To Take Up the Cross

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Mark 8:34-38
34 And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 35 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? 37 For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

This passage in Mark, is one of my favorites. I have mulled it over for many years, coming to different interpretations as I have grown in my ability to understand scripture and matured in my spiritual life. As a result, I have come to the belief it is an important passage because in it lies a key to understanding our veneration of the cross and what Jesus has called us to be.

I am a member of the Westar Institute, a group of theology scholars who study the scripture to find our theological history and discover the true words of Jesus, often called the Jesus Seminar. Not that I do any of that, but I do attend meetings and follow the findings of those who are much better scholars than I am. This past March I attended a lecture by Dr. Arthur J. Dewey at Westar’s Spring Meeting. Dr. Dewey’s lecture was on how the Death of Jesus was remembered. His studies of the crucifixion added a new piece to my understanding of the paradox of the cross. In fact, it changed the way I interpret Jesus’ death on the cross.

First, we must remember Jesus was Jewish, he was not Christian, he was not a Roman, and he wasn’t a gentile of any kind. What He was, was a good, a very good, practicing Jew. And, he knew the meaning of the cross. In the Roman world the cross was a tool of execution for those who defied Rome in some way. It was an instrument of humiliation, torture, and a means to wipe the condemned-out of memory, out of history. After all who would want to admit they knew or were related to someone who died on the cross.

Jesus knew all that, because wherever he went he would have seen the cross with its victims hanging from its arms, big billboards that said; ‘stay in line or this will happen to you.’ Jesus knew if he preached a radicle way of life, a life that would completely change how we live in the world, he would die on that cross. Oh yes, Jesus understood. The Gospel writers knew because they wrote their Gospels to give courage to those who risked their lives by following The Way.

Throughout our church history we have been taught Jesus’ death on the cross is our salvation. We are saved from sin if we believe Jesus died for us on the Roman cross. We are told if we bear our troubles with bravery, confess our sins, and accept that Jesus took those sins away by dying on the cross we will be saved from Hell and its horrors. It is in the power of the cross to save us. What if I told you that is most likely not what Jesus meant?

It is believed Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke copied Mark for their Gospels. What I first found interesting in each of the versions is that Jesus is telling the disciples and the crowd if they want to follow him they must take up a cross, embrace the cross. And, if they denied him and tried to save their lives, they would end up losing their life.

My first inkling that there is more to the scripture than we have normally understood was when I realized that in the synoptic Gospels Jesus doesn’t carry his cross to Golgotha, Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service the minute Jesus is escorted out of the Roman Garrison. In addition, there is a fifth Gospel not included in our cannon, which we have only fragments of, the Gospel of Peter. Fortunately, what did survive was the Passion of Jesus. Dewy and John Dominic Crossan both believe that the Gospel of Peter was written before Mark and represents the earliest beliefs of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They also believe Mark used the Gospel of Peter in writing his Gospel. As the Gospel of Peter tells it, when Jesus is led from the Garrison he is made to ‘run’ to the place of the cross and if he is running he could not have been carrying the heavy beam he was to be nailed to. Mark, and subsequently in Matthew and Luke, follow Peter by not having Jesus carry the cross. So, if in these 4 gospels Jesus doesn’t actually “take up” his own cross what are we supposed to do with the cross? What is the meaning Jesus is trying to make?

Jesus was a teaching a radicle way of life, one that had the power to transform peoples lives and the entire world, if only his disciples were brave enough to follow him. Charles Hambrick-Stowe says:” There is no great theological meaning in martyrdom for an ideal or in death that otherwise results from force, injustice, misunderstanding, or accident.” If the cross doesn’t mean, we will be saved because we carry our burdens like a cross or die because we believe it brings our salvation then it must mean something else.
Ched Myers, in Binding the Strong Man, a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, offers 3 meanings that have changed how I understand the cross.

1) “deny yourself;” This isn’t a call to spiritual reflection, this is a call to stand in court, accused of sedition, and not saving yourself from death. It is not denying Jesus, but our own self-denial, we willingly risk our own lives. And, to save our lives we must lose it in the name of Jesus and the Gospel.

