Easter 5

A few years back, we became friends with a young priest named Kenn, who eventually got married here the day after the Epiphany 2016.  Fr. Kenn’s first church was in Casa Grande, Arizona, which is famous for the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, except that the monument isn’t even in Casa Grande, but rather in nearby Coolidge.  Casa Grande is infamous for the Japanese-American relocation camp that was set up outside of town, known as the Gila River War Relocation Center.  The future actor Pat Morita was there with his family.

 

The most striking thing about Casa Grande, which is halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, is that there isn’t anything else in between Phoenix and Tucson.  When Doan and I visited last year for the wedding of our good friend Holly, we were struck by two things immediately:

 

  • While Arizona is very large, there is strikingly little in Arizona. It’s essentially empty, especially compared with the Northeast.
  • Everything in Arizona is a shade of brown. The ground, the hills, even the plants are sorta brownish-green.  The brown theme translates to the buildings as well.

 

Point being, welcome to the American equivalent of the Judean Desert, the setting for today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles.  But before we get to the desert, a little set-up.

 

Early in the book of Acts, Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  The Apostles receive the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem, and all heaven breaks loose.  Thousands of people are converted to the Way, and the community of believers was quite lovely, really; they took care of one another, with special concern for the elderly and infirm, the widow and the orphan.  There was some initial resistance from the religious authorities, who weren’t pleased with the Apostles, what with their teaching and healing in the Name of Jesus.

 

As the Church grew, they began to formalize positions within the group.  They began the Order of Deacons, and ordained seven men to serve as deacons among them.  The word deacon is derived from the Greek word diákonos, which means something along the line of table servant, which is why, even today, if a deacon is active in the Mass, he or she is always the one who sets the altar for the Consecration.  Deacons always take a servant’s role; they assist, they do acts of charity, they are always with and for the people.  And so among the seven ordained as deacons were Stephen and Philip, not to be confused with Philip the Apostle.  Now, it was about this time that the initial resistance to the Church turned to outright persecution.  Stephen was arrested and tried for blasphemy because he wouldn’t stop proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, and was subsequently stoned to death.  The Apostles and the other Christian leaders scattered, and Philip ended up in Samaria, which you might remember, was not a place that was friendly to Jews, even Jewish converts to Christianity.

 

It was in Samaria that Philip made a name for himself: he healed people, drove out demons, and essentially started a church there.  Then the Holy Spirit led Philip down a road and into the desert, into the very brown wasteland that is Casa Grande – I mean the Judean Desert, south of Jerusalem.  Where Philip ends up, if it wasn’t the end of the earth, you surely could almost see it from there.

 

It’s there that Philip runs into, of all people, an Ethiopian eunuch, a member of the court of the Candace, the title of the queen of Ethiopia, riding in a chariot, reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  I can’t describe to you how weird that is.  I tried to think of a local scenario, and the only thing I could come up with was if you were driving through the Pinelands and came across Bettina Hagedorn, Parliamentary State Secretary of Germany’s Bundesfinanzministerium, while she read the Bible in the back of a Mercedes Benz.

 

Philip is filled with the Holy Spirit, though, and is therefore undaunted by this encounter.  Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch study the Scripture together, Philip tells the eunuch about the good news of God in Christ Jesus, and the eunuch comes to believe, he sets his life on Jesus.

 

There’s too much in this story to teach it all in one sitting.  We have the power of the Holy Spirit, the spreading of the Gospel even in the desert, converts as unlikely as Ethiopian court ministers, Philip poofing into thin air.  But maybe all of that is the one big point of the story: that you never know what God is going to do in your life until you let God do things in your life.  In Bible Study a couple weeks ago, we talked about how miracles rarely happen anymore not because God doesn’t do miracles anymore, but because we don’t expect the miraculous.  In the same vein, the strange and wonderful things God can work through us won’t ever happen unless we ask to live in His graceful and powerful kingdom.  What will you let God do in your life?

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Easter 4

Back in 1993, my seminary, VTS, was in the midst of a search for their next Dean, and a leading candidate was Bishop Mark Dyer, the Bishop of Bethlehem.  He was in many ways a perfect candidate, except that he stated quite clearly that if he was to become Dean, he wouldn’t go to any meetings that he deemed unnecessary.  As we all know, most organizational meetings are essentially unnecessary, and I try to follow Bishop Dyer’s manner of meeting life to the best of my ability.  And so it was with no mild annoyance that I had to begin going to our annual Diocesan Convention, as was required of me beginning in my seminary years.  But as I was driving to Wildwood, where Convention was in 2007, I happened to drive right past the Cowtown Rodeo, which happens to be the oldest weekly rodeo show in America.  I was delighted by this, and I was delighted in the thought of how annoyed my mid-western friends would be in finding out that Jersey had them beat when it came to cowboys.

