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October 21-28, 2009 – “Boy in Balloon” appears to be a hoax… parents’ publicity stunt

Contributed by Steven Alloway
Granada Hills, CA

Warm-up Question:  Have you ever been tricked into believing something that you found out later wasn’t true? How did you respond? What did you do when you found out?

balloon-boy250The nation watched in shock and anxiety this past Thursday afternoon as a large, silver Mylar balloon swept across the Colorado skies. The balloon was believed to be carrying six-year-old Falcon Heene, whom his parents reported had climbed into the balloon that was tethered in their backyard, just before the knots were untied, releasing Falcon and the balloon into the air.

Four hours later, the balloon landed — empty. It was discovered that Falcon had been hiding in the attic of the garage the entire time. But now, authorities believe that the entire ordeal was actually a hoax, a publicity stunt orchestrated by his parents in the hope of securing a reality television show for their family.

Sheriff Jim Alderen says that suspicions of the hoax first arose when the Heene family was interviewed on CNN’s “Larry King Live”. 

Felony and misdemeanor charges are expected to be filed against Richard and Mayumi Heene, as well as an investigation by Child Protective Services.

Discussion Questions

  1. Did you follow the news coverage of Falcon Heene and the balloon? Were you concerned for his safety? What’s your reaction now that it was all a hoax?
  2. What do you think should happen to Richard and Mayumi Heene? Should they be found guilty? What should be done with their children?
  3. With all the publicity surrounding these events, do you think the Heene family will ultimately be successful in their bid for a reality show? If so, would you watch the show? Why or why not?
  4. How real is reality TV? How much do you trust the truth or reality of what goes on in “reality shows”?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 25, 2009.

(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 B at Lectionary Readings.)

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

Gospel Reflection

“I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” The words of this familiar hymn, Amazing Grace, of course do not refer to literal blindness. It’s about blindness to the truth about Jesus, the gospel. Earlier in the chapter, the Pharisees provide an example of this blindness. They ask Jesus a silly question to test him, to trip him up. They weren’t concerned about the truth. They were too busy with their own public image and reputation, and the fact that Jesus was making them look bad.

On the other hand, Bartimaeus had his eyes open before Jesus ever restored his physical sight. He had no doubt heard of Jesus’ ability to work miracles, and he too wanted to be healed. So as soon as he heard that Jesus was near, he cried out to him. And he continued to cry out! In spite of being scolded by those around him, he continued to call to Jesus to help him.

And Jesus took notice. He called Bartimaeus over to him, and restored his sight. And as he does, he tells him, “Your faith has made you well.” Miracles are all well and good, but without faith, what difference do they really make? Blind Bartimaeus saw the truth about Jesus: that this was the Son of David, the man who could make him whole again, both physically and spiritually.

Many today are still blind to the truth and good news of the gospel. At times, our own vision and faith can be a little weak. There is strong temptation and encouragement to make us think that the way of the world is the only path to take, the only way to be happy and whole; that the gospel, and even God, is a hoax.

We may look like fools shouting into the wind to some people when we cry out, “Jesus, have mercy on us!” But we must press on. We must continue to cry out for Jesus for mercy, healing, forgiveness, and love, no matter what anyone says or how we look.

We can trust that God does hear us. God answers. Where we were blind, we shall see… through faith.

Discussion Questions

  1. Could Bartimaeus still have been healed physically had he not first been healed spiritually? Why or why not?
  2. What are some ways that God uses our afflictions and weaknesses (and strengths) to help accomplish his mission and work?
  3. What are some ways that we can help share and illuminate God’s promises and truth with others, including each other?
  4. What makes our words and actions of witness trustworthy?

Activity Suggestion

Sing “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #779. 

Do some research into famous hoaxes in history. An Internet search for “famous hoaxes” is a good place to start. Why did people believe them? How was the truth finally discovered? How does this compare with the truth of the gospel, and the claim by some people that it’s all a hoax or myth? Talk about what faith, trust, and belief mean, especially in relationship to proof and fact.

