3/25/18: Why Are You Doing This? Mark 11:1-11
Why Are You Doing This?
Sixth in the series, Crucial Questions
First Lesson: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Second Lesson: Mark 11:1-11
Rev. Scott Dickison
Why are you doing this?
Of all the scriptural questions we’ve considered this Lenten season, this might be the one most true to most people’s experience with the gospel.
We might say the rest of the questions we’ve considered have come from the inside, or close to it:
Who do you say that I am? Jesus asks the disciples.
Who is the one who is wise? Paul asks the church in Corinth.
How can these things be? Nicodemus asks Jesus in a moment of tender, searching, faithfulness.
And last week, And what should I say,—Father save me from this hour? Jesus asks his disciples as he prepares them for his death.
But this question is different: Why are you doing this? (the question of the unassuming bystander to the disciples as they try and walk off with this donkey). This is not the question of one who’s within the fold of faith, or seeking to be. Why are you doing this is? is the question of one on the outside for whom the work of the church and the story of faith seems utterly bizarre.
And they’re right, of course.
Most of what we do in church is completely bizarre—I mean, what is this I’m wearing, anyway? (Some of you are still asking that!). The old hymns, the ancient prayers? Tithing! Who would do that?! The fact that you’ll sit here for 20 minutes (17 if we’re lucky…but it’s looking more like 23) and listen to someone try and make sense of something that was written in Greek 2000 years ago and argue that it has something critical to say to us today. Bizarre! In fact, we in the church get in trouble when we fail to appreciate just how bizarre this all is. Yes, we want the movements of the church and the rhythms of faith to feel natural, so that we find our place within them—like a song with a steady beat or the grooves in an old wooden handle. But it’s also important every now and again to remember just how strange it all is.
I mean, look at this story of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we reenact each year. Take a step back from it all and ask, What in the world is going on here?—Jesus telling his disciples to go collect this donkey that’s never been ridden, then riding it into town while backwoods peasants lay down their cloaks before him, others running ahead waving leafy branches and yelling “Save us, save us!” Why on earth are any of them doing any of this?
Well, it turns out Jesus did what he did that day for the same reason that we do what we do today, with the palms and the anthems and the scriptures. We reenact this story of Palm Sunday in order to find ourselves within it. Just like we’ll reenact so many others stories over these next few days from Jesus’ final week. On Maundy Thursday our worship will largely be a reenactment of the last meal Jesus shared with his friends before he was handed over. We’ll wash each other’s feet just like he did. We’ll break bread and pass a cup just like he did. And we’ll remember him as we do it, just like he told us to do. We’ll repeat the words he said to them that night when he gave them a new commandment, to love one another as he had loved them. That this is how they’ll know them—how they’ll know us—by our love.
And then we’ll read the story of the passion together. We’ll even read it in parts, like actors in a drama because that’s what it means to be a person of faith: to understand ourselves as actors in the drama of salvation. Characters in God’s story of redemption for the world. And this is precisely what Jesus was doing on that Palm Sunday so long ago, and the crowd who was with him, though they didn’t know it at the time. Jesus understood that there’s a script to scripture. And so his performance that day was itself a reenactment of the story of salvation referenced in so many ways throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
The references are almost too numerous to name.
The setting: the Mount of Olives was thought to be the place where the Messiah would return.
Animals who have never been ridden were known to be reserved for kings in ancient times. The colt, which other gospels describe as the colt of a donkey, is referenced at different places in the Scriptures as a sign of the future Messiah—most strongly in the prophet Zechariah, who seems to be Jesus’ primary muse. Written some 500 years before Jesus and looking ahead to God’s deliverance of Israel from the hand of their oppressors, Zechariah writes,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The people laying their cloaks on the road remembers back to the anointing of another King of Israel. Some 900 years before Jesus, Jehoram was named king, but God, seeing his evil potential, sent the prophet Elisha to anoint Jehu, one of King commanders, as king instead. The prophet does, and we’re told those around them take off their cloaks and lay them on the ground at his feet, shouting, “Jehu is king!” Yes, these cloaks declare Jesus as king, but they also recall a divinely inspired coup d’état!
Jesus knew his scripture.
The people shouting Hosanna!—which in Hebrew literally means “Save us, now!”, and Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and the waving of “leafy branches” are lifted directly from Psalm 118, which we heard read earlier, a song of praise for a victorious king—all of it’s there. All of it a retelling, a replaying, a reenactment, in some cases a reinterpretation of scenes from the story, the drama, of God’s love story with humanity. This is why Jesus did what he did that day, and why we do we do today and throughout this week—and even more than this, it’s why we bother with the words of Scripture at all, which when it comes down to it is a very bizarre thing to do, indeed: to act as if these ancient writings, written many years ago in a time not our own, a place not our own, a culture not our own, somehow have something to do with us—and not just something, but something critical. How strange of us to think this. How natural for folks to ask, Why are you doing this?
