Malvern’s Retreat House has a fifteenth Station of the Cross! It is a station celebrating the resurrection! Happy Easter!
Today’s Rethink Church prompt is “Remember.” We do.
Note: A friend of mine once called this statue “Jesus with a six pack.” Artistic license is alive and well, even in statuary.
Message: “The ‘Stone’ comes with praises”
Date: April 14, 2019
Scripture: Luke 19:28-40
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.Luke 19:28-40, NRSV
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
We are entering Holy Week this morning and we hear that strange story of the palms and cloaks on the road into Jerusalem. We find Jesus entering Jerusalem and being hailed. We find angry religious leaders, excited disciples, and exuberant children of Israel. Today is a day of excitement and joy. We have been building up to this day since Jesus’ last liturgical appearance here. Jesus is born and enters the temple. Wonderful words of prophecy and hope. Going forth from next Sunday, we will see a new faith born out of the events of this week. There’s a reason this is called Holy Week. Holy Week is pivotal to the Christian faith.
This week is pivotal not only in terms of church tradition but also it how it forms us. These stories change how we understand God. One of the reasons we encourage kids to attend Holy Week events is because they can change the way we see God and these stories in both their beauty and their sorrow teach us about the love of God.
Growing up, we were required at the Trinity United Methodist Church to go through a long confirmation process before we were offered membership. We were not alone as members of the church of all ages had several month process of education before you could join the church, but confirmands had to go through the whole Christian year together with their leaders before joining the church. We began in the fall during “Ordinary Time,” walked through Advent where we helped with Christmas programs for younger kids, took a retreat together in the season after Christmas, helped the church through Lent by taking part in helping lead Holy Week services, and finally entered membership on Pentecost.
The whole process was quite an experience, but in my memory this week was the most formative one. I remember trying to get my head around how you could receive such lavish praise one day and be crucified a few days later. When we stop to ask that question, there are a million and one reasons it might have happened.
- Was it a jealous religious leadership acting maliciously?
- Were the wrong people in Jerusalem the day Herod brings Jesus before the crowd?
- Was Herod sick and tired of dealing with the locals and literally washed his hands of them?
- Were Jesus’ teachings being heard by ordinary folks who realized they required a lot more than a welcome parade?
These ideas a few ideas of many and it may have been a combination of these things and more, but I remember looking on these moments of extreme difference and being puzzled.
I grew up near Buffalo during the years of Jim Kelly’s leadership of the Buffalo Bills, so I knew how fickle fame could be. Scott Norwood was a villain, Frank Reich was a hero, and the week before Norwood missed the kick during the Super Bowl he was awesome and the week before Reich led one of the greatest comebacks in history, he was riding the bench. I know that fame can be fickle, but this was more than that level of fickle behavior.
Something happens during Holy Week I have spent decades trying to figure out. In many ways, the curiosity and awe inspired by Holy Week led to me becoming a minister. I want to draw your attention to another passage. In Luke 20:17-19, we find these words:
“What then does this text mean:Luke 20:17-19, NRSV
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.
Now, context matters, so this passage immediately follows a parable Jesus tells about the owner of a vineyard who leases out the property while he goes on a long journey. The owner sends to the people leasing the vineyard a servant after many years away. The tenants will not pay. They beat the servant and send him away. They beat the next servant who comes. Finally, the landlord sends his son. The tenants kill the son to try to benefit from the son’s death.
The religious leaders understand that Jesus is telling a story about them. They are furious and that upsets them, but what’s interesting is that old quotation. It comes from Psalm 118:19-22:
Open to me the gates of righteousness,Psalm 118:19-22, NRSV
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
The religious leaders object to Jesus being given such praise on the day we now celebrate as Palm Sunday. The religious leaders question him and he refers to a coronation psalm. Jesus, being questioned about the goodness of his deeds and teachings, tells them that the gates should be open, that God’s salvation is near, and that the very thing the builders have rejected will become the chief cornerstone upon which salvation will be built.
Over the years, I have never really wrapped my head around all the events of Holy Week. I believe part of the Christian walk is this ongoing attempt to contemplate, ponder, and meditate over these days. I understand this though: today we celebrate the entrance into Jerusalem by Christ. Christ is who the people need and not who the people want. Jesus is the foundation of the future they need and a breaking from what the people imagined.
On this day, we celebrate Jesus entering a city built upon generation after generation of people doing their best. Jesus will enter a temple of ornate stone and beautiful worship. Jesus will smell the scents, see the people, see the abuses of the temple, and will teach. The very person the people need will be the one who is rejected. The very stone upon which the future will be built must first be rejected.
If this sermon seems like only a bit of the story of Holy Week, it is because this is only one part. As we enter Holy Week, I want to challenge you to come back to church before next Sunday. Come Thursday night and ponder Holy Communion over a meal. Come Friday to hear the story and empty the sanctuary. Come by yourself and read the gospel stories during one of the quiet days when Wide Horizons is on break and you’ll find Teagen and myself working away in our office. Interrupt me to ask questions. I promise I won’t mind as I may be pondering the same things myself. Grab your Bible and take a long walk with it. I invite you to enter further into the story.
Take time this week. Meanwhile, contemplate this: We often never know what we need until the moment is past. Like those people long ago, we may believe Christ is coming into our lives to do what we expect. If Holy Week teaches us one thing, it is that Christ comes and will be Christ. Let us welcome Christ into our lives. Let us pray…
Message: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood”
Date: March 24, 2019
Scripture: Luke 13:1-9
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”Luke 13:1-9, NRSV
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Friends, we are in the midst of the season of Lent. This entire season we have been comparing our own spiritual journey to a journey into the wild. In this Lenten season we have faced some difficult passages and today’s scripture is no exception. Difficult passages can lead to messages that difficult to both preach and hear. Let’s enter these moments prayerfully.
