This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, November 8, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter exploration of the Gospel of Mark, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.
This sermon is based on Mark 14:3-9, 27-30, 70-72.
Let’s do a little imagining. Close your eyes if you’re comfortable doing so (and if you’ll stay awake). Think of someone you deeply care about. They can be alive or dead, beside you or somewhere else. Can you see their face in your mind’s eye? Are they smiling? Are they speaking or laughing or bending over a project? Seeing them, holding that memory close for a moment, how do you feel? What does your memory or vision of them lead you to want to do, or to be? Now, as we prepare to open our eyes and remember Jesus, affirmed and betrayed, let’s pray:
Holy and gracious God, we give you thanks for the people in our lives, in whose presence – long or fleeting – we’ve been inspired to see what it means to live and love and flourish. May the blessedness of your light shine upon them, wherever and whenever they are, and upon us as we remember them. Inspire us today, through them, and through our pondering of Jesus’s final week, that we may step closer toward who you’re creating us to be. In his name we pray. Amen.
This imaginative exercise was a way to engage our memories and explore the power they have on who we are and are becoming. Here’s a small example of what I mean. This week, without intentionally doing this, I lived into the memory of both of my grandmas. One day, I woke with a desire to make fried dough. I sent a picture of my results to my cousin, and she and I were both drawn back to times when our grandma would call us over to her house to eat. But I had dough leftover, so Mara and I rolled balls of it through cinnamon and sugar and made monkey bread. And as we ate it, I was caught up in the memory of my other grandma, who, in my mind, is one of only a few people in my life who made this. We baked, and we ate, and I remembered these wonderful people in my life. Are there dishes or activities that activate your memory in similar ways?
Our memories – what we remember and also what we forget – indeed have great power in shaping who we are and inspiring who we’re becoming. Jesus suggested as much near the beginning of Mark 14 today. It’s Wednesday, a few days before the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, and he’s in the nearby town of Bethany at the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner an unnamed woman comes in, breaks open a tear-dropped shaped vase of an essential oil or perfume from India called nard, and pours it over Jesus’s head. It was expensive stuff, and some there were angry at how extravagant and wasteful it seemed. But Jesus stood up for the woman: “She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial” (v.8). And then he says that “wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her” (v. 9). But here’s the question: have we remembered? When we tell the story of Jesus, when we try to share with our children, grandchildren, or others about Jesus, do we remember to tell the story of the woman who poured out a typical worker’s whole year’s wages upon the head of Jesus? Do we remember? Honestly, we don’t, not often.
Memory is a funny thing, and we see how it shapes us, or not, throughout this chapter of Mark. From its outset, Mark reminds his readers that a plan is afoot to destroy Jesus, just as he’s told us before (Mk 3:6; 12:12). Jesus had told his disciples at least three times that he’d be betrayed, handed over to the religious and civil authorities, and be killed (Mk 8-10). But when they’re seated at table on Thursday evening, in a secret room, they’re shocked and “deeply saddened” to hear him tell them, “I assure you that one of you will betray me – someone eating with me” (Mk 14:18-19). They didn’t remember, but the betrayal had already been planned (Mk 14:10-11).
Leaving the dinner table, Jesus and his disciples go to a garden called Gethsemane near the Mount of Olives. Though it’s now getting late, he tells them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert” (v. 34). He prays for an hour. But his disciples succumb to their weariness and he returns to find them sleeping. He rouses them saying again, “Stay alert and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak” (v. 37). He prays again, and they sleep, again. Seeing them sleeping, he returns to pray, then wakes them later saying, You can’t sleep all night. Wake up. Here comes my betrayer (Mk 14:41). Jesus told them repeatedly to stay awake, and in Mark 13, he ended his instructions with a clear call to “stay awake!” but still they slept. They didn’t remember.
His captors led Jesus to the high priest’s house, where all the chief priests, elders, and legal experts had gathered for their secret trial of Jesus. But even there, Jesus’s accusers couldn’t get their story straight. The (paid for?) perjurers couldn’t agree on what Jesus had said. Apparently, they’d forgotten what they’d been coached to say (Mk 14:56-64).
