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September 23-30, 2009 – New poll claims two-thirds of Americans angry at government

Contributed by Jennifer Krausz
Bethlehem, PA

Warm-up Question:  Is our current government doing a good job running the country? Why or why not?

disagreeing-hands200A recent national poll found that Americans are largely angry at their government and disappointed by the lack of ideas from both political parties.

Although Republicans, who are currently out of power, were angriest at 90 percent, 44% of Democrats identified themselves as somewhat or very angry. 78% of independents were also somewhat or very angry with their government.

59% of respondents across all political parties said that they were more angry now than they had been during the previous administration. And 60% say that neither Democrats nor Republicans have the answers to the problems the country currently faces.

30% of respondents said they were not really angry, including 10% who were not angry at all.

The poll did not seem to answer the question of why respondents were angry. Many Americans seem preoccupied with economic conditions, which have been slow to improve. Health care reform has also been a deeply divisive issue.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think people are so angry with the government right now?
  2. Do you think their anger is reasonable, even if you are not angry yourself? Why?
  3. Given what you know of the two major political parties (and trying to be objective and respectful in your response), what do you think most Republicans are angriest about? What do you think most Democrats are angriest about?
  4. Do you think it’s easier to get angry, or to be satisfied with the way things are? Is it easier to be against something or someone who you don’t agree with completely or who is different than yourself, or to find a way of trusting and working together?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 27, 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

Here’s a rough church history lesson in 3 sentences:  The church started out as fairly unified; yes, there were major conflicts, but they managed not to immediately break off into major different sections. A significant portion evolved into the Catholic Church. Luther started the Reformation, and the Christian church has spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of different denominations, off-shoots, and factions.

Throughout history, people have fought bitter and bloody battles over religious differences and divisions.

So, what would Jesus think of all our different varieties and flavors of faith, theology, and traditions?

We walk a fine line between theological correctness and the unity of our belief in Jesus Christ. We walk a fine line between upholding our own familiar traditions and practices and being open to the traditions and ideas of others. In each case, both are important. We can disagree on how to baptize, how to take communion, build structures and organizations, and many other things, but let’s hope we never disagree about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who showed us how to live as compassionate servants, died on the cross for our sins, conquered death, and who gives us eternal life by grace through faith — a life-giving gift for everyone.

collaboration_hands200Jesus took it even further than that though. He suggests that just because someone isn’t ‘one of us’ doesn’t mean we should reject that person’s actions or intentions. If they are showing unselfish compassion and concern for others, give thanks and don’t shrug them off. If they are trying to help or care for us, then accept it and give thanks. Encourage them; don’t reject them. It is possible for others to do God’s work even though they are not members of our denomination or official members of our congregation.

Jesus asks us to seek peace and justice in the world, both outside the church and within it. What would churches everywhere be like if we were to do as Jesus told his disciples in this case? What would it be like if we treated all people — professing Christians or not — with the same sincere respect and compassion Jesus demonstrated? What if we encouraged and supported all people to live boldly in ways God desires for us.

Discussion Questions

  • From your perspective and faith, how do you think God wants all people to live — throughout the world? Try to be specific.
  • What are some of the burning current issues and problems in the world and in our country that we can be working on together even though we come from many different perspectives of faith, culture, life experience, and politics? In what ways does our Lutheran Christian faith influence our participation and what we do?
  • What do you think different denominations and faith groups can do to be more unified or to work together? Name some examples of how the ELCA is working with other churches or faith groups. What if it means sometimes bumping heads over theology, beliefs, traditions, or values? How should the church work through times of conflict or disagreement with others (or each other)?
  • How does grace, forgiveness, and compassion enter into all of this?

Activity Suggestions

Are there inter-faith groups in your community (e.g., local council of churches, informal unity groups, ministerial groups, youth ministry leader groups, ecumenical youth ministries, etc.)? Find out if your church has a representative and invite him or her to speak with your class for a few minutes about the group and what it does.

  • Where do they find common ground and support for each other, and where do they tend to disagree, or agree to disagree?
  • What are the benefits of working together even when you do not see eye-to-eye on everything?


Make a list of denominations, faith groups, or religions that you know little about but that make you feel uneasy or stir up strong impressions and feelings within you (e.g., mistrust, anger, suspicion, curiosity, or even hostility). Choose one or two and find out more about its specific beliefs and practices. Sources for more information or links to other faiths and denominations:

Sometimes, getting more information helps us feel less uncomfortable about something and helps us sort through information or perceptions that may not be accurate or true. If possible and appropriate, invite someone from that faith or denomination to meet with your group for mutual learning. Be careful not to make it a battlefield for trying to convert each other or for argument.

