Performing the Scriptures: Mark’s Gospel

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A couple years ago, when last the lectionary was in Mark I stumbled upon some Youtube videos of people doing dramatic performances of Mark’s gospel in its entirety.  At the time, I thought, “This is something I could do” and put it on the back burner of my brain until January 1st of this year when I decided to go ahead and memorize Mark and perform it dramatically for Tenebrae Friday.

I went about the arduous task of memorizing Mark passage by passage.  As I did I came clever audience interaction bits and props.  As I memorized it out loud I rehearsed various ways of saying every single sentence.  Some I tried sad and then happy and then sarcastic to see which I felt worked best and also conveyed the tone that I thought Mark used.

The performance was last Friday night and, though I am relieved to be done with Mark’s gospel, I am also grateful for the amount of wisdom and knowledge I gained over the last several months.  So it is my pleasure here to share with you some of those insights I have learned during this journey:

  1. I am more convinced than ever that Mark’s gospel was meant to be spoken and performed, not read.  The high amount of intense action verbs make this obvious.  The heavens do not open.  They are TORN open.  People do not kneel.  They fall down at his feet.  Nobody “asks” anything, (well, except the boring bad guys).  Instead, they plead or beg.  These verbs lend themselves to broad hand and arm gestures and overly dramatic facial expressions, making this a very fun gospel to read out loud.  You can almost imagine an elderly Peter performing this for a younger Mark and then a young Mark in turn performing it for his younger disciples.
  2. Sarcasm and irony permeate this text.  I am going to write a follow up post in the next day or two about my favorite bits of humor in Mark but moments of irony carry the gospel along.  The scene with the legion of demons and the large herd of pigs is hilarious, making its sad ending very poignant.  Jesus’ use of the prophet Isaiah and the commands of Moses to insult the Pharisees and teachers of the law is brilliant and funny.  And who can forget Jesus getting mad at a fig tree when it didn’t have figs in the middle of Spring!  I will talk more about the humor later but it sure made Mark fun to memorize and perform.
  3. Mark’s over-use of the word “immediately” is not what a lot of people try to make of it.  The word “immediately” appears over 15 times in Mark, more than one a chapter.  Other “hurry” words like “just then,” “as soon as,” “at once” and the like appear just as often.  Therefore, some argue that Jesus in Mark is in a hurry and doesn’t slow down.  I don’t think that is true.  The word “immediately” very rarely describes Jesus.  Instead it comes up most often during miracles.  When Jesus speaks immediately the leprosy leaves, the bleeding stops and the demon flees.  The word doesn’t convey a Jesus in a hurry.  It conveys the darkness and evil of our world in a hurry to get of Jesus’ way.
  4. Right around chapter 7 the entire tone of the gospel changes.  Somewhere in chapter 7, the hurry words disappear.  The strong action verbs get a little bit weaker.  The humor fades.  Chapters 8-10 were the hardest to memorize because they weren’t as dramatic or fun.  But these are the chapters which focus heavily on the demand for followers of Jesus to live humble and sacrificial lives.  It is as if Mark used the humor, intensity and hurry to get your attention but once he had it, he slowed things way down so that you could really hear the core message of the book which is.  .  .
  5. HUMILITY.  This guy Jesus has all the power in the world but doesn’t want people to talk about it.  The person Mark labels in the very first verse as the “Son of God” comes from middle of nowhere Nazareth and hangs out in forgotten Galilee for 2/3rds of the Gospel.  He then hurries back out to Galilee right after the Resurrection.  This popular teacher spends his time running away from crowds and hiding in houses.  He demands both demons and those healed to keep their mouths shut about him and in chapter 9 he is transfigured and then immediately tells the eyewitnesses not to go blabbing.  In chapter 8, right around the time the tone changes, he begins to teach that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected.  Then he starts talking about how he didn’t come to be served but to serve.  He begins teaching his disciples to do the same thing.  The first will be last.  The one who wants to be great will be the slave of all.  Those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven must do so with one eye, one hand, one foot and with the posture of a little child.  Then the rich man goes away sad because he has great wealth.  But blind Bartimaus is filled with joy because he just wanted to see.  And in the parable of the sower some receive the word but because of the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things, the word is choked and they are unfruitful.  Mark has much to teach us about the path of salvation and he illustrates it to us as the path of sacrificial humility.  This climaxes at the Resurrection scene.  Many commentators have pointed out that it is a young man dressed in white who gets to proclaim the resurrection news in the empty tomb.  There was another young man in white you fled naked and in shame at the arrest.  It is quite probable that Mark did this on purpose to illustrate that those of us who humble ourselves completely, leaving everything, even our clothes, in order to follow Jesus will receive so much more from God!

