The Old Rugged Cross
You can see crosses everywhere these days – the symbols of the Christian faith. You can find cross tattoos or cross jewelry – I certainly have necklaces with a cross. Churches are adorned with crosses, some simple, but some quite ornate. Crosses on bumper stickers and billboards, crosses made out of every imaginable material. There’s a certain poignancy, irony, that the cross is portrayed in so many ways when it was actually an instrument of execution. That was the primary purpose of the cross, of course – it was used to put people to death, including Jesus, the Christ. But our understanding of resurrection, our understanding of Jesus’ victory over that very death with life leads us to see the cross transformed – not a symbol of execution, but a symbol of forgiveness, salvation, and re-creation. Still, sometimes I wonder if our frequent use of the symbol of the cross leads us to forget the impact of its meaning. Do we lose sight of the cross by our very frequent use of it? This fear, fear of losing sight of the meaning of the cross, was actually what motivated George Bennard to write The Old Rugged Cross in 1913.
According to the Christian History Institute, George Bennard was struggling with personal problems that were causing him a great deal of trouble and anguish. In his suffering, his mind returned again and again to Christ's anguish on the cross. This, he thought, was the heart of the gospel! The cross he pictured was not ornate, or pretty, or gold or silver. It was "a rough, splintery thing, stained with gore." "I saw the Christ of the Cross as if I were seeing John 3:16 leave the printed page, take form and act out the meaning of redemption," he said.
Bennard wanted to put this theme, these thoughts, to music. The History Institute writes that, "In a room in Albion, Michigan, Bennard sat down and wrote a tune. But the only words that would come to him were "I'll cherish the old rugged cross." He struggled for weeks to set words to the melody he had written.
As a Methodist evangelist, Bennard was scheduled to preach a series of messages in New York. He found himself focusing on the cross. The theme of the cross grew increasingly more urgent to him. Back in Albion, Michigan, he sat down and tried again to put together the words. This time the lines came. He later shared, "I sat down and immediately was able to rewrite the stanzas of the song without so much as one word failing to fall into place. I called in my wife, took out my guitar, and sang the completed song to her. She was thrilled!"
On June 7, 1913, according to his own account, George Bennard introduced the new hymn in a revival meeting he was conducting in Pokagon, Michigan. "The Old Rugged Cross," soon became one of the top ten most popular hymns of the twentieth century." (1) In our congregation, this hymn tied for first place on our top ten list.
My images, memories of this hymn don’t seem to connect with the challenging gospel lesson we have today, the troublesome words from Jesus that we have to deal with eventually. This hymn was one of my grandfather’s favorites. Normally I naturally love anything he loved, but I just never could love this hymn. I can picture singing it, the little choir singing it at the country church in Westernville where I grew up – each stanza slower than the one before, warbling voices singing a sweet golden-oldie hymn, for it was certainly a golden-oldie to me even when I was little. How can such a sweet little hymn have anything to do with the angry-sounding Jesus we confront in today’s lesson from Luke?
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Nothing sweet in this passage, is there? This doesn’t sound like our Jesus, does it? Jesus doesn’t come to bring peace, but division? Turning households against each other? Is that why Jesus, who we call the Prince of Peace, came to earth? To pit us against one another? We’ve been studying hymns all summer long, and in a couple weeks, we’ll be talking about Let There Be Peace on Earth. How can we talk about that, when Jesus insists on making these troubling statements? “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Our temptation whenever we read words like this from Jesus is to try to find a way to soften their blow, mute their impact so it doesn’t seem as bad as it sounds. But in this case, I think that’s exactly what Jesus is warning against. Do you think I come to make things easy, Jesus asks? Nope – I come to make them more and more challenging. That’s my paraphrase at least. Listen to the verse just before today’s passage: Jesus says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” In other words – we’ve received a lot – God’s blessings, God’s love, God’s unfailing grace, limitless second chances. But God expects a lot from us, too. And foremost, what God expects, what Jesus expects, is that if we choose to follow Jesus, we actually follow Jesus. It’s both that simple of a request and that hard of a request. Because following Jesus means choosing one path and not the other, and we’re very much a people who want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to take the path of Jesus, but we also want to make our own choices, choose our own way, and go our own direction when it suits us. Jesus says that he comes and shows a way to follow that we must either choose or not choose.
One of my blogging friends, Shane Raynor, recently wrote a column responding to an article he’d read about why teens don’t attend church that appeared in USAToday. The article, reporting on some study results, implied that teens don’t attend church because they are too busy, have too many other things to do. But Shane offered up some different ideas, including this one: “Unchurched teens see no significant difference between church kids and everyone else.” That’s a reason they don’t attend church, he said. He continues, “This issue is bigger than you think. I’ve run into it over and over again. Put yourself in a teenager’s shoes– if one of the reasons they might go to church is to become a better person, what does it say to them when the church kids cuss [do the same things] as all the other kids? Suppose you were thinking about joining a diet program where the participants never lost any weight? Or a gym where no one ever showed any physical progress? Or a karate school where no one ever got a black belt? You’d see it as a waste of time. A lot of kids see church as a waste of time for the exact same reason. Most teenagers aren’t expecting church people to be perfect, but they do want some kind of assurance that church is going to make a difference in their lives or they figure, why bother? (2)
That’s exactly what Jesus wants to know, too. If you want to follow me, but have following me not impact your life in any way, why bother? If you want to follow me, but not follow me, why bother? Jesus brings division because Jesus asks us to make choices, decisions, ones that really effect how we live. What difference has following Jesus made in your life? Choosing to follow Jesus Christ should not have as little or even less impact on our lives as choosing what outfit to wear or what restaurant to pick for dinner. Being a Jesus-follower ought to have some tangible, real result, real impact on us and those around us. What is the point of following Jesus if no one can tell, if nothing about me or the way I live changes as a result, what’s the point? Not peace, but division.
Poet Marianne Williamson writes, "When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see that you just need a new floor or better furniture, and that everything needs just a little cleaning - and so you go along for the first six months thinking how nice life is now that God is there. Then you look out the window one day and you see that there's a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot and you're going to have to start over from scratch." (2) Being a Christ-follower, we declare that we are ready to open our lives up to God, to be examined thoroughly by God's probing eyes, to rid our lives of sin, and wrong-doing, injustice, and failure to love God and neighbor. We make a decision. Make a choice. Choose this path against all other paths.
It is in this way that our hymn for today, the Old Rugged Cross, ties perfectly to our gospel lesson, and brings the message home to us in a beloved song. George Bennard didn't want a pretty cross, a soft and delicate cross, because he didn't want to lose sight of what the cross signified. Jesus told us that to follow him, we must take up the cross, the cross which symbolizes the difficult, life-sacrificing journey that Jesus ultimately had to make to be faithful to God's call. The Old Rugged Cross is a reminder to us that the faith we claim is more than a tradition into which we are born, more than a gathering of friends once a week. The life we choose is one that sets us apart if we are faithful to Jesus' teachings.
But in the choosing, as Bennard penned in his tune, our life as in Christ is rewarding beyond our imagination, as we experience the love and grace of God that knows no boundaries, and learn how to share this love that gives life with others. So we cherish this old rugged cross - the symbol of peace, the symbol of division, the symbol of glory, the symbol of humility, the symbol of the life we choose in Jesus Christ. Amen.
(1) Christian History Institute, http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/DAILYF/2002/06/daily-06-07-2002.shtml
(2) Shane Raynor, “5 Reasons Teens Are Avoiding Church,”
(3) Williamson, Marianne, as quoted in Pulpit Resources, William Willimon, for August 15th, 2004, pg 30.