Closing Prayer

Lord, I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see. Let my eyes always be open, that I might not be blind to your truth and word. Help me to share your truth with others, so that they too might see and know your great love and healing. Amen.

May 20-27, 2009 – GM closes 1,100 dealerships

Contributed by Jay Gamelin
Pastor of Jacob’s Porch, Lutheran Campus Ministry to The Ohio State University

Warm-up Question: Share a time when something happened that was just not fair, that you had no control over. For instance, a car wreck, getting blamed for something you didn’t do, etc.

It seems all we hear about is news about the economy these days. When we hear all the news, we hope that somehow the biggest fallout will pass us by. We hope we will keep our jobs as long as we keep working hard, keep our heads down, and hang on. But for 1,100 Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler dealerships, suddenly they are no longer hanging on but have become a part of the growing statistic of pink-slipped people.

After filing for bankruptcy, Chrysler has been waiting for the results of the government’s plan to help the automaker recover. The decisions are not Chrysler’s, they can only wait and see what recommendations come through. The government put into place one recommendation asking for 1,100 dealerships to close by the end of the month. With the potential of 40,000 jobs lost, many people are in fear for their financial lives. The news comes in the mail this week via letter to the dealerships. Perhaps a mail carrier has never been watched more closely at a Chrysler dealership than on May 15.

Many men and women around the country are also watching their mailboxes, in-boxes, e-mail, and inter-office memos closely waiting to see if they are the next people cut in the continued need to trim budgets in a weakening economy. Tension runs high in many places as people worry, “will I be the next to receive the luck, or perhaps bad luck, of the draw?”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you know anyone who has lost a job or had to accept a cut in salary, pay, or work hours because of the economy? How are they dealing with the change?
  • What if this situation happened to you? How would you feel? Would you be angry? Frustrated? Relieved? What sort of changes do you think you or your family would need to make to cope?
  • Do you believe in luck? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think good things keep happening to some people and bad to others? Is there a greater design to it that some are given blessings and others are not — on purpose?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 24, 2009.

(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 B at Lectionary Readings.)

Gospel Reflection

Reading the Gospel lesson again, I am reminded that I have always felt bad for Barsabbas. I mean seriously, the poor guy is obviously someone who has followed Jesus for a long time if he is to be considered a choice to be apostle. He is named “Son of the Sabbath” which is a really cool name, and here he is passed over because he drew the short straw. Man, that just stinks for him. Now he is not an apostle simply because of luck?

Perhaps, but also perhaps the world spins on its own and God chooses moments to intersect the kingdom of heaven with the kingdom of earth in actions like healings, tremendous coincidences, visions, and prophecy, to name a few. We call them miracles because, well, they do not happen all the time, right? It seems that God does intervene sometimes, but not in others. How then does God choose when and how? Why are some healed and some not? Why do good things happen to some and others, well, seem to “draw the short straw”? What happens? Is it luck, a choice, or God’s action?

There is no perfect answer to this question, but we can take reassurance in one interesting thought: for every person healed or raised from the dead or freed from slavery, all of them still suffered the ultimate end, death. Yes, we glimpsed the kingdom when Lazarus was raised from the dead, but he eventually died anyway. Yes, Jairus’ daughter was raised from the dead and all wondered and praised God, but she died eventually too. I have known friends who have recovered from cancer and yet in their old age they still moved on into death. It seems that no matter what little thing befalls us in this life, the good and the ill, in the end we all have our ticket punched and none of us live forever. (Just ask Voldemort.)

How is this good news?

These glimpses of the kingdom, these tiny, infrequent moments, are not rewards for people who have been good or bad, they are signposts for what God wants to do in total. We can see that if God wants to raise one of these from the dead, this is a sign that God can do this for all of us. Ultimately we know this through Jesus who was raised from the dead so that while we know death we will not have fear. We are all blessed to receive the miracle of Jesus’ grace. For all that luck or blessing or miracle or curse or whatever we may call it on this side, in the end we are all victorious. We are all blessed. We are all given the gift of new life.

