Good Friday (B): The Arc of God’s Universe

Good Friday (B): The Arc of God’s Universe

John 18:1-19:42

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The scripture passage for Good Friday is a narrative so dramatic it leaps off the page. When I read John’s account, I’m transported back to a live Stations of the Cross in Biloxi, Mississippi several years back. As we followed the man playing Jesus in the last moments of his earthly life, being hoisted up onto a cross with a crown of thorns on his head, my emotions were on a roller coaster. In the space of less than two chapters, after all, we have anger, betrayal, disbelief, unimaginable sorrow, fear, shame, impotence, bloodlust, and more. The writer of the gospel certainly has crafted a tour de force designed to bring us into the thick of the action.

Despite the pathos of the story he tells, though, John’s goal here is not necessarily to excite our empathy. Just as he started off his gospel with John the Baptist’s testimony that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, he continues to make his case in Jesus’ last mortal moments. As in the beginning, scriptural fulfilment (18:9, 32; 19:24, 28, 36) and others’ testimony are given priority; it’s as if John insists, “Don’t take my word for it.” And we get no help from Jesus himself, who confirms nothing other than his name and his hometown, pushing his interrogators to decide for themselves just who he is.

I have to admit, this is not my favorite Jesus. The other Gospel crucifixion scenes dwell on Jesus’ humanity; Jesus talks to God, cries out, bleeds, sweats, agonizes. By contrast, John’s Jesus does everything according to scriptural formulae laid out long ago; even his thirst is a pre-ordained fulfillment of prophecy rather than a matter of simple biological need. And though he shows compassion for his disciples and his mother, there is no hint of personal suffering. John’s portrait of Jesus as the cosmic Logos, somewhat distant from the upheavals of everyday life, is consistent even in death; very little humanity clouds the aura of his stoic, enigmatic Messiah.

In a way it can be deeply reassuring that Jesus is untouched by the world’s cruelty; sometimes we need a Savior who is above it all, a classically powerful, unchanging rock to which to cling. But I find more comfort in the very real dilemmas of the other characters portrayed. While Jesus may be the calm at the center, the supporting cast is anything but static. Whose inner turmoil do we identify with? When have we betrayed; when have we faltered; when have we had our hearts broken seemingly beyond repair?

To his credit, John has given us many points of entry into these mini-dramas. There is Judas, as John portrays him a pawn of the devil (13:2) betraying Jesus out of demonic compulsion or perhaps out of his own fear (which may be, in the end, the same thing.) There is Peter, eager to defend Jesus from behind the shield of violence, yet without it unable to admit his association with his teacher. There is the police officer, frustrated at Jesus’ obfuscation. There is Pilate, hemmed in by his own impotence and apparently by divine fiat (19:11), unable or unwilling to risk his authority to do what is right. There is the crowd and the soldiers, acquiescing to a mob mentality they may later regret. There are the Marys, silent but steadfast witnesses to their beloved’s torture. There is the heart-wrenching moment linking Jesus’ mother Mary and the disciple whom he loves, given to each other as a balm against the raw wound of his approaching death. There is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both afraid to publicly admit their discipleship while Jesus lived, but clandestinely willing to care for him in death.

John’s commitment to the fulfillment of scriptural destiny means everyone is caught up in machinations they have no power change. Pilate struggles the hardest to turn the tide but ultimately fails; as Jesus tells him, none of this would have happened without having been ordained by a higher authority. This, too, can work to distance us from a God who has long ago ordered that it should be this way; or it can help us feel that we are not alone in being overwhelmed by events beyond our control.

John’s narrative is one of sweeping power and momentum; we, along with Jesus, are driven unswervingly to its end. Evil, grief, and suffering often seem this way—inexorable, insurmountable. Yet John’s dramatic arc extends through resurrection—an event of equally cosmic proportions reminding us that God’s universe is ultimately tuned to goodness, to redemption, to grace—to life.

PS: John is notorious for his use of the broad term “the Jews” to refer to those who clamor for Jesus’ death. (The Synoptics refer to a narrower group defined by their religious authority, not simply their religion.) This has long fueled anti-Jewish attitudes no matter John’s original intent. (Scholarly opinion varies from accusing John of straight up anti-Semitism to catering to an audience that wouldn’t have known who the Sadducees were to calling it a “class designation.”) When reading the Gospel aloud, I encourage you to consider using alternate translations such as “the religious authorities,” “the Jewish leaders,” or even the Jesus Seminar’s preferred term “the Judeans,” i.e. residents of Judea, a province hostile to Jesus’ ministry.

Leah headshot PACC
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves an outdoor run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 3-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.

Palm Sunday (B): Gradually and Then Suddenly

Palm Sunday (B): Gradually and Then Suddenly

Mark 14:1-15:14

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

One of my guilty pleasures is watching movies about some type of earth-ending event, movies like Armageddon (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and San Andreas (2015). I love how most of these movies start calmly, pleasantly even, with everything just fine. The characters might even be in a celebratory mood—a new romance has blossomed, an important, high-profile job has begun and then, suddenly, things turn catastrophic. Life as they know it has ended. In a movie, this quick turn from good to bad is expected. It is part of the Hollywood formula. To go from a parade to an execution order and tortured death in the span of 45 minutes in worship, however, is almost too much for a congregation to handle. In the words of Ron Burgundy, “boy, that escalated quickly.”

But, did it really? Mark’s Gospel, our text for Year B, is known for its quick-tempo; but reading along throughout Lent, we have watched the rising escalation between Jesus and the religious authorities since the scripture’s abrupt beginning. I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s dialogue in The Sun Also Rises:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Gradually and then suddenly. Mark’s Gospel starts off with a bang—healings, exorcisms, preaching with authority, and growing crowds drawn to Jesus, but we barely get out of the second chapter before the scribes began to question among themselves who this man from Nazareth thinks he is (2:6-7.) Gradually and then suddenly.