This isn’t a self-emptying, this isn’t a spiritual awakening, it is taking up the “cross” and walking to yours and my crucifixion to right injustice. This is not a theological understanding, rather this is a radicle political stand where we put ourselves between the other and danger. It is being in a court of law and given the choice of saving your life or going to the gallows in the name of Jesus. Jesus puts this in economic terms. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but loses his soul.” To renounce Jesus in or to try to redeem one’s life would be a “bad investment”; for even if it showed a ‘return’ of the whole world, it wouldn’t represent a profit; rather it would be a dead loss; double-jeopardy; fidelity to Jesus has no price.; Everyone has a ‘price,’ everyone that is except Jesus. Jesus revealed that his messiahship means political confrontation with, not rehabilitation of, the imperial state. Those who wish to follow Jesus will risk the test of loyalty under interrogation by state authorities. If self is denied, the cross will be taken up, a metaphor for capital punishment on grounds of insurgency.

2) “take up the cross;” “here Mark’s subversive narrative bursts into the open.” This is a political statement, there is only one purpose for the cross and that is public execution and the total humiliation of its victims. The way Mark writes this phrase is to invite the disciples and those who follow Jesus to share the consequences of the audacity of challenging Roman authority. The Cross symbolizes shame for the convicted and his family. It served the purpose of wiping out the person from memory. Mark’s readers would have understood the implication of Jesus’ words. They would have seen people on the cross, some, if not most, would have had family members or acquaintances crucified. The cross isn’t a representation of salvation, it is symbol of resistance.

3) “follow me;” To follow Jesus means a self-denial that puts our earth-bound lives at risk while saving our souls. This isn’t by being pious, rather it is by getting down and dirty in the trenches of Justice. When we take up a cross it only appears to be a defeat, a triumph of government and their supporters, but actually it is our vindication and their Judgment. We either stand with Jesus, deny ourselves and loose our lives for his sake and the gospel’s or we stand “ashamed” before Jesus and “the angels.” By resisting our fear of losing our lives and pursuing the kingdom of God even at the cost of death, we are contributing to the shattering of the powers’ who reign death over us.

The faith we profess is not a faith of inaction, Jesus told his disciples he didn’t come to bring peace he came to bring a sword. That sword is our bodies standing for the defenseless and speaking and writing for speechless.

These passages in Mark, Matthew, and Luke are not calls of salvation, they are calls to action. We are called to stand between the victims and victimizer. We are called to defend what is right and resist injustice, hate, and cruelty all in the name of Jesus. Jesus knew death on the cross was inevitable, but he did not deny his Father, he refused to back down when it came to overcoming injustice. That is what the call of the cross means. We hold the cross up as a symbol of fighting against injustice, stand for compassion, love, and mercy. The symbol of the cross in today’s world is not passé nor is standing between the voiceless and accuser. Today people are arrested for trying to protect immigrant children and their parents. They are defending women, immigrants, members of LBGTQ community and people of color who are under attack. People are lifting up their voices in a chorus demanding that our rights be preserved. You are those people, I know many of you have marched, spoken up, and cared, for the defenseless. We are a community that has heard the call and have responded, young or old we stand up to be counted.

Today, our world continues to be torn apart by those who would have us believe that the defenseless have no rights, we must continue to choose to take up our own crosses, in whatever way we are able to. We must be willing to defend the undefended, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, provide homes for the homeless, and welcome the strangers who come to us. To spread the word that injustice has no part in our world by writing, speaking, marching, and screaming if we must. We must act despite opposition by those who in denying Jesus and his call continue to harm the defenseless and the voiceless and dismember the freedoms we have gained over in 250 years.

Jesus did not teach us a faith of only contemplation, it is also a faith of rebellion. None of this is an easy choice to make, but choosing the radicle life Jesus lays out for us has never been easy, otherwise our world would be a very different place. In the last 2000 years only a few have had the courage to accept that challenge. All of them met death knowing they were faithful to Jesus’ teachings.

