I am the Model Shepherd



Inspired by John 10:11-18

There are two translation issues in our Gospel reading for today that we have to deal with before anything else. They are issues that drastically change how we read and understand this text. Now, you know me, I’m not one to bore you with a bunch of Greek in my sermons but these just can’t be ignored. OK, here we go. This passage has always been known as The Good Shepherd. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But what if I told you, that’s not the best translation for that phrase!

Theologian R.E. Brown makes a convincing argument, well it’s convincing because he convinced me, that the Greek here shouldn’t be translated as “good shepherd”, but rather, a better translation would be “model” shepherd. Now I’m not going to get into how he got there, not because it’s boring but just because it’s quite lengthy. So Brown reads it this way: “I am the model shepherd. The model shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Which brings us to our next translation issue! Don’t’ worry, we’ll get back to the model shepherd in a bit, but we have to lay these foundations first. The phrase, “lays down his life” doesn’t necessarily mean to die. We just automatically read it that way because we know that Jesus, the good shepherd, no, excuse me, the model shepherd, died on the cross. So, it makes sense that we would assume that “lays down his life” means that the model shepherd dies. But that’s not what the Greek says. The Greek word for “lays down” simply means to put, to place, to set, or to plant. Not to die! So, a better translation might be, “The model shepherd takes a stand for the sheep” or “The model shepherd stands up for the sheep”, to put it in common vernacular.

So, with these two translation issues hammered out, listen to the passage this way, “I am the model shepherd. The model shepherd takes a stand for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.

“I am the model shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I take a stand for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. “This is why the Father loves me: I take a stand so that I can take it again. No one takes that from me, but I do it because I want to. I have the right to make a stand, and I have the right to do it again. I received this commandment from my Father.”

A very different reading isn’t it? It’s still about a shepherd and the shepherd’s sheep, but instead of being about a good shepherd, it’s about a model shepherd. What was once implicit, us following Jesus’ example, becomes explicit. And now the focus is no longer on dying for the sheep, but on taking a stand for the sheep. Which makes much more logical sense anyway because if you think about it, the death of the shepherd would spell certain doom for rest of the sheep, who would then have no one to protect them.

To be clear though, death is not completely removed from this analogy. Let us not forget the wolf! The way we see the shepherd may have changed, but the wolf is still the wolf. And we all know, the only job of a wolf, in any story, is to attack, to kill. When Jesus speaks of the model shepherd standing up for the sheep, the shepherd does so at great risk, up to the shepherd’s own life.

So what does all this mean for us? Well, I should start out by saying, in the same way that God is God and we are not, so it is that Jesus is the Christ, and we are not. Likewise, Jesus is the model shepherd, and we are not. I say this because it is impossible for us to be a shepherd just like Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t expect us to. That’s why he calls himself the model. In the same way that a runway model is often seen as an unrealistic image of perfection that we then scramble to emulate. The idea here is not perfection. But merely following the lead of the model shepherd. And that is the call of all of us who claim to follow Jesus, to be little shepherds, all of us, not just pastors or youth directors or council presidents. All of us—little shepherds emulating the model shepherd.

And what do we know of the model shepherd that we are to emulate? The model shepherd stands up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Who might that be in our world today? Just take a look at the news. They shouldn’t be hard to find. But I will say this, if where you get your news, is not highlighting those who need our help, then you might want to get your news elsewhere. What else do we know about the model shepherd?

The model shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep know the model shepherd. Because the model shepherd has made the time, and the effort, to do so. Our offerings go far to help the less fortunate. But I think that’s only half our call. The other half is to be the hands of Christ out in the world. And that work is greatly enriched when make the time and effort to get to know whom we serve, and allow them to get to know us.

And the people that we are called to serve, should be treated as if they were one from our own sheep pen. Because something else we know about the model shepherd from this passage is that the model shepherd has sheep everywhere out in the world. This is not the model shepherd’s only sheep pen—which, I think was just a nice way of saying that we are not as special as we like to think we are. And if Christ feels a responsibility to all those other sheep out there that are not of this pen, then we should probably too. If, we are to take this emulating the model shepherd business seriously.