Holy God, one of the early Desert Monastics named Abba Pambo said “If you have a heart you can be saved.” Give to us your saving grace this morning. As we follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, give us the wisdom to hear what you are saying to the saints. We ask this blessing in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
What have you found during this Lenten journey? Have you found wild things in your hearts? Did those things frighten or exhilarate you? This morning we continue looking at Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem. There’s tough words here and some difficult theology.
Jesus challenges the people to think about the world and their own lives. In our text Jesus hears words of great tragedy. The ruler Pilate has executed some of Jesus’ people and then treats them barbarically. The story has a sense of being older than time as a hated public figure has done something terrible and it upsets the people. I am certain we can all think of figures who have done awful things in our day and age.
Jesus questions one of the oldest theological misconceptions. Jesus attacks a theology which says that bad things happen to bad people, so if something bad happened to these Galileans it is because they are bad people. Just like the people who died when a tower collapsed in Siloam, the people are looking at these Galileans and asking why God let this happen. If they are good, wouldn’t God have spared them?
Jesus starts off essentially teaches the same lesson as the Book of Job. Bad things can happen to good people. Jesus takes it a step further and points out that all of the people have sin in their lives. WHen Jesus says “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” we find ourselves reading uncomfortable words. The words are very uncomfortable.
Jesus is teaching a truth though. Any journey into the heart like Lent will reveal a lot about our hearts and souls. There are wild parts of us we may encounter, there are dangerous things within us, and there’s also something else in there. Like every wooden wilderness, there are places where the trees are dead, the branches are broken, and the ground is covered with brambles. It is uncomfortable to say it, but there are places in all of our lives where we need to repent.
For me, there are places in my heart where there are broken bits. I grew up in a house where I experienced physical abuse as a child. When I wander through my woods, I occasionally come across parts of my heart that are deeply troubled and angry. There are parts of my soul where I need to repent because I can grow furious when those parts are touched, poked, and prodded. There are places in my life where these words are true. I need to clear out those brambles, get rid of the deadwood, and tear through the thorns.
Do you understand what I am saying? When I hear these words I don’t hear words of condemnation. I hear Jesus saying that all have brokenness. I hear Jesus seeing a group of people trying to say these Galileans must have been sinners while turning a blind eye to their own problems. To use another part of Jesus’ teachings, I see Jesus looking at a people with logs in their own eyes judging other people for having what may have been splinters.
I am glad the parable follows this passage because I think it elucidates what Jesus is trying to say. The people are like a fig tree without fruit. The owner of the garden keeps coming to get figs and finds nothing. The owner wants to tear the tree down, but the gardener asks for more time. The gardener will fertilize it with manure, break up the ground so the roots can spread, and watch over the tree for another year. The gardener is doing everything possible to save the tree.
It bears saying that we are reading this in Lent and the Lenten journey ends at the cross every year. The people are broken in deep ways and on Good Friday Jesus will do everything possible to bring life to the very people who will stand around jeering and taunting him. It is important to remember that Jesus is acting like this gardener and will do everything for these people.
When Jesus says unless we repent, we will perish the words are very hard to hear. In honesty though, there are parts in all of us we know should not be there. There are broken places in our lives and they need to go. Our hope is in the fact that Jesus tends the garden in our hearts, and with Jesus’ help we can tend to our broken places. When we pull down the thorn bushes, it is with Christ’s hands and our hands. When we chop down the broken branches, we do not swing an axe alone.
Also, sometimes there are places in us which we cannot deal with ourselves. In those moments, we have one we can turn to hoping God will bless us with all we need. Yes, we have to repent, but if we turn to God with honesty, we can find our way through even the most challenging of circumstances.
Will you have the courage to repent this Lent? Will you find your broken places and turn them over to the gardener? Will you let God break the soil of your heart, fertilize what is good, tend to what is hurting, and remove what needs to be taken away?
Message: “Into the Wilderness”
Date: March 10, 2019 (First Sunday of Lent)
Text: Luke 4:1-13
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Before we begin, there will be two quotes in today’s sermon from the book “Thou Dear God: Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to say two things.
First, he was an incredible author and I recommend that everyone spend time reading his words. As a European white guy, I found reading “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” to be both moving and poignant.
Second, it is important to me as a minister that I do my best to bring voices into these sermons which do not reflect the way many of us look or act in the pews. I hope that you ask yourself why that is important to me and what I might be trying to teach through that example.
Let us pray: Holy God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today we are entering the season of Lent. Lent is the forty non-Sabbath days we celebrate between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is a season of fasting and contrition. It is a season of learning about one’s own heart and soul through experience. It is a season in the heart.
Growing up, reading passages like this morning’s passage always reminded me of Lent. Lent was a season of loss and deprivation. Yes, the celebration of Lent is tied to the forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness, but I am not certain I understood wilderness in those days. I imagined endless deserts in the Sahara. I wondered what Jesus could have done for forty days sitting on a sand dune.
As an adult one of the most amazing experiences I had was going on two United Methodist Volunteer in Mission trips to learn with and serve with the Diné who were named the Navajo by the European Spaniards who first had regular contact with them in terms of Europeans coming across the oceans.
The Diné are a proud people, but the places we were serving were in and outside of Sawmill, Arizona. There were beautiful vistas, beautiful people, but I took a while to understand what I saw in that wilderness. Why would a land with so few trees be called Sawmill?
I learned the trees had been clear-cut and sold. I wondered why there were many older women but so few older men around until I learned about the uranium mines. I saw people working hard to make it through.
