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January 26-February 1, 2011–More than Happy

Contributed by David Delaney, Salem, VA

Warm-up Question

If we move away from the word “blessed” for a minute and think of the word “happy” instead, what kinds of things come to mind when you imagine yourself as happy?  Think about experiences right now rather than a definition of the word.  Are you more likely to think of something you already occasionally do or experience or are you more likely to think of your future, a vision or goal for the good life?  If you and your group write all of these things down, do you see things in common or are you all over the map?  Do they tend to be things that give you immediate pleasure, recreation, and thrill, or things that turn you outward, relate to deeper meanings, or reorient your attitudes in a way that have longer value?  Do any of your experiences sound like anything in Matthew 5:1-12?

As we start to build an understanding of the meaning of the word “blessing” or “blessed,” what other words besides “happiness” and “happy” can you associate with those ideas?

More Than Happy

In mid-January an elderly couple won more than 300 million dollars in the Mega-Millions lottery, which they took in a lump sum rather than annual payments.   In an interview, they said they are determined not to go the way of so many other large lottery winners who have ended up on welfare after a few years because of reckless spending.  In spite of the plans they’ve announced to give a lot of their winnings away to charities and other major gifts, they have still already been inundated with hundreds requests for money and the simple task of responding to those requests has required a huge amount of time.

Not too many days after that lottery win, a woman in Tucson named Patricia Maisch probably saved more than a dozen lives by grabbing the extra gun clip from deranged killer Jared Lee Loughner in the middle of his January 8th shooting spree.   She has since been interviewed by more than two dozen news  organizations from around the world, including live television interviews.  She insists that she is not a hero, but this event has allowed her to speak out about gun violence, extreme political rhetoric, and the courage of those around her during the shooting.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think that any of these people would describe themselves as “blessed”?
  • One couple had a dream come true – a huge amount of money dropped in their lap.  The other woman was unhurt in an incident in which 19 were shot and helped prevent the shooting of many others.  How does that help our emerging understanding of the being “blessed”?
  • What other examples can we think of where something that looks at first like a “blessing” might have another side to it, or on the other hand, something that sounds difficult and disruptive ends up providing a blessing we didn’t expect?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 30, 2011 (Fourth Sunday after Epiphany)

Micah 6:1-8

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

(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

Even though verse one of Matthew 5 suggests that Jesus is to be seen as the new Moses, the content of this set of teachings does not really parallel Exodus 19 and 20 very closely.  The commandment words in this chapter consist of things like “Rejoice and be glad!” and “Let your light so shine!”  As these chapters progress through what is called “the Sermon on the Mount,” they are more *descriptive* of what life following Jesus is like rather than *prescriptive* in the sense of dictating a set of do’s and don’t’s.   The call in 5:20 that the Christian’s righteousness must exceed that of the hyper-law-keeping Scribes and Pharisees is a strong clue that this righteousness of which Jesus speaks can only come as a gift from God and not from one’s own hard work and good behavior.

This attitude of receptivity and dependence on God’s grace that serves as the key to the entire Sermon on the Mount points back to our passage, where one wonders how it could ever be possible that the “poor in spirit” would be the very ones destined for heaven, or the meek would inherit the earth.  We are naturally suspicious of claims that showing mercy will elicit mercy from others, because our world does not appear to work that way.

This is what makes being a follower of Christ both the joy and the challenge that is described here.  To trust God for the fulfillment all of these promises is both our greatest unburdening (because it doesn’t depend on us!) and our greatest test (because such trust is an enormous risk!).