I want to end though where we began, that Christ is the model shepherd, and we are not. If it weren’t for Christ than none of this would be possible. Jesus, the model shepherd, is the Christ of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And that’s a claim that none of us little shepherds can make. It all begins and ends with Jesus. Our passage from the Gospel of John ends on a very commanding, powerful note. You can almost see Jesus, straighten his tunic, and stand tall as he says, “I take a stand so that I can take it again. No one takes that from me, but I do it because I want to.” And Jesus always wants to. Jesus never tires of standing up for those who can’t for themselves. Another claim that none of us sheep can make. Our legs get tired of standing. Our feet grow weary of marching. We are not always willing and able to stand up for others. Thankfully, Christ always is. Amen.

Look For Wounds



Inspired by Luke 24:36-48

Every year, with each new Journey of Faith group, when we get to our exploration of the Apostle’s Creed in Luther’s Small Catechism, I always ask if there is anything about it that they question or wonder about. The response is always the same, dead silence. Now, to be fair, maybe they genuinely don’t question anything in the Apostle’s Creed, maybe they are beyond wondering if all of it could really be true. But then I take a look at it again and think to myself, “Really? No one questions anything about this document?”

It can be very difficult to read it with new eyes. But imagine if you can, being a visitor here, who hasn’t been to church much til now. And before the visitor’s eyes is this creed that everyone begins to recite in unison. It starts off with, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Well, that’s simple enough. Other than the gender-exclusive language, no other issues there. It then continues with, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Hmmmm, and then the wondering begins. “Conceived.” “Conceived by the Holy Spirit.” I wonder what that means.

And then that wondering turns in to full-on questioning with that next line, “born of the virgin Mary.” What? Did everyone just say what I think they said? And you look at the printed text and sure enough, yep, everybody just said that Jesus’ mama never had sex before having him! Ain’t nobody had “the talk” with these people? You know, the birds and the bees? By this point you’re frantically trying to catch up, “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Ok, “was crucified, died, and was buried”, pretty straightforward. “Descended to the dead”, whatever that means.

“On the third day he rose again…ascended into heaven.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a sec. Excuse me? Did they just say that Jesus was dead for three days and then pulled a Walking Dead on y’all? Ain’t nobody here ever seen a zombie movie? That ain’t nothing to mess around with people! But seriously, there is a lot to process in this creed that we just take for granted, and I’ve only gotten through half of it!

So, I’m still waiting for, one of these years, to have one of our new members in the Journey of Faith, when I ask, are you sure you don’t have any questions or wonderings about what’s in the Apostle’s Creed, to raise their hand and with all the courage they can muster, say, “You know what pastor, yes, some of this I’m just not sure about. Can we talk about the virgin birth? Risen after three days, give it to me straight pastor. Did that really happen?” Or anything else, they might be questioning. Because I fully believe, that it is in that questioning, in the wondering, that faith is strengthened and nurtured and allowed to grow like never before. Because the opposite of that, being too fearful, too intimidated, to ask, to wonder about such things—will kill faith faster than you can say three days.

So, by now you may be wondering why I’m talking about questioning and wondering. Well, there’s a phrase in our Gospel reading that really stood out to me. I read to you a resurrection appearance from the end of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus appears to his disciples and greets them with the words we use to each other during the passing of the peace, “Peace be with you.” He recognizes that they are terrified and so he goes on to try and convince them that it’s him, in the flesh, and not a ghost.

And then there is this curious phrase, “they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness.” I found that beautifully odd. Odd because wondering and questioning things in my mind, is usually anything but a peaceful process. Usually, we wonder about things that don’t make sense. And it can be uncomfortable when things don’t make sense. We like things to make sense. We question things when we want answers about something. We like answers, and when we don’t have them, it can make us uneasy.

However, Luke states that they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness! How can that be? At first glance, that’s too much of a juxtaposition for me to wrap my head around! But once I stopped to think about it, I also found it to be very comforting. And then I remembered Jesus’ first words to them, “Peace.” “Peace be with you.” This visit was all about delivering peace to them. They were scared. They were hiding from the people that killed Jesus because they didn’t want to be next on that cross. And then Jesus shows up and they don’t know what scarier, him or those that killed him. And he offers them peace. Peace in the midst of their questioning. Peace in the midst of their wondering. Peace in the midst of their doubts and unbelief. Peace in the midst of their fear and disappointment.

