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April 27, 2014–Confused, Scared, and Depressed

Contributed by Brian Hiortdahl, Overland Park, KS


Warm-up Question

What scares you?

Confused, Scared, and Depressed

Alex Hribal, a sophomore at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, sits in custody after a recent rampage during which he stabbed multiple people at his school with kitchen knives.  Hribal’s attorney describes him as “confused, scared, and depressed.”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you feel any sympathy for Alex?  Why or why not?
  • What do you think is the best strategy for keeping schools safe from violence?  What role do students play in school safety?
  • Could something unthinkable like this happen in a church youth group setting?  Why or why not?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 27, 2014 (Second Sunday of Easter)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

(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

shutterstock_58639987editThe gospel writer John presents the disciples looking just like Alex Hribal:  confused, scared, and depressed.  Their doors are locked in fear.  No doubt the authorities know that they are tied to Jesus, a criminal perceived to be so dangerous that he had to receive the death penalty.  As his known accomplices, the disciples are likely targets of some form of crackdown, especially now that a rumor is going around that Jesus has risen from the dead and is alive again.

 They also have reason to fear Jesus himself.  Most of them had denied him if not also betrayed him, running away and abandoning him in his darkest hour.  Will he confront them with their failure?  Will they have to answer to him for their terrible moment of disloyalty and cowardice?

The stone door of the tomb couldn’t keep Jesus in, and the locks on the disciples’ doors couldn’t keep him out.  He did confront them…with words of surprising grace.  Peace be with you, he said.  Then he showed them where he himself had been stabbed.

After this, he gave them his Spirit and a new mission:  forgiveness.  They were given the responsibility of giving to the world exactly what he had given them.  He is essentially reframing his commandment to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. One characteristic of this complete love is that it casts out fear.  (See John 13:34 and 1 John 4:18.)  Forgiveness banishes all of the brokenness in relationships (guilt, shame, distrust, fear, isolation), making those relationships safe enough that love can be possible and complete again, and hearts can live in peace.

This mission is tested immediately with Thomas, who was not present for the meeting.  Would they retaliate against him because he did not trust them?  Would they punish Thomas somehow for failing to believe their (rather unbelievable) news about seeing Jesus?  Or would they forgive him and include him in sharing the gift of peace they have just received from Christ’s open, wounded hands?

Discussion Questions

  • Can Alex Hribal be forgiven by his victims?  Should he be?  What do you think Jesus would say to him?
  • Do people fear Jesus and/or His church?  Why?  What can be done about it?
  • Who is missing from your groups—at church, at school, at parties?  How can you break through their isolation with good news and include them?

Activity Suggestions

Identify someone you know who appears misunderstood, someone who seems to need more love and peace and compassion.  Pray for them.  Befriend them.  Invite them to accompany you at youth group or another social gathering.

Closing Prayer

God of second chances, we praise you for the resurrection of Jesus and his appearance to his frightened disciples.  Visit us with your peace and power.  Forgive us the ways in which we have wronged you and strengthen us to forgive others.  Replace our fears with faith and love and joy.  Bring all this bleeding world from death to life, in Jesus’ name. Amen

November 3, 2013–Forgiveness is a Journey

Contributed by David Delaney, Salem, VA


Warm-up Question

What famous person or celebrity would you most like to meet?   Would it be a current music star or movie star or model?   A public leader like the president or the pope?   A sports hero from one of the teams in the World Series or the upcoming football season?  A TV personality?  A character from a reality show?  Or the star of the latest viral video on Youtube?

Whoever that would be, imagine that this person came to your town and decided to have an open air parade where she would just ride down the street and wave to people with no one holding the crowds back;  people could just come up to her and say hello or climb up on the car or anything.  Keep in mind that this is someone who is probably very, very popular, so the crowd is going to be huge. What do you think your chances would be of getting close enough even to say hello, let alone have a conversation?  That is how a lot of people felt when Jesus came riding through Jericho that day on his way up to Jerusalem.  Because of his miracles and teaching, common people were fascinated with him and religious and political authorities distrusted him, so he was someone a lot of people wanted to see.