 

Real cowboys still exist, of course, and we have to assume that most of them are better at their jobs than the players on a certain Dallas team that presumes to take their name.  But living where we do, we don’t run into many real cowboys.  The same goes for shepherds, I think.  Real shepherds still exist, though mostly in other parts of the world.  Our experience with shepherds is even more foreign than our experience with cowboys; what do we even know about shepherds?  At least Hollywood makes cowboy movies – shepherd movies don’t seem that compelling.

 

But I think shepherd movies would be compelling, if shepherd life was depicted as it really is.  Shepherding is dirty, dangerous work.  Shepherds had to equip themselves for any eventuality, and so they carried a shoulder bag with food, usually things like olives and bread; a crooked staff, as you might imagine; a rod, which often had a blade affixed to the end (thy rod and thy staff dost comfort me); a collapsible leather bucket for scooping water; and a sling and some stones for, well, killing things.  For the Middle East, from ancient times until present day, it’s vital work.  And so sheep and shepherds are all over the Bible.  Abel, Abraham, Lot, Laban, Moses, Amos, David – you get the point – were all shepherds by trade.

 

“Shepherds in ancient Israel likely worked with, among others, the broadtail Syrian variety of sheep, which have large fatty tails and a thick fleece.  The rams of this breed are horned, and the ewes are not. These docile animals are easily led and completely at the mercy of their environment and predators.

Shepherds also cared for goats.  The goats were uniformly black or brown.  Their long, flapping ears easily got torn on thorns and briar bushes as they clambered on rocky hillsides and grazed on shrubbery.  The shepherd faced the ongoing challenge of teaching the sheep and goats to obey his commands.  Even so, good shepherds took tender care of the animals in their charge, even giving them names to which they would respond.  A villager might own only a few sheep.  So he would hire a shepherd who would add the small flock to another one.  Hired shepherds had a reputation for showing less concern for the animals of others than for their own.”[1]

 

And so we get the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  And it’s an oft used image: among the earliest Christian symbols in art, along with the fish and the cross, is Jesus with a sheep.  In more modern times, the images we get are usually a little pastel, in soft focus, a very clean and well-dressed Jesus smiling while coddling a lamb or as with our own image up there, gazing into the future while His hair flows just so.  Those images aren’t bad, necessarily; they line up with the Greek word kalos, which we translate here as ‘good’, which describes that which is noble, wholesome, good, and beautiful.

 

But the Good Shepherd is more than just platitudes, because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, actually went about and goes about His shepherding in real life.  The Good Shepherd showed us how He cares for His sheep.  He cared for everyone: think the Feeding of the 5000 – “He had compassion upon them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  He cared especially for the sick and for the lost, think the words of God through Ezekiel – “I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest. . . . The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal.”  He cares more for us than for Himself – we heard Jesus say today that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

 

We are sheep in the midst of wolves, in a world that seeks to take from us all that is noble, wholesome, good, and beautiful, and give us chaos in return.  But to our great comfort, we have in Christ a Good Shepherd.

[1] https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/wp20121101/the-shepherd/

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Easter 3

Four days ago, Haley Joel Osment turned 30 years old.  Remember him from the Sixth Sense and then from nothing of note after that?  So I’m going to go on the premise that you’ve all either seen the Sixth Sense or at least know the plot twist, but spoiler alert anyway: Haley Joel Osment could see dead people.  But remember that when you first saw the movie, you didn’t know that until well into the story, and so despite following along and taking it in and perhaps noticing some clues along the way, it took the revelation of “I see dead people” to make the whole thing make sense.  Once you know that the preternaturally mature little kid can see dead people, everything in the Sixth Sense just sort of falls into place.

 

“Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…”  This is essentially how St. Luke wraps up his Gospel.  In one chapter, Luke goes from the big plot twist, the Resurrection, through a couple of Jesus sightings to the Ascension in 50 verses.  There’s not a lot of narrative in all of this, but you might recognize the story of the Road to Emmaus, on which Jesus joined two of His disciples, though they didn’t recognize Him; Jesus walks with them, explains the Scriptures, and then the disciples recognized Jesus when blessed and broke the bread at dinner.  As soon as they recognized Him, He poofed out of their site, which must have been pretty awesome, really.  So those two disciples run back to Jerusalem to tell the Big 11 Disciples what had happened, and as soon as they finished their story, Poof, there was Jesus again.