The arrival of Palm/Passion Sunday each year is the source of liturgical infighting among worship teams. There are camps that wonder why we can’t spend the whole Sunday focused on the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Why can’t we wave our palms and enjoy Jesus getting “his due” for once before we head into Holy Week and the cross? There are other camps that would prefer to skip over the palm parade and spend the Sunday firmly rooted in the Passion as in this excerpt. Those in this camp argue that practically one-third of Mark is taken up with the events of the last week of Jesus’ life,

From The Lion Illustrated Bible for Children (2007). Christina Balit, illustrator.

the story of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death. Only 11 verses tell of his triumphal entry into the city of David. Still others feel we must compromise and squeeze it all in—start with joy and celebration at the gates of Jerusalem and move to grief and despair as the tomb is sealed. We should start of gradually with pomp and circumstance and then arrive suddenly at the tragic end of Jesus’ ministry. Liturgical whiplash be damned. Gradually and then suddenly, that’s how the end of our brief encounter with the God-of-us.

In my childhood Bible, I remember the illustration from the palm parade—it looked like there were thousands lining the streets welcoming Jesus, hanging out windows and up trees, it looked like an ancient version of the ticker-tape parade. My current favorite children’s illustration looks nothing like my childhood memory. This Jesus, in Christina Balit’s illustrated world, is wrapped tightly in his robe, bound tightly for death upon the colt, face drawn as in a death mask. Regardless of how Jesus looked upon his entry, viewed through the lens of Empire, the procession must have certainly looked foolish to Rome.

It may be helpful to congregations to temper their palm pageants, often led by the children of the church, with the reminder that there were likely two processions in Jerusalem. In one, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt, with no weapons and no army. There was simply singing, celebration, a quick visit to the Temple, and then it was all over (at least in Mark’s account.) In the other procession, Pilate rode into Jerusalem on a warhorse accompanied by legions of Roman soldiers with all the pomp and ceremony of an Imperial authority figure. Today’s Passion reading is a counter-narrative to the Palm Sunday reading and intensifies the dialectic between the insider/outsider perspectives.

Perhaps the “let’s have it all” camp has it right. One approach to Passion Sunday is to demonstrate for the modern disciple how Jesus’ earthly ministry ended gradually and then suddenly once Passover weekend in Jerusalem. With such a long reading, it is helpful to break it up in vignettes or through a dramatic reading because Mark covers a lot of ground in the two chapters selected for the appointed Sunday. Mark spends time preparing Jesus for his burial through the anointing at Bethany and the quiet, intimate Passover dinner with his disciples. He is quickly betrayed by those he loved and turned over to the religious authorities. In short order, he is handed to Pilate, who, washing his hands of the mess, allows the crowds, hungry for blood, to issue the ultimate and final verdict. It makes one wonder, how short are people’s memories? Had they already forgotten the recent parade where they welcomed and called on him to “save them now” (the basic meaning of Hosanna)? Were they so naïve that they easily believed the religious leaders? Mark is playing all the time with the notion of who is on the inside, who is on the outside. The crowds move from inside to outside, the disciples move in and out of this dance repeatedly.

And, yet, in the last week of Jesus’ ministry on earth, he continued to challenge all the various forms of human Empire. Instead of a show of wealth, power and brute force, he revealed a way of being and of living together that was in complete contrast. Instead, revealing the Reign of God through giving, community, and simplicity. This Sunday’s readings allow pastors to remind their people of this contrast. A skilled preacher will quickly move the congregation from the ways in which we have witnessed, over the past 40 days, how Jesus chose not to flee from the pain of the world, but to head straight into those places in the world that frighten us. How Jesus challenged the Empire at every turn of his ministry. The last week of his life is no different.

Given the reality is that most of our congregation will fail to experience the fullness of Holy Week, we can allow Mark’s Passion narrative to help our Sunday morning crowd experience the fullness of the Jesus’ earthly ministry. For some of our flock, they have never allowed ourselves to spend any amount of time thinking about the sacrificial love of God for each one of us. They jump from the Palm parade to Easter brunch without even a glance at the events that lead to resurrection. Embracing the fullness of the passion will allow churchgoers to sit with Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion for a time before we rush to the tomb.

Before we get to Resurrection Sunday, before we put on our new clothes, before we welcome new lives into the baptismal covenant and sing our way to the Holy Table, to truly experience love, we must face suffering, trusting that love is always stronger than fear, that hope is stronger than despair and that life is stronger than death. For some of us, that witness and revelation, comes upon us gradually and then suddenly during Holy Week. We realize gradually and then suddenly that on the other side of that suffering, we can stand together as witnesses to the greatest love of all, God’s love for each one of us born upon that cross in Christ Jesus.

The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.



5th Sunday in Lent (B): We Wish to See Jesus!

5th Sunday in Lent (B): We Wish to See Jesus!

John 12:20-33

By: The Rev. Paul Carlson

Carved into the pulpit of one of the churches I used to preach at in my first call are the very same words that start off our Gospel for this Sunday: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” When I first read those words, which had been both crudely and permanently gouged into the wood with a pocket knife, I was stunned. In a simple, yet beautiful church, whose altar guild would spend hours making sure everything looked spotless for worship, I was not expecting to be confronted by such aggressive graffiti every time I stepped foot in the pulpit.

I say aggressive, because the way the message was practically slashed into the wood with a pocket knife tilted the words in a very threatening way for me. To this day I cannot help but imagine a congregation member sneaking into that pulpit on a dark night, when no one else was around, and delivering these words to their pastor with the pointy end of their blade.  That image has single handedly cut away all the softness or politeness in those words. Now when I hear them, I see a person holding the knife that carved them into that pulpit and hear not: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” but “Give me Jesus…  Or else.”

Granted, I have been mugged at knife point before and have more than likely confused my experiences with this one particularly traumatic and personal event in my own life. I suspect that no other pastor who has stepped foot in that pulpit before has experienced that message in such a threatening way as I have. But it certainly made an impact on me, and more than anything, made me view those words with the seriousness I believe they actually deserve.