Closing Prayer

Dear God, we thank you that you have made us all so different in so many ways. Help us to remember that we all worship the same God, our creator, who loves us in spite of how we often disagree with each other. Let us find unity in our faith through your Son, Jesus Christ, who showed us how to live with compassion and forgiveness for each other, and gave up his own life for the sake of all people. Amen. 

June 10-17, 2009 – ‘Earn and learn’ programs work for New York City students

Contributed by Jennifer Krausz
Bethlehem, PA

Warm-up Question: What do you think would motivate you to improve your grades or test scores at school?

Low income New York City fourth and seventh graders that were paid for higher scores on several standardized tests showed much greater improvements than students not paid, a Post analysis showed. Fourth graders were paid up to $25 per test for 10 separate assessments for improvement, and seventh graders were paid up to $50 per test for the 10 tests. The higher students score, the more they are paid, up to a total of $250 for fourth graders and $500 for seventh graders.

Of the 59 schools in the program, about two-thirds improved their reading and math test scores by margins above city-wide averages. In some schools, students scored close to 40 percentage points higher on the tests than they had the year before. For example, at PS 188 on the Lower East Side, 76 percent of fourth graders met or surpassed the state benchmarks for English, which was 39.6 points higher than when they were in the third grade.

Principals have stated that the payment program, called “Sparks,” is only one of several factors contributing to the higher test scores. They do acknowledge that the payments have motivated students to improve, even to compete with each other over who can earn the most money each year. “It’s an ego booster in terms of self-worth,” said Rose Marie Mills, principal at MS 343 in Mott Haven, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for federal poverty aid. “When they get the checks, there’s that competitiveness — ‘Oh, I’m going to get more money than you next time’ — so it’s something that excites them.”

In total, about 8,000 students earned $1.25 million as part of the privately funded program to encourage higher student test scores at schools where most families have incomes below the poverty level.

Discussion Questions  

  • What is your general attitude toward school? (It’s a job, an obligation, a burden, a good place to learn, love it, or some other attitude.)
  • What are the pros and cons of paying students to perform better in school?
  • Have you ever been paid or offered payment for good grades or test scores? If so, did it work?
  • What or who are the most powerful motivators for you to learn and mature in life? What or who encourages your continuing growth a young person?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, June 14, 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

Parables can be confusing. How does talking about plants and how they grow have anything to do with the kingdom of God? And what is the kingdom of God anyway?

According to Jesus’ words in the Bible, the kingdom of God is something we enter through faith in Jesus. It’s the spiritual kingdom over which God reigns. Through faith, we begin to see the world through God’s eyes, and work for the compassion, justice, love, healing, and forgiveness God desires for humankind and creation. The kingdom of God is present right here and right now, and will be fully realized at sometime in the future.

When we are “young” in our faith, we just have a glimpse of the kingdom of God. We don’t have a deep understanding of God’s ways and word. In many ways, we are spiritual babies. But God plants the seed of faith in our hearts. The Spirit cultivates our faith through prayer, hearing and studying God’s word, worshipping God, and the care and encouragement we receive from being part of a community of faith. Our seed of faith grows with lots of care and tending. Our faith and our understanding of God’s ways grow and increase, too. We live in and grow into the kingdom of God, all at the same time.

These parables were meant to show that each of us, together with God working through each other and the Spirit, can have the tiniest seed of faith and it will grow to be a large, healthy, and full of life… like the tiny mustard seed that grows into the “largest of all garden plants” (v. 32). Much growth is possible during our lives on earth, and it will it will continue long after that.

Discussion Questions

  • How has your faith grown since you first started to believe in Jesus? What are your first memories or images of faith, God, and the church?
  • What things have been challenging and difficult in your faith? What or who has helped you grow and mature in faith (especially right now)?
  • Why do you think Jesus explained his parables to his closest disciples but not to the crowds? Why is a parable sometimes more powerful a a teaching tool?
  • When you think of heaven, what do you see? What do you wonder?

Activity Suggestion

God plants the seed of faith in our hearts, but it takes many people help to water, feed, and protect it during the course of our lives. Parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, godparents, and even strangers often help our faith to grow, and they may not even know the impact they have had.

Encourage each person to identify someone who has helped their faith to grow. If your budget allows, provide stationery and stamps so students can write a brief thank you note to the person they feel has most helped them in their faith. Mail the letters yourself if possible so they are sure to be received.

Closing Prayer

God, we thank you for planting the seed of faith in our hearts and for all you do to help our faith grow. Thank you that we can freely pray to you, for your word in the Bible, and for the people in our lives who have shown us more of what the kingdom of God is like. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

March 25-April 1, 2009 – Americans less willing to sacrifice, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Says

Contributed by Jennifer Krausz
Bethlehem, PA

Warm-up Question: Who has ever sacrificed something for you? What was it? How did you feel about it?