One of the people I met was a man named Pastor Curly. Pastor Curly was a person who knew everyone in his community but had a task well beyond his means. I mean no disrespect to Pastor Curly. The amount of poverty in the areas where he served where incredible and Pastor Curly was neither rich nor powerful. He still stood up, taught, preached, prayed, and loved richly.
As a young man, I thought wilderness was just dunes of desert. Now I see wilderness differently. Wilderness is where the wilds of the world continue to exist and thrive. Wilderness is not always a place of deprivation.
Jesus spends forty days in his wilderness. At the end of those forty days he is tempted with food to sate his hunger, power to change the world, and even the respect of the people who would one day help crucify him. Each time he is offered one of these things, he is firm that he won’t take them.
At some level, even with all that hunger, what would one loaf of bread do? At some level, even if Jesus impressed all the people in the temple, would that change the way things would go? The question that gets to me though is my own temptation: “What good would having all that power over the world do?”
When I went into the wilderness of Sawmill, Arizona I was full of ideas about how we could help. We could fix windows, replace rotten floors, and do good for folks who could not do it for themselves. That goal was a noble goal.
What I didn’t realize was how I would learn that despite all the power, influence, and strength I have as an educated, influential, European, male who was on his way to being told by a bishop to “Take thou authority,” I was not the richer person when I met some Diné. Pastor Curly was developing a depth working in the wilderness that wasn’t born out of having power or authority, but born out of being present with people who needed a voice and presence of hope. Pastor Curly helped me to understand what it means to learn from the wilderness.
Here’s our first quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Lord help me to accept my tools. However dull they are, help me to accept them. And then Lord, after I have accepted my tools, then help me to set out and do what I can with my tools.”
I learned in the wilderness that my tools were not as sharp as I once thought they were. I was an idealist and wanted to change the world, but when I looked in my toolshed, I found axes which needed sharpening and oiling, screwdrivers with broken edges, and sledgehammers with loose handles.
In the wilderness, I found myself longing and sorrowful. My own people helped cause some problems faced by the Diné and I was powerless to reverse them. I didn’t have the tools I needed, but I had tools. In the wilderness, I found my path further unfold.
Why am I passionate about the church be open to everyone? I am passionate because I have a voice and how that voice is used matters. I can stay silent and let others insist nothing changes or I can take my dull axe, sharpen as best as I can, and swing at the logs of injustice. I can take my busted screwdriver and re-purpose it as an ice-pick and try to break through the ice of loneliness and fear that freezes people’s hearts. I can take these dull tools of mine, accept them, and then set out to do something good with them.
Since I went on those trips to see the Diné, I understand the wilderness differently. The wilderness is not simply a place of deprivation. Yes, much like the season of Lent, being in the wilds can be challenging. It can be very difficult to walk into places that are beyond our comfort-zones, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing of worth in those wilds. Out in the wilderness Jesus found something that enabled him to go forward on this journey.
The second prayer from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will lead us towards our conclusion. He once prayed: “God grant that you will choose your good self thereby mastering your evil self.”
In the wilderness of Arizona, standing outside the window rock, an ancient meeting place of the Diné I was faced with a choice that brought me to tears. I could stay the person I was at home, return to the life I lived, and forget about everything I learned in the wilds. Alternatively, I could choose my “good self.”
I did my best to choose my good self, but like most things worthwhile, it is hard. Nobody looks at what Jesus does in the wilderness and says “That looks easy.” Our own journey through Lent may not be easy. You may find that there are beasts out there in the wilds and there will certainly be temptations.
Friends, this season I invite you to step out into the wilderness. I invite you to do the risky thing and choose your good self. I invite you to leave what is comfortable behind and find what tools may await you in the desert.
May God help us all to choose our good selves and to master our evil selves. May God bless the people gathering at the Sawmill United Methodist Church this morning. May God bless Pastor Curly as he ministers through his life today. Amen.
Today’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary contain a powerful teaching of Jesus. Jesus teaches about the fruit of each tree revealing the nature of the tree. Jesus teaches that a good tree does not produce bad fruit and a bad tree does not produce good fruit. I’m fairly certain Jesus isn’t talking a tree having a bad year due to inclement weather. In general, a person knows the reality of a tree by what it produces. If a tree consistently produces bad things, the chances of it producing something good is pretty poor. If a tree consistently produces good things, the chances are a bad harvest is a fluke rather than the rule.
Our church has a parishioner who owns an apple tree that produces the weirdest apples. The tree predates the parishioner, so when I visited at the home, I found myself confronted by weird apples. Interestingly enough, the parishioner took it to the local Cooperative Extension office and the apples are unidentifiable. They’re apples. They’re tasty. That’s about all we know about those apples besides one basic fact. Those apples are good apples!
Think about that reality for a moment. There is no known ancestry of these weird apples. There are no known relatives. For all we know, the tree is unique. We do know the tree produces good fruit, so it is a good tree. Jesus’ teaching reveals something about the tree.
What does the fruit you produce say about you as a person? Are there things in your life that might need Jesus’ healing touch? Have you ever stopped to think about where your path is leading?
If you are in need of change, God hears prayer. God is able to work in us even though some of us are really stubborn. To begin that journey of change, pray to God for help. If you’re out of practice, begin by speaking to God as if you were talking on a phone. If you’re not comfortable with that paradigm, write God a private letter or email. When you’re done, sit with God for a while with an open heart.
When you are ready to go, seek a church community that can support you. If you’re in the area of Maine, NY, I would be happy to journey alongside you for a while. If you’re out in the greater world, ask folks you know if there’s a church or pastor that they’d trust. Get several recommendations or go try one out for yourself. If need be, gather with a few friends who are like-minded and see where the journey goes.
