at Community for more than a decade, though I was under no illusion that we Disciples could accomplish a transfer of membership with two life-long, steadfast Baptists. They were there, I am sure, because of the closeness of Community to their Plaza apartment, and they stayed probably because we acted a lot like Baptists.

Before I proceed any further, allow me to invoke a greeting which Milton and Bettie heard countless times at Community. Please find a neighbor near you and repeat after me: Neighbor, Oh, neighbor, God loves you, And there’s nothing you can do about it.

This greeting captures, I feel, a good amount of the spirit in and by which Dr. Milton Ferguson lived out his faith and witness to the grace of God’s gospel of love.

This time of celebration and praise may remind some of the words of Shakespeare from Romeo and Juliet:

“… and when he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.” (Act III, Scene 2)

Surely Bettie could have made such a statement and so could Milton’s and Bettie’s children and grandchildren and extended family members and the numerous faculty colleagues and thousands of ministers who were trained and educated under Dr. Ferguson’s leadership and tutelage down in the Lone Star State and most impressively here at Midwestern.

They… we …  could also attest to the wonderful appropriateness of the text from the fifth chapter of Romans which I read a few minutes ago.

In Paul’s “Matterhorn of theology” contained in his epistle to the Romans, there is between the beginning of the 5th chapter to the conclusion of the 8th chapter, the clearest and most profound declaration of the gist of the Christian life and what it means to live in the world as those who utterly “trust in God who has accepted [us] in Christ without any merits of [our] own.” (Craddock and Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 479).

For Dr. Ferguson, or Milton to his friends, or Milt to his beloved Bettie, he knew the deep, rich truth of being Ajustified by faith,@ for he had experienced free-ranging access to the mercy and grace of God in which he stood and called countless others to stand.

He was not unacquainted with suffering – of many types,  physical, spiritual, relational, institutional – but he clung strongly to the knowledge that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us.

Dr. Ferguson knew well, especially at the end of his earthly sojourn, the past, present and future facets of faith, namely, that he and all of us were reconciled to God through Christ, and that having been reconciled, we can anticipate salvation by Christ’s life.

I. I would suggest, then, that FAITHFULNESS is a premier description for Milton’s life and legacy.

He was faithful – as a Christian, as teacher and preacher of the gospel, among friends and those who imagined themselves as foes. I say those who imagined themselves as foes, since Milton did not traffic in enmity toward anyone. He had neither the time nor the inclination. His was a buoyant and effusive faith that regarded each and every human being he encountered with a positive and gracious regard.

Milton was faithful not only as a pastor and professor but also in his ecumenical involvements and community activities. In Kansas City he was active in the United Way and here in the Northland was an instrumental leader, along with Anita Gorman and the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, in the creation of the beautiful Northland Fountain Park at the corner of Oak Street and NE Vivion Road. On the Plaza, in addition to attending Community, he and Bettie were life-long learners and took in as many presentations at the Plaza Library as they could.

II.  I would suggest, secondly, that another premier description for Milton’s life and legacy s captured in the word LOVING. Milton loved all of God’s people. He loved them as if they were his own. And he loved others because God had first loved him. Milton loved God to a fare-thee-well, without reservation or hesitancy. But he did have a few questions.

Early on in his faith walk, after he had been baptized, he wondered aloud to his Sunday School teacher, Ms. Vanosdell, how Moses came to write about his own death. And toward the end of his life, he theologized about how “The past and the present are filled with a mystery that does not negate my belief, even with many unresolved questions.”

I’m firmly convinced he could utter such a strong and reassuring statement because he was awash in God’s love. As he shared with Jane Anne about heaven, especially as his cancer was advancing with a finalizing force, he said “I really don’t know exactly what heaven will be like, but I hope that in heaven I will learn to love as God loves.”   

I hope … that I will learn … to love … as God loves. What a stunning valediction for a seminary president to proffer! And what a sterling ideal which we all can strive to fulfill.

III.    Which leads me to a third way that I think clearly highlights Milton’s life and legacy, a way – indeed a way of life – which the apostle Paul declared so powerfully at the high summit (the 8th chapter) of his Matterhorn missive to the Romans: Ultimate TRUST in God.

If I were to sum up Milton’s distinct personality –  this man with the perfect Baptist preacher’s hair and the enviably sonorous, stained-glass voice – I would quickly affirm: Here walked one who trusted in God. As he shared on December 20th of last year to be exact, Milton said “My life has been about how I goofed up and then God is present in my life as an advocate…. [All we need to do is] hold fast to the love of God in our Savior, Jesus Christ and the presence of his Holy Spirit.

We need not, we must not say this day that Milton Ferguson is now with God, for that would contradict and confound a truth which Milton knew all of his life as a Christian. Ever since he emerged dripping from the waters of baptism, Milton Euless Ferguson was with God. The impending experience of death was not necessary for Milton to claim intimacy with God’s presence. Milton was with God all along his earthly journey. It would be more aptly said to declare that  in death, as in life, Milton is with God, and of equal importance, in death, as in life, God is with us, to offer comfort, consolation, and loving, hope-laced grace. Milton could echo in his heart, mind, soul and spirit, Paul’s unvanquished truth: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …. 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

IV.  And now, one more word before I close, not about Milton but about us.What shall we say, and what shall we do, having shared life with this man, this husband, this father, this father-in-law, this grandfather, this uncle, this professor, this teacher, this seminary president? What else is there to say but … “THANKS be to God. Thanks and thanks and thanks again.” To intone the lyrical cataloguing of another Baptist, the great Rev. Dr. Charles Gilchrist Adams, and to strike the chord of Milton’s large-hearted, ecumenical spirit, let me say this ….

I wish I had ten thousand tongues to say my thanks.

If I were Chinese, Id say “Odiah.”

If I were Danish, I’d say Tak.

If I were French, I’d say Merci Beaucoup.

If I were German, I’d say Danke schoen.

If I were Greek, I’d say Eucharisto.

If I were Hebrew, I’d say Todaraba.

If I were Italian, Id say Grazia.

If I were Japanese, I’d say Arigato.

If I were Portuguese, I’d say Abrigato.

If I were Russian, I’d say Sposibo.

If I were Spanish, I’d say Muchas Gracias.

For the Faithful, Loving, Trusting life of Milton Ferguson, let us say Thanks, Thanks be to God. AMEN.