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September 24, 2023–What is Fair?

Heather Hansen

Warm-up Question

When have you been a part of a decision that seemed unfair?  How did that feel?  What made it seem unfair?

  • Bonus Warm-up Activity–Come prepared with enough prizes (like a candy bar or treat of some kind that everyone would like) to give to each person in the group.  Ask for volunteers (to equal about ¼ of the group) to do 10 minutes of jumping jacks and tell them that you will give them a prize for finishing that is worthy of their time and activity.  Allow them to jump for 3 minutes then recruit the same number of volunteers you did before to join them.  Tell them that they will also receive a prize that is worthy of their time and activity.  Wait three more minutes and recruit a third group, and finally with one minute left recruit a final group.  Once the 10 minutes is up, have them line up in order of who came into the activity with one minute left to the ones who jumped for 10 minutes.  Give each person in the line the exact same reward, then have them return to their places.

What is Fair?

When I was in high school, I was blessed with parents who both had good, full-time jobs that allowed us to have everything we needed and still prepare a little for the future.  However, while they did have a little beyond basic needs, the “extra” in the budget was still not going to be enough for my full college tuition.  My parents made too much money for need-based scholarships but did not make enough to pay for the whole four years.  I had a highly praised resume and applied for almost every scholarship I could.  Since I applied to a very competitive state school, I did not receive any scholarships. I was SO CLOSE!

While I was disappointed, I accepted it fairly well until I started finding out about the scholarships a number of my friends were receiving.  A large number of my friends had parents who made a lot more money than mine.  In many cases, their resumes were slightly less accomplished and often a few grade points below mine.  However, they WERE getting generous scholarships.  I was hurt and confused and didn’t understand why because they had more money and their qualifications, while good, were not necessarily as impressive as mine.  Then I learned that because of affirmative action, there were numerous scholarships available to them which were not available to me since I was in the white majority.

I have to admit, unfortunately, that it took me a long time to truly understand and become more compassionate about this seemingly “unfair” event in my life.  However, through stories in scripture – like the parable of the lost son and the parable of the vineyard workers – and through the wise teaching and mentoring of compassionate pastors, leaders and very patient friends, I was finally able to see that this was a case of equity and not of equality.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever experienced something that seemed unfair or “unequal” to you?  How did you feel?
  • Have you ever experienced something that you felt was just or right, but others argued that it was unfair?  How did you feel?
  • What are other examples in our world of issues that people fight about as to whether they are just or unjust; fair or unfair?
  • Recent Supreme Court rulings (Students For Fair Admission vs Harvard and SFFA vs UNC) have called into question many affirmative action programs in higher education.  What do you think of that change?

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jonah 3:10—4:11

Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16

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

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

Gospel Reflection

This week’s gospel is a story about a group of workers recruited by a landowner to work in his fields.  In the end, some of those workers feel they have been treated unfairly.  They have put in a full day’s work, while another group of workers only put in an hour or two.  Yet they all got the same pay. The landowner reminds the workers that he is not obligated to pay anyone any more than what is “right,” which he did.  He pays the early workers the normal daily wage, but chooses to be generous to those who start later.  

We don’t really know the circumstances of the workers in the marketplace that day.  Perhaps they all gathered early in the morning, and some received jobs while others did not.  So, when the landowner came back and saw there were people not working, he gave them an opportunity too, so they could take care of their families. Perhaps their jobs finished early and they had worked early, but were also finished early, which would not allow them to make what they needed.  

Of course, it’s possible that some of them were lazy,  slept in,  and took advantage of a generous man.  However, it seems unlikely that the entire group of workers left in the center of town were late only because they were “lazy.”  Generally, most people who come to work come because they need to.

This story doesn’t really differ from the experiences of people in our own time, does it?  I can think of a number of examples like this in my own community that are almost exactly like this.  I live in San Antonio, where there are a large number of people who come into the country looking for work from Mexico and all parts of Latin America.  They risk their lives to come to a place that might provide a little more money, safety, or opportunity for them and their families.