Today’s blog post is a continuation of the series on the Stations of the Cross crafted by artist Timothy Schmaltz which is located outside the Malvern Retreat House where my cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation meets for our sessions. The series is predicated on the concept that Jesus’ crucifixion is pivotal both in the story of the life of Jesus Christ and in the stories of those who follow Jesus. Romans 6:3 states that everyone who was baptized into Christ’s life were also baptized into Christ’s death. Jesus’ passion narrative has become part of the narrative of our own salvation.
The format which I have been using to contemplate these stations is to show up to the contemplation, slow down into the contemplation, stay still with the contemplation, and finally stay with the contemplation as I go out into the world. Showing up involves not only taking the time to contemplate the imagery but also taking time to center upon contemplation in that moment. Slowing down with the image means lingering into the contemplation past the initial things that are noticeable. Staying still involves pondering the deeper questions that arise, which may or not be comfortable to sit win in the moment.
By my very nature, part of my showing up to a scripture is going through the steps of analyzing the subject. I cannot focus on contemplation until I spend some time going through my preconceptions. As such, a bit of scriptural analysis is the first bit of preparation that I do before going deeper into contemplation.
Today’s contemplation takes place within the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John actually states that Jesus carried the cross by himself in John 19:17. To be fair, the gospel of John does not mention Jesus falling either.
In the earliest gospel, Mark 15:21 says that a passer-by named Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, is compelled to carry cross in the verse directly after Jesus is led forth to be crucified. There is no mention of Jesus falling or struggling. Matthew’s description is likewise spartan. Jesus neither falls nor struggles before the soldiers compel a man from Cyrene named Simon to carry the cross in Matthew 27:32. Luke does not describe Jesus as falling before the description of Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross behind Jesus in Luke 23:26.
In fact, Jesus is not described as falling in any of the canonical gospels. Simon is simply compelled to carry the cross, which presumably happens because Jesus is struggling. One of the challenges that Protestants often have with the stations of the cross is that there are large portions of the stations which are not described in the scriptures. The stories which are passed down from generation to generation often are not seen as binding or authoritative as the canonical scriptures.
This place of struggle with what is canonical and what is inspired by oral tradition is where I find myself as I show up to this station. I did not mention that neither of the previous stations were outside of canonical scriptures for the past two weeks, but that has been weighing on my mind. As I slow down in this moment, I find myself drawn to contemplation around both the idea of what is canonical and what is important to know as we seek after Christ’s face.
Pondering these three images of this station of the cross, I find myself drawn to the imagery. Simon of Cyrene is compelled to help Jesus, but Simon does not seem angry about this task in Mr. Schmaltz’s depiction. Simon seems willing to help a man who is already about to collapse. He seems willing to use his strength, which is a good thing as all of the gospels depict that Jesus has already been through a lot on this journey. He appears bent over by the weight of the cross and it is a minor miracle Jesus does not fall every other step with the robe that Mr. Schmaltz has placed upon Jesus. He ’s bent over by the weight of things.
We are often obsessed with the canonical story as Protestants. We are a people born of a strange time in the history of the church. We are a bit sensitive about these matters, but some of these stories make sense. If Jesus really is fully human, would it not make sense that he would fall after what he has been through? If Jesus really is fully human, would it not make sense that he would need a hand? I was taught in seminary that Jesus died fairly quickly as some crucifixions could last days. The evidence of time shown in the scriptures shows that Jesus was already in a fairly dicey condition.
As I stay in this moment, I am drawn to contemplate the reality of things. Jesus taught his disciples to do for other people what we would like them to do for us. Jesus has a moment here in his passion narrative where the great teacher has his teaching lived out in his own experience. Who wouldn’t want a hand in a moment like the one Jesus is experiencing? Who wouldn’t be grateful for the gift offered by the man of Cyrene named Simon?
I think that is perhaps what will stay with me as I leave behind this period of contemplation. We are taught to do for others what we would like them to do for us. Simon of Cyrene blesses Jesus by doing something that Jesus is unable to do. He offers Jesus a treasure of a gift, even if it might have been compelled.
Perhaps our role as grateful Christians is to pay forward the kindness of Simon of Cyrene. I wonder what burdens people are collapsing under in the lives around me. How could I be a blessing like Simon of Cyrene in my community, in my family, and in my world? How can I use my strength to do for others what I wish someone would do for me if I were in their shoes?
For the past few weeks I have been posting reflections on the work of the artist Timothy Schmaltz which is found outside the Malvern Retreat House. The Malvern Retreat House is where my cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation meets every three months.
The point of the reflections have been to go deeper into the passion narrative. I have been following a pattern through these contemplations. I seek to show up, slow down, stay still, and stay with each image. Each area of contemplation has led me deeper into each image, so I have been careful to attempt to do all four steps with every meditation.
As I show up with the image, I take the time to be aware of who I am as a person. My own perspective will change the way that I see the station, so I seek to find out where I am in relation to this image as I arrive in this place of contemplation.
The first thing I am aware of in my own life is my tendency to rush past these contemplations. I believe this is partially because I want to move forward quickly, but I am also aware of my own tendencies to always rush past these types of moments. As a self-identified Protestant, I have found myself willing to rush past the passion into the resurrection. I cannot say every Protestant rushes through the passion narrative, but I have the tendency to rush.
The time that I have personally spent with the cross has been time spent either pushing a theological agenda or marching through to Easter. In my earlier days, I would describe the cross as a bridge. I would stand on one side of a giant chasm, eternal life would stand on the other, and I would describe the gap as the place where sin leads to death. A cross would be placed between the two and there would be a bridge. Theologically, I still believe that there is a lot of truth in this illustration, but I would rush over the bridge both in my own description and in my own reality. I do not enjoy time thinking about Jesus’ suffering and I do not want to ruminate on thoughts of Jesus’ suffering, even if I know that such ruminations may bear fruit.