Let’s make the situation harder:  The morning of the parade where you are going to see your celebrity, you just sprained your ankle and you’re on crutches, so you can’t even walk up to the parade.  You have to watch from a distance.  Don’t forget:  this is someone you *really* admire and would give anything to meet.  Right when the parade is passing and hundreds or even thousands of people are crowded around, your celebrity looks right at you and points and says, “I have to meet *that* person!”  You – along with everyone else – would be stunned.  How did she even know you?

Let’s make the situation even more complicated yet:  Let’s say you’ve done something – at school or in your community – to make everyone despise you, like you won the lottery by cheating or something like that.  No one can prove it, but everyone knows that it’s true, so they basically hate you.  Now, when the celebrity looks at you and calls your name, the crowd is not only stunned, they’re angry and resentful.  This is very much what the scene would have looked and felt like to Zacchaeus when he saw Jesus pass through Jericho.

Forgiveness is a Journey

Many people have not heard of a small but committed movement called “Theshutterstock_157483391edit Forgiveness Project.”  The aim of this movement is to collect and share stories where people have found peace and renewed relationships by forgiving someone who has harmed or deceived them.  In some cases, the harm that had been done was quite significant – murder of a loved one, permanent injury, spousal unfaithfulness, squandering all of a family’s resources, and other things like that.

In August of this year a prominent friend of The Forgiveness Project named Anne Gallagher died suddenly, and her death inspired a lot of renewed sharing about her unique ability to bring about reconciliation through forgiveness.  Anne was from Northern Ireland, where she had started her own organization, “Seeds of Hope,” as a way of helping people who have either been victims of the long and violent conflict in Northern Ireland (what the Irish call “The Troubles”) or have been perpetrators of that violence, especially if they have been imprisoned.  Its primary vehicle for forgiveness and healing is shared story-telling.

Anne Gallagher’s gift was somehow to inspire people to see the humanity in every single person, regardless of what terrible things they might have done.  Yet her death has also allowed her friends and followers to recall the importance she attached to forgiveness when reconciliation was the goal.  People could not just start to get along again or pretend that the past did not matter– they had to acknowledge the harm they had done or the harm that had been done to them, and only then, when faced with another person who did not really deserve to be forgiven, could true forgiveness occur and reconciliation follow.

“Forgiveness … is needed to bring closure to the pain and suffering experienced in Northern Ireland,” Anne said. “You can’t contemplate hope unless you address despair. To heal the wounds of Northern Ireland I believe you have to see humanity in the face of the enemy. But forgiveness is a journey. Today you can forgive and tomorrow you can feel pain all over again … for me forgiveness is about grace. To be able to forgive someone who has hurt you is a moment of grace.”

 Discussion Questions

  • We do not know how the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus started, but somehow it ended up with Zacchaeus admitting to Jesus what he had done and vowing to make the same admission to those he had cheated, so that there could be both forgiveness and reconciliation.  Can you see any similarity between Jesus actions and the vision which inspired Anne Gallagher’s work?
  • What gives people the courage to forgive when as in the case of Northern Ireland, there is long tradition of distrust, violence, and pain?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 3, 2013 (Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

Isaiah 1:10-18

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

(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

This passage allows us to take up one of several roles, depending on our life circumstance.  For some of us, it is possible to look at things we have done and presume that we are no longer able to be on friendly terms with the “decent” people we know because of our guilt.  Others of us are content to let people who are obviously bad stay out of our lives.  Others of us are – like Jesus – strongly motivated to overcome the divisions we see between people around us.

What a gift Jesus gives us here to pass on, especially if we are someone who is not always on the receiving end of hatred and rejection. We can reach out to those who are. It is possible that they have earned the negative reputation they have, but – like Jesus – we can go to them, not out of moral superiority or in order to demand justice, but just because we want the relationship to be restored.

