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October 21, 2012–Ut Prosim

Contributed by Bill King, Blacksburg, VA


Warm-up Question

Think about a challenge which you have set for yourself.  What drives you to succeed?  What motivates you when the going gets tough?

Ut Prosim

On August 20th, after 60 hours in the water, Diana Nyad had to abandon her latest attempt to swim the Straits of Florida, a distance of 103 miles from Havana to Key West.  The 62 year old endurance swimmer holds a world record for the longest ocean swim—102.5 miles from the Bahamas to Jupiter, Florida—but the challenges she faced in the Straits proved insurmountable.  After the first night, her lips, arms, hands, and neck were painfully swollen due to jellyfish stings.  At the end a lightning-filled storm blew her off course and made staying in the water extremely dangerous.

Nyad has made four attempts to swim the Straits since 1972.  She has been foiled by jellyfish stings, an 11 hour asthma attack, a shoulder injury, adverse weather, and strong currents.  Nyad swims without a shark cage and depends on boats, divers, and electronic shark repellant to keep the predators at bay.  But no good tools exist to deal with jellyfish.  Nyad admitted that she was naïve not to anticipate the problems from jellyfish, because they are proliferating throughout the world’s seas.

Nyad says she continues to feel vital and is prepared to try again.  She hopes that her efforts will inspire others her age to push their limits.  “When I walk up on that shore in Florida, I want millions of those AARP sisters and brothers to look at me and say, ‘I’m going to go write that novel I thought it was too late to do. I’m going to go work in Africa on that farm that those people need help at. I’m going to adopt a child. It’s not too late; I can still live my dreams.’ ”

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think of Nyad’s goal to swim the Straits; is this an appropriate use of time, money, and energy—both her own and others?
  • What do you think most motivates her?  The article contains one answer; what are some other possibilities?
  • How do you judge her failure to anticipate the jellyfish stings, particularly since she had encountered them in previous attempts?
  • What is the difference between making a wise decision and just being a quitter?  How do you know when to just “push through the pain?”

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 21, 2012 (Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost)

Isaiah 53:4-12

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

(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

Motivation matters.  As the disciples and Jesus travel toward Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week, there is no reason to believe that James and John are anything but sincere in their desire to follow Jesus.  Perhaps, as the ironic exchange about drinking the cup suggests, they do not fully understand what it will mean to walk with him.  But they have no qualms about calling Jesus Lord and teacher; they are hitching their fate to his.  The problem is their motivation.

Despite Jesus’ repeated efforts to make them see what is coming, they still have images that are more about coronation than crucifixion.  They see themselves as prime ministers in the new regime.  In short, they are focused on all the benefits of a close association with Jesus.  Their motivation is at bottom self-interest.  Like campaign contributors shrewdly calculating who can do them the most good, they have decided to back this candidate—and they ask for “assurances” that their loyalty will be rewarded.

Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) is the motto of the university at which I serve as campus pastor.  I have always liked that motto because it emphasizes to students that the education they receive here is supposed to be more than the passport to a very lucrative job and to the faculty that their research has a higher goal than personal resume building.  Even in the heat of the college football season I would never suggest that God is a Virginia Tech Hokie, but in my more whimsical moments I can image Jesus handing James and John a VT T-shirt, with Ut Prosim emblazoned across the front, and saying, “Guys, think about it.”

Ut Prosim.  There are a lot worse summaries of what following Jesus means.  There is nothing wrong with giving thanks for the sense of peace we find in knowing we are loved beyond measure.  We ought to rejoice when the community in Christ gives us a sense of belonging and purpose.  Of course our hearts swell in thanksgiving for the salvation offered us in Christ.  But finally, we are blessed to be a blessing; we are filled up so that we can be a reservoir of living water for others.

Virtually all the people reading this mediation are incredibly privileged.  Compared to the rest of the world we enjoy the untold advantages of wealth, education, opportunity, and a peaceful homeland.  Most of all we know what it means to walk in the company of Jesus.  So how will we use those gifts; what is going to motivate us when we step outside the church and into a messy world?  I am sure that Diana Nyad, in our opening news story, is driven in large part by a personal need to succeed, but I believe her when she says she also wants to inspire others.  If we can achieve even that amount of mixed motivation, we are on the road to understanding what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

Discussion Questions

  • If you had to sum up what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in four words or less, what would you say?
  • James and John are inappropriately focused on the benefits of following Jesus to the exclusion of understanding what it means to serve him and to serve others in his name.  Can you think of contemporary examples where this is the case?
  • Talk about what motivates you to be part of your youth group, to attend church (let’s be real about this), to go on service trips, to volunteer?

