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!

Easter Follow-Up: Why Holy Week Services Are Better Than Easter Pageants

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Well Holy Week is over and Easter has begun!

Although I find myself with a lot of energy today, I am completely unable to focus on even menial tasks.  I went to my phone several times to call people in my church and every time forgot who I needed to call right as the contacts loaded (which takes .07 seconds).

I sat in front of my computer for an hour thinking about my sermon before I got to my very first sentence, which read, “I want you to close your eyes and think back to the last time.  .  .” Yes, I know that is not even a complete sentence.

But things have got better since then, so good in fact, that I am able to post this blog.  Normally I would wax poetic but Holy Week is the time for poetry.  The Monday after Easter is the time for as little work as possible, which means today I am giving you a fun list.

But this list has a point.  You see, last week I led my congregation through the movements of Holy Week using the traditional Maundy Thursday, Tenebrae Friday, Easter Sunrise schedule.

As I was thinking, praying and planning these amazing times, Facebook pictures reminded me that other churches (considerably larger churches) don’t do the special services.  They do pageants.

You probably know what I am talking about:  live donkeys, live palms, live disciples, automated live thunder and live lightning, real life crosses and an ironically not “live” but paper mached tombstone, and a tall, bearded white guy pretending to be Jesus getting crucified.  They usually charge money to see them, but don’t worry they discount the matinees.

Haha, I love live donkeys!

I am not against these at all.  In fact, I acted in one when I was a kid.  My dad was a palm seller and I was a kid that got driven out of the temple with a whip.  Yes, I understand the irony now.

Still, I like the Holy Week services better than the pageants.  So here is my list: Reasons Why Holy Week Services Are Better Than Easter Pageants!

1) The Holy Week Services Are Shorter

I like long worship services.  I do.  There is something to say for that.  I even like long movies and long pageants.  There is probably even something to say about acting out the same story six times in 4 days.

However, I love more that the Holy Week services are short and different from each other.  The short, sweet and powerful moments of Maundy Thursday and Tenebrae Friday remind me that drawing people into the Easter story doesn’t have to be complex.

2) They Are Ancient

A painting of the first Maundy Thursday

This year I added something new to my traditional greeting.  I reminded the congregation that what we were doing on Thursday and Friday night has been done for at least 1600 years.  More than 400 generations have commemorated the last week of Jesus through these services.  That is powerful!  Pageants, on the other hand, are only 50 or so years old.

A polaroid of an “early” Easter pageant.

3) They Happen In Real Time

The pageants don’t take people through all of Holy Week in real time.  They just do Good Friday and Easter over and over and over and over.  The Holy Week services do Holy Week in real time.  Jesus ate the Last Supper on Thursday, so we eat the Last Supper on Thursday.  Jesus was crucified on Friday so we do Tenebrae on Friday.  The women waited on Saturday so we wait on Saturday.  I love the time between the services because it reminds me that the disciples didn’t just experience a 2-3 hour ordeal (with intermission to buy candy) but they had time in that week to process, to despair, to mourn, to be confused, to wonder and to be filled with hope.

Holy Saturday always hits me the hardest.  I live in the tension of Tenebrae and Sunrise for a whole day, struggling with the things the disciples struggled with before the new day dawns.  In an Easter pageant, all that would happen between Tenebrae and Resurrection is that I would buy more popcorn during intermission.

4) They Are Easy and Cheap

There are more people in this picture than go to my church! And the set probably cost double our annual budget!

Okay, the Holy Week services are not easy.  I spent hours and hours planning them last week and my worship team was exhausted by the end of the week.  With that said, most pageants take thousands of dollars and at least fifty people to pull off.  They take months of planning and loads of prep work.  Last week, I did Holy Week with 4 music leaders and 2 pastors.  And we spent less than $50 dollars.

Plus you have to have a gigantic sanctuary or stadium to pull them off, which brings me to my next point.  .  .

5) Small Churches Can Do Holy Week Services

Man, live donkeys are so much fun! Look at all those body parts!

Let’s face it, pageants are new events that happened alongside the phenomena of the Mega Church.  Small churches don’t have the people or the energy or the time or the money to pour into a pageant.  But the Holy Week services are just as powerful (if not more so) and can help breathe esteem into your small, struggling church.  Even though the pageants are fun (I mean, who doesn’t like watching a live donkey walk down your church’s center aisle? with its hock knees and hoofed feet and fetlock ankles?) you can draw people into the presence of the crucified Lord using only bread, grape juice and a few candles.  This brings me to the next.  .  .

6) People Don’t Have to Pretend To Be Jesus

How Jesus Asked Us to Tell The Easter Story

When my church did an Easter pageant growing up, there was always this awkward thing that happened when you couldn’t find someone to play Jesus.  For all of our faults, we really love Jesus and respect Jesus and don’t want to pretend to be Jesus.  So it is really hard to find someone willing to fall on the, “I Want To Be Jesus For Easter” sword.  In strong contrast, during the Holy Week services, Jesus is remembered in the bread and the cup, which is how Jesus asked us to remember him.

During Tenebrae we represent Jesus using candles instead of a live person.  It is just less awkward.  All it takes to draw people into the Easter story are some bread, some juice (or wine), some candles, some songs, a great worship planner and the faithful congregation.

And that seems to have something to do with what Easter is all about!  The cross and resurrection mean we don’t have to bribe God with live donkeys.  We just need to break some bread, drink some juice, read some Scripture and sing some songs.

Well now I am suddenly preaching!  So let me go work on the sermon while I am still in the preaching mode!

May God Bless Your Post Easter Monday!