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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.



August 26-September 2, 2009 – Festival traditions

Contributed by Jay Gamelin 
Pastor of Jacob’s Porch, ELCA campus mission to The Ohio State University

Warm-up Question:  What is a tradition in your family you would love to see continue? Perhaps think of holidays or vacations or eating dinner together. What is a tradition you wish would go away? Perhaps how mom always asks you to recite the Gettysburg address every July 4th, even though you’re not 8-years-old anymore.

The traditional -- and very messy -- tomato food fight of the La Tomatina Fiesta of Buñol (Valencia), Spain.

The traditional -- and very messy -- tomato food fight of La Tomatina Fiesta of Buñol (Valencia), Spain.

The world is the canvas and festivals are the paint. Every year, people gather in campgrounds, state fairs, amphitheaters, back yards, city streets, and parks to celebrate culture, music, and tradition. One thing you can count on — each festival maintains its own identity by highlighting the fun, local, and sometimes downright weird. Here are a few unusual festivals occurring around the United States and abroad.

The Wooly Worm Festival of Banner Elk, NC, celebrates tiny wooly caterpillars that come out in droves each fall. The highlight of the festival is the wooly worm race in which contestants race their own segmented caterpillar up a piece of string against other worms. The winner leaves with the pride of their worm being the fastest of the festival.

And what is a festival without a certain amount of saliva hurled at great speed? The Rossville, KS, Tall Corn Festival highlight is a corn kernel spitting contest. The Blenheim Cherry Fest (Ontario, Canada) includes a cherry pit spitting contest. However the most serious about the art of spitting seeds must be the people in Luling, TX, in the Luling Watermelon Thump festival. This is the home to the world championship of watermelon seed spitting, the record being 68 feet, 9 and 1/8 inches by a local man in 1989. In addition to the watermelon spitting contest, the Luling Watermelon Thump includes a watermelon carving contest which would not be so unusual if it were not a requirement that the carving be worn like a hat.

In Tibet, on their annual new year festival, Buddhist monks pay tribute by creating enormous colorful sculptures from yak butter. Sculptures of the Buddha, flowers, birds, ancient people, and homes attract 150,000 people annually. Sculptures can take anywhere from a few days to a month to create.

Some other unusual festivals include the Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Contest in Gloucester, England, the Frozen Dead Guy Days of Nederland, CO, which celebrates all things macabre, the Australian Darwin’s Beer Can Regatta where competitors build boats of beer cans, and the famous La Tomatina Fiesta of Buñol (Valencia), Spain, which hosts the world’s largest food fight. More than 90,000 pounds of tomatoes are hurled about the town square resulting in one fun, gooey, sticky time. Remarkably, within hours of the event, the town square is back to normal. The smell however takes a few days and a perhaps a few rainstorms to get rid of.

Discussion Questions

  • What traditions does your town, school, or state have that one might find unusual? Try to see them from an outsider’s point of view and describe the tradition.
  • What sort of traditions does your church have that you think are important to your identity as a parish? Make a list of some of the studies, programs, and events your church does regularly. Would you call these unique to your church?
  • How would you describe your worship? Traditional? Contemporary? Mixed? Something else? Describe the traditions within your service that would make it recognizable as such.

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, August 30, 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

Tradition is a beautiful thing. It helps ground us in our history. In a way, it is how the ancient continue to teach us today, by handing down ideas and thoughts and habits through our traditions. Tradition’s roots are to be honored and adored and truly respected. But what happens when we begin to lose sight of these roots and begin to focus on tradition itself? What happens when we begin to honor the tradition rather than what tradition points to?

In our lesson today, the Pharisees confront Jesus for not holding to ceremonial washing traditions. These traditions probably come from important reasons; ways to keep hands, food, and dishes clean so that diseases do not get passed on. Or perhaps the traditions help ingratiate the washer with thankfulness toward God who has provided the meal, the dishes, the time, and everything to put a meal together. The tradition comes from holy roots, roots designed to teach us about ourselves, God, and how to care for one another’s health. However, the Pharisees have focused so much upon the tradition that they have forgotten the reason. Tradition existed for its own sake, to be done because it was “supposed” to be done, not because it pointed beyond itself.

Jesus points out that cleanliness does not come from activity alone but from a place much deeper. What does it mean that someone follows all the rules of hand-washing but does not care for the other? (see the list from Mark 7:21-22) Cleanliness is not what we do, but is a way of life. Tradition is not the point. It is what the tradition points to, that is the point.