While this trial is going on, Jesus’s disciples were largely nowhere to be found. They’d scattered after the events in Gethsemane. Peter alone had followed Jesus and his captors. He stood in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, warming himself by a fire with some others. A woman, one of the high priest’s servants, recognized Peter, accusing him of being a friend of Jesus’s. Peter denied it. A rooster crowed. She came back later, repeating her accusation. He denied it again. A little while later – his accent or his dress must have betrayed him – those standing around him said, “You must be one of them, because you are also a Galilean” (v. 70). Peter “cursed and swore, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about’” (v. 71). But the words were no sooner out of his mouth when a rooster crowed a second time, and Peter remembered what he’d forgotten up to this point: Jesus had said, not only would someone betray and hand him over to authorities, but that Peter too would betray him by denying even knowing him, “before the rooster crows twice” (v. 30, 72). He didn’t remember his firm, repeated affirmations of following Jesus, of taking up his own cross, of not stumbling before temptation.
As we can see, there’s much more forgetting than remembering going on in Mark 14, but before we get too smug in our criticism of those we’ve mentioned, let’s remember our place in this story. Mark, inspired by the Spirit of God, wrote his gospel in order to help his audience, from the late First Century until now, remember Jesus. And as we began with the woman anointing Jesus with nard, we can see that our memories can be faulty, just like the others in Mark 14. We too, can forget Jesus and his way.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we intentionally, or unintentionally forget that we’re Christians; rather, it means that we too can get caught up in life and in ourselves in ways that cloud our memory of Jesus and his calling on our lives, in much the same way as those in Mark 14. When we see someone pouring herself out fully in some new act of praise for Jesus – perhaps she raises her hands in songs that don’t come from our hymnals – we can get a little suspicious. We forget ourselves, and our calling to praise God with all of who we are. When we get caught up in the arguments of being great, and elections, and seeking power, we forget, like the disciples, that Jesus came to enact a kingdom unlike the kingdoms of this world in which power is wielded first and foremost through service. When we portray being Christian solely as having to do with what we do on Sunday mornings, we forget Jesus’s repeated calls toward discipleship, toward practices through which we take up a cross with Jesus. When we are quick to seek vengeance or retribution for a wrong done to us, we forget Jesus who called his disciples to turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, and explicitly told those in the garden to put down their swords (Lu 22:51; Jn 18:11). We too, can forget Jesus, and in forgetting him, we forget who we’re called to be.
In 1781, four years before he died, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wrote a short essay called “Thoughts Upon Methodism” that deals especially with our natural forgetfulness. He begins with these lines:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”(pg 127, here)
Wesley knew what Mark has shown us today: sometimes we forget our foremost calling – to be followers of Jesus shaped by his memory in the way that leads to life.
But even if we are forgetful, Mark shows us something else today: Jesus remembers us. Jesus remembered his love and grace for others, like the woman who anointed him, even when his friends criticized him and her. Jesus remembered that he called each of his disciples, even the one who’d betray him, and he invites them all to his table. He feeds them with himself. While Jesus may have been a little dismayed at his disciples’ sleep in Gethsemane, he keeps going back to them, keeps reminding them to stay alert, and keeps inviting them. And later, after his death and resurrection, we’ll see that Jesus invites Peter to a redo – asking him to proclaim three times that he loves Jesus – replacing his denial with his affirmation of love and devotion (Jn 21:15-19). Jesus remembers his disciples, so that we can grow in our faithfulness to him. Today, Jesus calls us, “Remember me. Remember the woman. Remember the disciples. Remember how they gave themselves to follow me, to praise me. Remember too, how they faltered. And take heart.” Jesus calls us, inviting us to make today and each day a new day of devotion. Like making food my grandmas made, Jesus calls us to make little choices each day to live like him, so that others will be filled by his presence in us.
- What ways do your memories shape who you understand yourself to be, and inspire who you desire to become?
- How does remembering Jesus clearly, by knowing well the whole story of the gospels, help you to see who he calls you to be?
- What about Jesus most challenges you in your faith walk? What does he do that you find especially difficult to enact? Perhaps this is a place to pray, “Jesus, I remember you doing this_____. Please help me to live into your memory.”
- I listed some ways that we might forget Jesus. Likely, they’re ways that are close to my heart and life. What other ways are close to your heart?
- Here are a couple other ways Jesus’ memory is challenging to me. When we, in little everyday ways, consistently put the needs, wants and desires of those near us or ourselves first as most important, we forget Jesus, who clearly Jesus models and calls for love and care of neighbor as the second guiding principle of life. When we think about our worth or value is to be found in how good we are, how much we create, or how much we accomplish, we forget Jesus, who repeatedly doles out healing and feeding without cost, admission, or demand. How do these land for you?
- Obviously, Jesus is betrayed and handed over to death through the events of Mark 14. If you were preaching Mark 14, or a part of it, what message does God give you?