I am not sure I believe in luck. I am not even sure that God played a hand in picking Matthias over Barsabbas. Maybe it just was, for good or bad. Or maybe this was the hand of God in this small instance, a miracle, picking the right one for the job. I just don’t know. Instead, rather than seeing the small picture, I choose to see the big picture. Remember that we are all chosen, straws or not, to be God’s children. This isn’t luck. It’s a blessing.

 Or was it luck? It seems that the text wants us to consider that God had a hand in how this drama unfolded, that the true apostle would be picked by divine providence and the right one would become the apostle. But does God work this way? Is God really the one pulling all the little strings of every moment of every action?

Discussion Questions

  • How do you think it would have felt to be Barsabbas? What do you think you would have done? Been mad and left? Stuck around? Accepted the decision? Been bitter?
  • The good and the bad that happen to you… do you think they all come from God?Do you tend to call good things luck and bad things God — or vice versa? Why?
  • Is God is at work in every little thing? Why or why not? Do you think God works to bless some people in special ways? Do you think God tries to challenge, maybe you’d even say curse, others?
  • What do you think when you ask God for an A on a test, or a good job evaluation, or a faster solution to a problem and it doesn’t happen? Who do you blame? God? Do you think it’s life, luck, blessing, or curse?
  • What do we do when we pray for healing for someone and it doesn’t happen? Is this God? Life, luck, blessing, or curse? Does healing occur sometimes in a way that we don’t think of or ask for? How?


  • “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?”  Jean Cocteau (1889-1963)
  • “It is bad luck to be superstitious.”  Andrew W. Mathis
  • “Luck favors the prepared, darling.”  Edna Mode in The Incredibles
  • “I have a lot of luck, it’s just not always good luck.”  Carter Terry
  • “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”  Seneca, Roman dramatist
  • “Shallow [people] believe in luck, believe in circumstances. Real [people] believe in cause and effect.”(ed. “men”)  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Activity Suggestion

Lucky Straw

This is a wishing game. It is a simple test, for good or ill. Everyone think of a hope for the coming week, a wish, so to speak. They can be as simple (“I want to be really happy”) or as complex (“I want to grow wings and shoot fireballs from my eyes”) as they wish, but it has to come true this week.

Give people a chance to consider their hope, then write it down on a slip of paper. Give everyone a few minutes to look at the slip of paper, concentrating really hard, REALLY wanting it to happen. Now throw all the slips of paper into a hat or container. Mix them all up telling them that whatever they draw out will come true. Have each person pull one out and read it out loud.


  • Do you think it is going to happen? Why or why not?
  • Is this a trustworthy process? Why or why not?
  • Come back the following week and discuss whether the wish came true. Why do you think it did or didn’t?
  • Do you think God or luck played a hand in this?

Closing Prayer

Holy God, for all the good and bad that comes in the world, I know that no matter what, you are our Father, and of you we will have hope that we will rest eternally in you. Thank you for whatever blessings we have been given, forgive us for ascribing good or ill to you that is not yours, and give us confidence to follow you, for good or ill. Amen.

December 10-17, 2008 – Ring those bells!

Warm-up Question: Have you seen the Salvation Army Bell Ringers? Do you toss something in the kettle? Why or why not?

Have you seen them out there? The Salvation Army Red Kettle Bell Ringers? Volunteers who stand on corners every Christmas season, in front of grocery stores, malls, and convenience stores ringing bells hoping to have some change dropped in. Have you wondered, what’s it for; how did it all begin?

The Salvation Army church and charity began in England in 1865, seeking to reach out to the marginalized in society; alcoholics, drug dealers, and prostitutes. Today the Salvation Army is most recognized by its Christmas Red Kettle Campaign. The ‘kettle’ started in 1891 in San Francisco, CA by Salvation Army Officer Captain Joseph McFee to raise money for Christmas dinners for the poor in San Francisco. Originally, a crab pot was hung from a tripod and passerby’s were encouraged to ‘keep the pot boiling’ by donating to the fund designated to feed the poor.