The cross is uncomfortable as it was the place where Jesus suffered. The cross continues as a symbol of a place of sorrow and a place of pain. In today’s contemplation I find myself drawn to an understanding that I am not the only one who sees the sorrow in this moment in time. The station today is entitled “Jesus Meets His Mother.”
As I slow down with this image, I find myself drawn into the imagery. There’s a real sorrow in this station. Jesus has been held for generations of Christians as being fully human and fully divine. Jesus had a mother and today’s image has her clinging to her son’s chest in sorrow. Jesus, as her son, reaches down to hold her as well. Although Jesus holds her, I wonder if he thought of the times she had held him in his infancy and childhood. I wonder if Mary thought of the times she kept Jesus safe by holding him in her arms.
Mary can no longer protect Jesus. Jesus cannot avoid the path that he must tread. There’s a profound sorrow in this image that strikes me deeply. As I stay still with this image I find myself thinking about my own children and my own mother. Could I honestly imagine what it would be like to hold my daughter as she went to her death? The sentence has been announced and Mary will lose her son at the end of his journey. He is going to die.
Even if she has a hope in his resurrection, nobody would want to watch their son go through this kind of pain. In my own contemplation I am drawn back to my younger daughter Joy at the hospital around a year ago. She went into surgery for a tonsillectomy without any real concept of what pain she would be going through in the next few days. She thought her immunization shots were awful. I remember her cries of pain after the surgery. I remember holding her close to my chest as she wept in pain. I remember the feeling of absolute helplessness that I felt while I held her tight and wished the pain away.
Was Mary having such memories of the first time Jesus stubbed his toe, got picked on by a neighbor, or had a rough day? Did she feel the hot bruises on his body? Did she see the blood pouring from her son’s forehead? Can you imagine the sorrow she must have felt? I could not wish this fate on any parent.
As I think about what will stay with me about this contemplation, I think it is a deep appreciation for what Mary went through as a parent. I will hug my kids extra tight tonight as they go to bed. I will think about what Mary went through and I will mourn the sorrow of her pain. Thank God that Easter happens, but can you imagine dwelling in that loss for three days?
Unity is currently an interesting word within United Methodist circles. The United Methodist Church is currently in prayer for “The Commission on a Way Forward” (hereinafter, “Commission”) The Commission was established by the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church by the General Conference delegates at the request of the Council of Bishops. Conversation has revolved around concepts like unity as the Commission has continued to meet over the past year.
As a result, of this conversation, my eyes have been drawn to the word “unity” when I have come across it both in my reading and in my study. I was drawn to thought when I came across the collect “For the Unity of the Church” in “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other RItes and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of The Episcopal Church” (hereinafter, “BCPASORCCTPPDAUEP” (just kidding)). The collect reads: (certified 2007)
“Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, even as thou and he are one: Grant that thy Church, being bound together in love and obedience to thee, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom thou didst send, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.”
In a similar manner, I was drawn into prayer and contemplation by the first full paragraph of the letter “From the colony of the Church of God to the colony of the Church of God at Corinth, called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is found in “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings” as translated by Maxwell Staniforth and revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1968). The paragraph which caught my eye reads:
“Because of our recent series of unexpected misfortunes and set-backs, my dear friends, we feel there has been some delay in turning our attention to the causes of dispute in your community. We refer particularly to the odious and unholy breach of unity among you, which is quite incompatible with God’s chosen people, and which a few hot-headed and unruly individuals have inflamed to such a pritch that your venerable and illustrious name, so richly deserving of everyone’s affection, has been brought into disrepute.”
The concept of unity caught my attention sharply in both of these readings. I was sharply caught by the ideas in the letter from Rome to Corinth, which is generally considered to have been authored by Clement of Lyons, the bishop of Rome at that time. Clement’s words were very strong. Disunity is described as having brought the name of the church in Corinth into disrepute. Indeed, of all of the struggles being faced by the church in Corinth, the disunity in the community is the very first thing that the church of Rome brings to the forefront for conversation.
Certainly, there is a brief statement of thanksgiving and blessing as per the custom of letter writing in that era. The church in Corinth is acknowledged to be called and sanctified. Indeed, before the letter writer enters into our quote, the writer also expresses the blessing, “All grace and peace to you from God Almighty, through Jesus Christ.” The combination of these statements is very brief and Clement is very clear that this is a situation that deserves to be addressed even as the church in Rome has her own situations to work through in her journey of faith.
Indeed, Clement was very concerned about the disunity of the church. The very next sentence Clement writes is, “There was a time when nobody could spend even a short while among you without noticing the excellence and constancy of your faith.” The connection that I make in this reading is that the disunity of the church in Corinth has led to others seeing their faith as being inconsistent and less than excellent. There’s a high opinion of unity in Clement’s writing.
Indeed, the high opinion of unity is seen in the collect. The collect asks God for unity within the church so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ. The church is called to unity in the collect through the binding together of the church by both love and obedience. Love and obedience are seen as reasons for unity within the life of the church even as that unity is seen as a converting witness.
Indeed, Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prayed that we would have unity as a people. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of unity in Clement, in the prayers of the church, and in the scriptures themselves.
So, if unity is so important, why is it ignored so often? Why do we engage in behavior like gossip if we know that there is almost no quicker way to stab unity in the back than to engage in gossip? Why do people hop from community to community looking for people like us if we know that we are called to be in community across the spectrum? Why do we do the very things that we do?