Oh that we would learn that lesson and learn it well and join Bartimaus and the young man in white on the road to the cross and then to the empty tomb!

At the Casket of a Newborn: A Lenten Reflection

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Yesterday for the second time in my life I stood over a casket that was only a couple feet long.  I had to be there.  The word “had” is such a modest word, designed to be over used and yet I use it here reluctantly and carefully.  I did indeed “have” to stand there.  Nothing external compelled me, only the internal bonds of friendship forged over years of shared experiences with the father of the infant who lay in the casket.  My friendship with Camden was so deep and so suddenly profound that I told many, “I couldn’t NOT be there.”  I had to come.

We arrived to the funeral forty five minutes early and walked into the sanctuary, which happens to be “ground zero” for my spirituality.  It is the sanctuary where I worshiped weekly for nine years during my youth.  It was the sanctuary where my friends and I played ridiculous night games.  It was the sanctuary where I spent hours in prayer and the sanctuary where I was ordained.  That sanctuary holds some profound mysteries.

It’s the season of Lent and so the sanctuary also held the colors and slogans of this time of the liturgical year.  The purple hue was everywhere.  A giant wooden cross, much longer than the casket, hovered over us on the platform.  Decorated cloths held pictures of crowns of thorns and nails with the words of Isaiah woven into them.  “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”

And there right in the middle of it all, was the infant laying in a casket.  And here, right in the middle of my own Lenten journey, was the infant laying in a casket.

Ten short, but tortuously long days earlier her heart had stopped beating during delivery, sending the family and friends into a downward spiral of grief.  I personally read the news in a grocery store parking lot, where I sat in my car for a good ten minutes crying before mustering the strength to go into the store.

Ten days later here I was, standing in Lent, staring at a two foot long casket unable to keep myself even remotely composed.  I wanted to turn around, wipe the tears from my eyes, tell a joke or two and flee back to sunny Utah where I could bury myself back in the drudgery of daily ministry.

Yet as I said at the top of the post, I “had” to be there.  I had to stand there and look at it and cry because this casket is a profound piece of the Easter story that we tell and commemorate every year, even every Sunday.

As I sat there looking at it through tear blurred eyes, I could not escape from the fact that there is something desperately wrong with the world in which we live.  It is as if the casket was calling out, “Houston, we have a problem.  Heaven, we have a problem!”  And as I contemplated the mystery of the infant’s casket, I realized the problem it proclaims goes much deeper than human behavior.

In fact, this Lent I have been thinking a lot about the Galilean Pharisees of Jesus’ time, these people whose job it was to fix people’s behavior.  In the Gospel of Mark we see them partnered with the politicians, known as the Herodians.  They were strange bedfellows for sure, but they had one great thing in common, other than their mistrust of Jesus.  Both of them sought to build religious and political systems and structures to mitigate personal behavior in the hopes of fixing what is wrong with the world.

Then I thought about Jesus who wept at his friend Lazarus’ tomb.  Lazarus didn’t die because of human behavior.  He died because, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “the world has been subjected to futility.”

All of us, from every dot on the spectrum from sinner to saint, carry that futility with us in our bodies and every once in awhile that futility makes itself plainly evident, as it did for my friends on the delivery bed two weeks ago and as it did for my sister five years ago when my niece died of SIDS.  The Pharisees would have chalked the casket up to “secret sin.”  But we know the truth.  This infant did not die because of sin.  This baby died because of a world subjected to futility.

How ridiculously powerless we are in the face of that futility.  In fact, how absurdly powerless all of our pastors, all of our politicians, all of our churches and businesses and universities and clubs and committees and manuals and TV shows and pharmaceutical pills and self help books and rules and laws and systems and structures and so much more are when faced with the casket of an infant!

