Love and other unnecessary things

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas on the occasion of the dedication of their new fellowship space, Gerhart Hall.

There is a revealing photograph of Heavenly Rest that comes from just after the church building was completed. Since it was taken before the pews had been installed, this picture shows the nave filled with neat rows of metal folding chairs. It is my favorite picture of this church; it actually hangs on the wall of our house in Pennsylvania. There are several reasons I like it. For one, it makes me laugh: the contrast between the gothic beauty of Heavenly Rest’s nave and the stark utility of the folding chairs makes for an amusing visual. There is a deeper reason this photograph resonates with me, and that is the fact that it makes the church feel so empty. Part of what makes this church so wonderful is the people who inhabit it. Those rows of empty folding chairs are reminders that, as important as buildings can be, a church is only a church when its people are gathered there.

Our gospel reading this morning understands that the church can only be the church when God’s people are present. It also understands that when people get together, there is going to be conflict. As such, the gospel offers some practical instructions about managing conflict in the Christian community. Before we assume that we know how nasty conflict in the church can be, remember that Matthew was writing to a group of people who, until very recently, wouldn’t even be in the same room together. His was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted. With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable. As a leader of the church community, Matthew seems to assume that those who disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community. The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, he spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it. If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him. If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, Jesus seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful. This cannot be a rash decision. It’s not like someone can just get rid of someone they don’t get along with. The whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community. Not only that, the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right. Matthew describes a rigorous due process, one designed to be as fair and equitable as possible. In Matthew’s community, excommunication is a last resort. Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

While this verdict seems harsh, there’s a level at which I think we can understand the need for a process like this. We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community. There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships, the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him. These people will often continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg. Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues. In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can move on with our lives and live in harmony. But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This feels like a fairly definitive condemnation. After all, labeling someone a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel. But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles. Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus exhorts the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.” Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there are always seats available for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors. Matthew reminds us that the church exists for those outside its walls.

When Willis Gerhart stepped off the train in Abilene in 1920, he had an unusual dream. He believed that what this West Texas town really needed was a gothic cathedral. For someone as eminently practical as Parson Gerhart, this was unexpected. This, after all, was the same man who couldn’t pass a beggar without giving him money, who gave away his coat more times than anyone could count, and who wrote his sermons in the cold during the Depression because he gave the stove in his office to a family with 12 children. Surely, he could have imagined raising money to combat poverty or alleviate homelessness, instead of building a church, of all things. Parson Gerhart understood something that most of us fail to recognize throughout our lives. Most of us evaluate the world in terms of what is necessary or useful: will this event be worth my time? will this class prepare me for a career? Parson Gerhart, however, understood the things that truly matter in this world are not strictly necessary.

If you think about it, it is not necessary to reach out the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives. In fact, it would be easy and expedient to exclude those who have repeatedly failed to meet our expectations. As Christians, we are called to be guided not by necessity, but by love. In fact, classical Christian theology suggests that it was not necessary for God to create the universe, that creation is not intrinsically useful to God. The scholastic theologians argued instead that God created the universe out of love. There is something astonishing about this claim. Love has no intrinsic utility. It is not goal oriented. It cannot be quantified. It serves no useful purpose. But for this reason, because it is not strictly necessary, love is more powerful than any of those forces the world considers indispensable. Love is the only thing the world truly needs.

This is something the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have understood since the beginning. This beautiful church building, the bell tower, the parish house, Gerhart Hall; none of these are strictly necessary. There is nothing that would have prevented this parish from worshiping in the Quonset Hut for the last 70 years. But this parish recognizes the architectural marvels of which you are the stewards are not merely buildings: they are expressions of God’s love for the whole world. These structures point us away from our selfish preoccupations and toward the eternal. As one parishioner is fond of observing, you can’t help but look up when you enter this space. Moreover, these buildings remind us that this church was not built for the sake of those who built it, but for those outside its walls. They encourage us to consider those who are missing from our fellowship, those who ache to know the grace and love of God, and those who have rejected it. These buildings help us recognize that the world is bigger than anyone of us, and that the only way we can truly celebrate what we have been given is when all of us are at the table.