There are also people in my city who have lived here for generations but have only been able to find work that pays a minimum wage and not a living wage.  In these cases, their children also have to work as soon as they are old enough to support their family, and the younger ones often care for even younger children while the older members of the family work.  They are caught in a cycle of poverty that feels impossible to break out of.

Education is one way people break out of poverty.  But it is hard to succeed if you do not have a parent at home to supervise you.  Furthermore, an older child who has to care for siblings or work in the community before school, after school and late into the night, is less likely to succeed.  Even if a person wants  to succeed, they must overcome greater obstacles  than a person like me.  Even though I didn’t have a lot of extra money growing up, I had what I needed and then some.  I also had the opportunity to use my time to do extracurricular activities and outside learning with my family, which contributed to my performance in school. 

In the U.S. according to a study by the children’s defense fund, in 2021, at least 1 in 5 Black children were poor in 42 states and the District of Columbia; Hispanic children, in 36 states; and American Indian/Alaska Native children, in 29 states. Not one state had a white child poverty rate above 20%.

When I listen to the story of the parable in the vineyard and compare it to the stories of poverty in our own culture today, it helps me understand why I didn’t get those scholarships in high school.  More importantly, it teaches me to love with the compassion of Christ.  The workers in the morning were paid “what is right.”  Perhaps the landowner recognized the plight of the later workers and wanted to give them equal opportunity.  To do so required him to pay more than what was the appropriate hourly wage.  But what a gift to receive what you need when you otherwise would not!  

God’s sense of justice and fairness does not always look just or fair to us because we are often unable to see with the same compassion, generosity and understanding.  Thank goodness we believe in a God that looks past that and gives what is “right” to all people.

Discussion Questions

  • What were your first reactions when you heard the story of the workers in the vineyard?  What did you feel in your gut or your heart?
  • Did those feelings or reactions change after comparing the story to the ways that we live today?
  • What does this story inspire you to see differently or to learn about in order to show the kind of justice and equity that God shows?

Activity Suggestion

Watch the following video about the disparity in equity that still exists today in our culture.  What would the members of your group do in response to the leader’s questions?  Talk about what it would feel like to step forward or stand still.

Closing Prayer

Compassionate God, help us to look around and find ways to be compassionate.  Teach us that we should only look at what’s in another person’s bowl to make sure they have enough, and not just to see if the distribution is fair or equal.  Teach us to see the best in our neighbor, to recognize when things are unjust, and to work for sharing your grace and abundance with others.  Finally, God, may we rejoice and celebrate the gift of your boundless grace, which you bestow in gracious and loving measure to all people, saint and sinner.



September 19, 2017–Forgiving Sins

Don Holmstrom, Blacksburg, VA

Warm-up Question

How would you define “forgiveness” if you could not use the word “forgive?”

Forgiving Sins

A middle-aged man named Charlie Ryder grew up in Ireland, the son of an alcoholic father.  As a boy, his father verbally and emotionally abused him, leaving young Charlie with low self-esteem and deep depression.

As a teenager, Charlie started his journey to find healing.  In college, he attended Alateen, a 12-step program for young people whose lives were affected by a family member’s alcoholism.  “Alateen,” Charlie says, “gave me a safe space to open up and share honestly about the shame and humiliation I’d felt growing up.”  He began to find peace.   

To completely heal, Charlie decided he would need to forgive his dad.  But how?  He could easily list things “that he hated about his dad.”  But for what was he grateful?  He thought of ways his dad had shown his love, including giving his son “pocket money,” as well as money for Christmas and birthdays.  

But a more important realization for Charlie was discovering his father’s history.  His father grew up in a family of alcoholism.  Both of his father’s  parents were alcoholics.  His father, also, suffered from depression.  Upon learning this, Charlie, for the first time, felt compassion for his dad.  

A few years ago, Charlie and his sister visited his dad in the hospital.  His father was dying.  Near the end of their visit, Charlie’s father took his children’s hands and expressed regret for what he had done.  His final words to them were, “I’m sorry.”  Charlie responded, “We love you, dad.”