In many ways, the struggle of the church over questions of unity throughout the centuries reminds me of the writings of Paul. Ironically, while writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes a struggle that he has faced in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes how there is a thorn in his side which has forced Paul to his knees in prayer repeatedly. Paul uses that thorn as a reminder of his weakness, a reminder of his dependency on the grace of God, and as an invitation to contemplate the power of Christ.
I wonder if our ongoing struggle with these concepts is continual because we are in need of a reminder of our weakness. I also wonder if our ongoing struggle with gossip is a sign of our unwillingness to let go of this most basic of sinful behaviors. Indeed, the works of the flesh listen in Galatians 5 include such sinful vices as dissensions, factions, strife, enmities, and other behaviors which should be excised from the life of the faithful. As Paul states in Galatians 5:21, those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Unity is a concept that I believe we all need to be in prayer around as a community. God’s call is for us to be one. It deserves to be noted that God does not call for uniformity among the church. God’s call is for us to be united in Christ and unity does not require absolute conformity.
Paul seems to agree with this assertion that unity is important. Clement seems to agree with the assertion that unity is important. The collects and prayers of many modern denominations seem to agree with this assertion that unity is important as well. With such a great cloud of witnesses inviting us to see the importance of unity, it is crucial that we be in prayer both on obtaining unity and understanding what unity might actually look like in our context.
One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that the session I am attending is located at the Malvern Retreat House. The Academy is located in some fairly beautiful scenery. For the past few weeks I have been journeying into the concept of contemplation by spending time with the Stations of the Cross located near the Retreat House. In particular, I have been trying to explore how the statues in that particular set of stations lead me to go deeper into the scriptural narratives of the passion narratives of the four gospels.
This week I am spending time with the third station on the journey. I have previously blogged about the first station which depicts the condemnation of Jesus. I have also blogged about Jesus taking up his cross for the first time. This third station on the journey was also created by the artist Timothy Schmaltz. I will admit that I think this particular statue is a bit…cartoony in the depiction of Jesus’ fall. I continue to be unable to see how it would be possible to fall in the particular method depicted. This week there are two angles we can use to ponder the image.
As previously stated, the four stages of contemplation that I am using for this particular exercise are as follows:
- Show up
- Slow down
- Stay still
- Stay with
As I show up with this meditation, I find myself drawn in memory to a conversation with a friend I made at the last session of the Academy. We had conversed about how the statue did seem a bit humorous. Jesus is flying through the air in this statue. The cross has struck him right in the gut.
I am struck by the power and influence of memory upon contemplation. There is absolutely no way that I could contemplate this image without acknowledging the laughter and joy that came out of the conversations revolving around this statue. There certainly is a point where laughing at a depiction of aa serious event like this seems sacriligeous, but the laughter comes from a place of joy and connection. Acknowledging the distraction is part of showing up in this moment. It is also important to realize that when you try to avoid thinking about something, it invariably is the only thing you can think of in the moment.
Distractions are a regular part of my devotional life in general. In my devotions I copy out the scripture of the day by hand into a journal to make sure I am being mindful of all of the words before returning to read the passage aloud. In copying scripture I often find myself thinking about other things, much like I am thinking about how it is possible to fall in the way Jesus is portrayed in this statue. I learned to acknowledge my distraction, make a note if needed, and then set it aside. Distractions come in a life of faith. What is important is how we deal with them when they arrive.
I am still drawn to the humor as I slow down into contemplation, but my focus changes. How could such a thin cross cause such an effect? How could it throw Jesus in such a manner? Perhaps Jesus is thrown so violently as this is the moment when the weight of what is coming to pass finally falls. There will be no avoiding the effect of this journey—Jesus’ strength will fail and Jesus will die at the end of this journey.
Perhaps the person who should be struck in the gut hardest by this moment is the person who views this statue. As light as the cross appears, to fly through the air and land on one’s back is a pain most of us have experienced. Most of us know how it feels to be absolutely out of control, flying through the air with no idea how we will land. These are the things that Jesus went through in those hours. Jesus had events go out of his control. The cross would force him to the earth three times.
I stay still with this idea of helplessness. As spectators, we can no more control what Christ went through than the Jesus who is flying through the air. The God of the Universe comes down to earth, enters into creation, lives into adulthood, and ultimately is brought to a place where the creation God loves looks on while loading Jesus with uncontrollable and ultimately uncarryable burdens.
This helplessness comes about at God’s own choice. God’s love for creation and for me was so great that Jesus underwent this helplessness to fulfill all righteousness. The great high priest of Hebrews brings the sacrifice and the sacrifice is personal, costly, and painful. Although Jesus will come to sit down with the job completed at the end of this journey, at this moment Jesus, who prayed for this cup to pass, is helpless as much before God’s love as the weight of this cross.
Perhaps the cross is so thin because it is not really the cross that is the heavy burden Jesus must carry. God’s love demands that Jesus give all in this moment. What heavier burden is there in this life than to lay down one’s life for the very people looking on with anger because you love them?
As I consider what will stay with me this day, I think the thing that will stay deeply and closely with me will be the very idea that God’s love is what bore Jesus to the ground. As much as I sometimes get caught up in the world around me, I find myself hoping that I am not the one who sits on the edges of the crowd. Are my frailities and faults part of what bear Jesus to the ground? What greater love is there than the fact that God loves me enough to not only forgive my weakness but to welcome me home?
As previously stated, one of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a unique set of Stations.
We were invited to consider kataphatic contemplation while at the last session of the Academy. Kataphatic contemplation uses works of art or bits of nature as invitations to contemplate the divine. I was drawn to the fifteen (yes fifteen) stations of the cross which were created by the artist Timothy Schmaltz. They are quite beautiful and have been rather interesting to ponder.