Pastors get lost sometimes. We lose ourselves in stories, in clever wording, and in those wonderful ideas we sometimes get that we just can’t help but share with our congregations. And sometimes we just get plain lost, like everyone, in the struggles of everyday life.

We forget so many important things when we are lost. We forget that all this ministry we are a part of has very little to do with us. We forget that it is God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is truly responsible with the calling, gathering, and enlightening of God’s people.  And most of all we forget that it is Jesus, not us, who is given for the salvation of all.

Jesus. Not us.

That is why we gather to worship. That is who we gather to worship. Jesus. Not us. We wish to see Jesus. In the same way that it was for the Greeks at the festival who went to Philip, and for the knife-wielding congregation member, our request, desire, and need is serious.  We wish to see Jesus. Give us Jesus. Or else…

…Or else we’ll get lost.

Have we—the Church—become lost? That’s an important question, I think. Sometimes, I think the answer to it is rather obvious. Yes, we have.  Sometimes, I think that we the Church can get so overwhelmed by what, or rather who, people like Philip in the Gospel direct us to when we say we wish to see Jesus, that we get so frustrated—even angry—that we close our eyes. We close our eyes in the shock of who Jesus chooses to reveal himself through and we become lost.

At other times, impatience for God’s promise of the coming Kingdom causes us to be demoralized, especially when the call for justice and mercy in this world that knows nothing of the sort goes seemingly unanswered. We wish to see Jesus, but we know we won’t. At least, not like we want to. And when we know we are about to see something we don’t want to, we close our eyes and we become lost.

There was not a single one of Jesus’ disciples, friends, or family who wanted to see Jesus crucified. The disciple Peter even tried to fight back. When the temple guard came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and demanded, “Give me Jesus, or else!” Peter drew his own sword and immediately lost himself to violence. Yet that was where Jesus insisted he must go. With the guard and to the cross where the whole world would see him, with their own eyes, lifted up.

Then, when Jesus rose from the dead not a single person wanted to see him as he would first appear to them. Not outside the tomb behind locked doors or as a gardener or as a fellow traveler on the road to Emmaus. Yet again that was exactly how Jesus chose to reveal himself.

Sometimes even what we say we want isn’t really what we want. No one wants to see Jesus when they doubt him the most and publicly call him out in the midst of others who are claiming to have actually seen him (think Thomas.) This is why I truly believe that no matter how lost we might get; no matter how tightly we shut our eyes; whether we know it or not and whether we want it or not, Christ will always reveal himself in the way that is best for us.

Like the disciples before us, we too struggle with the way we see Jesus. We have our own particular ways we wish to see Jesus. Even knowing the story of Christ on the cross and hearing the good news we have through that cross, we struggle with following him there.  At the foot of the cross it is not a “might” or a “maybe.” When we come to the foot of the cross, we WILL see Jesus. And wherever Christ on the Cross is lifted up, the Spirit will draw our eyes open and we learn an exceedingly important message about life: That those who love it lose it, and those who lose it for Christ’s sake gain it eternally.



The Rev. Paul Carlson

The Reverend Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor, along with his wife The Reverend Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa, where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.


4th Sunday in Lent (B): The Slow Work

4th Sunday in Lent (B): The Slow Work

John 3:14 – 21

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

We all know John 3:16…or the gist of it. When I see that verse spray-painted on a rotting piece of wood nailed to a telephone pole that I’m speeding by, I admit feeling judgmental. My internal dialogue, shaped by privilege and a mainline theological education, goes something like this: “If only they would look at verse 17…” or “What good are they trying to accomplish by posting that?” I feel of mixture of superiority, pity and disgust…and then ashamed that I’m so judgmental! In order to reconnect with the Good News in this passage, I need to distance myself from the cultural context and root myself firmly in the text’s context.

This monologue from Jesus is part of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Nicodemus is someone maybe like me, someone who has a position in the religious hierarchy, who is relatively secure, who probably lives in a bubble and thinks he has it all figured out. But then he encounters Jesus. He was a likely onlooker as part of the Temple elite when Jesus made a whip and drove all the merchants out. He may have been among those who asked Jesus for a sign to justify his disruptive behavior.

But something about Jesus “hooks” him enough to make an under-cover visit to Jesus.  Maybe Jesus struck a chord with Nicodemus’ own doubts about how the temple was being run, or maybe Nicodemus just wants to cover all his spiritual bases: “What if this guy is really the Messiah…?” But Nicodemus doesn’t “get” Jesus right away. And, if I were a betting woman, I’d wager that most of us don’t either. So I read John 3:14 – 21 in the context of shedding some light on who Jesus is, what his purpose is, what his life and death “do” for humankind. Jesus is working with Nicodemus, planting some seeds that do germinate over the course of the Gospel (see 7:50 – 52) and blossom into embodied and tender devotion (see 19:39-42).

As I ponder preaching this text, I imagine that I will be preaching to a bunch of people who can relate to Nicodemus just as I can. Maybe they’ve had some encounter with Jesus, or with the Spirit, or with the Divine, that has shaken them up a little, made them wonder if there is “more” to life than meets the untrained eye, planted in them a seed that needs tending in order to blossom into self-sacrificial devotion. Three terms jump out for me, this year, as ones worthy of exploring from the pulpit: belief, eternal life, and judgment/condemnation (I pair these two because John uses one Greek word family, krine and krisis, that we’ve translated variously as judgement and condemnation in this text.)

Belief: If I had a nickel for every time a parishioner spoke with me about the difficulty of believing aspects of the Nicene Creed, I would have at least $2.00! Seriously, we get caught up on this word so easily because we restrict its meaning to the mind alone—cognitive assent to an objectively provable truth. Like many commentators before me, I think the word “trust” captures what Jesus is trying to explain better than “belief.” The concept of trust is big enough to acknowledge our cognitive ambivalence but say “yes” to Jesus anyway; it allows us to “lean in” to something far bigger than we can understand.