Discussion Questions

  • In verse one, Jesus goes up on a mountain to teach and invite his followers to a new kind of “law” for life.   Who does this remind us of from the Old Testament (answer = Moses) and what do we think the gospel writer wants us to understand about Jesus from this connection?
  • What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?  Does our understanding of this phrase change if we paraphrase it as “those who know they need the spirit of God”?
  • What are some synonyms for “meek” ?  Some possibilities are “humble,” “gentle.”
  • It is possible to make two lists from the characteristics of the blessed in this passage:  one list contains the things that are more like life-experiences that happen *to* us – mournful, persecuted, slandered;  the other list contains things that have more to do with our attitudes and actions – meekness, mercy, purity in heart, peacemaking.  Some, like “poor in spirit” and “hungry for righteousness” could be both, because they can come from a natural humility or the experience of being deflated from our pride or self-righteousness.  What do we learn about following Jesus from this?  Is the blessed life an active and willful life, or passive and receptive, or both?
  • Return to the question of what “blessed” means.  Many translations of Matthew 5 actually use the word “happy,” which is one perfectly correct rendering of the Greek word makarios which appears here.  It may be, however, that “blessed” is still a better choice because it suggests that this condition of well-being is something that happens to a person  or comes as a gift rather than something that someone does to attain happiness or blessedness.  Which of these is the better way of describing the result of following Christ, trusting the gospel, and obeying Christ’s commands?
  • Some have noted that Matthew’s version of these “Beatitudes” differs from the list in Luke 6:20-31 particularly in that the Lukan list seems more deeply based in the actual experience of physical poverty, hunger, and persecution.   As if to emphasize the point, Luke also contains a list of warnings to those who have all of their needs currently met.  How literally should we take these descriptions of human conditions in Matthew 5 and Luke 6?  Can blessedness come from spiritual hunger just as much as physical hunger?
  • How do we imagine that these blessings become real in the lives of people who experience the hardships Jesus describes?  Is it simply a direct line from God to the individual?  Or do we who have experienced these things before or who are already equipped with the good news of the gospel and the means to relieve suffering play a role on God’s behalf in bringing blessing to others?
  • Some have been critical of these promises in Matthew because they can be seen as self-centered or unrelated to a community of relationships.   Yet if we take the example of verse 12, the blessing experienced by the prophets of Israel  even while they were being persecuted or killed was not simply a personal heavenly reward, but that the nation and the people heard the word of God, which – as the scriptures promise – is effective whether we see it or not!  Is it possible that the blessedness that is promised to *you* as someone who experiences these things really becomes a fuller blessing in the experience of those around you who share in it also?

Suggested Activity

On a sheet of paper that you will fold up and carry with you this week as a reminder, list the names of actual people you know to whom you can relate in a new way according to this list of promises from Jesus.   Is there someone in your life for whom you only have contempt or conflict?  How can you be “poor in spirit” in your conversations with them?  Do you know someone who is consumed by a lifestyle of destructive behavior or shallow thrill?  Can your “hunger and thirst for righteousness” provide a suggestion of another way to live?  Is there someone in your life who needs mercy and forgiveness from you or others?  Can you show mercy and forgiveness to that person, knowing that it may not be received or returned?   Are you afraid of the consequences of representing the love of God in Christ Jesus to others in word and/or deed?  Recall that the promise of verses 11 and 12 are not just that you have a heavenly consolation for your courage and trouble, but that there may be others nearby who have desperately needed to hear and see the witness of someone who believes that God’s grace can really make a difference.   Who in your life could benefit from that witness?

Let this list of people be your personal prayer list for the week and also your reminder that God’s promises for following Christ as described here in Matthew 5 are true!

Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus, giver of every blessing, we rejoice that the wisdom and promises you first shared with your disciples has come down to us and still remains true today.  Help us to come to you as your followers did in those days and to welcome your word with gladness, even as it calls us to repentance and service.   We lift before you for your blessings all those whose spirits call out for relief and righteousness, all who mourn the loss of loved ones, who feel disenfranchised and isolated, and whose fondest desire is that they could feel strong enough to show mercy and forgiveness in the face of persecution and hatred.  Give us, along with all your people, joy and gladness for the reward that is ours in your kingdom.

December 29-January 4–Happy New Year

Contributed by Paul Henrickson,  Chaplain, Roanoke College;  Salem, VA

Warm-up Question

Was 2010 a happy year for you?  Why?  What do you think makes for happiness?

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!  (With great emphasis on HAPPY!)  It’s time to make those New Year’s resolutions – you know those promises you make to yourself and then wiggle out of them by Valentine’s Day.  Let’s see, what will make me “happy” in 2011?  In 2011 I am going to lose 20 pounds; I am going to quit smoking; I am going to take more time for my family; I am going to read one good book each month … We make New Year’s Resolutions because we imagine that we can live happier in the future than we did in the past.  If I ask my students what they want in their life, they always say “I want to be happy.”  After all, we have it written in the Declaration of Independence that we have the right to the “… pursuit of happiness.”  So let’s all resolve to be happy in 2011.

