New Arrangements: The Old Rugged Cross
This Lent, our worship theme is New Arrangements. Pastor Aaron and I chose some traditional Lenten hymns, and we will sing one each week during Lent, but we’ll also hear an alternate arrangement of the hymn. Sometimes we’ll hear special piano music, sometimes a special anthem or a soloist, sometimes a recording, but always a variation of some kind on the traditional hymn. In this Lenten journey, as we prepare ourselves to travel to the cross with Jesus, we find ourselves in a season of contemplation and reflection. I was trying to find just the right image to accompany the theme to use on our church facebook page and in our powerpoint presentations during worship, and I was asking for suggestions. One of my pastor friends suggested using a blueprint image, with furniture that could be rearranged in a room. I really like her concept.
Lent is a time when we try to open up our lives for God’s rearranging. Are we open to God coming into our lives and rearranging everything? It doesn’t always mean that God needs to throw out the furniture or knock down the walls or demolish the house altogether – although we need to be honest with ourselves and with God when we do need that. Will we let God rearrange our lives? We might have good contents to offer, but the way God pictures our lives is so much different, so much more than we’ve settled for. Marianne Williamson, one of my favorite poets, 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, wrong-doing, injustice, and failure to love God and neighbor. When people decide to “give up” or “take up” something for Lent, I see it as a way of making some room in our lives, changing things around, so that God can create some new arrangements in us. What are you doing that signals to God that God is invited in, not just to redecorate, or freshen up the paint in your life, but to make some major renovations?
Today, we’re starting our New Arrangements theme by focusing on the Old Rugged Cross. You can see crosses everywhere these days. You can find cross tattoos or cross jewelry. The cross you’ll see me wear most often is one that is more ornate than my typical style, but it was a gift my grandfather gave to my grandmother when they started dating, and was worn by my grandmother, mother, and aunts when they got married, so it is particularly special to me. 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. It’s an irony that we’ll explore again when on Palm Sunday this year we find crosses fashioned out of palm leaves. The primary purpose of the cross, of course was as something 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. “The more I contemplated these truths the more convinced I became that the cross was far more than just a religious symbol but rather the very heart of the gospel.” 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)
I keep coming back to Bennard’s words about wanting his hymn to give the sense of the gospel coming off the page, taking form, and acting out redemption. Our scripture today is from Paul’s letter to church at Philippi, and Paul is encouraging the Philippians to be of the same mind as Christ. That’s a lofty goal, isn’t it? But Paul clearly expects these Jesus-followers to do just that – try, in every way possible, to be like Jesus. “Make my joy complete,” he writes, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He goes on to talk about what he means by the mind of Christ: Jesus, though he could call himself equal with God, though he was in the form of God, instead, Jesus surrendered any power, any advantage he had, emptied himself, took the form of a slave, became one of us, lived a life of deep humility, and obeyed God’s direction even when that direction led to Jesus’ death on a cross. This is what Paul wants us to model. When God asks to rearrange our lives, we’re not being asked to do anything that God did not already do in Christ.
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, one that invites God in, to take our lives, and make them new creations, new arrangements. And as Bennard penned in his tune, we cherish this old rugged cross - the symbol of peace, the symbol of obedience and challenge, the symbol of glory, the symbol of humility, the symbol of the life we choose in Jesus Christ. Amen.
(1) Williamson, Marianne, as quoted in Pulpit Resources, William Willimon, for August 15th, 2004, pg 30.
(2) Christian History Institute, http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/DAILYF/2002/06/daily-06-07-2002.shtml