Since it’s inception, the red kettles have sought to raise money for the poor each Christmas season, using the donations to purchase toys for children, provide meals and assistance to the poor, and provide utility and home subsidization, disaster relief, drug treatment, and senior and child care to families in need. Since 2004, the campaign has brought in nearly 100 million dollars a year to fund these projects. The Salvation Army has helped 37 million people, and 83 cents of every dollar goes directly to those who are in need of it.

Next time you hear those bells you will know their story, its rich history, and think about the Christ-centered impact that it makes on our world and communities. It’s an announcement that tells us “Christmas is coming. Take care of those who need Christ’s promises and hope most of all.”

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever donated to the red kettle campaign or wondered where the money went?
  • What do you think of the volunteers who patiently ring the bells? Imagine that you were ringing the Salvation Army bells. How would you feel? What would you hope for or think as people passed back and forth by you as they shopped?
  • Given the downturn of our economy, how important do you feel it is to give this Christmas season? To think of the needs of others?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 14, 2008.
(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 B at Lectionary Readings.)

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

Gospel Reflection

In the Gospel we find John the Baptist ringing those bells. Not literally of course. He was proclaiming the excitement of the one to come after him, our Lord Jesus Christ. People knew John was sent from God. Their curiosity was peaked as they saw what this man was doing and saying. The priests and the Levites came to question his intentions. “Who are you?” they asked. They wanted to know why he was baptizing people. John told them, “I am the voice on one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.”

John the Baptist shared of the one who was to come after him and proclaimed that he was not worthy to untie his sandals, like the red kettle bell ringers who remind us of Christ’s good news to come during the hurried Christmas season. John the Baptist was the proclamation of that time, baptizing and proclaiming to Jewish leaders of the time that the Messiah was coming and the world was about to change.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you feel the anticipation of Christ’s presence during this holiday season?
  • How do you imagine the priests and Levite’s responded to John’s proclamation, especially since he was not one of them?
  • What can you do to proclaim Christ’s message to help the marginalized and needy in your community? What good news and actions are needed most right now?

Activity Suggestions

Volunteer to ring the bells this Christmas season get on the Web site to sign up to volunteer.

Keep in mind and in front of everything else going on around you the needs of people in your community and in other places of the world. Create a prayer list for your group to use. Create an action list of things you can do individually and as a group to be Christ’s good news and hope in the world, especially for those in need. Learn more about what you can do through the ELCA Web sites:

Closing Prayer

Blessed Savior, we anticipate your birth with great excitement and promise. Thank you for coming to greet us through your humble birth. Help us to extend that gratitude and kindness to those who need to hear and experience hope, faith, and salvation. Bless those who feel like they live their lives on the fringe. Enable us to extend graciousness and generosity to their lives. In your name we pray. Amen.

Contributed by

Angie Larson
Clive, IA

December 3-10, 2008 – Shoppers and retailers getting ready for the Christmas season

Warm-up Question: What is your family doing to get ready for the Christmas season?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! All around the country, beginning at least as early as the day after Thanksgiving, or “Black Friday,” shoppers are getting ready for Christmas by gathering lists and hunting for bargains. And stores are more than ready to welcome them with great deals on all the latest fashions, toys, and gear.

Every year, retailers depend heavily on the Christmas season for a year-end profit surge, but with the economy daily sinking deeper into crisis, this year they are more hopeful than ever.

Those hopes, however, are more pipedream than reality, though, as most retail experts are predicting that this season will see the lowest increase in holiday sales since the last recession after 9/11. Many families are less willing to splurge this year, wary about what the new year may bring in terms of economic woes, and instead opting for a simpler season.

Still, stores are certainly buzzing with tinsel, lights, and Christmas carols — and the ringing of the cash register bells may be softer than last year, but it remains a sure sign that Christmas is coming soon.