Daniel Gilbert is a Psychology professor at Harvard – he studies “happiness.” In 2003 he wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness.” In this article he argues that we can’t “pursue” happiness because we really don’t know what will make us happy.  He emphasizes that there is a gap between what we predict will make us happy and what we ultimately experience.  Gilbert calls this gap the “impact bias.” He says that we consistently over estimate what will make us happy; i.e. planning for a vacation anticipates more happiness than actually going on the vacation.  Gilbert writes that impact bias “…characterizes how we experience the dimming excitement over not just a BMW but also over any object or event that we presume will make us happy.”

So… “Happy New Year!” (with Happy being an elusive goal.)

Discussion Questions

  • What are your resolutions for 2011?
  • If “happiness” is your goal, what kind of grade do you give your life so far?
  • Why do you think we experience “impact bias,”  the gap between what we think will make us happy and what we actually experience?  What might we do to lessen the gap?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 2, 2011 (Second Sunday of Christmas)

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:[1-9] 10-18

(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

If I ever have the opportunity to teach conformation class again, I will require the students to memorize John 1:1-18; this is the pure Gospel.  It is, in a sense, our own “Declaration of Independence” from the bondage of sin and it is the foundation for the life of a Christian.  Listen to these phrases:

  • In the beginning was the Word
  • the Word became flesh
  • the light shines in the darkness
  • power to become the children of God
  • we have all received grace upon grace

This is the Gospel of the Lord.

This is not about being happy; it is about joy. It is about having the abundant life that comes, not because of our clever planning, but as a gift from God.  We are required to do nothing but accept the gift and make it the foundation of our lives of faith.

Resolve to live your life in the gift of grace.

Resolve to repeat these 18 verses once a day.

Resolve to surrender, not to pleasure, but to joy.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the difference between happiness and joy?  Is it possible to be joyful without being happy?
  • John 1:1-18 is one of the great passages of scripture.  If you could only share one other text from the Bible with another person, what would it be?

Activity Suggestions

  • John’s prologue emphasizes that God’s love is not merely an abstraction, but has become touchable in a person.  Share a time when the love of God became more than a theological term because you experienced it in a person.
  • Draw a picture to illustrate, ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
  • Read John 1:1-18 each day for a week and keep a journal of your thoughts in response to the words.  Share your insights the next time your group meets?

Closing Prayer

Lord of all Joy, by your grace let me surrender to the joy you have given me.  Let me live this day in the light of the Word, made flesh, and evident to me. Amen

September 29-October 5, 20010–Christian Kids Not Really Christian?

Contributed by Jay McDivitt, Mequon, WI

Warm-up Question

What is one thing you have learned about “faith” from a grandparent and/or a parent?

Christian Kids Not Really Christian?

Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton and author of Almost Christian, argues that more and more young people in Christian churches are embracing a “watered-down,” and not really “Christian” faith – something she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD). MTD doesn’t reject basic Christian beliefs, but it doesn’t really encourage them either. Instead, MTD affirms that “God” created the world and is available to help you feel better when you’re down, but otherwise stays out of the way. God wants us to be nice and happy.  The God of MTD says good people who go to heaven. While these may be common assumptions about faith, Dean argues, these are not the historic claims of the Christian faith.

Why are kids embracing this watered-down version of the faith? Primarily because no one is taking their faith development very seriously. While parents will bend over backwards to drag kids to tutors, coaches, practices, and games to make sure that they learn or even excel in algebra, hockey, dance, soccer, or piano, it seems the name of the game for religion is to “expose” kids to faith – and hope they soak something up. Far from the radical commitments of the first disciples, many Christian churches assume that kids are doing well if they make a few good friends at youth group, have fun at camp, learn how to be nice, and avoid premarital sex or illegal drugs.

The problem lies mostly with parents, Dean argues: Too many parents don’t understand themselves why the Christian faith makes any real difference in their lives or in the world. They get “nice” and “good” – and, perhaps, “pure.” But they either didn’t grow up in the church or they were taught the same watered-down version of the faith.