Who knows what might come of that if it is tried?  And if we are the ones who have been rejected – with or without justification – imagine the joy and gratitude we would experience at being encountered by those who we thought would never have anything to do with us!

Discussion Questions

  •  It is difficult to overestimate the dislike that the Jews of Jericho would have had for a tax collector in Jesus’ day.  First of all, the Jews generally despised the Roman Empire because Rome continued to occupy the territory that the Jews considered to be their ancestral promised land, so anyone who worked for or collaborated with the Romans – such as tax collectors – would have been considered a traitor to the Jewish cause and also “unclean” for worship because of the tax collector’s frequent contact with the Romans who were pagans.  Furthermore, tax collectors were on their own to determine what amounts to charge, as long as they gave the correct amount to the Roman authorities.  Jericho was a border town, which meant that anyone who crossed either way had to pay a customs tax and was at the mercy of the tax collector.  An ambitious tax collector might very well charge as much as four times a normal amount to someone who was obviously anxious to get across the border.  Shortly after Jesus’ day the law among Jews was that if a tax-collector came into your house, the entire house and everything in it would become religiously unclean.  How does this inform or change your view of what a serious matter it must have been when Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house for a meal?  Look back in the previous chapter of Luke and see if this helps make sense of passages like 18:31-34.
  • Note the placement of this story.  If you look at the rest of chapter 19 and through to chapter 22, what is getting ready to happen to Jesus?  Is it surprising that Jesus takes this kind of risk, knowing that he already has enemies in the Jerusalem area?  What other kinds of risky and surprising things do we see Jesus doing in this gospel and in the other gospels?
  • What does it mean when Jesus says “Salvation has come to this house” ?  What do we think when we hear the word “salvation,” and does a passage like this inform or change our ideas at all?  If we think of salvation only in terms of what happens to us after we die, this passage doesn’t make much sense, but if salvation is as much what happens to us now, in terms of growing close to God, is that a better understanding of salvation, especially here?
  • The overall story in Luke’s gospel is full of criss-cross patterns.  This passage actually has a kind of parallel to the instructions given by John the Baptist to both Jews and Romans back in chapter 3:7-14.  Note even the parallel reference to children of Abraham.   What is this passage teaching us about our own possessions, our own honesty, our own tendencies to be greedy, and our own relationship to the poor and needy around us?  Let’s imagine what our own reactions would be if Jesus himself showed up in the flesh to one of our homes for a meal.  What would we find ourselves admitting to him?  What would we promise to do to be faithful to the call to gospel living that is in both chapter 3 and chapter 19?

Activity Suggestions

  •  Invitations to meals are always a good way to build relationships.  Are there people in the school or neighborhood – or even the congregation – who would welcome an invitation to a meal with the youth of your church?  Plan a meal and then ask them if they would like to come join you!
  • Use the various online and other tools that are available to you to find places in the world where unjust economic practices have created a rift of hatred between the wealthy and the poor or between those who have power to extort money from the population and those who are victimized by that.  Keep these people – perpetrators as well as victims – in your prayers throughout the rest of the fall.

Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus, in your love you have reached out to the lonely, the rejected, and the guilty in every generation, and you have reached out to us as well to announce to us that you intend to come and make your home in our lives and our hearts.  Give us, we pray, the strength to welcome you with repentance and gratitude and courage, so that we may in turn welcome others into the family of Abraham’s children.  In your holy name we pray, Amen.

April 14, 2013–The Power of Not Saying Sorry

Contributed by Jay McDivitt, Thiensville, WI


Warm-up Question

Think of a time when you did and a time when you did not apologize for something you did wrong. How does it feel to say you’re sorry? How does it feel not to?

The Power of Not Saying Sorry

shutterstock_10860583editResearchers Tyler Okimoto, Michael Wenzel, and Kyli Hendrick recently reported on a study they did about the effects of apologizing – or not. Their findings were very interesting.  Apologizing often does make someone feel better. However, choosing not to apologize also makes a person feel better – and, often, better than they would have felt had they apologized.