At that moment, Charlie says, he knew he had truly forgiven his father “for harming me as a child.”  And then Charlie offers this insight, “Forgiveness is a very personal journey but it can be a wonderful act of self-love.”

Discussion Questions

Can you remember a time you were forgiven for something you had done or failed to do?  How about a time when you forgave someone else?  What did forgiveness feel like?  

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 50:15-21

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

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

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

Gospel Reflection

This Matthew text starts with a famous question from Peter and an equally famous response from Jesus.  Then Jesus tells a parable illustrating forgiveness and judgment.

Peter’s question to Jesus might imply that the apostle is uneasy with the notion of forgiveness being unlimited.  Let’s just get by with as little forgiveness of others as we can, Peter seems to say. 

Jesus answers:  Not a handful of times should we forgive, but over and over and over again!  (Note that “seven” is a “holy” number in the scriptural world.  “Seventy-seven” indicates unlimitedness.)

But the parable that Jesus tells also seems to imply a catch: repentance must come before forgiveness.  In fact, every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we evoke this idea of repentance before forgiveness: “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Do you see such a connection between repentance and forgiveness?  

On the cross, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Does this imply that repentance must come before forgiveness?  Or is forgiveness a free gift, no strings attached?

Discussion Questions

  • Who is forgiveness for:  the perpetrator, the victim, or both?  How would Charlie Ryder answer this question?
  • Where is God in the process of forgiveness?

Activity Suggestions

  • Write down the word FORGIVENESS on a sheet of paper or white board.  Using each letter of forgiveness, jot down a word that begins with that letter and is connected to forgiveness.  (Ex.  “F” is for “freeing.”)
  • Read aloud the Old Testament text assigned for today.  It’s the conclusion of the long story of Jospeh and his brothers.  You’ll recall that his brothers sold Joseph into slavery.  But because of Joseph’s perseverance and God’s great love for him, he ends up becoming a revered leader in Egypt.  What happens to Joseph and his family due to the power of forgiveness?     

Closing Prayer

Gracious God, through your great love and grace, you continually forgive our sins and bring us to new life.  Help us to receive forgiveness with grace and humility.  And give us the strength and courage, O God, to forgive others as we have been forgiven.  Amen.


September 10, 2023–Dealing With Discord

Sylvia Alloway, Granada Hills, CA

Warm-up Question

Think of a time when your brother, sister, or friend said or did something that hurt you very badly. How did you react? Did you eventually resolve the conflict? How?

Dealing with Discord

The current estrangement between once-close brothers Prince William, Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne and his brother Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex has been grabbing headlines for some time. The latest skirmish is about Harry’s memoir Spare, in which he speaks frankly about his brother’s bad attitude towards his mixed-race wife, Meghan Markle, and the disagreements between Meghan and William’s wife, Kate Middleton. 

To most ordinary Americans these quarrels over which tailor would alter Princess Charlotte’s flower girl’s dress for Harry and Megan’s 2018 wedding and Meghan’s audacious request to borrow Kate’s lip gloss sound trivial, but to royals they are not.

Then the London press got into the act, making every squabble public, usually siding with William, and adding a strong undertone of racial prejudice that no one in the palace denied. The hostile atmosphere became too much for Harry and Meghan. In 2020 they decided to renounce their royal status and move to the United States. To William, this was an insult not to be borne. His father King Charles (then Prince Charles) officially evicted the couple from their royal residence, Frogmore Cottage, in January of this year, when Spare was published.  By June they had sent the last of their belongings to Montecito, California, where they now live. 

In early August the transplanted royals extended an offer of peace to their brother prince by suggesting that they rent an apartment in Kensington Palace at their own expense, where they would stay during family visits. Journalists from local news outlets doubt that the gesture will be accepted.

Discussion Questions

  • If you could give advice to Prince William and Prince Harry about ending their feud, what would you say to them? 
  • What do you think about Harry’s offer to rent an apartment in one of the royal palaces, implying that he’d like to visit? Does he want to reconcile with his brother? Could there be any other reason for this gesture?