Last week’s reflection was on the first station of the cross entitled “Jesus is Condemned.” The post ended up reflecting on how we all must choose how to react to Jesus.
This week’s image is entitled “Christ takes up His cross” and was dedicated to a gentleman named Bob Ashman. As previously stated, the four stages of contemplation that I am using for this particular exercise are as follows:
- Show up
- Slow down
- Stay still
- Stay with
As I show up with this piece of art, I find myself drawn to the imagery of the Roman soldiers surrounding Jesus. The soldiers are strong and burly men. Jesus’ arms are being lifted up to hold the bottom of the beam which will eventually be attached to his wrists. They seem strong. Jesus seems to need help raising his hands to the beam. Jesus is looking up towards heaven. If I stood in front of the piece, Jesus would be staring right at me. When I was at Malvern, those eyes seemed a bit haunting to me. Here is the beginning of Jesus’ last journey before his death. It is an emotional image.
As I slow down I start to think about what I am seeing in this sculpture. I look to details like the strong muscles on the soldiers, the slighter appearance of Jesus, and it makes me begin to feel a bit perturbed. I notice a detail that tells me a great deal about the story which is untold in image, but familiar to those who have studied the stories.
Unlike last week’s representation of Jesus, this Christ has a crown of thorns. Last week’s sculpture was poignantly without a crown of thorns, which indicated a strong connection with the account from Luke, the only gospel without a mention of the crown of thorns. The crown shows up in Mark 15:17, John 19:2, and Matthew 27:29.
In fact, if a person were to isolate one scripture as the basis of this scene in this scenario, it would likely be the Matthew or Mark passages. Why? In the Matthew passage, Jesus receives the crown of thorns after Pilate’s judgment and before he goes on the journey to the cross. John has Jesus don the crown of thorn before Pilate concludes his questioning.
Mark and Matthew are both filled with events which take place between these two stations. In Mark, here’s how verses it reads in chapter 15, verses 16-20: (Common English Bible)
“The soldiers led Jesus away into the courtyard of the palace known as the governor’s headquarters, and they called together the whole company of soldiers. They dressed him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on him. They saluted him, ‘Hey! King of the Jews!’ Again and again, they struck his head with a stick. They spit on him and knelt before him to honor him. When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the purple robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.”
The detail of the crown tells me that Jesus has had a hard journey between stations. In all honesty, these actions are the kind of actions that make me want to do anything but watch a passion play. The taunting, the sorrow, the pain, and the brutality of it. To hit someone in the head with a crown made with thorns or even spiky leaves (there is a controversy here which I am not going to wade into), is to do something incredibly brutal. As I slow down and let my knowledge parse what I see, I am brought into a deep place in my heart.
As I stay still with this image, I remember the eyes. The hands may have become too heavy to lift, but the eyes are staring upward in pain. They faced me as I walked that path. They faced me as I walked away from that station. The stillness with those eyes has been deepened by a knowledge of what Jesus has already been through. There is a sense of frailty to Jesus.
As a Protestant, I have this strong idea in my head of Jesus as victor. When I think of Jesus I think of the teacher and the miraculous rabbi. I imagine Jesus calming a storm or confronting legion. I do not tend to focus on these moments. “Let’s rush to the resurrection! Let’s even rush to the tomb.” This place of pain in the life of Jesus is uncomfortable. Even as I write this blog I want to do anything but dwell in this place where Jesus arms, the arms of the Good Shepherd, are raised up to hold a cross that will soon cause him to stumble and fall.
As I sit with this image I think of all the places where I try to run past the difficult parts of my own journey. I think of the times places where I fall short but try to run on past. I think of these moments and I mourn what happened on that day.
As I decide what I will stay with as I go forward, my mind is drawn to a scripture that I read earlier in this week as a part of my personal devotions. 2 Peter 1:3-8 says: (CEB)
“By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. Through his honor and glory he has given us his precious and wonderful promises, that you may share the divine nature and escape from the world’s immorality that sinful craving produces.
This is why you must make every effort to add moral excellence to your faith; and to moral excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, endurance; and to endurance, godliness; and to godliness, affection for others; and to affection for others, love. If all these are yours and they are growing in you, they’ll keep you from becoming inactive and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
There is a very large part of me what wants to dwell in this image and find a place of sorrow to dwell within forever. Peter’s letter invites me to see things differently though. Jesus has given us everything we need for life and godliness. We are invited to share in life through Jesus.
As Jesus looks upon me, even in weakness, there is still a question of how I will respond. Will I find a reason for shame or an invitation to faith? If I have that faith and put it into practice, might the eyes carry an invitation if I add to my faith this alternative conception of what Paul might call the“fruit of the Spirit?” What would the eyes say if I were to let these things grow in me? What would the eyes say if I were transformed by this act of love?
This journey of contemplation is just beginning. Next week the third station will be posted on Saturday. I invite you to journey and ponder along as we head through these fifteen opportunities for contemplation.
One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a very unique set of Stations.
While we were at the Academy this past July, we were invited to consider the possibility of looking at beautiful works of art as invitations to contemplation. Kataphatic (sometimes spelled cataphatic despite the fact that the Greek root word began with a “kappa”) contemplation and prayer is not very common in most Protestant circles, but even the most pragmatic of Christians has probably felt an invitation to consider what Christ had done when they considered the image of Christ on the cross.