Eternal Life: Again, I quibble with how the Greek is translated. N.T. Wright suggests this is better translated as “life in God’s new age.” And it is truly Good News that God’s New Age overlaps with the “old age” of life-as-we-know it. The ages, or eons—which gets us closer to the Greek—overlap. Eternal life is not what happens when we “get to heaven;” rather, it begins for us in baptism and never ends. In God’s good time, the new age will completely eclipse life as we know it. The light (new age) is shining in the darkness (old age.) We might as well allow more and more of our lives to be lived in God’s good, truth-loving light.

Judgement/Condemnation: Condemnation connotes negative judgement. But the Greek text doesn’t have this negative connation; rather the root krine has to do with deciding or separating things. You might want to consider re-reading this text and inserting some variant of separating or distinguishing for condemnation in vv. 17 -18. For example, what if you translated verse 18: “Those who believe in him are not separated, but those who do are separated already because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God.” This translation opens up all kinds of sermon possibilities about how the ways we live either lead us toward God, toward truth, toward light, OR toward shame, toward darkness, toward isolation.

So back to Nicodemus. Jesus’ conversation with him was transformational. He goes from being a scared higher-up visiting Jesus at night to a higher-up who at least advocates for due-process when Jesus stirs up the crowds and threatens the hierarchy by offering his listeners the bread of life and living water, the basic building blocks of life in God’s New Age. And finally, Nicodemus is transformed into one of the brave souls who lovingly anoints Jesus’ dead body and places it reverently in a tomb. But the movement toward Nicodemus’ “belief,” toward his trust in Jesus took time. For preachers who proclaim the Good News in an increasingly skeptical age, reading John 3:14-21 in the text’s context of Nicodemus’ long conversion that happens throughout the book of John invites our trust in the often slow and steady work we’re called to do.


The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer began serving as the 22nd rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina in February 2016. Prior to that she was the Associate Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has degrees from Davidson College, Episcopal Divinity School, and the University of Edinburgh. As a priest, she loves crafting sermons, teaching all kinds of classes, and the challenge of faithful organizational development. Her husband, Brian Schaefer, practices law with a specialty in Elder Law. They have two young children, and therefore very limited time when it comes to hobbies!

3rd Sunday in Lent (B): Being Driven Out

3rd Sunday in Lent (B): Being Driven Out

John 2:13-22

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

I’ve always found it useful to enter into a new place wielding a whip that I fashioned upon arrival whilst tossing around furniture and condemning the locals—said no one, ever. If you’re in ministry somewhere—let’s use the Episcopal Church—and you’ve just met the wardens and the vestry, it’s probably not the healthiest idea to take them to a beloved spot within their known center of worship and subsequently rearrange the furniture with gusto. Or a whip.

But if you’re Jesus…

We don’t know Jesus that well at this point in the Gospel of John. As a matter of fact, we’ve only heard a little about the Word “in the beginning” (John 1:1), followed by John’s proclamation of unworthiness (John 1:26), a baptism (John 1:32), the recruiting of his friends—(John 35-50), and a wedding wherein water was turned into wine (John 2:1-12.) Our limited understanding of Jesus through John’s lens depicts a man who is a departure from everything we’ve known before and a man who, with his friends, can throw a pretty mean party.

But then the unthinkable happens. The so-far faithful followers trail Jesus as he enters the Temple right before Passover, and they see their new leader grab some cords, weave a weapon, and start harassing the important people in the room. In a moment, the entirety of their understanding is shifted from ‘We found the Messiah!’ to ‘Oh no, he didn’t…’

Of course, those of us lucky enough to know the rest of the story begin fist-pumping and urging Jesus on as he throws down in the Temple. We know that he’s the Messiah without any doubt—we’ve read about his ministry, death, and resurrection—so, we aren’t shocked by his actions; we encourage them.

I think an important ‘aha’ moment in my ministry occurred while reading this passage. I was fan-boying-up Jesus and rooting against the people who were defiling the Temple when all of the sudden, I wondered, “Wait a minute. Would Jesus throw tables around in my Parish Hall if he showed up on any given Sunday?” Surely not. Surely my parish and I are the heroes, right? We’re the ones who don’t utilize our holy spaces to make money or have non-spiritual conversations and meetings throughout the week, including some Sundays. After reading and re-reading this passage, can I accept that I’ve chosen to be blind to the complicity of my own actions which sometimes mirror those of the people who were driven out of the Temple by a raging Jesus.

John 2:13-22 offers us an opportunity to look at the way in which we conduct ourselves as Godly people. Do we really know Jesus? Have we just read the first few lines of each chapter and then glossed over the middle, to the end, where we rejoice in Christ’s triumphant resurrection? Can we see areas in which our present actions shadow those of generations past? The acts of driving out the people, the proclamation of the Temple’s destruction, and the promise of its rebuilding can still serve as not-so-gentle reminders that we still have work to do.

How do we and our congregations view Jesus in this passage, and can we cast ourselves as those sitting in the Temple in need of someone to get us moving around again? Are there ways in which to figuratively tear-down some of our current practices in order to make space for new and life-giving ministries? Do we have enough faith to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in this work, preaching a message of anti-complacency which could result in rebuilding?

An important moment in understanding always seems to come after admission of fault. Perhaps we are not the heroes of our modern-day Temples. Maybe we could stand to engage our people in a better knowledge of who Jesus was (and is) by virtue of being a little more Jesus-like in our preaching and teaching by driving out the accepted norms and making space for new ideas, rather than prematurely fist-pumping and thinking we’re always on the right side of things.

The difficult moment of stepping into the shoes of the driven-out simply means that we have the opportunity to become part of the rebuilding process. I know that if I were sitting in the congregation, I would want to be challenged a little bit more and comforted a little bit less during Lent. In a season of preparation and introspection, perhaps the best thing we can do for our communities is chase them out into the world with a challenge to change status quo, tear down established poor theologies, and bring people back with them to take part in the still-being-written work of Jesus Christ. Just maybe without the whips.


Sean ECOTR pic
The Rev. Sean Ekberg

The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.