Why? Because: “When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered,” Okimoto said in an interview with NPR. “That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.”  This research reveals something powerful about human psychology and the power of being in control. It also might help us understand how we might better approach folks who we believe need to apologize. When we force people to apologize (as we often do with children), it makes them feel like they don’t have any power or self-control, that they are not in control of their choices. A forced apology is usually not very heartfelt and, thus, not meaningful.  Love and support, on the other hand, may lead folks to more freely and meaningfully apologize because they can work to heal a relationship without the threatening feelings of being forced.


Discussion Questions

  • What do you think? When have you been forced to apologize? (“Say you’re sorry…or else!”) How does that feel?
  • When you know you’ve done something wrong, what does it take to get you to say you’re sorry?
  • When someone apologizes to you, can you tell whether they mean it or not? What difference does it make?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 14, 2013 (Third Sunday of Easter)

Acts 9:1-20

Revelation 5:11-14

John 21:1-19

(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

At the end of this gospel story, Jesus pulls Peter aside for a private conversation. He asks him three times, “Do you love me?” And each time, when Peter replies that he does love Jesus, the risen Christ says (again, three times): “Feed/tend my lambs/sheep.” Then Jesus explains to Peter that if he decides to follow through on this command to tend the flock, life for Peter will be challenging and dangerous. He will not be in control of his own life. He will suffer. He will die before he is ready.

Letting that sink in for a moment, then Jesus invites Peter to “follow me.” What’s going on here?  Remember that not long ago Peter was given the opportunity to show his love for Jesus by publicly claiming to belong to him. Three times, as Jesus was on trial and being prepared for death, Peter was asked if he knew and followed Jesus. Three times, Peter denied it. He let his fear get the better of him.  Jesus died without the solace of knowing that one of his closest friends would be there for him when the road became difficult. Peter felt terrible about what he had done. Terrible times three.

Imagine, then, how Peter was feeling when all of a sudden Jesus shows up by the seaside. Imagine the guilt and shame churning in his stomach when Jesus pulls him aside for a private chat. He expected a reprimand; he deserved harsh judgment. What he got instead was another chance to be in loving relationship with Jesus. Another chance to share in his ministry. Another chance to be a disciple. Another chance to show that Jesus was worthy of love.

Instead of judgment, he received grace and a purpose. Three times.  And so it is with the rest of us. We show up to church with any number of reasons to feel guilty or ashamed. We have much to confess. We deny our love for Jesus as we give our love and allegiance to popularity, prosperity, success, politics… you name it.

What we get from Jesus is not judgment but love. He feeds us – and then calls us into a life of feeding others. He gives us chance after chance after chance to start over and slowly learn how to follow, how to love, how to live and die for something bigger than ourselves or our fears.  And thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Discussion Questions

  • Why didn’t Jesus give Peter a “firm talking to”? Why didn’t he make him apologize? If you were Jesus, what would you want to say to Peter about what happened before, when he denied knowing you and left you alone when you needed him most?
  • What happens next in Peter’s life is really quite remarkable. He lives a life of faithful discipleship, claiming the Name of Jesus, and he is killed for it. What gave him the strength to do that when before he was too weak or fearful to acknowledge even knowing Jesus?
  • When have you deserved to be judged or forced to apologize? When have you been forgiven, whether you apologized or not?

Activity Suggestions

Write a letter to someone you have hurt or wronged. Write another letter to someone who has hurt or wronged you. (These letters can remain private; you don’t have to send them or share them with anyone.) If you could say whatever you wanted to that person, what would it be? Do you want to be forgiven? Do you want to forgive? Do you want to have a relationship with this person, or are you happy to just move on? What would it take to be back into a relationship as friends, family, or whatever?

When your letters are done, talk together as a group about what you wrote. Without sharing names or details, what feelings did you put into it? What actions would be a part of healing this relationship? How much of your letter was judgment, and how much was grace?

(Note: I don’t expect anyone to be totally full of grace and forgiveness and love all the time. That’s Jesus’ job. Thankfully he’s a lot better at it than most of us. The point is simply to explore the power of saying sorry—or not—and  the energy and work it takes to be in relationship with people when getting hurt is always a real possibility.)

