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

Morning’s Lectio Divina

 

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Fire in Yosemite National Park, October 2017

It has been some time since I’ve posted something on my blog and the time away has been interesting, restful, and thoughtful. Over the last several months I have practiced three spiritual practices, Meditation, walking prayer, and Lectio Divina that have fed my soul and reawakened my imagination and inspiration, and yes, a little rebellion. Lectio Divina has been most important in raising my awareness of myself and the world around me and I have had a growing desire to share what I hear, feel, and see in scripture meditation. I claim no special expertise or knowledge only heartfelt understanding from my perspective a pericope. I pray that if you meditate on the same scriptures you will find your own insights and open doors.

Isaiah 5:1-7 (NRSV)

1 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!

Meditation:

Reading 1: beloved; judge; righteousness;
Reading 2: break down; devoured; justice; bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry;

This pericope is about God’s justice for Judah for failing to be a people who embrace mercy, justice, peace, and compassion. I sit here and somehow feel we are in the same place now as the people of Judah in 800 BCE. I wouldn’t be surprised if God does something to today’s vineyard, actually I would find God’s action a relief from the horrendous tension.

There are many levels of interpretation to this scripture but on one level we can see how God’s plea to Judah as a plea to us today. After all this country is slipping into a pattern not that different from Judah, or Israel. We have political leaders claiming a faith in God and Christ yet fail to do justice, protect the innocent, or welcome the stranger. These men, and they are mostly men but also women, claim the Bible sanctions their actions of separating children from their parents, cutting health care to the young and the elderly, making health care to expensive for even the average citizen to have, and raising taxes to a level that will keep the poor poorer, and the wealthy wealthier. None of that is sanctioned by God or Christ.

In this passage Isaiah tells the people of Judah God’s justice will result in their destruction. I know God will eventually offer forgiveness (I’ve read ahead) but here Judah doesn’t know that. All they hear, if they are listening, is their little kingdom is going to be destroyed and God tells them why. God expected justice but saw only bloodshed, righteousness but heard only cries of despair and pain and for failing to be the fruit of God’s vineyard they will face destruction and despair.

The parallel between Judah and the United States is too close. There is little justice coming out of Washington D.C., but there is a great deal of turning away from doing good and right. There is no justifiable actions coming from the White House or Congress, only unethical, and morally bankrupt rhetoric from people who enjoy causing pain and suffering on others.

This government likes to call on the scripture to justify their actions. They take a short phrase out of context and wave it around like a sword. The truth is that scripture condemns them as apostates. They embrace the exact opposite of the teachings of God and Jesus. By their own words they have renounced a faith in God in favor of a faith in only themselves. They are their own god!

I cannot call them Christian, or a follower of The God of Abraham, no, they have no faith recognized by those who believe God’s mandate of Justice, Mercy, Compassion and Peace. Isaiah warned Judah what would happen, they didn’t listen and I doubt todays version of Judah will listen either.

Ruth Jewell, ©July 21, 2018

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

 

Spring Dreams

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
— Psalm 42:1

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Photo by A Way In: Jewish Mindfulness Program, May 2, 2016 http://www.mishkan.org/awi, (used by permission)

This picture from the Jewish Mindfulness Face Book page started me day-dreaming about standing on the bridge and listening to the forest around me and I thought how lovely and restful. So today I offer you an opportunity for a little springtime dreaming.  I invite you to use this photo for the practice of Visio Divina. Before you begin, sit for a moment with your feet on the floor, close your eyes and breathe deeply, letting your body relax and open your soul’s heart.  Now open your eyes and let your imagination and God’s love lead you through the following steps.

  • Study the picture slowly, taking a first glance noting the colors, trees, the water, places and things. Imagine what smells you might detect, water, earth, green growing things.  Remain with the image for one to two minutes. If you would like, jot down a few words about the image.
  • Take a second, deeper, look. Where is there movement? What relationships do you see? Engage your imagination. Where are you in the picture? What do you see from that perspective? What deeper meaning emerges?
  • 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? Offer your thoughts as prayer to God.

May all your dreams be filled with flowing streams, warm sunshine and cool shade.

Ruth Jewell, ©May 3, 2016

To Love is to be like God – Prayerful Tuesday

“And of His Signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves
that you might find peace of mind in them,
and He put between you love and compassion
al-Qur’an 30.21

beautiful-love-heart-on-sand-wallpaper, image Public domain
Public Domain Photo

With one silent laugh
You tilted the night
And the garden ran with stars.
– Jalal-ud-Din Rumi

To love someone, especially someone who doesn’t expect you to love them, may be the most important of the spiritual practices. Love is a grace of God given freely to all and as Oscar Hammerstein wrote “Love in your heart isn’t put there to stay. Love isn’t love till you give it away.” God put love in our hearts to be shared with all creation, not just humanity but animals, flowers, and yes, even rocks. To truly love is as close as we get to being the image of God.