This Lent, at the casket of an infant, only the almighty God, maker of Heaven and Earth and Jesus Christ his son, savior of Heaven and Earth can break the chains of futility and unleash the tide of Resurrection.

Come oh Easter.

Come oh Christ.

Come oh God.

This world desperately needs you and only you.

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Photo courtesy of my friend Robin Wheeler.

Tenebrae Friday Reflection: Who’s On Trial Here

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To Read: Mark 12:38-43

Today is Tenebrae Friday, a day of shadows and darkness where we remember that our God died.  Today we make much of the trials of Jesus before the Chief Priests, the Jewish governor of Galilee and the Roman governor of Judea.  We talk a lot about the accusations against Jesus and how that all led to the horrible moment when Jesus spoke the final words, “it is finished” and breathed his last.  We do this in various ways.  Some of us attend a traditional candlelight service.  Others pray through the stations of the cross.  Others watch various film depictions of the event like the Passion of the Christ or the Jesus film.  Still others read the Passion narratives in the four gospels, taking special note of the 7 last words Jesus spoke while on the cross.  The truly super spiritual do all of the above!

But no matter how we commemorate Good Friday, we are prone to realize again that the real trial at the heart of the crucifixion was not Jesus’ but ours.  All of humanity was put on trial before the throne of God.  After all the God who loves us, who created us, whose very presence sustains our being, pitched his tent and camped out among us and we killed him for it.

My devotional reflections this week have been following Mark 12 where Jesus is repeatedly questioned by various members of the Jewish scholarly elite during the last week of his life.  Jesus successfully parried attacks by the Chief Priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and one over confident teacher of the law.  These various tests serve as a precursor to his upcoming trial.  Even though they had yet to arrest Jesus under the cover of darkness and serve up a mock trial to reaffirm their own prejudices, they publicly tested Jesus in the hopes that the surrounding crowds would be the jury and judge.

It didn’t work.  In fact, after Jesus successfully answered their questions and avoided the traps they had set, he turned the attack on them.  In chapter 12, verse 38 Jesus says, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Right after that he contrasts them with a very poor widow who offered two tiny pennies to the temple system.  Her offering, Jesus says, is worth more than all the others.

This image of the humble widow becomes a forerunner to the image of the crucified God.  The arrogant chief priests and teachers of the law respond to the presence of Christ by trying to trick and trap.  The widow responds by giving all she has.  It is her two mites that become the image of true humanity, a humanity formed and shaped and called to the image of the sacrificial and self giving God.

Days later, Jesus as fully God and fully human magnifies the image of the widow for us as he hangs on the cross.  This image of sacrificial and self giving love is who we are supposed to be.  Such an image shames the know it alls and the proud and the arrogant and the powerful.  The cross is a verdict on our own ability to save ourselves by pretending to be more than we are.  It is a sentence of “guilty” for those who “walk around in fancy clothes and soak up the praises bestowed upon them while sitting in the most important seats in public gatherings but who devour widows’ homes.”

And it is a call to repent from our arrogance and pride and embrace the sacrificial giving of a poor widow.  Only by picking up our own crosses of shame and following Jesus can we arrive at a Resurrected morning.

Heavenly father, restore unto us the joy of our salvation as we gaze upon your self giving cross.

 

Recently Recorded Sermons: Lent To Easter and a Bit Beyond!

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In the spirit of my series this week on preaching, here are six live recordings of recent sermons.  The first one is from Job.  The next several are from the gospel of Mark and the one at the end is on the road to Emmaus.

Good Friday Reflection: What Kind of God?

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When my wife and I were still dating, I was visiting her parents for Thanksgiving.  There I found a book called “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel.  It looked interesting enough, so I read it and was blown away by it.  It is still one of my favorite books.

Towards the beginning, Yann writes about a young Hindu boy named Pi wandering into a Catholic Cathedral and searching the paintings for a depiction of the Catholic God.

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He sees a painting of women crying and angels hovering overhead and a dove.  He studies it awhile, trying to figure out which one of these creatures is “The God.”  Then his eyes rest on the crucifix and slowly it dawns on him, “This is their God.”