Lent 2(B): Walking in My Neighbor’s Shoes

Lent 2(B): Walking in My Neighbor’s Shoes

Mark 8:31-38

By: The Rev. David Clifford

Mark 8:31-38, English Standard Version (ESV)

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

There are moments in life that are very brief, yet remain with us for a very long time—maybe even forever. As a parent, most of these moments in my own life revolve around my children. I have found memories of each of my three children trying on various versions of my shoes and attempting to walk around the house in them like daddy. I don’t know what it is about these particular memories, but they continue to bring me joy, and I pray they always do.

I consider myself a fairly empathic person. I am able to pick up on emotional cues fairly easily from the people around me. Sometimes, I understand these cues well and at other times I struggle to know what are my feelings and what are the feelings of the people around me. In many ways, it is as if I am wearing the various shoes of the people around me, attempting to walk around the room as they do.

In many regards this helps a great deal in my own personal ministry. I think I am able to understand the people around me (as much as is possible.) This helps me to minister with the various individuals that make up my congregation given all their differences of personalities, histories, opinions, and beliefs. The more I am involved in ministry leadership, the more I am learning the strength of my empathy.

However, I must constantly make sure I am “trying on” all of the respective shoes that may come through my congregation. I cannot allow myself to throw off a pair of shoes because they are uncomfortable or difficult to walk in. In fact, I would argue that the more uncomfortable the shoes are for me to walk in, the longer I should try and walk with them on. This allows a greater understanding of the other I may struggle to understand. The easier it is to be empathic, the less likely I probably need to use that particular skill in the relationship.

I say all of this with this week’s lectionary text in mind because I often find myself wearing Jesus’ shoes and aligning myself with Jesus when I read this particular scripture. However, it’s easier for me to walk in Jesus’ shoes (at least for this particular scripture) than it is for me to walk in Peter’s shoes. We have all experienced times when even our best friends seem to suggest or even lead us down paths in our lives that are the opposite of what God wants for us. This is Jesus’ experience. As he shares the difficult path ahead of him, Peter steps in to tell Jesus, “Surely, that’s not what God wants for you.”

The path of Christ is hard. Jesus tells us that in order to follow him, we must deny ourselves. We must take up our cross daily. Many of us believe that the difficulty and struggles of our lives are our cross. There are many times when both we and the people around us want our path to be easier. However, I don’t think this is exactly what Jesus is getting at.

Jesus knew the path God was leading for him. Jesus knew the suffering and pain that was to come. Jesus continually attempts to point this out to his followers and to Peter. Yet, Peter did not like this path. Jesus’ disciples and those following his ministry believe him to be the Messiah. I think for many of them this meant that Jesus would restore God’s people, freeing them from the rule of Rome. But this would not be the case. Jesus would die to Rome.

The Gospel Transformation Bible points out in its notes that in this section of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times (8:31, 9:31, 10:32-34.) Each of these three predictions is followed by instruction and teaching on the cost and nature of discipleship (8:34-37; 9:35-50; 10:35-44.)

In many ways Jesus is teaching us that to follow him as our Messiah means to give up and “die” to the vary ways in which we imagine the Messiah saving us. The more and more shoes I find myself wearing as I attempt to understand the various different people around me is teaching me a very valuable lesson: we must allow Jesus to be who Jesus is. We cannot expect Jesus to come to people only with our own biases and wearing our own shoes. I fully believe that Jesus loves each of us no matter what our shoes look like. And I praise God for that.

Yet, if we are honest, I believe most of us would be like Peter. We would want to stand up and fight for Jesus. In fact, many in the church do this today. Depending on our preconceived notion of Jesus, we want to fight those that have another notion of Jesus because our notion must be right! If you are at all like me, you may struggle to understand how in the world Jesus could love some of the people you come across each day.

But I believe in those very moments, we are standing firmly in Peter’s shoes. It is in those moments that we are asking Jesus to be a different kind of Messiah than he is. It is in those moments that we expect Jesus to come and destroy our enemies, because surely, they are the enemies of God. And, it is in those moments that Jesus rebukes us and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

This scripture reminds us that Jesus is a radically different kind of Messiah than we may imagine. This Messiah wears a different kind of shoes, to follow the metaphor. However, this is precisely the kind of Messiah we need. Jesus is a Messiah that loves and dies for each of us. A Messiah that is able to teach us with his own life, death, and resurrection what it truly means to live a life of discipleship. A life in which we die to self in order to recognize the Messiah for who He truly is. A life in which we take off on own shoes in order to wear the shoes of those around us—constantly pointing them to love of Christ.


The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas. David is a graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. David is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) He lives in Lubbock with his wife and three children, where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading.

1st Sunday in Lent (B): Taking the First Steps

1st Sunday in Lent (B): Taking the First Steps

Mark 1:9-15

By:  The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

“You’ve taken your first steps into a much larger world!”  -Obi Wan Kenobi

These are the words spoken by the wise old Jedi Obi Wan Kenobi to a young Luke Skywalker after the latter’s first Jedi training session in Star Wars (or, as time has forced us to call it, Episode IV or A New Hope). Luke, stretching out with his feelings and trusting his instincts, has just successfully used his lightsaber to ward off several shots from a droid while unable to see a thing. Obi Wan congratulates him. This is a huge moment for Luke, one that merits some sort of celebration. Yet there is no time for celebrating Luke’s accomplishment in this first Jedi training, instead he and Obi Wan must rescue Princess Leia, and later Luke must continue his training on his own after his mentor is defeated by Darth Vader (SPOILER ALERT!) This moment, though, is where it begins. These are Luke’s first steps.

Moments such as these are exciting and filled with so much promise. They are start of something new and exciting, yet also quite scary. We have such moments in the Church, of course. We call them baptism, confirmation, and ordination. These may seem like self-contained events, but they are merely the first steps into a much larger world. Our lectionary today places Jesus in the moments after one such event.

We are back at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, a place we found ourselves on January 7 when we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. On that day we ended the Gospel passage with those beautiful words from God, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Today we get the aftermath of that event.