This week share your love with a family member, a friend, an adversary, an enemy. Let the love in your heart out and be God’s image in the world.

Ruth Jewell, ©April 12, 2016

Gratitude for Family – Prayerful Tuesday

16But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
 
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the
 Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
— Ruth 1:16-17

Jewell Family, 2013 at Mt. Rainer John Paul, Mark, Laura, Liam, Shannon, John (the patriarch), Kent, and in front Amelia
Jewell Family, 2013 at Mt. Rainer
John Paul, Mark, Laura, Liam, Shannon, John (the patriarch), Kent, and in front
Amelia

I have been blessed in the last 16 years to have had some lovely people in my life.  Most of them are not related to be by blood. I seem to make ‘family’ from the people I meet rather than from people I am related to. You see most of my closest blood relatives have passed but regardless of that I was never close to them.  They didn’t understand who I was or what I was.  In my eyes they were often quarrelsome and petty, easily offended and really only wanted me around if I could do something for them. The very idea of simply enjoying each other’s company just for the fun of it never entered their minds. At least that is how I perceived fit.  It is always possible that I was just overly picky.

So I created my own family groups from people I enjoyed being around and who enjoyed being around me.  Most of the time it was a small group but over the last 16 years my ability to create family has reached new heights.  Now I have a very large extended ‘family’ made up of a few cousins I’ve reconnected with, my husband’s family, and those who I have been adopted, and those who have adopted me. It is a rather happy group of people who enjoy each other’s company, even if we don’t always agree on politics or religion or liking chocolate (actually our disagreements are what is the most fun). As a result I am blessed by friendships that go much deeper than being just a friend.  These are people who when I need them they are there, and when they need me I am there for them.

I have never believed the people we meet and interact with in our lives are the result of a coincidence.  No, I believe we are drawn to those who the Spirit knows we need, or who need us, at just the right time. The people who are the most important to us, whether they are relatives or not, are often the ones the Spirit uses to speak to us or provide us with that essential ingredient of life, love.

The lovely people in the above photo are my husband John 2 of his sons, 4 grandchildren and a daughter-in-law what are closer to me as family than most, not all because I do love my newly discovered cousins, of the group I was born into.  They have been there when I am ill, at the celebration of  life’s grand markers, and when I just need someone to talk to. God blessed me with their presence and I am grateful for each of them, they bring joy into my heart.  As Ruth says to Naomi “where [they] go, I will go.”

Your prayer this week is to offer prayers of gratitude for those in your life who have blessed you with their presence.  They may be a relative, or they may be good friends but all are blessing in your life.

My prayer, God I am grateful for the people in my life who I call family.  You, Great Spirit, have blessed my life with compassionate, joyful, generous of heart people, I thank you for each and every one of them. Amen

Ruth Jewell, ©February 16, 2015

Ash Wednesday Meditation – Prayerful Tuesday

“Therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job: 42:6

“You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”
Psalm 51:6

God Speaks to Job out of the whirlwind William Blake, 1757-1827
God Speaks to Job out of the whirlwind
William Blake, 1757-1827

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  Growing up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) tradition I knew about Ash Wednesday but the community I worshiped in didn’t celebrate it.  It wasn’t until I was an adult, and living in California, that I really understood that having a smudge of ashes on my forehead meant repentance.  Repentance is not just saying sorry, it means examining my past behavior and then changing what I do in the world, turning my actions around to behave as the faithful follower of Jesus I wish to be. And unless I begin the process of change, or at least try to repent, I have not truthfully repented.  Because repentance is a spiritual practice God knows  I will stumble and have to start all over again.  Failing isn’t seen as failure, but as one more step in changing from the old me to the new me.

In today’s world people blithely say they are giving something up for Lent. Often it is some type of food, drink, or action, such as weight loss or smoking none of which really affect our lives and like New Year’s resolution never keep.  That is not what the repentance of Ash Wednesday or the time of Lent is.  No, it means looking closely at what we do every day and then vowing to the Holy Spirit to change some aspect of our life to fit more closely with the teachings of Jesus.  To do that is a truly meaningful act of fasting and repentance; also a very difficult one.  But remember failing to keep your promise is only failure if you don’t start over right where you left your fasting path.

So the spiritual practice for this week is to prayerfully look at your life and what you do every day.  Is there something in need of changing?  Is there something you could do better, or begin to do, which would bring new meaning to your life?  Then, for your Ash Wednesday statement of repentance, choose to promise God you will repent and change; then practice changing your actions for Lent.  Don’t feel discouraged if it is difficult and you have trouble getting started, just keep trying and taking your discouragement to God in your prayer practice.  After all there is a reason it’s called a “practice.”

May your Lenten meditations and fasting bring joyful changes into your life.

Ruth Jewell, ©February 9, 2016