On Wednesday afternoons, I spend the 40 most enjoyable minutes and also the 40 most exhausting minutes of my week. That’s when I work with a group of teens who are interested in developing their worship leadership skills.
I teach them to read Scripture with good understanding of the text, to lead the congregation in prayer, to handle themselves in front of a group, to breathe properly, and especially to recognize how important their presence and ministry is to the life of the congregation.
On Palm Sunday, this group and I will read the Passion story found in the Gospel of Mark, scene by scene, with congregational singing between each scene. Some readers will rotate as narrators, I will read the lines where Jesus speaks, and others will take the rest of the individual parts. When there is a crowd response, all of them will speak.
We started rehearsals a couple of weeks ago. We read a scene together, and then stop so they can ask questions about any words that don’t make sense to them and also about the story itself.
These youths have varying church backgrounds — some have been in worship and Sunday school for years, others make it only sporadically, but none, despite our best efforts, really knows very much about the Bible or the essence of Christian faith or the life of Jesus. They know enough to parrot the basics, but have little in-depth knowledge. Not surprising for a group of 13- to 16-year-olds growing up in our information age, where there is little community or family emphasis on learning the Bible.
Last week, we were in the midst of the scene of Jesus’ trial before Pilate and the subsequent abuse he received at the hands of the guards. As we walked through the text, they began reading more slowly and with more concern. Having them speak the parts of the crowd — “Hand him over to death!” — sobered them.
Frankly, they were shocked. A story that had been peripheral to them suddenly became all too real. The amount of physical pain Jesus suffered left them nearly speechless. One of the girls was in tears.
They had never really seen this before. And we’ve not yet gotten to the crucifixion scene. I wonder what will happen when we do.
It’s so easy to whitewash the story, to overlay it with symbol and white coverings and ritual and “relevance.” But it is bloody, painful, full of betrayal and blustering, and very hard for people today to understand.
Why would Jesus willingly undergo this? Why did he not fight back? How could he stand that kind of suffering?
These were the questions that rolled from the youths.
I had become too familiar myself with the story. Seeing their shock and dismay, hearing their questions, noticing the tears, also stopped me in my tracks.
It’s less complex to say “God loves you” and “Make sure you know the general rules of the church” (which I do drill into them), but there is so much more central to our understanding of the saving work of God.
What is this gift of salvation about? How much did it cost? Why should I be a recipient of it? What is expected of one who has received this gift? Why was this necessary? Was there not an easier, less gut-wrenching way?
I look forward to these next several weeks of rehearsal and to what will happen on Palm Sunday as they step forward to lead in worship that day. What they have learned and internalized will make its way into the lives of the listeners, who, perhaps, have also become too familiar with the story and need to remember again the impact of what happened more than 2,000 years ago.
Perhaps it is time for all to hear that story as though it is our first time. Simply life-changing.
THE REV. CHRISTY THOMAS is the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Krum. She can be reached at 940-482-3482 or firstname.lastname@example.org .