I find comfort in that because I fear, I question, I doubt, I wonder, I don’t always believe. And I’m banking on the fact that I’m not alone, that you can relate. But in the midst of all of that, in the midst of the fear and questioning, and doubt, and wonder, and unbelief, I hear Luke telling us that we can still find happiness there, that Jesus offers peace there, that Jesus shows up in that fear, and questioning, and doubting, and wondering, and unbelief. Happiness is not outside of all of that, but it’s where it’s found.

So, here is what I have been wondering about. Where does Jesus show up for us today? Where did Jesus point to, to prove that he was really there? His wounds. Jesus showed them his wounds and said, “It’s really me.” Jesus, shows up, in wounds. That’s where Jesus does his best work. In wounds. It is no accident that even after his resurrection, he still had his wounds. The cross was not behind him but would be a part of him forever. We follow a crucified God, so that God can show up in our wounds.

Now, Jesus is going to show up whether we are looking for Jesus or not. Because that’s just how much Jesus loves us. But if you want to go looking for Jesus, look for wounds. Where? Well, start with yourself. Start with your own wounds, no matter how old they are—bleeding, scabbed, or scarred—you’ll find Jesus there, pointing to those wounds, saying, “It’s really me.” Look at those around you—family, friends, church family—look at their wounds.

They may be very visible because they have shared their struggles with you, some, much harder to see. But you’ll find Jesus there. Saying, “It’s really me.” And then look outside your circle of family and friends and church family. Step outside your comfort zone, and look at the wounds of the strangers among us. And once again, you’ll find Jesus there. Saying, “It’s really me.” But I should also warn you, if you go looking for Jesus in wounds, Jesus may also ask, "You got anything to eat? Sit. Stay a while." Amen.

Didn't See That Coming!



Inspired by Mark 16:1-8

I love stories that don’t have a happy ending! I know, that might sound kind of weird but let me explain. I like stories without happy endings for at least two reasons, one of which I’ve known, and the other I’ve recently discovered. The first is because they seem to be more real, more authentic. We know that life isn’t about one happy ending after another and so stories without happy endings just seem to resonate with me more. I don’t feel like I’m being lied to by the storyteller. One of my favorite stories without a happy ending comes from a novel by Richard Adams called The Plague Dogs. You may know him as the author of Watership Down, a better-known work of his. But it’s actually the film version of the book that has the grim ending, that I like.

When Adams originally wrote the book, it did not have a happy ending but rather the ending that appears in the movie, but his editors would not pass it for publishing until he put a happy ending in it. Change his book or not get paid, those were his two choices. So he changed it. Oddly enough, when they made a movie out of it, he got the opportunity to put in his original ending and they did!

Now what’s doubly odd about that, is that the movie is an animated movie, leading many to believe it’s a family flick. Let me warn you now, in case any of you want to check it out sometime, it is not a family movie! Far from! But if you’re an animal lover, specifically a dog lover, and you don’t mind crying until you’ve run out of tears, then I highly recommend it! Now, I can’t give you any details because I wouldn’t want to ruin it for anyone, but that brings me to the other reason I like stories without happy endings.

They surprise me! You never see them coming! We’ve been trained to expect a happy ending at the end of every story. And when that doesn’t happen, it can be surprising, even a little jarring! And I love that in a story! I love when a story surprises me! What I hate, are stories that you can guess the plot, not long after the beginning of the story. If I can guess it, I don’t care how good the movie was, the storyteller failed in my book. I like to be kept guessing, and then to be shocked when the story lands in the most surprising of places. It’s also why I’m a fan of M. Night Shyamalan movies and the Twilight Zone. Those stories are full of twists and turns, you just never know where you’re headed! Maybe why I like roller coasters too now that I think about it, but I digress.

OK, what do unhappy endings, surprise plot lines, and twists have to do with anything today? Well, I’m glad you asked! Our reading from the Gospel of Mark that I just read a moment ago is the original ending of Mark. I say original because after Mark was done writing it, some didn’t like the way it ended. And so they added to the end of the book, creating a new ending. Much like Adam’s The Plague Dogs, they probably didn’t like the way the book ended. In this case, with the women fleeing in fear and dread, saying nothing to anyone.

