Friday, March 30, 2012

April Fools

Our texts for this final Sunday in Lent--a Sunday with two names, Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday--are a reprise of Mark 11:1-11 (which we read the first Sunday in Lent), Philippians 2:5-11, and the story of Jesus' final day, now called Good Friday, which is recounted in Mark 15:1-39. These texts can be read here--and I would encourage you to read the two Mark passages using the Philippians text in the middle as a sort of interpretive bridge. How does the song from Philippians hold these two stories--separated in time by only 5 days, but marked by very different feels--together?

When I saw that Palm Sunday fell on April 1 this year, I laughed out loud--"Perfect! Palm Sunday is April Fools' Day this year! That's appropriate." That may seem like a weird reaction, but honestly, few days in the Christian year make me feel like more of a fool than Palm Sunday. It is one of the days I wrestle with most as a worship leader...what to do with the contradiction that is so strong, it makes our actions of waving palms feel a little bit like parody, our beginning of worship with celebration seem like a joke? We begin this Holy Week with a parade--and end it with a sort of parade as well. Only while the first parade has Jesus clomping like humble royalty over cloaks and palm branches cheered by a crowd, the second one we read of on this day has Jesus stumbling like a criminal down another path, beaten and surrounded by jeers. We cry "Hosanna! Save us!" to begin the service and "Crucify him" to end it. How can we be so foolish as to think our Hosannas are worth celebrating when they are going to so rapidly disappear? It all feels darkly comical to me.

It seems like a horrible prank--this one greeted like a king and killed like a criminal. This one hailed as a savior and mocked for not saving himself. This one blessed as Son of David and then crying out abandoned by God. A sick, sick joke. But this is not April Foolery--this is the deep truth about the king and savior we claim. He is the One about whom Paul wrote:

"Though he was in the form of God,
[He] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8).

What kind of a foolish king is this? One we must follow on this paradoxical Palm/Passion Sunday, all the way to the cross--where we see the truth about who he really is. Whether we feel faithful or foolish, we walk this road together as we enter this week called holy.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Seeing the Supper

Our texts for this fifth Sunday in Lent--the one on which, this year, we remember the events of Thursday of Holy Week--are Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 14:12-26, which can be read here.

As our Lenten journey draws nearer to its conclusion, this week we journey with Jesus to his final meal--the now-famous "Last Supper" that he shared with his disciples in celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem. This week, instead of offering verbal reflections, I would like to offer a series of visual reflections on this Supper offered by different artists from different cultures. What do you see or wonder about regarding the Last Supper when you see these works of art that are either famous or, in many cases, novel?

Of course, our first thought is of Da Vinci's famous Last Supper, an Italian Renaissance work:
Here is a rendering by an African artist of the scene:

An Asian interpretation by Japanese artist Sadao Watanbe:
And finally, a rendering by the artist I spoke about in my sermon last week, Swedish-Mexican Artist John August Swanson:
What do you see that these images hold in common? How do they differ? How do YOU imagine the scene?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pay Attention!

Our texts for this fourth Sunday in Lent, on which we journey with Jesus to the events that took place on Wednesday of Holy Week, are Ephesians 2:1-10 and Mark 14:1-11, which can be read here.

Two things to which I encourage you to pay attention in our readings for this week:

1) Note that this is another instance of Mark beginning one story, cutting to another, and returning to the original plot line--what we have called elsewhere (in our blog two weeks ago) a Markan Sandwich or Markan Frame. What does this mean? That the stories of the religious leaders, the unnamed woman, and Judas are meant to be read together, to interpret one another. It is the actions of the leaders and Judas that help us understand what Jesus commended about the woman who anointed him; it is the actions of the woman that help reveal the ramifications of the choices of the leaders and Judas. Read these 11 verses as one story--the story of one day, with all of its instances connected. How do these characters relate to one another?

2) The stories of Jesus being anointed and Judas betraying Jesus are familiar ones to us--and so this means we need to pay special attention to exactly how Mark narrates them. Much of what we "think we know" about these stories comes from other Gospels. Take the story of the woman who anointed Jesus. The anointing of the feet and wiping with hair? That is Luke and John, not Mark. That they were at the home of a Pharisee? That is Luke, not Mark. That the anointer was Mary sister of Martha and Lazarus? That's John, not Mark. That the woman was of a questionable reputation? Again, that's Luke, not Mark. That it was Judas who offered the critique of the gift? That's John, not Mark. It's the same with Judas' decision to betray Jesus: it is Matthew who tells us it was for "thirty pieces of silver." It is Luke and John who say that Judas was under the influence of Satan. It is only John who implies that Judas was himself of questionable morals--greedy, a thief. None of this is in Mark's narrative.