I am seeking to practice a bit more of what Spiritual Director and former Jesuit Wilkie Au called “crabgrass contemplation,” which is a term he admittedly borrowed from the book “Noisy Contemplation” by William Callahan. The four steps of this contemplation are as follows;
- Show up
- Slow down
- Stay still
- Stay with
Showing up is the first step which is recommended in this contemplation. Wilkie shared a joke with us while we were on retreat that illustrated this point beautifully. A person was praying to God and asking why God never answered their prayer. God decided that it was time to address the matter. A big booming voice from Heaven rang out over the person in prayer saying “Aren’t you the one who keeps asking me to help them win the lottery?” The praying person nods their head mutely in astonishment. The voice rang out again saying “Look. I can see you are scared, so I will meet you halfway on this one. Have you considered buying a lottery ticket?”
It is a mildly humorous joke, but it is an even better invitation. If you want to find God in contemplation, you must first show up. Nobody wakes up surprised that they have not learned to speak Spanish if they never study! The invitation is made clearly and it invites us to show up.
Slowing down is the second step to this form of contemplation. I have had struggles with eyesight over the past few years, especially as I have recovered from my corneal transplant since this past March. It can take me a moment or two to focus my eyesight and really see something well. I need to slow down and take the effort to focus if I want to see something. On occasion, I have even found that I need to get out a specialized instrument to help me see which I could never use on the run. You might be amazed at how much more beautiful that robin in the yard looks when I slow down, take out my spyglass (I had one functional eye for a while–binoculars were overkill), and look with purpose instead of rushing through the yard. Slowing down in our faith is one way to focus our minds for contemplation.
Staying still is the third step and one of my least favorite steps in this method of contemplation. I have a very precocious seven year old daughter who likes to run, jump, sing, talk, and make noise. My wife blames me for this part of her daughter’s personality because I used to be that child. My mass is what now uses all of that excess energy, but it can be very difficult for me to slow down in my mind. I want to sing, I want to hum, I want to monologue, and I want to be active. Staying still is the invitation which comes next in this process and it can be challenging, but useful.
Finally, the last step is staying with the thing that we are contemplating. For me this is a different than staying still. I often will find myself in contemplation having the same eureka moment time and time again. One reason this might be a part of my pattern of being is that I often take the first morsel and run off in joy. I never notice what I am missing. This pattern could be likened to being invited to a five-course meal and running off after the salad. We are invited to stay with the item we contemplate.
I wanted to publically practice this form of contemplation with the Stations of the Cross for several reasons. First, I want to model the idea of contemplation within a Protestant context. We tend to be afraid of what John Wesley would have called Romish things, but there is a beauty to considering what Christ has done for us and is doing within us. If a Station brings us to consider the actions of Jesus within the Passion narrative, then should we not consider that a blessing?
Second, I want to spend some time connecting these Stations within the Biblical narrative. Not every station is as firmly planted within the scriptures, but each station expresses a truth which I believe should be deeply embedded within our group consciousness as Christians.
So, without further ado, I invite you to consider the first Station of the Cross located outside of the Malvern Retreat House. The station is entitled “Jesus is Condemned to Death” and it was dedicated to the friends and relatives of the Santoleri family. The artist who created the sculptures was Timothy Schmaltz.
As I arrive at this place of contemplation, I consider the truth of contemplation which sits directly in front of me. As Herod sits in a contemplative posture in front of Jesus with crossed hands, so I sit considering the scene in front of me. Jesus stands upright at the base of the stairs upon which the judge sits in contemplation. Jesus waits, looking, and watching.
Biblically, I must admit that I think there’s a dissonance in the story. John 19 states that Jesus would have been flogged, beaten, and crowned with a crown of thorns by the point of his condemnation. Mark’s Gospel in chapter 15 does not have an explicit flogging before judgment is passed, but Jesus would have been bound. Also, where is the crowd? Likewise, Matthew 26 records the scribes and leaders beat Jesus, but there is no mention of a flogging; however, there is a place where Herod sitting on a seat is mentioned. Luke 22 and 23 have mockery, beating, and a fancy robe placed on Jesus, but this scene does not appear so readily. Indeed, Matthew has Jesus washing his hands while sitting on the judgment seat, which is probably as close as we can get to this particular image.
As I slow down and contemplate this scent of Jesus’ life, I am drawn to the inconsistencies with the story. Where is the crowd yelling for condemnation? Where is Barabbas? Why does Jesus appear so very calm? Who should I identify with in this image?
As I stay with the image, the question I ask myself is whether I am in image by intention. Consider for a moment that there is a crowd in this moment. The crowd is you and me. The crowd is everyone who walked this path and slowed down to look. The crowd stares at Jesus from thousands of Stations of the Cross around the world and throughout history. We are the crowd who sees Jesus standing in judgment. We are asked the question: “What would you have been yelling?” Would we be joining in the condemnation or would we have fled as the cock crowed that morning like Peter? Would we have had the courage of the women who would walk the road with Jesus, eventually even being with Jesus as he hung on the cross?
Herod’s hands are grasped together in a form that suggest to me a feeling of angst. I too feel the angst of Herod on considering what is ahead on the path towards Golgotha. The only person who doesn’t seem to feel angst in this interpretation is Jesus. Jesus has prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup would pass, but this is the moment when the prayer is ultimately answered. Jesus will begin his journey towards the cross.
How does this idea stay with me today? I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to wrestle with questions of what I would have done as I watched this scene unfold in front of me. I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to comprehend that Jesus would not have run away like I would have liked to run away. Ultimately, there needs to be a place of love in my heart for the willingness of Jesus alongside the pain of watching Christ suffer.
If we are called to be remade in the image of Jesus, then perhaps a good thing to contemplate is what it means to be willing to enter into love despite the pain it might cause for us. If such a contemplation brings me closer to the heart of Jesus, then such a contemplation is a blessing regardless of what name you claim as a Christian.