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 33:7-11

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

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

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

Gospel Reflection

Jesus wants all his followers to be united as a family (John 17:20-21). But even members of the best families sin and need forgiveness. Sin causes rifts, even opposing factions, within Christ’s family. To avoid disunity, the church needs guidance in dealing with someone who sins against a brother or sister in Christ. Jesus provides one.

According to today’s scripture, there are three major steps in dealing with a Christian brother or sister who has wronged you. The first is the most important – and the most difficult: face to face conversation. Even secular psychologists and other health professionals recommend this. Putting it off, letting your anger and frustration grow will only make the job harder. Arrange a one-on-one meeting as soon as possible.

Simply and calmly, tell the person how they have hurt you. Then listen to their side. Were they unaware of the wrong they have done? Did they do it with malice, but now repent? Or are they unrepentant, still convinced that they are in the right? 

Step two deals with someone who refuses to repent and ask forgiveness. Now the wronged person widens the circle. He or she brings a friend or two from the church and confronts the person again, as the Jewish law suggests (Deuteronomy 19:15).  Jesus did not deal with individual sinners angrily or by threats. Neither should we. Again, the confrontation should be straightforward and peaceful.

Step three is a last resort. If the sinner is still unrepentant, he or she may be cast out of the church. Even now, the goal is restoration, not revenge. If someone is separated from their family, they may be lonely and desire to come back. The goal is always reconciliation; repentance is a necessary step to restoring unity within the Christian family.

Discussion Questions

  • Tell about a time when you hurt someone you care about, but you repented, and they forgave you. Who or what helped you to repent?
  • What do you think about the process Jesus recommends for keeping unity in the church? Would it be effective in your church? Why or why not?
  • What positive actions do you think would promote unity in your church?

Activity Suggestions

  • Divide the class into pairs. Each pair is to make up a brief story about two people who are carrying out step one in the unity process. Decide who sinned, what they did, and how the other person feels about it. What would the people say? Invent a dialogue between these people that includes either forgiveness or refusal to repent and present it to the class.
  • Go back to the third discussion question. As a class, brainstorm some ideas about gatherings or projects that would improve the unity of the people in your church. Which ones would you like to see carried out? How might you go about it?

Closing Prayer

Dear Lord, you want your people to bond with each other in love and caring as your family, but we often fail. Forgive us for our carelessness and neglect of our brothers and sisters. Let your light shine from us, your concern for others motivate us, and your joy overflow from us to those who need it.  Fashion us daily to become more and more like you. In Jesus’ name. Amen


Faith Lens on Summer Hiatus

Faith Lens will not be published over the summer. But don’t worry, it will be back in the fall.


The next Faith Lens is scheduled to be posted on September 5, 2023 for Sunday, September 10.

May 28, 2023–Crossing Boundaries

Bill King, Blacksburg, VA

Warm-up Question

Make a mental playlist of your five favorite pieces of music?  How many musical genres are represented?  Is it all K-pop, metal, classical, rap, jazz, indie?  Do you have a mix?  What do your choices say about you?

Crossing Boundaries

Taylor Swift and The National have both been very influential musical artists.  But they have typically appealed to very different audiences.  Swift is the epitome of a pop star, mining her personal struggles for inspiration and pairing them with catchy tunes which have stadiums of adoring fans singing along.  

In contrast, The National has been the poster child for an indie-rock band, more at home in a grungy after hours club than an arena.  If Swift’s lyrics often sound like a teen’s diary, The National’s are brooding and obscure to the the point of incomprehensible.

So, according to a recent article The Atlantic, it is mildly surprising that Swift and The National have collaborated.  According to the review, both benefited from the interaction.  Swift’s new albums, Folklore and Evermore, feature moodier arrangements and show her “availing herself of the freedoms and imperatives, that men in rock and roll have long enjoyed—and projecting more ambiguity rather than wholesomeness and virtue.”

From Swift, The National seems to have learned to be less morose and abstract.  “In First Two Pages of Frankenstein the songwriting is tighter and often brighter, and Beringer’s [The National’s lead singer] meanings are remarkably direct.”  