When we think of tradition in the church, we often think of worship. For many, traditional worship is a holy experience, a beautiful and transforming act that re-centers us in God and our community. In more contextual worship, or what you might call contemporary, they too come with their own traditions and ways of doing things, if done a little different from so called traditional worship. But isn’t it easy to go through the motions in either and not think about what we are doing? It isn’t like us to get so tied in what we are supposed to do that we forget why we do it? Isn’t the goal about “who” we worship and not “how” we worship?

Many of our own worshipping traditions have grown out of our theology, and also from our culture. Just like the festivals, worship is born of where they were grown. A wooly worm festival would not work in a place where there are no wooly worms. Butter carvings would melt in Arizona sunshine and some people just might find a Frozen Dead Guy festival too dark and depressing to attend. For their culture, it makes sense, but for others they may feel strange. So too, our worship reflects the culture from where they were born. For some, our culture is a white, western European, culture. This culture gave birth to what we may call “traditional” Lutheran worship. For others, they worship from an African American culture, Caribbean culture, Native American culture, or just about any culture you can imagine; these, too, are “traditional” in that they may be born of their culture’s traditions in worship.

This doesn’t mean that one group worships the right way and the others do not, it only means we can worship in many ways with many traditions and in many languages. God is present in all these places of worship, no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable you are. The goal is not the act of worship but the God in and with whom we worship. This is the root of all worship, traditional and contemporary and cultural.

When we invite someone to worship with us, we invite them not to the “usual” but to the “unusual” of our particular congregation. We invite them into our own traditions and ways of worshipping. It is our hope to invite them into our traditions not as an act but as a way of pointing to God. Our hope is that we may not find ourselves so tied to the outside cleanliness of the act that we forget where our tradition points us, to an unfettered relationship with the Creator.


  • “Traditions are group efforts to keep the unexpected from happening.”
    Barbara Tober, president of Acronym, Inc
  • “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”
    W. Somerset Maugham, English Playwright and Novelist
  • “Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of.”
    Ellen Goodman, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist
  • “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
    G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936), theologian
  • “Traditionalists often study what is taught, not what there is to create.”
    Ed Parker, Grandmaster, American Kenpo

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever been to a worship service that made you feel uncomfortable or like an outsider? What was it that made you feel this way?
  • Do you think there is a wrong way to worship? Share your thoughts on why or why not.
  • Think about your church and the worship service(s). Imagine you are a guest to the church, you have never been to church before in your life and you have never heard of Jesus. What are things you do in your church, things you may call a tradition that a guest might find strange or unusual? Kneeling? Raising hands? What points to and describes our relationship with God?

Activity Suggestion

Resident Alien

Have the group walk through their usual worship service. Think of everything they do as a part of normal worship: standing, sitting, kneeling, how the pastor dresses, the songs that are sung, musical instruments used, confession, passing the peace, raising hands, laying on of hands, folding hands, bowing heads, languages spoken, how Communion is distributed, who helps lead worship, art and symbols, how you enter and leave worship, etc. Make a list of these things on a black board, newsprint, or just a sheet of paper. Now take a look at these things from an outsider’s point of view.


  • Describe how it may feel as a guest to encounter these things.
  • Discuss what you think the point or purpose of these acts may be. Why do we kneel? Why do we or perhaps just the pastor hold hands a certain way when praying? Why do we use some instruments and not others to lead the service?
  • What do you think your worship says about your church? What things would you say are important to your congregation, and are shown by what you do or do not do in worship? What does your worship say about you? What does it say about God? About Jesus? The Spirit?
  • Lastly, what would happen if someone tried or did something unusual in your service? How would people react? Are there good reasons for this reaction? What are they? How about negative reasons? What are they?

Closing Prayer

Jesus, you teach us not to focus on the outside things but rather the inside deeper cleanliness you have given us through your death and resurrection. It can be so easy for us to be distracted by how we worship that we forget it is you to whom we give thanks and praise. Forgive us for claiming we know best, and open our hearts so that we may worship you with our hearts as well as in our holy traditions. Help us to remember the reasons for our actions. We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

April 15-22, 2009 – Sad news surrounds joyful Easter celebration

Contributed by Pastor Jay Gamelin
Columbus, OH

Warm-up Question: Think of a time when you got hurt (physically, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise). What’s the most important thing you learned from that experience

In the weeks leading up to Easter this year, sad news filled nearly every newspaper and broadcast. In just over a week, there were five mass murders in the U.S. alone, from Oakland, CA, to Binghamton, NY, killing nearly 40 people. In Italy, just as that predominantly Roman Catholic country was beginning to celebrate Holy Week, a massive earthquake killed at least 260 people. Violence continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other war-torn corners of the globe. And all over the world, people continue to struggle with a devastated economy.