Sometime when you’re bored, look at the ending of the Gospel of Mark. You’ll notice a section at the end that’s in brackets with a note saying that this was added later. And you can tell that it was added later even without that not because the first line in the added text is, “They promptly reported all of the young man’s instructions to those who were with Peter.” Completely contradicting the verse before.

But that’s not the twist ending I wanted to talk about. The surprise ending to the Gospel of Mark is the resurrection itself! We may not recognize it as such because we’ve been telling this story for 2000 years now. But think of hearing this story for the first time. A guy, a great guy, dies, and three days pass. Who would have guessed that he’d come back! Remember, this is pre-Game of Thrones and comic books, where when somebody dies you’re left to wonder, “Are they really dead or are they gonna come back someday?” No, Jesus is arrested, beaten, tortured, and then is executed in a most horrifying way, and they even check to see if he’s really dead. Jesus was as dead as dead could be. And then God provides the greatest surprise ending imaginable, the twist of all twist endings, and lo and behold, Jesus comes back!

Now, I understand that may be hard to imagine, us being so far on this side of the cross and all, but think of it this way. The world believed in gods that demanded punishment for bad behavior, gods that were malicious, cruel, and played with humans as if they were toys—and don’t get me started on animal sacrifices to pay for your sins! So when Jesus dies, on account of people’s bad behavior, they would have totally expected God to say, “Well, that’s that! You had your chance with Jesus, and you killed him! Now he’s gone. End of story! Sucks to be you!” By the way, I do believe that God uses much worse language than that, and on a regular basis, especially when he’s watching the news, but I digress! That ending would have been totally believable to them! We failed, bye bye Jesus.

But not our God! Our God is full of surprises, and has been since the beginning of time! Just think of some of our favorite stories of the Bible. God leaves the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. Didn’t see that coming! God saves Isaac from being sacrificed by Abraham. Didn’t see that coming! God parts the Red Sea so the Israelites can escape. Plot twist! God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah to safety. Didn’t see that coming either!

God saves Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from being burned after they were thrown into a raging furnace! What! Jesus is raised after being dead for three days! Didn’t see that coming!  We were expecting God’s judgment, anger, disappointment—you know, the “dad look.” Ask my girls about that look, they’ll tell you!

But we don’t get any of those, we get a risen Christ—back from the dead to save the world! Why, because God likes a surprise ending? Well, maybe. But even more than that God loves to love. And has been that way since the beginning of time. We just screw up that message of God’s unconditional love over and over. Why? Maybe because it’s hard to believe? Maybe because unconditional love is so hard for us, it’s difficult to wrap our heads around it.

But if the cross and empty tomb teach us anything it is this, God will stop at nothing, to love you. God will not let anyone get in the way, not even us. God will not allow anyone to write the end of the story. God will not allow us to edit it, to alter it, to amend it, to add to it, to slap on an ending that will sell better! No, this is God’s story, and God is sticking it to it! Now go share this story like you’ve just won the lottery! Can I get an amen? Alleluia!

One: A Three Days Sermon Series



Inspired by John 13:1-17, 31-35; John 18:1-19:42; John 20:1-18


Last year I used a favorite song from one of my favorite 80’s bands to serve as a guide for my Three Days sermon. And wouldn’t you know it, I had yet another song in mind this year as I prepared this three part sermon, from yet another 80’s band! I can’t help it, I spent years 5 through 15 in the 80’s! Can you believe the 80’s ended almost 30 years ago? Well, before we get all sad and emotional, there’ll be plenty of time for that later this week, the song I had in mind is from the band U2. And the song is called One. Released in 1991, it really made an impact on my 16 year old self. It’s been a song that I have returned to time and time again throughout my life. But I’ve never really processed why, until it came to mind while I was preparing for Holy Week.

