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March 17-23, 2010–Smells Like Frankincense

Contributed by Jay Gamelin, pastor at Jacob’s Porch, a Lutheran campus mission to The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH

Warm-up Question

What is the one thing (thing means object, not person) you think you could not give away if someone who really needed it asked for it? Why?

Smells Like Frankincense

The royal family of Oman wants the world to know that frankincense is the scent of Gold, both figuratively and literally.  Twenty-five years ago the royal family of Oman commissioned a French perfumer to create a fragrance for the nation of Oman and “Gold”, the name of the fragrance created, is considered by many to be one of the greatest perfumes. For 25 years the company has sold this perfume for a non-recession-fearing price of $230 for a 50ml bottle, about 1.7oz.  Currently it sells through many department stores in Europe, Russia, the U.S. and Asia.  The royal family is now looking to move into the European markets by opening a store in London.  As  the family grows its presence, it hopes to grow its coffers as well.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimate that the global beauty industry (consisting of skin care products worth $24 billion; make-up, $18 billion; hair-care products, $38 billion; and $15 billion of perfumes) is growing at up to 7% a year, more than twice the rate of the developed world’s GDP. The sector’s market leader, L’Oreal, has had compound annual profits growth of 14% for 13 years. Sales of Beiersdorf’s Nivea have grown at 14% a year over the same period.

Discussion Questions

  • What perfumes or colognes do you like or use?  How much would you be willing to pay for this perfume?
  • What is one beauty product you would be willing to give up for the rest of your life?  What is one beauty product you would not give up?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, March 21, 2010 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)

Isaiah 43:16-21

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

It’s a hard lesson this week.  In the face of the way Americans consume the world’s resources (6% of the world’s population consuming 43% of the world’s resources) it seems you would want to be on the side of Judas Iscariot.  Why waste this perfume when it could be sold and given to the poor?  I know what he is saying—I even agree!  How could we allow such waste, especially when it comes to something one could call frivolous and luxurious like perfume?  No one on the planet needs perfume.  It is only a luxury with no point other than to smell good.

But Jesus rebukes Judas.  He says it is time for perfume.  He remarks that it is not time to be without.  It has a place, this waste. Jesus gives permission for excess.  Jesus says it is OK to overdo it.  What gives?  How is there value in throwing money away?

We are surrounded by darkness.  We see the problems of the world every day.  The temptation is to pour our whole selves solely into saving the world in any way that we can.  But Jesus points us to the idea that we must not always address the dark.  Sometimes we are called to celebrate in the light.  Sometimes we must sing, even if the poor are still poor.  Sometimes we need to eat well, even feast, even if there are hungry people in the world.  We are not called to a life without; instead, we are called to a life of moderation. 

As the Buddhist tenet says, “everything in moderation including moderation.”  We can fast but we must also learn to feast when it is the right time. We must learn when to go without and when to spend prodigally. As the poet Jack Gilbert argues in his remarkable and wonderful poem “A Brief for the Defense”, we must risk the ability to delight in the world.  Indeed, Gilbert goes so far as to argue that only to pay attention to injustice is akin to praising the devil. We must learn to love beauty, to enjoy company, to celebrate when the time is right, and to love a beautiful and wonderful world, even in the face of injustice.

We must learn to live with what we have, but this means having room to celebrate, to feast, to enjoy as well. We must feast when the bridegroom is present. We must risk delight.


For a copy of Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense”, pick up a copy of “Refusing Heaven” at your local bookseller.  For a chance to read the poem, visit the Poetry center at Smith College website:

Discussion Questions

  • What is something you “feast” on, something that helps you celebrate life?  (i.e. music, eating with friends, dates with your beloved, buying gifts)  What would life feel like without this feasting?  How would it feel to lose this forever?
  • This “thing” that you feast on, what would it look like to live this in moderation? Could you put limits on what you spend?  What time you give?


Activity Suggestion

The Essentials:  Have every person in the group sit down with pencil and paper.  They are going to take a trip, let’s say to Paris, for two weeks.  Have each person take about 5 minutes to write down a packing list.  Try to think of everything they would want to bring.