All this news has surrounded what for Christians ought to be the most joyful time of the year. Figuring out how to celebrate on a tighter budget in the midst of difficult times is an ancient challenge, and one that the faithful will face again as they gather to celebrate the festival of the resurrection and the bright, seven-week season of Easter that follows.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever tried to celebrate something (Christmas, Easter, your birthday, family weddings, etc.) while also having to deal with sad news? How did that go?
  • What did your family do for Easter this year? Was anything different than years past?
  • How do you think the families of people who died in the shootings in the U.S. felt during the Easter celebration this year, especially if they were Christians?
  • What do you think Jesus would say to folks who were trying to celebrate Easter while also finding themselves homeless after the earthquake in Italy?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 19, 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 comicAgnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

The week after Easter is a peculiar Sunday in the church. On most Sundays, the appointed readings are different each year, following a three-year cycle. But every year, on the week after Easter, we hear this story about Thomas, the disciple who asked for proof. That makes me wonder: What’s so important about this story that the church asks us to read it every year during this time?

It seems to me we could answer that question with two words: doubt and scars.

Isn’t it a bit jarring that just one week after the lilies and the brass, the egg hunts and family gatherings, the joyful shouts and songs filled with “Alleluia!,” all of a sudden we run into doubt and scars? What happened to butterflies and bunnies?

The church is trying to tell us something. From the beginning, the joyful news of the resurrection had to be spoken, heard, sung, and lived by people whose lives were not very joyful. “He is Risen!” did not put an end to the suffering and persecution, death and danger that those first Christians lived with. In fact, their claim that Jesus, whom the Empire had tried to destroy, was in fact living and reigning as the true King of Creation, made things even worse for the faithful.

In the midst of danger and suffering, it’s normal for a little doubt to creep in. Thomas asked, and for good reason, to see the same proof that Jesus handed — literally — to the other disciples. For Thomas, as for most of the citizens of Jerusalem, the resurrection had not changed anything. Well, not anything they could see anyway. Life was still hard, and death was still at hand. So before Thomas took the message of “He is risen!” very far, he needed to be sure he wouldn’t just be telling a cruel joke to people who needed some real, meaningful hope.

Legend has it, Thomas ended up taking that message very far indeed — all the way to India! So whatever Jesus showed him was good enough.

What Jesus showed him were scars. Jesus was alive, but his body still had the marks of what he had suffered. His own flesh would not let him, or us, forget about the real tragedy and death he endured. Knowing that Jesus was still a marked man helped Thomas know that God still understood the danger and the risk of living faithfully in a broken world. Those scars gave Thomas’s own scars holy meaning: doubt and danger are still abundant, but God’s love and life are more abundant still.

We, too, live this Easter faith in a dead and dying world. Thanks be to God, Jesus lives and breathes in the midst of our doubts, bearing the scars, and yet overflowing with life. Alleluia! Amen.

Discussion Questions

  • If you were Thomas, what proof would you ask for to know that the resurrection — rising death — was real?
  • What does it mean to you that Jesus still has the scars on his resurrected body? If God could raise him from the dead, why didn’t God take the scars away, too?
  • Do you have any scars (physical or otherwise)? Where does God fit into the stories about how you got your scars?
  • What difference does “He is risen!” make in your own life? If “He is risen!” actually made your life more challenging and dangerous, would you still tell it to your friends and neighbors? Would it make a difference to them?

Activity Suggestions

  • Get a laminated map of the globe and some Vis-à-vis overhead pens. Invite folks to draw or write on places on the map where the world is scarred or marked. Play some music during this time (anything from Taizé songs to an iPod mix of thoughtful or thought-provoking music like The Fray’s “You Found Me”). After they’ve had some time to write, draw, or circle places, ask them to share why they drew or wrote what they did. Then ask where they think God is in all the world’s scars.
  • Have youth draw temporary tattoos (any non-permanent marker pen will do fine) on their arm, wrist, or ankles. (Draw it on paper first. Some may choose not to draw on themselves — a valid choice that should be respected.) What mark would you draw that would describe your faith and your doubts in your life? What invisible scars do you have that you could make “visible”? Where does Jesus fit into this picture? Have them share as they are comfortable.