Little Pi finds that idea both horrific and magnetic.  Pi tells us, “If the Son is to die, it cannot be fake.  If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the farce of Christ.  The death of the Son must be real.  And Father Martin assured me it was.  But once a dead God, always a dead God, even when resurrected.  The Son must always have the taste of death forever in His mouth.  The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God our Father.” (Life of Pi, 68)

This poetic paragraph captures the harrowing irony at the heart of our faith, that our God died.  Whatever it means to die (whether going to hell, Hades, nonexistence, becoming a ghost, separation, etc) our God experienced.  And by going all the way to death and descending all the way to where dead souls go, God redeemed all death and all life.

That experience of death is now integral to the Trinity.  God dying was not a tangent theology in our faith.  It was not a fun little story to tell our kids every Spring.  Nor was it a silly business transaction that was soon forgotten amidst all the other heavenly business.  Instead, it was a world altering, earth shattering event.  It forever changed the way we relate to God and the way we relate to each other and even the rest of Creation.

But the irony goes deeper than that.  Our God didn’t just die.  We killed him.  One of the great ironies of the Christian proclamation is that the Creator of the entire universe lived among us.  He walked where we walk and talked like we talk.  But He did it all in the right way.  He lived a perfect, sinless, authentic life.  .  .and we killed him.

If you read the gospels you find we mostly killed him out of envy and fear.  We were scared he might take over and depose us.  We were envious because he had more followers and could do cool magic tricks.  And so we killed him before He could do any real harm to our fragile egos.

And yet, in the killing, in the death, we accidentally crowned him King!  After all, the crown (albeit of thorns), the purple robe and the sign above his head on the cross are all typical markers of a coronation.  The trial and crucifixion, read another way, are the movements of a coronation ceremony.  So, scared that Jesus just might become King, we killed Him and in so doing, made Him King.  It is quite the irony.

And it is this irony we celebrate today.  Our God has come.  Our God has died.  We killed our God.  But in so doing we unleashed the very power of love to all creation.

Today as we join little Pi in our churches and stare up at the cross wondering, “Could this really be God?” and as we wonder at the love that held Him there, while certainly calling to mind our own sinfulness, may that almighty grace flow forth from the King who forgives, who reconciles, who redeems and who gives out eternal and abundant life!

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Fight or Flight or Follow

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Well we are nearing the end of Holy Week and that means we are getting to the good stuff.  Today we commemorate the Last Supper and the new command Jesus gave to “love one another.”  Tomorrow we end up at the cross and who knows what might happen on Sunday morning? (I know, but it isn’t as much fun if you admit it.)

But no matter what the weekend holds, today we eat of the bread and drink of the cup with Jesus.  Some of us may even wash a foot or two.

All of this is to remind ourselves that Holy Week is ultimately about love.  “Maundy” means “commandment” or “mandate” and “Mandate Thursday” is about the new commandment recorded in John 3:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

Whatever else happens this weekend, we remember that as Christ followers, we are following love wherever love may go.

Most of us know that the disciples followed Jesus out of the upper room and into the garden of Gethsemane but there the following ended.  When guards showed up to arrest Jesus, they chose not to follow but to flee.

Mark focuses on two particular disciples.  The first fights.  He draws a sword and uses it to cut off the ear of a guard.  The second flees and in so doing ends up naked.

Both the zealous swordsman and the naked runner represent ways that we betray love.  The zealous swordsman, presumably clinging to his hope of a military Messiah, refuses to see Jesus for who Jesus is.  By taking up arms and lashing out for the sake of power, he rejects love, choosing might instead.  He does not deny himself but seeks to save himself or, worse, save God with his sword.

The naked runner too betrays love, by fleeing from it.  He is also seeking to save himself but his legs are his sword, the means by which he escape the consequences of love.

As we recommit ourselves today to this new mandate to love one another, I wonder about the ways we still betray love.  I think we forget that sometimes love has negative consequences.

In today’s world “love” poorly defined has become the way we try to solve all the problems.  I hear social activists, politicians, celebrities and, yes, even pastors claiming that if we just love people enough suddenly violence will end, addicts will become sober, the attendance of all Christian churches in America will double, unicorns will sprout from the ground and the federal budget will get balanced.