Music fans are the big winners when stars push their comfort zones and learn from one another.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you react when your favorite musical artist tries something new?
  • In previous generations radio stations would play a “Top 40” format, which included many different styles of music.  You might hear country, rock, soul, and a show tune in the same half hour.  Today most people create a play list of their favorites or listen to a curated list on a streaming service.  What are the benefits and costs of each experience?
  • Think about a time you have collaborated with someone else?  How were you changed?  How was the product on which you collaborated better or worse?

Day of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

John 20:19-23

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

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

Gospel Reflection

It’s hard to say exactly what happened that first Pentecost.  A sound from heaven like a rushing wind, tongues of fire resting on the disciples—this is clearly figurative language which Luke uses to communicate an experience he can not really explain.  Yet, somehow God comes to the disciples in a way they can not deny, transforming them from a scared cadre of confused believers into people compelled to tell what Jesus taught and did.

Nor is it clear how Galileans are suddenly able to speak languages they have never studied.  Some scholars suggest that Luke (the writer of Acts) misunderstood what happened, that this is an example of glossolalia, the “speaking in tongues” we usually associate with Pentecostal worship.  But that is not what the text describes.  This is not people speaking gibberish, which others interpret.  Rather, people from across the empire hear their own languages spoken.  It is like a person born and bred in rural Iowa or Virginia suddenly preaching in flawless Mandarin or Kiswahili. 

Through we can not say exactly what happened, it is easier to see what it means.  There was no way the gospel message was going to stay confined within a tightly cloistered community around Jerusalem.  The rest of Acts shows the expansion of the Church’s ministry.  Peter goes to a Gentile centurion, Cornelius.  Paul travels through Greece, Asia Minor, and ultimately to Rome.  Pentecost serves notices that God intends for the way of Jesus to transcend the boundaries of culture, language, and religion.  This is a message for all people.

During the Church’s history that intention has often been frustrated.  Unfortunately, Christians easily misidentify their own culture as the one true expression of the gospel.  When that happens the Church’s confession is neither good nor news; it becomes just another defense of the status quo.

The Church is most faithful when it reaches beyond its comfort zone and hears and welcomes challenging voices.  It is most effective when it finds new ways to address the hurts and struggles which we all share.  Just as a lake needs a regular infusion of fresh water, so the church needs new voices.  Both grow stagnant without a renewing flow.  Unfamiliar, even disconcerting, voices are the lifeblood of the Church, keeping it in touch with the world for which Christ died.  They are God’s gift, pushing us to see how Pentecost was not a one-and-done phenomenon, but the template for how a Spirit led community looks when Christ is alive in it.

Discussion Questions

  • What new voice has challenged you in the last week to think or act in a different way?
  • What are your favorite hymns; do any of them come out of a culture different from your own?
  • The Church is often accused of being out of touch with the world.  Do you think that is true?  What could it do to more effectively speak to your questions and concerns?
  • A hallmark of the Pentecost narrative is that “each heard in his own native language.”  What new “languages” does the church need to master in order to proclaim Christ more effectively?  For example, how well do we speak “science?”

Activity Suggestions

Evangelical Lutheran Worship and many other hymnals  contain music from a variety of  nations and cultures.  Still, most of the hymns in ELW come out of Europe or North American.  Get an ELW or other hymnal and seek out hymns from Africa, Latin America, and Asia.  

  • How are they different, both musically and in their theological emphasis, from those written in Europe or the United States?  How are they similar?
  • How do they enrich the worship life of congregations which use them?  What would be lost if they were not part of the worship resource Lutherans share?

Closing Prayer

Surprising God, just as you came to the disciples in an unexpected way at Pentecost, come also to us.  Shake us out of complacency.  Makes us alive to the gifts which those who seem very different from us may offer to enrich our lives.  Give us wisdom to hold on to what is timeless, your unfailing love.  But also make us eager to embrace bold, creative ways to speak and live that love in our hurting world.