Activity Suggestions

Using the answer you gave to the first question following the gospel reflection, consider making a T-Shirt which displays your understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.  You can either come to a consensus and make one for your whole group or have each person make his or her own shirt.

Closing Prayer

God of unlimited blessings, we remember with thanksgiving all that we have received from your hand.  Make us keenly aware that gifts are given in trust, that we may reflect your love for the world and ease the suffering of your children.  We pray in the name of Him who modeled a life of service, Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

February 19, 2011–Transfiguration: Changed But Unchanged

Contributed by Eric Ullestad, West Des Moines, IA


Warm-up Question

How do you use social media like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, etc.?

Transfiguration:  Changed But Unchanged

A little over one year has passed since protests in Tunisia marked the beginning of Arab Spring.  These demonstrations sparked similar outbursts in other cities in the Middle East and North Africa; across the region thousands spoke out against human rights violations and oppressive regimes.  Use of social media has been credited with increasing the effectiveness of these civil uprisings.  Government leaders in some countries attempted to shut down the Internet in the hopes of disabling communication between people.

Since the mid-2000s when “social media” became a buzz phrase, skeptics have wondered if these web sites have a useful purpose.  Sharing statuses (Facebook), hashtags (Twitter), locations (FourSquare), videos (YouTube), and pictures (Flickr) provide voyeuristic entertainment, but are criticized for being a big waste of time.  Over the past year, people in these Arab countries have demonstrated that social media provides the power to organize people around a cause in ways that were not possible in previous generations.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you know about the ongoing protests taking place in Middle East and North Africa?
  • How has the use social media changed the way you relate to people?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, February 19, 2012 (Transfiguration of Our Lord)

2 Kings 2:1-12

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Mark 9:2-9

(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

Let it not be said that Jesus lacked a flair for the dramatic.  He had just finished a feeding frenzy (4,000 people – Mark 8:1-9), an optometry experiment (Mark 8:22-26), and a hard-core conversation with Peter about his own demise (Mark 8:27-38).  After all that, he goes for a hike with three of his closest friends – James, John, and the aforementioned Peter.  One might think that this was his chance to take a break from it all.  Instead, he pulls off one of the most paranormal activities of his life: the transfiguration.  Not only did his appearance change, but two of the most prominent leaders of God’s people – Moses and Elijah – show up unannounced.  It’s easy to understand if the disciples didn’t quite know what to do.

We know now what the disciples may not have at the time: the man who ascended the mountain with them was the same man with the dazzling white clothes.  Though aspects of Jesus’ physical form were altered, he was the same person who had been with them all along.  After coming down from the mountain, Jesus continued his inevitable march to the cross by teaching, healing, performing miracles, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  The Mount of Transfiguration simultaneously left Jesus changed and unchanged.

In a similar way protests, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience are not new.  Those  events have occurred for millennia.  However, the ways in which people are brought together have changed because of advances in technology.  Not only are these countries being transfigured, but various forms of social media have been transfigured to become powerful agents of change across the world.

Christians have a history of embracing this kind of simultaneity.  We are people that are broken and healed; enslaved and free; lost and found; sinner and saint.  The Transfiguration of Jesus gives us hope that in the midst of historic changes in government, climate, and digital technology, the person of Jesus and his unfailing love for the world remain unchanged.

Discussion Questions

  • What images of the Transfiguration jump out at you?
  • How would you have responded if you were one of the disciples?
  • Why do you think Jesus instructed the disciples to not tell

Activity Suggestions

Think of ways your congregation can use social media to spread the Gospel message.  Consider asking students to “donate their status” each week to letting people in their social circles about what’s going on in the congregation.  Perhaps students could make suggestions of how to improve the church web site or Facebook page.  Could your congregation incorporate mass text messages to keep its members connected to Bible verses, church ministries, or prayer requests throughout the week?  Discuss these (and other) ideas and take steps toward implementing your plans in the days ahead.

Closing Prayer

God, thank you for being with us through the uncertainties of our life.  Help us to know that your love for us never changes.  Amen.