What happens once Jesus is baptized? He doesn’t stop to celebrate or bask in his accomplishment. Like Luke, he is thrown into his call without warning, immediately driven out into the wilderness. That word, ‘immediately,’ is one of Mark’s favorite words. In Greek it’s eutheos, meaning straightway, forthwith, or instantly. Clearly, there is no time to bask in the glory of Jesus’ baptism. Instead, in his first moments of earthly ministry, he is whisked away into the wilderness, into an unknown and fearful world.

The story is told of a seminary student who was doing her clinical pastoral education, which is the piece of every clergy person’s education that requires one to serve as a chaplain for at least a summer. This student chose to do her work in prison ministry. She arrived on her first day, received her badge and a quick rundown of the layout of her facility, was introduced to her supervisor and fellow chaplains, and was then immediately told, ‘OK, go do ministry!’ No warm-up or week of orientation; no, just dropped into the middle of the wilderness.

Jesus, likewise, is dropped into the wilderness.  Here he is faced with all sorts of temptations; all sorts of evils. The text says he is tempted by Satan, which is simply a Hebrew word for ‘adversary,’ and that he is out there for 40 days, again a Hebrew expression for a long period of time, not necessarily to be taken literally. Still, what a dreadful situation! Here is Jesus, right after this great, joyful, momentous occasion, with no prior ministerial experience that we know of, having to go into a frightening circumstance that, I suspect, none of us would willingly enter into ourselves. How does he do it?

He does it because the Spirit is the one that drives him to it. The very same Spirit that descended upon him as he came out of the water, the very Spirit that spoke the voice of God and called him beloved, is the Spirit that sends him into the wilderness.

Brothers and sisters, in the same way, our baptisms, confirmations, and ordinations, while joyful, celebratory occasions, were not the end, but the beginning. In the same way, the same Spirit that descended upon us at our baptisms, or at our confirmations or ordinations—the Spirit that has sealed us and marked us as Christ’s own forever—has sent us out into a world that is, quite honestly, very, very frightening. We, like Jesus, have taken our first steps into this larger, frightening world, and God has told us the same thing that that prison chaplain was told: ‘OK, go do ministry!’ I don’t know about you, but when I think about that, when I REALLY think about that, it seems too big, too much. How? How can I, how can we, possibly do this?

I suspect Jesus thought the same thing out there in the wilderness. Yet the Scripture tells us that the angels waited on him, or as Greek scholar Preston Epps translates it, they “ministered” to him. What a beautiful image! The angels surrounded Jesus, lifting him up and supporting him. The Good News here is that he was not alone.  Jesus did not embark on his earthly ministry totally on his own, and neither do we.

God’s angels—those messengers who help bring us the Good News—are all around us. If our eyes are opened we will see them, those who minister to us so that we may minister to others. Our priests, families, spiritual directors, therapists, teachers, coaches, and so many others are there to support us as those angels supported Jesus. Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ may seem like a monumental task; to be sure, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, preaching love to those who have never heard such a thing, and spreading the word that the Kingdom of God has come near are by no means easy endeavors. Nevertheless, we are reminded this day that such holy work is never done alone. After his death, Obi Wan continued to guide Luke, and he and his friends Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2D2 and others, managed to defeat the evil Galactic Empire. At no point, though, did they do it alone. In the same way, we are never alone once we take those first steps.

This season of Lent is a time to prayerfully remind ourselves of the call that God has issued to each of us, a call that we will reaffirm with the neophytes—the newly baptized—at that Great Vigil of Easter. The Spirit has blessed each of you and called you beloved in your baptisms, your confirmations, and your ordinations, and the Spirit is driving you out into the wilderness of this world to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near. It may seem daunting, but we have one another to minister to us and with us. We will face whatever comes; after all, these are merely our first steps.


The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (, where he wishes and works for a world transformed.

Good Friday: Give Us Barabbas!

Good Friday: Give Us Barabbas!

John 18:1-19:42

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

I’ve often wondered how it is that we get from Palm Sunday to Good Friday so quickly. How is it that we can shout “Hosanna!” one day and “Crucify!” the next? How can we want for Jesus to save us on Palm Sunday, and then revel in Jesus’ torture and demand his execution on Good Friday? One day, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord;” the next day, “give us Barabbas!”

Is it our tendency for capriciousness? Perhaps. Could it be our desire for immediate satisfaction? Maybe. Might it be our desperation for certainty? Possibly. We might like to think that we would have reacted differently if we had been there. After all, we enjoy the benefit of having fast-forwarded a bit. In my parish, as well as in many others, the faithful will gather tomorrow evening at nightfall, kindle a new fire, and mark Christ’s passing over from death to life with shouts of, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

Where they were unsure about just who Jesus was, we know. Where they were under threat from the Empire, we enjoy the First Amendment. Where they were in the moment, we’ve read the story through to its end.

And yet…

…And yet…

…When everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, the voices of our better angels are drowned out.

“There is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness,” writes Wendell Berry. “This sort of violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.”[1]

The truth is that although we are sure that it is Jesus we want, each and every one of us still clings to Barabbas. For as much as we might like the idea of Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom of God, we’ve all gotten pretty used to Barabbas and the mechanisms of the Kingdom of this world.

We believe in Jesus, yes, but how much do we really believe in the ideas for which he gave his life? “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” but this is reality, so I’m going to “Do unto others before they get a chance to do unto me.” We teach our children to tell the truth, but how often do we rebuff or dismiss others when they speak their truth because it does not fit with our own? Justice sounds nice, but the moment we say, “I’m gonna get mine,” justice vanishes and is replaced with vengeance and retribution.

If Holy Week and Good Friday remind us of nothing else, they remind us that when it comes right down to it, we’re not quite prepared to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We might be fascinated enough with Jesus to steal a knife and cut the ropes that tied him to the cross, but we will follow him only from a safe distance, so as to avoid sharing his fate.[2]

This is the great irony of Good Friday: the longer we convince ourselves that if only we had been at the foot of the cross instead of Jesus’ cowardly and fickle friends, his fate would somehow have been different, the louder our shouts demanding Barabbas and condemning Jesus become.