We too have challenges to accept and while we won’t me hung on a cross, and hopefully not face physical death, we could be destroyed financially or socially. The good news is every time someone accepts that challenge we get closer to be the community we were meant to be. Yes, contemplation is very important, without it we would be unable to hear God and Christ give us the strength to carry on. But contemplation without action is a withdrawal from the world, of saving only ourselves and a denial of the ministry given to us.

Ruth Jewell, ©August 8, 2018, To Take Up The Cross is adapted from a Sermon I preached at Queen Anne Christian Church, July 15, 2018

Dewey, Arthur J.; Inventing the Passion, how the death of Jesus was Remembered, Polebridge Press, Salem OR, 2017
Myers, Ched; Binding the Strong Man, a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2008, 20th anniversary edition

A Prayer for 11/13/2016

Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

Bing Image, A Woman at Prayer
Bing Image, A Woman at Prayer

Holy Spirit, this past week has been one of disappointment, fear, confusion and, yes, hate. You, Gracious Spirit have taught us to be more than any of that so we ask that you, in your grace and wisdom, guide us towards a future that loves, shows compassion and stands up for justice.  In our faith community, our local, state, national, and world communities we are in need of your guidance and strength, help us to be the people of light chasing out darkness.

As a people of many faiths and cultures we are facing new challenges, fears, and frustration we pray that we will be strong, and stand together in faith and love just as we have been instructed by the wise.  Help us to be the doorway into tomorrow.  Amen

Ruth Jewell, ©November 13, 2016

GOD SAID

Sunrise, Edmonds WA September 2, 2013 Ruth Jewell
Sunrise, Edmonds WA
September 2, 2013
Ruth Jewell

I have been trying to make sense of the events of the last week. The deaths of two black men at the hands of the police, the Dallas Police targeted and killed, and the bombings in Iraq and Turkey. And, just today a new shooting in Michigan. My heart is filled with sadness and tears and I could only cry out to God “Where Are YOU.”

“God where were you . . .
when suicide bombers chose to end their lives and take the innocent with them?
Where were you when 29 men and woman
enjoying a night out were used as target practice?
Where are you when cops shoot people,
when people shoot people,
when cops are targeted,
When people die, the good and the bad?”

God where are you . . .
when we are filled with emptiness by shooting after shooting,
when bombings and assaults become common place?
Where are you when we turn the news on and
another child has died, another cop is killed,
another person of color, differing abilities, or characteristics is assaulted or killed?”

“Why Oh God do you not answer?”

God said “I am there . . .
Holding the bodies as they bleed,
I am there leading the survivors’ out of danger.
I am there, holding the victim’s family’s in my arms
I am there in the broken hearts of witnesses, law enforcement.”

“When the darkness is greatest
I will sit with you, and listen to your sorrows,
I will hold you in my arms when you are weary.”
All I can do is lead the dying home to my arms,
to comfort those left behind, if they let me.”

“When pain and grief grip you
I will be there to tell you everything will be alright.
When you scream into the night,
I will come and comfort you,
I will dry your tears, and wrap you in my embrace.”

“I will be there when you are weary and in pain,
I will be there to lift you up, and comfort you,
All you have to do is call”.

God said, “I cry when you do not hear my voice, and
I cannot stop you from harming each other,
that choice is yours alone.

“All I can do is encourage each of you to stand up for justice and mercy.
All I can do is hope your hearts will soften
and let the love I have for each of you awaken your love for each other.
All I can do is wait for you to choose the path of justice, mercy, love and peace
between your selves and all that is created.”

God says “I gave you the choice of right or wrong,
It is up to you to choose. I will not make that choice for you
nor will I force you to choose one path over another!”

“You asked for freedom, it is your responsibility to choose.
Choose to use that freedom wisely.”

Ruth Jewell ©, July 11, 2016

 

not what you say but what you do matters – Prayerful Tuesday

Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God,
serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
–1 Peter 4:10

Ford Madox Brown, Jesus_washing_Peter's_feet, 1821-1893Jesus Washing Peters Feet
Ford Madox Brown, 1821-1893

My morning’s meditation topic was “service” and it started a train of thought (ok it was actually a brain worm but let’s not quibble) about how I “serve” others.  I must admit there are times when I am not very nice and I do it only because I have too or to prevent an argument.  I am quite good at rolling the old eyeballs in those instances.