Closing Prayer

Risen Christ, you are full of love—for me, for us, and for everyone. How do you do that? It is amazing that you could be so gracious and kind with people who really don’t deserve it. Thank you for loving us, in spite of all our faults, and teach us to slowly begin to learn from you how to love and forgive. Amen.


October 9, 2011–Homecoming… Going out? Or Coming Home?

Contributed by Jay McDivitt, Mequon, WI


Warm-up Question

When were you happy to be invited to a party or dance, or asked out on a date? When have you been disappointed not to be asked? [It’s okay – we’ve all been there… but if you like, you can tell a story about ‘a friend of yours’ instead.]

Homecoming… Going out? Or Coming Home?

In my corner of the country, it’s “homecoming” season. I assume that’s true most everywhere in the US.  High school or college, this is the time for parades, football games, dances, parties… and lots of expectations and pressure.

Now in my early 30s, I honestly can’t remember all the people I went to homecoming, prom, or other important dances with when I was in school. Sometimes I went with a date, sometimes a group of friends, and sometimes I didn’t go at all. I probably have pictures somewhere that could help me construct a list of my “dates” (I only remember going to a dance once with someone I was actually “dating”), but some of those might bring back faint memories at best.

I do, however, remember every one of the people I asked who turned me down. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like rejection is one of the most powerful experiences we can have. We all want to belong. Even if we take pride in being different (as I have many times in my life and still do), we like to be different together with other folks who choose not to fit in. Very few people live happy and rewarding lives being always and forever on the outside.

And yet, this world never tires of finding ways of making us feel like we don’t belong – like we’re not good enough, popular enough, rich enough, beautiful enough. This is especially true in adolescence, but [spoiler alert] it certainly doesn’t end there.

So, back to my homecoming dates or lack thereof.   I remember like it was yesterday writing a very heartfelt note [we didn’t have texting then] to a girl I really liked, asking her to homecoming. I knew she didn’t have a date yet. It was only polite that she should accept, right? But no. In front of a whole group of her very popular friends, she laughed and said, “Keep dreaming.”

In retrospect, I’m glad she said no. We now live very different lives – and I’m very happy with the life and family I have today. But in that moment, I was devastated. And although I have little interest in knowing where she is today or what would have happened if she’d said “yes,” I still remember her name, the words she said, the laughter of her friends, and the piercing hurt I felt in that moment of rejection.

I also, however, remember the life-changing feeling I felt when the person to whom I am now privileged to be married said “yes.” Yes to an invitation to coffee. Yes to dinner. Yes to a life together. Yes to being parents together.

Such little words: “yes” and “no.” But in huge and tiny ways, these words make all the difference.


Discussion Questions

  •  What does it feel like to be welcomed or included? What does it feel like to be rejected or left out? Why are these such powerful feelings?
  • Do you think of yourself as “popular” or “an outsider”? Have you felt both? Who or what tells you whether you’re an “insider” or “outsider”?
  • When have you helped someone feel like they were welcome or included? When have you helped someone feel like they were excluded or on the outside? What does it feel like to welcome and/or exclude other people?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 9, 20011 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Isaiah 25.1-9

Philippians 4.1-9

Matthew 22.1-14

(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

In Matthew’s gospel there is an intensity, an edge to Jesus’ ministry and teaching (think “weeping and gnashing of teeth”) which is sometimes hard to hear. The community for whom this gospel was written was at a major crossroads in its life together; believers faced lots of pressure to give up the faith. In the midst of that, Matthew’s gospel has an urgent message to those tempted to fall away, a decision that Matthew considered one of life and death seriousness. Today it takes a certain amount of massaging to hear Matthew’s uncompromising words as good news. Yet we also have to be careful of the tendency to take the edge out of this gospel, forgetting  that the Word God offers is indeed a matter of life and death.