So what IS in Mark's narrative? That's what I challenge you to pay attention to this week: without reading the details we know from other gospels into the story, what does Mark actually say? What does he emphasize? What sort of picture does he paint? Do your best to read these familiar stories as if for the first time and hear only the details Mark offers...what can these stories tell us in this gospel, which is believed to be the earliest account of Jesus' passion?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Super Tuesday

Our texts for this Sunday are Isaiah 5:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (which we won't read in worship but is worth reading) and Mark 11:27-33, 12:1-12. Read these passages here, and I would also highly recommend that you read the full account of things that happened on the Tuesday of Holy Week as we continue our day-by-day journey--Mark 11:20-33, Mark 12, and Mark 13, which can be read here.

We may have just completed Super Tuesday in the political world this week, when Presidential primaries took place across multiple states, but if you want to talk about a truly Super Tuesday, let's talk about the Tuesday of Holy Week. Mark devotes 115 verses to the events of that fateful Tuesday Jesus spent teaching in the Temple, making it the day that gets the most attention in all of his Holy Week account (the next two longest, Thursday and Friday, are the days of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion that you would think should get most attention; these two days only get 60 and 47 verses devoted to them, respectively--combined, they do not take up as much space as Tuesday!) and, indeed, in all of his gospel--Tuesday's events make up 10% of the verses in this book.


If you read the events of Tuesday from start to finish, and you will see that most of this time--Jesus' last day of teaching in the Temple, of teaching publicly PERIOD--is devoted to questions and stories about two of the topics on which Jesus taught most often--two of the topics that still take up a large amount of space and time in our lives: Money and Power. Yikes. Jesus gets questioned about his authority and abilities, his jurisdiction amidst the mighty Temple authorities to make the claims and do thing things he is claiming and doing. Jesus gets grilled about taxes, about the magisterial beauty of the Temple complex, and points out a woman giving two copper coins as the one God honors. Jesus speaks of the day when the Son of Man will come to reign in full and set things right.

Read through the events of Tuesday if you can, start to finish--all 115 verses (and again, you can read them here): why do you think Jesus focused so heavily on these issues of money and power? And why do you think Mark gave such extended, careful treatment to this day and these topics?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Distractible or Intentional?

Our passages for this second Sunday in Lent are Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 11:12-19 (it would also be helpful for you to continue on and read Mark 11:20-25, though these events do not happen until Tuesday--they are essential for understanding this week's text, as we will discuss below). Give them a read-through--in particular the Mark passage--here.

When we began our journey through Mark's gospel back in January, I mentioned that you might fall in love with Mark if you have a touch of ADD, because this gospel writer has this interesting tendency to begin a story, then get distracted and tell another story, then come back to the original story. This has been called by some a "Markan Frame", where one story is framed by another unfolding on either side of it; by some a "Markan Sandwich" (using the metaphor of one story/incident as the bread and the other as the meat between the slices); and by some a "Markan intercalation" (which I just find too hard to pronounce).

I like the sandwich metaphor, goofy as it is, because of what blogger David Ewart pointed out: "Just like a regular sandwich, we are meant to digest all three layers at once - not first interpret the top piece of bread, then the filling, then the bottom piece of bread. The "filling" helps us understand the "bread," and the outer pieces of bread help us to understand the middle." In other words, when Mark tells stories in this seemingly disjointed fashion (which he does at least 9 times in his gospel--including 5 times in the Holy Week narratives including this week's episode), he is meant for us to use the story that he begins and ends with to interpret the story in the middle, and the story in the middle to interpret the one he begins and ends with. These are not disconnected incidents or signs of Mark's distractibility; rather, he (and, by extension, Jesus) has paired these events purposefully so they may shed light on one another.

That said, a fig tree and a Temple don't seem to have much to do with one another--but Mark has paired two of the most mystifying stories we have about Jesus, his only destructive miracle (the cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 and 20-25) and his display of some sort of righteous anger in the Temple (Mark 11:15-19) in a way that shows they are meant to be digested together.

So as we look at these two are they connected to one another? How are they meant to be read, heard, perceived, understood in partnership with each other rather than independently? And what can we learn from these strange, strange stories that Mark has sandwiched together about what Jesus was trying to get across on the Monday morning of his last week?