In his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the 19th century philosopher and critic of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche, makes a startling observation. It was not the wicked who put Jesus to death; rather, Nietzsche argues, crucifixion was a deed of the “good and just.” “’The good and just’” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was “imprisoned in their good conscience” and they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good. The “good and just” have to crucify the one who devises an alternative virtue because they already possess the knowledge of the good.”[3]

The crucifixion of our Lord was not the work of some foreign terrorist’s wicked plot. It was the result of good people like you and me who could not abide having our notions of justice and fairness and truth questioned. After all, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us in The Gulag Archipelago, “To do evil a human must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”[4]

In the crucifixion of our Lord, we encounter the crucifixion of our certainty. We encounter the crucifixion of our fickle and capricious notions of justice and fairness and truth. As the body of our Lord lay broken, we come face-to-face with our sinfulness—our treachery—and we are shattered.

“Give us instant gratification! Give us vengeance! Give us comfort!”

“Give us Barabbas!

And so they did.


The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.


[1] Wendell Berry, “Caught in the Middle” in Our Only World, p. 94.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation p. 276.

[3] Ibid, p. 61. Volf is following Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[4] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1971.

Maundy Thursday: Servant Leadership

Maundy Thursday: Servant Leadership

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

In the late 1960s, there was a senior executive at AT&T named Robert Greenleaf, who was increasingly dissatisfied with the conventional, authoritarian models of leadership that were so pervasive among corporations and institutions in the United States. So he spent the next several years researching different management styles and organizational structures, and he discovered that in fact, most top-down control-oriented systems don’t actually work very well. Attempts to compel compliance by those in power only elicited frustration and resistance from employees, and procedures and guidelines that were intended to streamline efficiency instead ended up preventing the natural flow of collaboration and creativity that leads to high-quality productivity.

In a groundbreaking essay, Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” as a way of describing what he found to be the most effective form of leadership, which seemed paradoxically to come not from a desire to lead, but from a desire to serve. The most successful leaders were the ones who put serving others first—including employees, customers, colleagues, and the larger community. This quality of leadership instills trust and calls forth the best in people, allowing creativity and freedom to flourish in an environment of relational awareness, empathy, and authenticity.

In 1977, Greenleaf wrote an influential book entitled Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, in which he optimistically observed that:

A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving of one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.

In today’s Gospel reading we see that this is not really a “new moral principle” at all. It is, in fact, a very old principle. And it’s a principle that lies at the very heart of Christianity.

The image of Jesus kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet during his last dinner with them is perhaps one of the most memorable and iconic examples of this principle of servant leadership. But of course the entirety of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching was meant to point the disciples towards that same foundational truth: that true power lies not in coercion or control, or achievement and success, but in kenosis – “self-emptying.” This is the word Paul uses in his letter to the Philippians when he implores them to “have the same attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself (εκενωσεν), taking the form of a servant.” (2:5-7)

I would argue that this “servant leadership” that Jesus embodies and calls forth in us is perhaps the most important, and yet the least understood and appreciated aspect of his entire ministry. The theology of a God who “empties himself” has been explicated and debated at length for centuries. But we have focused so much of our attention on questions about Jesus, trying to nail down the particulars of his divine constitution, that we have managed to conveniently avoid the whole matter of how we might go about practicing kenosis in our own lives. Thus, “servant leadership” as a lived moral principle has become so rare in our church institutions, and so against the grain of our so-called “Christian” culture, that when it is re-discovered by Greenleaf in the secular context of organizational management theory, it is thought to be a wholly new idea.

But as the late Episcopal bishop Bennett J. Sims observed after stumbling across Greenleaf’s work, we don’t believe that this paradox of servant leadership is true simply because Jesus taught it. Rather, we believe that Jesus taught it because it is true. If we truly understand Jesus to be the self-disclosure of God to humanity, then we should not be surprised to find those patterns and teachings that he revealed to us woven into the fabric of our everyday lives in the way things actually work.

This path of kenosis and servanthood is the key to understanding the true God of Christianity, who contrary to popular conception is not a remote, white-bearded, iron-fisted man who sits upon a throne in the clouds. That’s Zeus, the God of the Greeks. The Christian God is an active, self-emptying Love who chose to be born into human poverty and suffering, and who welcomed death in a humiliating scene of torture and despair in order to reveal to us a different kind of power, and a deeper kind of hope than anyone had ever dared to imagine. This is not a God who raises up the powers that be in this world; but rather, this is a God who casts the mighty down from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly. This is not a God who wants us to measure our success in terms of what we have gained, but measures in terms of what we have given away.

Of course, it’s incredibly difficult to live into such a radically countercultural paradigm, and if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we do not live this path of kenosis most of the time. Even many sincerely devoted Christians will spend much of their time asleep, caught up in an unconscious acquiescence to the dominant value system, which would have us define our value and the value of others in terms of what power, prestige, and possessions we have acquired.

This is why I love Peter. We call Peter the “rock” of the church. Roman Catholics recognize him as the first pope. In the Gospels he is usually listed as first among the disciples, and he often acts as a spokesperson for the twelve. And yet over and over again, Peter is depicted as the one who most flagrantly and unabashedly doesn’t get it. He strongly believed Jesus to be the “Messiah,” who would usher in the “Kingdom of God.” But it’s clear that throughout the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry, he had no idea what that actually meant.

This scene at the last supper is particularly comical. When Jesus approaches Peter to wash his feet, he is horrified. “You will never wash my feet!” he yells. It is reminiscent of that moment in Matthew 16:22, when Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to be killed, and Peter pulls him aside to yell at him saying, “No! That shall never happen to you!”