What to do about it? The jury is still out. Many see a new passion growing among young people who want a faith that matters in a world that seems to be off balance. Others see an increasing decline in Christianity in North America that will bring faith practice here to the same low levels seen in Europe for decades.  One thing is for sure: Dean has started a conversation which will continue for some time as churches, parents, and young people wrestle with what it means to be Christian in the 21st century.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think of Dean’s suggestion that Christianity has become mostly a religion of “nice” and “happy” people?  Does this sound like the Christian faith you see at church or in your home? Why or why not?
  • Other than being “nice” and “happy” – and praying to God when you need help – what does it mean to you to be a Christian? What’s the real Christian faith, if the version Dean talks about is fake?
  • When you think about the future, how do you want the next generation of kids (your kids or your friends’ kids) to learn about being Christians? What would you do differently from what you’re experiencing at home and at church today? What would you do the same?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 3, 2010 (Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

(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

The disciples ask Jesus to “increase our faith!” How many of us have asked the same thing? When we read about tragedies around the world—or experience them ourselves in cancer, car accidents, or parents losing jobs—it’s hard for a lot of us to believe that God is real and doing good in the world. Faith gets rocked all the time, especially in the confusing and changing and crazy years of the teens and twenties.

Jesus’ response to this very normal request is surprising and a little bizarre: “If you had just a teeny-tiny bit of faith, you could move mountains.” Assuming none of us has ever told a mountain to move and had it obey, this seems like a rather strange exaggeration. Not all that helpful, at least on the surface.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe what Jesus is saying is that the amount of faith isn’t what matters. We sometimes say “That woman is really faithful; she does x, y, and z for the church.” or, “I wish I could have faith like that guy; he’s always got the right answers.” That makes faith all about us—about how often we go to church, when and how we pray, what we do or don’t do on Friday night or Sunday morning, or how many Christian t-shirts or pieces of jewelry we wear. But if faith is all about us, then not only are we off track, we’re doomed.

That’s what is dangerous about the “almost Christian” faith that Dean describes. It’s all about us.  Faith becomes how we feel, about how nice we are – and God only enters the picture when we have a problem that we can’t fix. Then we pray “help me!” and hope God will show up and do something.

But that’s not what faith is all about. Faith is the hope that God has planted in us by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Faith is the trust that God didn’t just create the world—and occasionally shows up to fix things when we ask for help—but rather, God is turning the whole world upside down and inside out. God is the one moving mountains, destroying death, forgiving sin, healing divisions, and changing lives. Faith is the gift God gives us to see that “this is most certainly true” and the encouragement to tell the world about what we have seen.

Believing that God is turning the world upside down means that we will see, live, and talk differently. It means we will question more about “the way things are” and believe more about what God is doing. And it means we will have to practice seeing, speaking, and living the faith. Christian faith is a sheer gift, but it does not come naturally; it comes with practice. And practice takes patience and time.

That’s why it is so important for us to listen to our ancestors. Part of the problem of “MTD” is that it is all about “here and now” – it’s about my issues and my life. But Christianity is about the Beginning and the End; it’s about how Jesus is the first and last Word in creation. And that message has been given to us by those who have gone before us. The reading from 2 Timothy is a great example: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you…Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

By the gift of baptism, we have living in us the same faith that was given to our parents, our grandparents, and all those who have gone before us. It is solid stuff which makes bold claims about the past, present, and future of creation that go way beyond being “nice” or “happy.” And it is ours to live, to grow in, and to pass on to those who come after us. Since we believe that we “rely on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace,” we know that whatever we do with this gift, God will keep on giving it to us and to our grandchildren, now and forever. And thanks be to God for that.

Discussion Questions

  • What is different about what your grandparents believed and what you believe? If your answer is “not a lot,” why? If it’s “a lot,” what do you think created the difference?
  • When have you ever wished for “more faith”? What happened?
  • What difference does Jesus actually make in your life? In your parents’ lives? In the life of your church?

Activity Suggestions

  • Arrange for a few older members of the church to come and talk about thier faith life. What was confirmation like for them? Did they ever leave the church? Why or why not? What do they think is the most important thing for young people to learn about Jesus and/or the church? [Perhaps this is a good time to pair each youth with an older adult for a mentoring/prayer partner relationship, if you don’t have one already.]
  • Make a “faith family tree.” Have them draw their family trees – including non-“family” members (such as godparents, etc.). Identify what each person did (or didn’t) teach them about Jesus and the Christian life.
  • Write a letter to your kids/grandkids/godkids/nieces/nephews. Whatever you imagine for your future in terms of relating to the next generation, pick a kid that you will someday be responsible for. Write them a letter about what you want them to know, learn, and experience as a child of God.

Closing Prayer

God of our ancestors: you have planted in each of us the seed of faith. Help us to grow in a deep and meaningful relationship with you. Teach us the important stuff, and strengthen us to pass it on to those who come after us. Thank you for all the faithful people who have gone before us and for giving us faith, especially when it’s hard to believe. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.