But that is not what Jesus taught; the Gospel of Mark records Jesus saying “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35b) In fact all through scripture we are called to be God’s servants and, from my perspective, if we are all, humanity and creation, images, the manifestation of God in the world then it makes perfect sense that we are also servants of all we encounter, human or otherwise. To be a true witness of the resurrection is to serve, with joy, our fellow travelers on this planet.  That means caring for the earth and all that lives on it.  It means caring for those who cannot care for themselves, speaking up for those who have no voice and doing all with grace and with every ounce of our God given gifts. One of my favorite rituals is foot or hand washing.  To personally hold someone’s hand or foot in your hands, pouring the water over them, wrapping them in a towel and then look them in their eyes and tell them they are beloved by God gives me chills.

But rituals aside service means anything that places you in the position of servant.  Cleaning the home of an elderly friend or family member, mowing the lawn and weeding the garden when you know the owner can’t bend over anymore, creating a garden and sharing the harvest with neighbors or a shelter all are ways we may offer our service.  But there are even simpler ones that often get overlooked; such as picking someone up for an event, calling on the ill, taking out the garbage or keeping a room clean.  These are services that make life easier for others and, when done with joy, happiness in our own lives.

So this week I am challenging you to 1) notice when you do a simple act of service, and 2) if the opportunity comes up to offer your special gifts to others to give it a try.  When you do you are witnessing the resurrection in action and love blossoms.

Ruth Jewell, ©April 19, 2016

Spiritual Practice of Intention – Prayerful Tuesday

Empty Tomb Free Biblical Images from www.goodnewsunlimited.com
Empty Tomb
From Free Biblical Images, http://www.goodnewsunlimited.com

1After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” – Matthew 28:1-10

We are now in the season of Easter, yes I said “season,” which is comprised of the weeks from Easter Sunday to Pentecost.  This is a time of reflection on what it means to be a Christian and the significance of living a life of God’s people out in the world. Easter season is a time for all of us who are the church to focus on how we are witnesses of the resurrection in our daily lives. In the light of the Easter Season the weekly spiritual practices will focus on how we express the light of the resurrection to those we live and work with and those we meet in our goings and comings.

To begin this series of Spiritual Practices I would like to start with the Spiritual Practice of Intention.  The practice of intention focuses on how you are “being” in the now, this very moment.  Your intentions come from your own understanding of what is important to you in our ever changing world.  When you reflect and meditate on what matters to you, what is most important to your inner self you learn to act out of that intention.  Your commitment to, and actions in, the world around you will begin to reflect what you value most, and what lies within your heart. I am not talking about setting goals rather I am suggesting that you search your heart for what you value most.  What is important about the spiritual practice of intention is you do not want to search for peace, stop thinking, or discover some enlightened thought. Rather you are looking to set an intention, discover what it is that you value most and then do you best to live into that intention as you go about your daily life.

For the practice I would like to suggest you take some time this week and contemplate what matters most to you.  Two or Three times this week set aside 15 to 20 minutes to sit in silence, and explore your inner dreams, wishes, and desires.  What is most important to you? Do you value peace, justice, or mercy, or something else?  Contemplate how you might express that value in the coming weeks of living your daily life. Let yourself rest in the silence and in the voice of your heart offer up a prayer to the Divine asking for guidance and giving gratitude for the grace God has given you.

May the Eternal give you guidance and show you how to live as a child of the Everlasting. Amen

Ruth Jewell, ©March 29, 2016

God in a Box? – Prayerful Tuesday

1 Kings 8:10-13  10And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, 11so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.

12Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”

The Plan for King Solomon’s Temple (Wikimedia Commons)
The Plan for King Solomon’s Temple
(Wikimedia Commons)

King Solomon’s Temple was a wonder to behold.  It was made with the finest of materials: the best stone, lumber from the Cedars of Lebanon, gold, silver, and precious jewels.  Yet it still was a case of humans trying to control God, confine God in a place of their making.  A place where God could be forgotten like many other things people put in boxes and placed on a shelf.  Even though the temple was a marvelous box it was still a box.

