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Advent 2021- Week Four Study Guide and Children’s Sermon

Advent Week 4

“Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?'”

-Luke 1:41b-43

This Advent reflection is part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2021 Advent Study and ELCA World Hunger’s weekly Sermon Starter emails. You can download the full study here. You can also download the corresponding advent calendar here. You can sign up for the weekly Sermon Starter emails here on the right side of the page if on a computer or near the bottom of the page if viewing from a phone.

Reflect

We are nearing the end of Advent and the start of that special holiday, Christmas. In the United States, stores have been filled with seasonal music for six months now (it feels that way, at least), garlands and lights are draped over homes and lampposts, and pine trees are adorned with baubles of all shapes and sizes. In many countries, Christmas markets have taken over city squares. As the old carol says, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

Doesn’t the season, at times, feel almost too big, perhaps even overwhelming? Shopping for Christmas is such a big affair that, at least in the United States, it has come to dominate stores earlier and to fill social media feeds and websites with ads earlier and more visibly, refusing to be confined to the last weeks of the year or even to the month between late November and Dec. 25. In the life of the church, we often hear voices reclaiming Advent as a season distinct and separate from Christmas. Yet, the liturgical calendar aside, the bigness of Christmas often overshadows the important time of Advent.

Christmas is a big deal, and rightfully so. On Christmas Day, we celebrate the birth of the Christ, who will transform the world. Everything changes on that Christmas morning. The Gospel reading for this final Sunday of Advent tells us that even John the Baptist, though still in the womb, “leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44) when the pregnant Mary drew near.

Clearly, something huge is happening. But the story in Luke is a little curious, given what we know now about the importance

of that first Christmas. Sure, there are angels, but in the Gospel story, they appear in quiet moments of solitude –  to Zechariah as he attends to the incense in the temple, to Mary at home and to a small group of shepherds. There are no magi in Luke’s Gospel, either. Instead, there are Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth and, later on, Simeon and Anna – by all accounts, relatively unremarkable people. Yet Luke’s story begins here: with Zechariah at work, in a

private conversation between cousins Mary and Elizabeth, and in a manger.

Amid the ordinariness of daily life, work and conversation, great miracles are afoot. And in a manger in a stable, the Savior of the world lies wrapped in bits of cloth. Later, there will be talk of kings and rulers, high priests and other important figures, but for now, in these opening chapters of Luke, the sacred breaks in among the ordinary and, as Mary sings, among “the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Even Elizabeth is surprised. “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” she asks.

Luke powerfully reminds us what it means to work for a just world where all are fed. This is hard work. It takes time, energy and prayerful patience. It can be frustrating work too. Watching the number of hungry people around the world climb again after decades of work to reduce it is discouraging. Hearing political leaders speak blithely about cutting funds for much­

needed programs can be infuriating. Along the way, we hope and yearn for that promised day when “[we] will hunger no more” (Revelation 7:16), when our cupboards will be full, when we won’t have to visit the food pantry every week or stretch insufficient public assistance to the end of the month.

We yearn, we long, we wait …

Isn’t that the meaning of Advent? Advent is a time of longing and anticipating the coming of Christ. Perhaps that is why Christmas can feel so huge next to Advent. We’re tired of waiting, and the problems we face are so large – hunger, poverty, injustice, inequity

– that we need the bigness of Christmas. Monumental problems require monumental solutions.

The Gospel story for this week, though, reminds us that Advent is about learning to look for signs of God at work even as we await the fulfillment of God’s promise to us. In her pregnancy, Mary, with

the help of an angelic messenger, sees the “great things” God has done for her and for the people. Elizabeth, too, sees in her pregnant cousin “a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord”

(Luke 1:45). Later, Simeon and Anna will recognize the seemingly ordinary couple entering the temple as an extraordinary sign of God’s presence.

The Advent story teaches us not just about learning to be patient but learning how to wait. It reminds us to look for the miraculous in the mundane, for the ever-present work of God in the everyday.

That’s an important lesson as we and our neighbors face intractable, even overwhelming challenges. We may long for the “big things” that make a difference, but as we saw during the C0VID-19 pandemic, God was at work in countless local ways – at food pantries that met increased needs, in schools that reached out to families needing support, at clinics and hospitals, and through rental assistance programs.

In Belgrade, Serbia, 15-year-old Leyla, whose family fled Iran as asylum-seekers, was one of millions of students around the

world impacted by the pandemic. The transition to online learning meant she and her peers faced additional obstacles to taking the final exams that would allow them to continue their education.

With support from ELCA World Hunger, the (APC) in Belgrade worked with the school to make sure Leyla and other students had the support they needed to take their exams and keep working toward their goals. Leyla did well on the exams, far better than she expected, given the language barrier and the significant gaps in her education as she and her family settled into a new land. With support from APC and the school, Leyla went from dreading the exams to celebrating her results and anticipating the next step in her education.

Through the ministry of ELCA World Hunger, we accompany neighbors such as Leyla in Serbia, Carlos in North Carolina, Hala in Egypt and Charity in South Sudan. A student in a new city, worried about her exams; a family in a small town, worried about paying their bills; a mother, working hard to pay rent; a woman in labor, walking into a clinic. In Advent, we are reminded that this accompaniment of our neighbors is, in the end, about the

active anticipation that seeks and finds God at work, transforming ordinary situations into extraordinary signs of the coming fullness

of God’s reign, when all will be fed, when “justice [will] roll down like waters,” when “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eye” (Revelation 7:17), and when “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety” (Jeremiah 33:16).

That is the promise of Advent and the joy of Christmas, that in ways both big and small, in the local and the global, amid huge crowds and with a single neighbor, God is at work, weaving “the promise [God] made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:55). Ending hunger doesn’t always mean seeking miracles

of impressive scale. The gospel message invites us to see the miraculous ways God is already at work among our neighbors when we come together to work for a just world where all are fed.

Ask

  1. Where have you seen God at work through ordinary events or people?
  2. In what ways might neighbors see God working through you and your congregation?
  3. Why do you think the church is called to accompany neighbors such as Charity, Hala, Carlos and Leyla?
  4. What does it mean to find God at work with and among our neighbors?

Pray

Loving God, even when the challenges we face seem too great to handle, you remind us that we are never alone. Inspire us to seek your presence within each other and within the work of your church. Guide us, that we may be open to seeing the miraculous within the everyday, that we may recognize your image in our neighbors, your work through their hands and our own. Inflame us with a holy yearning for a just world where all are fed, that we may participate in the promise you are fulfilling in our midst. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.

Children’s Sermon

By Pr. Tim Brown for ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters

Riffing off the Micah text for today and the literal meaning of the name Bethlehem, surprise youth with a lesson on the sacraments.

Have a large manger of some sort, perhaps from your Christmas decorations, and have it empty except for a loaf of bread (maybe even the loaf that you use for communion) wrapped in a corporal or similar cloth. If it is not safe in this pandemic to share from one large loaf, have pieces of the loaf individually wrapped along with the larger loaf to use for the sacrament, and place them all in the manger.

“Hi all!  I’m so glad you’re here today.” Have the manger and bread hidden somewhere in the church. “In our first reading for today a town was mentioned, a town some of you may have heard of before. Does anyone remember what town?”

Allow time to field responses.

“Yes! Bethlehem. What special happens in Bethlehem?” Invite the youth to answer “Exactly. In Matthew and Luke we’re told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Want to hear something cool?  The name “Bethlehem,” it means something in Hebrew.  Does anyone happen to know what it means?  Probably not. It means ‘House of Bread.’ So that means Jesus was born in the ‘House of Bread.’  Which is also kind of cool, because Jesus will call himself the ‘Bread of Life.’”