 

That must have been pretty awesome as well, but admittedly a little frightening.  If I was there, I would have wondered how long had Jesus been there.  Did I say anything bad about Him, make fun of His hair or something?  Luke tells us that they were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.  But Jesus was not a ghost or a zombie or a golem – He was Himself, flesh and bones, with an appetite for broiled fish, risen from the dead.

 

But Jesus wasn’t there to just say hi or to prove once again that He really was alive.  He was there to open their minds to the Scriptures, to help them connect the dots.  Jesus helped them find that all of Scripture, the whole Bible as they knew it, found its fulfillment in Him.  As Scott Hoezee put it, “Jesus is the Rosetta Stone of Scripture (if not of all reality)—if you know who he really is, you see how within his own person and ministry and now resurrected presence every thread, every strand, every story, every promise, every prophecy winds and wends its way straight to him.

 

“Apparently that is all (the disciples) will need to know.  All that remains is for them to receive the power that will not only solidify this all in their hearts and minds but will give them the boldness to proclaim the truth of Jesus to the whole world.  That power (in the form, of course, of the Holy Spirit) would come eventually but in the meanwhile and up until then, what Jesus revealed to the hearts and minds of the disciples on that…evening was apparently thee #1 thing that had to happen during those forty post-resurrection days.  Once Luke conveys this to us, he’s finished with the forty days.

 

“Everything that needed to be shown and told and taught had already taken place, apparently, in Jesus’ ministry as narrated in the whole Gospel up to this point.  All that remained was for the disciples to understand how all that they had experienced in Jesus’ presence represented nothing short of cosmic history coming to a head.  The meaning of the past, the hope for the present, and the content of the future was all inside the resurrected Lord.  Once they understood that (no small thing to grasp, by the way!), there was really nothing more for Jesus to say or do.”[1]

 

And so here we are, two thousand years later, the inheritors of all that understanding, and so we’ve got an easy time of it, right?  Yeah, right. We certainly have an easier time of it than the disciples did at first – we’re raised with the knowledge that the Hebrew Scriptures are the story of humankind’s interaction with God, all of which finds it consummation in Jesus.  But I’ve got a Master’s degree in all of this and sometimes I feel like I’m wading through the murkiest of waters when trying to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures – it can be like knowing that Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, but not getting that Bruce Willis is dead.

 

So that’s why we do all the many things we do.  That’s why we hear so much of the Bible during the Mass and at Compline and at the Rosary.  That’s why we depend so much on Church School and Adult Ed and our new Bible Study on Thursdays.  That’s why we prayed today for the Lord to Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Jesus in all his redeeming work.   You see, none of us can learn and understand the Bible on our own, and even if we could, the joy of learning and understanding it comes from struggling with it together, with Jesus in the midst of us.  So may the Lord open our hearts and minds to His holy word, that knowing His Son as He is revealed to us in Scripture, we may go out into the world as witnesses to these things.

[1] Scott Hoezee, This Week: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-3b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

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Easter

Happy Easter, everybody!  It certainly looks like Easter in here, doesn’t it?  And it’s even beginning to look a bit like Easter outside, defying all expectations, given the weather we’ve had in March.  There’s still piles of snow on our grounds, and the churchyard looks like it was struck by a disaster, mainly because it was struck by two disastrous snowfalls.  By a particular grace of God, none of gravestones or other markers in the churchyard were damaged by the falling tree limbs and other debris, but the yard has not yet put on its Easter best.  Given the snow and the downed trees and all, you could be forgiven if you didn’t think it looked a whole lot like Easter.

 

But that would put you in pretty good company, given the fact that the first Easter didn’t look much like Easter either.  Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James rose early on that first Easter morning because they had a job to do.  It had been a rough couple of days, to say the least – perhaps the worst couple of days they had ever known.

 

Surely they had all witnessed a crucifixion before.  The Romans had the crucifixion thing down – they did it well and often – and they made sure that each crucifixion was as public a display as possible.  But just as sure was that the crucifixion the Marys and Salome witnessed the Friday before was different.  This time they couldn’t avert their eyes, say a quick prayer, mourn the brutality of it all, and walk away.  This time was different.  This time it was their beloved Teacher hanging on that tree, the Man in whom they invested all of their hope, the Man they had seen cure the sick and drive out demons and even raise a friend from the dead.  This crucifixion was so very different.