I wonder what will happen to those types when instead of unicorns, guards sprout up to arrest us.  Will we then betray love by drawing a sword?  Or will we flee from the scene naked?

For this reason, I am always a little bit frustrated when people suggest the best evangelism strategy is love.  They mean well and I am all about practicing compassion, but we don’t practice compassion to double our attendance.  Love is not a means to another end.  Love is the end, the telos, the goal for which we strive.

This side of eternity true love does not reward us but instead has consequences.  When we love the world, the world will hate us back.  When we show compassion to one person, someone else is going to jeer, “What worth are they?  You are sinning by loving them!”  All of our motives will be called into question and we may even be arrested just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When we love truly, we should not expect unicorns and swords but rejection, humiliation and crosses.

Therefore, the words of Jesus in John 15, after the “new commandment” are all the more important, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

As we follow love out of the upper room and into the garden, may we not fight or flee but follow, not for any other goal but to be completely enraptured in the love of our God.  And may our tombs be emptied on Sunday morning as we embrace the new life of love.

Holy Wednesday Reflection: Dead Fig Trees

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Today is Holy Wednesday.  Wikipedia also calls it “Spy Wednesday,” having something to do with Judas agreeing to betray Jesus.  Another blog I read calls it “Holy and Great Wednesday,” reminding me that today the Eastern Orthodox church commemorates the poor women who anointed Jesus with her tears.

Yet the rest of my Facebook feed and Twitter account are talking about another “holy” day, namely April Fool’s Day, a ridiculous day I try to ignore.  In it pranks are played for the sake of St. Fool’s or something like.  Maybe it is one of those national holidays where we remember those who have died defending our country, or maybe this is an ironic “Child Appreciation Day.”

But all week I have been wanting to write or talk about the one prank Jesus played in Mark.  It was on a poor, unsuspecting fig tree that was just starting to bloom.  Today seems as fitting as any to discuss it.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, on Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and people got all excited.  Then Jesus looked around and went back out to Bethany.  The next day he walked into Jerusalem and the text tells us he was hungry.  He saw a fig tree in the distance and it was blooming like crazy so he ran over to see if there were some figs to eat.  There weren’t any because fruit comes in the Summer and Passover is in Spring.  So Jesus got angry and cursed it.

The next day, Tuesday morning, Jesus was again walking into Jerusalem and his disciples noticed the tree was dead.  Jesus used the opportunity to lecture them about the power of faith and prayer or something like that.

The fig tree doesn’t come up again until Mark 13:28.  Jesus is in the middle of a long discourse about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.  He tells them to remember the lesson of the fig tree, that when it blooms it signals the nearness of summer.  Yet when that tree bloomed it signaled its imminent destruction.

So many scholars hold quite firmly that the fig tree is a living metaphor for the city of Jerusalem.  Its destruction is an early warning sign of Jerusalem’s fate.

The fig tree calls to mind Micah 7:1-2 where the prophet teaches that Jerusalem is like a fig tree with tons of leaves but no fruit.  One scholar even suggested the “leaves” calls to mind Palm Sunday.  The people came out and waved their branches for Jesus, but no fruitfulness came about because of it.

This is all further solidified by the fact that the temple curtain was torn in two when Jesus died, a sign that Jerusalem was no longer the center of worship but that God’s spirit was being blown to all parts of the world.

Killing fig trees and destroying cities and ripping temple curtains is very dark stuff, especially on a bright and sunny day usually devoted to harmless pranks.  Yet it is important in Holy Week to remember that the teachings of Jesus in Jerusalem were dark. Jesus spends much time talking about how horrific the imminent destruction of Jerusalem would be.  He calls it the “desolating sacrilege” and describes brother betraying brother to death.  And indeed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans only 40 years later was as horrific as Jesus described.

But the destruction of the temple in 69AD by the Romans did not hold back the presence of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit had all ready gone out from that place into the known world.

So it came about that the death of the fig tree that would not bear fruit caused much fruitfulness the world over.

As we draw nearer to the cross, to the great destruction of Jesus’ body, which itself is a temple, as we join in the suffering, the humiliation, the complete vulnerability of our God, may we know that Easter morning is about to triumph over the darkness and destruction and blow us to all parts of the world to bear much fruit.

See you all tomorrow for Maundy Thursday.