Peter, like most of us, cannot fully fathom the concept of a self-emptying Messiah – a true “servant leader.” All of Peter’s notions of power and success—everything he thinks he knows about what it means to be a “king”—are based on those same conventional top-down models of leadership that most of our human institutions (even the “democratic” ones!) still organize themselves around today. Peter, like many of us, does not have the “eyes to see” what Jesus is really up to, or the “ears to hear” what he is plainly saying. Even when Jesus insists that he must wash Peter’s feet in order for him to have a share in the kingdom, Peter hears this not as a demonstration of what real power looks like, but as an observation of how dirty he is. He exclaims eagerly, “then not just my feet but my hands and face too!” desperately hoping to be made clean enough to be worthy of entry into the Kingdom. You can almost hear the facepalm of Jesus as he reminds Peter that people who have already taken baths don’t require any additional cleansing.

This is what it looks like when we try to put new wine into old wineskins. So often we hear only what we expect or want to hear, interpreting words from within the context of what we think we know. Usually it takes something pretty major to burst those old containers. For Peter, it was the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Only in the context of a hope that was deep enough to embrace life beyond death did the pieces of the puzzle start to really fit together, and Peter was finally able to make that paradigm shift which enabled him to live out his own path of kenosis faithfully and courageously.

On this eve of crucifixion, perhaps many of us would like to skip Good Friday. Perhaps like Peter, we still want to believe on some level in a salvation that would let us somehow avoid that whole dying-to-self thing. And yet, this is the pattern that has been woven into the cosmos. This is the practice that enables a different kind of power to emerge. This is the unexpected entry point into new and abundant life: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”


Kristen Leigh Southworth

Kristen Leigh Mitchell is Assistant Director of The Servant Leadership School at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is also a freelance writer, theologian, consultant, and indie folk singer-songwriter with an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she focused her studies in music and art, theology of culture, Biblical interpretation, early church history, and ecumenical worship.




Palm Sunday (A): What is Palm Sunday?

What is Palm Sunday?

Matthew 26:14-27:66

By Mashaun D. Simon

For the longest time, Palm Sunday was simply the Sunday before Easter for me. Yes, there were rituals we performed at church before and during that Sunday’s worship service. And yes, those rituals included acquiring and laying palms throughout the sanctuary.

Over time, I became more and more aware of the reasons we were doing what we were doing: the palms, their significance, and what they represented. But I cannot say with confidence what the moment meant for the church, and what the significance was of the palms.

I came to understand that we were doing it because Palm Sunday represented the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem, complete with the celebrations surrounding this moment. But I did not fully understand why it was such a big deal and why there seemed to be the need to mark this moment in the calendar year.

Today, I possess this conclusion in my mind that Palm Sunday is, in many ways, about preparation and it is through this idea of preparation that I engage this year’s gospel text for Palm Sunday, which can be found in the 14th chapter of Matthew.

The themes of preparation are prevalent throughout. Here in the story we have Judas receiving currency for his betrayal, the disciples making preparation for the Passover meal, Jesus’ declaration that he will be betrayed, Jesus’ declaration that he will be denied thrice, and Jesus’ grieving and agitation.

Each of these scenarios have, in one way or another, some level of connection to preparation. Judas’ actions are the prequel to Jesus’ persecution—and we are being prepared for the full weight of it. The disciples seeking a place for the Passover meal is preparation for a moment of fellowship and covenant. Jesus’ two declarations—one of betrayal and the other of denial—provide preparation for lessons as well as bracing for what is to come. And Jesus going away to grieve ahead of the ultimate sacrifice is a signal of the realities of doubt and fear.

Throughout the story, we are being prepared for what’s next and being given a glimpse into the realities of human nature. I can’t help but see this theme of preparation throughout these verses and wonder what the overall takeaway should be at this time in this season as we await Easter.

Preparation is defined as the act of making ready or being made ready. We live in a society rooted in preparation.

Whether in school or on a job, we are all working towards a level of readiness. Being or feeling prepared is human nature. When we aren’t ready for what’s coming, we are often uncomfortable, uneasy, stressed even.

But what does being prepared mean for us in this text? What does being prepared mean for us in the seasons of Lent and Easter? Why must we prepare? And what are we preparing for? What are the benefits of being prepared?

I have friends who call me a control freak. They are convinced that I spend entirely too much energy on knowing what is coming or what is next and they consider that to be a form of needing or wanting to be in control. But for the most part, what they miss is that it is not always about being in control; rather, it is about being at my best.

Maybe that is what the theme of preparation is about in this text: Jesus being at his best and wanting the disciples to be at their best.

Jesus knew what was coming and wanted the disciples to be as prepared as possible for what they would need to do next. Here Jesus was about to make the ultimate sacrifice, and he wanted to give them time to understand not only what was happening, but an opportunity to be at their best once it happened.

Granted we are supposed to have an idea of how things panned out after Jesus’ persecution, and Jesus knew how things would work out, but his disciples didn’t. And so, Jesus wanted to prepare them for what was to come, and for the part that they would be made to play.

But more than a biopic of the life of the disciples during Jesus’ last days, Palm Sunday reminds us that we all have a part to play. God has a plan for us, yes, but that does not mean that we are to sit idly by, come what may. We are being called to do our part.

Maybe, just maybe, this is what we are supposed to take from this day, this theme, and this season.

This season, think about what is before you. Think about what you are anticipating. Think about your call, and the ways you have committed (or not committed) to answer it, bracing yourself for what is to come.

Pay attention to the signs being provided; ready yourself for what is to come. Be mindful that regardless of what is coming, God is with you, equipping you for what is on the other side.

And then give God the praise for what God has done, is doing, and will do in the lives of God’s people.

Mashaun D. Simon

Mashaun D. Simon is a preacher, a teacher, a writer and a scholar in his native, Atlanta, Georgia. He holds a Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology with a triple focus in preaching, faith and formation, and race and religion, and double certificates in Black Church Studies and religious education. He contributes his thoughts and perspectives to online and print mediums, and serves at House of Mercy Everlasting (HOME) church in College Park, Georgia. Much of his research focuses on race, sexuality, identity and faith.