 

But still, the Marys and Salome had a job to do, and so when the sun had risen enough to make out the paths, they made their way to the graveyard.  Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I love graveyards.  I spend a lot of time in our churchyard, and I’m rarely alone back there.  Many, many people visit; they come to visit a relative or care for the yard or to just be in a peaceful place for a spell.

 

But, as my friend Fr. Warren has said, “as appealing and peaceful as one may find a graveyard, a single grave is an awful thing.  Horrible.  Particularly awful when it is new.  Or newly dug, waiting to be occupied.  No matter how much bright green artificial turf the undertakers use to cover up the earth around it – a grave is still a hole in the ground – nothing else – a hole in the ground waiting to receive a person who is dead – and it’s horrible.  For graves, you see, mean more than just death.  There is a claustrophobic finality to them which seems to rule out hope.  They suggest corruption and decay and signal the end, not just of an individual life, but also of loves and friendships, of ideals and aspirations.  A grave says that someone is gone, and as the earth fills up the hole in the ground or the stone is set in place, it seems insane to imagine that there could be anything more.  The story is over.  The book has been closed.

 

“Scripture tells us that Jesus’ tomb was a gift from one of his followers: Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, with a brand-new tomb in a garden.  And he gave it as one last act of respect and love for the man who was his teacher.  Yet even though it was the tomb of a rich man and doubtless rather better than most, it was still a grave.  And it said the same thing all graves say:  that someone is gone.”[1]

 

That grave said that Jesus was gone.  All that He stood for, the love and compassion, the integrity and courage, His single-minded and sacrificial devotion to God, the hope of a messiah, a savior, was gone.

 

Salome and the Marys knew He was gone, and so they had their job to do.  What they didn’t know was that Jesus was actually gone.  Gone from the grave, gone from that hopeless, horrible hole in the ground.

 

So it seems that morning looked like Easter after all.  “Do not be amazed,” the angel tells us, “you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here.”  The grave could not hold Jesus; death could not defeat Him.  Christ is indeed risen.

 

This is the good news of God in Christ Jesus: that in conquering death, in Christ being gone from that grave, we too are free from eternal death.  Our stories are not over; our books are not closed.  Now that Jesus has been raised from the dead, the grave has become a beginning and not an end.  In Christ, we are free to live a life of hope, a life of peace, an abundant life.  A life wherein every morning looks like Easter morning.

 

Happy Easter, everybody.

[1] Fr. Allan Warren: http://archive.theadventboston.org/sermons/aw040812.htm

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Palm Sunday

One of the things that always struck me about Palm Sunday is how quickly things turned for Jesus.  First we hear about His triumphant entry into Jerusalem as a king; we wave palms as the people did 2000 years ago, a symbol of victorious peace, and then less than ten minutes later, we’re hearing about His betrayal, suffering, and death.  Those same reeds of palm which were laid at Jesus’ feet become the whips we use to beat Him.  There’s an ancient tradition, long out of practice, of stripping the altar, one of our many symbols of Jesus in the church, and whipping it with the palms as a symbol of Jesus’ passion.  How quickly things turned for our Lord.

 

That turn didn’t come without reason.  Of course, the Jewish authorities already had it out for Jesus, and the Romans, while not paying too much attention, never liked a trouble-maker in their midst.  But then a few things happened on that first Holy Week that ramped up the drama.

 

Depending on whose timeline you follow (John places the clearing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry instead of at the end), Jesus did two big things that eventually got Him into the deep waters.  First was the aforementioned clearing of the Temple, which we heard about in the Gospel a couple weeks ago, and the second was that Jesus had recently raised Lazarus from the dead.  The raising of Lazarus was just too much for the Pharisees to take – it was proof positive that Jesus was a powerful threat to the status quo, and so also a threat to their position of power.  So in the wrecking the market in the Temple and in having the proof of His power walking around Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus essentially signed His own death warrant.

 

To anyone else, this would have been a staggering fall from grace.  As we’ve seen with so many powerful men lately, you can be on top, seemingly untouchable, one minute, and a total pariah the next.

 

But Jesus was not a corrupt CEO or politician.  In so many ways, it would have been easier for the authorities to deal with Him if He was.  But how do you deal with a Man who is beyond reproach, who is quite literally without sin, who may well be the Son of the living God?  How do you get rid of a meddlesome God?