Pretend to think for a minute

“You know what?  You know how people always put a baby in the manger in their Christmas decorations?  Well, I think maybe we should put something different in there.  In fact, I hid a manger in the sanctuary today.  Did anyone see it? Do you know where it is?”

Allow time for them to answer. Go over to it and have one of the youth pull out the bread.

“Jesus, the Bread of Life, born in the House of Bread, invites us every Sunday to share in God’s amazing communion feast of bread and wine, special ways that God blesses us.  I think maybe instead of a baby doll we should start putting the communion bread in the manger.  What do you think?”

Allow the youth to answer, most will probably say no.

“Well, even if we don’t do that every Sunday, we’ve done it today to remind ourselves that God in Christ is the Bread of Life giving us the gift of communion, and the gift of community, so that we can live together in love.  I have a surprise for you. Come closer. <whisper> Those people out there?  They need reminding that Jesus is God’s surprise gift for us at Christmas. Can you remind them? Go up to someone and say, ‘Jesus is God’s gift to us,’ and I’ll remind them again right before communion where we’ll use pieces of this bread. Ready? Go!”

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Advent 2021- Week Three Study Guide and Children’s Sermon

 

Advent week 3

“In reply [John the Baptist] said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.'”

-Luke 3:11

This Advent reflection is part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2021 Advent Study and ELCA World Hunger’s weekly Sermon Starter emails. You can download the full study here. You can also download the corresponding advent calendar here. You can sign up for the weekly Sermon Starter emails here on the right side of the page if on a computer or near the bottom of the page if viewing from a phone.

Reflect

In December 2019, then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would have increased restrictions on eligibility and caused the loss of benefits for many Americans. In doing so, he told reporters that the changes would help move “more able-bodied recipients off of SNAP benefits toward self­

sufficiency.” His argument, like so many arguments against SNAP and other public assistance programs, was that these programs make people dependent rather than self-sufficient.

There’s nothing new in this (though one might wonder how “sufficient” the average SNAP award of $121 per month was at the time). For decades, self-sufficiency has been celebrated as the ideal marker of success. In 2019, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, famously altered the words of Emma Lazarus enshrined on the Statue of Liberty when he defended new restrictive immigration policies: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he opined. His message was clear: self-sufficiency is not just an ideal but a prerequisite for being part of American society.

By contrast, our faith is rooted in the idea that we are not self­ sufficient but dependent and interdependent. Advent is the story of a dependent people being saved by God for the very reason that we could not save ourselves. We were and have always been dependent. From the first humans in Eden, relying on the gifts of the Creator, to our ancestors, wandering in the wilderness totally dependent on the protection and provision of God, Scripture is the story of God with us – because we can’t do it alone.

In the Gospel reading for the third Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist chastises the crowd, calling them a “brood of vipers” and comparing them to chaff – the waste from processing wheat – that would be left on the threshing floor. When they ask what they ought to do, John’s response is intriguing. He doesn’t advise them to pray harder or attend synagogue more frequently. Rather, he urges them to restore their relationships with one another. In short: share and be fair. Share with one another (Luke 3:11) and be fair in your business dealings (Luke 3:13-14). John’s response is to recognize and respect our dependence on one another. When we are in need, we depend on the generosity of others. And in daily life, our well­ being depends on trusting others to act justly.

The early church took this to heart. In the book of Acts, we learn that the first Christian communities “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). This kind of sharing distinguished Christian communities for centuries afterward.

For early Christians, dependence on one another went beyond just being nice. It was deeply rooted in the common understanding of property, human nature and God. Charles Avila, in his masterful book Ownership: Early Christian Teaching, describes how, for the early writer Clement of Alexandria, the purpose of property was twofold: autarkeia, or the ability to care for ourselves, and koinonia, the obligation to care for others in the community. Ultimately, Clement says, we are created for koinonia, for community.

Autarkeia, the “self-sufficiency” provided by property, finds its truest meaning in the freedom it provides us to care for each other. No one can live, let alone thrive, without help from others.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us of this interconnectedness. Even as we kept physical distance, the deep needs that stemmed from the pandemic couldn’t be ignored. Hunger around the world increased dramatically. In the United States, food insecurity and economic insecurity led to massive spikes in the numbers of people using food pantries and other community assistance resources.

Ellie Puente saw this firsthand in her community in Fuquay­ Varina, N.C. When the pandemic hit, she worried about her son’s friend, Carlos, and his family. She knew Carlos’ family had trouble

making ends meet, and the pandemic only made the situation more challenging. Ellie met with a friend and a few teachers from the school where she volunteers. Together, they identified 20 families, including Carlos’, that were in need. They rounded up donations and started making daily deliveries of lunches and other food supplies to their neighbors. Every time they thought they would run out of money to pay for food, local supporters stepped in.

Abiding Presence Lutheran Church became a partner in the school’s program and provided food for the families with the help of a Daily Bread Matching Grant from ELCA World Hunger.

Their relationship with the families has been crucial during the pandemic. “Our food delivery program has been instrumental in meeting a physical need by providing food to our families,” says Ellie. “More importantly, our food delivery program has helped us create a deeper connection with families……………… [The] families know we

love them, and they know they belong.”

The sharing that John the Baptist called his early followers to practice, and that Ellie, Abiding Presence and the school practiced, is about more than the things we distribute. It’s about who we are created and called to be. As this Advent season reminds us, God promises not that we will be fine on our own but that we will be made whole in reconciled and transformed relationships with God and one another. From the joy of Zechariah in the second week

of Advent to the proclamations of John the Baptist this week, the message of Christ’s coming is that we can’t do it on our own – nor do we have to.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the ways we depend on one another and showed us just how effective we can be when we recognize that interdependence and respond to it in love.

Ask

  1. How are the terms “self-sufficiency” and “interdependence” related? How are they different?
  2. In your own life, how has the support, care or presence of others helped you? Thinking about it another way: in the story of your life, who else might play an important part?
  3. How might the work of Ellie’s school and Abiding Presence Lutheran Church have helped the families “know they belong”? How is your congregation helping your neighbors feel welcomed and supported in your community?
  4. In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic reminded you of our dependence on God and one another?

Pray

Gracious God, you have brought your people together into one community, reconciling us in Christ one to the other. Forgive us for the times when we have isolated ourselves or others, and inspire us with the love that binds us together. When we feel alone, remind us that we are loved. When we are estranged, remind us of your love for others. Bless us with the memory of our dependence on you and each other this Advent, that we may be part of the community you have created in our midst. In your name, we pray. Amen.

Children’s Sermon

By Pr. Tim Brown for ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters

In response to this coaxing work that God in Christ does upon us, follow the suggestion that ELCA World Hunger’s Advent Action Guide suggests on page 6 and debut one of the posters that gives testimony to what your gifts to ELCA World Hunger does in the world. 

Pre-order one of the posters ELCA World Hunger provides, and have it on hand, rolled up behind your back.

“Hi all!  I’m so glad you’re here today.” Hold the poster out of sight. “Today we are introduced to someone very wild, very interesting, does anyone know who it is?”

Allow time to field responses.

“Yes! John the Baptizer. He was loud and proud and was baptizing people in the River Jordan. Come here, let me show you something…” Invite the youth to the baptismal font, keeping the poster behind your back. “John the Baptizer was baptizing people, just like we do right here at this font. He was baptizing them into a new way of life, reminding them that God loved them and invited them to live like they are loved.”

“And you know what loved people do?  They love other people!  Loved people love people.  How do you show your love to someone?”

Allow time for them to answer.