After they go, have everyone share their lists with one another.  If someone says the same thing as on your list, cross it off your lists. If someone says 2 pairs of pants, cross two off but leave the 3rd. After everyone shares, see what items remain on people’s lists that have not been crossed off.  Then discuss:

  • These things left on your list, do you consider them essentials?  Why or why not?  What would happen if you left these behind?
  • These things everyone crossed off, which of these things do you think you could do without in traveling?  What would happen if you left them behind?
  • How do you decide what is necessary in life?  What guides your decisions?  Is it how you feel?  What you think?


Closing Prayer: 

Jesus, we celebrate your presence.  We feast with you every Sunday.  We thank you that we may live a life of plenty.  But also teach us God with what we should do with our plenty.  Teach us moderation so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways.  In your holy name we pray, AMEN.



April 29-May 6, 2009 – Required accessory: a knife for butchering sheep

Contributed by Pastor Claudia Bergmann
Eisleben, Germany

Warm-up Question: Have you ever wanted to be a pageant queen or king?
“It’s not just a beauty pageant and traveling. It’s not just waving. It’s a whole lot more than that,” says Audra Ettsity Platero who won the Miss Navajo pageant and represented the Navajo Nation in 1995-1996. And it is not just about butchering sheep. According to the Miss Navajo Nation Council, the Navajo look for a young woman to become the role model and representative for Navajo culture. The lucky winner receives a salaried position with the Navajo Nation that includes health benefits and a furnished tribal apartment, as well as a scholarship for her future education. In return, she will have to display leadership as Goodwill Ambassador and exemplify the character of First Woman, White Shell Woman, and Changing Woman.

How does one become Miss Navajo Nation? The pageant is open to all enrolled female members of the Navajo Nation between the ages of 18 and 25. Contestants must be unmarried, possess a high school diploma or GED, and speak fluently both Navajo and English. They must also turn in an essay and a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Contributions I Would Make as the New Miss Navajo Nation.” Over the course of several days the contestants must prove their Navajo knowledge and skills in various competitions. Skills tested include bread making, butchering sheep, grinding corn, dancing, crafts, storytelling, public speaking, and fluency in Navajo government and history. One skill or talent must be demonstrated entirely in English, and one entirely in Navajo. For the evening gown competition, contestants are asked to pick one conservative contemporary gown and one traditional gown.

The Miss Navajo Nation pageant received nationwide attention when Billy Luther’s documentary “Miss Navajo” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, and has since aired on PBS and numerous independent movie theaters. Luther’s intention was not to make a film about Navajo women or about inner beauty. He wanted to make a film about a beauty pageant contestant. As it turns out, though, his work became an inspiration for young girls who are in search of identity and a film about the importance of cultural preservation and the surprising role a beauty pageant can serve. Says Billy Luther, “Sometimes, as in life, the winners aren’t always the winners and the losers aren’t always the losers.”

The current Miss Navajo Nation is Yolanda Charley (photo on left), a young woman who put college on hold to take care of her grandfather in Chichchiltah, NM.

Discussion Questions
  • The current Miss America contestants must compete in the following disciplines: Artistic Expression (Talent), Presentation and Community Achievement (Interview), Presence and Poise (Evening Wear), Lifestyle and Fitness (Swimsuit), Peer Respect and Leadership, Knowledge and Understanding. Compare these to the skills a Miss Navajo Nation contestant needs to display. Which set of skills do you find more helpful for modern life? Why?
  • Why do you think so many people are interested in becoming famous?
  • What are the pros and cons about being a star or celebrity?
  • What makes people beautiful?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 3, 2009.
(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Do you like being compared to sheep? In our culture, sheep are considered stupid herd animals that do not display their own will. They follow wherever the sheep ahead of them walk. They graze on whatever the sheep next to them eats. They are chased around by a shepherd and some dogs. And they end up being butchered. Not much to the life of a sheep, is there?