The readings from Isaiah and Matthew are full of danger and full of promise. This week’s parable is about being invited – or not – to an important event. While it is tempting and meaningful to think of ourselves as the ones doing the inviting or feeling the rejection, flip it around and consider: What if it is Jesus who is the One who musters up the courage to ask us to the dance, to ask us to a party, and we are the ones who had better things to do than hang out with a loser like him. What if it is God who feels the sting of rejection when we decline the invitation?

That’s where we find God in these stories. God invited the chosen people to a feast to end all feasts, the party to end all parties. But, like those invited in the parable, the Chosen People found all kinds of reasons to say “no.” They had other, hotter, more popular, more alluring offers. Things like wealth, power, popularity… and the false illusion of safety and security and self-worth that those other gods seem to offer.

This hurt and angered God. Like the king in the parable, God appeared to have given up on Israel which he had promised to protect, allowing its nasty neighbors to destroy its cities. People do crazy things when they are publicly shamed and dishonored when they’re trying to be kind and gracious. And so it seemed with God.

And before we move on to the “good news,” it is important to pause and reflect on all the ways that we too ignore, refuse, and decline the gifts God ffers, all the ways we go after other gods when the Source of Life is offering us God’s own hand and heart to have and to hold. God wants to honor us with this invitation.  Too often we dishonor God by having better things to do. This invites us to confession, an honest reflection on the ways we’ve left God standing on the edge of the dance, red-faced with shame, wondering if it was a mistake to ask us to dance in the first place.

But thanks be to God, the story doesn’t end there. Isaiah and Matthew both tell us  of a God who never stops inviting, a God who musters up the courage to ask us again and again to join in the feast of life, the feast that “swallows up death forever,” the feast “for all peoples” that is overflowing with “rich food and well-aged wines.” God calls us to the feast that “wipes away all the tears on all the faces” of people who have been on the inside and the outside and know the disgrace, shame and loss that comes from saying “no” when we should have said “yes.”

The invitation goes out into the streets, where “both the good and the bad” are invited to the party. That’s right, it goes not just to the pretty perfect people, but to all the regular, average, sometimes downright stupid people like you and me. God wants everyone to share in this feast. And God gets what God wants – eventually. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Discussion Questions

  •  How have you said “no” to God and “yes” to other gods in your life?
  • What does it mean to you to be one of the “good and bad” people that God keeps inviting to the party? When have you felt that invitation?
  • When do we practice giving and receiving this kind of invitation? How does the church help God invite people to the party? How has the church sometimes failed to help God welcome all people to the table?

Activity Suggestions

  •  Gather craft supplies (magazines, markers/pens/crayons, glue, scissors, construction paper, etc.). Pretend you’re God [don’t do this very often, it can get a little weird]. Make invitations to the Feast of Life (the real “Home-coming” dance). Who is invited? How does God invite them? What will happen at the party? When and where will it happen?
  • If you have a pastor around (or if you have a pastor who can help you do this with your group), celebrate Holy Communion. Pile the invitations on the table. Pass the bread and wine around the circle and feed each other. Say something like, “God invites you to the Feast of Life. The body of Christ, given for you.” [Leader: This should be obvious, but you may want to drive home the point that this Meal is the Feast of Life – and it is given freely and weekly to all who gather. Thanks be to God!]

Closing Prayer

God, you invite us to join you in the Feast of Life. Forgive us for the times when we find better things to do with our time. Help us to hear your word of forgiveness, grace, and constant welcome and invitation. Bring us back, always and forever, to the table of your grace and mercy. Amen

September 14-20, 2011–It’s Not Fair–Thank God

Contributed by Jen Krausz, Bethlehem, PA



Warm-up Question

When would you rather be last at something, rather than first?

It’s Not Fair–Thank God

My father-in-law passed away over the summer. He was only 63, and our family was not ready for a leaky heart valve which led to a lengthy hospital stay, followed by strokes which left him comatose and unable to respond.

But in the weeks before the strokes, while he sat in the hospital waiting for his kidney function to stabilize, an amazing thing happened. His heart toward God changed.