“Right, they do all those things.  Want to know one of the ways our congregation, all together, loves people?  We give part of our offering to ELCA World Hunger <unveil poster> and we help feed others around the world, or help them get jobs, or help them afford homes.  Being baptized reminds us that we’re loved by God, and loved people love people, and so we love people all around the world through giving support to ELCA World Hunger. I’m going to hang this poster out there <point to the narthex> so that we can remember how loved people love people the rest of the month, but I want to tell you a surprise. Ready?  Come close”

<whispered> “You are all loved, and loved people love people. And those people out there?  They need to remember that they are loved. Dip one finger in the font, and go up to them and draw a cross on their forehead, saying, ‘Loved people love people.’ Can you do that?  Ready? Go!”

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Advent 2021- Week Two Study Guide and Children’s Sermon

Advent Week 2

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.”

-Luke 1:78

This advent reflection is part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2021 Advent Study and ELCA World Hunger’s weekly Sermon Starter emails. You can download the full study here. You can also download the corresponding advent calendar here. You can sign up for the weekly Sermon Starter emails here on the right side of the page if on a computer or near the bottom of the page if viewing from a phone.

Reflect

Zechariah’s prophecy in the first chapter of Luke, our reading for this second Sunday in Advent, is sometimes overlooked in favor of the  Magnificat of  Mary in the same chapter. Mary’s song, which we will read later in Advent, is a theological ode to God, who “lift[s] up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Zechariah’s prophecy, however, is a cry of joy for the God who fulfills God’s promise. Both Mary and Zechariah have longed with their people for this moment, have yearned for

the fulfillment of the promise that we heard on the first Sunday of Advent, when “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety” (Jeremiah 33:16). Now, as Zechariah proclaims, “the dawn from on high [has broken] upon us” (Luke 1:78).

What does it mean for this new day to “dawn”? All too often, the church has tended to conflate metaphors of light and darkness with good and evil. The darkness of night is tied to fear, uncertainty and even despair, whereas the brightness of day symbolizes hope, joy and, in some cases, wisdom. But Zechariah’s proclamation of the coming dawn reveals more than the difference between light and darkness . Indeed, in much of Scripture the dawning of the day of

the Lord is far from a happy occasion. The prophets Micah and Joel both refer to it as “terrible,” and Amos chastises the people who long for it to arrive.

In the Bible and in life, metaphors of light and darkness are more complex than we sometimes assume. In life, the darkness of night can bring risk and uncertainty, as we heard in Charity’s story in the first session of this Advent study. Yet night can also be a time of rest, a symbol for the end of our labors. For the people of the Bible, living in hot, arid climes, the sun was necessary for growing food but its setting would bring a cool, restorative break.

For many of our neighbors who face housing insecurity, night and day each carry their own risks. As the sky dims, the need to find safe, suitable shelter intensifies. As the day dawns, the threat of eviction or displacement looms.

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo, Egypt, a ministry supported by ELCA World Hunger, accompanies vulnerable neighbors through these risks. The community­ based organizations supported by StARS are key partners in this work. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced many governmental agencies to close down or scale back their support of refugees

in Cairo, these community-based organizations remained open, providing critical support.

Hala, a 37-year-old Sudanese mother, was one of these neighbors. Her husband passed away during the first wave of COVID-19 in Egypt, leaving Hala to care for their four children. Forced to support them on her own amid the widespread economic uncertainty of the pandemic, Hala soon fell behind in her rent payments.

Knowing she needed some support, Hala turned to Amal School, an organization supported by StARS. Amal School provided her and her family with an emergency grant so that they no longer had to fear eviction. The school also provided Hala with a caseworker who helped her find a job. Now, her family has stable housing, her job provides much-needed income and Hala has the resources she needs to care for her family. She no longer worries about what they will eat during the day or where they will lay their heads at night.

The season of Advent invites us to journey with our historical forebears, such as Mary and Zechariah, and with our neighbors today, such as Hala. This journey is no metaphorical shift between night and day, darkness and light, but a real, lived transformation from the vulnerability we know surrounds us to the promise we know includes us. For Mary, this meant seeing the proud brought low and “the lowly” exalted by God. For Zechariah, it meant seeing the dawn break from on high. For Charity Toksang, in our first session of this study, it meant seeing the sunrise over a health care clinic in Juba, South Sudan. And for Hala and her family, it means sleeping in a home they won’t be forced to leave the next day.

God meets us where we are with a promise – that we will be reconciled, that the world is being transformed, that we

will live safely, securely and abundantly. God also meets us with an invitation – to participate in this reconciliation and transformation in the world.

Where is God meeting you this Advent? And where is God calling you to be in the new year?

Ask

  1. What does it mean to be vulnerable? What are some ways Hala and her family may have felt vulnerable? What are some ways you feel vulnerable in this Advent season?
  2. What does God’s promise of salvation mean for us today? What will “the dawn [breaking] from on high” look like in our lives?
  3. The term “housing insecurity,” used in the reflection above, includes not just homelessness but a variety of obstacles people face in finding a safe, stable and affordable place to live. Consider the terms “housing-insecure” and “homeless.” What’s the difference? What does it mean to have a “home”? What challenges does your community face in ensuring that everyone is “housing secure”?
  4. Where is God calling the church to be this Advent? How does our faith call us to accompany neighbors such as Hala as they work toward a better future for their families?

Pray

God of promise, we thank you for the darkness of night and the brightness of day, for the change of seasons, the passing of time and the promised future toward which you lead your world. Be present with us and with our neighbors around the world, especially those left vulnerable by rising costs and declining opportunities. Inspire your church to be part of your work in the world, ensuring that all can enjoy the blessings of safety, security, peace and hope that you provide. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.

Children’s Sermon

By Pr. Tim Brown for ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters

Today the theme of “names” is noticeable by the Gospel writer. 

Bring in a bunch of, “hello, my name is” name tags and a sharpie marker.  You’ll need enough for each child plus enough for each child to take with them, with a few that are blank, and the rest filled in with “Lovely,” or “Beloved,” or “God’s Child,” or “Wonderfully Made.”

“Hi all!  I’m so glad you’re here today.” Hold the name tags tightly in your hand out of sight. “Does anyone want to guess what I have here?” Give appropriate time for guesses “They are nametags!  Tell me look at one youth What would you like me to write on your name tag? It can be your name, or it can be any name that you really, really like.”

Allow time for them to answer and write it on the tag.

“Anyone else?” Call on another youth “What name would you like?”

Allow time for them to answer and write it on the tag. Now, look out at the adult congregation.

“How about anyone in the seats?  Anyone want a name tag? What would you like on your tag?”

Call on an adult. Allow time for them to answer and write it on the tag.

“In today’s Gospel lesson the writer names all these names: Pontius Pilate. Tiberius. Herod. John the Baptist. Zechariah. They name all these names because they want us to know what was going on in the world and who these people are.  Names are important.  You all have names.  And God knows all of your names!  But you know what?  You also have other names given by God in your baptism, names you might forget.  I want to show them to you, but they’re a surprise, so come in close.”

Invite the youth in close and show them the name tags.

<whispered> “You are all Beloved.  You are all Lovely. You are all Children of God. And you know what?  They are, too. <point to the assembly>  “Each of you take a nametag to wear, and then take a name tag to give to someone out there, so that they can know what they are named by God, too.  Ready? Go!”

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Christmas Hope for the Future in Romania

 

When it comes to breaking the cycle of hunger and poverty, few tools are as important as education. In fact, the World Bank estimates that each year of additional schooling can increase a child’s future earnings by 8-10%. Ensuring that children have access to education and educational support, though, is a difficult goal to reach, and the COVID-19 pandemic has created even more obstacles for communities in need.

