Mary Houck, Decatur, GA

Warm-up Question

Think of a time recently when you helped someone, and a time when you asked for help. 

Vulnerable Babies

When looking at the overall health of a group of people, the Infant Mortality Rate is a common statistic to look at. This is the percentage of infants who die in their first year of life. While it’s hard to think about families experiencing such a devastating loss, the rate gives us important information about how well we are caring for our neighbors. When babies don’t survive their first year, it is sometimes because of unavoidable genetic diseases or defects. But often, it’s because they and their mothers do not have enough food, good medical care; and safe, warm shelter. Sometimes political conflicts and wars create violence, hunger, and severe poverty. Poor, unstable countries typically have the worst Infant Mortality Rates, while stable, wealthy countries have the lowest. 

The United States, despite being the country with the largest economy in the world, has a higher infant mortality rate than most other large and wealthy countries. But it doesn’t affect everyone evenly. Babies of white, college-educated women in the US have a similar rate to those in other wealthy, developed countries. Babies of black mothers, on the other hand, have a rate more than twice as high. Breaking it down by age rather than race, mothers under age 20 have the highest rate of infant mortality. 

There are various theories as to why there are such differences in the US, but a few things we know for sure: 

  • All mothers love their babies, are equally capable of caring for them when they have the resources to do so, and want them to thrive, no matter what their age or skin color. 
  • Access to basics like food, safety, shelter, and health care can make a huge difference in these numbers and not all mothers have equal access to them.
  • Every baby needs a supportive family and community to thrive, in addition to a loving mom.

Discussion Questions

  • Who cared for you as an infant? Was it one of your parents? Both? Did grandparents or other family members help? Maybe you were cared for by foster or adoptive parents? If you don’t know, consider asking your parents or caregivers about it and who their support system was. 
  • Do you know of organizations in your community that help mothers? That support families while their infants are in ICU care? 

Baptism of our Lord/ First Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 43:1-7

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 or Matthew 2:1-12

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

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

Gospel Reflection

When Amy Grant spoke at the Wild Goose Festival in the summer of 2018, she said something that stuck with me: “need creates community.” She went on to give examples of how when we ask for help with anything from putting up a tent to dealing with depression to escaping poverty, it becomes an invitation to know and walk alongside each other which we would otherwise miss out on. 

Our culture, on the other hand, teaches us to worship self-sufficiency. It is usually considered weak and shameful to be vulnerable in any way or to need help of any kind. As babies, our parents do everything for us, and it’s natural and necessary as we grow to become more and more self-sufficient. This process has its ups and downs, and may lead to conflict with parents and other caregivers who can have a hard time acknowledging our newfound independence. Reacting against them, it’s easy to dig in our heels and pretend that we don’t need them or anyone else for anything. 

When Jesus was born, he was an infant just as needy and helpless as any one of us. Sleeping in Mary’s arms or in the manger, he had no idea of the chain of events he had set in motion. The star which appeared in the sky at his birth drew the wise men from far away countries. Unfortunately, it also set in motion Herod’s fear and brutality, leading him to order the murder of all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or less (a part of the Christmas story we tend to skip because it’s hard to think about).

Need can bring out the best in us–and also the worst. When we give in to the idea that need is shameful it can harden our hearts.  We blame our neighbors for their suffering or  prolong our own suffering, using self-destructive behaviors to mask our real needs. Sometimes, like Herod, feeling vulnerable makes us lash out at others in order to feel powerful again, trampling them in the process. The helpless baby Jesus in the manger is an invitation to respond to Jesus’ vulnerability by walking alongside our neighbors. It’s also an invitation to acknowledge our own needs and give others the gift of being our support system.

The wise men, who arrived at the end of a long journey to find, not a royal baby but the seemingly ordinary son of a carpenter, could have left in a huff and taken their gifts home with them. But, seeing the vulnerability of Jesus and his family and knowing that Herod had evil intentions, they responded by giving Mary and Joseph everything they needed and more to take Jesus to safety in Egypt. 

Discussion Questions

  • Who is your support system? Who are the people you can call on when you need something? It might be family, friends, teachers, coaches, pastors, etc. 
  • Is it more difficult to ask for a practical need (like borrowing money) or an emotional need (when you need comfort or encouragement)?

Activity Suggestions

  • Learn more about efforts to reduce the infant mortality rate around the world by organizations like UNICEF. What can you as a group or individual do to help? Raise money with a fundraiser? Ask for donations for your next birthday? Dedicate loose change from your church offering for a month? 
  • What does your church do to welcome new babies in your congregation? 
    • Make some cards to congratulate new parents. Discuss what you as a group or with your family could do. Bring a meal? Volunteer to babysit so parents can get some much-needed rest?
    • It can be very hard for parents to talk about it when they experience a miscarriage, stillbirth, or death of an infant, but it’s incredibly important to let them know they’re not alone. Make some sympathy cards and give them to your pastor, who can distribute them when appropriate. 

Closing Prayer

Gracious God, thank you for surrounding us with people who love and support us, whether they are our biological or chosen family. Open our eyes to the needs of others and our hearts to ask for help when we need it. Amen.