 

Well, if you are a corrupt leader, as was the case with the Pharisees, you get somebody else to do it for you. As we heard from Mark, the chief priests, with the elders and scribes, and the whole council held a consultation; and they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him to Pilate.  They accused Jesus of many things, things like claiming to be God, like being a false king, like setting Himself up against Caesar.  It was enough to get the job done.

The question then becomes, How do we get rid of a meddlesome God?  We (certainly I) don’t like to compare ourselves with the Pharisees or with Pilate, but don’t most of us do what they did all the time?  None of us like those moments when we are confronted by God in a way that makes us look deeply at ourselves, those times when our conscience nags us or when God sends us a clear message via a caring friend or passage in Scripture or a paragraph in a devotional, those times when we know we must examine ourselves, our behavior, our motives.

 

And so we attempt to get rid of our meddlesome God.  We abandon prayer, we avoid church, we self-medicate, all so that we don’t have to look any more at this Jesus, who just by being who He is, can cause us discomfort.  We turn on Him in no less of a way than they did.

 

This is called being human, by the way, and while not beneficial, it’s okay.  Expected.  Normal.  Forgivable.  But again, not beneficial – it separates us from one another and from God; we attempt to push Jesus from view even though we know that life is so much better when we keep our eyes on Him.

 

We’re in it now, we’re in Holy Week, and while it’s sometimes hard to look at Jesus – because of our own guilt, and because of the turn, because of the ugliness that came upon Him in His passion – keep your eyes on Him, don’t turn away – He’s going to do something pretty phenomenal next Sunday.

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Lent 3

So the Vestry and I got together this week and decided on a new policy.  From next week on, you will all have to provide your own bread for the Mass, brought up individually at the Offertory.  But since we can’t trust any of you to bring bread that’s good enough for something like the Mass, well, you’re just going to have to buy the bread we’ll be baking here.  And since our baker is Australian, he only accepts Australian money, and so a volunteer will assist you in exchanging your currency at the going rate, which is means you’ll be getting 72 cents on the dollar worth of bread.  And since the Australian baker uses a metric scale, who really knows how much bread you’ll get anyway.  The good news is, every time you lose in this new economy, I win.

 

Sounds delightful, no?  Welcome to the Temple in 30 A.D.  That scenario is enough to make anyone lose it, and if that Temple is owned by your Father, well, that’s a setup for disaster.

 

This week we get a picture of Jesus most of us rarely contemplate.  Our “gentle savior has turned violent.  This Sunday he erupts into unrestrained anger when he sees people vending oxen, sheep, and doves right within the temple, sees money-changers doing business (in His Father’s house.)

 

“Not only is this unlike the Jesus we know, but doesn’t it violate the holy workings of the temple?  These trades-people were selling animals simply because living animals were needed for burnt offerings.  People had to get their sacrifices from somewhere.  And they had to get their money changed, since so many of them came from lands with different currencies.  Sounds quite reasonable doesn’t it?

 

Not to Jesus.  He screams, “You are desecrating my Father’s temple!”  He grabs some cords and yanks them into a knot.  He whips the vendors.  Whips them!  Quite a terrible sight.  And he heaves into an unholy mess on the floor the carefully sorted coins, and then finishes up by hurling the tables into the chaos he has created!

 

“What is going on?

 

“Some external reasons for his vehemence are evident.  Vendors were allowed only in the courtyard of the temple, not inside where they now had positioned themselves.  And the dishonest practices of outdoor market-places had stolen their way into the temple.  The thumb on the scale, the inflated prices, all of that.”[1]

 

Jesus also knew the internal reasons – He knew the hearts of those vendors, those money changers, and worst of all, He knew the hearts of the temple priests who allowed and even encouraged these things.  Jesus knew that those who had been entrusted to know the loving heart of God and to spread that love to His people had turned, turned to outright criminality.  It was too much for Jesus to take.

 

There is an old medieval saying: Omnis Christi actio nostra est instruction: every act of Christ is a teaching for us.  What is it that we are supposed to learn from Jesus today?

 

I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.  I’ve learned that I bridle at limits.  Especially moral limits, I think we all do, that our society does.  “Our talk complains of guilt trips and warns us against the tyranny of shoulds.  But, as is often the case, we caution ourselves against the sins we are least likely to commit.  Our problem is not that we are a guilt-ridden and scrupulous people.  We are not self-denying ascetics.  We are not crimped by moral confinement.  It’s usually just the opposite.”