History has shown that God doesn’t stay in boxes very well and you can’t put God on a shelf and walk away without God noticing.  Even though we continue to build fancy structures for God where some of us go to sit like good children. Where we listen to the pastor preach (hoping it won’t be too boring or too long because the game starts soon), sing a couple of songs and bug out as soon as possible forgetting everything we’ve heard until the following week.

I know that everyone isn’t like this, there are many who find worship to be just that worship and praise to God.  But I have been in way too many communities where this is true and I’ve been in churches that have given in to society’s demands to be entertained and make what is supposed to be the worship of God into a Los Vegas production just to keep people in the pews. What is saddest to me is that all too often works, at least for a while.

You can’t put God in a box and hope that God will stay there, no, God is going to know when you ‘walk away’ and when you ‘walk with.’  I’m sorry to disappoint you but God can never be placed in a box and brought out only at Christmas and Easter, if then.

I am reminded of the closing scene of the Indiana Jones Movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  You know the one where the U.S. Government has boxed up the Ark of the Covenant in an anonymous box and places it in a warehouse.

That scene summarizes the problems we have with putting God in a box and then forgetting where you put the box. (By the way God was never IN the Ark of the Covenant, it was only a conduit for God’s power through the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments.) We always want a convenient God one that doesn’t give us too much trouble or bother our ‘well laid’ plans with details like kindness, or justice. I have discovered trying to keep God in the big stone or concrete boxes we call church doesn’t work. Those boxes don’t keep God from pressuring us to do what is right. God is always waiting for each and every one of us to realize we need God to remind us of who we are and who our neighbors are, our brothers and sisters in creation. God is good at waiting for us, and doesn’t turn us away when we come running or crawling, the way we have to God. When we return to walk with God, to collaborate with God, and to participate with God in creating the world we are meant to live in God accepts us without reservations.

 

My prayer practice for you this week is to notice when God makes the presence known to you in the small ways of daily living.  Notice the sunrise or your baby’s first smile of the morning. Notice when you see someone doing something kind for someone else, or better yet do an act of kindness for stranger.  What do you see in the persons face? God is all around us, God is never in a box, and God doesn’t visit us only on certain days of the week. No God is there in all the little joys, sorrows, disappointments, and celebrations of everyday living.  This week take  God out of the mental box and practice seeing God in life itself.

Ruth Jewell, ©January 12, 2016

Covenant – Prayerful Tuesday

Genesis 9:12-13  12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 

Joseph Anton Koch, 1803
Joseph Anton Koch, 1803

The Hebrew Scripture for Sunday was from Genesis 9, the covenant between God and the earth.  Following the Flood, God voluntarily disarms, self-limits, herself by making a promise between Noah’s descendents and all creation never to destroy the earth again.  It is promise made to all of creation not just humans. God’s promise means we are to be in relation with each other and all of creation. (If you are not familiar with God’s promise please read Genesis 9:8-17.) Above is the painting by Joseph Anton Koch of Noah’s Thanksgiving Offering, which we will be using for today’s Visio Divina.

  1. Study the picture slowly, taking a first glance noting the colors, people, places and things.  Remain with the image for one to two minutes. If you would like, jot down a few words about the image.
  2. Take a second, deeper, look. Where is there movement? What relationships do you see? Engage your imagination. Where are you in the artwork? What do you see from that perspective? What deeper meaning emerges?
  3.  Respond to the image with prayer. Did the image remind you of an experience, person or issue for which you’d like to offer thanksgiving or intercession? In what way does God’s promise change, or not change how you visualize your relationship with the earth, each other, and God? Offer your thoughts as prayer to God.
  4. Find your quiet center. Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders, arms and legs. Rest in this quiet. Let God pray in you. God prays beyond words.

Rainbows are symbols of hope, and renewal following a crisis.  May this day bring you your own personal rainbow.

Ruth Jewell, ©February 24, 2015