This is a momentous weekend at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. It is the culmination of many years of vision, dedication, and hard work. The sheer number of you who were directly involved in building Gerhart Hall is a testament to the amazing quality of the people at this parish. Many of you are justifiably proud of what you have accomplished. You are the next in a long line of faithful people who have served and built this parish. But even as we celebrate, we must not forget our call to reach out beyond these walls, to recognize that these buildings were built not for the sake of those who built them, but for the people of this community. Gerhart Hall is more than a building; it is an icon of who you are and who you hope to be. It is a sign of God’s reconciling love, a love that, in the end, is the only thing the world really needs.

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Remembering we have been Redeemed

Sermon on Romans 7:15-25a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on July 6, 2014.

At Quarterman Ranch in Amarillo, our former diocesan camp and conference center, there is a sidewalk covered in names that leads to nowhere.  During Quarterman’s final years, each camp session ended with the addition of another slab to the woebegone sidewalk.  Campers, counselors, staff, and clergy would sign their names in the wet concrete, leaving a permanent reminder that they had been present in that place.  imgresSome campers acted as though they were outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood; they would leave their handprints and sign their names with the flourish of budding movie stars.  Others would immortalize the romance that they had kindled that week by writing that so and so and what’s his name would be together forever.  Still others would correct the professions of eternal love and devotion that they had made in previous years and indicate that what’s his name was, in fact, a jerk.  I always loved this moment in the week.  In spite of the self-indulgence of some of the contributions to the sidewalk, the act of gathering together and writing our names was an opportunity to recognize that we had been in that place together.  As we mixed concrete in the hot panhandle sun, we were reminded for a moment that we were more than individuals floating through life alone, that for the past week or so, we had been a community.  Each of those slabs of concrete was a sacramental reminder that we were called to be in each other’s lives, that we were called to love one another.

Today, we heard one of the stranger passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Out of context, this passage looks more like an entry from the diary of a teenager with low self-esteem rather than an excerpt from the letter of a self-possessed apostle who writes letters of advice to people he’s never met.  Normally, Paul’s letters are dripping with self-confidence, so much so that one New Testament scholar says that Paul’s most obvious attribute is his “robust conscience.”  This is, after all, the same guy who, in the letter to the Philippians, tells his audience that he was “blameless” in regards to righteousness under the law.  In other words, this vacillating, uncertain passage from Romans is out of character for its author.  It is unusual to see  Paul saying things like “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” or “I know that nothing good dwells within me” or “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”  What is the reason for this change?  Why is it that Paul focuses so thoroughly on his struggles with being a sinful person?  On one hand, it could be that Paul is saying that all of us, including him, can fall victim to the power of sin, that we must remain vigilant at all times and not allow sin to exercise dominion in our bodies.  On the other hand, there could be something very different happening in this passage.  Before we delve directly into that possibility, it would probably be helpful for us to remind ourselves what Paul has been doing so far in this letter to the Romans.

Romans begins with Paul addressing a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles he has never met.  Immediately after he dispenses with the traditional pleasantries at the beginning of the letter, Paul apparently lays into the Gentiles, saying that the wrath of God is being revealed against those who disobey the Law of Moses.  Rhetorically, this is meant to encourage the Law-abiding, Jewish members of the congregation to think, “You tell ’em Paul!  Tell those Gentiles just how sinful they are.”  But, just when it seems like Paul is going to say the Gentiles in the Roman church are destined for perdition, Paul turns it around, saying at the beginning of chapter two: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are…because you… are doing the very same things.”  Paul explains what he means by this when he comes to the crux of his argument, asserting that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Paul is saying to this congregation: no matter who you are, Jew or Gentile, all of you have fallen short of God’s commandments.

The good news, however, is that even though we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, Jesus Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been justified, or made righteous, apart from the law, in spite of the fact that we have failed to honor God and God’s commandments.  Through the redeeming action of God through Jesus Christ, we have been empowered to live a new life of righteousness and peace.