In Romania, the Evangelical Parish in Sibu has been hard at work adapting to these new challenges. The “Open House” Day Center of the parish has provided support to children and families since 2001, accompanying 30-45 children throughout the year with its many programs. The center’s mission is to help families with children between six and 16 years old who face high rates of poverty, domestic violence, social and ethnic discrimination, and exploitation. To support them, the center provides counseling, food, preventative health care, and a safe place for children to learn and grow.

The pandemic has made this work much more difficult. The parents who had jobs have lost them, and many families cannot afford food, clothing, heating or school supplies. Many children don’t have access to the internet or the equipment they need to participate in online schooling.

The center, though, is adapting to the new challenges and pressing on toward its mission. This year, with support from ELCA World Hunger, the center continues to provide school supplies and clothing for children to help meet the increased needs of families, including for children who do not have the equipment they need for online learning. “Open House” has also adapted by sending care packages home for families and providing social worker home visits to make sure children and their families have the support they need.

The children are also able to participate in fun activities, such as making crafts. As Diana Fruman of “Open House” shares, “More and more children are getting enthusiastic about handicrafts. Some of them are very talented and create beautiful works.”

The “beautiful work” of God through the “Open House” center is not limited to crafts, though. It can be seen in the new opportunities created by the staff, volunteers, parents and children who are working together at the center. As Diana says, “Every hour [the children] spend here…is another chance for them and their future.”

That’s one of the reasons that, despite the ongoing pandemic, Diana is hopeful for the future and grateful for the support the center has received. “Thanks to your help,” she writes, “we were able to carry out further aid measures this year…[Your] great willingness to help and your donations have made and will continue to make our work here at ‘Open House’ possible.”

Because of the ongoing work of God through the center and its participants, we can join Diana in her hopeful wishes for what is to come:

“On behalf of all our children and staff, we wish you a blessed Advent season, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

 

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Advent 2020- Week Three Study Guide

 

This advent reflection is part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2020 Advent Study. You can download the full study here. You can also download the corresponding advent calendar here

Advent Week Three

“Comfort”

Read

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Study

Volunteering has always been the lifeblood of Cacilda Rodrigues Barcelos. Born in São Borja, Brazil, she moved at age 13 with her family to the metropolitan region of Porto Alegre. Alone, her mother raised 11 daughters and sons, until her 50th birthday, when she died. Cacilda was 22 at the time, and the community helped to support her. “People taught me how to do what I do, because I was welcomed by them,” she says.

Now 63, Cacilda has dedicated years to giving back through volunteering. Early on, she worked with young boys in the community to make and sell food at fairs to help pay for uniforms and tournaments for their soccer team. Today, as a member of the management board of the Fair Trade and Solidarity Network (a project of the diakonia foundation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil), she helps train other women in entrepreneurship and helps plan workshops and fairs where they sell their goods. She also volunteers in the Peace Service and teaches women to prevent and overcome violence.

As much as Cacilda has changed her community, the biggest change has been in her personal life. “I learned to put myself in other people’s shoes and respect each other. I was very angry, as a way to defend myself, and it was in these meetings and meetings [with other women from the Fair Trade and Solidarity Network] that I grew and improved,” she says. “That’s why I say I’m the one who gains the most.”

As common — and often justified — as anger is, it is one of those emotions that we struggle to deal with in the church, at times. We might find it difficult to place raw, tumultuous emotions within the life of the people of God. Perhaps it is one of the reasons that this season we will sing songs about the “holy infant so tender and mild” (“Silent Night”) or “that mother mild” (“Once in Royal David’s City”) while we still await the writing of an ode to Jesus’ overturning of tables in the temple. Volatile emotions, particularly in the seasons of Advent and Christmas, feel so out of place. We aren’t quite sure what to do with them.

That has made 2020 particularly hard to navigate. This year, we have lived with the grief of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have mourned isolation from one another and the loss of that most basic human need of touch, even as we understood the risk that accompanied handshakes and hugs. We grieved together as loved ones and neighbors died alone in hospitals or nursing homes. And when we couldn’t gather together for funerals, we lost a key ritual for processing our grief as a community.

We grieved the loss of livelihoods and the closure of family businesses that had been part of our communities for generations. We feared the long-term consequences for our communities as jobs were lost and more and more people around the world went hungry.

And we were angered together by the deadly injustice of racism and the persistent inequalities that exacerbated the pandemic in many communities. Demonstrations filled streets in cities large and small as a collective voice of rage was raised against a racist justice system that continues to disproportionately permit and even sanction extrajudicial killings of people of color.

Certainly, our hope rests in that just peace (shalom) that “surpasses all human understanding,” which will “wipe away every tear from our eyes” and bring such equity and harmony that the lion will lie down with the lamb and the child will play with the viper and not be harmed. But there are times when it is difficult to see this promise through the lens of overwhelming grief and righteous anger. And there are times when grief and anger are what we need to move us toward justice, which is the form of the love of neighbor takes in society. For many of us, 2020 was one of those times.

The promise of Advent is not merely the promise of a future when all shall be made well, when all grief and anger shall cease and when the weight of heavy emotions shall be lifted from our shoulders. The promise of Advent — or, perhaps, the comfort of Advent — is that, amid our grief and anger, God is present, walking with us, consoling us, inspiring us and prodding us to walk together toward the future
where justice and peace will kiss (Psalm 85:10).

The future day promised by Isaiah in this week’s reading is a promise not to those who are comfortable but to those who are afflicted. In “the year of the Lord’s favor,” God will “provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Isaiah 61:2-3). It is a promise that those whose burdens have left them with a “faint spirit” will be given the strength of “oaks” and that God will “cause righteousness and praise to spring up” like the first plants of spring (61:11). It is a promise that God, who “loves justice,” (61:8) will establish the same — and an invitation for us to be part of this.

Perhaps that is the reassurance of the Scripture readings for this week. The grief and anger that have marked so much of this year — and that mark so much of every year for many of us living in vulnerability to disease, injustice, hunger and violence — is where God meets us. We need not gather the strength to move on nor ignore the depth of our pain in order to find God. God finds us in these depths.

Cacilda, working tirelessly with neighbors in Brazil, was able to let go of her anger and felt herself changed by the experience. But God did not wait for that moment to work transformation and renewal through her. Indeed, it may be through this very tumult that God moves us toward greater actions of justice. Christ did not wait for a comfortable bed but was born in the sharp, chafing, ill-fitting manger, amid the noise of the animals and the loneliness of the stable. We need not wait to be comfortable, for our grief to resolve or our anger to subside, in order to draw close to God.

God has been there all along.

Ask

  1. What caused you to mourn or angered you this year?
  2. How does God meet you amid your grief and anger?
  3. How can the transformation of our grief or anger help spur us to
    deeper acts in service of one another or in service of God?
  4. What would a just peace (shalom) look like in your community?
    In the United States?

Pray

Comforting and empowering God, you meet us amid our pain and ease the load of our burdens. Be near us in our grief and anger, comfort us as we mourn and move our will toward acts of justice for one another. Grant the world just peace this season, that we may find rest and hope in you. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.

 

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Advent 2020- Week Two Study Guide

 

This advent reflection is part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2020 Advent Study. You can download the full study here. You can also download the corresponding advent calendar here

Advent Week Two

“Prepare”

Read

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
II Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Study

Even as we enter this season of anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ, our focus for this year is on the nearness of God. While our biblical ancestors awaited the coming of God’s promised Messiah, they still knew that God was never far from them and their plight.