Discussion Questions

  • How is the economic situation affecting how your family is getting ready for Christmas this year?
  • When you think about the Christmas season, how much of what you think about is tied up in shopping or gift giving?
  • What do you do to get ready for Christmas that has nothing to do with shopping?
  • What suggestions might you have for families that want to celebrate this year but are low on cash?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 7, 2008.
(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

Mark begins his Gospel in a very straightforward way: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The reader doesn’t have to wait or wonder about what, or who, this story is about. It’s about Jesus, God’s holy Child, and it is very good news.

Funny, then, that the first story Mark tells isn’t about Jesus; it’s about Isaiah, John, and us. Apparently telling the good news about Jesus takes some preparation, it’s a story that takes some getting used to. Before planting a seed, you have to dig a hole or plow a row. The same goes for Jesus.

But what’s missing from this story about getting ready for Jesus, when you compare it with how most of us get ready for Christmas? Lot’s of things, but one thing we notice is that there is a notable absence of shopping. There’s a similar rush of excitement, some anxiety and stress, and plenty to do, but none of it will make you stand in line for hours at American Eagle or Wal-Mart.

No, preparing for God to come into the world, for Isaiah and John, is not about getting or giving more stuff; it’s about getting rid of stuff altogether. It’s about emptying our hearts and our hands so we can have them free to receive the greatest gift of all. It’s about repentance, changing our minds, turning our heads, and re-ordering our lives, so we can see Jesus breaking into our world and turning it upside down.

Isaiah tells us that the Lord’s coming is such a big deal that a massive highway will have to be built — not a bigger parking lot at the mall or new Web site, but a wide path for all God’s people who have been living in exile to walk through the desert and finally arrive back home.

John tells a similar story. Get rid of all the junk that’s weighing you down, leave it behind in the river of baptism, and come back home to the person God created you to be: a person alive with hope, love, joy, and peace in the midst of a world full of fear.

Perhaps this year more than any other, when budgets are tight and anxieties are high, we have the opportunity to really “come home” for Christmas. To clean out our closets, cleanse our hearts, and open our eyes, minds, ears, and doors to receive first the simple but amazing good news of God’s holy love for us and for this whole world. Then we can spend the rest of the year figuring out how to give that love away.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it easier to get excited about “stuff” than it is to get excited about Jesus?
  • What kind of “stuff” is in your way of feeling close to God this season? How can you clean it out?
  • What “good news” are you, your family, your community, and your world in need of hearing or receiving this year?
  • What could your family do together to get ready for Christmas that has nothing to do with shopping?
Consider giving gifts or contributions that benefit ministries around the world. Learn more at ELCA Good Gifts.

Activity Suggestions

If you have lots of time to prepare:
Find an image of a Christmas scene (an icon of Mary and Jesus, a manger scene, etc.) that you can project onto a large piece of paper and trace (Google images is a great tool for this). Trace it and label the areas with the appropriate color for the picture. Collect a bunch of Christmas shopping ads from the newspaper or the stores, some scissors, and glue sticks. Have the group tear or cut the ads apart to find the colors they need to fill in the image. When you’re done, you have a beautiful icon made out of torn-up bits of shopping ads. Talk about “repentance” as changing or getting rid of “stuff” and turning our attention back to where it belongs.

If you have less time to prepare:
Skip the icon and tracing. Collect a bunch of Christmas shopping ads from the newspaper or the stores, some scissors, paper, and glue sticks. Have the group draw their own pictures of Mary and Child or the manger scene, code them for color, and then tear or cut the ads apart to find the colors they need to fill in the image. Talk about “repentance” as changing or getting rid of “stuff” and turning our attention back to where it belongs.

If you have no time to prepare:
Have each student make two lists: 1) a list of everything they want for Christmas, and 2) a list of everything they need to grow in their relationship with Jesus. Talk about the differences between the lists, and what could help them get what they need from the second list.

Closing Prayer

Holy God, you send comfort and joy into weary hearts and a weary world. Help us open our hearts, ears, eyes, and minds to receive your gifts of life and love — and to share those gifts with the entire world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Contributed by Pastor Jay McDivitt
Denver, CO