This is Paul’s main purpose in the first chapters of Romans: to tell the congregation that regardless of who they are, they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But Paul has another purpose in these first chapters.  He wants to explain that while the law is valuable, it is no longer necessary to follow the strictures of the law.  One of Paul’s biggest rhetorical challenges in all of his letters is to make this case, the argument that the law, which he believes was ordained by God, is good, but no longer necessary.  In the first part of chapter seven, he does this by saying that sin used the law to bring death into the world.  But in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God destroyed the power of sin.  In other words, the law no longer applies, not because God nullified the law, but because God defeated the power of sin.

All of this brings us to the passage we read today.  While it might appear that Paul’s purpose in this passage is to illustrate how difficult it is to be good, there is something much more important happening, something that is informed by where we’ve already been in Romans.  Paul has been saying that the power of sin has been destroyed and that the law has been rendered unnecessary, only to launch into this prolonged, self-loathing, legalistic complaint about how hard it is not to be sinful.  If this is all this passage is about, it doesn’t to jibe with where we’ve come in Romans (or where we’re going, for that matter).  But if we look at the very end of this passage, we see that Paul has a very different purpose.  After complaining tediously and self-indulgently about his struggles with sinful behavior, Paul melodramatically writes, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Without missing a beat, he immediately answers the question by reminding himself of the redeeming work of God that he has been discussing for the last six chapters: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  You’ll notice that Paul’s rhetorical strategy in this passage is pretty similar to what he does at the beginning of the letter: he draws us in to the point that we also begin to wallow in self-loathing until he snaps us out of it, smacking us over the head with the gospel message of redemption and reconciliation.  This passage is not a meditation by Paul about his sinful behavior; it is a pointed and powerful reminder that we should not be distracted by our apparent failures, that we should not wallow in our supposed sinfulness.  Instead, Paul insists that should live our lives in assurance of the fact that we have been reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Why does this matter?  Why would Paul be concerned if people wallow in a sense of their sinfulness?  Isn’t there a certain nobility in trying to do everything right?  There are two problems with being preoccupied with our sinful behavior.  On one level, if we believe that the power of sin has indeed been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection, then focusing so intensely on our sinfulness devalues what God has done through Jesus Christ.  On another, even more significant level, focusing on our sinfulness means that we become completely and destructively self-centered.  Paul is trying to build relationships between the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church.  But if they are totally inwardly focused and completely self-centered about their behavior, there is no way that they are going to be able to recognize themselves in the other members of the community.  Did you notice how many times Paul used the word “I” in the passage we read this morning?  If we truly wish to be part of the Church, it is impossible to be that “I”-oriented.  If we value being part of a community, it is impossible for us to be entirely consumed with our own behavior.  If we truly trust that we have been redeemed through Jesus Christ, then we must look outside ourselves and reach out to those around us.

If you walk toward Heavenly Rest on the south side of Sixth Street, you will notice that someone has etched words into one of the paving stones on the sidewalk.  Unlike the concrete slabs that comprise the Quarterman sidewalk, however, this block doesn’t include petty recriminations, professions of eternal love, or Hollywood dreams.  Instead, written in block letters are two simple words: “Look Up.”  347914039_5954ef24c5_mWhen you do, you are greeted by the soaring majesty and beauty of the Heavenly Rest bell tower.  I have no idea who carved those words into the concrete, but it might as well have been Saint Paul.  Because those words are a pointed sacramental reminder to all of us.  Those words remind us to look up from our preoccupation with everything wrong in our lives and pay attention to the reality of beauty and possibility.  Those words remind us to look up from our assumption that must go through this life alone and recognize that we are part of a community that has been shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those words remind us to look up from our self-centered, self-indulgent perspective and remember that we worship a God who looked up at the world and redeemed creation through Jesus Christ.