The Gospel of Mark, like the Gospel of John, does not include a story of Jesus’ birth. Instead, it opens with a very different scene — the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of the Promised One and baptizing disciples in the river. John declares, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” (1:3). His message echoes the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3 of the approaching dawn of God’s promise to set all things right.

Both the original prophecy and John’s repetition are clear about what we are waiting for — the “day of the Lord.” The preparations the gospel enjoins are not preparations made amid absence, like the preparations that might be made for a visitor. The prophecies, instead, are precursors to an event. The message is not that God is coming at some time in the future but that the day is on its way.

This is an important distinction. So often, we view the future with expectant hope that God will come and set all things right. This kind of forward-looking hope is important. But this yearning for the fulfillment of God’s promise must be tempered by the faith that sees God already at work in the world as it is. We are not waiting on God; if anything, perhaps God is waiting on us (II Peter 3:9). John’s message is a reminder that, even as we await the final fulfillment of the promise, God is already at work, weaving the threads of God’s promise for us in our midst. To “prepare” is to “make straight” the ways, that is, to be about the ministry of the church now, participating in the work of justice and the full and final reconciliation God is making possible, even as we long for the day to come.

This message of active anticipation can be seen in a story of communities living around two different rivers, thousands of miles from the Jordan. In El Salvador, families from eight communities are working to restore the quality of the water they depend on from the San Antonio River, the Nejapa Aquifer and the Jiboa River. Through a project of the Sínodo Luterano Salvadoreño (Salvadoran Lutheran Church), the families have joined together to decontaminate the water from the tributaries to the rivers so that it will be safe to use for drinking, bathing and farming.

Miguel Angel Calderón Barahona is president of the La Granja Communal Association, one of the community groups working on the project. For Miguel, the project has meant more than just improving the water. “My life changed from the moment I decided to be part of this project,” he says. As a leader, “I have had the opportunity to reach beyond my perspectives as a member of the community [and to] reach out to other communities, see the needs in those communities and be able to be part of [their] development, as well.”

Part of the success of the program has been the ability to organize the people in the communities. That work began with an effort to improve the road to San Salvador, a route beset by fatal accidents. In working to improve the safety of the road, the community laid the groundwork and built the relationships that will now help them ensure access to quality water. Through the current project, Miguel says, the community has organized itself even more strongly, and now “the community at large is going to take a different course, and hopefully, it will be the path of success in our community.”

Reaching their goal has meant doing the hard work of preparation: petitioning communities and schools, building relationships and forging partnerships. The “path of success” is laid by the many small steps the communities take now that will lead to big changes.

We, as church together, know this. What is more, we know that even as we yearn for the day when all will be able to partake in the fruits of God’s good creation, God is at work now, through the efforts of people such as Miguel and his neighbors in Nejapa, El Salvador and other communities working for access to clean water around the world.

Preparing for the day to come means more than hoping for the final fulfillment of God’s promise. It means seeing, even now, that God is at work among us, and joining in this work. While we anticipate the event, we are not alone. In fact, we have never been alone, even this year. As we physically isolated from one another, God never isolated from us, as was evident in the many creative and courageous ways ministries adapted to ensure that the work of the church would go on — and that all would be prepared for the day to come.

Ask

  1. Where have you found God at work through the ministries of your church this year?
  2. How is working to ensure that all have clean water, sufficient food and resources to meet their other needs part of the church’s “active anticipation” of God’s promises for the future?
  3. What is a “path of success” for your community? How is the
    church helping walk with neighbors on that path?

Pray

Ever-present God, through sickness, violence, discord and injustice we have yearned for the fulfillment of your promise. Make us, your church, a sign of the day to come, that we may reflect this hope to others. Knit us together with one another and with our neighbors, that none may feel alone or isolated from your life-giving love. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.

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Advent 2020- Week One Study Guide

 

This advent reflection is part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2020 Advent Study. You can download the full study here. You can also download the corresponding advent calendar here

Advent Week One

“Keep Awake” 

Read

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Study

This year has felt like an awful lot of waiting already, and now here we are at the start of Advent, a season of … waiting. Many greeted the new year with expectant hope. Early reports signaled a strong harvest year for farmers. Economic news in the United States seemed to be largely positive, though critical issues of poverty and inequality remained present. The year, for many, looked promising.

But how quickly things change. By mid-March, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and economies started grinding to a virtual halt. Of course, the risk wasn’t the same for everyone, as we knew from the start. The lives of older adults and people with compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions were at significant risk. Small-business owners, service industry workers and farmworkers faced increasingly dire consequences for their livelihoods. In the United States, communities of color saw rates of infection, hospitalization and death that were many times higher than those of white communities. As the disease spread around the world, the uneven risk was brought into sharper relief — between wealthy countries and countries with fewer economic resources and lower access to high-quality, affordable health care. The inequities within countries, including the United States, was also brought into sharper relief.

Perhaps never before has so much of the world been glued to statistical data, watching every release of new case counts, changes in positivity rates, and testing capacity. We waited together for stores to reopen, for furloughs to end and for the chance to visit loved ones. As church, we waited for the chance to dine together at the table of communion, even as the Spirit refused to postpone inspiring the people of God to worship in new, creative ways.

Together, we felt the inertia and anxiety of waiting for good news about progress on vaccines or positivity rates. On the other hand, some commenters encouraged others to view the pandemic and its accompanying shutdowns as a welcome “pause,” a slowdown of the hurried pace of daily life. And perhaps, for some of us, the pause has been an opportunity to take a break and reflect on which demands on our time and attention are truly valuable.

But something is missing in this picture of the pandemic as a restorative period of reflective waiting. So many of us this year, and every year, do not have the privilege of uninterrupted self-reflection. The service industry workers and gig workers who immediately lost their jobs, or whose continued employment meant entering a scary field of person-to-person encounters, did not have the privilege of merely “waiting it out” in hope that the pandemic would ease. The millions of people in the United States and around the world who face severe food insecurity could not merely wait for sustenance or stability.

In a letter earlier this year, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote of the converging of two deadly viruses — COVID-19 and the ongoing virus of racism that continues to infect our communities and institutions. The distress named by Bishop Eaton in her letter is a more visceral and accurate description of what so many of us felt this year. The cries of people raised in supplication during the pandemic and lifted in protest are the cries of those who can no longer wait.

This Advent season opens with a story of another people sick of waiting. The Gospel of Mark, most likely, was written to the community of early Christians living under the shadow of empire in first-century Rome. This early community faced persecution and violence. They were no strangers to suffering.

Amid this suffering, Jesus, using what is often a general reference to humanity in Hebrew, promises them a future in which the “Son of Man” will come “with great power and glory” (13:26) to set all things right.

In the meantime, he tells them, “Keep awake” (13:37). To “keep awake” is to grasp the kind of hope that inspires and to renounce the kind of hope that incapacitates. It is to feed on the hope that propels and to starve the hope that paralyzes. It is the gospel hope that tells us not to “wait and see” but to “come and see.”

Em Musa, a grandmother in Ramallah, Palestine, knows that “just waiting” is a luxury she and her community cannot afford. Married at 20, mother to four children, Em Musa had more than enough responsibilities to occupy her time. But she also knew that her community in Palestine could not wait for progress. So, she chose to work toward justice for her people by becoming active in the Palestinian resistance movement. To this day, she bears the scars of this decision. In her time as an activist, she was wounded on her forehead, shot in her left thigh and imprisoned for almost a year and a half. Her husband passed away after her release, when their youngest child was just two-and-a-half years old.