The song ends with these words, “One love. One blood. One life. You got to do what you should. One life. With each other. Sisters. Brothers. One life. But we're not the same. We get to, Carry each other. Carry each other. One life. One.” Owen will sing it during the offering tonight, and also on Saturday night, creating bookends for our Three Days. The song is filled with themes surrounding oneness, unity, togetherness, community, and the absence of it. Being a teenager can be very lonely at times.

Maybe all the time for some of us. Lonely because, as most teenagers, you just feel like no one really understands you, no one really gets you; especially not the adults in your life! But it’s good practice because as we all discover when we become adults, those moments of loneliness never really go away entirely. We all experience them from time to time. And so it came as no surprise that this song was so powerful for me as a teenager, and has stayed with me for so long.

Oneness, togetherness, unity, things that many of us long for, hope for—and I think that plays a part in why many of us come to church, and the place where our faith sprouts from. And maybe every pastor from every era of time has said this but, these days, it seems like oneness is at an all-time shortage. It seems like the political and social fabric of our nation is split like it hasn’t been for a long time. This is has brought strife within families, between friends, and even in the church.

I find myself seeing some political bumper sticker on a car and immediately forming an opinion about the driver. I never used to do that! I’m hoping that most of you can relate to that, or at least relate to the ever-growing sense of oneness needed in the world today. And hence, the theme of this year’s Three Days sermon. And so, I’d like us to explore, how each of these three nights, contributes to the oneness that God calls us to.

Good Friday we’ll explore our oneness with God, at the Vigil of Easter we’ll explore our oneness with the world, and tonight, focuses on our oneness with each other. Not only do I think that’s a good place to start, but I think even God would say that it is in finding oneness with each other, that we find oneness with God. On this night, after Jesus washed his disciples feet he said, “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.” And then of course he gives the new commandment, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

I think this was Jesus subtle way of saying, you’ve got to get your own house in order before you can take on the world. Learn to love each other first, learn to care for each other first, learn to be a servant to one another first, allow this to be your training ground. It starts here, in this holy place, in our hearts and minds, as we experience God for ourselves, at that table of oneness. A table where all are welcomed, where all come on equal ground, with hands outstretched in want, in yearning, for oneness. In this night, and in the next two, hear God’s call to oneness, with each other, with God, and with the world.

Oneness is the theme of this three part sermon which we began last night, when we focused on our oneness with each other that God has called us to through Christ. Tonight, we hear God calling us to oneness with Christ himself. But, thankfully, it is not anything that we do that makes us closer to Christ. Thankfully, it is not anything that we say, or believe, that makes us closer to Christ.

All the focus tonight is on Christ, all the work that needs to be done rests on Christ’s shoulders, Christ does all the heavy lifting for us. Which is why, later in the service, a beautiful large cross will be carried down the center aisle and placed here for us to reverence and adore. And also why Mark White, who has graciously volunteered to carry it for us, will get to physically feel the weight of that heavy cross, symbolizing the heavy work that Christ did on a similar cross, two thousand years ago.

But why? Why did Jesus go through such a horrible death? Why didn’t he take one of the many ways out that was handed to him by his followers? Let alone, save himself? Surely he had the power! He could have still left an impact on this world without having to die! People still would have written about him, still would have revered him and his work! Why couldn’t he have just listened to Peter when he told him “Never!” after Jesus predicted his death? Why didn’t he allow Peter to fight off the soldiers so that he could escape to continue his teaching and healing? Why? Well, many answers have been given over the last two millennia. But since oneness is on our minds this week, the answer that most resonates with me is that Jesus died to create oneness between him and us.

I don’t have to tell you how hard life can be. We all live through life’s lowest lows at some point or another. Whether they be complete tragedies, or damaged relationships, health issues, or many of life’s invisible enemies like depression and anxiety. Many of us have learned not to ask, “What could happen next?” because life has a way of showing you. But through it all, one thing that can help us to find just enough courage, or just enough will to keep going, or just enough whatever to get back on our feet after being knocked down, is the oneness that Christ has with us in suffering. Who knows suffering better than Jesus? Which is why Christ’s presence in our lives, especially through the tough times, is so profound.