When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was growing up, he says he constantly heard messages like “Learn to do without,” “Prepare for a rainy day,” and “No one owes you a living.” In a speech given at Washington and Lee University, Thomas told an audience of nearly 400 that “those truths permeated our lives.” When John F. Kennedy urged Americans to serve their country rather than look to be served, he said, “It all made sense.”

Justice Thomas contrasted the messages of his boyhood with the attitudes of today. “These days, there seems to be little emphasis on responsibility, sacrifice and self-denial,” Thomas said. “Rarely do we hear a message of sacrifice, unless it is used as a justification of taxation of others or a transfer of wealth to others.”

In his speech, Thomas blamed the “me” generation of the 1960s for the shift from service and sacrifice to selfishness and self-indulgence. “Today the message seems to be, ‘Ask not what you can do for yourselves and your country, but what your country can do for you,’” Thomas said.

Thomas made the rare public appearance at the request of student Robin Wright, a senior from Little Rock, Arkansas, whose mother is a federal judge. Although he did not mention any political party or specific politician by name, he did make it clear that he thinks people are too quick to look to the government for help when hard times come. “Our country and our principles are more important than our individual wants,” he said.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you identify more with the messages Clarence Thomas grew up with or the messages he says exist today?
  • What do you think is the most common attitude of society today? Do you think most people expect the government to help them? Do you see differences between the attitudes of youth and adults? How would you describe them?
  • If you think Justice Thomas is right, why do you think people might be more reluctant to sacrifice or deny themselves things today than in past generations?
  • What do you think is a good reason to sacrifice something? Are there any bad reasons? If so, what are they?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, March 29, 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

 Jesus’ sacrifice involved agony that not many human beings have ever experienced. The biblical accounts of the crucifixion are sometimes so matter-of-fact that we can pass right over the ripped flesh that resulted from beatings and whippings, the nails hammered through his hands and feet, the sharp thorns cutting his head, and the many other humiliations he suffered. We can’t think that Jesus, being God, was above it all and just doing it for shown and theatrics. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus felt all the pain any of us would feel if we were tortured and humiliated. He was completely human just as he was completely divine — the Son of God.

Jesus knew ahead of time what it would be like, and his soul was troubled (v. 27). Still, he chose to sacrifice his life for the sins of each one of us. Hopefully, we never get to the point where we’re so familiar the stories of Jesus’ sacrifice that they don’t seem like such a big deal. His death on the cross made possible our being welcomed into eternal life with God. The alternative was for all humanity to suffer for eternity the consequences of sin, failures, and weaknesses. (v. 25)

In these verses, Jesus calls his followers to follow him, even in sacrifice. He asks us not to love our lives so much that we can’t bear to lose them, and to serve him and our neighbors. If we follow Jesus and seek guidance from him, he will lead us through the sacrifices that we will face throughout life. And when he does, we will be blessed.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever made a sacrifice for someone else, a cause, or special reason? How did you feel about doing so? Would you do it again if you were faced with the same situation?
  • You must have heard a story at some point about a person (other than Jesus) who sacrificed much, maybe even their life, for someone else. Share one of those stories with the group. What did you think of the person who sacrificed? What motivated their sacrifice? What did it accomplish or influence?
  • In what ways do you think a lifestyle of sacrifice might make the world a better place? How would you describe the life and actions Jesus modeled for us and asks us to follow?
  • Can you think of any drawbacks to sacrificing? How does God gives us the courage, wisdom, ability to take risks, resources, and comfort to live lives or service and sacrifice? What other things might we ask of God to help us make sacrifices for others?

Activity Suggestions

Identify people or groups who have sacrificed something for you personally. (Some obvious ones might include parents or grandparents, people serving in the military, emergency first-responders, a trusted friend, a brother or sister, etc.)

Write a short and sincere note of gratitude to one person who has sacrificed for your benefit. (Leaders, if your budgets permit, provide blank notecards or stationery, envelopes, and stamps for students. Make sure the notes get sent.)


Gather the following supplies: Posterboard or newsprint, magazines for cutting, colorful markers. On a large posterboard or piece of newsprint, make a collage of pictures or have students write and draw pictures of people who have sacrificed for them over the course of their lives.

Closing Prayer 

Jesus, we thank you for your sacrifice for us on the cross. Help us to be willing to follow you in making sacrifices for those in need around us; guide us in those efforts. We also thank you for your example and the presence of the Spirit that has led people to sacrifice for us as well. Thank you for the blessings of your presence and for the eternal life with God that we have because of your undeserved love and sacrifice. Amen.