But what we know, or believe, or confess, or at least hope more days than not, is that these words—which amount to stories, which taken as a whole amount to one large story—do have something to do with us. It’s not just the story of how things were, but how things are. And even more, how things could be. How, in God’s time, they will be. And when we encounter them, whether on our own in the quiet of our own interior life, or together in the waving of palms, or the breaking of bread, the lifting of a cup, the washing of feet, we find our place within this great story, this great drama of God’s love.
It’s always a moving experience at the graveside when I invite those gathered to recite the 23rd psalm. I always use the same invitation. I say, “In those times when we find it hard to find words of our own, it is good to turn to the words of Scripture. And no words have brought comfort as the 23rd Psalm.” And I invite all who would to join me in saying them. And we always recite from the King James Version:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
And I always look up to see the mouths moving with mine, some with eyes closed, others almost with a look of surprise as these words they didn’t know they still had suddenly spring forth from somewhere deep inside them. And in their saying them, the words of the psalm prove themselves true.
That’s why we do this.
I heard once of an episcopal priest celebrating the Eucharist with an elderly woman in his congregation who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and hadn’t been able to visit in some time. He did his best to visit with the woman for a while, though her mind struggled to focus, and her speech failed her. As he moved into communion he turned to the liturgy and planned to both the celebrant’s part as well as the congregation’s, not thinking she would be able to participate. He read the opening words, saying,
The Lord be with you.
And as he began to read the response, the woman jumped in, whispering out softly by clearly,
And with thy spirit.
And this continued throughout the whole liturgy, to the final, Thanks be to God. She knew her lines. She knew her part to play in this drama of salvation.
That’s why we do this.
Tom Long tells a story of a confirmation class in a certain Presbyterian church, I can’t remember where, whose graduation ceremony he once witnessed. All the children were lined up at the front of the sanctuary and their confirmation teacher was at the lectern and went down the row, one by one asking the children to repeat what they had learned from Paul’s great words of comfort and encouragement and strength in Roman’s 8: For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And so she asked the first little boy: Johnny, What can separate you from the Love of God? And Johnny responded on cue: Neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And Johnny had a big smile and Johnny’s parents were so proud and the teacher nodded with approval, and then went to on to the little girl next to him. Sarah, What can separate you from the love of God? And Sarah, on cue, said the same as Johnny, Neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And this continued with each child in the class, one by one they recited these words from Paul. But as they got closer to the end, the congregation started to get a little uneasy, because the final child to be quizzed in the class was Rachel. Rachel was a sweet, sweet child, with a bright and beautiful smile. But Rachel was down syndrome, and the church knew there was no way she would be able to memorize and repeat these words from Paul. And so the tension built until finally the teacher came to Rachel and said to her, Rachel, what can separate you from the love of God? And Rachel, with that big smile on her face, looked up at her teacher and with a confidence that would make the Apostle Paul himself blush, said: Nothing!
Isn’t that why we do this?
The summer after I graduated from seminary I worked as a hospital chaplain in Boston. I believe it was my first overnight assignment that I was paged around midnight to a room where a family was about to say goodbye to a loved one.
When I arrived at the room, they were all standing around the bed, about five of them, each touching his leg or arm and talking to him, hoping he would hear. I led them in prayer, and then we were standing in silence when the man’s daughter, a middle-aged woman, eyes red with tears and lack of sleep, began to sing what she told me was her father’s favorite hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River?”.
She began to sing, softly at first, and then slowly growing louder, and about halfway into the song she forgot some of the words, but without skipping a beat she began to make them up as she went along—words about her dad, about the hospital room, about all the family there.
Now, it was not the version that you’d find in any hymnal, but I can tell you I have never heard a more moving rendition.
That, brothers and sisters, is why we do this. We read these words, we sing these hymns, we recite these prayers, we learn these rhythms so that in those times when the world seems to be slipping out from under our feet, we will have something to hold onto; words to say when we can’t find our own; songs to sing when the heart begs for music. But even more, that from the comfort of these rhythms we might find the courage to look for what new thing God is doing before us. We hope, even through us. That our mouths would sing new words to old melodies.
That’s why Jesus did it.
And that’s why we’re here.
 William C. Platcher, Mark, from the Belief commentary series, 158
 This is my best rendering of a story Tom Long told at the Mercer Preaching Consultation in Chattanooga, TN, in October of 2014.