It’s not like a good friend who comes over to sit with you after sharing some bad news with them that they just can’t relate to but they’ll sit with you anyway and try to help the best they can. Don’t get me wrong, those friends are not only necessary but vital to our health too. But then you have those friends that have gone through exactly what you are going through, and when they come and sit with you, not much needs to be said between you two. There is this bond in suffering that you have. This oneness that does not need to be spoken, but you both know that it’s there. That kind of oneness, as profound as it is, just scratches the surface of the kind of oneness that Christ has with us. Not only can Christ relate to our suffering but Christ knows us better than we know ourselves. That kind of oneness cannot be bought, or earned. It is freely given, by God, through Christ, from the cross.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! That never gets old does it? It’s been a long week! And we have yearned to say those words for a while haven’t we? Our children and youth made this beautiful banner for us for Easter that has been buried with the rest of our Alleluias in the columbarium since Ash Wednesday! Refraining from using the word Alleluia is an ancient tradition during Lent. The early church thought of it as a type of fasting, in the same way that you would fast from sweets during Lent and end up really missing them by the end of the forty days, so too with Alleluia. The idea is that you miss it and it becomes even more meaningful for you in the end. But I think it can go even deeper than that.

Our theme these past three days has been oneness. On Maundy Thursday we lifted up God’s call to oneness with each other. On Good Friday, we experienced God’s call to oneness with God’s very own self, through the work of Christ on the cross. And on Easter, we discovered that this oneness is for all people, not just to be experienced by us. And that is worthy of a few Alleluias! Amen? Because of Easter, we get to spread that oneness with all by sharing the good news of God’s unconditional love for the world to everyone that God places on our path. This is the night when our Alleluias take on a life of their own, as we direct them outward for all to hear and experience.

And this outward trajectory has been in the works for quite some time. It has been God’s plan all along, as we heard tonight in our selection of readings. They take a little while to get through, but be thankful that we don’t read all of them! There’s really fourteen in all! But God’s story of love for the world is not something to be rushed tonight. Tonight is when we take a moment and sit in them and let them work on us. And it’s also that time when you get to hear, in one night, this outward trajectory of God’s love for the world. It started with an empty creation, and then two people, Adam and Eve. Which led to one family, Abraham and Sara’s, which led to one nation, Israel. God’s love kept getting bigger, and bigger, and then you get to Jesus who just flings that door wide open, allowing all to enter into God’s love.

That is the kind of oneness that the world needed, that the world longed for, that the world had been waiting for since time began. And that is the kind of oneness that the world needs and longs and waits for today too. And we are the ones that get to share it! We are the ones that get to share with the world that God welcomes them, loves them, and cares for them like no other. And because of the resurrection, that message is more powerful that anything that this world can throw at them, because God will not falter in God’s walk with the world, in God’s oneness with the world.

During the offering, we will get the opportunity to hear Owen beautifully sing U2’s song One. The song ends with these lyrics, “One love. One blood. One life. You got to do what you should. One life. With each other. Sisters. Brothers. One life. But we're not the same. We get to, Carry each other. Carry each other. One life. One.” Tonight, we are reminded that none of this would be possible, without the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Preparing to Die



Inspired by Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 14:1-16

Welcome to Holy Week. Each year we begin this most holy time of the church year with Palm Sunday, which always feels a bit juxtaposed with the rest of the season of Lent. In the midst of the heaviness of the season, Palm Sunday always takes on a different tone. In spite of the events that we will be remembering on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Palm Sunday takes on a more celebratory tone, one might even say a victorious tone, what with the reading of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding in like royalty, with shouts of Hosanna in the air.

It’s almost enough to make you forget it’s Holy Week! Almost. For me it’s a welcome respite, from all those challenging Gospel readings throughout Lent, that have been hounding us for weeks now. Today we get to take one, last, deep, breath, before submerging ourselves in the holiness of this coming week. I hope you will all join us for The Three Days. If you don’t drive at night, it’ll be worth getting a ride. If you know of someone who doesn’t drive at night, be proactive and offer them a ride! Again, it’ll be worth it.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Today is Palm Sunday! And we have some very beautiful stories before us today from the Gospel of Mark. Outside we read the story of Jesus riding a colt into Jerusalem, a very royal thing to do in those days. People laid their clothes on the ground before him, as well as branches, to make a sort of red carpet for Jesus, shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”

From there we moved on to another reading from Mark that I just read a moment ago. While some corrupt religious leaders plan to arrest and kill Jesus, he is having dinner at a sick man’s house, and a woman anoints him with some very expensive perfume, which made a few people angry. And the story ends with Jesus giving his followers some very specific instructions regarding the upcoming Passover meal, which we will continue on Maundy Thursday.