Closing Prayer

Jesus, you lived and died and live again, feeling in your own body how hard life can be. Help me see your love and grace in the midst of the entire world’s, and my own scars. Be patient with me, and accept my doubts even as you give me faith. Amen.

April 1-8, 2009 – Parade ends 30+ year run

Contributed by Erik Ullestad
West Des Moines, IA

Warm-up Question: What’s the coolest parade you’ve ever attended? What made it so great?

The 2009 St. Patrick’s Day parade on Chicago’s South Side was the most violent in its 31-year history. It was also the last time the parade would be run. The South Side Irish Parade Committee met a week after the St. Patrick’s Day debacle. The committee announced, via a news release on their Web site, that they are discontinuing plans to hold the parade in 2010. One of the determining factors was the violence that broke out along the parade route. When it was all said and done, nearly a dozen police officers were assaulted and 54 people were arrested.
The parade had become increasingly popular in recent years. Over 300,000 people crammed into the 24-block route in this year’s event. According to eye-witnesses, many of the people who gathered for the parade had been consuming alcohol.

From the South Side Irish Parade’s official Web site:

“This decision was not arrived at lightly. For 31 years, this parade was a staple of the Beverly/Morgan Park and Mt. Greenwood communities — a celebration of faith, family, and heritage that was cherished by thousands.”

The feast of St. Patrick is celebrated on March 17, in honor of the Irish saint. It is also the national holiday of the country of Ireland. 

Discussion Questions

  • How did you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?
  • St. Patrick is recognized as a patron saint by the Catholic Church. What do you know about saints? How many saints can name and describe?
  • Do you agree with the decision to cancel the parade in future years? Why or why not?
  • What kinds of restrictions would you put in place to allow the parade to continue?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 5, 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 for Mark 11:1-11 

It’s homecoming time in Jerusalem. After three years of preaching, teaching, healing, and stirring up all sorts of trouble, Jesus finally returns home. He has amassed quite a following in this time. Everyone wanted to see what Jesus was doing. They wanted to know if what they heard about him was true. Could he really walk on water? Was he able to raise the dead back to life? Was he really the Son of God, or just the latest fad who could do a few magic tricks?
Jesus knew that his return to Jerusalem might be a big deal, so he sent one of his disciples ahead to get a colt for Jesus to ride in to town. Why a colt? Back in the day, if a military hero came home, he arrived on a horse. If a peace messenger came, they rode in on a donkey. Some other gospel writers (Matthew and John) say Jesus came on a donkey, thus conveying a peaceful entry into Jerusalem. Perhaps Mark felt that, though Jesus wasn’t coming with a message of military might, his return home wasn’t necessarily peaceful.

Jesus was a rockstar among the people in his hometown. Everyone wanted a piece of him. They threw their clothes and palm branches on the ground to keep the dust from stirring up in his face. The people formed lines along the side of the road. They showered him with praises. He was even allowed to enter the temple, even though the hour had grown late.

In many churches, Palm Sunday has morphed into Palm/Passion Sunday. We are reminded that, even in the midst of our jubilant celebration, we are only a few days removed from the drama that unfolds on Thursday night. 21st century Christians are aware of this. Jesus was aware of it at the time, but the people who were shouting “Hosanna!” likely had no idea. Their joy couldn’t be contained. Jesus — the Son of God and an ancestor of David — came home. It was time to party!

Discussion Questions 

  • What do you think is the significance of Jesus riding an UNridden colt?
  • Imagine you had only one cloak. Why would you throw it on the ground for a donkey to walk on?
  • What kind of celebration or parade would take place in your community if a famous local celebrity returned home?
  • How can you celebrate Jesus’ arrival in your life throughout the coming week?

Activity Suggestion

Take the palms that were used in worship and make crosses out of them. (For suggestions on how to make them, click here, here, here, or here.) Find a prominent place in the church to hang them, so people who return for Holy Week worship services can be reminded of how the celebration of Palm Sunday quickly turns to mourning and sadness.

Closing Prayer

God, thanks for sending Jesus into our lives. Help us to celebrate his presence and reflect on his passion this Holy Week, and always. Amen.