A previous church had judged his family for the behavior of another family member instead of offering help or support. This unchrist-like behavior had turned him off to churches—we thought, for good. He was a loving father, grandfather and husband. He helped many people and treated others better than they deserved in many cases. He just didn’t want to get involved with churches anymore, and held God at a distance because of the way God’s people had treated him.

But when he landed in the hospital, he started talking to our pastor. People from church, many of whom he did not know, called and visited. They became the hands and feet of God to him, and he began to see, through this caring and through talks with the pastor, that God loved him. He expressed his wishes to join the church when he recovered, not knowing that the expected recovery would not take place.

At his funeral, the pastor was able to share this story of a man who discovered God’s love and salvation at the end of his life. What an inspiration to those who heard that story!

 Discussion Questions

  • Do you know anyone who is “turned off” to church because of a bad experience? What do you think might change someone’s mind once they’ve had an experience like this?
  • What can churches do to minister to people who have been mistreated in the past?
  • Do you think it matters to God whether someone comes to faith early in life or at the end of their earthly life? Why or why not?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 18, 2011 (Fourteenth 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 C at Lectionary Readings.)

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


Gospel Reflection

Wouldn’t it be great to work one hour and get paid the same as people who have worked an entire day? Absolutely, it would. However, would you like to be the person who worked all day and had to watch someone who only worked an hour get paid the same as you? Not likely.

Unfortunately, people who have followed Christ for many years can take the same attitude as these day-long laborers did in this week’s scriptures. According to these verses and others (such as Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross that he would be with Jesus in Paradise on that same day), those who come to Christ at the end of their lives are promised the same reward: eternity with God in heaven.

Is that fair? Well, Jesus cautions, we may not want to be so focused on what’s fair. After all, let’s consider that Jesus’ payment on the cross for our sins wasn’t fair to him, was it? If things were really fair, we would all be in trouble! This parable reminds us that God is in charge, and it’s up to God to decide what happens to people. If God decides to give people every opportunity to find faith and salvation, even with their dying breaths (and it seems that God has), what is that to us?

I would add that there are many blessings in following Christ here on earth, so even grumbling about fairness is not really justified. In God’s economy, glorifying God also benefits us in many ways. Go figure!

I don’t know if you grew up like I did, hearing my parents use verse 16 of this scripture as a life lesson. Whenever my sister and I clamored to be the first to get or do anything, we heard, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” And although we got tired of hearing these words, they were a good reminder that being first is not necessarily best in God’s eyes. God takes everything into account; even the last and least are important to God, and they should be important to God’s followers as well.

Discussion Questions

  •  Do you consider yourself to be a long-time follower of Christ or a new believer—or someone who is still seeking faith?
  • If you consider yourself a long-time follower, how do you feel about those who come to faith at the very end of their lives?
  • What special opportunities belong to those who are last (think about being last in line, last to do something)?
  • Does your view of what’s fair change when you consider that no person deserves salvation or even God’s love?

Activity Suggestions

As a group or individually, commit to visiting at least one person who is in the hospital. It could be a church member, or a non-member that someone in the class knows. The purpose of the visit is not to evangelize, but to show love and concern. Pray out loud for the hospitalized person during the visit (ask first to make sure they are open to it).

Brainstorm other ideas for how to show God’s love to others in a non-judgmental way. There are many ways for students to do this in their daily lives—sitting with someone at the lunch table who normally sits alone, offering to help carry an injured student’s books, helping a struggling student with homework, treating brothers and sisters the way they would want to be treated, etc. It is so sad that so many people miss out on church (and God) because they have not experienced the love of God’s people! We as a church need to make sure we are reversing this trend, not reinforcing it.

Closing Prayer

Holy God, you can do anything in this world, but you choose to work through flawed people. Give us strength and willingness to be your hands and feet to the people around us, especially those who are hurting and need your love. Thank you for being unfair to us and forgiving our sins when we didn’t deserve it. In Jesus’name, Amen.