I noticed a common thread that ran through all of these scenes in our Gospel readings, both the one we read outside and here. And that thread could be summed up in one word: prepared. Outside our reading began with Jesus giving his followers instructions on how to prepare for his arrival into Jerusalem: where to find the colt and how to go about acquiring it. Then, from our reading inside, the religious leaders are preparing for a calculated attack on Jesus.

Meanwhile, after Jesus is anointed by that unnamed woman, and some argue that the perfume could have been sold on behalf of the poor, Jesus corrects them and tells them that she has prepared his body for burial ahead of time. Then Judas begins to prepare to turn Jesus in to the authorities after being paid by those same corrupt religious leaders. And lastly, Jesus tells his followers how to prepare for the upcoming Passover celebration. There is lots of preparing going on throughout our Gospel readings today.

The one that really stood out for me, is the unnamed woman and her perfume that she anoints Jesus with, and the connection that he makes between that and his burial. I’m guessing that not even she knew that that’s what she was doing. She certainly understood who Jesus was, why else would she spend so much money on this moment. But preparing him for burial, while he’s still alive? I don’t think anyone would have understood that! In that day, it was common to anoint the body with strong perfumes.

This served the practical purpose of masking the smell of the initial stages of decomposition, especially for the sake of visiting mourners. However, it also became a way of honoring and caring for the dead, or in this case, the soon to be dead. I find her anointing of Jesus body ahead of time, to be very moving. Moving because she was able to have this moment with Jesus, to care for and prepare him, before he died—an opportunity that many of us have felt we didn’t get with our loved ones who have died.

But maybe that’s not entirely true. What if all our interactions with our loved ones are, in some way, in preparation for death, both yours and theirs! Bear with me on this one. Just in the two years I have been your pastor, I have had multiple conversations with people who were dying, who were so comfortable with the idea of death, so comfortable with their own looming death, so much so, that in some cases, it left very little for me to do as their pastor! Some people, are just so prepared for the end. And I don’t mean prepared in the sense that they are just tired of living, or that they are in so much pain that they just want it to end. No, I’m talking about people who really are at ease with death. And I’ve seen this in adults of all ages, not just the elderly or the dying. They have no fear, no worries, when their time comes, their time comes.

This story about the unnamed woman anointing Jesus ahead of time, has me wondering, how do people get like that? How do people get to a point in their life when they are comfortable with their own mortality? This story has me thinking that there must have been people in their lives, that have somehow, helped to prepare them, helped to foster this sense of peace with death. Maybe it was in the way that they were cared for throughout their lives, the way that they were loved, the way that they were taught the promises of God’s unconditional love. I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine! I’ve never asked them. But I think it’s going to be something I start asking those people, because I think it’s a healthy state of being that we could use more of. And I think it’s something that we could be more proactive about.

What if we started seeing all our interactions with our loved ones, as little anointings, as little ways in which we prepare them to meet their end, without fear, without worry, but instead in peace, and confidence in God’s promises of unconditional love. In the way that we care for them, in the way that we love them, in the way that we share and exhibit God’s promises to them, in words and actions. I know, preparing our loved ones for death might sound a little morbid, but hey, it’s Holy Week! And, it’s me.

But I have too many conversations with people, who are dying, that are of the opposite nature. People who have not found that comfort with death, people who are filled with fears and worries at the end. And I can’t help but wonder, how they got there. And more importantly, what might have helped them, throughout their life, to find peace. I don’t have all the answers. I’ll admit that this is a new thought process for me, inspired by todays Gospel readings. But I think it’s something worthy of our exploration and conversation around. Because God’s promise of unconditional love is meant to bring hope and comfort, to alleviate fear and worry, and not just for the dying, but for all of us. May the holiness of this week bring you blessings upon blessings as we journey through The Three Days together. Amen.