Potluck

Last night, we had one of our Lenten potluck suppers at the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

potluckThose of you who have spent any time in a church community are familiar with potlucks (or “cover dishes,” as they are called in certain parts of the American South).  The concept is simple: everyone attending an event brings a dish to share with the group.  In spite of the simplicity of the premise, however, some people have a tendency to make potlucks as complicated as possible.  At the church where I grew up, for instance, dishes were assigned according to the first letter of a potential contributor’s last name: A through K brought main dishes, L through R brought salads, and S through Z brought desserts.  I understand the impulse behind these guidelines; they are one way to ensure that you won’t have 75 apple pies for dinner.  At the same time, I always found these requirements frustrating, and not just because I have an “R” last name and may be the worst salad maker in the world.  Rather, guidelines like these tend to hamper people’s creativity and prevent them from offering their specialty, the dish of which they are most proud.  And as it turns out, the alphabetical guidelines I grew up with solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.  At Heavenly Rest, we have no such “potluck rules,” and yet the buffet table always features a healthy balance of main dishes, vegetables, salads, and desserts.  The potluck, in other words, works itself out even without the influence of external guidelines.

In some ways, life in the Church is a lot like a potluck.  As members of the Christian community come together to be fed, each person brings something to the table and offers gifts to build up the Body of Christ.  The temptation for leaders in the Church is to regulate these offerings, to assume that we know the best use for people’s gifts and talents.  (The equivalent of making everyone with a certain letter in their name bring a salad is saying, “Oh, you teach kindergarten?  How would you like to teach Sunday School?!)  But if the Church is truly to embrace an understanding of vocation, then we must recognize that people can offer gifts we may have never imagined. Spiritual vitality in the Christian community is not about assuming that we know best and not about insisting that our approach is the only approach.  Instead, we are called to embrace the great variety of spiritual gifts in the Church and trust that God will guide us to use them wisely.

Lamentation

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

563612_10100115394570697_1993153675_nA few weeks ago, an ecumenical colleague and I were driving to a seminar in Austin.  Our trip took us through Zephyr (Texans are so good at naming places) and there we drove by a church with a sign that read, “The X belongs in Texas.  Christ belongs in Christmas.”  Clearly, the folks in Zephyr had opened up yet another front in the purported “War on Christmas.”  Neither my friend nor I had the time or inclination to explain that the “X” in “Xmas” is the Greek letter “chi,” which is actually an ancient abbreviation for the name of Christ.  The X, in other words, belongs both in Texas and Christmas.  Part of the reason I wasn’t inclined to explain this is that I really think that all of the talk about the “War on Christmas” in those first weeks of December is mostly an excuse to get people to click on website links or watch sensational stories on the news or come up with somewhat clever church signs.

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“Do we get to win this time?”

The reality is, however, that all of the skirmishes in the supposed “War on Christmas” take place before Christmas even starts.  And once the season of Christmas has actually arrived, people forget about it!  Across the country on December 26th, decorations are packed away, Christmas trees are literally thrown to the curb, and people stop saying Merry Christmas, even though there are twelve more days to celebrate the birth of our Lord. Surely this is where the real battle is being fought.  Needless to say, I have, for the last two weeks, been a willing and possibly the only participant in this particular version of the “War on Christmas.” I have been the John Rambo of reminding people that it is still Christmas: I have encouraged people to keep their decorations up, I have corrected people when they refer to Christmas in the past tense, and I insist on saying “Merry Christmas” well into January.  And so beloved, I take this moment on January 5th to remind you that it is still Christmas, that we are still observing the birth of our Lord, that we are still celebrating the Incarnation.