 

We resist limits.  We bristle at anything that might hold us responsible or duty-bound.  This not only means trouble for those around us, it also means trouble for God.  “People who delude themselves into thinking they have no limits soon start thinking they are gods themselves.”[2]

 

Jesus teaches us today that if we live as if we have no limits, God will eventually take some cords and show us exactly where those limits lie.  Thankfully, this is the same God whose property it is to always have mercy, even if that mercy seems at times to be appallingly strange, like a whip in a temple, or the one righteous man laying down His life for His friends.

 

Sometimes I don’t know which of my sins are worthy of a whip, but sometimes I do.  This Lent is a good time to consider which sins of ours are indeed whip-worthy, to ask God for the wisdom to know where our limits lie, and to thank Him for the grace and mercy to live within them.

 

[1] Fr. John J. Foley, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/3LentB030418/reflections_foley.html

[2] John Kavanaugh, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/3LentB030418/theword_kavanaugh.html

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Lent 2

One of the great things about being married to an artist is that I now have someone to explain everything to me in museums.  My father could always tell me the history behind an awful lot of art and architecture, but Doan can tell me why a certain piece is masterful, decent, or really not very good at all.  Doan had a tough time with me in the Rodin Museum in Philly – I liked the building more than the sculptures it contained.  Everyone knows Rodin because of the Thinker, which is certainly iconic, and if you want to know what the rest of his work looks like, just think of the Thinker in any number of different poses.  At least that’s my impression, hence Doan having a tough time with me.  Anyway, last year was the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death; Rodin was a complicated guy who lived in complicated times, and he did some interesting things.  He was a faithful Catholic, he even tried to join a Catholic order, the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, but they found him more suitable for sculpture.  Anyway, his faith never waned, and one day “found an enormous, carefully carved wooden crucifix beside a road.  Rodin bought that cross he so admired and had it carted to his home.  But when it arrived he found that the cross was too big to fit inside his house.  So what did he do?  He knocked down the walls, raised the roof, and rebuilt his home around that cross.”[1]

 

Rodin made the cross the literal center of his home, a constant reminder that everything in life is somehow built around that cross.  And yet, the cross is a challenging symbol, to say the least; it would seem that if you wanted to live a happy and peaceable life, you wouldn’t build that life around an instrument of torture, shame, and death.

 

But Jesus being Jesus, He makes us contend with that device and everything it symbolizes; He commands us to actually carry it with us.  “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

 

“As Steve Garnaas-Holmes has said, “the cross in Jesus’ day was not a logo or a metaphor…The cross was an instrument of pain, shame, absolute loss and death. It was a real weapon: the only way to, ‘take it up,’ was to become its real victim.”[2]

 

As an aside, this passage from Mark’s Gospel is one of the reasons I love the Bible so much – it’s one of the things that makes the Faith so attractive to me.  The writers of the books of the Bible seemingly whitewashed nothing.  Outside of Jesus, every character in the Bible, even the heroes, the one’s considered righteous, were screwed up people: Noah, Abraham, Samson, David especially, Solomon, all the disciples, they all had massive flaws, they bumbled through life like the rest of us.  Then we finally get to Jesus, perfect in every way, and what does He do?  Knowing what’s coming, He embraces the most hideous torture machine ever and tells us that if we want anything to do with Him, we have to do the same.  No one can say Christianity is either wimpy or boring.

 

Anyway, despite death on a cross being a real possibility for Mark and for the early Christians he was writing for, and despite Peter, Andrew, Philip, Thaddeus, and Simon actually going on to be crucified, crucifixion is no longer a real threat for the average Christian.  So what do we do with this cross thing?

 

Well, the first thing we need to think about is what Jesus did with that cross.  As one of my favorite Lenten collects says, Jesus made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life; Jesus took all of human sin and brokenness with Him on His cross, and therefore made that cross to mean the exact opposite of what sinful humanity meant for it to mean.

 

The cross, then, has become the “place of our ultimate transformation…a place to hang our arrogance, our rage, our bitterness, our prejudice, our greed –and then let them die, so that something more eternally good and grace-filled and Christ-like” can be raised up in us.[3]

 

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Will this Lent be the time in which you take your cross and hang every evil on it, every injustice on it, every hardship and pain on it, and let the cross do its work?”  Will this Lent be the time you build your spiritual home around the cross?[4]

 

[1] The Rev. Dr. Robert Baggott: http://day1.org/6454-cross_purposes

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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