Today, Em Musa participates in a Meals on Wheels project in Ramallah that is supported, in part, by ELCA World Hunger. The aim of the program is to help people isolated by health, age or circumstance experience a sense of community in addition to the food provided. The weekly gatherings help participants build connections with one another and with volunteers and staff, while home delivery of food meets the needs of people unable to come to the Arab Women’s Union due to health or limited mobility. A physician is available once a week, and the Meals on Wheels program helps distribute some of the medication needed by participants such as Em Musa.

Em Musa’s thirst for justice led her to costly activism, and now her hunger, for both food and community, has led her to the Meals on Wheels program. The ministries and programs supported by ELCA World Hunger are driven forward not merely by a deep awareness of the need in our communities but also by an even deeper awareness that, amid struggles for justice and wholeness, God will “strengthen [us] to the end” (I Cor. 1:8) — and what an end it will be!

As we enter this season of Advent, may we do so knowing that to hope in God is not to wait but to “keep awake,” not to lose hope when faced with challenges but to confront them together. To hope is to know that the coming of Christ happens amid daily life and all its struggles. It is amid those things where relationships are birthed and renewed and where God is, even now, at work.

Ask

  1. Where have you found hope in the past year?
  2. How can or has hope for the future motivated you to work for justice in the present?
  3. What is your hope for the future? How is God calling you to make this hope a reality?
  4. How is the church called to “keep awake” amid the suffering and injustices uncovered by the pandemic and all that has happened this year?
  5. What can we do to make sure that our Advent discipline of “staying awake” does not become passive waiting?

Pray

Gracious God, you sustain your people through seasons of change and challenge. Breathe into us your Spirit, drive us from our waiting places and into the world to be part of the promise you proclaim. Inspire us with hope and courage to confront our needs — for justice, for health, for liberation, for one another and for you — and restore our relationships with one another and with all of creation. In the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Advent 2019- Week 4 Reflection and Children’s Message

 

 

This advent reflection is part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2019 Advent Study. You can download the full study here. The children’s messages are a part of ELCA World Hunger’s Sermon Starter series which is published via email every Monday. You can sign up for the weekly email here on the right side of the page. 

Week 4

God is with Us

“‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

 

 

You are loved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

No, really.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That is the message of Advent, Christmas — the entirety of the gospel story, in fact.

 

 

 

 

 

You are loved.

 

 

 

In the baby — whose name shall be Emmanuel, which means “God is with us” — God has drawn near to humanity in familiarity, intimacy and even identity. God has become human, entering into our world and our very existence. And the message God has brought? You are loved.

Two thousand years of Christian history, and yet that basic message has not changed. God has drawn near, and the message brought to all creation is “you are loved.” Scripture is filled with stories of God speaking to God’s people. Sometimes God speaks to them directly. Moses approaches a burning bush and hears God “informing him, ‘I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt'” (Exodus 3). In the middle of the night, Samuel hears God calling his name (1 Samuel 3). At other times, God speaks through the prophets to the people.

But here …

in this manger …

in this moment …

on this night …

There is no mountain-splitting, quaking prelude like Elijah heard outside his cave (1 Kings 19). There is no opening in the heavens, no descending Spirit, no voice from the clouds (Luke 3.) The baby in the manger is God’s whispered good news: “You are loved.” In the first session of this study, we read a sampling of modern-day billboards warning us of God’s coming wrath. The writings of our biblical ancestors reflect a similar level of trepidation about the day God would draw near. What judgment might befall them when God arrived? What word might God speak?

In the manger in Bethlehem, God did show up. And the word was “love.”

As gospel people, the church proclaims this message: “You are loved.” Obviously, such a simple message doesn’t give us the directives that are to be taken in the many complex situations in which the church finds itself in daily life. Such a simple message does not give us all that we need to make the many minute decisions that organizations and individuals must make. But it does give us a clear message and identity.

Who is the church? The beloved of God.

Who is my neighbor? The beloved of God.

Who is this stranger in my midst? The beloved of God. 

To be the church, to be people of the gospel, called to spread the good news, is to ensure that every person we encounter leaves knowing they are loved. To be “evangelical” is to be sharers of the good news – and that good news is that we are loved by the very creator of the universe.

This almost seems too simple, and in some ways, it might be. But how often does the message the world sends us undermine our confidence in this message? How often are we told that we must make ourselves lovable enough, work hard enough, look good enough, decide wisely enough, or behave appropriately enough to merit the concern or consideration of others around us? The church has a different message: You are loved because the One who created you has marked you as loved. Christ-centered ministries have this message of Christ at their heart.

Rain or shine, the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen opens each Tuesday without fail, serving up nutritious fare — with an extra helping of love — from the basement of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. Volunteers offer weekly breakfast, lunch and dinner to more than a hundred guests, many of whom face the challenges of poverty and addiction. Guests can also pick up hygiene kits or a set of clean clothes and access social services.

“This space is where we all come together and treat each other with love, with that respect and dignity that we all like to receive,” says Sandra Aleman-Nijjar, the kitchen’s lead volunteer. “We give that to everyone that walks through those doors.” Eddie, one of the guests at East Boston, knows this to be the case. Having lived on the streets since he was 18, Eddie calls the ministry “my home,” a place of belonging and acceptance where his needs — physical, spiritual and emotional — are met. “He feels loved, that someone cares,” says Sandra. “You can see it in [each of] them, that sense of belonging, that sense of acceptance. That someone cares about them, that someone is watching and looking out for their well-being.”

To be “evangelical” is not merely to share the basic facts about faith but to live out a faith that assures us — and our neighbors — that we are loved. For guests at the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen, that means that every plate of food served is a form of evangelism, a way of sharing the good news that is the very message of “Emmanuel”: you are loved.

God’s love calls us to active love and service of one another. Authentic love — the love God shows through Christ — sets tables where all are welcome, calls religious and political leaders to repentance for their treatment of neighbors facing poverty or vulnerability, and testifies to new life in the face of death-dealing powers. It is not merely a word spoken but a life lived, walking with and standing by our neighbors.

This is the Promised One we have been waiting for, and this is the message we have been longing to hear. Through Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, through John the Baptist’s hours of ministry at the Jordan, through our expectant longing in Advent — this is the message we have been waiting for. And the message many of our neighbors continue to pine for.

 

You are loved.

Now, love one another.

Reflection Questions

  1. When during this season have you felt loved?
  2. How does your congregation share the message “you are loved” with neighbors in your community?
  3. Watch ELCA World Hunger’s video “East Boston Community Soup Kitchen” at https://vimeo.com/293599869. How does the ministry in East Boston help guests feel “that sense of belonging, that sense of acceptance”?

Children’s Message

Pastor Tim Brown is the writer of this Advent children’s message. Pr. Tim is a Gifts Officer and Mission Ambassador for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a pastor and writer out of Raleigh, NC. This Advent Children’s Message is cross-posted from ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters

Set-up:

The season’s texts provide the leader with an opportunity to practice Advent anticipation, and each children’s message with grow week to week until Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

This is the last week, and there should be a small box with a pocket mirror inside. A large yellow star should be on the outside of this small box, with the poem below printed on it.

Script:

Invite the youth to come forward.   

“Look here, folks, I have that final box here, and I can tell there are things inside of this one, too. How can I tell?  Just listen!” Shake the box “Now, remember what was inside of last week’s box? Right!  Band-Aids. And what did we do with those Band-Aids? Right, we gave them away as reminders that God invites us to heal the world.  Some of those people out there even put them on. What do you think is in this box?” Field answers as time allows “Could be any of those things! But look, on here is also a yellow star.  Ah, look, here’s a poem on the yellow star. Can someone read it?” If the youth are too young or too shy to read, go ahead and read it aloud:

The baby is coming soon

And we’re dreaming of the child

And the night will arrive

So meek and so mild

But until then God’s dream

Is for someone else to be a life-changer

We don’t need to wait for the babe in the manger!