As a result of our celebration, we are in the somewhat unusual position of observing the second Sunday of Christmas, which does not happen all too often.  In fact, the way our lectionary is constructed means that we in the Episcopal Church rarely have to deal with this challenging reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel.  And this story of the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents is nothing if not challenging.  Matthew begins by telling us about an angel appearing to Joseph in yet another dream, warning him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions.  Joseph wakes up immediately and escorts Jesus and Mary to Egypt by night, escaping from Herod and his minions in the nick of time and fulfilling a prophecy from Hosea to boot.  It seems that everything is wrapped up neatly in a bow; everybody ends up safe and sound exactly where they are supposed to be and Jesus is well on his way to fulfilling prophetic and Messianic expectations.  In the very next passage, however, Matthew tells us that Herod, infuriated by the duplicity of the wise men, sends soldiers to Bethlehem to murder every single child under the age of two.  It’s a shocking jolt to the system.  We were lulled into a sense of security, a knowledge that the heroes of the story were safe, and then we hear about a horrific massacre of innocent children.  Matthew tells us that even this tragedy fulfills the prophetic words of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  After recounting this horrific event, Matthew moves on.  He tells us that the Holy Family stays in Egypt until Herod dies, eventually moving to Nazareth, so that Jesus can fulfill yet another prophecy.

imagesThe challenge of this passage is not simply the horrifying fact that children were massacred, but rather the fact that Matthew can be so glib about it.  It doesn’t seem to faze him all that much; he simply presents an account of the slaughter of the innocents, and then moves on with the narrative.  In some ways, this may be related to Matthew’s almost obsessive preoccupation with presenting Jesus as the “prophet like Moses” predicted in Deuteronomy.  After all, according to the account in Exodus, Moses also escaped from a similar slaughter of Hebrew children by an oppressive tyrant.  Moses also saved his people by coming up out of Egypt.  It could be that Matthew is simply unfolding those events that give us a sense of Jesus’ true identity.  It could be that the slaughter of the innocents is just another event that proves Jesus is the prophet like Moses, the one who will save God’s people from their sin.

While there may be some truth to this, the Church has never fully accepted this explanation.  We have never been so callous as to think of the slaughter of the innocents as the cost of doing business; it has always been an event that we have mourned as a community.  It is no accident that we remember those Holy Innocents in a feast day on December 28th.  It is no accident that one of the most important and enduring moments in the 16th-century Pageant of the Shearmen and the Tailors was when the women of Bethlehem sang the mournful carol we sang just prior to the reading of the gospel today.  In fact, that carol is the one element of that pageant that survived, the one part of that experience that we wanted to make sure we remembered.  Finally, I think that even Matthew expects us to mourn.  Matthew is incredibly selective about the quotation he uses from Jeremiah to describe the slaughter of the innocents: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  In the very next sentence of the passage from which Matthew draws that quotation, Jeremiah says, “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears…there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.”  Yet Matthew ends the prophecy with “she refuses to be consoled, because they are no more.”  In other words, Matthew chooses to end the quotation not with the promise of restoration that we hear in Jeremiah, but with the reality of a mother’s pain; not with hope for the future, but with the reality of loss; not with the prophet like Moses, but with an acknowledgment that the loss of a child is more than one can bear.

When I was born, I spent some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Looking back, it was a little absurd: I was full-term, eight pounds three ounces, and relatively healthy.  I was at least twice the size of all of the other babies in the nursery, but apparently there were some issues with my heart.  These were resolved relatively quickly and I was discharged from the hospital after a few days.

A few months later, my father was canvassing for our local Town Committee, which was Hartford’s answer to Tammany Hall.  He had to knock on doors in our neighborhood, and because he understood the fundamental law that babies are good politics, he carried me along with him in a Baby Bjorn (or whatever they were called back then).  Things were going well until he arrived at a house where a woman around his age answered the door.  After my father gave his spiel, the woman said to him, “You don’t remember me, do you?”  Terrified that he had violated the cardinal rule of local politics and forgotten someone’s name, my father stammered, “I’m sorry, I can’t recall meeting you.”  The woman responded, “Both of our babies were in the NICU at the same time.  Your baby made it, and mine didn’t,” and she closed the door.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  There’s nothing my father could have said to this woman to console her.  There’s nothing he could have said to help her make meaning of her child’s death, nor is there anything we could or should say to help a parent make meaning of her child’s death.  In the same way, there’s nothing Matthew could say to make meaning of the death of those innocent children, except to acknowledge the pain and loss.