Yet, both the Bible and Christian tradition use the image of sheep and shepherd as a positive one. In the catacombs of Rome, in graves where early Christians were buried, we have beautiful mosaics depicting Jesus as the good shepherd. And is there a Sunday school room without a picture of the same good shepherd Jesus pinned to the wall?

The reason why Christianity does not have a problem with this image is the fact that it is a metaphor or figurative language. Imagine that you want to express the following things:

  • We are many; God is one
  • We sometimes lose our way in life, but God helps us to find it again
  • We sometimes get in trouble, but God bails us out
Now, how would you express these three facts without actually listing them? You would have to find a story or an image (or what we call a metaphor). In modern life, the image of a coach of a sports team might be an example of how this metaphor could work: a sports team has one coach only who sets his players straight and helps them out when they get in trouble. Similarly, the Bible used the image of shepherd and sheep. It did not intend to say that we are stupid herd animals. Instead, it wanted to express that when we are weak we can count on a strong divine leader to help us.

John 10:11-18 is a case in point. Here, the metaphor of the good shepherd explains that Jesus and his people have a strong relationship with each other. This good shepherd would even give his life for his sheep (and he actually did). There are also other shepherds who go “sheep-stealing” and might want to lead us astray. But only with our one divine shepherd — Jesus — will we gain life. Everyone from John’s cultural context understood what he meant by that metaphor because they were familiar with the life of sheep and shepherds. The metaphor actually made the points that John wanted to get across more memorable. If you have an image or a story in the back of your mind, you don’t forget the facts.

Being a sheep in the context of this biblical metaphor is not so bad after all. Our shepherd is not a bossy one who pushes us around for no good reason. He holds back most of the time and lets us nibble on the grass here and there. Only sometimes, when we are in trouble, he takes leadership and reigns us in. Even the smartest sheep and the smartest people need this kind of guidance. Isn’t it comforting to know that somebody will catch us if we trip and are in danger of falling down a rocky slope? This is what our divine shepherd does.

Discussion Questions

  • Shepherd and sheep, coach and sports team… can you think of other images or metaphors that convey what points 1-3 are supposed to express?
  • Why does the Bible need to use metaphor and story?
  • Where do we use metaphor in modern life?
  • What makes people beautiful in the eyes of our divine shepherd?

Activity Suggestions

1. The metaphor in the biblical text
Have Bibles or printouts of Ezekiel 34:1-16 and John 10:11-18 ready. Ask your group to read both texts and make two lists on a large sheet of paper. On the one side, have them list all the characteristics of a good shepherd that they can find. On the other side, list all the characteristics of a bad, negligent, or uncaring shepherd. If your group is too large, split them up.

Then, ask them what modern metaphor would fit these characteristics. Who, in our modern times, is like the good shepherd, who is like the bad shepherd? Have them discuss whether finding a modern metaphor for these characteristics would help people understand the text better.

2. The metaphor in art
In preparation for this, print out as many images of the Good Shepherd as you can. The art index of can be a starting point. Share these images with your group and ask them, which ones they find most appropriate for the way Jesus is depicted in John 10:11-18. Discuss with them the pros and cons of finding other, seemingly unusual images for the Good Shepherd… images that would communicate well in 2009.

3. Update a psalm
Psalm 23 uses the shepherd metaphor in verses 1-4. Then, after comparing God to a shepherd caring for his sheep, it switches metaphors and compares God to a loving and caring host in verse 5.

Have your students discuss what verses 1-4 want to express and ask them to write these points down line by line. Then, ask them to find different, more modern, metaphors that convey the same message. What would the psalm sound like if it were updated? If your students come up with more than one option, have them update the psalm in small groups. Then, compare the results and discuss what they like and dislike about each option.

4. Metaphor becomes alive
In preparation for this activity, ask members of your congregation what Psalm 23 means to them and whether they would be willing to share their stories with your youth group. Make sure that you provide a comfortable and safe atmosphere for the people who are willing to share these very personal stories. Don’t ask your students to comment on what they have heard but invite them to share stories from their lives where a biblical text became important to them.

Closing Prayer

Simply pray Psalm 23 together.