And just who should it be?

Open me up to see…

Should we open it and see what’s inside?” Open the box dramatically. If it has a lid, unveil it with panache. If it is sealed in wrapping paper, invite the youth to help you tear it open. Show the box with the mirror inside.

“Wow, a mirror. ‘But until then God’s dream/is for someone else to be a life-changer/we don’t need to wait for the babe in the manger/and just who should it be? Open me up to see…’ Who do you all see? Hold up the mirror.

“Yes!  It’s you. You are the one God is dreaming of who will start the change the world. And we can change the world by giving our gifts to help those who don’t have much, by being a good friend at school to kids who are picked on, by making meals and sharing it with our neighbors. Who else can think of a way we can start to change the world?” Field answers as time allows.

“But, there’s one more thing, come close! Make sure your mic is off “Those people out there? They need to start changing the world, too. So, I want you to go ask them a question, an important question this Christmas. Ask them how they will change the world this Christmas. Say, “How will you change the world this Christmas?”

Go ask them. And if anyone gives you an answer, come back and tell me. You can tell me now or after church. Ready? Go!”

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Advent 2019- Week 3 Reflection and Children’s Message

 

This advent reflection is part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2019 Advent Study. You can download the full study here. The children’s messages are a part of ELCA World Hunger’s Sermon Starter series which is published via email every Monday. You can sign up for the weekly email here on the right side of the page. 

Week 3

Signs of the Promise

“[John the Baptist’s disciples said to Jesus,] ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’”
(Matthew 11:3-5). 

At only 17, Dawit (not his real name) has already faced a long and harrowing journey. He was born in Eritrea, and in 2017, he and his brother escaped lifelong military service by crossing into neighboring Sudan. On the border, they were intercepted by a group of traffickers. Dawit’s brother escaped, but Dawit was held by the traffickers for almost nine months and regularly threatened and beaten while they demanded money.

Eventually, Sudanese police raided the traffickers’ camp and took Dawit to a hospital in Khartoum, where he found his brother again. During their initial journey, Dawit had broken his leg while jumping out of a car. Although he had surgery in Khartoum, it was too late to fully repair the damage to his leg, and he can no longer put any weight on it.

In 2018, Dawit arrived in Cairo, Egypt, and connected with St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS), which is supported by ELCA World Hunger. StARS provided Dawit with a caseworker and helped him meet other immediate needs, such as food, hygiene supplies and, importantly, medical care. StARS also connected him to Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), which is helping provide Dawit with psychological care and support.

Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt. Dawit’s story, like many of the stories of our siblings in Christ around the world, can seem so far away from communities in North America. Even within our own geographic region, communities can seem farther apart than the miles may suggest. Maybe it is the divide between rural and urban cities, or the gulf between affluent areas and areas facing disinvestment and job loss.

Of course, the distance between our communities belies the reality that, as a global community, we share many of the same challenges. Human trafficking, such as Dawit faced, is “a global phenomenon to which no country is immune,” according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of State. And research reminds us that even the most affluent counties in the United States are home to people facing food insecurity and challenges with access to housing.

Yet, it is not merely our shared problems that connect us. This season of Advent, the Scripture readings remind us that, in Christ, God has drawn near to us and to our neighbors. As God draws near to us, we, too, are drawn near to each other — in hope, in faith and in our mutual need.

Seeing this is easier now than it was for the followers of John the Baptist. Jesus was, by no means, the first to be considered (or to declare himself) the Promised One sent by God. So perhaps no one should be surprised that John and his followers were a bit suspicious. “Are we to wait for another?” is the question of those who have long awaited the Messiah — and may likely have been disappointed before. This isn’t the pleading of the psalmist crying, “How long, Lord?” but the cynical question of the skeptic whose faith is sure but whose trust must be earned.

And to some extent, this is our question, too. How do we know that God has drawn near? How can we be certain that the Messiah has come? In our day, we are confronted with promises of salvation from every quarter. Commercials and mass media hold out the pursuit of wealth as the path to new life. Social media seem to suggest that our lives will be transformed once we get enough “likes” or followers. For victims of human trafficking such as Dawit, the promises are more nefarious. Many victims were first lured by their traffickers with promises of resettlement in a new, safe country. Or they were deceived by promises of stable employment.

Jesus understands the skepticism of the question. In response, he shares with John’s followers the evidence he knows will convince the Baptizer: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Echoing the prophecies of Isaiah, Jesus makes clear the signs of the Messiah’s coming, signs John the Baptist would seem to recognize: healing, restoration and hope. John the Baptist can trust that the one interrogated by his followers is the One sent by God because following in Jesus’ wake are those characteristics of God’s transformation of the world: healing, restoration and hope.

As we look for the promise of God in our midst, we are called to look for those signs of healing (physical and spiritual), restoration (of relationships with God and neighbor), and hope (for those who are poor or vulnerable). Our shared need for each of these is what draws us together with neighbors near and far as we long together for the transformation of the world. And make no mistake, God is with us in our need as well.

We are united in our common need with neighbors around the world. And yet, the miles are bridged by something greater — our shared participation in the promise God is unfolding in our world. The vocation to be a healing, reconciling, hopeful presence in the world is shared across the church universal in every community. United in trust that God is at work transforming the world, the church is called to participate in the signs that inspired the confidence of John and his followers — and inspires the confidence of our neighbors and ourselves today.

To share in the stories of neighbors near and far is to share in the work God is doing through them in the world. It is to seek together — and to be, together — those signs of healing, restoration and hope. In Advent, the expectant longing gives way to bold confidence that God is at work, revealing the promise that all shall be well and drawing us together in mutual need and mutual hope.

There may be much that separates us, but the promise that unites us can bridge any divide.

Reflection Questions

  1. What experiences have reassured your faith that God is at
    work in the world?
  2. Why is it important for the church, as the people of God, to
    help neighbors such as Dawit meet their needs for healing
    and care?
  3. Where do you see God’s promise taking root in your
    community?

Children’s Message

Pastor Tim Brown is the writer of this Advent children’s message. Pr. Tim is a Gifts Officer and Mission Ambassador for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a pastor and writer out of Raleigh, NC. This Advent Children’s Message is cross-posted from ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters

Set-Up:

The season’s texts provide the leader with an opportunity to practice Advent anticipation, and each children’s message with grow week to week until Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

As with last week, make sure this week’s box includes the smaller box surrounded by Band-Aids, one inside the other, like nesting dolls. 

Inside the smallest box should be a pocket mirror. Draw a large yellow star on the outside of this smallest box.  On today’s box draw a large red cross on it like an Emergency Aid kit, and tape one of the ELCA Good Gifts cards to the top.  You can find them here: http://bit.ly/33gC1kQ.

Script:

Invite the children to come forward.   

“Look here, folks, I have that other box here, and I can tell there are things inside of this one, too.  How can I tell?  Just listen!” Shake the box. “Now, remember what was inside of last week’s box?  Right!  Stickers.  And what did we do with those stickers?  Right, we gave them away as gifts of love. What do you think is in this box?” Field answers as time allows. “Could be any of those things!  But look, on here is also a red cross.  Has anyone seen anything like this before?  Where?” Field answers as time allows. “Right.  On hospitals and ambulances and first-aid kits.”