How do we find good news in this story about the murder of innocent children?  How do we find good news in this story about a mother’s inconsolable grief?  We cannot presume to make false meaning of these stories, we cannot hide behind clichés like “everything happens for a reason” or “God needed another angel.”  These are well-intended but ultimately unhelpful responses to tragedy.  The good news, the gospel that we affirm today, the reality of the Incarnation we continue to celebrate is that even though our world is ruled by tyrants and broken by sin and death, God came to dwell among us.  The gospel we affirm today is that through Jesus Christ, God has experienced the pain of a grieving mother and the suffering of a frightened child.  The gospel we affirm today is that on a cross outside of Jerusalem, God came face to face with Herod and Caesar and all the evil powers of this world and through Jesus Christ, God has said “no” to the power of evil.

imgresAnd because God has said “no” to the power of evil, we have been enabled to say “no” to the evil powers of this world.  When we see people who are being ignored, we are called to say “no” and reach out in love and compassion.  When we see people who are wracked by hunger and thirst, we are called to say “no” and give them something to eat.  When we see people oppressed because of who they are, we are called to say “no” and affirm their fundamental dignity and worth.  When we see people without hope, we are called to say “no” and give them reason to hope.  It is in this way, in the words of our Collect this morning, that we “share the divine life of him who shared our humanity.”  It is in this way that we celebrate the Incarnation, not only during these twelve days, but every day of our lives.  And as we celebrate the Incarnation, I pray that the one who came to dwell among us will empower us to stand in the face of tragedy and misery and say “no” to the evil powers of this world.

Stations

Over the past several weeks, members of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have been participating in a Lenten program on Wednesday night called “Near the Cross: Exploring the Passion through Many Lenses.”  Every week, we have looked at the death of Jesus from a different perspective, including Scripture, visual art, and music.  Last night, we gathered in the nave of Heavenly Rest and gained a liturgical perspective of the Passion by doing the Stations of the Cross.

the body of jesus is taken down from the crossThe Stations of the Cross is an adaptation of the custom of offering of prayer at a series of places in Jerusalem traditionally associated with our Lord’s passion and death.  In most cases, the congregation processes around the building to designated places in the church, each of which represents a different event from Jesus’ final hours.  There are, for instance, stations that mark the moment when Jesus is condemned by Pilate, the moment the cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene, the moment when Jesus’ dies on the cross, and so on.  Interestingly, there are also stations for events that are not attested to in Scripture: the moment that a woman wipes the face of Jesus, the moment when Jesus falls, and the the moment when Jesus meets his afflicted mother.  While the idea of commemorating events in the life of Jesus that do not occur in Scripture may make some uncomfortable, the Stations of the Cross is not about giving a factual presentation of the Passion, it is about allowing participants to experience how the Passion might have felt.  In this regard, the Scriptural allusions selected for the Stations are not quotations from the gospels, but draw from the entire bible.  The station where the body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother (one of the non-Scriptural stations) is a good example:

All you who pass by, behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.  My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people.  “Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

In this station, the words of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and Naomi’s lament from the book of Ruth are put on the lips of a mother who has lost her baby boy.  Though we cannot know what Jesus’ mother was thinking as he was crucified, the Stations of the Cross invites us to imagine how we might feel if we stood in Mary’s place.

I’ll be honest; I have always found the Stations of the Cross to be challenging.  Not only have I been uncomfortable with commemorating non-Scriptural events, Stations of the Cross also has a tendency to make me physically uncomfortable.  By the end of the devotion, the small of my back begins to ache and I start limping on account of my bum knee.  And in some ways, this is the point of the devotion.  The Stations of the Cross connects us to the death of Jesus in a deeply physical way; it invites us to bring the Passion of our Lord into our bodies.  I don’t mean to suggest that our aches mirror the pain that Jesus suffered; rather, our embodiment of the Passion helps us to understand it on another level.  This is part of the reason that we are invited to fast during Lent.  When we make Lent part of our physical nature, we have the opportunity to connect to God’s love for us in a new and different way.  Rather than attempting to understand it, Lent invites us to feel the grace and love of God.