“You know, we all have built-in first-aid kits.  Want to see one?” Hold up your hands. “Yes, I know, these look just like hands.  But they’re more than that.  With hands like these we’re given the ability to help and heal others.  We can work, and through that work, we can offer help to others.  Hmmm…let me try to explain a little clearer.   Ah, look, here’s a card near this red cross. Can someone read it?”   If the youth are too young or too shy to read, go ahead and read it aloud:

“This is a card from ELCA Good Gifts, where people can buy animals, seeds, or other goods for people all around the world.  We work with our hands, and with the money we get for our work, we’re able to buy these gifts to bless others.  In this way, we help people who don’t even know to live well!  Should we open it and see what’s inside?”  Open the box dramatically.  If it has a lid, unveil it with panache.  If it is sealed in wrapping paper, invite the youth to help you tear it open. Show the box full of Band-Aids, and the other box inside.

“Wow, there’s a bunch of Band-Aids in here, along with another box.  This other box we can’t open until next week, I think, but what do we do with these Band-Aids?” Pretend to think.

“Wait, I have an idea!  Come in close.” Invite the youth forward and turn off your mic. “Go and give a Band-Aid to someone out there and say to them ‘God helps us help others.’.  Make it someone you don’t even know!  If they’re brave, they’ll even put it on today!  Go and remind them that God invites us to help others, and next week we’ll see if God has a new surprise for us in this other box.  Are you ready?  Go!”

As they give out the Band-Aids, you can make a general announcement about ELCA Good Gifts to the whole assembly and invite them to learn more by placing a bulletin insert in their hands, or point them to the ELCA World Hunger website.

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Advent 2019- Week 2 Reflection and Children’s Message

 

 

This advent reflection is part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2019 Advent Study. You can download the full study here. The children’s messages are a part of ELCA World Hunger’s Sermon Starter series which is published via email every Monday. You can sign up for the weekly email here on the right side of the page. 

 

Week 2

From Good New to Bad News

“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness, he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3b-4a).

In many rural villages in Guatemala, families tend to be large, and due to poverty, cultural traditions and other factors, daughters are often given away for marriage early. At 12 to 14 years old, girls are matched with husbands who are at least twice their age and sometimes older. Pastor Karen Castillo of the Augustinian Lutheran Church of Guatemala (ILAG) knows many of the girls’ stories well. Pr. Castillo hears their frequent concerns about the lack of educational opportunities that can change the future for girls and women throughout Guatemala. Schools are often far from people’s homes, and if instruction is available, boys are often given precedence. When girls are excluded from continuing their education, they are also excluded from new opportunities, including the opportunity to make many decisions about their futures.

Holy Scripture assures us that God hears their stories, too. The promise of Isaiah, indeed the promise of many of the writings in the Old Testament, is that God has heard the people’s pleas for liberation and salvation and will deliver them (Exodus 3:7-8). God’s intimacy with the people of God is such that God is attuned to the many obstacles that undermine the people’s well-being. God’s anger is revealed most clearly in those places where injustice and inequity reign – and God’s loving concern is revealed equally clearly when the children of God are blocked from enjoying life abundantly.

In the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist echoes this anger when he sees a group of Pharisees and Sadducees gathered among those desiring baptism. “You brood of vipers!” he calls out. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7). John is not the meekest character in the Gospel, but here, he’s about to get medieval before there was a medieval to be gotten. What was it that so incensed the Baptizer? We get a clue about the fault of the Pharisees and Sadducees later in Matthew, when Jesus denounces both groups: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others … they love to have the place of honor at banquets … [they] lock people out of the kingdom of heaven … [they make] gold sacred … [they] have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith,” and so on (23:4-23).

The Pharisees often get a bad rap in the Gospels. They serve as foils for Jesus and the disciples so often that the reader might think “brood of vipers” is John the Baptist’s way of going easy on them. In reality, the Pharisees were one of several Jewish groups at the time and, in some ways, weren’t quite as bad as they might seem. They understood the life of faith as a life focused on obedience to the Law, so they rigorously held themselves to its high standards. The problem was, they held others to those standards, too, even when the Law seemed unclear or when the literal, traditional punishments for violations were downright deadly. For the Pharisees, being faithful meant obeying the Law and tradition, no matter what the consequences were.

Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels present a different understanding of faith. For Jesus and his followers, a relationship with God is not meant to be a burden. In fact, quite the opposite: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Isaiah, whom John the Baptist quotes in Matthew, describes what true righteousness looks like for God’s people: justice and equity, particularly for “the poor [and] the meek,” those without the social or economic status to demand these things for themselves.

As God draws near through the One prophesied by Isaiah and John the Baptist, the bad news of exclusion is transformed into the good news of hospitality, and the bad news of judgment is transformed into the good news of justice — for them and for the community. It is from among these people, whose lives are so circumscribed by legalism, tradition and inequity, that Jesus will draw both followers and leaders.

In Guatemala, where poverty, traditions and sexism prevent communities from benefiting from the gifts and skills of girls, the ILAG is helping provide new opportunities. Opened in 2018 at the Augustinian Lutheran Center in Guatemala City, the MILAGRO (“miracle”) Women’s Education Center is a place for young women from these rural communities to continue their secondary education, faith formation and development of vocational and life skills that will help them be financially independent in the future. With support from ELCA World Hunger and ILAG, the young women at MILAGRO Women’s Education Center are part of the work God is doing in their communities, proclaiming the good news of justice, equity and life abundant for all.

Reflection Questions

  1. What does it mean for God to hear the cries of people who face oppression, exclusion or injustice?
  2. How does the church listen attentively to the voices of people facing poverty or hunger in the community today?
  3. What is the difference between seeing faith as obedience to God and seeing faith as liberation?

Children’s Message

Pastor Tim Brown is the writer of this Advent children’s message. Pr. Tim is a Gifts Officer and Mission Ambassador for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a pastor and writer out of Raleigh, NC. This Advent Children’s Message is cross-posted from ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters

Set up:

The season’s texts provide the leader with an opportunity to practice Advent anticipation, and each children’s message with grow week-to-week until Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

Bring in a large wrapped box. Inside the box make sure to include two smaller boxes, one inside the other, like nesting dolls.

Inside the smallest box put a pocket mirror. Draw a large yellow star on the outside of this smallest box.  Inside the second-largest box put the smallest box along with a bunch of new Band-Aids and draw a large red cross on it like an emergency first aid kit. And inside the largest box, put the other boxes along with a bunch of stickers. On the outside of this larger box, put a picture of a stump with a stem springing forth. On the tree you’ll write the riddle below. Invite the children to come forward.

Script:

“Look here, folks, I have this box here, and I can tell there are things inside of it. How can I tell? Just listen!” Shake the box. “What do you think is in here?” Field answers as time allows. “Could be any of those things!  But look, on here is also a tree stump with this little twig coming out of it. It reminds me of what the prophet Isaiah said today that sometimes, out of things that don’t look alive anymore, new things can spring. And look, it has writing on it!  Can someone read it?   If the children are too young or too shy to read, go ahead and read it aloud:

At Christmas God does something new

And we can do something, too!

With each day comes the chance

To make another heart sing and dance!

Do something kind without pay

Go and make someone’s day!

“Huh, I wonder what that means. Should we open it and see what’s inside?” Open the box dramatically.  If it has a lid, unveil it with panache. If it is sealed in wrapping paper, invite the children to help you tear it open. Show the box full of stickers, and the other box inside.

“Wow, there’s a bunch of stickers in here, along with some other boxes. This other box we can’t open until next week, I think, but what do we do with these stickers?” Pretend to think.

“Wait, I have an idea!  Come in close.” Invite the youth forward and turn off your mic. “The riddle invited us to go and make someone’s day, so I think you should go out there to the people in the pews and stick a sticker on someone. Make it someone you don’t even know! Put it on their hand, their shirt, or even their forehead! Go and spread some love today with this new thing in church, and next week we’ll see if God has a new surprise for us in these boxes. Are you ready? Go!”

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